The new habit of making habits.

If you hate New Year’s resolutions, you may be a little gun-shy about trying to make any changes to your life in January. Just on principle.

I don’t love New Year’s resolutions, since they rarely live to see February, and therefore seem a bit useless to me.

But I do like to spend some time around the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one mapping out my next year. Change happens when you plan to make changes, and January is as good a time as any to make those plans.

But change is hard. Change takes willpower. And you only have so much willpower to expend each day. So it might appear that you can only make a limited number of changes for the better, because eventually you run out of willpower to enforce those changes.

But that’s not true. Habits don’t use up any willpower. A habit is something you just do because it’s a habit. You don’t really have to think about it.

This means that revolutionary change happens when you launch a new habit. Because a habit is something that, by definition, lives on with you forever. It’s something you do routinely.

Effective people use their willpower creating good habits. They have a habit of forming new habits.

It’s often said that you can form a new habit in about 21 days. That may or may not be true. Different people are different. But it seems to me to be approximately true, so let’s run with that.

The technology for forming habits is pretty well-known. A habit needs three things in order to survive and thrive:

The Cue
The Routine
The Reward

The Cue is an event that reminds you of your habit. The Routine is the action you take when the Cue fires. The Reward is the payoff you get for executing the Routine.

Let’s say that you want to check e-mail at least three times per day—first thing in the morning, again at 3 PM, and last thing at night. And furthermore, you want to do what all the experts say, which is that you’ll work your in-box down to empty.

How do you set up that habit?

You need to define the Cue, the Routine, and the Reward. Here’s one way (out of an infinite number of ways) that you might do it:

Define the Cue: set an alarm on your phone to go off at exactly those times of day when you want to check e-mail.
Define the Routine: you promise yourself that when the alarm goes off, you’ll drop whatever you’re doing and check your e-mail. Furthermore, you won’t stop until the in-box is empty.
Define the Reward: you promise yourself that when you’ve worked through all the e-mail, you get to lean back in your chair, close your eyes, and listen to your favorite song on your phone, inhaling that sense of well-being that comes from having done a good job.

This is a good habit to have. It means that you’ll take care of your e-mail with reasonable promptness.

Now, you may already have a habit of checking e-mail whenever you hear a new one come in. And you may consider that bad, because it causes you to lose focus on what you were doing.

In this case, you might want to break this instant-response habit. How do you do that?

Start by figuring out what the Cue, the Routine, and the Reward are. Then figure out how to disrupt them.

The Cue is the little beep that your e-mail program makes when an e-mail arrives. You can disrupt this by turning off the beep in your e-mail program.

The Routine is that you stop whatever you’re doing and open the e-mail and read it. By disrupting the Cue, you disrupt the Routine a bit. But even without the Cue, you may periodically feel an urge to check your e-mail. The most effective way to resist this urge is by replacing the bad habit with a good one—setting up a good habit where you check the e-mail at set times each day. Then you know for sure that the e-mail will get checked.

The Reward is whatever psychological boost you get from having dealt with your e-mail. Again, by disrupting the Cue, you disrupt the Reward. And by replacing the bad habit with a good one, you switch out the Reward for the bad habit with a Reward for a good habit.

For writers, one of the best habits you can make is to write every day. (Or at least every working day.)

Writing a novel is a large project, not likely to get done in odd moments. If it takes 100 hours to write a novel, and you write for an hour every weekday, it’ll be done in 20 weeks, which is less than 5 months.

If you write for 2 hours a day, it’ll be done in half that time.

Do you write every day?

Do you want to write every day?

If you do, then take five minutes right now to figure out how to make that a habit.

What Cue can you set up that will ensure that you remember to write every day? Can you set an alarm on your phone? If you write a daily To Do List, can you make a To Do List template so that the first thing on the list every day is to work on your novel?

The Routine is pretty obvious. Choose how many minutes you want to work on your novel every day. Or else choose a quota for the number of words you will write every day.

What Reward can you use? Some writers keep a running spreadsheet that tracks the number of words they write each day. Filling it in each day and seeing that you’ve now worked 98 consecutive days on your novel can be a HUGE motivator to make sure that you work on your novel on day 99.

We’re now a bit into February, and I’m guessing the shine has worn off of any New Years Resolutions you’ve made. Don’t despair on those. Instead, turn those resolutions into habits. By defining a Cue, a Routine, and a Reward for each one.

And put a note in your calendar to reassess your habits once every quarter. Are there good habits you want to make? Are there bad habits you want to break?

Make a habit of making good habits.

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