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Atomic habits implemented
5 min read
In the previous post about continuous improvement, I focused on the need for a system that can make our goals achievable. However, it is easier said than done. Now, I would like to move my attention from "what" to "how" and present a learning system implementation based on habits. The majority of this article is a recapitulation of ideas from James Clear's excellent book Atomic Habits. Besides, I share some implementation advice relevant to the Software Development learning route.
What is a habit? We can take a definition from the book: "A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly - and in many cases, automatically" (J. Clear, Atomic Habits). James Clear unfolds a habit into a four-step pattern that constitutes a set of "laws":
Cue that should be obvious.
Craving that comes from habit attractiveness.
Response that is easy.
Reward that gives satisfaction.
It would be wonderful to put all of these rules into place for each habit. However, it might only take a handful of them to begin and keep worthwhile repeating behavior. So now, we analyze each "law" and determine how to incorporate it into our system of continuous learning.
Make it obvious
How make a habit evident? The first way is a strategy called implementation intention. I need to have a clear plan of when and where I will practice my desired activity.
Each day, I write several sentences at 9.30 PM when I sit behind my desk as a part of the blog post creation process.
We can also try to build a new habit on top of other habits. This habit stacking utilizes a social phenomenon known as the Diderot effect. The existence of one habit can easily create space for the introduction of another one.
Just before work hours start (existing habit), I will skim Hacker News to search for interesting content (new habit).
People have the false impression that motivation is essential for initiating and maintaining a repeating action. Motivation is typically an impulsive feeling that passes quickly. The environment and context of our behavior are more significant. If we make cues for a habit maximally visible, we can execute the action automatically.
If I want to take notes during blog post reading, I should place a notebook on the desk. If I want to take screenshots of article excerpts, I should have a browser extension installed and configured. If I want to write a blog post I can prepare google docs to make notes. It ought to be titled the same as a potential blog article. Thanks to it you can write down ideas any time (during a walk or reading a book)l.
Make it attractive
Doing your habit alongside people you like or value is one of the most straightforward ways to make it attractive. You can start a group or join one where the desired conduct is accepted as the standard, such as a group that meets frequently to hear technical presentations and exchange viewpoints.
Gather a group (it can be your work team) where each person gives a short presentation every month or quarter.
Some people may find a habit attractive as a result of a simple mental shift. One could perceive a habit as an opportunity rather than a need, emphasizing its benefits rather than its drawbacks.
Reading a blog post is time-consuming and needs some cognitive load. However, you can view it as an opportunity to learn a new concept or to improve a skill that can make you more valuable in the job market.
The temptation bundling strategy is another method for boosting habit attractiveness. We can link an action that is wanted with an activity that is necessary.
When commuting listen to a tech podcast.
Make it easy
We try to introduce habits to make our goals more feasible. However, a goal can be huge and overwhelming (e.g. learning React framework, familiarizing myself with Domain Driven Design philosophy, etc.). Therefore, we frequently give up on our goals when our motivational impulse wanes. To avoid it, we should start small or even tiny. In the beginning, frequency and finding an easy gateway for a repetitive habit are more important than perfection. The habit must be established before it can be improved and refined. Like in Test Driven Development, you have to write a minimal bunch of code to pass a test, and only if the test passes you can refactor the code.
Each day starts with skimming Hacker News. You don't need to read articles. Just skim.
Starting small doesn't mean persisting small. You should plan some phases of a habit introduction that are getting more challenging over time.
When you establish Hacker News skimming habit and it becomes your routine, in the second phase you can improve the habit by reading one article. The third phase can be taking notes or writing down the main concepts of an article. The next phase could be reading more than one blog post from different domains.
Make it satisfying
The likelihood of doing a habit this time is increased by the first three laws, whereas the fourth law raises the probability of repeating the behavior in the future. It is much easier to persist with a habit when we get immediate pleasure during the activity or just after it. This is the main reason why bad habits are easily preserved, while good ones are not. Bad habits usually give us an immediate spike of joy, while unpleasant consequences are rather deferred. As far as good habits are concerned, we pay a cost now and get ultimate good outcomes in the future. One of the strategies that can make a habit more enjoyable is activity tracking. Making progress is satisfying, visual measures provide clear evidence of your progress.
Documenting work can be a kind of tracking. Over time, you see how much work has already been done.
Bringing on good habits can be crucial for a continuous improvement approach. However, it is often more important and urgent to eradicate bad habits first. To do it, you should invert the above strategies and make bad habits invisible, unattractive, difficult, and unsatisfying: "The best way to break a bad habit is to make it impractical to do. Increase the friction until you don't even have the option to act" (J. Clear, Atomic Habits). When you make some space, you can turn your attention to building a brand new habit system.