What Amazons Want: Got a Bad Habit?


January 24, 2013 by Darlene McC

You did it.  You worked with some targeted personal reflection and you set meaningful, well considered goals for 2013.  Pat yourself on the back.

(But if you haven’t had the chance, start with What Amazons Want: The Big Picture and work your way through to catch up.)

So now what?  We just sit back and let the goal-mastering come to us?  Not a chance! That’s the difference between goals and resolutions: you can chunk a goal down to their itty-bitty-bite-sized pieces to make them easily digestible morsels of self discipline.  You master the little pieces, and the big ones don’t seem so big.  Now it’s time to make a plan that’s smart, doable, and backed by science to get you where you want to go.

Right, hot stuff? Let’s get to work.

It’s All About Habits

A bit of wisdom from current psych research regarding everything you do: your entire life is fueled on habits.  Everything you do: which contact you put in first, what pace you brush your teeth, where you stand on the subway, how you hold your hands when you drive, what pattern you move in when you lock or unlock your door, how you hold your arms when you hug your partner, your kissing style, all of it!  Habits.


That face? It’s her habitual reaction to her brother taking embarrassing pictures.

But what about the bigger stuff?  Research shows they’re habits too!  Look at your eating pattern for the week – how much do you really deviate from a set script?  Do you eat the same foods over and over?

Every time I order Thai food I get almost exactly the same thing.  I tell people I love Thai; but I really only eat the curry, so how do I know?  It’s likely that when you get pizza you get the same toppings, or a small variety of them, every time.  The way you talk to your kids, the way you react to stress, you’re spending habits.  How much of them are mindfully considered?

Want to know the real secret of real, lasting life change?  Every magazine ever has promised it.

Are you ready?

Are you SURE you’re ready?

Here we go:

Real, lasting life change comes by learning how to recognize habits and then change them.  That process teaches you self discipline… and then you can change anything.


That’s it.  That’s what the research says.  Find a way to change the core of your habits, decide what you’re willing to change in your life to get the things that you want, and you can pretty much do anything.

Let’s look at some examples:

A couple wants to save for a house.  We’ll call them Pat and Jo.  Pat & Jo eat out often, they pamper their dog Kip, and they travel 3 or 4 times a year.  But they really want a house.  So they make a budget, change their eating habits, and start a saving habit instead.  Seeing the deposit number climb every week when they get paid is a huge incentive to keep saving and they get more and more excited until they finally reach their goal = new house.

Jean wants to be more healthy.  She smokes, drinks, eats a lot of fast food, and doesn’t work out.  Jean starts by identifying the triggers to her smoking problem: socializing with a work friend during breaks, and alcohol.  She realizes she’s only smoking at work so she can have a break & decides to replace that with walks (fortunately, work friend is down for it too).  Three months later she’s cut way back, but is still smoking when she parties; so she spends the next two months not drinking.  With the extra money she has from not partying she joins the gym.  Because she’s working out all the time fast food seems silly, so she takes a cooking lesson or 3.  In 6 months Jean is feeling a whole hell of a lot better.

Nothing scary, just habits.  Little things instead of giant chunks.  Ever try swallowing one of those giant antibiotic horse pills?  Don’t they suck so much more than your little tiny birth control?  Think about it.

But how do habits work?

Habit Guts

In his book The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg shares the most current research on habit formation and change.  He details a three step cycle of habits: cue, routine, and reward.  The ability to identify and manipulate these loops is the key to real change.  Cues are anything that triggers a habit.  Think of the smell of buttered popcorn at the movies.  The routine is the action you take following that cue, and you take it to get to the reward.  In this case, you buy and eat the movie popcorn without a single thought to your new diet so you can stuff it in your face.  Even if you weren’t hungry when you came to the movies!

Is your mouth watering now?  Just the thought of the cue has been enough to trigger the desire for that reward.

Is your mouth watering now? Just the thought of the cue has been enough to trigger the desire for that reward.

The key to breaking a habit is being able to identify each of the steps above and make a plan to change the routine that satisfies the reward.  In the case of the movie loop, we know the smell of food at the movies will make you want to eat; so before you go to the movies you make a plan.  You bring a bag of nuts & celery with coconut manna on it so you can munch without the bunch.

How to Get Started

Take a look at your list of 2013 goals from last week & the breakdowns you made on Tuesday, both ordered by importance.  Examine the first one and pick the simplest, most obvious thing you need to change to accomplish that goal.

For example, let’s look back at Jean.  She wants to be healthy, right?  To give our hypothetical friend a measurable goal, let’s say she wants to do a 5k in June.  What’s the most obvious thing Jean needs to change before she can run 3.1 miles?  She needs to quit smoking.

Financial goals are not much different.

