Last July, I received my MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. One piece of the graduation requirement was that we read and provide an annotated bibliography for at least ten books a month (more, if the books were short). In order to make this happen, I would wake up at 5:30 every morning to get a jump on the day. It actually wasn’t that hard. I really like reading, and I really like coffee, so if there is anything that it going to get me out of bed early, it is the promise of coffee and a book. This was especially true if the book was something I had already started, and couldn’t wait to finish. A year after graduation, I still get up at 5:30 to read. I’ve kept the habit. Why wouldn’t I? Coffee! Reading! Quiet!
This morning, I began re-reading The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. Our brains rely on habits, it seems, as an adaptive mechanism. This is why we don’t need to think about how to walk every time we get out of a chair. Our body already knows how to balance, and how to propel itself forward—we don’t need to monitor every movement of our bodies, the way a toddler does, every time we want to get from one place to another. Duhigg refers to the way habits are formed as a habit loop. We receive a cue, we perform the habit, we receive a reward. If you want to form a new habit, or replace an old one, this is the way to do it. My morning routine is a classic example: The alarm goes off (cue), I get out of bed (habit), start a load of laundry (habit), put the oatmeal on for breakfast (habit), make my coffee (habit), then sit down to sip the coffee and read (reward).
Habit loops can be used to establish any habit you’re interested in. Want to exercise more? Decide your cue (after I drop my daughter at school, for example), insert your habit, and then figure out a reward (the gym has a sauna, which is a particularly awesome reward in January). Want to establish a regular writing time? Same thing: cue, habit, reward. I am convinced that this is part of why people who have morning writing or exercise routines are so regular about them: the cue is the same every day. It’s like brushing your teeth. You don’t endlessly debate whether you’re “in the mood to brush,” do you? You don’t need to feel inspired to get out the Crest. You just do it because you always do it. You don’t think about it. Once you have to think about it, you’re sunk.
So figure out your writing/creating cue. Is it your lunch break? Is it a day of the week? Then figure out your reward. It can be as simple as making note of your page count and giving yourself a mental pat on the back. Or it can be a cup of coffee. Or a walk. Anything you like. Figure it out, and then let your habits run your life. They tend to run it, anyway.
What are the habits that work for you?