Implementing a Productive Habit


Have you ever had a long-standing intention of getting good at something, of putting the required hours in to practicing and getting better at it, only to find that you never end up putting the hours in, and never make any headway with it? Months pass by, years pass by, and that perfectly admirable intention just sits there collecting dust. Well, I don’t think this dusty intention is (necessarily) the result of laziness or a lack of motivation. People are creatures of habit, and if a behaviour isn’t habitualized, it’s going to seem to seem like a monumental amount of effort to do something you wouldn’t normally do. But, my thinking is, once a habit is formed, it’s going to seem like it takes no effort at all to do the behaviour. We all know there are many potentially bad habits one could have, but, why not use this same process to your advantage to instantiate a productive habit?

In The Human Mind: A Text-book of Psychology (1892), psychologist James Sully stated that “repeated or recurring processes of thought and action become more perfectly organised, and as a consequence more rapid and unconscious or automatic. The result is expressed by the term Habit” (pp. 56–57). As Sully describes it, a habit is a process which has been repeated so many times that we now perform it automatically. For instance, every morning when I leave my apartment for work, I lock my door and walk towards the elevator. And by the time I get to the elevator, I often can’t remember whether or not I locked the door to my apartment. When I become aware of the fact that I can’t remember if I locked the door, I usually go back and check to see if it’s locked. And every single time I check, it is indeed locked. The task of locking the door has become so routine, so automatic, that I don’t even have to think about doing it. I’m sure we all have a myriad of automated day-to-day behaviours like this, habits that have been formed out of necessity. There are lots of things that we have to do which become habits, but there are probably also things that we want to do, which we can potentially form habits around. The difference is, no one forces us to do the things we want to do. If I don’t practice guitar tonight, I might miss out on becoming a little better at guitar, but there is no immediate, threatening consequence as a result of not practicing guitar. If I don’t lock my door when I leave for work, I might get robbed, so it seems like I have less choice in doing that behaviour. It is a habit formed as the result of external forces and practical considerations. But I say just getting by in life isn’t enough: do the things you want to do.

I came to the realization that I needed to implement at least one productive daily habit a couple of months ago. I read an article called How to Practise Every Day, Effortlessly, which turned me on to a couple of important principles for developing a new habit. The first was the concept of a trigger: an event which precedes the habit behaviour, that triggers you to perform the habit. Mostly, I just treated this as a time of day. “I’ll do _______ at ________ time of day,” (morning, before bed, etc.). The second principle was make it easy to do (at first). Create a version of the task that is so easy to perform initially that you could perform it with virtually zero effort, something you can easily commit to. For example, if the desired habit was to draw every day, you could start by simply picking up a pencil and opening a sketchbook each day, and that would count as “task complete” for the habit for that day. Eventually, you’d make a point of drawing something with the pencil on the paper, and gradually the habit increases in effort required as time goes on, until you’re drawing something worthwhile each day.

Now, there are potentially limitless good habits that one might want to form. So the first challenge for me was figuring which habit(s) I wanted to form. It was obvious to me that I wanted to implement a habit which was creative in nature, but it wasn’t obvious to me what it should be. I’ll spare you the long-winded self-reflection process I engaged in to try and figure out what I wanted to become better at, but I’ll say this: it was difficult, because I have many interests. It was so hard to narrow it down, that I actually ended up with three things I wanted to do every day: draw something every day, write something every day, and work on music on my computer every day. Three habits. Well, I tried this for a while – writing something for ten minutes in the morning, drawing something after dinner, and working on music on my computer before bed. However, I found this amounted to a lot of cognitive overload. It was just difficult to remember the various things I was supposed to do, and at what time of day I was supposed to do them.

So the three habits eventually dwindled down to one: working on music on my computer every night. I think I knew in my mind that this was the one I really wanted to work on each day. I’ve wanted to make some progress with music for years, actually producing some finished songs, and it just never really seemed to happen. So, I am quite content that this is the habit I prioritized. At first, I just committed to opening my music software each night before bed, making a note on the piano roll, and then I could close the software, declare “task complete,” and go to bed. Even this was a very minor struggle initially; I could feel some internal resistance to this simple task that I wasn’t used to doing before bed. But because the level of commitment was so small, it didn’t take that much willpower to follow through with it each night. Over the following weeks I eventually found myself making music in the software, and getting more and more into it. And now I look forward to working on music each night, and I do indeed do this habit virtually automatically. And my interest in digital music production has only been growing as a result – I recently bought a subscription to Computer Music magazine (which is great), bought Deadmau5’s music production masterclass video series, subscribed to various YouTube channels on the topic, and have been trying to connect with other people in Toronto who are into music production. It seems obvious that you do indeed get out of something what you put into it: your passion for a subject you’re interested in will increase as you put effort into it.

Finally, I have couple of closing points on the topic of productive habit formation. The first is that it will be easier to implement a habit if it’s something that you find fun. Since this is a habit you want to form, there’s a good chance the thing you’re trying to do already meets this criteria. The second relates to the productive aspect of a productive habit: make sure that, at a certain point, you’re pushing things over the finish line. If your habit is one where you’re creating something, make sure you’re finishing things. It’s all too easy to spin one’s wheels, starting many things and never finishing anything. See things through to completion, and you’ll have something to be proud of as a result of your habit.