My regular habits—and why they work so well

This year I’ve become more of a habit creature than ever before. As I’ve taken on new habits one by one I’ve realized that I actually enjoy having habits and seeing the progress build up slowly over time. With that, I decided that this was a good time to read a well-known book on the topic, namely Atomic Habits by James Clear. With the theory from the book in combination with my own practical experience I thought it would make for an interesting post to list my habits and reflect on their characteristics and understand how and why they work.

A giant panda eating bamboo
The Giant Panda has the habits of eating bamboo shots and getting a lot of rest in the meantime. These are habits I admire a lot but that unfortunately are incompatible with my current lifestyle.
Image Source: © William Crochot / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Atomic Habits Takeaways

Focus on the system, not the goal

A good thing when it comes to well established habits is that they become automatic actions that don’t require any persuasion to be done. So, even though the habits are born from a long term goal they may eventually steal the focus from the goal itself. With a good habit (or system), I’m not concerned with the goal far away in the future because I’m busy enjoying the process itself. Eventually, I’ll achieve my goal without even noticing all the hours I had to put in to get there because I had so fun much on the journey.

Change your identity and the results will follow

The second chapter in the book differentiates between outcome-based habits and identity-based habits and argues that the latter yields the best results. In other words, if I focus on who I want to become instead of what I want to achieve then I have a higher chance of success in both areas. Dealing with identity is always a little scary to me, but connecting my habits to an identity or personal trait makes perfect sense to me.

Patient progress builds

This phrase is not from the book but from Mayuko and as far as I can tell it may very well have been coined by her. Either way it fits well with the message from the book that small but continuous improvement gives a big return of investment over time. James Clear presents the idea by showing that a 1% improvement each day will improve the results by a factor of 37 in only one year. A very inspiring idea!

Habit #1 – Spanish lessons on DuoLingo

Identity: Polyglot

Long term goal: Irrelevant, but I suppose fluency in Spanish is the ultimate goal here. It is of course also very useful in case I travel to Spanish-speaking countries.

Short term motivation: I need to keep up my daily streak and climb the DuoLingo ranking ladder.

If you’ve tried out DuoLingo yourself, you know that they’ve turned gamification up to 11 for language learners. The concept is simple, you pick a lesson from a given topic (like ”Restaurant”), get introduced to some grammar and then get challenged with some vocabulary and phrase exercises related to that topic. When you finish a lesson you get to open a chest filled with gems with which you can buy stuff that aren’t really useful for language learning but it still feels good to get them. In addition, DuoLingo keeps track on your daily streak and places you in a competitive league against other people where those who are the most diligent gets promoted. You can also become friends with other users and give virtual high fives to one another to celebrate your progress.

Basically, DuoLingo has followed what is presented as the 4th Law of Behavior Change in Atomic Habits which is make it satisfying. They’ve crammed in so much positive affirmation and instant gratification that I wouldn’t want to be without it. In addition to that, I know that if I would stop then they will make sure it stings by sending over some emotional guilt.

A screenshot of the type of email DuoLingo sends when one becomes inactive. It is a picture of their sad mascot who says they are missing you.
This type of email will reach your inbox in case you ever decide to ditch DuoLingo. A guilt trip I wish for no one.

Habit #2 – Korean vocabulary with Anki

Identity: Polyglot

Long term goal: Irrelevant, but I suppose fluency in Korean is the ultimate goal here. It is of course also very useful in case I travel to Korea.

Short term motivation: I need to keep up my daily streak.

While DuoLingo is good for learning Spanish, I find it sub-optimal for learning Korean because the Korean grammar and structure is so far from other languages I know (like Swedish and English) so that the synergies between the languages are very few. Instead, I had to look elsewhere for learning Korean and in the beginning I found TalkToMeInKorean and GO! Billy Korean to be great resources for getting a basic understanding of Hangul and the Korean grammar. These days I put the bulk of my Korean learning time into expanding my vocabulary, using the flash cards app Anki. Anki makes memorization tasks much simpler by automating the concept of spaced repetition and supplying the user with the material that they are about to forget, making the memorization as optimal and efficient as possible.

From my perspective, Anki follows all four laws for creating a good habit. Presented briefly below.

