I wanted to write a kick-ass blog post, wrap up my client admin and map out my next book chapter.
But by the end of the day they were still burning a hole in my desk.
I’d been sucked into a habit of being distracted. I’d let myself go down the rabbit-hole of research that plays to my strengths and my interests, but which left my business way behind where I wanted it to be.
Bad habits feel good, but this is why they’re killing your day
We can start our day with the best of intentions, full of energy, with clear priorities and a model to-do list. And it still goes wrong.
In a truly stomach-turning piece of research, a group of film-goers were given fresh or stale popcorn at the door of a cinema. Week-old popcorn – disgusting, right?
But for cinema-goers who normally eat popcorn at the movies, they just didn’t care. They munched their way through just as much of the old stuff as the fresh.
That sounds pretty weird if you don’t normally eat popcorn at the movies. Unsurprisingly, the people who didn’t normally eat it were much less less likely to finish the stale version.
Environment is crucial
If you’re used to doing something in a particular environment, you keep doing it without even noticing.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s no longer serving you, whether it’s unhelpful or unhealthy. It may well be getting in the way of your bigger goals, but your brain won’t even spot it.
Until later, that, is, when you wonder what on earth you were doing.
Habits linked to an environment are dangerous. Like all habits, they’re deeply embedded in the brain’s hardware. We simply don’t notice we’re doing them. When they’re linked to a place or situation we’re tied to, they act as a powerful, subsconscious trigger.
Here’s how you can can take back control from your subconscious
It’s not that regular popcorn eaters don’t care about the taste of popcorn.
When they were served bad popcorn in an office, they didn’t want to eat it any more. And when they were asked to eat it with their left hand, it didn’t seem to taste so good either.
Disrupting one thing about their habit meant they became aware of what they were doing, and started to make conscious choices.
That’s essential knowledge for using your focus in the right way.
In your daily life, you’re almost certainly losing time to behaviour that is no longer serving you. That frustration at the end of the day? That’s bad popcorn giving you indigestion.
It’s perfectly possible to become that discerning popcorn eater, and get rid of the trash from your day. The key is to start forming new habits that become stronger than your old ones.
Habits are energy-saving, but indiscriminate
Habits are a fundamental, low-consciousness response to a situation or trigger, whether practial or emotional. They’re the key to being able to function without taking up valuable mental energy, and without them we’d be in chaos.
You can’t actively dismantle the ‘wiring’ in your brain that leads you to a certain reaction. Instead, you need to create a different, new habit that eventually takes over.
The 2-minute process to disrupt a habit
Here’s a short and powerful process to kick-start replacing an old habit that’s ruining your day.
Habit disruption step #1: Articulate one habit that’s sidetracking you on a regular basis
Awareness is essential. If you’re not sure, look for clues in the last couple of days where you could have used your time more effectively.
Here are some common behaviour habits I’ve seen with my clients:
- not delegating work, even when you have someone available
- diving deep into research when you need to stay at top-level
- reaching for immediate feel-good, such as going for a coffee or reaching for chocolate when you’re under pressure
getting impatient in meetings with a member of your team
not completing tasks by being distracted, such as getting sucked into email after a meeting rather than your intention of first writing up your notes
Habit disruption step #2: Identify the habit that you’d like to replace it with, and write it down explicitly
This is essential. If you’re tempted to just think about it, get a piece of paper and a pen NOW. The more clearly you identify it, the more clearly you’re helping your brain to become aware of it.
Habit disruption step #3: Decide how to disrupt your normal patterns of behaviour to address it
Your goal is to disrupt the normal patterns in your brain enough for you to become aware of what you’re doing. You could change:
the order you do things
the action you take, by replacing one thing with another
your conscious mindset before you do something
the processes you use to do something
the triggers around you while you’re doing it
Don’t think too hard about it. Take the habit you’d like to replace, and simply find one way to experiment doing something differently. If your first idea doesn’t work in practice, you can try something else. Again, write it down.
Here’s what most people don’t do
The essential thing is to be specific about what the trigger will be for your new habit. The mistake that most people make is simply to set an intention. However, you need to be very specific about what event or circumstance will set off your new behaviour.
Here’s how to disrupt a habit very specifically, using the situations above as examples.
- “When I’m doing research, I’ll set my timer for 20 minute intervals for me to check that I’m still focused on my core objective”
- “I’ll set up an email filter so that when reports come in for proofing, I can forward them straight to my colleague”
“After a meeting, I’ll go to the coffee shop to write up my notes (or dictate them into my phone) before I return to my desk”
“When I feel the need for chocolate, I’ll set my phone timer and take a three-minute fast walk instead”
“I’ll change my meetings with Richard from 5pm to 10am, and get him to send me the agenda rather than me create one”
Making your new habits stick
Your brain loves feel-good, so look for your successes. Notice when you’ve successfully acted out your new habit, and give yourself credit. Even more powerfully, notice the impact it’s had, however small.
The more you consciously recognise your achievement, the more the brain will be motivated to do it again.
Start small, start now
Start with small tweaks to your day. Tiny habit changes can start to have a powerful cumulative impact.
And if you’re in the habit of reading blogs and thinking, ‘yes, I must do that, later…’, then get a pen and some paper, right now, and work out what you’re going to start to change today.
Then leave a comment below to keep yourself accountable, and make it even more powerful for yourself.
Then share this with someone else you know who wants to disrupt their bad popcorn habit (go on, we all have them).