It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.
– James Clear, Atomic Habits
Life is complex. Chaotic. Surprising. Uncertain. It is full of new things – many of which can kill us. And that’s a problem, because we humans tend to prefer not dying. Fortunately, we have been practicing surviving for quite some time and have developed a way to cut down on that chaos with a bit of order: the ability to form habits. However, and unfortunately for those humans looking for more in life than just survival, these habits often have more control over us than we have control over them.
So what are habits and why do they control us? Jason Hreha, a behavioral scientist who writes about life and business, summarizes that “habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.” They are unconscious programs that free up our conscious mind to solve those non-recurring new problems that are constantly thrown our way. It’s too mentally expensive to try to figure out what you should do every day when you get home from work – its much easier to have a program that loads without you knowing and tells you to change clothes. Putting on running shoes loads the running program. Smelling alcohol loads the drinking program. The important take away is that whether you notice them or not, the habits are running. This means that, for better or for worse, your habits are in charge of who you are in the future.
Fortunately, humans are conscious (which at times has its benefits). We can consciously uninstall bad old habits while installing new, better ones. This can push us towards a better version of our future self. In order to do so, Clear suggests we need to realize that 1) habits are best changed by a change in your targeted identity as opposed to goals alone and 2) your system of habits is far more important than your goals – you do not rise to the level of your goals, but instead fall to the level of your systems. These two points are also interconnected – our future identity is a lagging indicator of today’s systems. The only way you are a healthy person today is to have followed a system leading up to now that was that of a healthy person.
It is much easier for a runner to wake up early in the morning and head out into the rain before work than it is for a businessman wanting to get in shape. A musician can’t help but to find time to practice his violin, but the overloaded college student who wants to be able to play her favorite songs can easily find things get in the way. The runner and musician have no choice but to act in ways that are aligned with who they are. But how do you convince yourself that you are a runner or musician?
That is where the importance of your system comes into play. People often view themselves as a single entity, but we are in fact a new person every day we wake up. Today’s actions are votes for tomorrow’s me. Smoking a cigarette is a vote to be a future cigarette smoker. Remembering to kiss your wife in the morning is a vote to be a future loving husband. In the short term, you need the willpower to drive you. Eventually, the need for willpower falls away because your identity compels you into action. That sounds nice, for sure, but how does this all actually work in practice?
The first step is understanding how habits form – and they form thanks to the dopamine reward system our brains use to program our actions. Clear lays out this “habit loop” as occurring in four phases – there are cues, cravings, responses and rewards. Check out the summary in the notes linked at the top of this post for more specifics, but in short, things in your environment remind your brain of a time it received a dopamine spike, prompting it to replay the actions that caused the dopamine spike most consistently when you were previously in a similar situation.
So how do you take advantage of your brain’s pathway for programing you? With the simple idea of making it easy. Your brain doesn’t “actually want the habit itself. What you really want is the outcome the habit delivers. The greater the obstacle – that is, the more difficult the habit – the more friction there is between you and your desired end state. This is why it is crucial to make your habits so easy that you’ll do them even when you don’t feel like it.” You need to make the habit cycle easy for those habits voting for the better future you and difficult for those voting for a diminished future you.
The “environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior,” meaning that time and place drive your actions more than anything. When you walk into the kitchen, do you automatically open the refrigerator door without thinking? When you check an email on your phone, do you also open all your social media even though you weren’t planning on it? You need to take stock of these cues and the associated habits before you can start to make changes. What do you do everyday and what triggers the loading of those programs?
This is not easy – remember your habits are unconscious. That means even if you are paying attention, you are going to miss habits. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. And you’ll get better the more you try. As the first step, you need to look at yourself as if you are another person. Take the time to watch yourself, asking “why did I just do that?” It is impossible to do this constantly, but sit down and replay parts of your day when you did things you are proud of and those you are not. See what cues caused you to act as you did. Make sure to notice if another habit was the cue for your action – is there a chain of habits getting you to where you ended up? It takes time, but you’ll learn a lot about yourself.
After you have figured those out, you need to put yourself in an environment where it is obvious what you want yourself to do. This is where preparation and willpower today can change who you are in the future. It’s almost like time travel – low budget of course, but still effective. Do you need to take medicine every morning? Put it next to your toothbrush. Do you need to wake up in the morning at a certain time. Put an alarm clock in another room that is set to automatically go off. Today’s you just changed tomorrow’s you.
Another powerful result from understanding your cues is recognizing when something in the environment is the cue for a bad habit. When your friends go out for a smoke, do you always stand up to go when they ask? Now that you have noticed why you are pulling out that pack of cigarettes, you can decide if you are fine with it or would like to change it. Want to override it? Force yourself to pull out flashcards for a new language every time they ask. If you are consistent, a new positive habit has hijacked an old one because you paid attention to how your environment was pulling you along.
And this all sounds terribly difficult, doesn’t it? That’s the opposite of easy, which is what we were going for. And this is why it is important to start small. Reading a new book every week sounds like a great habit. But it’s an impossibly difficult first step. Start with reading a page a day – see where that takes you. Maybe that is too hard because you are tired when you get home. In that case, start with sitting in a chair holding a book for 2 minutes a day. Make it easy to start. Starting to run is the opposite of fun and easy. Start with putting running shoes on every morning. Eventually you might even step outside. While you are there, maybe your brain might say “why not take a walk?” Walks can take a while, so why not just jog a little? A month later it is second nature to go out and run to the best your health will allow. If you had never started small, a month later you would still just be browsing social media.
Starting small can also help prevent us from failing into the trap of constantly preparing to act perfectly and, as a result, never acting. To steal from Robert Watson-Watt, “give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.” While it is great to wish that you had the perfect workout routine and the best plan of nutrition, if you spend all your time comparing theoretical future versions of you doing those routines, there is no more time left to actually become that future you. And who are you to say that you, who hasn’t even started, can actually discern best from good enough? There is time to perfect things as you go, but if you never get going, there will be nothing to perfect.
But then there are bound to be days where we don’t have the time or energy – what are we to do then? We are only human, after all. The trick is to continue staving off the need for perfection – consistency is more powerful than perfection. Whatever the habit is, do it even if you have to do it poorly. “Too often, we fall into an all-or-nothing cycle with our habits.” If you have been consistent in studying a new language every day, but today you just don’t have it in you – spend two minutes instead of thirty. Two minutes is success, you have continued to vote for your desired future self and your system is intact. Zero minutes is not.
What do we do when we mess up and actually can’t even get past zero? It is good to realize that even those that succeed fail at times – so the first step is realizing that all is not lost. But you must be paying attention so that you can catch the mistake before it becomes a new habit. “The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.” Consistency is key, but you will trip and fall along the way. Stand up and add a little more motivation the next day to keep you moving on.
And it’s a slog for sure, with ups and downs. But what is interesting about all of this is that you don’t actually have much of a choice – you have to play the habit game, so to speak. You have a set of habits that got you to where you are today. Those are either moving you towards the future identity that you want, or away from it. Which direction are you moving? Are you happy with that?
The title is inspired by the proverb “Manners Maketh the Man,” The phrase is attributed to William Horman as it is found in his 14th century textbook The Vulgaria, but similar to Ben Franklin’s Poor Richards Almanacs, it is likely Horman was transcribing proverbs with much earlier origins. More recently (relative to the 14th century), the phrase was popularized by the movie The Kingsman.