The Entrepreneurial Career : Habits—for Fun and Profit

“I sit down at my desk at 9 a.m.,” Tchaikovsky once said. “And the Muse has learned to be on time.” This vignette inspires a tantalizing syllogism: if I just start my work at 9 a.m. every day, I’ll be as great as Tchaikovsky! We can’t all become an immortal composer, but we can all make good art. We just need some good habits.

When you sit down to plan an entrepreneurial project, you will soon learn more than you ever wanted to know about your work habits. Do you grab that cup of coffee and browse through the news before getting anything done? Are you unable to bring yourself to concentrate at the end of the day, even if it’s the only time you have for your project? Do you give yourself a false sense of productivity by tooling around on social media before you begin drawing up a budget?

With all the details that a self-started project demands, it may seem that worrying about habits is like missing the forest for the trees. But what turns an idea into reality is a willingness to put the time in to get the work done—day in, day out, over and over again no matter what. If you have difficulty consistently applying yourself to a new—unfamiliar, perhaps a little scary—endeavor, you will only make slow progress.

In addition to discovering about your own work habits, you will soon find yourself trying to predict the behaviors of a group of people who are critical to your enterprise: your audience. Would more people come for a show at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m.? Which is a better venue—a gorgeous but unknown church or a hip but gloomy nightclub? What kind of program would attract teenage singers? Factoring in your audience’s preferences will help you make better business decisions.

Habits—defined as routine behaviors that tend to occur unconsciously—have received a lot of attention in recent years. It seems that everyone is giving them a closer look, from corporations seeking to profit from your buying preferences, to the U.S. military looking for ways to prevent riots, to your average smoker trying yet again to break the habit. Understanding and then improving your own habits will help you optimize your productivity, which will have a direct impact on your project’s success. It will also make you attuned to the routine behaviors of your audience, helping you to plan around—and even profit from—their preferences.

Your Habits: Your Work

Journalist Charles Duhigg has taken a look into the science behind habits and found that most habits can be distilled into three components: cue, routine, and reward. In his book, The Power of Habit, Duhigg outlines a framework for how habits work and a simple way to experiment with breaking bad habits and developing new ones.

In his book and in a detailed section of his website (charlesduhigg.com/how-habits-work/) Duhigg outlines this plan for change:

1. Identify the routine
2. Experiment with rewards
3. Isolate the cue
4. Have a plan

The first step—and fortunately the easiest one—is to identify the habit you want to create or change. For example, every evening after my daughter’s bedtime, I want to spend a couple of hours planning the next season for my Baroque opera company, Musica Nuova. Instead, I hit the fridge, watch funny videos, and deep clean my kitchen. I feel happy at first, but guilty and tired afterward. By the time I get around to donor strategy or Web design, I’m spent. What’s worse, a few nights like this stalls progress and makes me dread the entire project.

So, I’d like to replace my routine of evening loafing with something more productive. To break the habit loop, I have to think about what craving is being satisfied by my current routine and figure out what is triggering it. This is the fun part. My next step is to experiment with rewards, with no pressure to change the existing behavior. What is so appealing about a little TV and snacks? If I’m craving the sense of productivity I get from cleaning the kitchen, then dusting the living room should be equally satisfying. If I want to relax or get some laughs, then talking with a friend should replace my desire for television.

To figure it out, I’ll try different routines that deliver similar rewards. I’ll relax with a book or take a bath. I’ll see what happens when I talk on the phone instead of watching videos. Then I’ll monitor my emotions. Do I still want to tune in after I read a book? If so, then I wasn’t craving relaxation. By exploring different routines, you will discover the real sensation you are craving, which you can then leverage to redesign your habit. After a bit of experimentation, I hypothesize that I crave the instant gratification that food and television provide and the sense of accomplishment from tidying up.

The next step is to identify the cue for your behavior. Scientific studies of habits have shown that almost all cues for habits come from one of the following sources:

1. Location
2. Time
3. Emotional state
4. Other people
5. Immediately preceding action

Over a few days of observing your habit, answer these five questions to find the consistent factor:

1. Where are you?
2. What time is it?
3. What is your emotional state?
4. Who else is around?
5. What action preceded the urge?

