How Words and Visual Cues Can Get a Habit Back on Track

I started teaching myself to play the guitar at the very end of 2020.

All of last year and most of this I practised every day.

But when I got COVID earlier this year I lost all enthusiasm for playing. I had the time, and the energy, but the guitar stayed on its stand. Unplayed. And even once I’d managed to get back into most of my daily habits it continued to sit silent in its place.

Every day the ‘Practise guitar’ task appeared on my Blitz app widget on my phone’s home screen. And every day I marked it off even though I hadn’t touched the guitar.

I decide I needed to try something different. I wanted to play it, just not enough to actually pick it up!

The first decision I made was to use habit stacking. I’d not long finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear and it was a concept I’d already encountered and tried prior to reading the book. I decided that I would play the guitar after my post-work walk.

Great.

However, my post-work walk was another habit I’d fallen out of while unwell and although I had started to go out again, it certainly wasn’t part of my routine as it had been before. I needed a visual cue to remind me and get the routine flowing again.

I decided to place my shoes at the foot of the stairs after lunch so that when I came down from the office when I’d finished work for the day they would be right in front of me, ready to put on and head out the door.

Stairs
Photo by Alex Shu on Unsplash

Again, great.

But I still needed to remember to play the guitar when I came back in, rather than the default of going to make dinner.

So I went for another visual cue, also set up at lunchtime. I moved my guitar away from the wall and in front of the sofa so it looked out of place.

These visual cues worked pretty well, so long as I remembered to set them up. And at least the guitar was no longer sat in silence.

My final change was one to help me remember even if the cue was forgotten. This one was a language shift.

Previously the task I had on my phone was Practise guitar. Even looking at it now it seems a little dull. And not very specific. I edited the task to Play the guitar today. Instantly it became something I wanted to do. Play is a much more inspiring word for me than practise, and today gives the task more of a sense of urgency.

I’d like to say that the changes I’ve outlined above solved the problem. But being honest, they haven’t completely. But I am now playing the guitar more days than I’m not. It’s a positive shift, but still a work in progress.

So if you want to start a new habit, or revive one that’s a little rusty how about trying one of the approaches above:

  • Habit stack to follow an embedded habit with the one you’re focused on
  • Create a visual cue in your environment to help remind you
  • Change the language you use to refer to the habit

Good luck!

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