J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Changing Habits — 5 Specific Proven Techniques

What would YOU do for a scrap of bacon?

What would YOU do for a scrap of bacon?

Recently I’ve become fascinated with learning and implementing techniques to replace destructive habits with helpful ones. I’m particularly interested in giving up the habit of aimless web-browsing and other forms of online procrastination in order to become a more prolific writer. I not only want to write more words, but also to increase the intensity of my attention and quality of focus so that I can create higher quality work (I believe the two go together; increased quantity leads to increased quality).

I’ve made some progress over the last two years. I’m regularly reaching my goal of 15,000 words/month on my current novel, in addition to writing 2-3 blog posts a month. I’m curious to see how those numbers will change if I’m able to effectively implement all of the techniques below. Right now, if I were to give myself a grade in regards to how effectively I use my writing time, I’d give myself a C- (barely passing). I know I can do better.

The Problem: I either delay or interrupt my own writing process by distracting myself with email, checking social media feeds, checking link sites like reddit, or reading news and opinion articles.

The Ideal Behavior Pattern: Start writing without delay around 8:45am. Take breaks as needed to stretch, pace, exercise, and think, but don’t go down the internet rabbit hole.

The techniques below can be applied to any kind of desired behavior change, including quitting smoking, eating more healthful food, drinking less alcohol (or none at all), not fighting with your children or partner, etc.

Technique 1: Align Your Emotions with Your Intent by Asking the Hard Questions, then Commit

This is an area that I was neglecting until I read Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. I bought my copy used for $0.01 on amazon and it’s worth every penny. Just kidding — even though there are many references to events in the nineties, the psychological techniques discussed in the book are as relevant and valuable today as they were fifteen years ago. You can download the eBook for free using the link above.

The basic idea is to associate pain with not changing the behavior and pleasure with changing the behavior. What do you stand to lose if you don’t change? In regards to smoking and other health-destroying habits, the stakes are high; you could lose your good health, and/or twenty-plus years of your life.

Web-browsing might not sound as serious as smoking, alcoholism, or destructive drug-use, but when I asked the hard questions, I realized there was a lot of potential pain associated with NOT establishing good concentration and work habits. Any chance at establishing a new career from scratch (regardless of age) depends on intense focus, productivity, and the ability to resist distractions. I really would like to call myself a novelist one day, and if I don’t take full advantage of the free time, clear mind, abundance of ideas, good eyesight, and otherwise ideal circumstances that I am fortunate enough to be experiencing at this time in my life, I will regret it.

It was more fun to consider the pleasure side of the equation. Writing prolifically is a key part of fulfilling a major childhood dream of being a novelist. There’s also the immediate, daily satisfaction of completing a great writing session (I’m on top of the world for hours). When I write well I feel like I’m fulfilling my potential as a human being. Whether it’s blog posts that might inspire other people, or science-fiction that could entertain, inspire, or even add to the collective imagination of what humanity might become, writing lifts me up and expands my mental horizons.

I don’t get that feeling when I fritter away valuable hours and only manage to get a few anemic sentences down.

So those are the stakes. The last step of this technique is committing. Was I ready to commit to being a prolific writer? To raise the bar from should to must? Yes, absolutely. Carefully considering the stakes made that decision easy.

Is there a change you’re gearing up to make in your own life? A habit you’re ready to change, permanently? Do the exercise above and you’ll be ready now.

Go ahead. Bookmark this post, stop reading, and do the exercise above. What pain is associated with not changing? What pleasure is associated with changing? Do what it takes to gain the emotional resolve, then commit.

Committing isn’t the end of the process, of course …

Technique 2: Make the Good Habit Easy and the Bad Habit Difficult

This is the part where we use our natural laziness as human beings to our own advantage. Making a bad habit even slightly less convenient (or the converse, making a good habit more convenient) is hugely effective. Google demonstrated this principle by putting candy in opaque jars and healthier snacks in clear ones. Over a seven-week period Google employees consumed 3.1 million calories fewer of M&Ms.