In my case, the cue is clear: my daughter’s bedtime. My experiments with rewards showed me that once I am finished caring for someone else all day, I crave instant gratification and the satisfaction of creating order from chaos. To shed this habit, I must still fulfill these cravings, but with different, more productive—and ultimately more satisfying—behaviors.

Duhigg notes that numerous studies show that the simplest way to re-engineer the neurological loop that got us into the habit to begin with is to make a plan. A simple sentence posted in a place where you can see it is all it takes:

After I put my daughter down (CUE), I will write updates to three Musica Nuova donors or musicians (ROUTINE), because it provides me with instant gratification and a sense of accomplishment (REWARD).

Try something like this for a week and see how it goes. You will fall off the wagon sometimes, and some days you just may not have time. But eventually the new plan will become habitual.

Know Your Audience (and Their Habits)

It’s hard enough to change your own behaviors, much less other people’s. When it comes to your audience, you can maximize your success by considering their existing habits and planning around them.

If you are putting on a new concert series, you probably spend a good bit of time deciding how you can stand out from the field. Who will come to your concerts, and why? High artistic quality, interesting programming, and fresh ideas are all compelling reasons.

But if you are brand new to the scene, then no one is already in the habit of coming to your shows. You could have the best artists and an extraordinary vision, and even publicize it well—but if what you have planned is too far outside your audience’s routines, you might be disappointed.

First, identify your audience. Let’s say you are producing an opera. You will be targeting the following audience members:

1. People who go to the opera.
2. People who frequent a specific venue.
3. People in the neighborhood around your venue (overlaps with first two categories).
4. Friends and family of performers (don’t underestimate this category).

Each group will need a slightly different marketing strategy, especially if you are trying to bring operagoers to a nontraditional venue or hoping that your venue’s audience of, say, singer-songwriter fans will try something new.
The best way to put your work in front of a large audience is to go where your audience is already going. If you can present your work at a well-known venue, listeners will show up simply because that that is where they are accustomed to going for live music.

Just because people love opera doesn’t mean that they will go anywhere to hear it. A venue will say something about a performance. Either it will be a prestigious presenter, somewhere unusual but worth the trip, or somewhere completely unknown to your audience. If you want loyal opera lovers to come to your La bohème in an unusual place, provide incentives, such as a discount at a local restaurant, free parking, or an exciting site-specific production. A friend of mine, Judith Barnes, the founder of Vertical Player Repertory, partnered with a nonprofit advocate of New York’s waterfront to present Il tabarro on a former oil tanker in Brooklyn. It drew international attention and put her company on the map.

To attract new audiences (which every classical music organization in the world is trying to do), see if your venue can help publicize your event through their own mailing lists, blogs, or other media outlets that have highlighted their events in the past. Are there design elements or costume choices that would appeal to people in the fine arts, fashion, or theater? Think creatively about how your production might compel people to shake up their own habits and try something new.

But as a leader, the most important habits to worry about are your own. At the core of any enterprise is one person who is passionate enough to get it off the ground. If you are that person, but you share my penchant for procrastination, your project will go only so far. Once you recognize your own behaviors, their triggers, and the real reason you crave them, you can make a plan to change them for the better.

The good news is that as a singer, you have already demonstrated the discipline needed to acquire and retain a rather demanding habit. You regularly carve out a time and space for your singing, and you’ve shown up to practice even when you haven’t felt like it, even when you’ve experienced rejections, and even when you didn’t really know what you were going to work on. If you can get yourself to the practice room on a regular basis, then spending a little bit of time every day on an artistic project is a cinch. So don’t delay. Get out there and make music happen.

Amanda Keil

Amanda Keil writes for Classical Singer, OPERA America, and BachTrack.com, and she also runs her Baroque company, Musica Nuova. Find more entrepreneurial ideas on her blog: thousandfoldecho.com.