Habit Forming

-By Lauren Panepinto

It's no secret, I am involved with a thousand projects at once — whole seasons of bookcovers, crazy side projects, portfolio reviews, cons, teaching. It's safe to say I get a lot done. One of my superpowers is big projects on killer deadlines. When push comes to shove, I get a massive amount of work done. (I'm not bragging, there's a point here.)

I am great at big efforts over a short time. The flip side of that skill is that I am crappy at small efforts over a long time. Losing weight, working out, organizing and digitizing files, paperwork in general…I suck at all of that. I am not great at long-term sustained discipline. I mean those tasks that you have to do a little at a time over a LONG time that add up to a significant effort.

So the last few months I've been consciously learning about habits. Because that's how you achieve big things over a long time, by making something a habit. If you can set up the proper habits, and stick to them, you can be healthier, be more productive, save money, train to achieve pretty much anything you want. So I've been learning to hack my habits, and I want to share some of the best resources I've found with you:

------- The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg -------

THE book you have to read on habits. Not only the science of forming and keeping habits, but also a ton of examples that I found extremely applicable to art and marketing. The book is broken up into 3 general parts: 1—The science of habits, 2—Examples of how habits have altered history and commerce, 3—How to apply the science of habits to achieve your own goals.

Duhigg is great at breaking things down simply, and he really knocks it out of the park with his diagrams throughout the book. Really helpful to us visual folk.

And the author is so confident about his material that he pretty much gave the most important bits away online, knowing he'll hook you into reading the rest. Read "How Habits Work" on his site.

And then check out the awesome How to Change A Habit  flowchart below.

------- The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel -------

The Stanford Marshmallow Test (not to be confused with the Stanford Prison Experiment but just as merciless) was an experiment done with pre-school kids. They were given one marshmallow and told they could eat it now, but if they waited they could have two marshmallows. It was a test of self-discipline, and to the surprise of the scientists, it predicted the kids' life success rates for the next 40 years. Walter Mischel spent the rest of his career refining and repeating the test in many ways, and studying the most successful kids, and the methods they used to delay gratification. Mischel learned not only the science of how self-discipline works in the mind to delay gratification, but also the best methods to strengthening your self-discipline.

The book is not out yet, (it'll be out 9/23. Early copies are one of the perks of working in publishing) but while you wait you can listen to an episode of Radiolab on the topic, and read a nice summary from The New Yorker.

You can also enjoy small children being tortured by marshmallows below:

------- Zen Habits and Zen to Done by Leo Babauta -------

I had read the famous Getting Things Done a while back, and although there was a lot of good info in it, I found it dated and overcomplicated. (Also, gods, that cover, ugh.) Zen to Done is pretty much the stripped-down super-simplified updated version. It's a $3 ebook but you can also get the main points in this post. I have to give Marc Scheff a shout out for making me read this.

If you want to know how we get so much done, find yourself a pile of post-it notes, a pen, and this ebook.

Zen Habits is the blog that the book came from. I admit, it gets a little woo-woo new-agey for me sometimes, but the productivity posts are fantastic.


So here's my super-simplified summary: Humans like to do things that feel good. From a modern neurochemistry point of view, humans like dopamine. That's the "reward" chemical. The problem with doing things that are good for you in the long run is that dopamine doesn't work so well in the long-term. In other words, you don't get dopamine when you are having a salad knowing it will eventually lead to losing weight, you get dopamine from the donut you ate when you craved it. Ok, ok, Art example: You know you should be working on the revisions on that bookcover, but you don't get a dopamine hit from working on things you don't feel like doing, you get a dopamine hit from putting it off and slacking on the couch watching episodes of Supernatural

Willpower is a muscle and that muscle gets tired, as anyone who has ever stress-eaten junk food knows. You can stay in the cycle where you stick to your good habits until you get stressed out and slip, but that's an issue of when, not if you slip. You can strong-arm positive changes with pure willpower effort, but life is eventually going to get in the way with stress and temptations. The better way to go about it is to find ways to hack your dopamine reward system to be reinforcing your good habits instead of undermining them. What you need to do is change your methods, breaking down and visualizing your goals so that you get the dopamine hits along the path to productivity, instead of along the off-ramps of distraction. The books above give you real-world methods to doing that. Habit-hacking, you could say.

Here's a great video that explains this biochemical reward system. Simon Sinek's work is centered around creative businesses and leadership, which is absolutely going to be a future post, but for now, I'm linking you to this video because I love the way he breaks down the neurochemistry of dopamine and how it affects our productivity:

Watch the whole video, but the chemical breakdown starts at 4:37 

So, clearly I'm a work in progress, but knowing is half the battle, right? I'll check in here with further good resources and methods I find. And please feel free to share your own in the comments...

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