Click Here to jump to the Actionable/Practical Stuff at the Bottom
Click Here to jump to the Actionable/Practical Stuff at the Bottom
Three Steps to
I missed two appointments this past weekend and last Friday I would have missed a doctor appointment if my doctor hadn’t taken the day off.
This is a problem that needs to be addressed.
There are basically two parts of keeping track of an appointment. The first is writing it down and the second is reading it.
If you have a good scheduling habit.
I don’t have one of those.
When I a young man I had an very good memory and very simple responsibilities so I didn’t develop a good scheduling habit. Basically I went to work and then went to the theater where I either had rehearsal, a meeting or beers with friends. When I grew older it became clear that I needed a way to keep track of my growing list of obligations and commitments.
I thought that the problem was finding a system that I could consistently use. I longed for the iPhone for decades before it was invented. Before that I tried notebooks and dayplanners and calenders and loose leaf systems and journals and even hired a personal assistant for a few months. Nothing worked. I thought it was because I didn’t have the right device.
The truth is that I did not develop a good scheduling habit.
Now I have the right device, a magical appliance that goes whereever I go. A phone and a computer and a sound system all in one that I always have with me. I have multiple scheduling options. At work I have Outlook and at home we use Google Calendar. Both update to the magical device in my pocket.
So what’s the problem now?
I have still not developed a good scheduling habit.
I want to acknowledge that I have made progress. I actually have a nascent scheduling habit. I am now aware that my life is more complicated and my memory is not what it was when I was 20 so I need to write everything down. It’s much better than it was BUT, obviously, there is room for improvement (see missed appointments above).
What’s missing is the habit of writing everything down and then always looking at both calendars.
Especially on weekends. Weekends and holidays are problematic because I don’t automatically open my computer and check my email and calendar. I have this strong belief that my weekends are full of free time even though every weekend for the past 45 years has been full to bursting. I’m apparently a slow learner.
As I said, there are two steps to scheduling:
So I going forward I need to make sure I put everything in my schedule and check that schedule every day.
Reading: The reading of my schedule I can do that at the end of my journaling which I plan to do every morning, even on weekends. I do my journaling in my computer which has access to everything. My schedule will also be available on my phone. It seems to me that I should figure out how to integrate my work schedule (on Outlook) and my personal/family calendar (on Google). I am not the only one using either system so I can’t delete either one but I’m sure there’s an effective way for them to talk to each other.
Writing: I need to always make sure I take the time to enter my appointments into my calendar. What stops me is:
I just have to change my behavior.
Three Steps to
Checking my schedule(s) now….Back to school night? What the heck is that?
I started this blog to provide a forum for my ideas AND to document my own transformation and to create public accountability for changes I want to make in my life. Some posts will be full of philosophy and others will have practice tools. Others will be about my own struggles and successes and the steps I am taking to minimize the former and maximize the latter.
This is one of those.
Newly hatched habits are cute and cuddly—everyone loves them—but they’re basically defenseless and they must be carefully protected. Special days (like holidays) and special circumstances (like illnesses or vacations) can be deadly to young, defenseless habits.
Habits are triggered by cues. I have developed a bunch of habits that are cued by the regular events of my work day.
I get on the train in the morning and I meditate and then I write.
At 12:00 I get a notice on my computer to go to the gym. I get to the gym and I work out.
I’m a meditating, working out, writing, productive monster!!!
But what if I don’t go to work on the train? Do I do all those things anyway?
Actually I sometimes do but not regularly. On vacation in Hawaii I kept up with my workouts and mediation but I didn’t write. In Maine I went for one run and that was it. No meditation. No writing.
I had a great time but it broke up the flow of getting things done and establishing patterns and it took an effort to get back on track. Some habits, like writing a gratitude list and a poem every evening, were all but killed by a break in routine.
Actually they did die. Who am I kidding. The trip to Maine put them in the hospital and then Labor Day pulled the plug.
But I’m going to bring them back to life. In this grotesquely extended metaphor that is making everyone uncomfortable including me, I am going to open up the skylight during a thunderstorm and shoot lightning into their cold, dead bodies until they rise from the slab as I laugh like a maniac,
Okay, back to practicality.
The key is to create structures that support positive action. Habits are structures. So are support groups, calendar reminders, accountability buddies, temptation bundles, motivational kitty posters and bets. The secret is to create structures that work even when you travel or have a day or two with a weird schedule.
I have a mild illness right now and I’m not going to work today. That means no train and no outlook calendar reminder. Depending on how I feel I may forgo the workout but I’m going to meditate and write and I’m going to figure out a way to support those habits even when I’m at home.
PLEASE let me know if you have systems or structures that work on normal days and unusual days.
Now it’s time to roll back the skylight and let in the lightning.
IT’S ALIVE!!! IT’S ALIVE!!!!!!
An NFL team in LA
Moved to Saint Louis one day
Then they came back
But alas and alack
They still didn’t know how to play
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.
Bad habits have the same structure.
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:
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.
