I spoke to thirty founders, and they all do these three things before breakfast.
My nine journaling prompts for other CEOs and founders
One rule for flawless interviews.
[and so on]
Habit hacks are catnip to a certain kind of self-improvement/business-guru people. I actually got pretty involved in these kinds of articles earlier in my career, so it'd be wrong for me to judge.
I think these kind of articles (or titles for articles) work because i) they make people feel smarter than other people, and ii) they promise great results with low input.
Maybe three weeks ago I'd get snarky about how better results isn't a knowledge problem. I don't think knowing more equates simply to more and better work. "Keep running" won't unconditionally get anybody to the end of a marathon.
After reading Atomic Habits (by James Clear), I was reminded of the best of these articles. Clear helped me remember the generous interpretation for why these articles get written, read, and perform so well on social media: little decisions, stacked and reliably repeated, make big changes about who we are and what we can achieve.
The platonic ideal of good habits are tools that help us become the version of ourself we want to be, and produce the highest quality work we can.
But still, the problem isn't knowing what three things to do before breakfast, it's programming yourself to do the activities over and over again.
We all want that. And Clear dedicates a whole book to giving us the tools to get there. I want to surface the parts of Atomic Habits that resonated with me:
- The rules for forging and breaking a habit.
- Call out your automatic actions / lazy behaviours.
- Decide what kind of person you want to be.
- Monkey brain makes decisions but is easy to trick.
1. The Rules
Clear gives us four rules for making and breaking a habit. To make a habit we must:
- Make it obvious
- Make it desirable
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
And to break, we invert:
- Make it invisible
- Make it undesirable
- Make it difficult
- Make it unsatisfying.
The what and why of each of these rules is the whole point of the book. Read the book, you'll find helpful stuff in there.
2. Call out your automatic or lazy behaviours
Our laziness (and the purposefully crafted and endlessly revised systems devised by social media and engagement-driven advertising that take advantage of that laziness) mean that we do a lot of things without really thinking. Without even realising.
Come home, sit on sofa, reach for the remote, and turn on the TV. Open a new tab, type
faceb and have your browser take you to Facebook. Open your phone and check twitter. Walk into the kitchen, fill up the kettle for another pot of tea.
Clear introduces the Pointing and Calling method. A process where you literally point at something and say what it is.
You might point at your kettle and say "I am turning this on because it is the morning and I drink coffee in the morning".
"I am eating leftovers because they are on the side"
"I am checking Hacker News because I don't want to start my next task"
A lot of the time we're witnesses to our actions, rather than the conductor. I like Pointing and Calling because it can be done from the passenger seat, as a way to move you into the driving seat. "I have let YouTube autoplay into another vide" I say to myself, as my brain beckons in the firehose of intriguing titles and thumbnails.
I've also been Pointing and Calling before I start doing something intentionally. "I am about to have a meeting with my colleague, I need their help because Y" I say to myself, out loud, alone, in my office, like an insane person. Or "We are talking about putting some more text on the UI because we think our software is confusing our customers", I explain to a colleague, as though they are a non-technical colleague and not, in fact, a skilled engineer.
Hilarity aside: Pointing and Calling sets the scene. Unspoken mismatch of understanding is a staple for a sitcom, but also the reason for a lot of wasted time. State the problem, do the smallest amount of work to solve it, and move on to the next problem.
3. Decide what kind of person you want to be
This point is the least actionable, so probably least worthy of discussion.
No amount of daily journalling, meditation, calendar apps, or dopamine detoxes is going to make you the person you want to be. Chances are that they're rain dances.
You have finite energy and time, in which you can make finite choices. So make a decision about the direction you want to change in.
Think about it and why you want it.
The kind of person I want to be is someone more deeply engaged in thoughtful problems. The happiest periods of my life are when I've been like that. What are the kind of things people like that do?
- Engage and stay engaged
- Prevent disruptions or distractions
- Communicate thoughtfully and well
What don't they do?
- Switch contexts or problems before reaching depth
- Avoid resistance or friction to difficulty
4. Monkey brain is tricky
Our brains are dumb, or at very least don't want the best for use. Very smart people are building enticing platforms that wholly rely on having your attention. Our poor brains are easily persuaded by others, and very persuasive to us - so that makes them a high value target.
It's become weirdly normal to be distracted or give your attention to other things. Our brains rely on sight for information processing. We see a lot of attention-grabbing things every day, and we have to do active work against that.
Understanding this is necessary for a) breaking habits around modern media consumption, and b) making habits that use the freed time and space that creates.
Clear gave me three very useful reminders in this book:
- If you want your brain to forget about something, just hide it. Put your phone in the other room, remove the app from your home screen.
- Friction and perceived effort aren't proportional: adding a tiny bit of friction can make your brain think something is way harder than it actually is
- Make something tangible: a lot of difficult or important things don't have immediate tangible satisfaction. Cross something off, or write it down. Move lego bricks from one jar to another. Tear off a calendar page. Let your brain see or touch something.