- Changes in routine are a good time to form good habits—and break bad ones.
We’re going back to the office. Really.
And with the return to work, our daily patterns and routines will change once again. That poses opportunities and challenges, because our environment influences our behavior.
Moving to remote work disrupted many of our habits and routines. Early on, some of the lawyers I coach had more trouble tracking their time. Some had more trouble focusing; dirty dishes in the kitchen sink presented a new distraction. We adjusted. And with the merging of work into the home, many people worked all the time.
When we repeat an action in response to a cue, the behavior becomes habitual. Getting into a car is a cue to put on a seatbelt. We do it with little thought. And for better or worse, once habits take hold, they can be hard to change.
But because habits are tied to cues, when the cues in our environment change, old habits may fall away and new ones may take hold. The return to work can provide a unique opportunity to build useful habits and sideline ones that hinder us.
When we aren’t successful at adopting habits, it’s easy to blame ourselves. Often, the issue is that we simply don’t remember what we had planned to do. The solution is to be intentional about designing a habit. Without a way to remember to do a specific action, we won’t be consistent. And without repletion, habits will not form.
The first step in designing a new habit is to identify a cue. This can be a physical action, but it does not have to be. A University of Washington study found that various emotions are top triggers for cell phone use. Across all age groups, boredom and anxiety cause people to reach for their phones.
With consistent repetition, the brain “chunks” the cue and the follow-on action to create a habit. If the action that follows the cue is enjoyable, the brain releases dopamine. For many people, eating candy or playing a slot machine are examples. With cell phone use, the reward is often an instant escape from boredom or anxiety.
Understanding the keys to habit formation can help you adopt useful habits. Start by identifying a cue and an easy follow-on action. An immediate positive feeling from doing the action will reinforce the process of habit adoption.
Because consistency is critical for habit formation, an existing habit can serve as the ideal cue. The process of using an existing habit as the cue to adopt a new habit is called “habit stacking.”
For coffee drinkers who want to start taking vitamins every day, the stacked habit could look like this: right after you pour your first cup of coffee, you take your vitamins. In short order, when you have your coffee, you are likely to reach for vitamins reflexively.
But that is less likely to happen if you sequester your vitamins in a drawer far from the coffee maker. And that highlights another aspect of habit formation. You need to make the follow-on action as easy as possible. To ensure consistency, you need to reduce friction. If you are having challenges in adopting a habit, this is another place to make adjustments.
Put your vitamins by the coffee maker. Put your running shoes right by the front door for your morning jog. And put the book you want to read wherever you are most likely to read it.
The third and final step is to see if you can give yourself a dopamine boost from accomplishing the action. Tracking your progress with a habit-tracking app can give you a sense of accomplishment, providing a reinforcing reward.
Thus, to build a habit, you identify a cue and an easy follow-on action. Disrupting the cue or increasing friction will help break a habit. If you think you use your cell phone too much, putting it in a drawer would disrupt the cue. Locking the drawer would increase friction. But locking away a phone would cause lots of anxiety for many people, including me. Turning off your phone at certain times or using app blockers might be better options to increase friction. An app called Actiflow takes a middle-of-the-road approach and interrupts phone usage briefly. That allows you to decide if you are using your device intentionally.
The principles of habit design can help you tailor approaches that will be most effective for you. Dealing with procrastination is one example. For some of the lawyers I coach, it became a bigger problem with remote work. Additional distractions provided more opportunities to get off track. Especially for new lawyers, embarking on a challenging project can provoke anxiety. Avoidance provides temporary relief, and the habit of delay takes hold.
To combat procrastination, focus on how you feel right before you procrastinate. Could you use your sense of discomfort as a sign that you need to move forward? When you tell yourself you can do something later, can you immediately ask yourself, “When can I start?”
And with any project, identify the first step small that you could take. That may make delay more difficult — or at least seem less reasonable.
But there are countless ways to use habit design to your advantage. Here are some other ideas: