Habits Can Make Us or Break Us

You wake up in the morning, you brush your teeth for a couple of minutes and you’re done with it.

You get back home after a long, tiring day. You plonk on the couch. Later, you pull yourself to get some dinner, watch television or scroll down your social media feed. You’re dragging yourself to bed half asleep and it suddenly hits you – you’d promised yourself to start brushing twice a day. You tell yourself this can wait and head to sleep. 

Time and again you face obstacles while trying to make small changes to improve your life. When you schedule a new habit later in the day, it is going to be exhausting to stick to it. This has been my personal experience too. But, in the past few weeks of lockdown, I have been able to develop positive habits efficiently. This compelled me to think about the probable causes that led to these results. 

Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien in their latest book, The Great Mental Models Volume 2: Physics, Chemistry, and Biology have a chapter dedicated to Activation Energy.

Mental models are based on Charlie Munger’s principles of using a Lattice Work of Mental Models to improve decision making. The latest volume tracks principles from the natural sciences viz. activation energy, velocity, etc. and explores how to use them to base your decisions.

“Activation energy is needed for everything from getting up in the morning to revolutions. It’s the ingredient that starts a reaction, breaking apart the current state of affairs and transforming it into something new. When we have enough activation energy, we have the power to finish a reaction, achieving a sustainable result. We know the amount of activation energy is correct when enough new connections form that it becomes impossible to revert back to the way we were. In chemistry, activation energy is the energy that must be delivered to a chemical system in order to initiate a reaction, breaking bonds so that new ones can form. ”

So, activation energy will jumpstart a reaction and will also help sustain the reaction till it’s logical end.

Charles Duhigg in the Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business“If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day,” Muraven told me. “If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home…As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.”

Will poweris like any other muscle or resource in the body. One has limited access to this resource in one day. We need a hack to use this to our advantage.

James Clear in his mind-blowing work, Atomic Habits gives a structured approach to building habits – tiny atomic habits that lead to massive gains over a period of time (Measured in years). 

“Habits are like the atoms of our lives. Each one is a fundamental unit that contributes to your overall improvement. At first, these tiny routines seem insignificant, but soon they build on each other and fuel bigger wins that multiply to a degree that far outweighs the cost of their initial investment. They are both small and mighty. This is the meaning of the phrase atomic habits—a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth.”

Habits are small actions which compound over time to provide explosive results. Productive habits yield positive results and destructive habits, negative ones.

Combining my understanding of these concepts, I was able to figure out:

  • There is a finite reserve of will power available everyday
  • Activation energy is the least energy needed to start and sustain a reaction
  • Habits are small actions when repeated shape our future

In the past few weeks most of us are staying at home with lesser work to attend to. There are fewer decisions to make on any given day freeing up our willpower muscle. A stronger will power muscle requires lesser activation energy. Together these act as a powder keg to form new habit.

This is the what comes to mind when I think of why I could form new habits with lesser hurdles.

On similar lines, it should also be possible to tie a new habit you would like to develop to the early part of your day. At this time, there is a surplus of will power resource, and lower activation energy is necessary to see you through.

Over a period of time when the habits become a part of routine, you can look at scheduling them later in the day and substituting the freed up chunk of time to develop another positive habit.  

Some of the habits that I managed to develop during this lockdown:

  • Meditate for an hour
  • Write on a thought/ action once a week
  • Develop a body weight exercise schedule thrice a week
  • Develop intermittent fasting and subsist on only two meals a day

I hope you are able to hack this too!

Cover Image courtesy: Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

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