When I…..Then…. by David D. Nowell, PhD
A habit is a shortcut that makes your life easier because you don’t have to spend energy choosing at that point – it’s mentally exhausting thinking about every action, every behavior. If you’re spending several minutes two or three times a week looking for your keys that adds up to a lot of frustration and wasted time. And that may point to an area in your life in need of a habit.
Or if you’ve been meaning to incorporate journaling into your morning practice but it just hasn’t happened, then it’s pretty clear you haven’t developed that habit.
Or if your car stays super cluttered and that bothers you, then there may be a habit you need to develop.
Appointments, to-do items, and habits
Your schedule consists of three basic elements. Appointments, to-do items, and habits. An appointment is a commitment with yourself or with another person. And your to-do list is essentially a wish list – it’s like that drawer in your kitchen where you dump all that stuff that doesn’t have a home yet. And habits are the third element of your schedule. Brushing your teeth, for example. It is not a to-do item and neither is it something we typically put on the calendar as an appointment. It’s a habit – just something we do on autopilot.
What I’d like to do in this post is to invite you to consider a habit that you would like to develop. And then to spend thirty seconds identifying a strategy. And then making that strategy a rule. Strategy to rule and then with any luck that rule becomes your new habit.
Let’s take the example of someone who spends several minutes each week looking for her misplaced keys. In her thirty-second problem solving period she might come up with a reasonable strategy like “when I walk in my house, then I’ll put my keys in the candy dish by the door.” Next, she’ll make that strategy a rule. She’ll add an evening reminder on her calendar and if she has not followed her rule, she will stop what she’s doing and over-correct. She’ll pop downstairs and put the keys into the candy dish five times. She is over-practicing or over- rehearsing, in an effort to lay down this new habit.
Okay so far we have step one: develop a strategy. And step two is to make that strategy a rule in the form of when / then: When I walk in the door then I put the keys in the dish. And step three is to make an appointment with yourself at the end of the day to determine whether in fact you have followed through. If you’ve picked a good strategy this process should yield a new habit easily enough. On the other hand, if you don’t find that your new habit is easy to establish, you might need to go back to the drawing board and another spend thirty seconds identifying a new strategy.
Let’s try it
Okay let’s go. Spend thirty seconds right now identifying a strategy in the form of when / then. For example, “when I leave the office then I will head straight to the gym.” Or, “when I order a salad then I’ll request dressing on the side.” Or, “when my supervisor speaks sharply with me and I want to say something rude then I’ll place my tongue at the roof of my mouth right behind my front teeth and count to five.”
Go ahead, identify the strategy, I’ll wait for you. And if you feel stuck reach out to some creative friends. Just make sure that you’ve come up with a good strategy before you move onto the next step.
And the next step is to make that strategy a rule. Agree with yourself in writing – put it on your calendar. Schedule an evening check-in.
So again the process is this: develop a strategy, make it a rule, and develop a new habit. Wash, rinse and repeat.
By David D. Nowell, PhD