I'd read the book before our conversation, and my expectations were pretty high.
James did not disappoint!
We had a good old riff (as Seth Godin would say) and really dug deep into some key ideas that help with habit creation. One of them was the importance of creating the right environment.
Your environment is more likely to contribute to your success when it comes to habit creation and sustenance than most other factors.
Here are my insights from James' book — Atomic Habits.
My Key Insights from Atomic Habits
- Tiny changes compound over time and lead to massive transformations
- There are three main kinds of habits
- Goal-driven: Habits you perform to achieve a specific goal
- System-driven: Habits focused on systems, and processes that will get you to your goal
- Identity-driven: Behaviors we perform because they match our beliefs. This is the most effective form because it's most likely to lead to lasting behavior change
Forming a habit is simple, but not easy
Forming a habit is a challenge in and of itself. But it's even more challenging to stick to a habit over the long term.
It is possible though.
One of the biggest obstacles to actually sticking to a habit is what you do when you miss a day. What happens then? Most people fold and throw it all away. That's a tragic mistake.
Developing habits involve a lot of "falling off the horse and getting back on". In many ways, habits are about re-committing to the process.
So at the outset, I'd say it's critical to approach habit creation with a flexible (but firm) mindset. An all-or-nothing approach is almost certainly going to fail.
But it's important to be committed to the process and resolute in your approach.
Why being completely goal-focused can be a problem
Goals are good motivators and are certainly capable of rallying our efforts toward one thing. But the joy that comes with having achieved the goal is fleeting.
If we think of it in terms of a journey, then the goal we're aiming for is the destination. And the (arrival at the) destination is a tiny part of the journey.
The process of achieving the goal, on the other hand, is the biggest part of the journey and this is where you spend the majority of your time. So it makes sense to really enjoy the journey (not just the destination).
Unfortunately, our goal-obsessed culture doesn't serve us well because goal attainment is momentary and doesn't create lasting satisfaction.
Being focused on enjoying the process, however, does increase levels of happiness because it's about enjoying the majority of your journey.
Focusing on the journey/habit that gets you to the goal and extracting joy from the day-to-day aspects is a far wiser approach.
This is true for a few reasons:
- The feelings of joy associated with accomplishing a goal, by definition, are fleeting. Any joy or satisfaction is going to be short-lived.
- Once you've achieved the goal or "won the game", you're immediately onto the next goal. This means that almost all of your satisfaction is relegated to some point in the future. When you marry the process and invest yourself in improving the process, you're likely to experience joy and satisfaction all the way through.
The habit formation process
James explains that habits are formed in four phases:
Your brain gets triggered and recognizes an opportunity for a possible reward.
Ever smelt cookies and suddenly found yourself craving for grandma's cookies she lovingly baked for you when you were a kid?
That's a cue. It creates a craving.
The cue gives rise to a craving (desire) to achieve the reward and you feel motivated to act. Based on your past experience, your brain registers that positive change is afoot.
It knows there's going to be a desirable change in your emotional or physical state. It craves the satisfaction the change will deliver.
Following on from the craving you take action. If the action is easy to do, you'll follow through with it (this is why optimizing your environment to promote (or inhibit) action-taking is extremely valuable)
You get the payoff for having taken the action. You've successfully satisfied your craving and "trained" your brain to perform that same habit again because it's now registered the positive change or payoff.
This essentially closes the loop and creates the virtuous cycle.
It re-enforces that pathway in the brain and you're now more likely to perform the same action when you experience that same cue in the future.
And that's how your habit is created.