A New Year’s Resolution – Atomic Habits – by Ron Cheong

A New Year’s Resolution – Atomic Habits – by Ron Cheong

With the New Year here thoughts turn to New Year’s resolutions – those from last year we didn’t keep and our resolutions for 2022.  The way I remember one bit of inspirational wisdom related to this that we heard in our childhood in Guyana, is:

Sow a THOUGHT and reap an ACT

Sow a ACT and reap a HABIT

Sow a HABIT and reap a CHARACTER

Sow a CHARACTER and reap a DESTINY

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear flushes out this line of thinking, describes its psychological underpinnings, and puts forward actionable strategies for creating or reinforcing good habits and discontinuing or minimizing unhelpful habits – a strategy for keeping New Year’s resolutions.          

Some New Year’s Resolution Ideas

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, 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 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 cited, 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)

 

GOOD HABITS NEED HELP

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 long-term benefits.

He says rather than focusing on the long-term and far remote goal such as better health, focus on the immediate processes that will get your there.  For example, let your running shoe in obvious sight (rather than the back of the closet) be the cue to get you out of the door.  Let the habit of process take hold.  One action leads to another and another. This is what takes you to your goal.

His action plan for building the good habits and its corollary for minimizing unhelpful habits is to instill routines (or processes) which becomes automatic or second nature.   He labels the 4 elements of his plan as follows:

  1. Make it OBVIOUS – The CUE
  2. Make it ATTRACTIVE – The CRAVING
  3. Make it EASY – The RESPONSE
  4. Make it SATISFYING – The REWARD

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, e.g. 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, start modestly e.g., 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 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.

 

HOW TO GET INTO FLOW – LEVERAGING GOOD HABITS

For younger folk aspiring to peak performance, you have to combine the good automatic habits with completely focused conscious attention.  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.

However, to get on the 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 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.

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Comments

  • Jean  On 01/02/2022 at 8:48 pm

    Thanks for the neat reminder and helpful tips as we try to make resolutions at the start of the new year.

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