Something or other in my online reading (what? by whom? I don’t recall) has lately gotten me thinking a lot about habits, and led me to both Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and Gretchen Rubin‘s Better Than Before. Both books are very good, but they work especially well as a pair: Duhigg tackles more of the brain-science of habit (like the cue-habit-reward cycle) and Rubin focuses more on the social/personal factors of habit formation and change (like her “four tendencies” of personality, which determine how we respond to both internal and external expectations). Together they paint a broad picture of how we form habits and how habits form us. I was intrigued by Duhigg’s more technical approach, but I appreciate Better Than Before‘s practicality, as well as the emphasis on knowing yourself — since people tend to respond to the making and breaking of habits in predictable but different ways.
For example, Rubin broadly divides people into four categories: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. (Take the quiz here). I’m an Obliger; I find it much easier to live up to other people’s expectations than my own. It’s hard for me to form a habit without some sort of external accountability; I don’t like to let people down, but can (too) easily shirk a habit if I’m the only one who knows or cares. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I do everything for which I’m externally accountable ungrudgingly, of course — witness most of last semester’s homework — but I still do it. (In terms of school work, I think this is why I struggle with courses that use contract grading; I don’t feel driven to try the same way I would if I really had to earn a grade, rather than just meeting a minimum requirement of work done.) There are many other categories Rubin looks at; one that stuck out to me was the Opener/Finisher divide. I’m a Finisher; I get a bigger charge and sense of accomplishment over finishing something (a project, a jar of peanut butter, a blog post) than out of starting a new one. I like looking at something and being able to say “It’s done!”. By the same measure, I get stressed out when I have so many things on the go that I’m not finishing any of them, and it’s hard to stay motivated when I have a long-term project that won’t be finished any time soon.
This strikes me as really useful data. This summer I’ve started working on my thesis, which I’ll have to submit and defend next April. But since I don’t (have to) check in with my advisor particularly often, I’m not working with a lot of external accountability here — and the long deadline doesn’t help, because it will be many months before I can look at my thesis and say “It’s done!”. So how do I make sure that I keep working on it?
Right now, like this:
As it turns out, a sticker chart is pretty much ideal for me. Here’s why I think it works:
1. I do love stickers. That’s not enough on its own, but it surely helps.
2. The chart keeps me accountable. I’m not keeping track of whether I work on my thesis privately; I’m keeping track right there on my dining room wall, where my husband and friends can see it. Even though they’re not checking up on me, they still know what’s going on. Having my chart visible turns it into an external motivator.
3. I can easily see what I’ve accomplished. I put on a star sticker when I do thesis reading, and a happy face when I do writing. At the end of the week, if I have at least one sticker on at least six days, I get a big sticker. My Finisher tendencies motivate me to earn a sticker every day, and to keep the big sticker chain unbroken. Even though my thesis won’t be finished for a long time, every day I get to “finish” a small step.
4. It’s low-key: I don’t have minimums for earning stickers. If I read anything at all — even if it’s just one paragraph — I get a sticker for that day. If I write anything at all — even if it’s just one sentence — I get a sticker for that day. For some people this might not be helpful since it could be a tacit encouragement to make a minimal effort. But for me, it’s more important to establish the habit of working on my thesis every day (or nearly) than to worry about exactly how much work I’m doing. Some days I get quite a lot done; others, I don’t. But I’m working on it regularly and that’s what’s going to make the difference in the long run. Slow and steady, etc. etc. (And since starting my chart I’ve read upwards of 800 pages and written one complete chapter and smaller chunks of others, so clearly something is working.)
Rubin also tackles the convenience factor in habit formation: if we want to establish a good habit, we need to make it convenient. And if we want to kill a bad habit, we need to make it inconvenient for ourselves (which could be something as simple as, say, storing the cookies in a lidded opaque jar instead of a clear unlidded one). This rings true for me. What finally got me flossing every night was moving the floss from inside the bathroom cupboard to a spot on the counter — it’s visible, so I see it and am reminded to floss, and it’s right there so it’s totally convenient. And now I floss! Who knew it could be so easy? (Gretchen Rubin might have known.)
This all has intrigued me greatly. I’m pretty sure that I’ll be thinking about habits for many days to come.
2 thoughts on “Thinking about habits”
Remember how upset you were in AP English about the sticker chart your teacher had?
I do! And I was upset because it was infantile and insulting. I think the real problem was that it came at a time — grade twelve! — when we really didn't need to learn to do homework. We did our homework. That chart said, “I don't trust you to do your homework because you're supposed to, and I don't trust you despite your track record of doing your homework, so how about doing homework for a baggy of candy and some clapping?” So I said, fine, if you don't expect us to do our homework, I won't! You will remember that I tried to conscientiously miss one piece of homework per month so that I never had a full chart; I accidentally handed everything in one month and was pretty upset with myself. It felt like if you had started offering me stickers/candy every time I went pee, ten years after I'd been potty trained. It's just mind-bogglingly unnecessary.
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