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Michael Phelps. Photo: Reuters
Michael Phelps. Photo: Reuters

Getting into a routine

It is tempting to believe that routines are monotonous. Nothing could be further from the truth. Routines actually aid creativity.

An interesting number caught my attention the other day. Anywhere between 40% and 45% of our time is spent on routine activities. This number is the subject of much debate and gets people of all kinds worked up. The underlying argument here is that if a part of our routine is eliminated, we will have more time on hand to accomplish things that really matter. By any which yardstick, it sounds fair.

Now, let’s look at it from an entirely different angle and instead ask: What is a routine?

A routine is nothing but a sequence of actions. The more practised these are, the more effortless it is. It wouldn’t be off the mark, therefore, to describe a routine as a habit.

Now, the thing about habits is that they occur subconsciously. The brain does not have to deploy too many resources to perform them. Over time, the brain gets better and better at doing them. That said, there is no taking away from the fact that habits, because they involve routine, consume time as well.

There are two kinds of routines. The most obvious ones are the mundane. Like most people, I “need" to brush my teeth first thing in the morning, while my tea simmers until I’m done. I “need" to brush before getting into bed as well. Like most people, it is a habit drilled into my head as part of a routine and has to be performed.

I tell my young girls to do it as well. “Else," I tell them, “bad things will happen. Cavities will form, your teeth will rot, the insides of your mouth will hurt," and so on and so forth.

But these facts were known forever and people across cultures maintained oral hygiene using different tools. Until a marketing genius called Claude Hopkins was convinced to get into the picture by a friend of his who thought Pepsodent held enormous potential.

Charles Duhigg writes in his outstanding book, The Power of Habit, that Hopkins thought it neither worth the time or effort. But much convincing later, he agreed and deployed all of his genius to work at it.

Duhigg writes, “To sell Pepsodent, then, Hopkins needed a trigger that would justify the toothpaste’s daily use. He sat down with a pile of dental textbooks. ‘It was dry reading,’ he later wrote. ‘But in the middle of one book I found a reference to the mucin plaques on teeth, which I afterward called the film. That gave me an appealing idea. I resolved to advertise this toothpaste as a creator of beauty. To deal with that cloudy film."

The thing about this so-called “cloudy film" is that it always existed. It is a naturally occurring membrane that builds up on teeth regardless of what you eat or how often you brush.

“You can get rid of the film by eating an apple, running your finger over your teeth, brushing, or vigorously swirling liquid around your mouth. Toothpaste didn’t do anything to help remove the film. In fact, one of the leading dental researchers of the time said that all toothpastes—particularly Pepsodent—were worthless. That didn’t stop Hopkins from exploiting his discovery."

“Here, he decided, was a cue that could trigger a habit. Soon, cities were plastered with Pepsodent ads. ‘Just run your tongue across your teeth,’ read one. ‘You’ll feel a film—that’s what makes your teeth look off color and invites decay.’"

“‘Note how many pretty teeth are seen everywhere,’ read another ad, featuring smiling beauties. ‘Millions are using a new method of teeth cleansing. Why would any woman have dingy film on her teeth? Pepsodent removes the film!’"

Unsurprisingly, Duhigg writes, “Pepsodent started dominating the marketplace; researchers at competing companies scrambled to figure out why. What they found was that customers said that if they forgot to use Pepsodent, they realized their mistake because they missed that cool, tingling sensation in their mouths. They expected—they craved—that slight irritation. If it wasn’t there, their mouths didn’t feel clean."

“Claude Hopkins wasn’t selling beautiful teeth. He was selling a sensation. Once people craved that cool tingling—once they equated it with cleanliness—brushing became a habit. When other companies discovered what Hopkins was really selling, they started imitating him. Within a few decades, almost every toothpaste contained oils and chemicals that caused gums to tingle. Soon, Pepsodent started getting outsold. Even today, almost all toothpastes contain additives with the sole job of making your mouth tingle after you brush... Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier."

Hopkins had latched on to an insight before the rest of the world had. Provide a cue. It creates a routine and rewards will follow. In this case, the cue lies in asking somebody to run their tongue across their teeth. A routine follows. They run their tongue across the teeth and find the so-called film. The reward comes when the mouth feels clean. Cue. Routine. Reward. Duhigg calls this the Habit Loop.

Those who understand it can deploy it in any which way to create a habit in others. If that is true, can we manipulate ourselves? Like Hopkins, whom everybody in advertising reveres, is there an internal “Hopkins" that resides in us and can sell ourselves a story?

