Apr 25

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Using peer pressure to instill benign habits

I am stood in the middle of the street, crouching on the ground taking a close up of a right blue bottle top on the tarmac. I try to look inconspicuous.

Last month a friend of mine, Sam, started a Facebook photography club, challenging members to take a picture, each day for a month, in response to a theme posted daily (eg beautiful rubbish). The day’s winner (with the most ‘likes’) had the honour of choosing the next day’s theme. It was a lot of fun.

At the end of the month, Sam (who’s a wonderful dynamo of a woman!) suggested we continue enjoying the group by each setting ourselves an individual 30-day challenge for May. This might be declaring we’re cutting out sugar from our diets, doing 20 press ups every morning or meditating for 15 minutes.

As we gear up for day 1 of the challenge  next week, I remember a post I wrote in my personal blog three years ago, and I thought I’d share it here now.

Before I go, an explanation of the nun picture. Aside from the ‘habit’ pun (geddit?), it references my personal challenge (to meditate for 15 minutes each day). Over Easter I went on a silent retreat at a convent, which is open to people of all faiths and of none (I am the latter).

I was both excited and mildly apprehensive at the thought of not talking for 4 days. Sometimes 4 minutes is a stretch. My partner challenged me to not taking anything to read  either, but I felt this posed a significant risk of brain explosion. So I took a safety book. In the end it was wonderfully relaxing and, surprisingly for me, the chapel services which took place 5 times every day were particularly beneficial. The quiet calmness of the chapel, and the beauty of the sisters’ plainsong helped my perpetually active, curious, and (let’s be honest) anxious mind to soothe itself and feel happier. And this is why I am challenging myself to meditate every day in May, and my intention is that becomes a habit.

Anyway, with thanks to the sisters, here’s that post:

9 July 2009 Die Hard

Catching the train home from Euston today there is a high than average degree of uncertainty, last minute platform changes and ungainly shuffled running in heals. I’m settling down quietly in the corner of the nearest coach when a few seasoned commuters leap up, disembark and accost a passing guard whom they’ve spotted walking down the platform.The remaining passengers wonder if they’re on the right train.

We remaining passengers watch a sweet tempered but fairly intense exchange of information with the guard. And then the seasoned commuters start pelting down the platform towards the front of the train, ties flailing. We hear the guard holler after them, “and if you hear the beeping start, just jump on!”

This was enough to spur some of the remaining passengers to tentatively hang out of the door (being on possibly the wrong train is, on some level, better than being off the train when the doors indelibly shut) and interrogate the same guard. They ascertain this is the train we all think it is. Another curious spectator of the human condition enquires as to what was up with the seasoned commuters.

“They were checking they had time to move down the train. They have a habit of sitting in their favourite seats”.

It’s one powerful habit that prompts a commuter to give up a perfectly good seat on a warm Thursday evening and sprint down platform 16. The remaining passengers exchange bemused glances.

And that gets me thinking about habits, and a conversation I’d had earlier, with a client. We were talking about how useful a benign habit is and how tricky to break a malign one can be. It reminded me of a definition of a habit as ‘A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behaviour that is acquired through frequent repetition.’

It’s rather good, I think, that habits can be acquired. This means I can build good habits (getting me to do useful thing subconsciously) and use these to overcome any bad habits (eating Haribo when I’m bored in the afternoon). I’ve also found it helpful to recognise that bad habits have pay offs (that allow us to get away with something, quite frequently avoiding something we could usefully be doing).

Some (google powered) reading around the subject, the best of which was here, armed me with some ideas on how to persuade my brain to habitually do things better. Nothing life-changing, just little things that would make my life work better. To illustrate this point I must reveal that I’m a mild sloven.

I work from home a lot. Procrastination can occasionally be a problem. That I am a mild sloven helps on this front as it rules out housework as a source of distraction. I don’t really mind if the place is a bit dusty (unless someone turns up in which case I’m mortified) and cluttered. The exception is the kitchen. I like to cook and work surface acreage is at a premium. The washing up is a particularly attractive source of procrastination in the winter when it’s a bit cold, and soaking my hands in hot water is a pleasant reheating method. The washing up of the previous night’s dirty dishes acquires additional priority points as the hot water dries up in the commune at about 11am.

So, you get the picture. I’m a sloven and leave the washing up until the morning after, and the morning after I feel compelled to do the washing up which eats into my most productive hours of the day. I should do the washing up before going to bed. I’ve got into the bad habit of leaving it, and the pay off is that I get to procrastinate. Bad, bad, bad Melissa.

Anyway, before I reveal too much domestic information, here are some tips for changing habits, largely taken from Leo Babauta’s The Power of Less, which I stumbled across on Tim Ferris’s aspirational 4 Hour Work Week .

1) Before a new behaviour becomes a habit (ie unconscious and painless), it needs to be done every day for 30 days. After that it’ll just happen. Painlessly and without the need to give myself a good talking to.

2) Only try to create one new habit at a time, else the brain goes on a sulk and stops co-operating (that’s potentially 12 new habits a year – how great would that be).

3) Do the new habit at the same time each day (washing up before I go to bed)

4) Tie the new habit to an existing habit (touch my toes every time I dry my hair (I’m bending over anyway)).

5) Make a public declaration. Email some people who will stay on my case and tell them what I’m going to do and report back on my progress regularly. Facebook is gagging for you to share this kind of inconsequential trivia.

With the last point in mind, my friend started a F/B group ‘I run 3 times a week’ (tagline ‘Well I have told everyone else that I do and therefore need to get off my ar*e and actually do it’). It worked a treat to start with but its power has waned a little recently (possibly I’m trying to start more than one habit at a time – must heed own advice), but for a while it worked. We need more members I think – come and join .

And perhaps another tip I should apply.

6) Start small. Make the new habit easily achievable and build it up. ‘I run once a week’ might be better.

There’s a lot more, but that’s the gist. Now, it’s time for bed and I have washing up to do.


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