Habits start off as actions that we decided to do. Then we do them again and again until they we don’t know why we do them.
Habits have a structure.
- CUE: (I’m on the train to work and I finished meditating)
- ACTION: (pull out the Macbook Air and start writing)
- REWARD: (sense of accomplishment and the unnamed good feeling that I get from writing or expressing—lets be cute and call it “content creation contentment” or CCC)
Bad habits have the same structure.
- CUE: (Leave morning meeting)
- ACTION: (Go get cup of coffee and bag of animal crackers from kitchen. Drink and eat)
- REWARD: (Sugar, carbs, caffeine)
Creating a new habit is not easy but there are some tricks. One technique has been studied by Professor Milkman* from Wharton. I heard about her work on the Freakonomics podcast (which I highly recommend but the ideas are not really new. She just studied them and confirmed that they work.)
This is putting the good with the good. Long before I head about this from Professor Milkman, my wife applied it to great effect. She was binge watching Battlestar Gallactica but her rule (for herself) was that she could only watch the show while walking on the treadmill. For months she exercised nearly everyday for at least 45 minutes.
In the study (“Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling” Milkman, Minson and Volpp, Management Science Vol 60, Issue 2, Feb 2014) Milkman and her colleagues gave people audio books (including the Hunger Games) that they could only listen to when they were at the gym.
Other examples that Milkman suggested on Freakonomics is only going to your favorite burger joint with a difficult relative or only listening to your favorite band when you’re cleaning the house.
A commitment device is similar but is more like creating a situation where you must do the right thing because you have no choice or because the consequences of not doing what you want will be bad. The classic commitment device example is from The Odyssey. Ulysses wants to hear the song of the Sirens without crashing his ship so he has his first mate tie him to the mast. He’s stuck so he can’t do what he wants to do (steer the ship toward the rocks where the Sirens await).
Commitment devices that don’t involve beautiful singers who want to eat you include:
- Cutting up credit cards
- Not keeping foods or drinks you want to avoid in the house
- Giving your gaming system away
Games and Bets
Making a game out of something you want to change and putting something at stake can combine elements of temptation bundling with commitment devices. I have had bets to lose weight and stop smoking. The Game On Diet has worked for several of my friends and I recommend it. It’s fun. Pact is an app where you can win or lose money based on whether you are doing what you said you’d do.
Rituals and Secret Societies
One way to create a habit is to make a it important. Make it magical and mystic and powerful.
Another way to start a new behavior or break a bad habit is to get support. Tell your friends what you want to do or join a group of people committed to the same thing.
I have this goofy dream of creating little secret groups that have handshakes and passwords and hermetic routines. These groups wouldn’t have world domination or espionage as their goal. They would be designed to help their members create new habits and reach their goals.
Imagine that you want to keep track of your spending so you can budget effectively and you have a hard time keeping track of what you spend on nights out. That night you’re out at a restaurant and you spot mysterious, cloaked figure watching you and your party from a corner.
Who could it be?
This is the Sacred Ghoul of Accountability!
This is really your friend Pat from the Tuesday poker game but tonight, by prearrangement at the last meeting of the Hermetic Society of Bacon and Eggs she’s wearing the cape of the Ghoul of Accountability and she’ll keep an eye on you until you give her the secret sign. The private signal that tells her and the other members of your secret cabal (that may or may not be watching in disguise) that you successfully photographed and filed the dinner receipt in your accounting program and you only ate one piece of bread.
And no butter.
Okay, maybe it’s an idea that’s ahead (or behind) it’s time.
Maybe it’s exactly what the world needs.
*I love this woman’s name so much.