TheRightTeam Book Recommendation from UX Designer, Christine Lee:

I know when that hotline bling
That can only mean one thing
I know when that hotline bling
That can only mean one thing
– from Hotline Bling by Drake, potentially referring to the power of a cue that triggers a response, leads to a reward and starts to become… a habit.

Let’s talk about habits, and writing.

I recently finished reading “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, and of course I started wondering about how I can use my newfound knowledge to start building new habits into my day, such as writing every day before bed, or running in the morning 4x a week. While I didn’t finish the book feeling like I knew exactly how to revamp my personal habits, I thought I’d share the highlights of what I learned.

Essentially, Duhigg says our habits consist of a cue, our response, and defined reward.

First, find a simple and obvious cue. Second, clearly define the rewards.

The more specific the cue and reward are, the more likely we are able to make a behavior a habit and/or adjust the behavior. For example, Duhigg mentions that studies of people who successfully started new exercise routines probably succeeded because they were aware of the specific cue and reward that would get them to workout.

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So what might a cue be, and what are example rewards?

For fitness/health, example cues in the book are:

  • getting home after work (signifying it’s time to run)
  • planning meals in advance
  • putting on sneakers ahead of time
  • going to the gym as soon as you wake up
  • leaving exercise clothes out the night before a morning jog.

Example rewards are:

  • a beer
  • time to watch TV
  • a midday treat
  • an endorphin rush
  • a bikini or item of clothing you want to be able to wear
  • a coffee
  • sense of pride.
  • basically, something you really want.

Want to exercise more? Choose a cue… and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.

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At this point in the book, I felt like I had learned enough about cues and rewards to start examining the habits I already have (namely ones I want to improve/change) and strategize how to remove the cues for bad habits and incorporate cues for good habits. But then Duhigg says there’s another layer to it: having a specific cue and a specific reward for a habit doesn’t make it sustainable — it’s the expectation, or craving, the brain has for the reward that does. This makes the habit stickier and reduces the effort needed to respond. (Case in point: the habit of mindless eating. This habit is triggered by availability, or perhaps time of day, or scent, and example rewards that are craved can be endorphins, feeling full, or feeling comfort.)

The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.

While I admit I don’t fully understand the difference between an ordinary cue and a cue that triggers craving, let us continue.

Habit also touches on how we can make willpower/self-control in itself a habit. Duhigg brings up Starbucks as an example–they have training manuals that have blank pages where employees write out what they’re going to do in the face of different challenging situations. Then they practice the execution of those plans over and over until their response to customers in various situations becomes automatic.

This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.

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What’s interesting is that it sounds like we each have the ability to empower someone else to practice his/her willpower too. In a company situation, Duhigg says that if an employee feels like s/he is doing something out of choice, for personal reasons, or out of enjoyment because s/he is helping someone else, then it’s not as difficult to exercise self-control. However, “if they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster.”

For companies and organizations, this insight has enormous implications. Simply giving employees a sense of agency–a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority–can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.

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Photo credit: http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2012-03-15/book-review-the-power-of-habit-by-charles-duhigg#p1

So, if you’ve read the book and/or been thinking about your writing habits from this post, I have two questions for you:

  • What is your cue and reward for writing that has made it a habit for you?
    • Share with me your knowledge, O writers who write on the regular.
  • If writing isn’t feeling like a habit for you yet, what could be a specific cue and specific reward that would help get you started?
    • Example cue: the time of day.
    • Example reward: If I finish writing a blog post in that session, I can have a scoop of ice cream or watch another episode of Suits.

Although this book wasn’t as practical or actionable as I expected, it’s a curated roundup of research and real-life examples seen through the lens of habit formation that I enjoyed reading. If you’re interested in other reviews, I’d recommend this one in the NYTimes or this one in Bloomberg Business.