Starting life anew after the coronavirus pandemic: Let your (good) habits compound
When I was young, I wanted to become the Prime Minister of Singapore. As I grew up, I harboured (slightly) more realistic dreams, but being just dreams, they too did not pan out. Subsequently, I found myself being driven more by life events, and gradually slipped into a cruise mode of working hard under various bosses. You can say that since I didn’t really have a concrete plan for my own life, I was content to fall under somebody’s plan. Somebody who had a grand plan for his life — and who was working hard to make it materialize for himself.
If you have similarly fallen way short of what you wanted to become, then perhaps this is your time too for some reflection. For many of us whose lives are being reset or affected by the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, a new resolve is needed to steer our lives forward again. In his best-selling book “ATOMIC HABITS: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results”, author James Clear argues that what we are today is a lagging measure of our past habits built up over the years. For example, our current net worth is a lagging measure of our past financial habits. Ditto our weight, our health and our skillset which are lagging measures of our eating habits, exercise habits, and learning habits respectively.
The central thesis of the book is that while habits may seem to make little difference at any point in time, their impact can be enormous over the longer term. This is because the effects of our habits multiply (compound) as we repeat them every day over time. It is only when looking back many years later that we can clearly see the value of good habits vis-a-vis the cost of bad ones. What many of us may also not realize is that habits play a big role in shaping our identity and deeply-held beliefs about ourselves.
In this article, I will review the ideas discussed in James Clear’s book, and I hope that my synthesis will interest you to join me in exploring the larger science of habit formation and related books such as the best-selling “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. Let’s start by doing a recap of how money multiplies through compounding, as it is similar — in many ways — to the compounding effect of our habits.
Compounding effect of money — it can work for or against us
Compound interest is interest earned on money that was previously earned as interest. As we earn interest on our savings or fixed deposit, it gets added to the principal amount. Together, the principal amount plus earned interest earns us more interest over time. Over many years, our investments will be able to compound into a substantial amount. To quote Benjamin Franklin: “Money makes money. And the money that money makes, makes money”. This is the happy situation when the compounding effect of money is working for us.
Being a double-edged sword, compound interest can also lead to huge debts if we are not a careful borrower. For example, if we use our credit card and do not have the financial discipline to pay off the entire amount by the initial due date, we will end up having to pay significant compound interest to the bank, if the practice continues. The longer the period for which we continue to roll our credit card outstanding balances, the greater will be the compounding impact. This is because interest is added back to the balance and when interest is then charged on that new balance, it can all add up quickly. This is the undesirable situation when the compounding effect of money is working against us.
In fact, Albert Einstein is purported to have said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe, and that “he who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it.” A similar compounding effect applies to our habits.
Compounding effect of Habits — it can similarly work for or against us
When we repeat our bad habits, day after day, our small missteps accumulate and compound — over time — to become a potentially big problem. The longer the period during which we persist with our bad habits, the greater will be the compounding impact. This is the undesirable situation when the compounding effect of habits is working against us.
On the other hand, if we make a conscious decision to replace our bad habits with good habits, we can guide our lives to a very different destination. James Clear uses the term “atomic habit” to refer to making a tiny change, a marginal gain, a 1 percent improvement in our lives. What makes habit change so potentially transforming is not a single 1 percent improvement at a point in time, but thousands of them stacking up on top of each other over time. By itself, each of these tiny changes seem insignificant, but each improvement is likened by the author to adding a grain of sand to the weighing scale of life. Eventually, the scale tips in our favour, and the positive momentum of our habits becomes unstoppable. This is the happy situation when the compounding effect of habits is working for us.
If we want to take a peek at how our future self will look like, we just need to intuitively visualize how our daily habits will compound many years down the road. Are we spending less — or spending more — than what we earn each month? Are we exercising every day or are we sitting in front of the TV every night? Are we reading to improve ourselves every day or are we always playing computer games deep into the night? Unfortunately for all of us, bad habits are difficult to break, while good habits are difficult to sustain.
