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Making Habits a Choice – The Composed Domain March 2014 Newsletter

It appears I am riding a popular wave in thinking about habit change and how it happens.

Charles Duhigg’s recent book, “The Power of Habit” is a New York Times bestseller, and Gretchen Rubin of “The Happiness Project”, announced on her blog that habits will be the topic of her next book.  Many clients ask me exactly how to either create a habit or break one.  My answer is usually that it depends on their desperation level. Luckily that’s only one piece of the puzzle.


 Most habit change happens when you are either tired of paying a price, or something is so desirable you’re willing to pay one to get it. The real price in both cases is change. Change requires choice, and the trust that you have that ability; both to choose and to make the change.

After reading Duhigg’s book I am happy to report that there are a few more factors to consider! The links below will take you to 2 of the flow charts from his website!

The habit loop consists of a cue, a routine and a reward. The cue launches a craving of some sort and whether you’re conscious of it or not, that carving is built on anticipation of the reward. What complicates this process is that we can get into a habitual response to a cue without understanding what the reward really is! Does a scoop of ice cream really make it easier to fall asleep at night?

If you know the real reward of a habitual routine, you may be able to get that reward with a different routine – one that is positive instead of fattening.  Most habits are very hard to simply extinguish. Instead of struggling to do so, the book outlines a process for learning how to recognize your cue or trigger, and what the real reward might be.  Armed with that information you substitute a new routine for the “bad” habit. ????????????????????????????????????? Duhigg’s example is the story of how he came to understand his afternoon cookie habit.  It turned out that his 3:00 wander to the cafeteria was really a need for stimulation at a predictable point in the day. After some testing he determined that the cue was NOT hunger, but “3:00”. The surprise was that it could be satisfied by a walk and a chat with a co-worker instead of a cookie.  Sometimes you won’t be able to get rid of a trigger, but planning a different routine in response can make all the difference.

In order for this to possible you must believe that you can make a different decision.

 How to CHANGE a Habit

 I think this is the biggest problem I see; you have a habit and decide you’re stuck. How does will-power really work? According to some psychological tests cited in the book it can seem to be a limited resource, unless you develop the muscle for it. Bad news, good news! You can acquire it, but it takes effort.  And what’s more, some habits are what Duhigg calls keystone habits. They underpin other habits and choices that you may be making. When someone gives up smoking for example, it’s common for them to find that they want to eat better, and then, weirdly enough; they start exercising.

One keystone organizing habit would be to open the mail every day and process it before going to bed. This could ripple into better financial upkeep, less clutter in general, and a sense of being on top of daily choices.

Another would be to look at your calendar in the evening and be sure you have whatever you need for the next day ready to go. You could find yourself able to relax more in the morning, or maybe get the dishes done before leaving the house.

“The Power of Habit” has a reader’s guide in the appendix for applying the ideas and teasing apart the structure of your habits.  One I have struggled with is stretching. I wake up stiff and know that launching into my day this way is an invitation for injuries. Do I get on the floor and do some? Nope.

After some experiments I realized that it helped to have the mat out on the floor and ready, but I also had to be sure and do it before getting dressed. The mat is my cue, and my reward is the feeling that I’m ready for the day and less likely to pull a muscle. That was all well and good, but the routine didn’t work until I recognized that it had to happen in my jammies.

How to CREATE a Habit

 With self-awareness and trust in your ability to change you can harness the power of habits. I was tickled to see that Duhigg quotes a story from one of my favorite philosophers, the writer David Foster Wallace. (Wallace’s words are in italics below)

“The way we habitually think of our surroundings and ourselves create the worlds that each of us inhabit.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

The water is habits, the unthinking choices and invisible decisions that surround us every day – and which, just by looking at them, become visible again.”

So I invite you to open your eyes to the water you’re swimming in, you have far more choice than you may be using!