Habit. It’s kind of a sour word. Short vowels and punchy.
Those of a certain vintage remember Sister Mary Joseph wearing a habit as she rapped us across the knuckles in response to our everyday insolence.
Then there’s the word habitual. It’s one of the ugliest in our language, Don’t believe me? Say it a few times. It sounds like castor oil gone verbal.
To these points, most of us can go chapter and verse on our bad habits–biting our nails, too much screen time before bed, saying ‘um’ and ‘like’ when we talk. And the way we think about those bad habits, well, it’s like they just sort of happened to us. They run the show. We just kind of swim against their tide.
Good habits, in contrast, aren’t usually positioned as such. We think of changes as ladders to climb or obstacles to overcome. I need to stop skipping my workouts. I need to quit snacking between meals. I need to stop arguing with people about football on the internet. (You should really stop that, it’s true!)
In Charles Duhigg’s magnificent book The Power of Habit, he proposes an alternate way of affecting the sorts of changes we ought to be thinking of as good habits. At the risk of oversimplifying–you should read the book–it goes something like this:
1. External Cue. If you like working out in the morning, this might be laying your next day’s gym clothes out on the dresser in the evening.
2. New Habit. Do the thing.
3. Reward. Using the morning workout as an example, you might think of how great you’ll feel after your hot shower, or the cup of coffee you’ll have after you get to your desk.
I’d like to focus forward on that third step–the reward. So many of us are disconnected to how we actually feel about things. Whether food, sleep, exercise…the world moves so fast that it’s super easy for us to not take that pause after doing something good for ourselves to check in with that feeling. Man that workout felt great. Gosh that meal made me feel warm and full. Wow it feels amazing when I actually get a full night’s sleep.
But when we don’t check in on something done well and live in that moment for a bit, we’re decreasing the odds of a repeat performance. Habits need that reward mechanism. And good habits deserve great reward mechanisms.
After all, I think we can agree that reward is a much better-sounding word than habit.