A small decision can cause a big change.
Great ideas come from great books.
Even though I stretch myself thin sometimes reading three books at once, there’s always one that prevails: the winner.
Right now that winner is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
I won’t bore you with a book review, but I will describe the book’s effect on me and how it lead to a positive change, productivity wise.
The premise of the book is that habits lie at the root of everything.
What we do without thinking is normally the source of every daily win and every daily loss we experience. So much so, our habits govern our lives.
I won’t go into detail here, but I will say how the book changed me.
A week ago — around the time I bought the book — I started my daily walks. It sounded like something that would help ease the stress and strain from the Internet. Every day, around 2, I would head out, get coffee, walk to a bench nearby, sit down, read the book, then head back.
On the second day of this new routine, something amazing happened.
I was sitting on the bench, reading, when an idea struck. I had to write it. But like J.K. Rowling on her infamous delayed train ride, I didn’t have what I needed, and it was too cold to stay and write there anyway. So I collected my stuff and headed back. On the way, the idea formed in my mind.
When I got back to my room, I was ready to write it in one go, which is exactly how I like it. I have something like 20 drafts on Medium — ideas that never fully formed, so I just leave them to hibernate.
This time was different.
The idea was fully formed because I had already rehearsed it.
This new routine initiated a change in my writing process.
Now let me backtrack…
Duhigg starts by introducing the “habit loop”, which is the three-part process of every habit. First is the cue — a trigger which signals that it’s time to initiate the process — next the routine itself, which is the automatic response to the cue, and finally, the reward — a pleasant feeling.
This is what it looks like. At 12 o’clock, you have a lunch break, which you spend at the cafeteria. Your reward is socializing with your colleagues.
Knowing how this works, I can analyze my routine and identify those elements.
The cues are curiously clear in my mind:
- The feeling of restlessness is a sign that I need to go out.
- The feeling of tiredness and desire to look at my smartphone in the cafe is a signal that I have to go outside and walk.
- The guy on the corner who plays violin and says “ciao, bella” (hello, pretty, typical Italian greeting) reminds me to say “ciao!” back and smile.
- The building next to the bench signals that it’s time to sit down and read.
- The chilly feeling of the wind makes me head back home.
- Opening a Medium draft signals it’s time to write.
The routine is everything I do in between those cues.
Finally, the reward is an article I am happy with, like this one. It gives me a sense of accomplishment, like I have just done something amazing.
It’s become second nature now.
I do the same thing every day: I take the same streets and turns, buy the same coffee, encounter similarly hurried people on the way, and sit on the same bench. You don’t really have to make everything so automatic, but if you want to establish a habit, the cues must always be the same.
According to Duhigg (and a ton of scientific research), once you understand the process, you can manipulate it. So if you want to change a habit, you can do so by leaving the cues and reward intact, and work on the middle part. This is how bad habits can be replaced with good ones.
The reason this new routine works for me is because I’m a little ADD — as I’ve heard are most entrepreneurs — so it’s hard for me to focus, much less produce an article in a linear fashion. It helps to rehearse and form it on the way, so I don’t have to think about it when the time comes to write.
As soon as I realized the power of this small decision to take a daily walk and its effect on my productivity, I knew that Duhigg was right: habits hold an immense power — the power of change — which I wanted to share with you guys because I know you’re always looking for “productivity hacks”.
So far, this hack has been the most effective of all.
Then I thought, why stop there?
I just reached the part where the author goes into organizational habits, which is a whole other ball game than individual habits.
To make a big difference, one must start with a “small win”.
Small wins are triggers of big change. Think of throwing a rock in a pond: it doesn’t just flop in the water and then nothing. It creates ripples that change everything along their way. Each ripple is a signal of something: a warning that something’s approaching: an enemy, a storm, etc.
This is life-saving for small fish who have to steer clear from bigger fish. So the small fish may change its course, and cause its whole family to follow. And when one’s life course changes, everything else does, too.
This is how transformation starts: with a small ripple.
Now I want to test this out by starting small towards a bigger goal. My problem is procrastination. I believe that a large percent of the world’s population suffers the same. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could fix it?
I want to try.
Here’s my idea. The reason why I procrastinate is because it’s hard to start something I’m not keen on doing. For example, there’s a mountain of emails or I have to format a blog or I haven’t cleaned my room yet.
Why can’t I just say, do it, and follow this cue?
Because my lack of desire trumps the eventual reward I’ll get from doing what I’ve been putting off. But what if I go backwards: start with the reward. The reward is a sense of accomplishment, and — relief.
So if I can make myself start with the reward, I could maybe put myself in the right mindset to be productive. What I need is a small win.
A small win in my case would be doing something I keep forgetting to do. For example, sometimes I don’t close the toothpaste tube and it dries off. Sometimes I “forget” to make my bed or wash my hands after I go.
These things should be automatic but I haven’t created the habits. Eventually, it all piles up in my brain as baggage. No wonder I can’t do my work, thinking about all the things I forgot to do!
(I know, by now you must think I’m gross.)
If I consciously do one of these things, I can explore how they make me feel. I’m going to do that right now. Toothpaste. I’ll be right back.
Aha! I was right, it made me smile. I felt energized. Try it!
What if I do a small thing like that before I have to sit down and work?
I like to procrastinate with twitter or my favorite TV show or even a video game on the Xbox, but if I can consciously stop what I am wasting time with and actually do a “small win”, it could signal it’s time to do more wins — bigger wins — and maybe even do all the things I’ve lined up.
It’s a worth a shot. I’ll tell you how it goes.
Read more books. You never know what ideas they will bring.
Be mindful of your habits. Make sure they’re good for you, and if they’re not, change them by replacing the middle part of the loop.
For example, if you like snacking between meals but it makes you bloated, keep a bottle of water next to you and drink instead of snacking.
If you’re struggling with something, introduce a healthy habit like walking, jogging, or whatever gets you going, to take away the stress. From this new habit, change will unfold and you’ll be more productive.
Identify a big problem and think of a solution involving a small win. Whatever’s in your way, you can overcome it by starting small.
The tiniest effort may help you win big time.
Start small. Do it, now.
Growth starts from the individual and then translates to the company. Start from yourself and your own mindset. The rest will follow.
A quote from the OMGrowth course BeTweet is building. Check it.