I’ve long been intrigued, as well as annoyed, by the power of habits. Good habits keep you on track toward your goals (until they get derailed), and bad habits can be depressingly hard to break, as anyone with an addiction to tobacco or TV or cat memes knows. So, I decided to try to create some habits of my own, to see how hard it really was. 

First, let me explain that I went the app route before doing book research because 1) I’m lazy, and 2) downloading free stuff from the App Store always makes me feel like I’m giving a tiny present to myself, which I (almost always) promptly forget about. In this case, however, I did NOT forget about them, because instead of turning notifications off like I usually do, I left them on for the two apps I downloaded after my extensive reviews research, HabitBull and Strides. Back to that later.

I will admit that shopping for and reading reviews of about two dozen different habit trackers was slightly exhausting and seemed like a giant waste of time, but I told myself that it would all pay off in the end, when I discovered the most beautiful and efficient habit tracking app that would all but do my sit-ups, jogging, and laundry for me. A girl can dream. What these apps DO is remind you, often quite annoyingly, of all those things you say you want to accomplish but never quite get around to starting. If you’re one of those people who thinks their phones are the boss instead of the other way around, this might work for you. In my case, I cleared every notification as it popped up, told myself I would remember to do that thing later, and then… drumroll… promptly forgot about it.

iphone apps


And, of course, the Library! You knew this part was coming, right? I searched our catalog for “The power of habit” by Charles Duhigg, frequently cited as one of the best productivity books out there, and - curses! - the physical copy was checked out. Luckily, the e-book was available from OverDrive and I was able to check it out that very minute. As soon as I started reading it, I gleaned useful information, so I knew it was going to be helpful. Then, I attended the Idaho Library Association conference, where the presenter at one of my favorite sessions praised the book and summarized an anecdote from the beginning that I had just read the night before. Serendipity! Clearly, this book was a winner. 

The story she told, as described by the author, is of research done at MIT of rats in a maze. Spoiler alert! Essentially, over the course of testing rats’ ability to find rewards at the end of a maze, it turned out that the more they did the same maze with the same reward in the same location, their mental activity during the middle of their wayfinding decreased to the point where the decision-making and memory structures of their brains practically shut off, because the behavior had become so ingrained that it became…you guessed it: a habit. The magic combination of cue + routine = reward embedded this habitual response in the rats’ basal ganglia and allowed them to find their tasty treat, over and over again, while using very little brainpower.

A quick word of warning! This story also illustrates why your brain might become slower and slower if you never learn anything new - your brain wants to be efficient, and if it can skate by on habitual routines, it will. 


I still haven’t finished this book, because I’m too busy jogging and doing yoga and learning Italian (ha!), but I’ve already gathered a few takeaways: if you can turn something into a habit, you are MUCH more likely to keep doing it. One easy way to do this is to attach a desired activity to another habit you already have, such as brewing a pot of coffee or brushing your teeth. For example, if I change into exercise clothes as soon as I get home from work, I’m much more likely to do something exercise-related in them, instead of plopping myself at the kitchen table with a bowl of cereal. Another way is to use a tool like the aforementioned apps. HabitBull has an attractive calendar display which is helpful if you want to easily see how many days in a row you did something, while Strides shows all your habits on one screen in a simple list so you can feel extra guilty about all the other stuff you want to be doing and haven’t achieved yet; but these are only two of probably thousands. After a couple of weeks of attempting to use both of my finalists at the same time, I narrowed it down to the one I liked best, limited the notifications to the time of day I was most likely to actually do the things, and got serious about swiping. The little green checkmarks and happy electronic WIN sounds when I achieve my goals are more satisfying than I anticipated and are providing decent enough rewards to keep me going. I highly recommend trying a couple and seeing which ones work the best for you.

checkmark icon

Now if only Strides would spit chocolate chip cookies out of my iPhone instead of a “Goal Achieved!” popup, I’d really be getting somewhere.

Vanessa Velez, Collection Development Librarian

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