The Big Idea
Habits free up your brain space so you can focus on the things you really want to do.
Questions I Answer
- How can I get rid of my bad habits?
- What steps do I need to take to set healthy habits?
- Do habits make me more productive?
- How can I increase my productivity easily?
Actions to Take
- Identify one bad habit and work backwards to break it.
Key Topics in the Show
How your brain works differently with discipline versus habits.
The easy formula for creating habits from productivity author, Charles Duhigg.
Real-life examples of how you can get started on creating habits by starting small.
Top tips for cultivating good habits into great routines.
Learn how to get rid of those bad habits you’ve always wanted to change.
Resources and Links
- Tips on How to Get Rid of Bad Habits: Habits are malleable. The best way to change it is to understand your structure for your bad habit.
- Identify the habit you want to change or break. Then see what cues are causing you to want to do that habit
- Think of your routine and the reward you get out of it. Is there an even better reward you can give yourself to change the habit?
- Example: Unhealthy snacking – ask yourself: Where are you? What time is it? What’s your emotional state? Who else is around you? What action preceded the urge? Do this multiple times throughout whenever you’re having this habit kick in and start to look for your similarities. Is it the time of day? Is it the people you’re with? When you begin to know these factors, you can come up with a reformulated habit plan to replace that bad habit.
- Remember that habits don’t catch on right away. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t stick right away. Habits take a while and take routine to become consistent.
Hello, hello everyone. Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your host, Tanya Dalton, and this is episode 31. As you may know, season three is all about designing and creating systems for you. One of my favorite systems is using habits to your advantage and that’s what we’re going to be talking about today, but before we get started, I want to give a quick shout-out to our sponsor of today’s episode, FreshBooks.
FreshBooks helps you streamline your financial situation. Whether you’re a freelancer or an entrepreneur, it’s packed full of powerful features that are really easy to use. It takes the stress out of running your own business and it boosts your productivity. That helps you spend time on the things that matter most to you. I’ll be sharing more about FreshBooks in just a little bit, but let’s start by talking about habits.
What does that mean when I say ‘habits’? Well, a habit is a routine of behavior that’s repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously, so we don’t really think about it. Basically, it’s a repeated unconscious pattern of behavior that you obtain by
repeating it. Many people when they hear the word ‘habits’ automatically assume bad habits: biting your nails, overeating or snacking between meals, or smoking. But not all habits are bad.
I feel like we say that word and everyone thinks about the negative parts. We could use the word ‘routine’, but I really prefer to call them habits because well, that’s what they really are. Think of it like brushing your teeth. You do it every morning without even thinking about it. Locking your car doors, drinking your cup of coffee in the morning, walking your dog, feeding your pets, making lunches.
Whatever it is that you’re doing over and over again and you just start working on them, those are habits. Now the researchers at Duke University actually found that about 40% to 45% of the actions that we make each and every day are actually habits, not decisions. Without these habits, we would actually go just a little bit this side of crazy. If you had to concentrate on the act of each steps you had to take to get dressed each morning, you wouldn’t have the time or the energy to do the big stuff.
Basically, habits free up your brain space so you can really focus on the things you really want to do. That’s why we need habits. We want to cultivate healthy habits that make it easier to do all those little things we do throughout our day. We want to
take the thinking out of it and that’s the cognitive advantage. With habits, the brain actually works less and less and can almost completely shut down on all these different background tasks and things that we have to do.
©Productivity Paradox Page 1 of 7
Now your brain makes up about 1/50th of your body mass, but it consumes a shocking 20% of the calories we burn for energy. Your brain is a calorie-burning machine. Because it’s always burning calories, it loves to try to conserve calories whenever it can. Charles Duhigg, who’s the author of The Power of Habit, says this is the real advantage because it means you have all this mental activity you can devote to something else.
Decisions are actually made in a separate part of your brain than the part that recognizes patterns. Once your brain recognizes the pattern of your habits, the decision part of your brain can go into autopilot. It’s not burning up all the calories and you can use those calories for the things that really make a difference in how you get towards your goals and your priorities.
