Today, the last day of the year, thoughts will be turning to New Year’s resolutions – those from last year we didn’t keep and our resolutions for 2023, and it bears repeating our previous thoughts on how we might keep our resolutions.
In his book, Atomic Habits – Tiny Changes Remarkable Results, James Clear flushes out puts forward actionable strategies for creating or reinforcing good habits and discontinuing or minimising unhelpful habits – a strategy for keeping New Year’s resolutions.
He uses the word Atomic in a counter-intuitive sense in that it refers to very small (as in the word atom) changes that can have large impacts, rather than great and powerful habits all at once, as the title appears to imply at first glance.
The challenge is that good habits such as exercising daily are harder to maintain than bad habits because of the latency between the habit and the outcome (or reward). For example, exercise leads to longer-term health but there is a latency between exercising and its long-term benefits showing up. The six-pack abs take a while to show and the life-long health benefits take many years. Good habits are harder to start and maintain but have great long-term benefits. Bad habits on the other hand tend to yield instant or near-term gratification, although the longer-term outcomes tend to be bad – such as in the case of smoking.
Bad habits, therefore, tend to persist while good habits are more easily extinguished. Habits, good and bad, become automatic and ingrained over time, or to put it another way, these habits become the essence of who we are.
To illustrate how unconscious automated habits take hold, Clear uses examples from animal studies. In one study, rats were conditioned to associate pressing a lever with being rewarded with cheese. Soon the rats began to associate the lever with cheese even when no cheese was forthcoming on presentation of the lever.
Clear breaks this stimulus-response into 4 stages:
Cue (lever), Craving (for cheese), Response (press lever) Reward (cheese)
The same continuous feedback loop is observed in humans and smoking.
Cue (stress), Craving (for cigarette), Response (light up) Reward (relief)
As can be seen, this works particularly well for bad habits, and explains why they live on. Good habits need a little more help to take root. So Clear suggests a strategy for increasing the odds of persisting through the boring reps to get the longer-term benefits.
He says rather than focusing exclusively on the long-term and far remote goal such as better health, focus more on the immediate processes that will get your there. For example, let your running shoe in obvious sight (rather than at the back of the closet) be the cue to get you out of the door. The first step is always the hardest, but the last mile is always the least crowded. Let the habit of process take hold. One action leads to another and another. This is what takes you to your bigger goal.
His action plan for building the good habits and its corollary for minimising unhelpful habits is to instil routines (or processes) which becomes automatic or second nature. He labels the 4 elements of his plan as follows:
1. Make it obvious
2. Make it attractive
3. Make it easy
4. Make it satisfying
1 Make the cue obvious: Place little reminders in your environment. Pair a new habit with a specific time and location.
2 Create an attractive association with the cue: Associate something you like or wish for with the cue. Pair an action you want to do with the action you need to do, eg I will have a warm shower after I exercise. The anticipation gives you a dopamine spike. Reframe your thinking from I “have” to exercise to I “get” to exercise.
3 Make the response easy: The key is repetition not perfection. Repeat the desired habit regularly. Start modestly eg, I will walk for 10 minutes each day rather than I will walk for 30 minutes. Or in terms of process, think, “open my note” rather than “study for class”.
4 Make the reward satisfying: The feeling of making progress is satisfying. Give yourself immediate rewards along the way. This can be as simple as placing a bead in a glass jar each time you perform the activity of a desired habit.
Once good habits are automated, we tend to perform them easily without conscious effort. You no longer have to exert your will power each time. This is a great energy saver. It frees up your mind for other things. And any good habit contributes to building a base on which more good habits can be stacked.
For younger folk aspiring to peak performance, the automated habits are the foundation. You leverage the automatic habits by combining them with completely focussed conscious attention whenever you need peak performance. For example, the best basketball players would combine “muscle memory” with complete conscious attention to everything occurring on the court in every game each time they come out to perform.
However, to get on any field of play and excel, you have to find your niche by the experience of trying different activities. Each person has different propensities. To use a sport analogy, the natural attributes of a champion swimmer are not the same as those of an outstanding basketball player or a gymnast. Your niche is likely to be in the area of an activity that you enjoy but most other people consider work.
To maintain peak flow, you have to continually challenge yourself. Showing up every day, day in and day out, is a huge part of winning the battle. It puts you in contention. It is a prerequisite and the necessary groundwork without which you would never get started, but it is not sufficient by itself. Complacency and boredom have to be warded off. Once you are in your field of choice, the tasks you choose must be challenging enough to require you to perform cognitive functions for the task at the limit of your ability – not below your ability or far beyond your ability, but just far enough above your ability that you have to stretch. This combined with ingrained automated habits produces peak performance.