Habits. We all have them. Not all of them bad. When I diligently adopt a new helpful habit, it quickly becomes part of my overall system for doing things, and moves from conscious action to autonomic action, the kind of thing that creates almost no cognitive drain. With enough beneficial habits, things get done before I even realize what’s happening.
Don’t just take it from me. I identified early with Kent Beck, who famously claimed to be an average programmer with exceptional habits. Today I point to Ramit Sethi who emphasizes using systems to regulate and perhaps even automate desirable behavior, and what are systems if not merely collections of interlocking, mutually-supporting habits? I can vividly recall a single slide in a presentation by Alistair Cockburn as far back perhaps as XP Universe 2001 in which he introduced me to the undeniable value of microtechniques, which amount to tiny habits. I imagine that you can think of something that you think would help you to start doing, but you haven’t started doing it yet. This article should help.
Choosing good habits requires judgment and experimentation. Ingraining habits does not. Today’s Quick Win is about integrating habits into your system. (Think you don’t have a system? Think again. If you have a few rules for how you generally get things done, then you have a system.)
Make Any Behavior a Habit
I can make any behavior a habit if:
- I know how to do it
- I know when to do it
- I have the opportunity to do it every day for about a month
I’m in the process of ingraining the habit of brushing my teeth before going to sleep. (Yes, I know. It’s long overdue.) I feel quite confident that as long as I do it every day for about a month, then I will start doing it out of habit, rather than as a conscious decision. When something becomes a habit, I feel more cognitive load not doing it than I feel doing it. I know how to brush my teeth. I know that I need to do it just before going to sleep. I go to sleep every night, so I have the opportunity to do it every day. Unfortunately, I have not yet successfully remember to do it. (Yes, I know. Don’t judge me.) Since I know that I want to ingrain this habit and I’m forgetting to do it, I know what I need to do next: remind myself.
A simple sticky note on my bedside table would do the trick. I’m writing this article as much to remind myself to put a sticky note on my bedside table as anything else. The mere act of writing things down helps me to remember them. When I was traveling for six weeks, the disruption in my daily routine made it easy for me to forget, but since I’ve come back home, I’ve found it easier to remember. The sticky note will simply seal the deal. Within a few weeks I will have ingrained a new, healthy habit. I hope I haven’t started too late.
One Killer Tool to Ingrain a Habit
When a physical sticky note won’t do the job, I reach for one of my favorite electronic tools: followupthen.com and I’ll receive an email in two weeks telling me whatever I needed to remember to do. I’ve been using followupthen.com for a few years and it has become a core part of both my email system and my overall system for getting things done.
You can use followupthen.com to ingrain a habit by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and describing your desired habit in the Subject line. If you pay for their Professional plan, then you can send an email to email@example.com and receive your reminder by SMS, in case that fits you better. I find followupthen.com so handy that I wonder how I got along without it.
Whether you use reminder emails or not, whenever you identify something that you want to make a habit, try this simple formula:
- Figure out how to do it and feel comfortable that you can do it correctly.
- Figure out when to do it, whether it’s a certain time of day, or in response to certain stimuli. (Stop using the mouse! Learn the keyboard shortcuts already!)
- Find an opportunity to do it at least once per day.
- Remind yourself to do it, with a sticky note, by tying a string around your finger, or using followupthen.com.
You can start right now by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy!
Kent Beck, Test-Driven Development: By Example. I think this is where I read Kent identifying himself as an average programmer with great habits. I lost my copy in The Flood of 2007, so I can’t check.
Ramit Sethi, I Will Teach You To Be Rich. I don’t agree with everything Ramit advises, but we both definitely agree on the raw power of habits to creating lasting behavioral change.