Browsing the archives for the habit change tag.
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In Which Elizabeth Shack Continues Her Quest for a Simple Way to Track Habits

Guest posts

Here’s a handy guest post from fellow writing and fellow Codexian Elizabeth Shack, originally published here. If you’re interested in the topic, you might also like my posts  “Harnessing a Winning Streak” and “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?

The apps here are all iPhone ones. If anyone has suggestions for Android, PC, Mac, or Web-based solutions, please holler them out (via comments)!

About a year ago, I was looking for a habit-tracking app and never found a really good one. I wanted to make a list of 2-3 things I want to do every day, and check them off, without cluttering up my to do list or my calendar. For example: writing new words.

Maybe I was using the wrong keywords, or maybe tons of app developers secretly read my blog, because now there seem to be a lot of good apps. I’ve been playing with three of them.

Good HabitsGood Habits (free) – This is the simplest and cleanest. It displays how many days in a row you’ve done each thing, and your maximum days in a row. Clicking on the name of a habit opens the calendar, where you can edit past days and see a monthly view of which days you did that habit. You can also set reminders.

That’s it. It’s almost exactly what I want, though it’d be nice to include things I only want to do once a week.

Habit ListHabit List ($1.99) – Not quite as pretty, but still nicely designed. It lets you set whether you want to do something every day, or on specific days of the week, or at a certain interval, or a certain number of days a week. That has the side effect of making me want to add more things to it, and it’s also a little confusing–my list for today includes everything that I’ve set to do only once or three times a week, so I see it on my list even if I don’t plan to do it today. (Setting something for a specific day like Friday makes it not show up unless it’s Friday, though.)

If you really need more specific habit scheduling than daily, this is a great app.

Habits ProHabits Pro ($2.99) – This adds more features and is the only app I’ve tried that has an export option. In addition to a daily checklist or monthly calendar view, it shows graphs by day, week, and month. You can also change the item type–instead of a simple yes/no checklist, you can have a counter (how many times you did something), a timer (how long), or a note (where you can enter details about whatever, like what book you read instead of just checking off that you read something).

It’s a little clunky to use and not nearly as pretty as either of the other two apps, but definitely more flexible in what you can track.

So after this research, what am I going to use? Well, I printed out some calendars that I can tape in my journal, where I can see the whole year on one page. If I want to stick with something electronic (and I haven’t quite decided), probably Habit List until Good Habits adds flexible scheduling.

Elizabeth grew up near Johnson Space Center and earned two physics degrees, so of course she writes more fantasy than science fiction. She now lives in central Illinois, where she performs cooking experiments, brings up the rear in 5k races, and does excessive amounts of yard work. 

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Habit Change: Routine and Reward


Recently I posted about a habit change process detailed by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, and I began by talking about how to identify cues–the things that trigger us to act out our habits. Today’s post digs into the reward, the intended result of a habit. Identifying our rewards is essential if you’re going to use this cue-routine-reward approach for habit change.

What’s so important about identifying the reward? Well, the reward is the entire reason the old habit came into existence. According to Duhigg, habits arise because of a want or need, and if we can fulfill that want or need some other way, we’re well on our way to replacing the habit.

Your mileage may vary
I’ll jump in here for a moment to mention that habits can become ingrained because of expected rewards and then stay in place long after those rewards have disappeared, so I’m not convinced that every habit is subject to the kind of change Duhigg describes. With that said, there appears to be good evidence that many habits can be altered this way, and if you can identify that a habit in your life that still delivers its reward, the approach Duhigg talks about may work well for you if you want to change that habit.

Discovering your reward
Rewards are not always obvious. Duhigg gives an example of a habit he had of going down to the cafeteria at his workplace every afternoon to buy a chocolate chip cookie. His reward, he discovered over time, was not the sugar rush or anything else having to do with the actual cookie, but rather the socialization that usually took place when he went down to the cafeteria. He eventually changed his routine to be seeking out people to socialize with for a short time or going down to the cafeteria for a cup of tea. This gave him the reward he needed (some time to chat with other people and recharge his mental batteries) with no cookies required, and he used that new routine to overwrite the old one and therefore to lay off the cookies.

Duhigg suggests guessing at what kinds of rewards a habit might be providing and experimenting with getting those rewards in other ways. For instance, if I had a habit of staying up too late at night by starting some kind of entertainment around 10pm, I might theorize that the entertainment distracted me from the cares of the day and allowed me to relax, or that it provided some alone time that I wasn’t getting while everyone else was up, or that it supplied me with topics of conversation to draw on the next day.

Experimenting with new routines
To experiment with the relaxation theory, I could swap two hours of TV watching or game playing for 30 minutes of meditation, or for a relaxation CD that I could play while going to sleep. If I wanted to see if the alone time theory might be the real reason for the habit, I could try going to bed at a reasonable time but getting up earlier than everyone else in the morning, or else exercising at night rather than looking for some kind of entertainment. To test the theory that I might just need topics of conversation, I could set up blog and news feeds that interested me in a news reader program and spend twenty minutes a night reading whatever interested me the most.

The ultimate question for any of these experiments would be whether or not I lost the desire to stay up late.

