It’s the first day of our 12 Days of Christmas series.

You know what that means, right?

It’s almost Christmas.

And then almost 2018.

Holy Guacamole! Right?

It also means it’s time to set goals for 2018. Both personal and professional.

If you don’t put a plan in place for the new year now, it’s going to be June, and you’ll realize you’ve let half the year pass and done nothing to accomplish your goals.

But you don’t need me to tell you that, right?

New Year, New Goals

Every blogger this side of Mars is talking about goals, how to “jumpstart” your new year, and plan for success right now.

And with good reason. Those things are important and crucial to success.

That’s why we have our 30 Day Communications Challenge each year (make sure you sign up for that now).

It provides the framework, tools, schedule, and forced habit changes to help you create an effective, measurable, integrated, PESO model communications plan.

So today I’m going to speak about that third element: habit changes.

Changing habits is the number one thing you can do for a productive and successful 2018.

Why We Form Habits

When we think of habits, we often think of them in a negative context. We think about breaking bad habits or eliminating them.

But habits are a necessary part of our brain’s ability to function.

Think about when you first learned to type. You pecked at every key—slowly, focused, and with deep concentration.

  • Where’s the “R” again?
  • Oh crap, I need to hold down the shift key.
  • Did I leave a space? No, I didn’t leave a space. Wait, now I left two spaces.

And so on. It was a deliberate process.

But now you could probably place your hands on the keyboard and type with your eyes closed.

You type without even thinking about it.

It’s second nature.

That’s because typing is a habit.

Our brains created an automatic process out of it so it can “downshift” when it needs to type.

So now you can type while you are on a meeting talking and interacting with others.

If our brains didn’t create habits, the world and how we interact with it would be too overwhelming.

We’d shut down or get into dangerous situations (think about all the habits we must have to drive a car successfully)..

Researchers sometimes see this in the case of brain injury.

Unfortunately, while this process is designed to help our brains function efficiently and effectively, it can also take control of how we act, how we think, and what we do.

Misguided habits will prevent us from reaching our goals.

Why Most New Year’s Resolutions Fail

Has this ever happened to you?

You set a New Year’s resolution, maybe to eat healthier or start to exercise consistently.

But even though you really, passionately want to make it happen, for some reason you just can’t.

Most likely the reason you can’t is your habits.

You try to force a new goal to the framework of your old habits.

And because the brain doesn’t work that way it will keep fighting to remove the “intruder” from the habit loop.

You don’t allow yourself to make the change.

You have habits around eating healthy, such as:

What you eat at certain times.
  • What you grab when you are hungry but don’t have something ready.
  • How you shop at the grocery store.
  • What you eat when you go out to dinner.
  • What you do when you watch a movie, or before you go to bed.

These habits are so ingrained and systematic they might seem like the only actual reality.

That’s why changing habits is so challenging.

If you consistently struggle to eat healthfully, it’s because habits control and dictate your dietary choices.

Many you aren’t even aware of.

We sabotage ourselves over and over in this way.

Understand the Habit Loop

Changing habits is only possible if you understand how habits work.

Last summer I read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

I haven’t been able to stop talking about it since.

(Ask anyone around me, sorry guys.)

In addition to exposing how habits control everything from why we brush our teeth to how stores control our purchase decisions, Duhigg details out something called ‘The Habit Loop.”

12 Days of Christmas: The One Thing You Should Do in 2018 - Changing Habits
Credit: The Habit Loop

There are three parts to the habit loop: Cue, routine, reward.

Here’s how it works:

  • You experience a cue.
  • This signals your brain to perform a routine.
  • The completed routine is rewarded with some stimulus (the reward).
  • This reinforces to your brain, “yay, this is a great pattern for me to keep and make automatic.”

Let’s say you do great with your diet and healthy eating plan, until around 3 p.m. every day.

Then you start thinking of the cookies you just baked, or the birthday cake in the office kitchen, or some of that leftover Halloween candy.

Your brain is so intent on the need for this reward it will allow you to think of nothing else until you get it.

You can’t focus, you can’t work, all you can think of is COOKIE!

Finally, you break down and go after your reward, once again reinforcing this diet-sabotaging routine in your brain.

Changing Habits Require You to Break the Habit Loop

To change your habits, you much break the habit loop.

The first step to do this is awareness (there is a reason this is one of the first steps in many addiction recovery programs).

You need to identify the different elements in the habit loop.

Normally it’s easiest to identify the routine first and then look for the cue.

If I know my routine is to grab an unhealthy snack in the afternoon, I can start to look for the cue that tells my brain it’s cookie time:

  • Am I hungry?
  • Do I need a break?
  • Am I mentally tired and my brain is looking for glucose?
  • Do I need to be social, so I want an excuse to go to the break room?
  • Am I cued by the time? 3 p.m. means COOKIE TIME.

Research shows almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional State
  • Other People
  • Immediately preceding action

So, Duhigg recommends asking yourself the following questions the moment the habit you are trying to break (COOKIE) hits:

  • Where are you?
  • What time is it?
  • What’s your emotional state?
  • Who else is around?
  • What action preceded the urge?

Once you identify the cue, you have two choices:

  • Remove the cue from your environment (sometimes this is possible, sometimes this isn’t).
  • Change the reward.

Changing habits is only possible if one of these two things is accomplished.

Change the Reward to Focus on Your Goals

Once you identify the cue and the routine, you are in a good place to make your habits work for you vs. against you.


You change the reward.

Preferably you’ll change it to be something which moves you closer to your personal or professional goals.

But as long as it’s something that isn’t destructive and doesn’t move you away from them, you’ve already made a stride by eliminating an obstacle.

Using our cookie example: your goal is to lose weight, and you realize you have a routine of going into the kitchen or office break room at 3 p.m. every day to get a cookie (reward).

You isolate the cue being that you are mentally exhausted at 3 p.m. and need a break (people commonly crave sweets when they are mentally drained because the brain craves glucose).

You change the reward to be productive for your goal: instead of grabbing a cookie for a break, you’ll take a walk around the block.

A new reward that also moves you closer to your goal: weight loss.

Changing rewards mean changing habits.

Changing habits (destructive ones) mean accomplishing your goals.

Likewise, you can go through this same process to create new habits that move you toward your goals.

How Changing Habits Works in Your Professional Life

Let’s use the 30-Day Communications Challenge as an example of how this tactic might work for your professional life.

We found in the State of the Independent PR Pro survey we did earlier this year that time was the biggest reason PR leaders did spend the time on business development they should.

Habits around time are a constant obstacle, and while planning and business development might be something every PR pro knows they should do because we are in the habit of responding to fires, we don’t break that response cycle habit to plan.

That’s why we created the 30-Day Communications Challenge. But setting a daily lesson and community which keeps you accountable to finish it, we force you to create a habit around planning. And it works.

The cue is a daily email and new lessons in the eBook.

The routine is going through the lesson and doing the homework.

The reward on a daily basis is feedback, interaction with a community, and measured progress towards a bigger goal — a 2018 PESO Communications Plan.

You can replicate this same pattern for other goals you have.

This is also why we suggest new PR Dream Team members check in, even if just to read the comments, every day.

So there you have it.

The number one thing you should do in 2018: changing habits.

What habits are you going to change this year?

What new ones will you create?

The 30-Day Communications Challenge begins on January 3. Are you subscribed?

Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

View all posts by Laura Petrolino