Recently I finished Atomic Habits by James Clear. It is an excellent book that details how habits are formed and gives practical advice on how to cultivate effective habits. I wanted to share some insights from the book that really helped me:
1. Plan for the day:
Ask yourself this: What is the minimal achievement that would make me feel accomplished today?
Just like a ship needs a compass, we humans need a manifesto to guide us. We are heavily influenced by our environments and without any guide, we will drift aimlessly till we slowly transition towards the most comfortable actions (In my case it is the TV and junk food). Something as simple as a to-do list can guide us on what to do and prevent the feeling of inadequacy at the end of the day.
Action item: I will write down 3 things I want to accomplish today before I get out of bed.
2. Prepare for the next task beforehand:
Before the Corona times, whenever I had to go abroad on a working visit I would take my passport, wallet, and keys and put them on the kitchen counter the night before. I knew that waking up at 5 AM and then gathering things is hectic. Having the most essential object in the most obvious place meant that I would never miss it.
This is a small but really effective shortcut on how you can trick yourself into doing something. For example, if you want to wake up and then go for a run, then put your running clothes and shoes just beside your bed. Make them stand out. It is the smallest initial action that needs the most will power. Once you get the ball rolling, it becomes easier.
Action Item: I will put my kindle on my bedside table every day so whenever I go to bed I read it.
2. Make it a ritual:
Recently I was struggling with forming a routine for meditation, I would (try to) do it every day before sleeping, but by that time I was so tired I would pass out on my couch. After reading the book I did a few changes:
- I started to meditate in the morning after waking up
-I made a meditation corner in my room, I made it as comfortable as possible by adding a cushion and having the heater closeby. I would wrap myself with a soft blanket only while I am meditating.
These two small changes -although not bulletproof by any means- lowered the amount of willpower that I needed to get myself to meditate every day and made the whole experience pleasurable.
If you are struggling with the formation of a productive habit, maybe you are not enjoying it. Maybe you are taking it as a chore. See how you can make the habit as attractive as possible by turning into a ritual. For example: going to work is a ritual for me, I take a shower, get dressed, take my bike and commute to work. If I am working from home I can still take a shower and get dressed. This ritual firmly establishes that this is the time for work and I am less distracted.
Action Item: I will take a shower and get dressed every day before working from home
3. Have a unique environment for each task: While working from home during Corona days the boundaries between work and home seem to get more and more blurry. We work from our couches, our beds, and our kitchen counters. Most of our lives we have used the same environment for tasks other than work, which means that we are consistently trying to push ourselves. To understand, think of your mind like a puppy, every time you go to the park you play with your puppy. Now you are at the park but you want to work, the puppy does not like it and it is constantly tugging at the leash while you are trying to focus on work.
The secret of good habit formation is not to have more willpower, it is to use as less willpower as possible to accomplish the same task.
Psychologists have known for long that our environments shape our actions. In 1936 psychologist Kurt Lewin wrote a simple equation to explain this phenomenon: Behavior is a function of a person in their environment. or B = f (P,E) .. We see this equation in action all around us: In the grocery stores, the items that are easier to reach are bought the most. That is why they put the most expensive items on the eye-level because they drive the most profit. Personally I have noticed that I eat a lot more candy if it is placed on a shelf that is very easy to reach. I have also noticed (unironically) that while I am on my couch it is easier for me to watch Netflix than to brainstorm about an article.
This is a powerful insight, it means that we can effectively alter our environment to our benefit. Coming to the problem of working from home. If possible then designate a separate room where only work is done, try to eliminate all distractions and make it as attractive for work. If you don't have the possibility to have a separate room then adjust your existing environment to eliminate distractions. For example, if you live in a one-room apartment and the only table you have for work is the same table that you use for eating then put a special cushion on your seat and add a small cover cloth on the table. You can even have different lighting for different tasks. If you struggle breaking away from your phone then put it on charge a few steps away from you. The objective is to shape the environment to facilitate the accomplishment of your only objective and make the temptations difficult to follow through.
Action Item: I will take a shower and get dressed every day before working from home.
4. Combine what you want to do with what you should do:
A good friend of mine was hooked on video games. Every day he would come home from work and then spend the majority of the remaining time playing online against other people. One day he had a brilliant idea, he had an exercise bike lying around, he placed his gaming laptop in front of the bike. As long as he was on the laptop playing the game, he would be pedaling on his bike. After a 4-hour gaming session he would have burned more calories than just sitting on the couch.
This is just one such example, but it goes to show that we can piggy-back on our addictions to build effective habits. Watching Netflix too much, how about 20 squats after each episode? Struggling with going to the gym? How about you take your favorite candy and eat it while at the gym. The objective is to first cultivate consistency and then when we have sufficient momentum, break away from the ineffective habit.
Action Items: I will clean at least one item in my washroom whenever I use it.
1. James Clear mentions 4 laws of habit formation:
Make it obvious
Make it attractive
Make it easy
Make it satisfying
2. Keystone habits are ones which when fully developed can make your life better in numerous ways. Having a good diet, working out and meditation are all keystone habits that can have a ripple effect and improve your well-being.
3. One reason why cinemas (or any specific places like theaters) are so attractive is that watching a movie is a ritual. From taking a box of popcorn, sitting in the dark cinema, building the anticipation by watching trailers and obeying the unwritten agreement to stay as quiet as possible makes the whole experience very memorable.