Think about it. Think about, I don’t know, riding a bike. When you were first learning how to ride a bike, you had to focus completely on performing this action. You to focus on your balance, where your hands were, what you were doing. Once you got the hang of it, your brain began to recognize that as a pattern and you were able to do that without much thought. You can even carry on a conversation while riding a bike.
The thing is, is a lot of people think you need discipline to be successful. We love to blame our failures on our lack of willpower and it’s not discipline that we need. We just need to create strong habits. Most of the people that we look at in thinking that they are really disciplined, they have just cultivated very strong habits for themselves. You really see that they have trained themselves to appear disciplined, but in reality, no one really is.
Being disciplined sounds boring. I mean, think about having to suppress everything you want to do so that you can be disciplined. Choosing the right habits though makes it really easy so you can be on your path to success. This all sounds great, right? Creating these systems based off of habits makes it sound like it’s so easy to just put a lot of these things in autopilot, but how do habits work?
How do you actually create a habit that you want to cultivate? I love how Charles Duhigg has broken it down. He teaches that every habit is made up of three things: cues, routine, and reward. The cue tells your brain to revert into autopilot and what habit to instigate. It looks for triggers to begin the habit into action. Then we have routine. The routine is the behavior itself, so it can be a physical behavior, mental, or even emotional.
The last part is the reward, which is the message that your brain receives that tells it that this habit is worth remembering in the future. Over time, you develop a loop: cue, routine, reward, and they all become one. We don’t have to change the behavior, we need to start by finding the cue for habits we really want to stop and
©Productivity Paradox Page 2 of 7
create cues for the good ones. The reward is how your brain learns to remember this pattern for the future.
For years when people talked about habits, they focused on the routines, on the actual behaviors themselves. What we know from experiments now is that it’s really the cues and the rewards that shape how these patterns emerge and how to change them. The best part is eventually, you don’t even need that reward. Once you create that loop for yourself, you don’t even have to start rewarding yourself. It just becomes cue and routine, cue and routine over and over again.
It just becomes something you naturally do. How can you use habits to your advantage? Well, let’s talk about exercise. There was a great study in Germany and they wanted to see if they could create a habit of exercise. They took a group of people and they told them they needed a cue. The cue might have been putting your running clothes out next to your bed or always running with the same people, exercising at the same time each day. It didn’t matter what it was.
The cue needs to be personalized to you, right? They needed a cue, then they needed a routine. The routine was the act of exercising and then the most important part was that third part, the reward. They suggested you give yourself a reward of a
small piece of chocolate. Now that seems counterintuitive, right? You’re going to exercise, you give yourself a piece of chocolate. Is that such a good idea?
As I mentioned before, eventually you can take that reward away. This would not have worked if the reward was carrot sticks. It needs to be something that really feels like a reward. It didn’t have to be chocolate. It could have been you get to take a longer shower than you normally do or a smoothie or some sort of other healthy treat. The key here is this. It needed to be immediate so your brain sees the correlation.
Not the whole, “Oh, you know what? I worked out this morning, so I’m going to let myself stop at Starbucks and get a Frappuccino at 4:00.” Your brain needs the reward right away. That’s why something small like a little tiny square of chocolate really works to solidify this habit. What they found was when people use these three parts to create habits, it stuck. They were so much more successful than other people who just focused on the act of exercising, the routine part.
Having the cue, routine, and reward created that loop for them and eventually, they were exercising on a daily basis. Here’s what I want you to think about. When you have a really big habit that you want to start cultivating, start small. Start using little small chunks of habits within that larger habit to be more successful. When you try to take on too much, you can end up with cognitive overload.
©Productivity Paradox Page 3 of 7
Now cognitive overload has been studied extensively by Stanford professor, Baba Shiv, who found that the part of the brain that’s responsible for the reasonable and rational part of your thinking can easily give in and let go when it’s being overloaded. He did a study where he gathered dozens of students and divided them into two groups. One group had to memorize a two digit number, the other a seven digit number.
