Habits and House of Cards: How to bring thinking about habits into a New Year


House of Cards left a legacy in our house, #metoo movement aside. A few episodes into the series, my beloved watched Frank Underwood rowing in the basement of his DC townhouse and said, “I want one of those.” (He wasn’t alone.) The object of his desire was a wooden water rower made in Rhode Island. Out with the treadmill, in with the WaterRower.

The training videos are enticing. I quickly decided that I would faux-row-on-the-Charles a daily 40 minutes. Right. My first row lasted 8 painful minutes. I missed my treadmill.

A few months later, I tried this again, this time committing to 12 minutes at 7:15am, five days in a row. I lined up podcasts to distract me from the slowest clock ever. I snuck in a few discrete stretch breaks, but I got through five days. And then another five days. I’m now a few months into a morning row routine. My “coach” holds me accountable: I tell my teen what I rowed while she stares into a bowl of Cheerios, to which she irreverently responds, “Nice job, Nancy.” Strangely that part has become motivating.

I think a lot about habits because ultimately that is what matters in adult learning. It isn’t just about knowing something. It isn’t about doing something once. It is about doing it routinely over time. What habits do we want people to have? How do we nudge people to form them?

Four thoughts on habits:

1. Start small

Charles Duhigg shared a simple graphic for understanding habits in his book, The Power of Habit. Nonprofit boards understand this already: they get to the finance part of the agenda (cue), the room goes silent while the treasurer and executive director talk (routine), and if everyone stays quiet, the finance part of the agenda ends quickly (reward). How do we break that cycle? In “Finance Unlocked for Nonprofits,” board members get a “Pulse” chart with simple questions to ask at each board meeting. The more familiar the routine gets, the more voices are heard.

From The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

2. Do something 5 times

Why five? There is absolutely no research that I know of behind five, but the goal is to do something more than a couple of times. It has to become part of an unconscious routine. Now when 7:13am comes along, I feel the need to move towards rowing. For those nonprofit boards using the “Balance Sheet Pulse,” I hope at the fifth meeting they feel the need to talk about their assets and liabilities because it is what they know to do.

From Finance Unlocked for Nonprofits, available at http://www.wanonprofitinsitute.org/finance

3. Create accountability

So many boards have to unlearn bad habits that are getting in the way. Wouldn’t it be better if a new board could start in mission-strengthening routines? We are working on a new toolkit on how to start a nonprofit. I’ve made a list of habits would be helpful for board members to start with to avoid unlearning later on. Things like:

  • Start every meeting with a prompt that helps people to get to know each other.
  • Build 10 minutes of learning into every board meeting.
  • Give any volunteer  a job description. No matter how simple it is, write down what you think their job is.
  • Express gratitude before starting new business.

4. Reflect on rewards

The “reward differential” is the difference between what the old routine yielded vs. what is possible because of the new routine.

  • What do you now see or hear that is different?
  • How does that make you feel?
  • What might happen if you continued this new habit?
  • What would be helpful to expand the habit, if you want to?
  • How are you celebrating the change?


As we start a New Year, what habits do you want to change?

  1. What small, achievable actions can you commit to?
  2. What five times will you take that action?
  3. When will you reflect on what difference it makes?

P.S. Check out this awesome flowchart from Charles Duhigg.

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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