What habits do you have? This is a question that is hard to answer because one is hardly conscious of the numerous things one does daily. This does not mean that habits are trivial. Harnessed in the right way, “atomic” habits have the potential to make significant changes in our life. James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, analyses how habits are formed and uses this understanding to come up with a few techniques to form and sustain positive habits.
One main reason we shy away from new habits is that they do not yield immediate results. For example, if somebody were to exercise for twenty minutes daily, the results would not be immediately apparent. It is only when the habit is sustained over a period that the person’s body fitness improves. Therefore, the key is to pay attention to whether one is on the right track, rather than stopping because there is no immediate change. So, all one has to do is to proceed with patience and confidence.
First of all, we have to understand how habits work. Edward Thorndike, in the 19th century, conducted an experiment in which a cat was put in a box. The only way the cat could get out was by pressing a lever. For the first few times, the cat would just move around frantically. However, once it learnt that pressing the lever was the only means of escape, in the subsequent trials, it would take lesser and lesser time to do it. This experiment demonstrates that for a habit to form, the following are required- a cue or problem (the cat is trapped), a desire for change (escape), response or action (pressing the lever) and reward (freedom). This works for humans as well. Once a habit is repeated for a prolonged period, we then do it automatically without thinking.
How can we consciously form a new habit? One easy way is to create a cue that is obvious and hard-to-miss. For example, if a healthier snack is placed on the table in such a way that it is easily seen, we are more likely to eat it. Another way is to have a clear plan of action. This means that, instead of a vague plan to improve one’s fitness, one needs to be more specific- for example, planning to jog for 20 minutes in the mornings.
Like the cat in Thorndike’s experiment, we too are motivated by pleasant results and rewards. When we do something we like, or even just anticipate it, our brains release a hormone called dopamine which makes us feel good. That is the reason we are more motivated to do certain things. If we link a new habit to something we like, then we would feel better motivated to do it. That is, if we reward ourselves with an hour of watching movies, we would have more motivation to complete an assignment. Also, we are attracted by immediate gratifications. A couple known to the author used this technique to inculcate the habit of eating at home. Every time they avoided going out to eat, they would put that money in a separate account. The gratification of seeing that small sum motivated them to eat at home instead of going out.
Another fact is that we are attracted by habits that are easy to follow. James Clear talks about a two-minute rule whereby one plans to do only easily achievable things. Most of us have experienced this. Instead of planning to finish a whole book, if we commit to read for just half an hour, we are more likely to go on reading. This is because the task no longer seems to be a burden. Also, if we reduce the friction or extra effort required, we find it easier to get started. For example, placing the book on the tabletop makes it easier for us to take it up.
Once we successfully get started with a new habit, it is also important to sustain it. For this, the author gives us two techniques. Habit tracking is a positive stimulus for us to continue with a new habit. For instance, if we were to take a calendar and cross out all the dates on which we exercise, we would feel good about the whole thing and are more likely to continue. The second technique is to create a habit contract with people close to us. This is based on negative consequences for failing to do the task, such as giving a fine of Rs 500 to a friend on skipping exercise for two days consecutively.
Habits are created, not by causing sudden upheavals, but through small changes. The key is to motivate ourselves and make these tiny changes, as the building blocks for a big difference.
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