Writing again: atomic habits part 4

Atomic Habits Part 4

The 30-day challenge

As I’ve been writing over the last couple of weeks, the first six lessons from James Clear’s 30-day habit challenge looked first at establishing your identity and choosing small (tiny) habits you can do to support that identity, and then setting up your environment to make it easy to top the habit (part 3). I’ve been applying these lessons to establishing the habit of doing a series of exercises to help heal my shoulder.

James says that when you get to this point your habit might be working for you and, if it is, great. Carry on!

But if your initial enthusiasm is dropping off, lessons 7, 8 and 9 cover ways to keep you motivated.

I’m feeling at this point I have my shoulder exercises under control and I don’t need additional motivation. My real motivation is that I’m paying for physio sessions every three to four weeks, and part of that deal is I do the exercises. If I don’t, I might as well stop going to the physio and give up on the whole thing.

And it will never get better.

Getting rid of the pain is a powerful motivator.

Since I wanted to see the course through to the end, I decided to choose another habit to work through the process with: writing.

The writing reset

The first six steps of the habits challenge, which I’ve already worked through with the shoulder exercises, look like this:

  1. Identity: I am a person who writes every day.
  2. Gateway habit (aka the habit that is so easy you have no excuse for not doing it): Open my notebook and write one sentence.
  3. Implementation intention: “After I have finished my morning meditation, I will sit at my desk, open my notebook and write one sentence.”
  4. Make the cue obvious: Put my notebook and a pencil on my desk.
  5. Reduce friction: Leave my phone and iPad out of reach and out of sight.
  6. Prime the environment: Clear my desk of all distractions the night before.
A green notebook and an orange pencil sitting on a clean desk with a computer monitor
How long will it stay like this?

So far, so good.

Staying motivated: temptation bundling and commitment devices

Lesson 7 has two suggestions for what to do your motivation starts to drop off.

The first is “temptation bundling”, where you link your “must do” habit with something you actually want to do, and only do that thing when you’re doing the habit.

For example, “I will only listen to podcasts when I’m exercising”. The idea is that you’ll want to do your wanted activity so much that restricting it only to times you’re doing the needed habit makes it more likely you’ll do that thing.

I will only drink coffee when I’m writing. For example.

I’m not sure I could stick to that. I think eschewing coffee at other times would require more willpower than making myself sit down and write would.

The second strategy is to put in place a “commitment device” to make it harder to get out of the good habit than it does to do it. Examples might be getting a dog so you have to go for a walk every day, deleting distracting apps from your devices, or locking yourself out of your social media accounts, which James said he did with a great deal of success. He says of that strategy, “once the bad habit became impossible, I discovered that I actually did have the motivation to work on more meaningful tasks”.

It’s like how working from home has stopped me from snacking on junky bakery treats that I buy regularly when I’m in town working in the office because they’re so freely available. I rarely miss them when it’s not possible to get them.

Then there’s the famous story of how Victor Hugo, when faced with a writing deadline, had his assistant lock all his clothes away so he wouldn’t be able to leave his apartment until he’d finished the book. (Different versions of the story say he was left with his pyjamas, a cape or a shawl.)

Anther example is locking your phone away in a k-safe like Johann Hari say he does, in Stolen Focus, when he wants to get some work done.

I googled “commitment devices for writing” and found a stack more here. Some of them certainly are extreme. A bracelet that delivers an electric shock if you don’t meet your word count, for example.

I don’t think I need any of these just yet while I’m still working myself into the gateway habit (though I have googled k-safe a few times . . . I think if I were going to pick one to try, it would be that one.) When it comes to writing for longer periods, especially when I shift onto the computer, I might need to revisit these strategies.

In the mean time, after I finish my morning meditation, I go and sit at my desk, open my notebook and write one sentence

Share this