You’re 25, a few years out of college, have never kept a budget, and have no idea where your money goes; but you’ve just realized you really want to own a home at 30.  You need to start saving some money… but how much?  You start tracking you’re spending to figure out where your money is going.  Your first habit to change is to start paying attention.

So grab that first goal & take a close look.  What’s the simplest, most obvious thing you’ll want to change?

Hold Your Horses

It’s really easy to want to run right ahead and do everything all at once.  We do it because we want change now.  That’s why fad diets are so lucrative.  Millions of people spend billions of dollars a year on the next big thing that promises huge change… but those consumers don’t learn the new habit patterns and fall right back to what they did before.  To help you seed lasting change we want you to take your time.  Start with one or two things.  In a few weeks we’re going to check back and be sure you’re taking the next step.

Know Your Weaknesses

After you’ve identified your first habit to change you want to recognize when and why it occurs.  Say you’re a snacker.  Every morning at 10 you grab a doughnut and every afternoon it’s a bag of chips and a coke.  You don’t like it, you know it needs to change; but without them you don’t feel right.  (If this is you, go read It Starts With Food to better understand your hormones!)

Ask yourself why though.  Are you snacking because it’s an excuse to get up from your desk?  Are you actually hungry?  Do you just need to break up the monotony and do something else with your hands?  Are you bored?

Once you ID the trigger you can make a strategy to stop it.  If you’re bored go visit a work friend and gossip.  If you’re hungry plan a healthy snack.

The Phrasing Matters

What you want is very important and the way you state it can be essential to achievement as well.

In his book How Children Succeed Paul Tough interviews Gabriele Oettingen, a psychologist at NYU who researches goal setting strategies. (Books about childhood development are VERY helpful when thinking about adults and change.)  What Oettingen found was most people implement one of three techniques when setting goals.  And only one works.

Optimists dream about how awesome it’s going to be when they achieve their goals, forgetting to visualize all the hard work involved.  Pessimists just think about the hard work and don’t focus on the reward.  Neither of these strategies works.

Not my feelings. Not my fault.

The third, termed Mental Contrasting, means imagining both.  See the wonderful things that will happen when you reach your goal, and then consider the hard work that you will overcome to achieve it.  Oettingen then suggests creating “implementation intentions” of if/then statements that form a plan and link the obstacles to the outcomes.

Translation: “Whenever I encounter obstacle x, I’ll do instead.”

Simply put, you’re making a plan to prevent failure!

    • If I get a hankering for sweets, then I will have an apple with coconut manna.
    • If I get home and want to relax, then I will go for a run.  I get to relax & watch TV after.
    • If I want to make an impulsive purchase, then I will move that money into my savings account and consider buying it next week to see if I really want it.

Visualize yourself completing the compensation pattern and that will make it easier to run the new habit when it’s game time.  Think of it like running a play for a sport or a program on your computer: there’s a set order of things that’s going to happen when you have a certain trigger.  You’re taking the same trigger for your old habit, but rewiring it for the one you want.  Duhigg describes replacement as the most effective form of habit change.  It’s worked for professional athletes, addicts, alcoholics, and other compulsions.

Sketch A Plan

Some of you are no doubt master planners.  You’re project managers who get sweaty palms when you pass a Staples.  The smell of steno tape gets you hot and we love you for it.

Go ahead and map out each step of the process if you want to.  Make flow charts and graphs and master plans.  We’re totally down with that.  But only pick one or two things to do right now.  Once you’ve become Queen of the Habit you’ll be able to make that flow-chart fly.

Get To It Already!

Go write yourself a few “If/Then” statements to get you started with your first goal. Repeat them over and over again.  Make them a mantra you can’t get out of your head.  Write yourself a little jingle and hum it for a while to really cement the new rule in your mind.

Looking Ahead

In February & March we’ll work out way through the most common resolutions of 2012, talk about why 92% of people failed in 2012, and some strategies to conquer those goals in case that’s what you’re working on in 2013.

Don’t Forget to Share!

And share your statements below.  Where are you starting for 2013?

2 thoughts on “What Amazons Want: Got a Bad Habit?

  1. […] you want to change your life?  Then you need to change your habits, as we established last week.  But how long until you’ve got this new pattern wired up […]

  2. […] So, in the case of an overeating loop – you are bored at your desk. You automatically get up, walk to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and talk with others who are also in the cafeteria, resulting in a rewarding feeling. Now, four months later, your pantyhose are a little tight or you’ve ditched your belt. Those cookies are sometimes monsters That break you take where you get your cookie and socialize with others – what is driving that? Duhigg suggests experimentation: if you are bored, go for a walk or socialize away from food; if you are hungry, eat an apple. Figure out what is really driving your routine and what will satisfy you without consequence. What a solution. See more habit-changing solutions here. […]

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