The Competition

I’m in an unspoken competition. Each morning I drive to the same coffee shop, where I quickly park and speed-walk inside. It’s my attempt to be the first to reach the very best table in the back corner. It’s a round table with two chairs, near an outlet and not under an air vent. In other words, it is perfection. 

Yet for the past few months, I’ve had a challenge. A fellow coffee shop patron also likes this table, and we tend to arrive within two or three minutes of each other. 

When I come in a minute too late, I glance longingly at the table and see him slowly settling in and taking out his crossword puzzle. I take a seat somewhere else, defeated. 

Every day, the man sits and works on the New York Times crossword puzzle for hours. He uses a big magnifying glass with a wooden handle to study the wording of the clues. He writes with a shiny black pen. When he figures out an answer, he grins, and his hand sweeps dramatically across the page to cross out the clue he solved. 

When I arrive at the table first, I sneak a quick glance over my laptop as he comes in the door. I feel a bit smug. We’ve never exchanged a word about our table race, but the competition is fierce. 

Yesterday, I arrived extra early and walked inside. I smiled. I won the table game. I sat down, took out my laptop and happily plugged it into the nearby outlet. Half an hour went by. Where was he? I glanced around the shop. A few hours went by – still no sign of him. And I had only crossed off two things on my to-do list.

Routines form when we perform a behavior consistently in the same context. We rely on specific cues, which begin to make our behavior automatic. What I hadn’t realized was that this man’s presence and activity – working through his crossword puzzle – was a critical cue that helped create my productive work routine. As he crossed off clues and grew closer to solving the crossword, I would be making my way through my to-do list, attempting to cross off items with equal flourish. Without him there, I was moving slothfully through my list. 

Sometimes we mistake the important cues that promote good habits or keep us away from bad ones. To keep up my productivity, I sure hope my competitor is there tomorrow. Even if he is at “my” table.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.