Have you ever driven home from somewhere, maybe you were deep in thought about a significant event, and when you arrived, you couldn’t remember actually driving home? It’s kind of scary, but it happens. How can that happen? Habit.
If you’ve been driving for over a year, think through how you drive away from your home. What steps do you follow to get into the car and drive away? Chances are, you had to think about it for a minute to even break it down into steps. Then you probably realized that you follow the same steps in sequence each time you drive away. That’s because much of the mechanics of driving (knowing how to make the car go forward or in reverse, how to speed up and slow down and how to stop and steer) have become habit for you.
What is A Habit?
Habits are those things we do without having to think about it. Some habits form simply because of repetition. We do the same thing in the same way enough times and we eventually don’t have to think about it. We just do it.
There are other habits, though, that we form on purpose. In my last post, for example, I mentioned learning to dance, play an instrument and sports. But there is also the military and police. Have you ever heard someone from the military or police or any first responder being interviewed as a hero who said that in the face of danger, “The training kicked in and I just did what I had been trained to do?” That’s all habits.
Anatomy of a Habit
We want to talk about how to form new habits. To do that it’s helpful to understand how habits work. There is a lot of material out there from blogs to scientific research papers. To summarize it, there are three parts to a habit. They are:
Reminder (also called cue or trigger) – The traffic light turns green, for example
Response – You initiate the sequence to start driving again
Reward – You resume progress toward your destination (and the person behind you doesn’t honk)
You know its a habit because, when the light turns green, you don’t have to think, “Check the distance from the car in front of me, have they started moving, release pressure on the break, move my foot to the accelerator, apply just enough pressure to increase speed to match the acceleration of the car ahead …” You just do all that–probably while singing along with that song on the radio or talking on the phone.
When you’re learning skills for sports, for example, often the Reminder is the coaches whistle, the Response is performing whatever skill you’re learning and the Reward is the coach saying, “Good Job!” or correcting you and you getting better.
How Does It Work?
When you are trying to form new personal or work habits, you have to take on the role of coach for yourself. Once you’ve identified the skill you want to make into a habit, you need to find your whistle and reward.
Say you wanted to develop a habit of writing every day. The best advice is to start small. As one writer put it, “Make it so easy you can’t say no.” For example, decide you want to write one sentence every day. That’s the skill you want to develop.
Now, coach, you need a whistle. What will trigger you to work on that skill? How about your morning coffee or tea? OK? So, when you take that first sip, let that be your signal to write one sentence. Great!
Now, what’s in it for you? What’s your reward? Try Jerry Seinfeld’s strategy. Get a large calendar and put it up where you will see it every day. Every time you have your coffee and write a sentence, put a big red “X” through that day. Your reward will be seeing the unbroken chain of “Xs” grow (not to mention all the cool sentences you’ve written). Once you get the habit going you can easily add another sentence, then another and so on until you’re writing a paragraph a day or for a certain period of time every day.
Well done! In coming posts we’ll talk more specifically about developing habits that will make you more of an Engager at work.