Reaping the Rewards of Habits
The goal of forming Atomic Habits is to end up with better rewards and end up becoming more successful overall. The thing that makes this difficult for us as humans is that we’re animals by nature and we have an engrained need for instant gratification. We’ve been wired for 200,000 years to need to act quickly to survive and we’ve only recently had a long enough lifespan to think past our next meal. Once we accept that we’re animals we can acknowledge the emotions and feelings we have and learn to control them. In 2021, most of us no longer need to hunt for our next meal, weather long deadly storms, or worry about being eaten by wild beasts. Personally, I like the idea that we should embrace our nature as animals sometimes, but our goal is to become the best humans we can and it starts with hacking our need for instant gratification.
The final stage of the habit feedback loop is the reward and the 4th law of creating a good habit is to make the habit satisfying. Thinking back to immediate gratification most of our bad habits are immediately satisfying. Eating unhealthy foods, watching tv, sleeping in too long, or even dealing with our emotions poorly. In terms of our nature this was to conserve calories when we needed to worry about hunting and surviving in the wild. Calories were scarce and conserving them was important. Now, calories literally grow on trees and in fast food lanes everywhere.
The best ways to make a good habit satisfying is to hack the immediate gratification system and trick yourself into accepting long term rewards. One of James Clear’s examples is how companies use satisfying flavors and smells in hygiene products to increase use and sales. We tend to appreciate the taste of toothpaste more than the task of brushing our teeth and we enjoy the fragrance of clean hair and skin more than the task of using soap.
The idea is simple, use immediate gratification to trick yourself into long term success and the delayed gratification of a larger, harder to achieve goal. You can do this by using some or all of the following tactics:
- Reward good habits
- Punish bad habits
- Create accountability measures
- Track your habits – don’t break the chain and never miss twice
Rewarding Good Habits
I talked about the idea of creating simple rewards above in examples like toothpaste and soap, but what about creating immediate rewards for saving money or hitting the gym? These rewards have to be specific to you in every case, but also have to be rewards that don’t compromise your good habits (i.e. eating cookies to reward avoiding pizza is a bad idea). The best suggestion I have is to make your reward immediately tangible. One great example in the book was taking the money you would normally spend on something you don’t need or shouldn’t buy and immediately transferring it to a savings account. Seeing that number grow in your own account instead of seeing it leave is immediately incredibly satisfying.
Rewarding a gym session monetarily could work the same way. Transfer $1 into a “fun fund” after every workout designed for taking a trip or buying something you’ve had your eye on for a while. Similarly, you can make a checklist and make the gym an item on that list that obviously only gets checked off if completed. The feeling of checking things off or moving items from a place they shouldn’t be to a place they should be is an easy and satisfying way to make any habit tangible.
Punishing Bad Habits
“What is rewarded is repeated and what is punished is avoided.” Add “immediately” to that statement and you have instant gratification. When we can’t avoid a bad habit by simply adding a good one we have to break the desire to perform the bad habit. Money is a great driver for every habit. Clear’s example was of Thomas Frank who scheduled a tweet for every morning right after his 6am alarm that would send Venmo information to his followers if he failed to cancel the tweet due to missing the alarm.
When something causes us to lose money, we tend to avoid it like the plague. Similarly adding painful experiences like extra exercises, publicly admitting you performed the bad habit, or adding literal pain can help prevent bad habits. Keep it simple and find a few things that you hate doing, like losing money or burpees, and tie them to your bad habits.
Create Accountability Measures
Sometimes the things that hold us accountable are the things that push us further and faster than anything else - public shame and legal obligations are amazing motivators. There are several ways to stay accountable when working on your bigger habits. Two of the best are accountability partners and contracts.
First, accountability partners. You can find people everywhere with similar goals, ask them to work with you to accomplish them, and then keep each other on track. Gym partners, wake up call partners, financial advisors, and business coaches are all great examples of these accountability partners. Whether you choose to find a friend or pay an expert, adding an accountability partner is paramount to your success.
Second, contracts. These are so common these days with apps and websites that we tend to miss most of the ones we sign. Every time we agree to terms somewhere, we’ve signed a contract. The goal here is to consciously sign a contract with yourself, and possibly others, that you take just as seriously as a legal agreement. These contracts contain a goal, a consequence, and a partner. The goal should be specific: Go to the gym 5 days a week. The consequence should be specific: Every day the gym is missed I have to pay [Partner] $5.
The structure of the contract is simple:
- Write the purpose of the contract at the top
- State your objective
- State the consequence(s) of not following through
- Add an accountability partner to report to on a regular basis
- Have your accountability partner sign the contract with you
Use a Habit Tracker
Track your habits. Grab a journal like the Best Self Journal or get a calendar and add your desired habits into the boxes next to each day. Every day you perform the habit check the box off. Be honest with yourself and don’t break the streak of days unless you absolutely have to, meaning don’t give up because you simply didn’t want to perform the habit.
If you do miss a day (or more) then get back on track immediately. The rule is, “never miss twice!” If you miss the gym because you’re traveling for an entire day, hit the damn gym the very next day. It won’t be pretty, but it’s getting back in on the bad days that count more, especially after the chain of your habit streak is broken. The last thing to note is to track only the habits that matter. Don’t waste precious time on nuance.
Comment below some of the habits you’re tracking, some of the habits you’re avoiding, and go Get Shit Done!