I Can’t Remember to Brush My Teeth… But I Can Run a Business

If you know me, you know I don’t really… do routine. Regular bed time? Ha! Regular wake time? Ha! Making my bed? Going to my office every day? Paying bills which aren’t automated? Regular grocery shopping day? Planning a week in advance? Umm… committing to a weekly blog post on a certain day, say Friday?

Ha ha ha ha. Not my forte.

Sadly, my teeth are just one part-time casualty in a long line of irresponsibilities.

Don’t worry, though. You don’t have to wear a gas mask when we hang out. You’ll never meet me with unbrushed teeth (or hair).

And now, thanks to The Power of Habit, I know why:

A habit isn’t a thing, it’s three things: a cue, a routine, and a reward. And it’s not three things, it’s a loop.

The routine is the practiced set of actions you take — the thing we all call “a habit.” The cue is the trigger on the gun of routine, the thing that says chop chop, brush brush. The reward is the nice thing you get at the end. Behaviorism aside, the human brain really does wire itself up to react to rewards.

Put these 3 things together, in a loop, and run it again & again, and you have the makings of an automatic habit.

Vis a vis toothbrushes, leaving my apartment is the cue. The reward is the opportunity to engage in polite society. The routine is the actual brushing itself, of which, I can assure you, I am capable.

So, aha, there’s the problem: When I stay at home, there’s no cue. “Brush Your teeth” is a subroutine in the “Amy Is Going Out” routine, which has the cue of “Hey, It’s Time To Go.”

If I don’t leave the house, chances are good that I’ll forget to perform the routine. Because I’m not really thinking about it, I’m waiting for the cue to trigger the loop.

Sadly, this problem isn’t limited to my (not so) fresh breath.

The “Amy Is Going Out” habit loop is based on one of a very few cues I have that actually work at all. There are other routines I use very effectively to get creative work done (funnel process, review process, mind mapping, brainstorming, outlining, planning, weighing, analyzing, researching, composting). They help me kick ass.

The thing is, they aren’t hooked explicitly to any cues. I only remember to use them some of the time:

Now, it’s terribly twee to complain about how disorganized and overwhelmed I am, yadda yadda. Obviously I manage to function pretty well. My business is profitable (and growing). I’ve got a great life. My customers are happy.

But, I can’t help but think: How much more profitable could my business be? How much better could my life be? How much happier could I make my customers? If only I could get my shit together a higher percentage of the time.

So, why do I suck so bad at habits? Am I just incorrigibly mercurial? Or lazy?

I’ve wondered this for a while. And til now, this is where my introspection ended.

I knew that I could work predictably inside a structure (“Amy Is Going Out”), but I’ve also always sucked at creating that structure in the first place. Impasse.

This is the most powerful thing I’ve learned from The Power of Habit so far (half-way through):

One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

More than 40% of what we do isn’t due to conscious thought, but habitual. Aka habits:

This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.

And: habits are a skill. (Duh, this part’s obvious.) Not only is deploying a habit a skill, but research has shown that creating habits is a skill, too. And research shows how to go about learning the skill of creating habits. (This part is new!)

Now I’ve got research at my disposal to teach me how I can consciously and systematically set out to whip myself into something more resembling a Human Who Has It Together. How you can, too.

And there’s no good reason it can’t work:

Habits aren’t destiny… habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced.

But the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit— unless you find new routines— the pattern will unfold automatically.

So here’s to making what we want unfold automatically, instead of what we don’t want.

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  1. Kelsey

    Tiny nitpick: The Twitter image links to the “Flying or Flung?” Flickr page, and that image doesn’t link to anything.

    While I’m commenting, thanks for writing useful information on the Internet! I have learned so dang much from your various websites, so I am super grateful that you take the time to write.

    • Amy

      Thanks, Kelsey, fixing the image link :)

      Please keep reading and feel free to say nice things about me ANY TIME ;)

  2. James

    For those that are looking for an easy and reliable way of creating new, ‘good’ habits, I can thoroughly recommend BJ Fogg’s “3 Tiny Habits” (http://tinyhabits.com/). I have a plethora of sexy, shiny, new habits courtesy of that system.

    • Amy

      Thanks, James – and Kareem! I’m going to try BJ’s class for the week of April 2nd. Invite anyone to join me :)


  3. kareem

    James beat me to it re: BJ Fogg’s 3 Tiny Habits. Just finished trying it out for a week and I’ll heartily recommend it too.

  4. Amber

    Girl, you are speaking my language. I can’t manage to get into a routine no matter how hard I try. I think I have the same problem: creating the structure. I think I hold onto misconceptions about what it means to work with structure. I see it as stuffy and boring, lacking in creativity. But I am less productive than I want to be…so I have a choice to make. Gonna check out the book you recommend and the one in the comments. Thanks for making me think on a Monday.

    • Amy

      Amber, YOU are speaking MY language — viewing structure as stuffy & boring… definitely. I always rebelled against it. I still don’t like having too much daily structure. For a while, we told ourselves we “had” to go to the office every day. A few weeks later and you can bet I was resenting it. Childish and petty, maybe, but at some point, a girl just has to admit that she’s not a 9-5er. Even if it’s her own biz and her own office and her own schedule.

      But now, I am — like you — obviously suffering from a lack of structure. And habits. So here I am :D

  5. Naomi Niles

    I hear this. If I didn’t have checklists and methodologies, I’d be a disaster. It’s too bad it’s not practical to apply this to brushing teeth (although I’m in the habit of brushing after every meal, which makes a good feedback loop).

    I’ve found that applying the same process to my own projects that I use for clients helps a lot. Seems like common sense, but when you do for yourself you think, “Aw, I don’t need that, I already have it all in my head.”

    Nope, same deliverables, everything. Only difference is that instead of me giving myself approval, I show others and then work their feedback in. So far it’s working out ok.

    Not having to wait for approval is nice too, ha!

    • Amy

      Naomi, see you are more advanced than I am :D I was always fine applying process to clients, but have always sucked when doing it for myself.

      I don’t have any checklists for myself. I ought to.

      Let me know if you wouldn’t mind me taking a peek at yours some day! :)

  6. Debs

    Wow. I think you just describthe who I am the most accurately that I’ve ever seen in my life.

    I’m pretty sure you’re that long lost twin “they” say everyone has… Wow. Lol

  7. Debs


    (you totally would have corrected your typo like this too, huh.) :-)


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