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. (See Lesson 4. Get rid of bad habits. 90% of our behavior is based on our habits.) 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,[5:1] habits are created by combining 1) a cue; 2) a routine; and 3) a reward, then cultivating a craving that drives the habit loop. In Lesson 4, I recommended the “20 Second Rule” as one way to break a bad habit by simply making the habit more difficult to engage in. Now, let’s look at how the habit loop works with respect to creating the habit in the first place. 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 phone (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.” 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.”
– From The Power of Habit
The trick is to create an environment that rewards us for the right behavior, rather than those behaviors that work against us.
[W]e must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can…The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work are subjects of express volitional deliberation.
– From The Principles of Psychology (1890), by William James[5:2]
Living the Lesson
There are essentially three steps to creating a new habit. Follow these steps, and you can create new, powerful habits that pull you toward your goals rather than holding you back. The steps are simple. Caveat: Simple doesn’t mean easy.
- Decide on the habit you want to create, and be as specific as possible. A habit of “drinking more water” is problematic, whereas a habit of “drinking six glasses a day” is easier to create. Creating the habit of checking your email “less often” is not as effective as creating the habit of checking your email “once in the morning, and once in the afternoon.”
- Set up cues or triggers to help you remember the action at the time you want to do it. During the time before the action becomes a habit (usually the first few weeks), you will need to use external triggers or reminders. For example, if you want to make it a habit to meet with your paralegal each day, put the meeting in your calendar. You’ll need the reminder until the meetings – or huddles – become a habit. (More about huddles in Lesson 10. Put an end to “lurk and blurt” with huddles.)
- Make it easy to remember what you are trying to do. Rituals and routines support remembering. For example, if you want to create the habit of meditating for five minutes each morning, do it in the same place, at the same time, and in the same surroundings each day. (More about the power of meditation in Lesson 13. Do the harder thing first.) For example, I’ve created my own morning meditation ritual that incorporates my Starbucks habit. (Yes, I consider this to be a good habit!) Each morning, I go to my neighborhood Starbucks before I begin my work day. I get my coffee to take back to my office. But when I get in my car, rather than leaving immediately, I sit for five to 10 minutes and listen to a guided meditation on my iPhone. Doors locked, windows up, headphones on, phone in airplane mode so that I can’t be interrupted. This ritual works for me. Find rituals that work for you.
[5:1] Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House.
[5:2] James, William (1890). The Principles of Psychology. London, England: Macmillan and Co.