Imagine someone who is deeply efficient. Their life is full of the best sorts of habits. They always take a break on Wednesday afternoon (unless there’s a crisis) and play a game of tennis or go swimming. They always get to their desk by 8.30; they always send polite thank you messages when people have been especially helpful or made a big effort. They always file important documents as soon as they get them or as soon as they are finished with them. They have set days when they clean up all their files.
We’ve got a tendency to see this as a personality type. We imagine this person who was always like this; that at kindergarten they always took their left shoe off before their right shoe; that they are maybe sometimes a bit admirable (their working life does seem more tranquil) but also somewhat freakish. You can’t learn from them, you can only watch and wonder.
In fact, human beings are generally very good at acquiring habits. It’s just that various cultural forces have conspired to make habit formation look like an unimpressive, unexciting undertaking.
At times ‘habit’ has even seemed like a dirty word – the name of something a bit shameful, boring and pitiful. The creature of habit is the man with his slippers by the fire puffing on a pipe, always reading the same pages of the newspaper, always switching on the television news at the same time.
In order to get better at habit formation we need to…
One: Have a higher opinion of habits
Don’t regard habit as the closing of the prison house door, the dying of the daylight, the triumph of the average over the individual. Some habits are pitiful, it’s perfectly true. But the mere fact that something becomes routine, and therefore easy and reliable cannot itself be a bad thing. Ideally, habits are glamorous – if the habits themselves are beneficial ones.
Two: Set a time
Most of us need prompts and reminders to do things. And we should not feel awkward or ashamed about this. You set a date, write it in your diary. You make an appointment with the task. If we schedule occasions regularly enough, an activity becomes a habit.
After six weeks or so, we stop having to look in the diary, we remember anyway. Each time (after that) it becomes easier, more natural to repeat, the firm of behaviour gets entrenched.
Three: Someone checks up
Ultimately, habits are things we don’t need to make much of an effort around, they become second nature, we do them with hardly a thought. But getting there can involve a painful exercise of the will. We have to make ourselves do things against inner resistance. We have to force ourselves to get out of bed earlier or to work off-line. It’s tempting to give it a miss. It’s too much effort, usually at the very time one feels depleted.
The military have long exploited the idea of being checked up on as part of habit formation. At first, when you might still be reluctant to iron your trousers and wish you could get away with not polishing your shoes very vigorously, someone quite hard to please is sent round to inspect. But it’s assumed that this won’t have to go on forever. Instead most people will internalise their ambitions. And so, years after they have moved on to civilian life, they will continue to wear trousers with precise creases and highly polished shoes.
The mere fact of reporting to another person gives us the tiny, but necessary, boost of determination to stick with something at the moment when we are most vulnerable to giving up. And so the habit is given a little longer to take hold.
The solution to developing habits will look a little odd, but that’s OK… it’s a sign that we’re leaving behind some quite mistaken, but very widespread, views of how things get done. In a world in which inefficiency is the norm, to be an efficient person will involve learning some ways of behaving that seem pretty strange.
Find out more about finding balance in our class on Effectiveness.