The book in question is “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, and it follows in the footsteps of another fascinating (though slightly less recent) read of mine: “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. You’ll not win any prizes for guessing that the topic of these books is habit formation and the manipulation of such habits towards one’s desired goals. In a profession such as medicine, some of the concepts here have huge potential, and I so I thought this would be a worthwhile exploration.
What's the excitement
I suppose my personal fascination in this is well summarised by the quote above. As Aristotle and an increasing number of psychologists can attest, we are a little more automatic and subconscious than we would like to think. Indeed, we are our habits: we primarily fill our time with our habitual actions, we interact with the world cloaked in our habitual mannerisms, and the very essence of ‘us’ is a constellation of our habitual thought patterns and processes. Shyness and confidence; procrastination and dedication; physically active and sedentary; these all have the weight of repetition behind them, reinforcing whatever other factors may have nudged us in one direction or the other. Proponents of the concept of ‘a self’ may be worrying a little bit here (this in itself would be a fascinating domain to explore) but the major factor that I think is worth exploring is the power that such a recognition grants us. Let’s explore this aspect of it a bit more.
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
I will share one of my own approaches to give an example. I’ve tried using a ‘habit tracker’ (simply look for a habit tracker in the app store) to keep a reference of which good habits I want to ingrain into daily life. This is simply a list of your daily desired habits with a tick box next to them, allowing you to plot adherence over time. With my next exam on the horizon, I have a row for ‘study’. For this to be ‘ticked off’ I need to answer all my Anki flashcards for that day (more on them here on my previous blog post: http://www.rapidsequence.org.uk/blog/medical-education-spaced-repetition) and add at least one new card to the deck. This addition of a new card is a small target (easy), but requires me to look into a topic to find a question that I don’t know the answer to and therefore learn something new. The unanswered flashcards are clearly waiting for me (obvious) and the process of ticking off the box once I have completed this task is surprisingly satisfying. I think the result is something less effective (certainly in the short term) than dedicated ‘cramming’ revision, but, I hope, more powerful in the long run. And that is essentially what habits are about. A slow but steady march in the direction that you would like to go.
Well thank you for reading! It’s been a slightly different angle than some of my more recent posts, but hopefully still an interesting and useful one. If this is a topic that interests you, have a look at a few of the links below and please share your comments. To close, I will leave a quote from the excellent Farnam Street blog post on the topic that I think beautifully encapsulates the advice I would have liked prior to all the exams of recent years.
"First forget inspiration.
Habit is more dependable.
Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.
Habit is persistence in practice."
- Octavia Butler