I have spent a lot of time studying physics. I was especially fascinated by the ability of predicting the behavior of planetary bodies through mathematics. One of the first topics we studied included Newton’s laws of universal gravitation. It describes the attraction of two bodies depends upon their mass and the distance between them. This means that everything with any weight is pulling every other body toward it at some level. Yes, you are exerting a force, be it very, very small, on the sun, just as it is pulling you toward it. What keeps us from flying off into space towards the sun is that we are much, much closer to another body, albeit smaller, called the Earth. It is the very close proximity to the Earth that keeps us stuck here on its surface. Our bodies even exert a very small force on each other. We call that force Gravity.

So why talk about gravity in a discussion of habits? We are drawn to actions much like we are physically drawn toward other bodies of mass. The “mass” of an action is our need or desire to perform it. The distance between us and the action is the frequency in which we perform it. The force generated between the two is called “habit”.

For example, I have a strong habit of eating every day. I do it several times each day and that frequency is so close and regular that I am very attached to it. The force of that habit is very high. So, when I miss a couple meals, for force of my habit kicks in and I start seeking food everywhere. The longer I go without food, the more that attraction pulls me in. Let’s say I wanted to give up food completely. Like a rocket trying to escape the Earth for orbit, I would have to exert an incredible amount of effort to break that habit. Ask anyone who is trying to give up smoking just how hard it can be. No matter the distance between the last cigarette and the current day, that force of habit is tugging gently, much like a comet is pulled by the Sun, even though it is billions and billions of miles away. If an effort is not constantly exerted, the attractive force can cause us to revert to that action, even after a distance of years.

Understanding this force of attraction can help us break habits and create new ones. The frequency in which we perform the desired action will create stronger forces of habit. When forming a new desired habit, it takes awhile of regular repetition to bring that action close enough to make it a constant orbit of our behavior. Our desire for that action increases its mass in the equation of the habit. The greater the desire, the less impact the distance of repetition has on the habit. My desire to stay out of jail helps me perform my annual tax return with perfect frequency. And that deadline of April 15th helps quite a bit, too.

When trying to make a new habit, determine how much the new action is desired. Then, increase the frequency until the action is brought into the orbit of behavior. Push the undesired actions away by decreasing their frequency, realizing the struggle will be in direct proportion to the force of the habit already created. If you’re a closet physicist like me, perhaps this analogy will help you capture the actions you want into your personal orbit of habit.

Originally posted in August 2009 on Mind Like Monkey, another blog I wrote for a time with two great friends, Tara Robinson and Augusto Pinaud

A few months ago, I discovered I had developed a bad habit. I had turned into an email junkie. It was easy to let my day be ruled by email. I had Outlook up all day, front and center on my monitor. My addiction had become so bad that I caught myself hitting F9 (Send and Receive), looking for the next email to come in. Can you imagine anxiously seeking email? I was worse than Pavlov’s dog.

Of course, my other work suffered. Instead of working on the important tasks, the things that truly mattered to my team, I was living for the next email to pop in. It was learned ADD. I was creating a distraction so I wouldn’t have to face the hard work.

Fortunately, I caught myself doing this before someone else noticed (like the boss). I realized that bad habit I had slipped into and knew I had to change quickly. It was one of the hardest things I have had to do.

Breaking a habit requires constant vigilance so as to not slip back into the comfort zone. They say it takes 21 days to make a new habit and I believe it. For the next three weeks, I focused on shutting down Outlook as soon as I finished processing my email. However, that wasn’t enough. I had to fill the time that used to be spent on email.

I had forgotten what I was supposed to be doing. I mentally wandered around, looking for something to do. Going back to my job description, annual goals and reviewing all the active projects helped me remember my true purpose in the company. Creating task lists helped me fill the time I used to spend waiting for email to arrive.

What a relief to finally be working on important things again. A year later, I still have to watch myself that I give only appropriate time to email. I set aside certain times during the day for email and then shut it down and get back to the real business at hand. This new habit has made me a better employee.

I found I have slipped back into the email addition habit again. Time to take my own advice. Again. Email is so addictive. The advent of smartphones like the iPhone haven’t helped at all. We are addicted more than ever. Time to break the habit.

A few years ago, there was quite a ripple through the blogsphere about Jerry Seinfeld and his productivity calendar. Seinfeld shared his method to become a better comic was to write a better joke every day. To keep track, he uses a twelve month wall calendar and would put a big red X on the day upon completing his writing. After a few days, he had a chain of X’s. The mantra then became, “Don’t break the chain!”

I have talked before about it taking 21 days to make a new habit. Seinfeld’s idea follows the same concept. By extending the chain each day, the new activity becomes a habit. The visual queue of the chain becomes a terrific help to keep things going. As the chain grows, it increases the pressure to add just one more day and to not let that day be the one that breaks the string and forces it to be started over. That internal pressure can be just what is needed to motivate to action.

One of my goals this year was to write on this blog twice a week. Most weeks I post three times. Last week I didn’t get a post made for Friday. I had a host of details in my personal life requiring attention and I ran out of time and energy. Things do happen occasionally, but since my goal was twice per week, I was able to allow myself to take care of it without guilt because I knew the goal was met on Wednesday.

However, that knowledge that I had a string going since before the first of the year drove me to writing tonight. Yes, there are many other things that I still need to do, but I didn’t want this to be the week I broke my chain. That desire drove me to the computer tonight. Don’t break the chain.

Pick a habit, any habit you really want to achieve. Write it down. Describe the habit in detail. What are the activities it requires? What does success looks like?  Why you want to acquire this habit? Get a calendar or make one in Word or Google and a red marker. A handy Chain Calendar at the left is available free here. Do the activity for today. Take the marker and make a great big X through today. It will feel great. Say out loud, “Don’t break the chain!” Do the same thing tomorrow. Don’t forget to say it out loud.

Don’t break the chain.

There are several great websites and phone apps that help record the chain. A couple I have checked out are ChainCalendar and HabitForge. Find something that works for you.

Don’t Break the chain.

picture credit: ChainCalendar.com