A few months ago, I found a list online of “17 Self-Help Books Everyone Should Read.” It turns out there are probably hundreds of lists like this one on the internet, which is why I didn’t link the particular one that I encountered, but when I found myself bored in an airport a few days later, it was that list that I chose to reference when picking out a book. So that’s how, knowing nothing about it at the time, I ended up buying The Power of Habit. And I’m really glad I did.
The book was slow to read at first, and I generally had to read it one chapter at a time because there’s a lot to it, but it was fascinating and I truly believe that if I can manage to put the things it taught me to practical use, it will change my life.
The basic premise of the book is to examine habits, what they are, and how they shape our daily lives. It covers the science of habits, the habits of the individual, habits as they relate to businesses as a whole, and finally societal habits. The individual and business habits were probably the most useful to me personally, and in this post I’ll focus mostly on personal habits, but the entire thing was worth reading regardless.
So here’s the short version: every habit has a cue, an action, and a reward. For my personal example, which is the first self-improvement I’m trying to make with the help of this book, the cue would be opening my internet browser, the action would be navigating to Facebook (or sometimes Reddit), and the reward would be brief entertainment. The problem with this particular habit is that I end up wasting a ton of time – anytime I get bored or don’t know what to do, I end up spending that time on Facebook or Reddit. Plus, the habit is now so engrained (we do habits without having to think about them), that anytime I need to get work done using the internet I end up accidentally on Facebook instead, having completely forgotten whatever it was I was trying to accomplish in the first place. So how do I develop new, more productive habits?
According to this book, I don’t. Instead, I have to modify my existing habits. In other words, I need to replace my action (opening Facebook or Reddit) with a different action in response to the same cue that will offer the same reward. So now I’ve started using a productivity tracking website, and anytime I open an internet browser I make the conscious effort to navigate there, and look at my to-do list, as opposed to a social network. This has two effects. First, it provides me with a list of things I can productively do to alleviate boredom, and second, it shows me how much I can’t (or sometimes can, depending on how on top of my stuff I am) afford to waste time. PLUS it helps me make sure I don’t forget about anything I need to do, and is great at getting me to complete tasks I don’t want to do for the sake of checking them off before the due date.
So to recap. I have a bad habit of non-thinkingly going to Facebook or Reddit anytime I open an internet browser. To fix that, I made an online to-do list and have started going there when I open my browser instead. It’s only been two days since I’ve implemented this system, but so far it’s worked out great. Yesterday alone I did two different things I’d been putting off, and today I did another. I’ve wasted way less time, and more importantly, I feel great because I know I’ve done what I need to do. And that means time for guilt-free Facebook and Reddit once my task list for the day is complete.
There’s a lot more great stuff in this book, like how finding your keystone habit can lead to changes everywhere else (I think mine was starting to exercise), or how you can use habits to improve your organization, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to reach a goal or improve their life. But even if you don’t read it, try to think of the bad habits in your life, identify the cues and rewards, and then replace the actions for a better result. You might be amazed at what you can accomplish!