The Power of a Well-Formed Habit for Solopreneurs & Freelancers

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… read them below or add one }

Sharon Hurley Hall April 29, 2015 at 8:14 am

So true, Annie. I always tell people that my secret to success is getting up and sitting at my desk every day. Without that, nothing would happen. 🙂

Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef April 29, 2015 at 11:47 am

Yes! We need more action-taking and less time spent on learning or getting ready to do something. Habits, people. Habits. Thanks for writing this one. I’ll be sharing with my bloggers group.

Melanie Kissell April 29, 2015 at 1:07 pm

Now I understand why I head straight for the kitchen and coffee pot as soon as my feet hit the floor in the morning. 😉

What Tea said and what Sharon said … times a hundred!

Thanks for an awesome post, Annie, and for sharing toggl. Looks like one heck of a cool tool.

Carol Lynn Rivera April 29, 2015 at 2:57 pm

Time tracking is the life saving device of all humanity! Seriously, I never know how long something is going to take until I time it. Sometimes it takes way less time to do than all the time I spent worrying about doing it (then I get mad at myself for not doing it sooner) and sometimes it takes way longer than I thought it would (and usually makes me mad because it shouldn’t have, lol). But also seriously, it’s a great tool to help you understand what on earth you’re doing all day.

Anyway I know this wasn’t about time tracking. As for habits, hard to do! And they say hard to break, unless it comes to work in which case it’s too easy to fall off the wagon. If I could reward myself with calorie-free ice cream all the time that never required a minute on the treadmill I would have a lot better habits 😉

SandyMcD May 4, 2015 at 12:51 am

Annie, this is such a keeper. You remind us all why blogging regularly is such a good habit to form. The science around habit is fascinating. Like Mel, I now also understand that morning coffee ritual now. Definitely a post to revisit over and over again. Habitually in fact!

Nick Armstrong May 4, 2015 at 7:05 pm

I tell all my clients that whenever they fail to chunk, they’re leaving money on the table. A great example happens right after they sign the contract and pay up. I take a bit of the money they paid me and ask what their hourly rate is.

I put that money LITERALLY on the table. “When you don’t chunk your email/day/project management… this is what happens.”

You should see their eyes. On the big scale of important habits to create, chunking email is probably the one most beneficial in our interruption-laden society. We can also benefit from shutting off all notifications or just enabling Airplane mode on our phones for a few hours a day.

Toggl is one of my favorites (before I started manually tracking my time, I find it a bit more efficient and accurate when dealing with multiple tabs). My employees use it regularly!

If you haven’t heard of it, HabitRPG is another great resource for geeks – it helps gamify habits and incentivizes reporting and making To-Dos.

Molly McCowan May 5, 2015 at 3:21 pm

Great tips, Annie! I’ve found that I can usually combat my procrastination habit by breaking up tasks into multiple parts, but I never thought about applying that to writing blog posts. I know that’s only a small part of this great piece, but it’s the one I made a note of to start doing ASAP! I’ve also heard a lot about Toggl, and I think I’ll actually give it a try after reading this.

Nicole Fende May 12, 2015 at 8:52 am

Oh Annie this is brilliant. I’m going to borrow a couple thumbs from someone so I can give it four or five thumbs up. All the information in the world is useless if you don’t use it consistently. PS The 21 days number is flawed, more credible research says 66 consecutive days.

Yogesh Shinde March 16, 2017 at 12:54 pm

I am using Any.do. It reminds me my daily task and other tasks as well. It’s my favorite productivity app.

Toggl is great tool to track our time and it also shows us to relax after working for an hour. I think Any.do can helps us with reliable cue and Toggl to make us focus on the core objectives (tracking our time).

Thanks for this informative article.

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