Effective routines lead to effective habits. Effective habits produce powerful results.
If there is something in your life that you want, that you don’t currently have, the first place you should look is your habits and routines.
Ask yourself this simple question: Are my routines making it easy for me to achieve my goal?
A lot of people struggle with routines and establishing habits. If you fit into this category don’t get discouraged – instead let’s take a look at the structure of your routines to ensure that they are effectively habit forming.
Charles Duhigg in his great book The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business describes a three step process that leads to the formation of a habit,
First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, or mental, or emotional. Finally there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
It is easy, and quite common, to focus on the routine and reward components of the habit loop; however, in my experience, the cue is the most important aspect in establishing a new habit, especially if the habit is an action that you have never done before (so you are uncertain of the exact nature of the routine or the reward).
Finding an appropriate cue not only increases the chance that you will actually perform the routine (which will lead to your receiving the reward) but, if done correctly, will place you in a positive emotional state, prior to starting, that will help you take effective action.
Let me use an example from my life. Several years ago, the yearning to write became incredibly strong in me. I read a few “writer instructional” books, such as Stephen King’s On Writing, and Steven Pressfield’s classic The War of Art and realized that establishing good writing routines would be critical to my ability to write professionally.
I experimented with a couple different routines, such as writing really early in the morning, but I was inconsistent and felt that I was really forcing it. One night, while thinking about the structure of the book I would later publish I formed a playlist of the music that I liked to listen to when writing.
The next night I sat down, pressed play, and immediately I was in the mood to write. Soon this became my ritual, and the cue was simply turning on the playlist (or popping in some vinyl in my office). The familiar music triggered a “writing mood” and my routine (500 words a day) was then executed and the reward (a feeling of satisfaction, as well as the various publications I’d soon produce) followed. But for me, the most important factor was easily the cue.
Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest choreographers, in her excellent book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life says that the “cue” that she uses to go to the gym early each morning is simply to walk outside her Manhattan home, hail a taxi and tell the driver to take her to the Pumping Iron Gym on 91st Street. Once the cab is hailed the chances of her skipping out on her workout is dramatically reduced.
She shares another example using the composer Igor Stravinsky. Every morning when he enters his studio to work, he first sits at the piano and plays a Bach fugue before starting to compose. This simple cue gets him in the “musical mood” and in Tharp’s words “repeating the routine each day in the studio induced some click that got him started.”
Athletes, musicians, and actors often have “pre-performance routines” that prime them and get them in an emotional state to do their best. Really these are just “triggering cues” that remind their brains that they are about to perform.
Any person, in any career or goal, can use the same framework to do their best work each day. Simply figure out a “cue” that can be repeated over and over again, before you start a given task. Make it something that puts you in a positive emotional state. Stick with it, and watch it crystallize into a habit, and soon amazing results will materialize.