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Monday, June 3, 2013

I-SPY: Forming and Transforming Habits


For my local book club, I recently read THE POWER OF HABIT:Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. In general, I don't love nonfiction, unless it involves research for one of my books, so I wasn't particularly excited about this pick. But I’ve had a few habits I’ve wanted to change for years (stress eating, anyone?) and needed new strategies. (And I like gathering with my fellow book-lovers over wine and appetizers to chat about books.) So I gave it a whirl.

I’m happy to report that I found THE POWER OF HABIT very interesting, indeed. The concept was rooted in behavioral psychology methods, particularly in how the brain becomes trained to expect a particular reward associated with a specific cue. The kicker is creating a “craving” for that reward that will become associated with the cue.

For example, a man who worked in advertising in the early 1900s was given the task of selling a new brand of toothpaste. At the time, brushing teeth wasn’t even the norm. His campaign helped to make it a habit by suggesting in the advertisements that teeth "formed a film" during the day. This was genius because the moment a readers saw that, they have the urge to run their tongues over their teeth. (I know I did.) Lo and behold, yes, it seems there is a film there. Because that's normal. The film isn't particularly bad for your teeth, but it became the cue. He associated this cue (the feeling of a "film" on your teeth) with a reward (the feeling of clean teeth). 

But what scientists found later was that the brands of toothpaste that were selling well contained a certain (unnecessary) ingredient such as citric acid that created a craving...they made the gums tingle. Teeth-brushers came to crave the tingling sensations, and didn't feel their teeth were clean unless they felt that reward from brushing.

So it's the behavioral cycle of cue-craving-reward that led to habit formation.

The book contained many examples of how individuals and corporations created successful change by analyzing habits, but what I was most struck by is how I’d done this myself with my writing. I started writing in 2001, but I tell people I didn’t “seriously” start writing until 2006, when I made it a priority in my life. A daily habit. And now, if I don’t write for a couple days, I start getting the “itch” to get some words on the page. 

But the easiest example of how I've created a habit involves Starbucks. In the past couple years, I’ve found my local coffee shop is the easiest place to get a large quantity of writerly things done in the most efficient amount of time. My home is littered with other cues...dirty dishes that need to be done, piles of laundry that need to be folded. But at Starbucks, my only cue is my computer, and the smell of coffee that gets my brain going. I get my coffee drink of choice, set up my computer, and get down to work for two or three hours. I make the most efficient use of my writing time when I’m in that environment. 

I created a cue (the Starbucks environment & drink) that generated a reward (writing work done!). And I craved that feeling of success (and, probably, the coffee).

Now, if only I could create healthier habits for exercise and diet...will have to work on that one.

What patterns would you change if you could (and if you dare to share)? What cues and rewards could you employ to create better habits?

11 comments:

Cathy Perkins said...

Love your examples - including your Starbucks/writing cues.

Clearly I need to root out a few bad habits but I'm more interested in getting back into the daily writing routine. Really need to take a peek at that book!

Oh, the exercise thing? Large dog who will pester you and look at you with imploring eyes if you attempt to skip her daily walk.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Thanks, Cathy - as for the large dog, that would work. I clearly went the wrong direction by getting cats...they'd rather deter my walk by sitting in my lap. Come to think of it, they deter my writing, too, by sitting in my lap. LOL

Elise Warner said...

I found the bit about toothpaste fascinating. Guess that's why I love research. Have to find a reward that will keep me from messing up my writing room with papers.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Elise, choosing the right reward is so important...have to create that craving, after all! :)

Marcelle Dubé said...

What an interesting post, Anne Marie. My writing habits are pretty well set, so I wouldn't focus on those. Besides, the Starbucks thing wouldn't work for me. I live in a small town and would end up socializing the entire time I was there. But developing a habit for daily exercise, now that's something I could work on. I suppose I can't use chocolate as a reward, eh?

Anne Marie Becker said...

LOL, Marcelle - depends on how much chocolate, I suppose. I use peanut M&Ms as a writing reward sometimes, when i really need the boost. But I have to limit that! I suppose it also depends on how much you're exercising. ;)

Jean Harrington said...

One habit I need to break is the quickie e-mail response. When it comes to my "serious" writing, I'm careful to a fault in going over everything looking for glitches. But the e-mails I crank out quickly and then, in my eagerness, to get them off, I skimp on the rereading. Boy, has that caused me embarrassment. Maybe not being embarrassed could be my incentive to take my time. Anyway, I'm going to reread this before I hit Publish Your Comment. (Glad I did, I found an extra "i" in incentive. Just goes to show . . .

Rita said...

For my sanity I’ve retreated a bit from the net. I’m such a busy body I have to see what EVERYONE is doing. So time is very limited. I don’t turn on the TV until mid afternoon. Then it usually is off again in a few minutes. If the world ends in the morning I’ll miss it. The result is a happier less stressed me and I enjoy my writing time.

Arlene said...

I'm with you on the Starbucks/coffee/writing habit, as you well know. As for the diet/exercise habit, I'm still working on that one.

I did just see a video from the author of that book, about his midafternoon chocolate chip cookie from the office cafeteria habit, and how he changed it. Interesting, for sure.

Anne Marie Becker said...

LOL, Jean - those nasty typos can come back and bite you. Then again, there's only so much time in the day. ;)

@Rita - I totally understand having to disconnect once in a while. One habit I developed these past couple years is to start my day by clearing out my inbox and checking the blogs I'm faithful to. But that ends up eating up the first hour or so of my day. Yikes! As I've tried to amp up my writing schedule, I've taken to sometimes skimming my inbox for important stuff, then setting the rest aside until I've done some "real" writing. ;)

Anne Marie Becker said...

Arlene, I know how hard you've worked on both. I so admire your determination and persistence. I think you've developed some impressive habits! :)

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