How I used habit loops to abandon my TV routine and become more productive in the evening
I am a very tired woman.
After a long day of work and wrangling two kids through an evening routine (sometimes solo because my husband has to work late) I just need a minute after that last bedroom door closes to sit and rest and turn my brain off.
So I turn on the TV.
I only intend to watch one half hour show. Something nice and light on HGTV or DIY so I can live vicariously through their beautiful home renovations. 2 hours later I jolt out of a daze, realize it’s time to go to bed, and that I have done nothing I intended to in my precious free time.
You don’t have to be run ragged by kids or have a demanding job to have experienced the time suck of the TV. We are all susceptible to the addictive nature of television. Very smart people are paid to make sure that we are. And with the ability to binge watch shows our self-control can go right out the window.
The Problem with Self Control
My self-control was nowhere to be found night after night, even when I would promise myself tomorrow would be different. Tomorrow I wouldn’t sit down in front of the TV right after putting the kids to bed, that I would get started getting things done.
The problem is that I need that moment after getting the kids down to rest and recover. No amount of self-control can change my brain’s ingrained habit of having a moment to itself.
This was creating a negative feedback loop and I was feeling pretty bad about myself every time I failed to resist the urge of the TV. I knew I needed to do something so I wouldn’t suddenly wake up when my youngest is off to college and realize every evening of the past 18 years was spent watching fictional people live their lives.
The Book that Set a Course for my Success
Then I stumbled on Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit by accident in a front yard ‘little library’ on a walk with my newborn daughter. I had heard so much about Duhigg’s book but had never gotten around to picking it up. This was a happy accident, the universe plopping the answers in my lap.
Unfortunately, that book sat on my shelf for several months. As the mother of a newborn, I couldn’t bring myself to read more than a short article in a magazine and couldn’t fathom digging into a real book. The day came, however, when I ran out of magazines and went searching for something to read. The Power of Habit jumped out at me so I grabbed it and got into bed.
Well, 4 days later I was done with the book and so energized by what I learned I was ready to put it into practice immediately.
The Power of Habit Loops
Duhigg’s detailed description of the habit loop is a great way to understand why we do what we do. Essentially, every habit can be broken down into a basic cycle of events. Because of how our brains are wired it is almost impossible to scrap this loop and try another way to break or start a habit. We can, however, tinker with the loop and effect change.
The key is to replace the meat of the habit with something positive. Each habit starts with a trigger or cue. You then perform the routine (what we think of as the actual habit), and it ends with a reward. For example, a smoker always has a cigarette after meals. So finishing dinner is the queue, smoking the cigarette is the routine, and the reward is the nicotine and satisfied feeling that comes after the cigarette.
In this example even if the smoker quits he is still going to be triggered for a cigarette after every meal. This is so ingrained in his brain that there is little chance of physically overriding it, and the urge is so strong he does not have a good chance of using willpower to overcome it.
The easiest way to tackle this problem is to change the routine. If the smoker is triggered for a cigarette after dinner and takes a walk instead his reward is the endorphin rush and fresh air that comes with a brisk walk. Done over time his new action becomes the habit. Even though the smoker is still triggered after dinner, he now wants to take a walk and this healthy alternative satisfies his brain’s need for the habit loop and a cigarette never enters his mind. This can happen quickly or slowly, depending on the person and the habit, and involves trial and error to find the right trigger and replacement action.
Even before reading this I knew on some level that I had to not sit down on the couch after putting the kids down. I tried sitting in another room, but I just ended up looking around my messy house and feeling even more tired and defeated. Another night I tried sitting on the couch but reading a book instead. Bingo! Even if I end up reading for two hours I didn’t feel bad about it and most of the time I am able to relax for a little while and then get some things done. And I don’t even miss the TV at all! It isn’t about the actual shows for me, it’s about the relaxation and giving my brain a break, which the book allowed me to do.
Sometime I can’t read a book though. Maybe I need to fold laundry or do some other organizing that I would normally put the TV on for. The answer – Podcasts! And they are even better than TV because I can take them around the house with me as I clean and get things done.
Last night I reorganized and purged all the kid’s toys while listening to my favorite podcasts. I got a long-overdue task done in my house while learning new things, and my brain counted it as relaxation. Win – win – win!
How to Remake Your Own Habit Loop
The tricky part is really figuring out where those triggers are what exactly your habit loop is. My TV habit is a pretty straightforward example which allowed me to easily find a suitable interruption to improve my habit. I plan on using this strategy for other less desirable habits in my life (and to start new good habits), but I anticipate certain ones will take a little more work and internal discovery to get right.
The key to this strategy is that figuring out your habit loops allows you to work with your brain to improve your life instead of fighting against what has already been ingrained. But it takes work.
Reading the Power of Habit will not magically make you go to the gym instead of eating cake. Giving yourself the time to explore your triggers and experiment with replacements is essential to succeeding in this strategy.
It’s totally worth it. This is the closest thing I have found to a habit ‘shortcut’, and believe me – I’ve looked everywhere for that magic pill.
Take a habit from your life, low-hanging fruit like too much TV at a specific time of day, and use this strategy to try replacing it with something positive. This is one system where starting small can help you learn how to wield this tool and the confidence to go after bigger goals, like smoking or exercise.
Good luck and let me know how you do!