Green glowing power button with caption reading "The right habits can power up your business's growth"
What’s my secret weapon? I’ll tell you, for the low, low price of $999.

OK, no, seriously – I’ll tell you for free. Put your money away. Here it is:

There isn’t one.

There’s no secret, no blueprint, no formula for six-figure (or seven-figure – I mean, really now?) success.

That’s not to say there isn’t valuable stuff you can learn from others who’ve walked the small business path before. Lots of solopreneurs and freelancers have favorite tricks, tips, tactics, and strategies. Some of what they can teach you may work for you; some of it may not. Personally, I’ve spent several hundred dollars over the past 12 years or so in search of the former, but getting (mostly) the latter.

But there is one thing that in all my years of making a living on and through the web has never let me down – and has never not worked for every single solopreneur and freelancer I’ve met or worked with. This thing is free, but it’s not easy. If you learn how to use it properly, and apply it strategically, it will help you, too. I guarantee it.

It’s the power of habit. And it can work for you, if you know how to put it to work correctly in your own business.

Why Habits Are So Universally Powerful

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” ~ William James

Most of us struggle to “get it all done.” Finding time – or rather, making time – to write all that content we’re supposed to be marketing with, “engage” in “conversations” on social media, manage our websites and SEO, run our businesses and, oh yes, actually do the work we’re paid to do is the single biggest challenge we face.

And even when time isn’t an issue for us, managing ourselves – wrangling consistent effort across the board from ourselves – definitely is. We all struggle with getting it all done, whether it’s time or consistency or a lack of information that we perceive as the culprit behind the struggle.

Harnessing the power of habit quite neatly and efficiently cuts all those culprits off at the knees, metaphorically speaking. It sidesteps the whole issue of why you’re not getting it all done, so that you can get it all done, without a struggle.

Silhouette of person in profile with maze overlaid head

When a particular action becomes a habit, you no longer have to expend as much time or effort to take that action. That’s true of any action, from the simplest (brushing your teeth) to the most complex (writing and publishing quality content on a consistent basis).

Automatic behavior requires less effort – actual or perceived. It also becomes more consistent: when the right conditions exist, you simply do that thing. The challenge for all of us is getting through the difficult period where habits are forming, before the actions become truly habitual.

Habits are simply the natural consequence of human neurology. They form when the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, through a process called “chunking.” And much of our daily activities, it turns out, are driven by this neurological process.

In fact, one study published by researchers from Duke University found that over 40% of all the daily actions we take aren’t the result of rational, well-thought-out decision-making processes, but of habit.

Digital marketing in particular makes a good area for well-formed positive habits, because it requires consistency of effort over an extended period of time. If you can make marketing a habit, you’re much more likely to succeed and grow your business.

Habits and the Three-Step Loop

As Charles Duhigg outlined in his excellent book, The Power of Habit, a habit is formed out of a feedback loop, consisting of three components:

Graphic depicting habit loop of cue-routine-reward

  1. A cue that tells your brain which habitual behavior to trigger
  2. A routine – the habitual behavior
  3. A reward that helps your brain decide whether it’s worthwhile to remember that loop in the future

So, the entire process starts when a cue occurs, that triggers the routine, which leads to the reward. When the reward is powerful enough, your brain recalls the routine the next time it encounters the cue, and prompts you to take that action again. The more often this happens, the more often and regularly it will happen – that’s the power of habit.

Let’s look at what this means in practical terms. For example, if you have a habit of writing blog posts and publishing them consistently, your habit loop could look something like this:

  1. You look at the editorial calendar you’ve set up and realize it’s time to write and publish a new blog post (your cue).
  2. So, you begin researching, drafting, organizing, and revising your blog post, adding in images and links where needed, proof your work, then publish and promote it on social media and in email (your routine).
  3. Once the post is live, you begin getting traffic to the post, which leads to comments and shares from others, which reinforces your feelings of accomplishment and progress in marketing your business (your reward).

The more posts you successfully write and publish, the greater the reward (in the form of shares, comments, traffic), and the easier you’ll find it to write the next post.

How to Create Good Marketing Habits as a Solopreneur

Forget that 21-day nonsense. Here’s what it really takes to get in the business marketing habit.

There’s lots of advice out there on how to create a new habit (even more on how to break a bad one). (That old saw about new habits taking 21 days to form, however, is bad advice – it’s based on a complete misunderstanding of one scientist’s anecdotal experience. Science now tells us it’s probably more like 66 days on average, but that depends heavily on a lot of factors that vary from case to case, and person to person.)

Screenshot of Google results for search "how to create a habit"

What I’m about to describe is the process that works best for me. It’s based on research as well as my own experience and that of friends, clients, and colleagues who have also struggled with producing consistent results in their businesses. Feel free to tweak or revise, as your unique situation may require.

