Birth of a Habit

I always write about habits after they’re done, but I thought that it would be interesting to write about one before it starts, to get really specific about the actual process of creating a new habit.

For my entire life, I’ve been messy. Battles were waged over my unwillingness to keep my room tidy as a kid. My RV is very easy to clean, but somehow my four forks and spoons live in the sink instead of their drawer. Even when I stay with friends while traveling, where I know it’s extremely important to be respectful of their space and keep my stuff as low-impact as possible, I find myself being careless about leaving power cords and shoes around.

A useful first step towards changing a big lifelong habit like this is to build up a healthy contempt for your previous execution. This isn’t self loathing or anything like that, just the attitude where you say, “This is completely unacceptable and ridiculous.”

I remember about two years ago when I went to the dentist, I asked her what the most important thing I could do for my teeth was. She said it was flossing every day. I already knew that, of course, but I asked the question in a subconscious hope that she would say that it was something I was already doing. At that moment, I thought, “How insane is it that I’m unable to just floss my teeth every day, and that I need to ask a dentist for some justification not to do it?”

That night I started flossing every day, a habit which is now second nature (except when I travel, sometimes).

Once I build up that disgust with my previous ways, I stoke the fires by really thinking through the ramifications of each path. With being a tidy person, for example, I thought about how I’m the one doing the cleaning anyway, so if I would just do it up front, I would do the same or less work but have a nicer environment. I thought about how I actually think better when my surroundings are pleasant, and how that impacts my work. I thought about how poorly it reflected on me that I wasn’t a tidy person.

With pretty much every habit, too, I think: “If I can’t build this habit, how much can I really expect of myself?”

I thought that about flossing. Can I really expect to have the discipline to build a great blogging platform if I can’t get myself to floss for two minutes every night? Can I be the head of a family if I can’t keep my tiny RV clean all the time? This serves to whip me up into a minor emotional frenzy, a state which causes me to have very little respect for the Tynan who would go down the lesser path.

Habits are easy once you’ve build momentum, but these emotional tricks can help get the ball rolling.

Next I figure out exactly what the problem is. Here’s exactly what I wrote:

Problem: RV is always messy, not a tidy guest.

I then break the problem down and figure out when it’s hard and what I’ll do in those situations. Again, from my personal notes:

Identify times when I’m NOT cleaning and should be. Figure out strategy for each type of mess.

Food: clean up immediately after eating. If trash is full, always empty. Always wash utensils after use.

Tea: Dump leaves after first steep, or make cold tea. Move tea stuff back to counter.

Tools: Put away after project.

Papers: FIle immediately or stick to ceiling. Throw away useless.

Electronics: If won’t use in 24 hours, put away.

Bed: should make every day, but 1 week grace period.

To come up with this list, I looked around my RV at everything that wasn’t perfectly clean. I tried to identify why each one wasn’t clean, which was illuminating.

For example, with no set rule about when to put away plates and dishes, I just stack them up. When I make tea, I often keep the spent leaves in the steeping basket thinking I’ll make more. I almost never do, so now my rule is that I either throw it away or put it in the fridge with water to make cold tea. Electronics (SD card reader, USB cables, etc) always seem to pile on my desk, so I made the decision be about whether I’ll use it in the next 24 hours or not, with a clear action for both.

I gave myself a one week grace period on the bed because adherence is more important than perfection. I’d rather make it easy to roll into the habit and then have to waste excess willpower on it.

Now I have a bunch of triggers for my habit. When I finish tea, dump it or steep it cold. When I finish eating, wash utensils. If I see a full trash can, dump it.

Next I set standards. This helps me from getting into a gray area (like: well… I am more organized now, even if my RV isn’t THAT clean), and it lets me avoid going overboard. Here’s what I wrote:

Times when RV must be 9/10:
— before going to sleep
— after tea
— after meal

9/10 means everything in proper place, vacuum if necessary, surfaces if necessary, no dirty dishes. Try to organize 1 more thing each time (wrap cables, throw something away, etc)

Here I’m saying that my standard is a nine out of ten, to be measured after each meal (because that’s when I generate a mess), before going to sleep, and after my morning tea. I then define what that standard means, so that it will be very obvious whether I’m sticking to the habit or not. Having four checkpoints is a good balance between making sure the RV is usually clean and not having to think about it very often.

To make the habit an upward spiral, I add to my definition doing one extra thing. I might organize a drawer, vacuum under the front RV seats, organize my fridge, etc.

So this is how I start off a new habit. I build contempt for the version of myself that doesn’t do the habit, I internalize the benefits of sticking to it, I come up with a plan that addresses my actual weaknesses, and then I set some standards. This planning takes about fifteen minutes but gives me a 10x better chance of success than if I said, “From now on I’m going to be more tidy!”

In fact, having a plan like this, along with track record of other plans like this working, makes me completely confident that I will change this habit for life. Check back with me in a couple years and see… but in the meantime, give birth to a couple big habits of your own!

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Photo is some new budding leaves from an incredible organic Japanese tea farm. You can buy their tea at http://naturalitea.com.

I’m doing a 2.5 week cruise in November… thinking about spending a couple hours each day writing a new book about willpower and building habits. Interested?

Really loving Linux. Will do a follow up post in a few months.

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