Overlaying the old with the new
Finding another way to get a habit loop’s reward undermines the old habit and the old way of getting that reward. This doesn’t mean that the old habit will go away automatically: after all, our brains build and strengthen neural connections to support each of our habits and make them easier and more automatic. If we don’t make a conscious decision to do something else, the old habit will usually take over again the first chance it gets. However, finding a different means to get the same reward lets us decommission the old neural connections and start taking over with new ones based on recognizing the same cue and then performing a different routine–the new routine we’ve found through experimenting–to get the same reward.

Photo by gsbrown99

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Ignorant Redneck Earl Hickey Shows Us a Near-Perfect Model of Science-Based Habit Change


I’m not much of a fan of sitcoms, but here’s the voice over introduction to one that’s not only dang amusing, but also a surprisingly good course in habit change:

You know the kinda guy who does nothing but bad things and then wonders why his life sucks? Well, that was me. Every time something good happened to me, something bad was always waiting around the corner. Karma. That’s when I realized I had to change. So I made a list of everything bad I’ve ever done, and one by one I’m gonna make up for all my mistakes. I’m just trying to be a better person. My name is Earl.

I’ve enjoyed watching episodes of Earl via Netflix for a year or so, but it wasn’t until this morning, reading Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit, that I realized that Earl’s method of changing his life is a near-perfect model of real habit change, as supported by reams of research, a few superbowl championships, millions of now-sober alcoholics, and much other evidence.

Just trying to be a better person
Earl, played with innocence and a blind, cheerful, openness to whatever may come by Jason Lee, used to be a small-time criminal, stealing whatever he could, however he could–the dumber the idea, the better. In the series, he now spends his time hunting down people he’s hurt and trouble he’s caused, one item at a time, and making up for all those past mistakes. Compare this to Duhigg’s depiction of habit change, which has two main components: replacing the routine and cultivating belief.

Changing a habit by substituting a new routine
Habits, as Duhigg describes them, have three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. For example, the cue might be boredom; the routine, eating a bag of potato chips; and the reward, the physical pleasure of eating the chips.

Earl’s cue was anything that might get him some easy money or swag; his routine was committing the crime in whatever hare-brained way immediately came to mind; and his reward (when he got one) was acquiring some new stuff on his supposed path to the good life.

In present of the series, though, that’s all old news. Earl’s new cues are pretty much the same as his old ones: he hatches an idea or stumbles across a situation that provides an opportunity, but now it’s an opportunity to make up for something bad he’s done rather than a potential crime. He still uses whatever hare-brained approach leaps to mind to get the job done, but the core of the routine is different: instead of petty theft, it’s making up for wrongdoing. The reward is similar: he doesn’t get any physical wealth, but he counts his riches in karma now, and his satisfaction and pleasure at crossing off an item from his list is palpable, not to mention very similar to the satisfaction we see in flashback scenes of him successfully getting away with crime.

That’s the way to change a habit, says Duhigg: keep the cues and the rewards the same, but change the routine. Actually, I would suggest that should be amended to keeping the cues the same, change the routine, and allow for a modestly different reward: drinking a cup of tea doesn’t give the exact same payoff as smoking a cigarette, for instance, but the rewards are surprisingly similar.

You gotta believe!
It would be handy if changing habits were as simple as identifying cues and rewards and finding a new routine to sandwich in the middle, and in fact this seems to be a central part of habit change–but, as Duhigg points out, this isn’t enough. You have to believe. I’ll write about this more in separate posts, but this belief component has been identified as a key force in the psychological literature. In order to really change, we have to have a powerful faith that what we’re doing can–maybe even must–be done.

Earl exemplifies this through his faith in karma, which he pictures as a simplistic, tit-for-tat force that automatically responds to any good or bad deed with good or bad fortune somewhere in the space of the 22-minute episode. Since this is a sitcom, karma actually works that way in Earl’s world, which means that when Earl’s starves himself and his brother, runs out of gas, and has to walk miles and miles to dance with Too-Tall Maggy (whom he spurned in the 8th grade), by the end of the episode he has been amply rewarded and is back drinking cheap beer with no cigarette butts in it. This convenient help from the universe makes it easy for Earl to believe, and is the one place where Earl’s life change is very different from real world changes, even though both require belief to get through the trying times. Our belief doesn’t come as easily as Earl’s, and it can be difficult and sometimes impossible to maintain on our own without special circumstances.

How to believe without magical instant karma
So how do we come to believe powerfully enough that even when our efforts seem nearly pointless, we can soldier on? In real life, belief comes in two main forms: tragedies and groups. As I say, this subject will be worth a good bit of further discussion, but the short version is that most of us only really change when something earth-shaking happens in our lives or in the lives of people close to us, or else when we become part of a group that makes the possibility change seem real. This is why a person can sometimes quit drinking after a DUI incident or after joining AA, but often can’t when just trying to push through alone. Note that even the disaster approach may only provide enough belief to get started: durable belief often depends on having a group of people in our lives to permanently change our point of view.

Earl, by contrast, spends his time with the exact same group of unprincipled, dim-witted friends and associates who urged him on to crime in a former chapter of his life–but his remedial, absolute faith in karma carries him through beautifully.

Like Earl, many of us are just trying to be better people. As far as I’m concerned, we’re lucky to have people like Earl (and Charles Duhigg, and AA founder Bill Wilson, and others) to show us the way.

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