At its core, any attempt to create a new habit – be it personal or business-related – requires four things:

  • A clear purpose – whatever habit you want to create, you have to know the reason behind it. What are you really hoping to achieve? This is usually a specific goal or state of being. For bloggers, it could be “I want to convert 20% more readers to my email list” or “I want at least 10,000 unique visitors each month.” For social media marketers, it could be something like “I want to grow my followers by 30%” or “I want to increase traffic to my landing page by 15%.”
  • A well-defined routine – a complete understanding of exactly what you want to make habitual. It helps to think in terms of systems ultimately, but you should start by listing each specific, individual action you’ll need to take. So, instead of calling your routine “writing a blog post,” break that complex project down into the smallest possible steps – “pick topic,” “draft outline,” “find images,” etc.
  • A reliable cue – the thing that will trigger the habit for you. This can be anything – a situation, a piece of information, a time of day, a day of the week, a pop-up digital reminder. The idea is to tie the routine to a cue that occurs without prompting from you on a regular and consistent basis.
  • A sufficient reward – whether it’s something tangible and concrete or simply the recognition of an internal feeling, it has to be strong enough to encourage future repetition of your new habit.

I think it also helps to have some system for tracking and reinforcing your new habits, especially when they’re complex ones that take some time.

My favorite new habit-creating tool is Toggl.

Screenshot of Toggl.com

It’s a free web-based application that lets you track your time and assign specific blocks of time entries to different projects and label them with different colors so you can identify them at a glance.

How does it help you create a new habit? It forces you to get clear about how much time you’re really spending on each action.

By tracking the time it takes for your new routine as well as for everything else you do during your workday, you can put the lie to that little voice whispering “you don’t have time to do this.”

The simple fact is we all have the same amount of time – 168 hours are granted to each of us, every single week. Our choice as individuals is how to spend those accumulated hours and minutes. Our challenge is to make the choices that support our goals, instead of distracting us from them.

Three clock faces

 

Toggl, and other time-tracking apps, help you take an inventory of your current “default” time choices. That’s the only way you can really hope to make smart changes to those choices.

Once you’ve identified how much time you’re actually spending on your marketing tasks, you can identify ways to streamline your processes and figure out which tasks have the highest ROI for you. Those are the ones you want to habitualize first.

Conclusion

Habits can wreck your health, your life, or your business – but they can also help you reach your goals successfully. Think of habit not as something to break or dissect, but rather as a tool that, when used correctly, can powerfully assist your conscious efforts.

One note of caution: It’s not smart to tackle too many habits at once. Pick the one or two that are most critical to your success — or that are hardest for you to do consistently.

It may also help to find an accountability buddy or two when you’re forming new habits. Pick a method – email, Facebook group, etc. – and check in with each other periodically to make sure you’re sticking to your habit-forming plan.

Have you tried making marketing a habit? What works for you?

Favorite book, pack of OreosTM, lucky rabbit’s foot, four leaf clover, a kick-ass CRM, a favorite project management system … we all have our own must-have accessories to complement our day-to-day activities and grow our businesses. Check out all the Word Carnival bloggers who are sharing the things they can’t do without in business.

Photo credits:
Clock faces: Time via photopin (license)

{ 9 comments }

Car speeding down highway with caption "When someone tells you there's a right way, flee"
Once upon a time — 8:56 AM EST, to be precise – the Internet was born.

A great collective intake of breath rose up from the land. And for the next four minutes, the world oohed and aahed at the magical creature humanity had just birthed. (Well, OK. Some of the world oohed and aahed. A few folks sniffed, muttered “It’ll never catch on,” and went back to reading their newspapers and books, which were basically things we used to have on which words were printed before the Internet was born. And also a lot of folks didn’t even know it had happened, because – duh – no Internet yet.)

Then, at precisely 9:01 AM EST, a funny thing happened.

People started telling other people how “it OUGHT to be done.” (“It” could have been anything, but for the purposes of our story, let’s focus on those people who were referring to how folks could market their businesses using this newfangled thingamabob.)

And it went on like that for about a hot minute, and then at 9:02 AM EST, some other folks rose up and began fighting back against the first folks, saying “No, no, no, that advice is ALL WRONG. This is what you should be doing.”

And thus the Way of All Things Digital-Marketing-Related was born. As if we’d been cursed by the Evil King (what? In my world, the bad guys aren’t always women, plus it’s my story I’m telling here, so..), we became doomed for all eternity to suffer through this cycle.

Every.Damn.Time.

  1. Something new and shiny pops up.
  2. People begin to take notice.
  3. Group A, almost always the early adopters, begin preaching “The Way of the New and Shiny Thing.”
  4. Everyone follows along with Group A for a while, and then…
  5. Group B rises up in opposition, preaching “The One True Gospel of the Not-So-New-And-Shiny Thing,” which is diametrically opposed in some significant way to Group A’s message.
  6. Like lemmings, we turn en masse and follow Group B.
  7. Lather.
  8. Rinse.
  9. Repeat.
  10. Throw up.

God almighty, enough.

Just take a breath for a second. And consider this tantalizing possibility …

There is no one right way. There is only Zuul.

Wait, no, that’s not right.

There is no one right way. There is only the better way for you and your business.

I agree, it’s not nearly as catchy. But it has the unique advantage of being absofreakinglutely true. For everyone. In every situation.