Before I start writing, I disable the WiFi on my computer (unless I’m working on the blog — then I need the internet in order to create links within posts). At other times I’ve used site-blocking software like RescueTime and Freedom to curb my internet use. These tools work pretty well.

On the “more convenient” side I always keep a shortcut to my current manuscript right on my desktop, so I don’t have to dig around in folders to open it.

Other examples that could apply to other habits:

The “make bad habits harder” strategy works pretty well, but I’ve run into limitations. If I’m not fully committed to behavior change, I can always find a way around these “soft” restrictions. Maybe you have a friend who has halfheartedly decided to “smoke less” and therefore only bums cigarettes instead of buying them?

Other issues arise when your family or cohabitators aren’t on board. Maybe you’re ready to give up chocolate but your wife isn’t. Maybe unplugging the internet router would be great for you, but would through a wrench in your roommate’s workflow. In that case you need to support your behavior change with other techniques.

Technique 3: Understand the Cues, and Disrupt the Habitual Behavior

These days, when I catch myself going to a website or checking email or Twitter when I should be working, I make a loud siren noise with my mouth, like a fire alarm going off. Then, out loud, I describe the exact details of the offending behavior, and coach myself back to a more productive mode.

Good thing I work from home, right?

Let me explain how I arrived at the above technique …

Earlier this year I realized I had fallen into a less-than-ideal morning ritual. The experience of turning on my computer, drinking coffee, checking email, and looking at Facebook, reddit, nytimes.com, and other sites (I’m sure you have your own list) had become comfortable, easy, and habitual. This wouldn’t have been a problem if the web-browsing only lasted for five or ten minutes, but I often found it difficult to break out of this “easy web-browsing mode” into the more mentally strenuous work of writing, revising, etc. Major time wasted! I might still cram in some work before lunch, but many mornings I would end up frustrated with myself, even angry at myself for wasting so much time. Yet I felt powerless to stop it.

My first attempt at breaking up this pattern was to NOT start my day with turning on my computer. Instead, I used a pen and notebook to sketch out my ideas, plans, and thoughts about the day. This resulted in a more conscious start. It’s a good habit and I’ve easily maintained it since I wrote that post back in April.

My second attempt at breaking the pattern was to manipulate the cue of drinking coffee. I recognized that drinking coffee had become a cue for web-browsing, so I experimented with not drinking coffee until I was actually working on fiction-writing. This worked reasonably well and increased my word count, but it wasn’t the ideal strategy. Coffee drinking was a trigger, but it was also a reward, and sometimes I just delayed coffee drinking until I got a minor caffeine headache. The process started to feel too convoluted and unpleasant, so I abandoned it and went back to studying how habits are constructed from cues, behaviors, and rewards.

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, explains that a habit is constructed of a cue (or trigger), a behavior, and a reward. If we can develop an awareness of what sensory inputs trigger the behavior we want to change, we can modify our response to the cue.

So far I’ve noticed several cues that precede my habit of internet browsing, including:

  • turning on the computer
  • finishing a chunk of work (a scene or even a paragraph)
  • hitting a mental block … not sure how to proceed

Now, if I find myself starting to go down the internet rabbit hole, I use what Tony Robbins calls a “pattern interrupt” to disrupt the behavior (thus the siren noises and out-loud verbal self-coaching).

So far this has been very effective. But it only addresses part of the habit — the cue or trigger. What about the reward?

Technique 4: Understand and Reprogram the Reward

For lasting habit change I knew I needed to identify the reward I was getting from self-distraction, and find an alternate means of getting it.

Getting a better understanding of the triggers helped me understand the reward. I think the reward I get from self-distraction is a break in intensity, a rest for my brain.