Over the past year or so I have formed some great habits and replaced some bad habits and I am applying my learnings to coaching other people. Here are some things I’ve learned that you might find useful.
According to research on habits cited by Charles Duhigg in his excellent book The Power of Habit, habits always consist of cues, action or behavior and a reward. If you have a habit you want to get control over, the most effective thing is to identify those three things.
Habits rely on cues. My cue for meditation is currently getting on the Metrolink train to work. This is also my cue for writing. My cue for working out is a daily appointment in my outlook calendar on my work computer.
These have been very effective but there is a problem. When I am on vacation or working from home I don’t get on the train so I often don’t meditate or write. I also don’t open Outlook if I’m not working so that workout cue doesn’t get triggered. I have other goal structures in place to get me to do those things but the main habit that works so well on workdays is not available.
Here’s a great example of the power of habit. I got on the train and started writing this. Typically I meditate for the first 20 minutes of the train ride. I started writing and instead and I’m feeling very antsy. I have to meditate.
You don’t have to stop reading for 20 minutes but I’m going to stop writing.
Please imagine a time lapse of me sitting on a train apparently doing nothing.
I’m back. Sorry for the pause.
(Did you notice? No? Did you imagine me on the train doing nothing? No? When you read something do you imagine a person writing? I don’t. It’s a strange relationship when you think about it, writer to reader. To me it feels more like a brain to brain communication than a face-to-face conversation does. It can be more intimate and, at the same time, less personal. That’s something to explore on another day.)
Back to habits.
The action or behavior is really what we think of as the habit. That’s what we want to start (or stop) doing.
One of the best ways to change a bad habit is to change the action while keeping the cue and the reward. There is a groove in your brain already to start doing something when you are in some place or situation or when something happens. If you notice that and choose a different action rather than try to ignore the cue you’ll tend to be more successful.
When the cue comes up do something else rather than ignoring the cue. Getting on the train to go to work used to be a cue for me to pull out my phone and play Words With Friends, Two Dots and Angry Birds. I replaced the action with meditation and writing. When I stopped drinking alcohol I replaced the action of buying wine with buying decaf coffee. If you don’t replace the action the cue will start an tickle in your brain and you’ll want to do something. It’s actually easier to do something else and satisfy the brain’s need to scratch that itch rather than to try to ignore it. The groove is carved, might as well use it.
By the way, the action may be “quietly fume resentfully” or “feel helpless and sorry for myself” or “get pissed off and yell.” Changing habits may help you change relationships.
Actions are usually very obvious. Cues are usually less obvious but once the habitual action is identified it’s not that hard to pick it out. (Hint: It’s the thing that happens before the habitual action. If nothing happens then it’s probably boredom or anxiety.)
The rewards are usually gross and squirmy and hidden under a rock. They may require a Flashlight Of Honesty (+3 wisdom modifier) and the Scalpel of Self-Examination (usually used with the Shield of Objectivity which can provide +4 protection against self-disgust if used correctly).* You might also enlist the help of a therapist, a coach, a good friend or a support group.
Obviously rewards include hits of sugar, dopomine, adreneline and personal satisfaction. There’s also approval, accolades and love. These may be easy to spot.
Less obvious are things that don’t seem like rewards but are extremely common and very motivating. Many of these fall into the category of BEING RIGHT. Being the ‘quietly righteous victim’ is a strangely common and attractive reward. Another gross reward is the thrill of getting something you’re not supposed to have. Many adults have secret vices only because they are getting back at dead parents for not letting them stay up to watch The Six Million Dollar Man when they were 8. Avoiding anxiety is a strange reward for procrastination since it often causes anxiety later but it seems like that’s the jackpot for goofing off.
The very worst are zombie rewards. These are rewards that have died long ago but their corpses are rattling around eating that grove in your brain even deeper. This is an extended—and I think entertaining—metaphor for actual neuroscience. Mice that have been rewarded over and over again for doing something that will hurt them (like hitting an electrified plate) keep hurting themselves even after the reward stops coming. This is obviously true of addicts and even normals (as we addicts call people who haven’t yet admitted that they are addicts).
So if you want to replace a habit it’s important to figure out what your reward is and how the new action will reward you.
Here’s a habit that I want to replace. In the morning I usually lie in bed half awake and half dozing for 15-30 minutes. I set an alarm and then hit the snooze. This is not a good habit. Interrupted dozing might feel nicer than getting up but it doesn’t do anything for you. If you’re not going to sleep you may as well get up and start a productive, relaxed day with a shower and breakfast and a little time with the family. Maybe even exercise or meditate. I produced an interview with Ariana Huffington who is now on a mission to get everyone to get enough sleep and she hates the snooze button.
I just have to say that if you have a bad habit that you can’t kick it’s possible that you have an addiction. I would advise you to get help. I did. It’s worth it.
Pick a habit to replace one you want to get rid of. If you can’t think of a good one here’s a list of good ones:
Let me know how it goes!
*I apologize for the Dungeon and Dragon references. I can’t help myself. They’re habitual.