Habit can powerfully differentiate digital magazine content from the mountain of information available online.Although I am a fan of (and even design) digital magazines, I still love when a new print issue of a magazine arrives in the mail. I am the type that loses track of time and when I see the spine or the corner of a cover in my stack of mail, I am surprised. ‘Is it that time again already?’

The appearance triggers a chain of ingrained habits.

First, I review the cover. Read everything on it and then plan my attack. The magazine is placed in the same space next to my desk. From that moment on, each visit with my to do list or calendar has a secondary motive – to find time that I can devote to the publication. When that time comes, I look at these things, usually in this order:

• review cover again
• flip to the last inside page
• scour the toc
• then off to the first thing, lately it is usually a department
• I end with a feature

It has me thinking about my habits and the habits of readers. Likely there is some variation on this theme for all readers. What do you do when a magazine arrives in the mail? More importantly, what do your readers do?

Like you, I am a busy person with a to-do list that seems to never shrink. But the arrival of the magazine for me is like how the habit of a morning run or kitchen clean up after a big meal unfolds for others.

We complete our habit behavior without thinking about it. There are triggers that stimulate the habit, like the arrival of a magazine, and the habit routine is followed by some sort of reward. Mine is when I think, ‘hey that was interesting, glad I happen to have read that.’ (I am one of those types that thinks everything I read will be useful to me later.)

It’s a habit sandwich described in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Habit = Cue + Routine + Reward according to Duhigg

• Cue: magazine arrives in the mail
• Routine: I work it into my busy schedule. Read it, usually following a predictable pattern. This is the part of the sandwich that we usually refer to as the habit.
• Reward: I find at least one nugget of information that I think will somehow help me later

I realize that my habit ritual with a magazine is a big part of why I keep renewing my subscription and how I make the time to actually read it, when I struggle with making time for so many other important things. But, I have not yet developed a habit with digital magazines.

My way of interacting with digital magazines is rather hit or miss. There is no cue that is stimulating a routine yet. I am late to download issues and I don’t have a predictable way of moving through them. One magazine that I really enjoy to glean I chose to receive digitally because it is free. It seems wrong to add to their print run, especially since I am not in their demographic. I am just a marketer who likes to read about science, not a scientist researcher like their audience. But, I keep getting behind on downloading the issues. (I honestly never read it, but my eyes roll over every page and there are always good nuggets).

Is the loss of habit a big loss for publication publishers? Or will I develop a new habit for digital magazine consumption? Right now my digital pub habit is much like my web reading habit, which is more like a serendipitous experience where I skip from one nugget to the next. It gets me what I need, but it also wastes time on things that are off-topic.

Is it that this one particular publication is not high priority reading for me, it’s too off-topic? Or is it really the loss of habit that is the hurdle here? Could a new cue, like an email ping, trigger the development of a new routine of downloading and reviewing, followed by the same reward of feeling that I discovered something valuable? Is an email ping enough though?

Duhigg writes:
A young woman walks into a laboratory. Over the past two years, she has transformed almost every aspect of her life. She has quit smoking, run a marathon, and been promoted at work. The patterns inside her brain, neurologists discover, have fundamentally changed.

Our habits are changing our brains!

If our habits are changing our brain so that the magazine’s place gets hardwired in, then establishing a habit surrounding digital magazines is going to be very important.

In the mountain of information online, how are publications to compete and distinguish themselves. I think part of the answer lies in the careful cultivation of new habit loops.

Have you thought about the habit of consumption of your digital publication? What are you doing that might cultivate habits that will keep your readers reading (and apparently changing their brains)?