How to ensure your weekly review becomes habitual.
Rumour has it that before he started writing each morning, Winston Churchill would drink a couple of bottles of Guinness and eat a steak pie. Seemingly it was his way of calming his brain, overcoming reluctance to write, creating a daily practice, and getting in the ‘zone.’ I like that story because it reminds us that we are all, even the great ones, susceptible to putting things off. And even with all the GTD technology behind me, like Churchill I tend to procrastinate, especially just before I do my weekly review. Though I too occasionally like a bit of Guinness and steak pie, I prefer to keep them for Saturday nights and instead use a behavioural system of triggers and routines to ensure my weekly review becomes a habit.
In my last blog I recommended that when you procrastinate you should just work for 5 minutes to get going i.e. do a short sharp period of work to get over procrastination (you can read the blog here) But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Even doing only a few minutes of a job can sometimes be tough; we’re still having to make a conscious choice about what to do. The behaviour is not yet automatic.
To solve the problem, it is best to turn to the man who developed the theory of how to build habits. BJ Fogg is a professor at Stanford University and a behaviour scientist. Specifically he is the creator the ‘Tiny Habits Methodology.’
According to Fogg we rely too much on motivation when we are trying to build a new behaviour. Think of it like this: if motivation were a person they’d be flaky. And the advice of e-harmony is not to date flaky people. Whilst these people frequently have enjoyable personalities — optimistic, spontaneous, and playful – they are also extremely frustrating for those who rely on them to complete a task or show up when needed. Motivation is like this; at 6am on a winter’s morning when you know you should go and exercise, it can as little be relied on to lift your head off the pillow as it can be to lift those dumbbells you got for Christmas.
So if we can’t rely on drive – what’s the alternative? Professor Fogg recommends a three stage model: an anchor, behaviour and reward. He calls this sequence a recipe.
There are three conditions for an anchor:
1. It must be an extremely reliable anchor. Something you always do. For example Thursday morning is the day I always take our youngest son, Matthew to school.
2. It must be precise (this is called the trailing edge of the anchor) e.g. after I’ve taken Matthew to school I come home and switch on the kettle and make a cup of tea. Having the cup in my hand is the trailing edge.
3. The anchor must match how often you want to do the behaviour. In this case the anchor is perfect because I want to do the behaviour (my review) on a Thursday (N.B. just any cup of tea wouldn’t do. I want the behaviour to link to this one because it’s on the right day and time for my review)
Using anchors is so effective that companies like Facebook and Instagram use anchors to help us re-engage with their product by letting us know when a friend has posted a comment or a photo. This then encourages us to post and then we get rewarded when the friend gives us a ‘like’.
The second part of the recipe is the behaviour you want to create. Fogg’s advice is to make the behaviour the smallest version of the full behaviour. Remember to make it easy to do rather than rely on motivation. For example, doing a mind-sweep is how I’ll start my review.
Finally to make the behaviour more automatic you must celebrate success. This activates dopamine release in the brain, creates a positive emotion and ramps up our motivation to do the behaviour again. A celebration could be a small as giving yourself a thumbs up or as exuberant as a victory dance.
A word of warning. In my case I used to say “Woohoo!” after completing a new habit. One evening my wife turned to me and said “I think there’s an owl in our loft, can you go and check.” Not my best moment. Also BJ reminds us not reward yourself with something that’s bad for you like cake or biscuit.
The completed recipe is:
After I’ve taken Matt to School on a Thursday morning and have my cup of tea in my hand I’ll sit down at the dining room table and do a mind-sweep for 5 minutes (remember in the last blog I suggested a time limit for the behaviour, this is how we integrate it into the habit).
Whilst I’ve talked specifically about the weekly review in this blog you can also use this process to help you engage daily with your lists and calendars.
Had Churchill been alive today I’d like to think he’d agree this system is certainly an improvement on steak pie and Guinness for breakfast – though definitely not as tasty!