Habits and Cookies

Do you like stories? I do! My last tele-class with Margaret Lukens, veteran organizer, coach and NAPO educator, had a story about a cookie. I had signed up for the class to learn how to better help my Time and Organizing clients start new habits.

The story: Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, did an experiment on himself. He had a habit he wanted to change. Every day around 3:30 p.m. he would get up from his desk, go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and eat it while chatting with friends. Problem was, he started to gain some weight. He noticed, and his wife noticed. He decided to break the cookie habit.

In his book he says to change a habit you must identify the routine surrounding the habit. So he broke it down to each small action this time of day. He described every small thing he did at this time of day, trying to discover the cue, the trigger for the cookie habit.

Well, after weeks of experimenting, he discovered the cue was the time of day. But what was his reward? Every habit has a reward, he postulated. Did he feel just as good if he ate an apple, for example? He did. After trying lots of combinations, he realized his reward was actually chatting with friends.

His next step was to create a plan to change the habit. His plan included following his cue to get up from his desk, but instead of getting a cookie, he just went straight to his friends’ offices and chatted with them for 10 minutes. In this way, he still got the social reward he craved without the weight gain! Of course, his discipline wasn’t perfect and he wasn’t able to quit “cold turkey,” but eventually he kicked the cookie habit.

What I love about Lukens’ class is this: she always asks each of us great questions that cause us to think about our own habits. The habit I want to change is to stay focused on tasks that require concentration even when I think of something else that needs to be done. It was a powerful moment when she helped me realize the strength of my fear that I will forget that newly remembered task if I don’t write it down right away. My reward is the peace of mind that I have it captured.

So what I decided to do: instead of getting up to write personal to-do’s on the whiteboard, I will capture them on a Post-it at my desk, and stick it to the whiteboard later that day. It’s not perfect, but it is better.

What is one habit that is stealing your time? Angry Birds, TV, Facebook? Try Duhigg’s method on yourself. Experiment. Be patient with yourself; it can take up to 254 days** to establish a complex habit. It usually helps to have someone to keep you accountable, and I would be happy to be there for you. Tell me your habit and I’ll check in with you monthly.

**research by Phillipa Lolly, Great Britain