Habit disruption

Full disclosure, I’ve been reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, which is hard to over-sell (it’s really good), and this writeup includes ideas I’ve gleaned there.

Clear structures the book in a really helpful and practical way. He deals with both the creation of good habits which you’d expect, but also the opposite side: disrupting bad habits. Perhaps as important as establishing good habits is getting rid of, or at least minimizing bad habits. Most of us have gone through life accumulating all sorts of habits with hardly a thought to why. They’ve become so automatic we don’t even think about what they are, let alone why we do them. Some are certainly good (brushing your teeth before bed), but oftentimes many of them are bad (see a cookie eat a cookie), and the bad ones are the ones that are tough to deal with. Clear points out that we fall into habits because they’re easy. Many of them develop as a response to some sort of stress because they offer some sort of relief, like Netflix binging after a long day at work, but they begin because they’re easy. By now these bad habits are so ingrained it seems almost impossible to dig ourselves out. As easy as it was to fall into these bad habits, to break out of them seems incredibly difficult. Clear offers a remarkably simple idea here. If we fall into these bad habits because they’re easy, what if we just made the habit a little more difficult? An example from the Netflix binge example would be to unplug the TV every time you turn it off, which would require that you plug it back in next time you want to watch. That one little step does two things: 1) It simply makes it harder to follow through on the routine. Adding difficulty to anything makes us less likely to do that thing, humans follow the path of least resistance. 2) Perhaps more importantly, it disrupts the automatic habit loop that takes over when you step into your living room in the evening. Breaking the habit loop is critical. The simple act of plugging in the TV, which is not part of the normal routine, takes you off autopilot. It forces you to think about what you’re doing (do I really need to watch more TV right now?) and gives you the chance to choose to do something different (maybe I’ll grab a book instead!). Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, points out that people who simply put some thought into their routines are much more likely to complete the desired task (I wrote a little bit about this here). Conversely, when people are forced to put some thought into the routine they want to break they become much more likely to find success in breaking that routine.

So the moral is, set up a few roadblocks for your bad habits. Clear helpfully fleshes out the idea that in order to change our habits we need to make good habits easy and bad habits hard. A little extra friction between you and your bad habits could make a lot of difference in your pursuit of good habits.

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