The problem with using the infinite entertainment and distraction potential of the internet is that a five minute break can turn into a twenty or sixty minute break all too easily. Also, I don’t get the full benefits of a break, like moving around, looking at something besides a screen, doing a quick household chore, or even briefly exercising.

A household chore as a reward? Really? If you don’t understand this, you’re not a writer. 😉

Even worse, if I check email there’s a good chance my brain won’t get any rest at all, but will be pulled into a different problem. Too many times I’ve lost writing momentum because I read a client email, and my brain got sucked into how to solve that problem. It’s not fair either to my creative process or to my client to give each half my attention.

So if I feel the need for a break, I give myself a break. I might sit in a chair in my yard and soak up some sun, or do some pullups on the plum tree, or sit and meditate for a few minutes, or get a water or coffee refill. Ideally I try to keep it physical and short, then get back to work.

When I took a break from drinking, I found I was able to achieve many of the associated rewards without actually consuming any alcohol. San Pellegrino in a wine glass went a long way: something a little fancy, treating myself well, hydrating, mouth sensation, etc. Sometimes I found the craving for wine was actually a craving for sugar … adding a little juice to the carbonated water helped satisfy that need. The substitutions I used for wine, beer, and scotch help me understand that when I thought I was craving a drink, at times I was craving something else (water, sugar, being nice to myself, relaxing, time with family or friends). I probably drink about half as much now as compared to before I took the break.

Technique 5: Repeat and Reinforce Good Behavior

Eventually a good habit rewards itself. When I changed my eating and supplementation habits and eventually was able to breathe normally, the idea of going back to my old lifestyle habits held zero appeal. Nothing beats breathing.

But when you’re just starting to change a bad habit and/or establish a new one, it’s important to reward yourself immediately when you do something right.

The rewards don’t have to be big. But at least pat yourself on the back. I use out-loud verbal coaching to this effect, congratulating myself when I take a minor step in the right direction. When I reach a major milestone I usually treat myself to something … a small purchase or a nice meal.

It’s important to keep rewards simple and immediate. A complicated reward (like a trip to a foreign country) requires a great deal of work to implement. Your mind might not perceive it as positive reinforcement by the time it happens.

The most effective reward schedules are intermittent and variable. Don’t always reward yourself for good behavior, and mix it up both in terms of the kind and size of the reward. After a good writing session I’ll sometimes reward myself with dark chocolate, a walk around the neighborhood (sometimes I’ll stop by the local record store). If I finish a draft I’m going to splurge on something. My brain is going to know I did something right.

I guess there’s some possibility of creating a new bad habit by reinforcing a new good habit. You’re not going to replace smoking with candy bars, or drinking beer with drinking soda, are you?

Line ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Down

It’s not a bad way to approach life change. Line up the bad habits and turn them into good habits, one by one. After I kick the aimless web-browsing habit I have a few more in the queue.

What habit are you committed to changing in your own life? Step up and comment below.

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15 Comments

  1. I read an interesting article once (don’t remember where) about a man who hired a girl to sit next to him while he was at his desk and slap him whenever he got off course! He became more productive and found it helped to have someone to bounce ideas off of. So if your strategies don’t work you could try that!

  2. Marcin

    Thanks for the post. Did you hear about the Pomodoro technique? It’s very simple, you do blocks of focused activity (25 minutes is suggested for a start) and do compulsory short brakes to give your mind a rest. Works good, is based on cues (winding up a timer) and really helps you focus.

    • Thanks for the comment Marcin. I have heard of the technique, but for some reason I find the method unappealing. Too restrictive/strict maybe? It seems to work well for some … here’s the site for those who are interested:

      http://pomodorotechnique.com/

      I have used a timer to force myself to slog through boring, difficult work I had to get done, but I don’t want to associate fiction writing with grinding away. I’m going for focused work but not forced work, if that makes sense.

      Once again, this could be a great technique for others — thanks for mentioning it.

