I once worked with an individual who cleverly referred to organizing books as "procrastireading." I'd like to report my findings from relevant titles so that you can avoid the reading and get to the doing.
This week’s “procrastireading” corner is devoted to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I read this book nearly six years ago. I realized how valuable it was not only for me but also for my clients: when decluttering, it’s essential to prune and organize possessions. It's also crucial to set up systems and habits that will support ongoing organization.
When working with a client, I collaborate to create customized systems that will work for their lifestyle. Part of the discussion revolves around daily habits. We identify self-sabotaging habits and work to replace them with those that better serve their goals.
Here’s an excellent example of how habit comes into play with decluttering. I do quite a bit of paper organizing with clients who want a home office that is calm and supportive of their activities. As we go through piles of paper, we examine flow from the moment they come through the door to the moment they leave. We drill down on daily routines and roadblocks. We strategize how to replace old habits, such as piling unopened mail. We create game plans for new habits that will make paperwork easier to manage.
Here are key takeaways from The Power of Habit that you can put into practice today to aid your organizing efforts.
Charles Duhigg spends time explaining brain functions. Habits allow our brains to do routines without thinking about them, which frees up energy for other thoughts or activities. They play as big a part in our lives as memory and reason. The basic premise is that there is a cue/trigger, a craving, a physical or mental routine, and a reward. The cue triggers our brain to crave something. We then an automated series of actions or thoughts that lead us to whatever reward will satiate the craving.
According to his research, we can’t necessarily entirely eliminate bad habits. Still, we can change our behaviors if we put a new series of actions or thoughts into the middle of the habit cycle.
It’s necessary to understand the craving behind our actions. Without that, it’s hard to create lasting change. Once you identify the urge, you can typically find an alternative series of steps to alleviate said craving.
Sometimes the craving is so intense that you need outside help in changing the behavior. Cognitive-behavioral work with a therapist, peer support models such as AA, or working with a professional organizer could all act as supports that help you to change your behaviors.
It’s also essential to believe that you can change. If you believe that you have always been disorganized (or a bad cook, or a “luddite,” or terrible at exercise, etc.) and that’s just who you are, then there’s not much motivation to change. We have to suspend disbelief to change some of our most ingrained habits. I’ve worked with clients who were willing to disbelieve that they were inherently disorganized. They were able to move mountains and were shocked at how calm and relaxing their homes became as they learned how to become and stay organized.
You’ll do well to establish “keystone habits” that seem small but allow us to believe that we are capable of change. They set off a cascade of other good habits that can start a positive seismic shift in our lives.
Let’s pretend John’s keystone habit is decluttering five minutes a day. It’s not half as bad as he thought it would be. Before he knows it, he has cleaned out his spare bedroom that was initially supposed to act as a home gym. He started hopping on that treadmill that was no longer posing as a makeshift closet. After a few months, John is feeling healthier and more confident than ever. He decides to throw a dinner party (play along with me, COVID shelter-in-place can't last forever). One of his guests brings a friend, and John hits it off with her. Eventually, they fall in love, get married, and travel together, and John even feels confident putting on his swimming trunks again. All this is thanks to the keystone habit of decluttering five minutes a day! Way to go, John!
Charles Duhigg mentions willpower being the most important habit you can create. I’m a bit conflicted because I have read literature that shies away from willpower and advocates the idea of setting up your environment in such a way that you don’t have to rely so much on willpower. I don’t want my clients to white-knuckle it through decluttering sessions because I want the process to eliminate anxiety and support simple maintenance. I haven't done exhaustive research, but it’s something to note. I do agree that it is helpful to do scenario forecasting. You decide beforehand what you’ll do when a cue tempts you to take the “wrong” action. (E.g. If I have to run to the grocery store when I’m hungry, what will I do when my nose is overwhelmed by the taunting smell of freshly baked donuts or fried chicken, and I want to impulse shop?)
Ultimately, he argues, “You have to decide to put in the hard work to identify the cues and find different routines, and believe that you have control over it and be self-conscious enough to use it.”
The Appendix dives into more detail. Start by identifying the routine because this is the easiest part of the habit to change. Charles was gaining weight because he would walk to the work cafeteria in the afternoons, grab a cookie, and chat with coworkers.
Then identify the cues/cravings that start the habit, which can be difficult to do. Instead, you can experiment with various rewards to see if they satiate the craving. In Charles' example, he tried substituting walks, donuts, coffee, and apples. He spent weeks trying out various scenarios that tested his hypotheses.
Record the emotions you feel right after testing each reward and then see if the craving is still present after fifteen minutes. If it’s still there, the hypothesized reward wasn’t the right one. If you ate the donut but still craved the cookie, then you weren’t craving sugar. If you drank the coffee and still craved the cookie, then an energy boost wasn’t what you needed. If you chatted with coworkers and your craving dissipated, then social interaction was what you were after.
Keep track of the location, time, emotional state, other people, and anything that preceded the action that might have cued the habit. Charles realized that he craved the cookie between 3 and 4 pm, and it wasn’t due to hunger or low blood sugar. He realized that he wanted a distraction from work. Talking with others for a few minutes alleviated that craving.
Once you have determined the cue and the reward, you can work towards a better series of actions or thoughts that will lead you to that same reward. Eventually, Charles was able to create a plan so that every day between 3 and 4 pm, he would talk with someone for a few minutes. His craving was satisfied, and he was no longer gaining weight from eating cookies.
So what “bad” habits are you hoping to change? Perhaps your mail has been piling up for months, and you want to create a habit of dealing with it before it creates so much anxiety. Maybe you have a tendency to leave items out to remind you of tasks, but the system has broken down because there are too many items out, and reminders are not leading to action. If you’re flummoxed, take a play from Charles Duhigg’s playbook: create a system of support, whether it be finding a clutter buddy or hiring an organizer like yours truly. We can create new habits that will alleviate stress and reward you with additional time and energy to spend on activities that you enjoy much more than decluttering.
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.