Building Better Habits

I’ve written about my desire to do more of this or less of that many times. I tend to get a little melancholy about the change I don’t make but strongly desire. My formula for doing so usually follows a pattern. Develop a goal, somewhat broad or vague in nature (get to bed earlier, read more, etc.), try to do things to make it happen, then get frustrated when it doesn’t or progress abates.

After reading James Clear‘s wonderful book Atomic Habits, it’s pretty clear I’m doing this habit change thing wrong. I can’t possibly do justice to the entire book in a brief post, so I’ll just summarize a few key takeaways that I’m going to focus on going forward. In a general sense, what I like about the book’s approach is that it lays out the core building blocks for better habits, then layers techniques for making them happen. There are just enough anecdotes to keep it entertaining and very readable.

Systems Work, Goals Don’t

He makes this point very early in the book and it underpins virtually everything else. It’s certainly my main takeaway, and something others have suggested as well.

In recounting the British cycling team’s success from 2007-2017, and near total failure in the century prior to that, Clear made a strong case for small, incremental improvements being the cause. Finding the places where a 1% improvement could be made, it was the compounding effect that turned British cycling into a juggernaut. Or to put it another way:

If you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero.

The main reason that these changes have such a large impact? You might think they’re the result of setting goals, but you’d be wrong. It’s not that setting goals are a bad thing. Quite the contrary, but it’s not the goal that gets you success, it’s the system you employ for reaching the goal.

Put another way:

If you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and only focused on what your team did at practice each day, would you still get results?

He also notes that both winners and losers have the same goals. It’s their systems and habits that determines which they are.

Behaviours are a Reflection of Identity

This is a simple, somewhat cherry-picked statement from the second chapter, but it really spoke to me. The identity we forge or accept through our behaviours can be extremely powerful. Behaviours tied to identity can be the most difficult ones to change.

Clear makes the case that there are three layers to behaviour change – outcomes, processes and identity. Most goals are associated with outcomes, or what we want to accomplish. Goals tend to be short-term and, even if successful, what then?

Instead, if we focus on identity-based change, it can have much longer-term impact. Think of the potential in the following two statements:

I want to publish a book versus I want to be a writer

On the surface, they may seem quite similar, but in the first case it’s a goal that has a definite ending. In the second case it’s an identity statement which can encompass goals for as long as we like. If we alter our behaviour and habits to align with the second one, in my mind, publishing a book, being a journalist, writing poetry or penning a screenplay are all things we can do under the umbrella of being a writer.

Or, more succinctly:

  1. Decide the type of person you want to be.
  2. Prove it to yourself with small wins

Habit Improvement Techniques

Clear then goes into a fair bit of detail in subsequent chapters about the science of habits and the habit loop (cue, craving, response, reward), the four laws of behaviour change (make it obvious/invisible, attractive/unattractive, easy/difficult, satisfying/unsatisfying) and how to take steps to implement them into developing better habits. He even includes tables at the end of each chapter, summarizing the ways to implement behaviour change.

What follows are the concepts which resonated with me, and which I will be working through in developing my own habit improvements.

Habits Scorecard

This is a really simple exercise. Essentially, we just list what we do and give it a positive, neutral or negative ranking. The rankings will be entirely dependent on what we are trying to accomplish. I will probably limit my scorecard to the periods of time where I want to effect the most change.

Implementation Intention

With the habits we score negatively or perhaps even neutrally in some cases, we can then set micro-goals through intentions. An implementation intention is a sentence written as follows:

I will [behaviour] at [time] in [location].

I think I will probably attach these directly to my less desirable habit scorecard entries. I smell an Excel spreadsheet coming.

Habit Stacking

Habit stacking is like daisy chaining an implementation intention onto an existing habit. In theory we could do so endlessly, but I suspect when looking to develop better habits, the smaller the better. In its simplest form, habit stacking is written with two elements:

After [current habit], I will [new habit].

In my case, one of the habits I desperately want to break is lying in bed too long after my alarm goes off. I expect I’ll have an implementation intention and habit stack rolled into one statement like:

After my alarm goes off at 6:30, I will get up by 6:45 at the latest on weekdays.