  • The 1st law of behavior change: Make it obvious
    The fact that the Anki icon is patiently waiting for me every day at my computer’s desktop makes it very hard to ignore.
  • The 2nd law of behavior change: Make it attractive
    As a Windows application Anki takes up very little space of my screen. To spark some extra motivation, I use the rest of my screen to display a very nice picture of the Cheonjiyeon waterfall on Jeju Island. A simple trick to associate my vocab training with the feeling of being on the Korean paradise island.
  • The 3rd law of behavior change: Make it easy
    The simplicity of Anki is achieved through multiple factors. By using Anki, I don’t have to deal with deciding which words I should learn, which I should repeat and so on, they are provided to me by the app. I’m also using a community-created deck of cards so I don’t have to come up with the words myself (although there would be benefits with that approach too).

    In the beginning, Anki was configured to provide me with ten new words per day. While that worked well in the beginning (because I already knew a fair amount of words from previous learning activities) it would eventually lead to an ever-increasing backlog and my sessions would take longer and longer. Nowadays, I’m adding two new words each day and that has been working great thus far and I’ve managed to get the backlog under control. It is possible that I’ll be able to increase the number of words per day in the future, but even with only two words per day I’ll be learning more than 700 words per year and that ain’t too shabby.
  • The 4th law of behavior change: Make it satisfying
    Vocabulary learning can be a slow and sometimes tedious process. For instance, I’ve been going on for weeks trying to learn that the fairly simple word 경기 (gyeong-gi) means game, economy or business but it keeps slipping out of my mind. Thankfully, Anki does a good job of focusing on the positives and not worry too much about the few energy drainers. A way in which Anki does this is by visualizing the progress and providing uplifting stats as seen in the picture below.
Statistics from my daily habit of Korean vocabulary training with Anki. Showing a calendar of the year with markers for each day I've studied and a pie chart showing how many words I've learned.
Seeing the calendar chart fill up with a blue box and the green parts of the pie chart grow larger day by day is most satisfying.

I got the question from a colleague a couple of weeks ago how my Korean was progressing and, after getting into the topic of vocabulary training with Anki, I got the question how many words I currently know. Being able to confidently say ”I know about a thousand words in Korean” is about as good as it gets when it comes to humble-bragging.

Habit #3 – Three good things

Identity: Optimist

Long term goal: Be happy and content with my life.

Short term motivation: Thinking of the good things the happened during the day puts a smile on my face.

A couple of months ago, I spoke to a friend about a recurring feeling I’m having that the things I do (at work or in general) aren’t good enough. It’s not a very fun situation to be in, so my friend suggested to me that I’d try out the Three good things exercise. Basically, the idea is to take some time before going to bed to reflect on and write down three good things that happened during the day. I’ve been doing this for about six weeks now and I’ve built up a nice little text document filled with positives that I keep on adding to. It’s hard to say for sure if it has made me happier and if it has relieved me from the feeling of not being good enough. What it has been able to do, however, is that it has given me clarity and insight about what I value in life, who the people I treasure are and what activities I enjoy.

My next evolution of this exercise will be to put more focus on my own role in why the three good things happened to me. Up until now, I’ve only listed the three good things each day without giving much thought as to why they happened. Even though it isn’t impossible that good things happen out of the blue, more times than not I think I can be given some credit for the good things that happen to me.

Habit #4 – Weight gain

Identity: Athlete

Long term goal: A healthy and strong body.

Short term motivation: I want my endorphin rush and then celebrate with plenty of calories.

I’ve always been fairly content with my weight, even though I’ve always been in the slender category of body types. I also almost never check my weight, which is a good way to be content with the weight since you can decide for yourself instead of ”being judged” by the scale. However, during my bike holiday this summer I weighed myself for the first time in about five or six years. I then realized that I weighed about 10 % under my perceived ideal weight. This was possibly due to the pandemic, which I’m sure made the weight shift for a lot of people, or that I had grown tired of cooking for and eating by myself for a long period of time, or that I had thinned out from the fact that I expended more calories on the bike than I was able to take in during my bike trip. It was probably a combination of all three. Anyway, I decided that I should put some effort into growing some muscle, eating more and gaining some weight. This triggered a few habits that work in synergy with each other, which Clear refers to as Habit Stacking. Basically, because I work out about 4-5 days a week I have to eat more (in amount and frequency). Because I eat more I have to do more grocery shopping and because my workout sessions typically start at somewhere between 16:00 and 18:00 on the weekdays, I have to get up early to be able to finish work on time. Because I have to get up early, I need to go to bed early too.

This might sound like a lot of needs and musts that just drains energy and restricts my freedom, but I actually think it has the opposite effect. These habits have led to orderly and well planned weekdays which unintuitively leads to less stress. In addition, I can still allow myself to make exceptions from the routine if I need to, in favor of quality time with friends and family for instance.

