Minimalist in DC

The Quest for Less "Stuff" & More Time

Tag: forming habits

The Power of Habit

Have you ever tried to change a bad habit? If you were able to do it, how? I just listened to a book that discusses the science of habits and how to change them. It could be one of the best books I’ve read this year.

What Is A Habit?

The book was Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life & Business. Habits are fascinating and they run our lives. Until reading this book, I never knew why I felt compelled to wake up every morning and go workout, or why I can’t seem to avoid eating a snack once I put my kids down for a nap. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg explains that habits are made up of three components: the cue, the routine, and the reward.

The Habit Loop

If you change the cue or routine, you can change a bad habit into a good habit (or vice versa). The book is filled with fascinating stories of why Alcoholics Anonymous works or how Pepsodent marketing created America’s toothbrushing habit. However, I like practical tips and tricks and it’s got some of those too.

The Essential Components of Habit Change

If you want to change a habit, you need to change the cue or the routine and/or take away the reward, which means you have to be fully aware of what acts as the cue, routine, and reward for each of your habits. You also need belief. That usually means finding a support group that can reinforce your new habits.

Habit Change Flow Chart

That seems easy enough, right? It’s really not that simple. What I discovered after listening to the book is that Duhigg has gone one step farther in fleshing out the path to habit-change. He’s got a habit change flow chart!

How to Change a Habit

This is brilliant and if you want more context for each of these steps, you can read more about them on I can’t say I’ve worked my way through the flow chart yet, but this makes a lot of sense and I can’t wait to try it.

Changing My Routine

So, why do I think this might work? Before I read this book, I successfully changed a bad habit unknowingly using Duhigg’s key principles. I used to put the kids down for bed, then grab something sweet to eat. The cue was putting the kids to bed, the routine was eating sugar, and the reward was that it tasted great and I got to relax without my kids begging me to share. I wasn’t even hungry. So, I decided to find something else to do once the kids went to bed. Now I pour myself a cup of decaf green tea every night. I look forward to it, it’s calming, and it doesn’t have the calories.

Without even trying, I took a page out of The Power of Habit and supplanted my old routine with a new one. That gives me some personal hope that this really works. I’m excited to see what else I can change!

Have you ever changed a bad habit? How did you do it?

Power Hour (Quick Tip)

I’m reading Gretchen Rubin’s new book, Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, in which Rubin dissects the art of forming habits to give you a toolbox for forming good habits and breaking bad habits. She splits the population into four types of people (Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels) and describes how to approach habit-forming with each one. It’s a fascinating read! Along the way, Rubin talks about a lot of specific habits and one of those caught my attention. She calls it Power Hour.

Power Hour

Each week, set aside one hour for those annoying tasks you know you need to just get done, but never have time for. This is Power Hour.

Make a list of the tasks you want to get done and focus on them, starting with the first one until the hour is up.

Power Hour Tasks

Rubin suggests you fill your list with one-time tasks; those things that aren’t recurring that you need to get done (like scheduling appointments and figuring out how to use a new tool). They shouldn’t be things with tight deadlines because those will get done naturally over the course of the week. Use this hour for things that you never seem to get to.

That advice got me thinking about something I, personally, never have time for: cleaning. I hate cleaning. I hate it so much that I never make time for it. I can’t justify spending a lot of time cleaning, because, with two kids in the house, all of my work is undone in milliseconds. I can’t justify paying someone else to clean for exactly the same reason. So, I tend to let things get really dirty. Cleaning isn’t officially a non-recurring task, but I thought Power Hour was the perfect solution to motivate me to actually clean.

Power Hour in Practice

Last weekend, I officially repurposed Power Hour for cleaning. I made a backlog (bathrooms, tubs, random stuff lying in the living room, floors, windows) and got as much done as I could in an hour. In my first hour, I cleaned both bathrooms (including the tub) and picked up the living room. It was a good start.

This weekend, I tried it again. I skipped the tub (it’s still clean!) and was able to clean both bathrooms, all floors, and pick-up the living room. Things look really good! I turn on some music, I focus on my backlog of cleaning tasks and stuff gets done.

Why Power Hour Rocks

At the end of one hour, I’ve gotten a lot done and I really, truly feel done. Time-boxing allows me to set aside the time for a specific task and forgive myself for what didn’t get done. If I hold Power Hour every week, I can pick-up the unfinished tasks the following week.

What tasks would you work on during Power Hour?

Grocery Budget Part III: Choose Guidelines & Form New Habits

In Part I of my Grocery Budget Series, I laid out how I gathered data for a grocery budget analysis. In Part II, I talked about a simple system to analyze and come up with possible solutions for problem areas. In this, the third and final part, I’ll talk about how to implement your good ideas and turn them into habits.

 Creating Guidelines

Go back to the various brainstorming lists you developed and pick 1-2 things you can change right now to improve your spending habits from each problem category (if you can’t find any, keep brainstorming and involve your friends and family).

Write them down. These are your new guidelines. The guidelines I developed for myself were:

  1. Reduce dairy to one small glass of milk a day and cheese used in some recipes.
  2. Limit meat purchases to $20/week.
  3. Salvage our old cloth diapers and use them for nights for my older daughter.
  4. Buy some flour sack towels and quit using paper towels.
  5. Stop buying desserts. We don’t need them.
  6. Develop a collection of meals with few ingredients and with prep time less than 30 minutes.

The ideal number of guidelines is probably around three.  Three is the magic number for most lists and is small enough that you’ll be able to accomplish everything.  So, prioritize and start with three.  Keep the others in your back pocket and do those once you’ve made the first three habits.  I’m starting with these:

  1. Reduce dairy to one small glass of milk a day and cheese used in some recipes.
  2. Limit meat purchases to $20/week.
  3. Stop buying desserts. We don’t need them.

 Form New Habits

Now that you’ve got your guidelines, you need to incorporate them into your spending routines. At Opower, we use behavioral science to get people to save energy.  Here, you can use a little behavioral science to remind yourself to do these things at the appropriate time.

Your tricks will be very personalized, but here are some examples to get you started.  This is largely a creative exercise for you to figure out how to remind yourself of your guidelines at the right time.

Reduce Dairy

My main problem is that I drink a LOT of milk.  To remind myself only to drink it with dinner, I’ll write a note on the cap so I’ll see it before I get anything to drink.

Form New Habits

Spend Less Than $20 on Meat

Every week, I write a grocery list using the same pad of paper. I decided to write a reminder at the top of every sheet in that pad to remind me to stick within my budget.

Stop Buying Desserts

I did the same thing for desserts, but went a step further.  I put a reminder on my calendar during my regular grocery shopping hour that reminds me not to buy sugar.  The reminder pops up on my phone just at the right time.

How Long Does It Take to Form New Habits?

Habit formation happens at different rates for different people.  On average, it takes people around two months to form a new habit, sometimes far longer.  You’ll know you can take away the habit-forming trick when the habit become second-nature.  For instance, when you no longer reach for the milk at lunch at all.  That’s when you know you’ve made something more automatic.  At that point, you can focus your energy on forming (or breaking) another habit.

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