7 habit-building techniques I learned from 'Atomic Habits'
It’s been a little over a year since I read Atomic Habits and I wanted to share some of the key takeaways that have really resonated with me. When I first read the book, I thought it was an enjoyable read, but it didn’t necessarily blow my mind. It wasn’t until I started implementing some of the concepts from the book that I had my “a-ha” moment.
Here are a few things that I’ve taken from the book and how they’ve helped me:
Change the mindset and the environment
It’s so hard to break out of our old habits because our environment constantly reinforces them. But if you really want to become X, it can be really helpful to start thinking of yourself as “X” from the beginning, rather than just someone “trying to be X.” This might seem intimidating at first, but it’s totally worth it.
When I first became interested in Linux and Unix operating systems, it was like this exciting new world waiting to be explored. I used books like “Running Linux” as my main sources of information, and I remember feeling so intimidated just browsing these books in a bookstore. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there, like everyone else was secretly judging me for my ignorance and presumptuousness. Looking back, it seems silly, but it was really hard to shake that feeling at the time.
A few years later, I remembered how I was ashamed to publish my first code on GitHub. I didn’t feel like a real developer and I was sure everyone would see it. The day later, with mixed feelings of relief and disappointment, I learned that nobody would judge my code. The world didn’t notice.
I can only imagine how challenging it must be for someone considering a big career shift to change their LinkedIn title to “junior developer.” But if you really want to be a developer, start calling yourself one. Just try it out for yourself at first, and then share it with your friends. And eventually, make it public. It might seem like a big deal, but trust me, nobody cares! People are too busy thinking about themselves to follow your career.
So whether you want to be an athlete, a developer, a solo entrepreneur, an archaeology enthusiast, a sports car collector, the first step is the same: give yourself the name of your future self. It’s the easiest and, at the same time, the most challenging step.
Enjoy the ride and don’t sweat too much over the goal
It’s easier to succeed if you set up a routine and enjoy the process rather than setting a clear goal and trying to go out of your way trying to reach it. That was probably, the most counter-intuitive thing that I learned from the book. Instead of setting your goal and suffering for the sake of its glory, set up the routine and enjoy the process.
So set your goal, then set up an enjoyable routine to reach it, and then forget about the goal and just stick to the routine. If you can find a way to get an immediate reward from your routines, your chances of success will be much higher. Something as simple as the satisfying pop sound of a closing Todoist task can be a decent reward for completing your daily routine.
For example, I made a habit of lifting weights every morning. Instead of setting goals and chasing personal records, I focus on the joyful work of my muscles lifting the weight and the delightful feeling of warmth immediately after the exercise. It works!
If you can’t find an immediate reward, you can condition the natural habit that you enjoy to the completion of the habit you’re trying to form. For example, I made a rule for myself that I can only have my cup of morning coffee after I finish my weightlifting.
This is called habit stacking, and it’s a mental formula that goes something like this: “I will do something useful so that I can do something pleasant later.” For example, “I will do my weight lifting so that I can have a cup of coffee later.”
At first, I wasn’t sure if this would work for me. After all, it’s just an internal agreement that I can break or adjust as quickly as I made it. But to my surprise, it did work! Even though I knew the connection between coffee and weightlifting was totally artificial, I started to feel like “these two activities are somehow related,” and I needed to do one in order to get the reward.
But I also found that this connection was weak. Allowing myself to have coffee without weightlifting once or twice was enough to make the magic of the connection evaporate, and I had to rebuild it.
The book “Atomic Habits” suggests building habit chains, where you can extend the formula as long as “I will do X so that I can do Y so that I can do Z,” and so on. But this didn’t work for me. The chains I tried to build turned out to be too fragile to last longer than a few weeks.
Be specific about when you do your habit thing
Take another good habit to build, reviewing the pull requests of your colleagues. Deciding “I will review pull requests twice a day” does not work as well as “I will review pull requests twice a day. The first time, when I open the laptop to start my work. The second time, right after lunch.”
The more specific you are about when you do something increases your chances to succeed.
Don’t expect too much progress too quickly
It’s natural that the initial enthusiasm makes you more optimistic about what you can commit regularly.
Things like, “I can spend an hour every day learning a foreign language,” feel easy to do as you start. But when the initial motivation fades away, it turns out, other things come into your way, and it gets almost impossible to find an hour to work.
Every time I was overly optimistic about the kilometers I wanted to run, or the number of pages I wanted to read, I ended up with a failure. My motivation was enough for the first couple of days, and then that was it.
The “Atomic habit” book suggested choosing steps that are intentionally ridiculously small. Like, one minute of meditation, five minutes of journalling, ten push-ups. So small that you feel it’s silly not to do it, and the usual excuse, “I am too tired today” or “I don’t have enough time,” doesn’t count.
Even on a bad day, you find enough motivation to do just a tiny bit of your regular habit thing not to break the chain.
Never miss twice
No matter how small my daily routine may seem, there are always hectic days when I remember that I missed my routine only when I’m exhausted and lying in bed, thanking Mother Nature that the day is over.
If this happens to you, the “never miss twice” rule can be a lifesaver to help you stay on track. Missing your routine once doesn’t necessarily break the habit, but missing it twice creates a new anti-habit of “not doing the thing” and is the first step down a slippery slope of procrastination and anarchy.
For example, I have a recurring daily task in Todoist called “ten minutes of writing” that I close out every day. Or, to be fair, almost every day. I’ve missed completing this task a few times, and the guilt I feel from postponing it reminds me that I need to do better tomorrow.
Abandon building a habit if it doesn’t stick
Finally, I want to share my own invention. Or at least, I don’t remember reading it in the book.
The ultimate goal of good habits is to improve our lives, not make them worse. But it’s possible to ruin your life by making too many promises and then failing to stick to them. It’s okay to feel a little guilty as motivation to stick to your long-term goals, but everything is good in moderation. Constantly failing to keep your promises to yourself and then berating yourself for being such a worthless person is a surefire way to burnout and depression.
Things change, as well as our understanding of our limits and desires. If you find that your attempts to build certain habits are causing nothing but pain and guilt, it might be time to step back and re-evaluate what you’re doing and why. Celebrate that you’re learning more about yourself, adjust your routine, change or eliminate some rituals, and move on. No hard feelings.