Step Four: Have a Plan
A habit is a choice we make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing. Often we do it every day. Put another way, a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see this cue, I will do this routine in order to get that reward.
To reengineer that formula, we need to begin making conscious choices again. And the easiest way to do this, according to study after study, is to have a plan. Within psychology, these plans are known as “implementation intentions.”
I learned that my cue was time — roughly 3:30 in the afternoon. I knew my routine was to go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and chat with friends. And, through experimentation, I had learned it wasn’t really the cookie I craved; rather, it was a moment of distraction and an opportunity to socialize.
So I wrote a plan: At 3:30, every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes.
It didn’t work immediately. There were some days I was too busy and ignored the alarm, and then fell off the wagon. Other times it seemed like too much work to find a friend willing to chat, so it was easier to get a cookie in the cafeteria, where someone to gossip with is also easier to come by.
But on those days I abided by my plan, I found I ended the workday feeling better. Eventually, it got to be automatic: When my alarm rang, I found a friend and ended the day feeling a small, but real, sense of accomplishment. After a few weeks, I hardly thought about the routine anymore.
I no longer have my watch — I lost it at some point. But at about 3:30 every day, I absent-mindedly stand up, look around the newsroom for someone to talk to, spend 10 minutes gossiping about the news and then go back to my desk. It occurs almost without me thinking about it. It has become a habit.
Obviously, changing certain habits can be more difficult. Quitting a habit of texting while driving asks less of you than renouncing an addiction to cigarettes or alcohol. Sometimes change takes a long time. Sometimes it requires repeated experiments and failures. And sometimes it is incredibly hard. But this framework is a place to start. Once you understand how a habit operates, you gain power over it. And then you’re on your way.