Synthesis : Scott Becker

Checklists and Habits

Lately I’ve become obsessed with checklists – a simple list of everything to complete a certain task. The book “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande is a great introduction to the topic, on how checklists reduce defects in medicine, aviation, and architecture, with some dramatic medical stories thrown in for excitement. The basic idea is that humans are fallible, and a simple checklist can help us do things the right way every time, without overlooking something simple or skipping a step. This can be especially helpful in a stressful situation. It’s challenging to remember every step of a simple, mundane process when we don’t have a lot of time to think, if we’re distracted, or if we’re forced to multitask.

Although we’re drawn to stories of the brilliant creative genius, or the hero who reacted quickly under pressure, many times what really lies beneath these stories are established routines and engrained habits.

How Companies Learn Your Secrets“, an article by Charles Duhigg is a fascinating look at the analytics and marketing groups inside Target, and how, using existing data of their customer base, they determine within a degree of certainty, whether a female customer is likely to be pregnant. The statistical analysis behind that is interesting, but there’s another half of the same article which explores habit formation and how existing habits can be changed or manipulated. That’s because when a woman is pregnant, it is one of the main times in their lives when they are thrown into unfamiliar territory, and their shopping habits can dramatically change. If Target is there at this critical juncture, the thought is that they can be the new favored store for all kinds of things the expectant mother must buy.

This knowledge of habit manipulation is surely great for companies to use on their customer base in order to generate more sales, but it can also be useful to all of us at the individual level, in order to improve ourselves.

For most of our lives, when we’re not making major changes and just going about our day to day lives, we are operating mostly out of habit. When we operate out of habit, our brains go on autopilot. We’ve done this before, we’ve got it down, and we can do it blindfolded. This is true for everything from our morning shower routine to our commute to work. We don’t have to think much. This is our brain’s way of conserving energy.

A habit has a structure. The structure includes a “cue” – the thing that prompts us to begin the habit, a “routine” – the things we do to complete the habit, and a “reward” – the thing we get for completing the routine. Duhigg calls this “The Habit Loop”.

For example, take washing the dishes. The cue – seeing a pile of dirty dishes. This won’t do. The routine – clear the sink so you can work, start the hot water, put in some dish soap, soak the dirty dishes. Then clean something, rinse, repeat until all are done. The reward – a clean, empty sink, a strainer full of clean dishes. The second reward – if you do it daily, not that many dishes build up, so it gets done fairly quickly. All done until next time.

While washing dishes isn’t my favorite way to spend my time, at this point I do it out of habit, and I find it somewhat calming and relaxing. My brain gets to disengage from the task at hand and think about other things.

It can be very hard to change habits. By their nature, we do them without really thinking about it, and sometimes without even realizing it. One of the best ways the marketers have found to change a habit is to piggy back on to an existing habit.

In the article the example was Febreze. Initially, marketers originally sought to sell the product as an odor eliminator. The problem is, people become used to the smell of their own house and don’t realize it stinks. Ever been to a friends house and smelled an intense, overwhelming smell of dogs or cats and wonder how they stand it?

So, most people saw no need for a product like Febreze. Their houses were clean (or so they appeared) and of course they didn’t want to think of themselves as people whose houses stink.

The marketers found the solution by observing customers who actually used the product. A woman who loved it used it after cleaning every room in her house, as part of the reward – a little spritz of Febreze as the finishing touch. This was the key. Instead of trying to create a new behavior in customers – going around eliminating the odors in their stinky houses, the answer was to pitch Febreze as a product to incorporate into your existing cleaning routine as part of the reward.

How can we use this information to change and improve our personal habits and routines? Maybe there is something you want to start doing regularly, like writing, or exercising. Start by thinking about what existing habits you have, that you like to do or just do without thinking. What causes you to start? What is your reward for completing them? Here lies the answer. You can hijack your existing habits by planning to do a different routine or give yourself a different reward for an existing habit by figuring out the cue that triggers it.

For more info, see “How Habits Work” by the author of the article mentioned above, and the book “The Power of Habit“.


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