  3. Hi JD! Used to wrestle with this problem myself. But then started using the Self Control app for Mac, which seems to take care of everything. I’ve blacklisted all social media I use, all email and all news sites I used to check way too often and every day turn it on at 6pm, for 18 hours. Nothing I do can reset it. So it guarantees the next morning is super productive, as I have nothing I can do except get stuck into writing or some other important task. Bonus is that I don’t check/worry about emails after 6pm either. PS love your blog, have nearly finished the archives, great stuff!

    • Thanks for the comment Richard. I used SelfControl as well for awhile, but it coincided with some stability issues I had on my Mac so I stopped using it (probably unrelated but I wanted to play it safe). Site is here: http://selfcontrolapp.com/

      I think these tools are a great part of the arsenal in terms of Technique #2 (making the bad habit difficult) but no longer believe in a magic bullet solution, at least for myself. I was always able to find ways around site-blocking software, including looking at the internet on my phone. Personally I needed an emotional commitment to truly change. So far using all five techniques with an emphasis on #1 (associating pain with not changing and pleasure with changing, and COMMITTING) is working well. This morning I started writing at 9am and easily exceeded my target word count.

      I will update readers in a few weeks with a progress report …

  4. Jon

    Love your stuff J.D. Reading your blog has provided me a wealth of knowledge.

  5. “Web-browsing might not sound as serious as smoking, alcoholism, or destructive drug-use, but when I asked the hard questions, I realized there was a lot of potential pain associated with NOT establishing good concentration and work habits. Any chance at establishing a new career from scratch (regardless of age) depends on intense focus, productivity, and the ability to resist distractions. I really would like to call myself a novelist one day, and if I don’t take full advantage of the free time, clear mind, abundance of ideas, good eyesight, and otherwise ideal circumstances that I am fortunate enough to be experiencing at this time in my life, I will regret it.

    It was more fun to consider the pleasure side of the equation. Writing prolifically is a key part of fulfilling a major childhood dream of being a novelist. There’s also the immediate, daily satisfaction of completing a great writing session (I’m on top of the world for hours). When I write well I feel like I’m fulfilling my potential as a human being. Whether it’s blog posts that might inspire other people, or science-fiction that could entertain, inspire, or even add to the collective imagination of what humanity might become, writing lifts me up and expands my mental horizons.

    I don’t get that feeling when I fritter away valuable hours and only manage to get a few anemic sentences down.”

    Man, you are gunning for me.

    I have so many ideas flashing about, but sitting down and pouring them out on the page is tough. I can come up with a million and one excuses and distractions. I like to write online on my Facebook page, to find new ideas, and jump around. If I had written half as much on my manuscript as I did online, my novel would be making the rounds already.

    This page has been bookmarked for reference, and I will set a fixed amount of time each day to work on it – without distraction. And if I succeed, you are partially to blame for it! 😉

  6. Susie

    We have a certain member of our family who finds sugar irresistible, so I purchased an inexpensive plastic box at Walmart (couldn’t find one anywhere else, or I never would have entered that depressing place!) and a small lock. We lock up chocolate chips, cocoa powder, fine candies and the like (basically any treat worth preserving for a special occasion.) What we have found is that it lasts 4 -6 times longer (not just due to the fact that big brother can’t get to it and consume pounds in one sitting.) Not only does it reduce the convenience factor (do I really want to get out the key and open the box?) but it also makes it feel more valuable and special (don’t we usually lock up valuables to keep them safe?) Worth a try with any thing you want to keep (because it brings you joy!) but don’t want accessible.

  7. Not ever exercising is a habit U’m trying to break. Need to set myself SMART goals though. “I’ll go to the gym 5 times a week for the next 40 years” is somewhat optimistic I feel.

  8. L A

    Just re-reading this blog entry- I find your words, dilemmas, solutions very well suited & mirror some of my own! I’m finally ready to work on some personal poor habits- considering a visit to a local hypnotist to give me a jump start. Have you ever considered hypnotherapy?

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