These habits have also proved to be very identity forming. In part I think it is thanks to the fact that it is hard to not expose my routines to the friends around me. People will start to notice when I regularly carry sports gear around, have to leave work with the motivation ”my workout starts in 30 minutes” and bring an extra sandwich to the coffee break every day. I also think that our society is very enthusiastic and accepting about working out and keeping in shape and as such it is a comfortable conversation topic, compared to let’s say language learning which is a bit of a fringe activity in comparison.

Why I didn’t start using habits earlier

When I was a student at university there was a lot of talk about finding good study habits. As for me, I never got sold on that idea of having good study habits. Granted, I was able to fulfill my duties as a student anyway simply by knowing (or deciding for myself) that I wanted to graduate and to be able to do that I just had to pass those exams. James Clear writes ”You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems” and I think the Swedish education system sets the level for passable quite low. See, unlike the activities listed above (learning new languages, becoming happier and content with life, gaining weight) which all require years of continuous effort where daily habits can be a great tool, studying at university didn’t quite have the same long term perspective for me. My five years were broken down into sprints of seven weeks each where you take it nice and easy the first five weeks and the last two you push your memorization skills to max and then go and write the exam and as soon as it is done the knowledge degradation begins. Shortly after, the process starts over from the beginning with a new course in a new topic that very well may not build upon the knowledge you learned in the previous course.

This rant about the Swedish educational system may be a little out of place, and I’m not sure if I have any ideas for improvement. What I feel is that I’m a little sad that I had get all the way into my thirties to realize the power of having good habits and I wish that my years at the university would have helped me figured that out many years ago. Instead, I spent a great deal of the time of turning my pattern matching and memorization skills into overdrive by studying previous years’ exams days before my own exam. I was a fast-food junkie, except I ate högskolepoäng instead of burgers. Well, that was a strange comparison, so let’s not dwell on the past but instead look forward.

Future habit improvements

As I read Atomic Habits I was pondering about what new good habits I can introduce to my life, and if there are bad habits that I can get rid of. I think I’ve found a candidate in each category. A good habit that I want to invest into is to read from a book every day. I already read quite a lot, but it usually comes in bursts and there are periods where I completely fall out of my reading habit and I don’t like it. In chapter 13, Clear introduces the ”Two-minute rule” which, as its name implies, states that ”when you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do”. Now, two minutes of book reading won’t get me far but what I’m hoping will happen is that as I get into the habit of reading for two minutes every evening I will realize that I want more than just the two minutes. This will in turn will help me prioritize book reading over other spare time activities like my YouTube K-pop sessions. Both these habits are in conflict with the habit of going to bed and get to sleep in time and K-pop is the clear winner when it comes to instant gratification so I’m not entirely sure how this will work out, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to fool the system.

A bad habit that I would like to get rid of is something that happens as I go about my day at work and write code. Part of my day is spent in cycles of writing code and then building my code. For non-techy people, you can think of ”building code” as a process where I click a button on the screen and then have to wait for 30-60 seconds as the code I’ve written is transformed into an actual computer program that I can test and see if it works. The build process is boring and as such I tend to switch focus and take a look at Teams (the company’s equivalent of a social media network) and see if someone has written something interesting or funny. This ruins my concentration and flow and when I eventually go back to the finished build process I might even have forgotten what change I was working on. I spoke to a colleague about this just the other day and he understood the issue perfectly and also had the solution all figured out. He said, ”When I build, I look at the build. The only thing I’m allowed to do [except looking at the build] is to drink water.” A simple rule that is at least worth to try out. With it, I hope I’ll be able to stay in the zone a little easier with less distraction. Atomic Habits doesn’t put much focus on the importance of discipline when it comes sticking to good habits and avoiding bad ones. For my own sake however, I think I’m relatively successful when it comes to setting a rule and living by it, just because I or some authority said so.

Working with habits is just like working with goals, it takes continuous effort, reflection and re-evaluation. Based on the habits listed in this post, I’m working on becoming an optimistic and athletic polyglot. Chances are that I might want to put my time and energy into something else down the line. If so, working with my habits will probably not have been in vain, but simply a process of optimizing the efficiency of moving in my currently desired direction and learning more about myself. What’s your relation to habits? Do you have good or bad experiences with habits that you wish to share? I hope you enjoyed this look into my own habits and if you want to learn more then be sure to give Atomic Habits a read. It is, after all, a “useful new book” as the Wall Street Journal would put it.

Some of the testimonials of Atomic Habits with Wall Street Journal saying "Useful new book".
Journalism at its finest!

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