They walked down the hall and were given two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a fruit salad. Students who had remembered the seven digit number were twice as likely to choose the cake compared to the two digit group. They made the unhealthy choice. Using so much brain space for those extra numbers to memorize took up valuable real estate and it caused a cognitive overload, making it harder to make the decision to resist the cake.
You don’t want your prefrontal cortex to be overtaxed, so all you need to do is look at some bigger habits and look at what you can do to first tackle smaller habits. If your goal is to form a healthier habit of, let’s say, eating or exercise? Start small. Just start by making sure there’s a fruit and a vegetable with your meals or start taking small walks each day. Then you can build up more diet and exercise changes as you build bigger and better habits.
Very similarly to the cues, routines, and rewards of the individual habits, that’s also how our workplaces work. There’s lots of different kinds of habits within an organization or a workspace that you don’t even think about. No one ever writes these things down, but they’re just part of the culture. You know which assistant is the one who can get the signature from the boss.
You know if you need to talk to Chuck about a certain category of information, you go to this vice president. If you need a request from someone, you know who to go to. These become part of the culture. These are habits. It’s the same type of system you can start implementing for yourself whether it’s at work or at home. These are the habits that begin to emerge that make things easier.
How long does it take to establish a habit? That’s a good question. Research really varies on this and it varies quite a bit from 18 days to 254 days. Most people agree that 66 days is the sweet spot. It takes time, so you want to pick one and focus on it. Don’t try to do too much at the same time. The focus will allow it to stick a little bit faster, but here’s the good news. There’s something called the halo effect.
Now researchers Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng studied habits and they found that when participants of their study successfully acquired one healthy habit, it tended to bleed into the other areas of their lives. Participants started reporting less impulsive spending, less stress, decreased tobacco and alcohol consumption, and even more. This is why it’s good to set some good habits for ourselves because then
©Productivity Paradox Page 4 of 7
it becomes even easier for that to permeate throughout the different areas of our lives.
Not only that, you can piggyback one good habit off of another and that makes it even easier to create new ones. For example, brushing your teeth. This is already a well-established habit I would guess or rather I would hope that you have. Use that as a springboard for a new cue. Let’s say that you want to start flossing your teeth. Well, the cue can be as simple as setting your floss out right next to your toothbrush.
Each morning when you brush your teeth, you see the floss. That’s your cue that you’re going to be flossing your teeth. It sets that series of events into motion. Without thinking about it, you’re going to start flossing your teeth more regularly. This is called habit stacking where you create a process where actions are in logical order and you complete one habit after another.
The idea is that to be able to complete a number of things without even thinking about it. You can even write out this process as a daily checklist. In some ways, you actually already do this. Think about some of the actions you already do. You get up in the morning, you have a natural progression of getting dressed. Maybe it’s get up, grab your clothes, brush your teeth, shower.
Even in the shower, you have a series of routines. I’m guessing you’re like most people who have a certain order of things they do things in. Maybe you use shampoo first followed by body wash, then you have the conditioner, washing your face, drying off. Everything follows each other and you don’t even think about it. More often than
not, you’re just doing these things because they’re habits, so you don’t even think about it.
What could you add and use these routines to create your own springboards? I want us to focus on how we can use this information to help us cultivate habits, but also to help us get rid of our bad habits. It’s really easy once you have unlocked the secret, which is what we did earlier on how to create your habits. We’ll just work backwards, but first, let me take a few seconds to share a quick word from today’s sponsor.
As I mentioned earlier, today’s episode has been brought to you by FreshBooks. I’m pretty picky when it comes to sponsors, but I am happy to sing their praises. I love how their software helps boost your productivity, making it even easier to focus on what you really love about your business and not spend your time chasing down invoices from your clients. It has a really simple interface, so it’s almost like having a personal finance assistant help you know where to start.
