Making And Breaking Habits

I've been reading a new book called The Power Of Habit, Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business by Charles Duhigg. One thing I have learned from it is that emphasizing motivation to help people change is not enough. People who want to change need a craving for the new behavior so that the desire to satisfy that craving will out-weigh the tendency to engage in the old behavior. Let's look at some ways to create a craving for organizing and building healthy new habits.

To establish a craving for order you need a vision of what an ordered space looks like. If you have been living with disorder for a long time, envisioning how your space will look, feel and smell when clean, clear, and organized may be difficult. So you may need to create a little example to use as a model of how you want all your space to be. Good areas to use for this purpose are small tables, such as a nightstand or coffee table. The easiest possible surface to clear would be the best choice.

Clear the surface, putting everything that does not belong there where it needs to go or as close as possible to it (part of this process may be making decisions about what does belong there). Once the surface is clear, clean and polish the table until it really shines. Then put back the fewest possible items, preferably some of your dearest treasures that give you real pleasure to look at. Flowers and scents are a nice touch. Celebrate how nice it looks, how easy it was to do, and how good it feels to have it done. Your entire space can look this good and organizing your space is likely to be much easier than you think. This process may instill a craving to see your whole place look similarly pleasing. To get it there, just keep picking the next easiest task or area each time. Always finish with a celebration (dance, sing, shout hurray!).

Duhigg says that any established behavior consists of a cue that prompts a routine that leads to a reward. Change can occur by changing the cues, the routine or the reward, but is most effective when the cue and reward stay the same, but the routine changes. So using the above example, the cue might be seeing disorder, the routine is clearing, cleaning and polishing, and the reward is seeing order and harmony, triggering endorphins, and knowing that you are closer to your goal.

The old routine may have been to ignore the pain of seeing out-of-place items until they reach a high level of distress. If instead you set up a routine of moving items within reach (whether sitting or standing) to a spot from which you will be cued to move them to where they belong, the process of carrying them there will become more likely and easier. The reward for this change in routine will be not having the pain of seeing items out of place and not having to spend as much time cleaning up.

Exercise is often what Duhigg calls a “keystone” habit, one simple change that will produce many other, often larger and more significant changes. Exercise has so many physical and mental health benefits that it is worth encouraging, sometimes even in advance of other, seemingly more needed changes. The cues for exercise could be a variety of stimuli: noticing that your body doesn't seem to have the strength it once did, fear of accelerated aging, arriving at a certain point in the day, leaving your exercise clothes or shoes sitting on the couch (or on your computer chair). The change in routine needs to be responding to the cue with action – any form of exercise that is appropriate for your body status, then you may reap the enormous rewards of exercise: that wonderful warm feeling from muscles that have been worked to just the right level, all those endorphins chasing away mental goblins, and the satisfaction of knowing that you did the right thing. Exercise often makes people feel that they have more energy for organizing.

If you program yourself to be highly aware of the rewards for constructive behavior, finding ways to alter your routines to support more beneficial activity will be easier. If you try to make a change and it does not work, a closer and deeper look at what maintains the behavior and how to make tiny alterations might tip the balance towards the change you want.

Got a question? Please ask it – questions are a service to everyone.

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