The other day, I was looking at bookmarks I made a decade ago. Habit building made up the bulk of them. A decade of obsessing over habits should have made this book redundant. After reading this book, it became apparent I had been working with fragments. In time I understood that it required a multi-faceted approach— learning to be kind to myself, understanding how my mind works, and building processes that will catch me when I fail. Atomic habits comes into the picture to help with building systems.
Cue, craving, response and reward. These four words are the ringmasters that make us jump through hoops. Encompassing everything from brushing our teeth, switching off lights when we leave a room, or binge-watching all six seasons of Breaking Bad when you have a deadline due the next day.
The mind is always looking for a reward, which leads to a craving. Cue notices the reward, the craving is about wanting the reward, and the response is obtaining the reward.
The loop in action:
- Cue: discomfort/fear of facing the approaching deadline
- Craving: relief from discomfort
- Response: watching six seasons of Breaking Bad Netflix
- Reward: immediate relief from discomfort of facing the deadline
Dopamine drives our desires. Desire is the engine that drives our behaviour. We create associations with rewards, which determine what we will repeat.
Our brain is an abysmal evaluator of rewards. It tends to maximize pleasure in the short-term, ignoring disastrous long-term consequences.
Identity Based Habits
I stopped doing new year's resolutions for the last few years. I was always setting myself up for failure. I realized I hadn't grasped something elementary to the nature of habits. You do not rise to the level of your goal. You fall to the level of your systems.
In 2016, I had it with being unfit. The problem was, every time I tried to get into exercise I would lose steam. I would set off with a specific goal in mind. When I invariably missed a day, I would quit. All this changed when I switched my perspective. I decided I didn't care about losing weight, all I wanted was to be healthy. In the next six months, I lost 26 pounds. What happened here, without me realizing, was that I switched from to identity based habit.
James Clear, in the book, calls the identity our "repeated beingness". I like that notion a lot. Once we understand the nature of identity, we can then lock into a virtuous feedback loop. Where a habit feeds the identity, which in turn feeds the habit.
Two of the most potent concepts from this book are—habit stacking and temptation bundling.
Habit stacking is where a new habit follows a current habit. If we want to start meditation. We would stack it such that, when we finish brushing our teeth, we will start meditating.
Temptation bundling leverages the Premack's principle, which states that "more probable behaviours will reinforce less probable behaviours". In other words, if I want to make walking a habit, I will bundle it with listening to podcast which I enjoy a lot. One habit gets conditioned and associated with another pleasurable habit.
Another powerful idea is that of compounding. Like with investment, time magnifies the margin between success and failure with habits. Being one percent better everyday, ends up making us thirty-seven percent better across the year.
Lastly, we need to understand the invisible hand of environment. Every cue is tied to WHEN and WHERE. The psychologist Kurt Lewin wrote a simple equation, Behaviour is a function of the Person in their Environment, or B = f (P,E). We can redesign our life to assert good habits by making them friction-less. On the other hand, we can increase the friction towards habits you want to avoid.
There are no shortcuts to making new habits. We will have to get the reps in.
Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery
There are a couple of tricks to get the ball rolling (most of which have worked wonders for me over the years):
Two minute rule: The idea is to spend two minutes on a new habit. Want to start reading. Read one page a day. Start doing yoga, stretch for two minutes a day. It sounds ridiculous, but its a fail-safe method. The trick is to slowly start scaling up the habit as you get comfortable with the initial two minutes.
Goldilocks Rule: This states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their capabilities. The most engaging and addictive video games take advantage of this.
Seinfeld's Never Break The Chain: Where you want to string together a steak of the habit you are building. There is a danger to this method, where when we do miss a day, it breaks us so deeply that we end up quitting the habit. Here is where being kind to yourself is paramount. We fall, we pick ourselves up and start building a new chain
Something I picked up from make time, continuous feedback loop of review and improvement. James Clear talks about how he does annual review and an integrity report. He analyses his year and values and redefines his habits.
Unlike a lot of non-fiction books in the self-help genre, atomic habits feels different. If nothing else, I have walked away with a better understanding of how my mind works. I learned to look at my habits, without judgment. Trying to find the root of the problem, rather than covering up the symptoms.
It has been a few months since I read this book, and have failed a dozen times in sticking to my habits. This book is not a magic bullet. It is not going to fix you or me. When I fail, I take a deep breath, and do that habit for two minutes. That was a good day.