How Occasional Cheating Can Help Instill a Habit

I will be perfectly open about the ulterior purpose of this blog post: I’m cheating a little bit so that I can maintain my streak of writing a blog post every work day.

In the interests of strengthening my writing habit and to pump up my presence in social media, I last month resolved to make a big leap from 1-2 blog posts a week to 5, or one every work day. So far, this is my 23rd in a row—but it has not come easy.

The common wisdom is that it takes seven days to make a habit permanent. I’ve never found this to be true for myself. To me, the two most crucial times for a habit are the first day and the fourth week. The first day is critical because you have to start some time. How many times have you procrastinated on starting something you really wanted to do, to the point that you never got started at all? Once I start, initial enthusiasm easily carries me through the first seven days and beyond.

If that enthusiasm can carry you all the way to the point where your new activity is solidly entrenched as a habit, you’ve got it made. But old ways die hard, and enthusiasm may run out before habit kicks in. Sometimes you have to find a way to straddle that gap, and that’s where cheating comes in. By cheating, I mean doing the minimum that technically meets your goal. Let’s say you’ve decided to exercise every day, but maybe you’re under the weather and don’t feel like dragging yourself to the gym: why not do a set of push-ups or sit-ups at home? It will only take a minute or two, and it’s only a small fraction of a full workout, but it’s an infinite multiple of nothing.

Sometimes, you might even find that the little bit you do is enough to overcome inertia and then you keep going. That’s actually what has happened with this post. I thought of the topic this morning only after this sequence of steps:

  1. I have no idea what to write about today.
  2. I go through my list of ideas that I’ve stored, but find all kinds of reasons against each one.
  3. I think it may not be so bad to miss a day; maybe it was a dumb idea anyway.
  4. I remember that I use the cheating trick with my workouts, and try to decide how I can apply it here.
  5. I’m not quite sure how this ties in to persuasive communication, sales, or clear thinking, but I figure it’s close enough.
  6. I begin this article, hoping I can get out a paragraph or two.
  7. Once I get this far, I’m actually starting to get into it, so I start digging a little further…

Charles Duhigg, in his excellent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, explains that habits are created by a “habit loop” of cue-routine-reward. The cure is the trigger that fires the routine. It may be the running shoes at the foot of your bed, or the pack of cigarettes on the counter. As silly as it may sound, the empty check box at the top of my daily to-do list is my cue, and it works. The routine is the hard part, of course, especially when the reward is not something tangible. I find the feeling of accomplishment to be reward enough, and that apparently is extremely common. 67% of people who exercise regularly cite that feeling as their primary reward.

I wrote previously about personal kaizen, and it’s great to constantly improve a little every day. But some days it’s victory enough not to regress, even if you have to cheat a little to win. Of course, I’m not advocating cheating every time, because all that will instill is a habit of mediocrity. But keep in mind that you can’t win the game unless you’re in it.

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