©Productivity Paradox Page 5 of 7
You know how much I love that. Just a few clicks and you get your finances in check. Makes it so much easier. Now FreshBooks has very generously offered a free unrestricted trial for my listeners, so feel free to head over to freshbooks.com/ paradox. In that section that says “How did you find us?”, type in Productivity Paradox. They’ll get you all set with your trial. Okay. Let’s switch gears and go back to talking about habits.
Now that we know how you cultivate and grow habits, let’s talk about how we can change some of the habits we’ve already created for ourselves. The good news is it’s never too late to change a habit. They’re malleable throughout your life. If you feel like, “God, that’s just what I do. That’s my habit”, good news. It doesn’t have to be that way. The best way to change it is to understand the structure.
That’s what’s great about learning how to make habits because let’s turn that on its head and figure out how you’re going to break the ones you don’t want to keep. The first step is of course identify the habit you want to change or break. Use the information we talked about earlier to help you discover, what are the cues that trigger this action? Is there a specific place that the action happens? A time of day?
Almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, the people you’re surrounded by, or the action that immediately preceded it or what you just did causes you to want to do this habit. Think through the routine. What’s the reward you get out of it? What do you crave when that routine happens? Then you can try to change it. Is there an even better reward that you can give yourself for not doing the habit?
What situations can you avoid that trigger this habit? Then you can start to implement these changes and pretty soon you’ll start to see a change in your behavior. Think of yourself like a scientist gathering data on what works and what doesn’t. Let’s say that you are trying to figure out the cues that you are having for your unhealthy snacking. You ask yourself these five questions the moment that the craving hits.
Where are you? What time is it? What’s your emotional state? Who else is around you? What action preceded the urge? Do this multiple times throughout whenever you’re having this habit kick in and start to look for your similarities. Is it the time of day? Is it the people you’re with? When you begin to know these factors, you can come up with a reformulated habit plan to replace that bad habit.
If you found that your unhealthy snacking habit happens around 2:00 in the afternoon but really you’re just craving a break, maybe you could change that and go for a walk at 2:00 instead. It might not work immediately and you might have to set a reminder to make it happen. Remember, habits don’t catch on right away, so don’t beat yourself up if they’re not sticking right away.
©Productivity Paradox Page 6 of 7
Once you been doing them for a while, they will begin to be automatic. You want to make sure and make it as hard as possible to do the habit you want to break. If your habit’s snacking when you shouldn’t, make the snacks really hard to get in a high up cabinet or stop buying them altogether. If you can’t give up snacking altogether, buy something healthier to snack on. Change the habit.
Studies show that people perform their habits in the same way every single time if they’re in the same environment. You know what that means? It means that if you’re struggling dropping a bad habit, get out of your normal environment. When you go on vacation or you going to trip, a lot of those cues won’t be there. That’s the time if you’re really having a hard time breaking bad habits, that’s the time to really try to tackle them.
That’s great news, right? Now in my Facebook group this week, we’re going to be sharing ideas for good habits to cultivate. That’s what I love about having a group. It’s not just me or my admins sharing ideas, each member of the group has different ideas. I want us to help one another out to figure out which habits we really want to cultivate. There’s no right or wrong answers because we’re all different.
You know how I feel about personalizing productivity, so I would love for you to join in the conversation. You can find info on joining our free group at inkwellpress.com/group. I’d love to see you there. Now I’m really excited too to share with you that next week, I do have a guest speaker on and I think you’re absolutely going to love her. I cannot wait for you to hear all the goodness that she has to share.
As always, you know you can find me on social media using the username @inkwellpress. You can post your questions at inkwellpress.com/question and you can join my free Facebook group at inkwellpress.com/group. Boy, that’s a lot of things to share, but I really hope to connect with you. All right. Until next time, happy planning.
©Productivity Paradox Page 7 of 7
**This transcript is created by AI, so please excuse any typos, misspellings and grammar mistakes.
Tanya Dalton is a woman who is redefining productivity through her keynote speaking, books and her top rated podcast.