Yes, argues Duhigg. By way of example, he offers a glimpse into how Michael Phelps—the most decorated Olympian ever—operates. As things are, he has just announced his retirement. He has earned 28 Olympic medals, of which 23 are gold.

That said, and before you read any further, may I suggest you watch this video from the 2008 Beijing Olympics? It is the final of the 200m butterfly and fans will already know that Phelps went on to claim gold in the end. But still, watch the video closely.

Everything looks smooth, doesn’t it? Much after the race, Duhigg interviewed Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman, who provided an account of what really happened at the race.

As always, Phelps wasn’t thinking about anything. His habits had taken over. His headphones were playing exactly what he expected. The race was just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day. He had imagined it would end with him on the podium. When the race started, he was halfway through the plan.

“Back in Beijing, it was 9.56am—four minutes before the race’s start—and Phelps stood behind his starting block, bouncing slightly on his toes. When the announcer said his name, Phelps stepped onto the block, as he always did before a race, and then stepped down, as he always did. He swung his arms three times, as he had before every race since he was 12 years old. He stepped up on the blocks again, got into his stance, and, when the gun sounded, leapt."

“Phelps knew that something was wrong as soon as he hit the water. There was moisture inside his goggles. He couldn’t tell if they were leaking from the top or bottom, but as he broke the water’s surface and began swimming, he hoped the leak wouldn’t become too bad. By the second turn, however, everything was getting blurry. As he approached the third turn and final lap, the cups of his goggles were completely filled. Phelps couldn’t see anything. Not the line along the pool’s bottom, not the black T marking the approaching wall. He couldn’t see how many strokes were left. For most swimmers, losing your sight in the middle of an Olympic final would be cause for panic. Phelps was calm."

“Everything else that day had gone according to plan. The leaking goggles were a minor deviation, but one for which he was prepared. Bowman had once made Phelps swim in a Michigan pool in the dark, believing that he needed to be ready for any surprise. Some of the videotapes in Phelps’s mind had featured problems like this. He had mentally rehearsed how he would respond to a goggle failure. As he started his last lap, Phelps estimated how many strokes the final push would require—19 or 20, maybe 21—and started counting."

“He felt totally relaxed as he swam at full strength. Midway through the lap he began to increase his effort, a final eruption that had become one of his main techniques in overwhelming opponents. At 18 strokes, he started anticipating the wall. He could hear the crowd roaring, but since he was blind, he had no idea if they were cheering for him or someone else. Nineteen strokes, then 20. It felt like he needed one more. That’s what the videotape in his head said. He made a 21st, huge stroke, glided with his arm outstretched, and touched the wall. He had timed it perfectly. When he ripped off his goggles and looked up at the scoreboard, it said ‘WR’—world record—next to his name. He had won another gold. After the race, a reporter asked what it had felt like to swim blind. ‘It felt like I imagined it would,’ Phelps said. It was one additional victory in a lifetime full of small wins."

Allow me to leave you with a few questions to think over.

Question 1: When Hopkins thought up a campaign for Pepsodent, it was the early 1900s. Data mining was unknown. Things were in their infancy. We are just about beginning to see how powerful it can be. For instance, the amount of things the software you use knows and understands about you, is mind-boggling.

Have you taken the time out to pause and wonder why is it that you use whatever it is you use? Have you been sold an illusion? Is that illusion now part of your life? And, therefore, you doing whatever you do, are these unconscious acts? Induced habits? Do you have the mental and physical muscle to build your own habits instead?

I don’t intend these as metaphorical questions. For instance, the brand of clothes that you wear, why do you wear it? That iconic car or bike you own or dream of, is it really worth it? Or are you buying into a cult? The ideology you vote for—is it part of your core belief or something you have been manipulated into?

Between the modern-day equivalent of Hopkins and data mining, do you think you really stand a chance?

Question 2: Do you have that mental and physical muscle? Do you have it in you to see your future self as clearly as a champion athlete like Phelps does?

Question 3: Have you worked out the various permutations and combinations of all that can potentially go wrong? Have you worked out and rehearsed in your head time and over again what will you need to do to get out of a tight place if any of these scenarios were to play out?

Thinking up potential problems, creating routines and practising them until they get embedded as habits in the psyche can be a creatively satisfying endeavour.

Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

Read Charles Assisi’s previous columns here.

Comments are welcome at

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