Can I Interrupt My Online Shopping Habit Using "The Power of Habit"?

I loved the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and for me, one of the most useful insights was the "habit loop":


A habit forms when you respond to a physical cue or trigger (e.g. being hungry) with a routine (eat) and you receive a reward (satiation) which makes you more likely to do the same routine next time. So, to break a bad habit, you need hang a better habit on the same cue. But the new habit will only stick if provides an equally satisfying reward.

The book used the example of a man who buys a snack from the vending machine at work every day, a habit that is wreaking havoc with his budget and his diet. The cue is a slump in energy around three in the afternoon. What new habit should he hang on that cue? Well, that depends on what reward he's actually getting from the snack purchase habit.

If he's hungry, the food is actually the reward. That would indicate packing a healthier snack.

If he's bored or fed up with work, a little change of pace is the real reward. A walk might satisfy.

In the book, he figures out that his actual reward is socialization as he stops and chats with a co-worker on his way back from the vending machine! So he changes his habit to include the socialization without the buying food part.

I've been thinking about this because I have a habit that I need to break. I find myself yearning to shop online a lot. I discussed this slightly in Breaking the Impulse Shopping Habit, but I think it's less about specific desire to buy stuff, now, and more about boredom? Or something? It's not that I even need or want anything, it's more of a pastime--just browsing. I'm not usually intending to seriously buy anything, but of course, if I didn't browse, I'd buy a lot less. More productive tasks rarely seem appealing in those moments.

The cue seems to be those little moments between tasks, say five or ten minutes after completing one part of task and before moving onto the next. It could also be in the middle of a more involved task, if I'm feeling stuck or just like I need a break. (Shopping is also a response to the trigger or needing/wanting a specific item, but that's not what I'm looking at here.)

My challenge is to figure out the rewards I'm actually getting from shopping in these moments in order to come up with a suitable replacement. Here is my brainstorm of what I think I'm getting out of it:

  • Change of pace. By switching to a task unrelated to work, I can come back with a clearer mind and fresh perspective. If I'm working on a task that's mentally taxing, it's helpful to "cool down" with something that is not mentally challenging.

  • Mild feeling of productivity/accomplishment. Shopping without purpose isn't really productive, of course (it might even be destructive), but it feels productive.
  • Pleasurable feeling when looking at pretty colors. This actually seems to be a key part of it as I most enjoy looking at colorful clothes or household items, and contemplating alternative ways I could take a break--like taking a walk around the corridor, or even going outside in winter--don't seem as nice because I know the corridors and the streets are all gray. I want color in my life.

Okay, I've identified the parameters of the problem. Here are some potential alternatives to shopping:

  • Take a walk. This would be the most effective type of mental break, and it can feel productive (especially if I bring my phone with a pedometer app), but if I'm going to go outside, I usually need to feel that I have "earned" a longer amount of time for a break. I often shop for only a few minutes at a time. And walking the corridors in the building doesn't feel productive because there's no destination. It also satisfy my color love.
  • Play a round of a puzzle game with fun colors such as Two Dot. This hits all of the points above and, as such, it works quite well! There is a potential that it could also lead to unnecessary in-app purchases to get extra lives, etc. but so far that has not happened.
  • Do my budgets/money management tasks. This definitely hits mild productivity and, at this point, it is usually not mentally taxing. It also may hit colors, if I am able to use an app that is pretty to look at, e.g. something with pretty charts and graphs. Unfortunately, there is only so much of this to do, my finances largely run themselves in the day-to-day.
  • Tidy/organize my office. I have some pretty and colorful little things, so handling them could make me feel at one with colors and materialism, but it also feels like work. Still, it's a mildly productive little task that I can do for short periods of time. There's a limit to how much I can do this, too, but, to date, it has certainly not been reached. I'll have to try this one.

  • Look at fashion photos online. If it's just that I like looking at clothes, it should be equally satisfying to look at clothes that aren't for sale. Of course, this will feel less productive than shopping, but it will be equally passive/easy.
  • Draw/design outfits. I doodle in meetings, but I've never used drawing as a between-task refresher. It's just never occurred to me. But there's no reason I couldn't bring in a little blank notebook and some pencils (colored obvs) and channel my love of clothes into imaginary designs, rather than eBay treasure hunts.
  • Organize my planner. I do have physical paper planner that I've been neglecting and it could be colorful if I bring in the aforementioned colored pencils.

Thanks for seeing me through this brainstorm! I have some interesting new ideas. The downside is that some of these ideas, unrelatedly, really makes me want to shop (for colored pencils, sketchbooks, and pencil bags). But I'm intrigued. I'll let you know if they work out!


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