Atomic Habits

On a recent Sam Harris podcast, he recently interviewed author James Clear about his book Atomic Habits; how small and achievable daily changes that we can make in our lives can have profound effects down the road.

For example, many of us have goals. However, these goals are seldom reached. Usually the goals might be overwhelming or a bit too lofty. Typically, in my experience, I might become motivated to work on achieving a goal for a week or two, and then I quickly become distracted, bored, or unmotivated. So the key here is to become disciplined to make small achievable changes in ones life every day.

One example of how I failed at achieving a big goal was back in 2009. I decided to learn how to write code in order to program a video game. I wanted to challenge myself to recreate the engine for the original Legend of Zelda game released on the original Nintendo. I would spend all of my days off (I worked 4 on 4 off) neglecting house work, exercise, and proper nutrition because I was ultra focused on learning to code and learning how to use a 2D game library to achieve my goal. I would sometimes sit and stare at my code, focusing hard, stubborn as a mule to solve even simple programming problems. These problems were difficult in retrospect, since I was a new programmer. However, they would have been quite simple to solve for even a moderately experienced coder. My problem was that I was pouring 12 hours into programming something, but achieving very little because I wouldn’t give up. My mindset at the time was an obsessive all or nothing single mindedness. I got burned out and gave up after a few months. This was wrong approach.

A better approach to achieving goals like this is to make small changes. Every day all of us can do something small. If we do one small thing, many many times, even if that small thing is painful to do (like washing dish out of a massive pile of dishes), over time the dishes will get done.

Small changes over time will, similar to the powerful effects of compound interest, accumulate into something much greater and surprising. But these changes aren’t immediately obvious. One good example that Clear used in the introduction of his book was that of somebody trying to crack a large boulder with a hammer. It might take 50 swings, but nothing happens, but on that 51st swing, the rock will crack.

This all makes sense. Our minds and bodies have been forged through an evolutionary imperative to seek immediate rewards to maximize survival. In order to prepare for famine, we better eat all those berries from the berry bush we just found so that we gain some body fat. In a fight or flight situation, we must act now in order to live for tomorrow. In today’s world though, we’re inundated with stuff that distracts us. Junk food, junk television, video games, chilling out on the couch. These are activities that we almost cannot say no to. They’re too alluring. Should I work out right now, or eat this bag of Cheesy Poofs and binge out on Netflix? It’s almost a no-win situation.

The problem with many of these kinds of dopamine rich distractions is that they are bad habits. We do this many times, every day, over many years. These habits are reinforced and repeated. But what happens to our bodies? We gain weight, we clog our arteries, our blood pressure goes up. We neglect our bodies and, when the time inevitably comes in life where stress rears its ugly head, we aren’t able to deal with it. This is an example of immediate benefit with long term costs. According to Clear, bad habits benefit us in the short term. We eat this entire bag of chips and watch an entire season of Witcher in a single night because it feels good to be lazy and to stuff our faces with massive amounts of fat, salt, and simple carbohydrates. But in the long term, if done a few times a week or more, we get fat and weak; unable to deal with stress or to deal with many other challenges we must face in life

On the other side of the coin we have good habits. These are small changes that we can make every day. Over time these habits have an immediate cost but lead to long term benefit. This is the opposite of a bad habit. Clear wanted to answer the question about why bad habits are so easy to form, and good habits are so difficult. The following is, at least in part, the answer he found to the question. Good habits are difficult now, but benefit us later. Bad habits are beneficial now, and become difficult for us later.

With a good habit, what is the Immediate Cost? It is the difficulty and pain that is usually required of carrying out a good habit action. Take exercise as an example. If you work out for two weeks, you’ll likely weigh the same (if you haven’t changed your diet) and you’ll likely look the same in the mirror. But your body is sore and the workout itself is probably painful and hard to do. If you keep this up every day for a few years, you’ll certainly look and feel better. This is Immediate Cost resulting in a long term health benefit. How about learning any new skill? We must face the pain of failing over and over until we eventually become good at it. But if we’re persistent, the pain becomes worth it.

In a bad habit, what is the Immediate Benefit? Well, delicious chips and unlimited entertainment as an example. What is the long term cost in this scenario? A weak flabby body, declining mental health.

This is just one small and simple example of an important lesson I learned from reading Atomic Habits. Small achievable changes that one can make every day can eventually have powerful beneficial results in the long term, but only if we stick with them. So put down that bag of chips and pick up your running shoes.

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