I ask you: How many other things can you say that about?

I don’t wholly understand why this back-and-forth/”us vs. them” shit happens, y’all, except that we’re all humans, and as such we’re all hardwired biologically and especially neurologically to seek out patterns, because patterns make our lives easier (or at least we think they do), and because they feel true.

But they’re not true. Not always, anyway.

Reasonable minds differ on so many different aspects of digital marketing, in particular, and I think this is why so many of us get lost, confused, overwhelmed, and frustrated. Here’s a short, excerpted list of the online marketing topics I’ve seen or discovered widespread disagreement on just in the last three weeks:

  • How often should you post on social media?
  • Heck, let’s narrow it down – how often should you post on Facebook?
  • Should you curate other people’s content? Or only post your own stuff?
  • Should you be everywhere? On just one or two social platforms? Anywhere? Is it all a waste of time?
  • What about blogging? Do we have to blog every day? Once a week? Twice? Does it even matter, as long as we’re consistent in our publishing schedule?
  • OK, but how long should our blog posts be? Will readers balk at 1000+ word posts? Or do those longer posts get better results?
  • Fine, fine, no consensus on any of that, just tell me this: What the HELL am I supposed to do first? What should my focus be?

I submit to you, dear reader, none of these questions is capable of a single answer that’s equally right for all of us.

The only thing any of us “pros” can tell you (and retain our integrity in the process, anyway) is, at best, a general conclusion based on experience and observation, together with the key factors we think are important that might have changed that conclusion:

  • How often should you post on social media? It depends. Engagement per tweet, for instance, seems to diminish when you post more than 4-5 times a day, but overall engagement continues to rise up to about 15 tweets a day, when it then begins to diminish a bit.
  • How often should you post on Facebook? It depends. If you’re getting good reach organically, once a day may be enough, assuming it’s visually eye-catching.
  • Should you curate other people’s content? Or only post your own stuff? It depends. If you’re interested in exploring higher-volume social media marketing tactics and you can’t afford outsourcing content creation to feed that content monster, you’ll probably need to turn to content curation in some way. Content curation can potentially give you a host of relationship-building, authority-enhancing, humanity-strengthening benefits, too.
  • Should you be everywhere? On just one or two social platforms? Anywhere? Is it all a waste of time? It depends. For most solo and small business owners, being everywhere isn’t cost- or time-efficient. You’ll probably want to focus initially on one or two channels where your prospects are already participating actively. And yes, it can be a waste of time – for some businesses, some business owners, in some contexts. It just depends.
  • What about blogging? Do we have to blog every day? Once a week? Twice? Does it even matter, as long as we’re consistent in our publishing schedule? It depends. Blogging is a great way to build authority, and since most blog posts carry a useful marketing life of two or three years (compared to the 1 to 3 hours of useful life of your average Facebook post), it might make a lot of sense for you to focus your efforts there. And it depends – on your content, your niche, and your readers. What do they want? Do you even know?
  • How long should our blog posts be? Will readers balk at 1000+ word posts? Or do those longer posts get better results? It depends. One business’s prospects may only have time for the short, down-and-dirty how-to kind of post. Another might be craving more thought-leadership kind of stuff, wordy and dense. Or anywhere in between. Or something else entirely – inspiring quotes on pretty pictures, for instance. Or podcasts only, so they can listen during their workout at the gym.
  • What the HELL am I supposed to do first? What should my focus be? Sing it with me people … It depends! What are your goals? What are your assets? What do you do best? What scares the crap out of you? What does your business need right now, and what’s the fastest way to get it?

Right about now, some of you may be hyperventilating.  For you folks, I hear you. I feel you. For you, and just for you, I offer two things:

  1. First and foremost, here. Breathing is good. Hyperventilating is bad. Yeah, pretty much always – but – ahem – it depends. (Please note: In no way do I endorse that last one. For my purposes here, it’s just a metaphor. Hyperventilate at your own risk.)
  2. Second, while you’re breathing into that bag, consider this: If there is no one right way, then you can stop looking for it.

That’s true for everyone, actually. Yes, you’ll have to do a little more digging and experimenting, but there’s value in that process. You get to know yourself and your own business much better.

And the more you do that, the easier it gets in the future. You can even get to the point where Group A starts in with the “Gospel of the New Shiny” and you can say “Hmmm, yeah, not for me, thanks.”

Or “Ooh. That will very likely solve Problem X for me. Sold – for now.”

Think of that. You are your own best expert. You’re in control. You decide the better way for you and your business.

So what’s the moral of our little fairy tale up there at the top of this post?

It’s just this:

When someone tells you there’s “one right way” to do anything related to marketing or running your business …

Run. Run like hell.

The New Year is bright with all sorts of new ideas, but in certain circles there’s still plenty of shady tricks and underhanded practices that we think should be called out. This month’s word carnival: Dirty Deeds and Due Diligence – what to watch out for in 2015. Check out all of this month’s posts at that link!

Photo credit: cosmo flash via photopin cc

{ 19 comments }