Temptation Bundling

Ah, the benefits of more complex intentionality. I really like this one, which is effectively chaining something we want to do with something we need to do. For example, I am a runner and I get pretty cranky when I’m not running at least three or four times a week. This is a habit that’s been ingrained for many many years, but I’d like to do it more consistently in the mornings. I’d also like to listen to more podcasts, but never seem to get around to it. While there are other issues I’d need to mitigate, like hating wearing earbuds while I run, in theory I could use temptation bundling in the following way:

  1. After I get out of bed at 6:45, I will run 5-10k M-W-F at 7am.
  2. After I begin running M-W-F at 7am, I will listen to a podcast during the run.

I suspect my temptation bundling will look a lot different than the sample above, but the formula is applicable to many contexts.

Two Minute Rules

This is a general approach to our intentions which makes them significantly more doable. Per the broad and vague goals I alluded to at the beginning of this post, the two minute rule fixes this problem by reducing them to the simplest thing we could do to make them happen. This makes developing new habits not feel so much like a challenge, but developing a series of steps that lead down a more productive path.

I particularly like the idea of changing going for a run to putting on my running shoes, since we need to put the shoes on first and, once we do, we’re much more likely to get out the door. Easier still? If we are still challenged to run 5k even once our shoes are on, string together simple steps to reach the ultimate ones. From scratch, it might look something like:

  1. put on shoes
  2. walk ten minutes
  3. walk 1km
  4. run 5 minutes, walk 1 minute
  5. run 10 minutes
  6. run 5k

Play to Your Strengths

Whether we like to admit it or not, if we set the wrong goals we’ll never achieve them. I’m a decent runner and I like doing it, but I’m never going to win a major marathon or medal at the Olympics. Age aside, I simply don’t have the genetics to be an elite runner at any distance. Clear makes really good points about choosing things that fit our predispositions. He uses anecdotes about athletics, but eventually gets around to the “big five” genetic traits.

If we understand where we sit on the scales of curiosity, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, we’ll have a much better chance to build habits suited to our personality. I don’t take this to mean that introverts you can’t take steps to socialize more. However, if we prefer small group settings to large parties, accepting that and building toward the habits we want is one way to be more successful. It seems that two minute rules might be a good approach to laddering into bigger things a little outside our genetic comfort zone.

Similarly, as we explore ideas and approaches, Clear suggests we ask ourselves the following questions to hone in on things that will be most satisfying to us and set us up for the greatest chance for success:

  1. What feels like fun for me, but work to others?
  2. What makes me lose track of time?
  3. Where do I get greater returns than the average person?
  4. What comes naturally to me?

In particular, my last takeaway is concerned with question 2 above. I love tasks I can work on solo with my head down and my headphones on. Doing the work I do, I often have to do groupwork, whiteboard sessions, research and testing with people and the like. It’s not that I don’t enjoy these things, but I find a steady diet to be very challenging and am more productive in solitary pursuits like writing.

The Goldilocks Rule and Finding Flow

Clear doesn’t mention him by name in the book, but does so in his notes. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who researched and wrote extensively on the concept of flow. In particular his books Flow, Finding Flow and Creativity deal with various aspects of the topic.

In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.

Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model.
Csikszentmihalyi’s original concept is very simple. When the challenge presented by a certain task and the skill required to complete it are in balance, we can reach a state of flow or being in the zone.

Where Clear is concerned with Flow is the notion that we need to advance in our habits and goals in small ways; that challenges keep us engaged. The Goldilocks Zone is where the challenge is just right. Too simple and we’ll be bored. Too challenging and we’ll give up in frustration. Just right, and we’ll be motivated to continue.

In Closing

There are a few areas where I want to develop better habits, primarily to improve productivity or better use my time so I can accomplish more. Reading, writing, meditating and music are a few of the key areas on which I’ll focus.

One of my major goals, though, deals with how I earn a living and how I feel better habits will get me there. I haven’t fleshed things out fully, but the essence of it is to stop being tied to a desk so much and doing the type of work I do. If I can actually find a way to fully retire very early I probably will. Given that my identity isn’t remotely tied to my job title, doing so would actually increase the variety of interesting things I do and not leave a large void in my life, as it does some.

Some of this work goal is directly related to flow and the challenge I find in the last couple positions I’ve had. The scope and challenge of UX work in large institutional settings can be seriously underwhelming. However, for the most part I want the work I do to fit better with a lot of travel in my late 50s and beyond. I plan to write more specifically on those things as I work through them, but I see many of the techniques Clear espouses in Atomic Habits to be very useful in reaching a lot of my goals through better habit development.