We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
Habits are powerful things. They can either pull us toward a positive future or anchor us to our past. Think about that for a moment. The habits you have in your life right now were created in the past, but they exert a powerful force on your future because, as Gandhi said, “The future depends on what we do in the present.” What you are doing right now is creating your future. And since up to 90% of our behavior is based on habit, our habits control what we do in the present.
So much of what you do every day is habit – from brushing your teeth each morning, to the route you drive to work, to where you stop for coffee, to how you take your coffee, to what you do when you first get to the office. You get the idea. Habits are the autopilot that guides our brains. So creating habits around the things we want to do is the best way to make sure that those things get done. As crazy as it may sound, the less you have to think about doing something, the more likely you are to actually do it. As William James once wrote, habit “…is the reason why we do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all.”
But I’ve just got to check my email NOW!
Most lawyers have some really bad habits that destroy their focus, decrease their productivity, and smack down their earning potential. Ouch. But changing our habits isn’t easy. Before we talk about creating new habits, let’s look at how habits are created.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, habits are created by combining 1) a cue; 2) a routine; and 3) a reward, then cultivating a craving that drives the habit loop. Let’s look at how the habit loop works with respect to creating a habit. Imagine this scene:
You’re working on the motion that’s due next Friday. As you’re reviewing your expert’s deposition, you hear the “ding” of your computer or smartphone (the cue) letting you know “You’ve got mail!” Your brain starts anticipating the distraction (the reward) of checking your email. “That could be important,” you think to yourself. So you stop what you’re doing to check your email every time you hear the “ding.” You have now created the habit. When the anticipation of the reward of momentary distraction becomes so strong that it is a craving – i.e., you must have it – a habit is born.
To create a new habit, we need to recognize that the craving drives our behavior. In the example above, the craving is for the reward of distraction. So how do we stop the craving? Take away the cue. Turn off your email and phone when you want to focus.
“Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning.” – Charles Duhigg
The trick is to create an environment that rewards us for the right behavior, rather than those behaviors that work against us.