Why Good Habits are difficult to sustain
One key reason why it is so hard to build good habits is because whenever we embark on a new habit, we are constantly looking to see visible progress manifesting in our lives. After a while, we get disenchanted when the going gets slow. But the nature of the compounding process is such that it takes time, with the most powerful outcomes being delayed until later than earlier.
In fact, James Clear argues that habits often appear to make no difference until we cross a critical threshold which he called the Plateau of Latent Potential. To jump to a new level of performance, habits need to persist long enough to break through this plateau. When we do finally break through, it may appear to others that we have achieved overnight success. But what they do not know is all the hard work that we have put in — behind the scenes — for such a long period. Therein lies the “secret” recipe of our success, which others will not be able to comprehend, much less try to emulate.
Start changing our habits by focusing on who we wish to become
In what is the book’s central theme, James Clear contends that habits are the path to changing our identity. Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve (e.g., to lose weight). The author argues that it is better to start by focusing on who we wish to become (e.g., to be a writer).
While habits certainly can help us get better results vis-à-vis our immediate goals, their greatest value comes from helping us to become the best version of ourselves. If we are excited about the identity that we want to build for ourselves, it is more likely that we will persist with the habits that are associated with it. Gradually, our identity will emerge out of our habits, because each experience in life — whether one-off or habitual — plays a part in progressively shaping our self-image. However, the effect of one-off actions tends to dissipate over time, while the effect of habits instead gets reinforced with time. When we choose to repetitively perform a habit, we are in effect saying to ourselves — each time — that this is the type of person we wish to become. As these habits build up and compound, our new identity thus emerges and continues to grow.
In short, the most practical way to change who we are is to change what we do — by first deciding what type of person we want to be, and then proving it to ourselves with “small wins” that directly result from our habitual actions.
If we want to be a top writer for example, we should have the habit of writing every day, and our self-belief will steadily grow with the satisfaction we feel each time when a small writing piece is completed or published.
System of Atomic Habits
James Clear described how the British Cycling organization was transformed in 2003 by Dave Brailsford which was hired then as its new performance director to put the organization on a new performance trajectory. At the time, British riders had a very poor 100-year track record, having won just a single Olympic Games gold medal, and not a single Tour de France victory in the 100 years prior. Just 5 years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and during the ten-year period from 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships and 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals, while capturing 5 Tour de France victories. Quite an achievement indeed.
What distinguished Brailsford from previous coaches was his idea that if we break down everything that is involved in riding a bike, and then improving each thing by 1 percent, we will get a significant increase in performance when we put them all together. He called this strategy “the aggregation of marginal gains”. Brailsford and his coaches began by making small typical adjustments, such as redesigning bike seats, wearing electrically heated overshorts, using biofeedback sensors to monitor workouts, and switching to indoor racing suits, which proved to be lighter and more aerodynamic. Beyond these typical adjustments, Brailsford and his team continued to find 1 percent improvements in many other areas, such as testing different types of massage gels for the fastest muscle recovery, and determining the type of pillow and mattress for the best night’s sleep. As these and hundreds of other small improvements accumulated, they compound into remarkable results.
Touting this example of British Cycling as a model of what is possible in our personal lives, James Clear recounts how he had to rely on small but consistent habits to rebound from a baseball injury (which caused him to lapse into a coma) to get stronger in the gym, to achieve good academic results, to perform well on the field, to become an accomplished writer, and to build a successful business.
Drawing on his practical work with the Habits Academy as well as the fields of biology, neuroscience, philosophy and psychology, the author proposes a system of atomic habits which is a step-by-step plan for building better habits that last. In laying out his prescriptions, the author tries very hard to explain the cognitive / behavioural science of how our habits are created and changed.
You will be taken on an eye-opening journey of how we can make good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible, by applying the Four Laws of Behavior Change to help us break the vicious cycle of repeating bad habits, and to replace these bad habits with good ones.
Think Big, Start Small, Keep Improving
I would like to end my review by reiterating a central theme of the book which really resonates with me. Ideally, the starting point of our personal transformation journey is to have a clear idea of the person who we want to become. In reality, becoming the best version of ourselves requires us to continuously revisit and revise our beliefs, while upgrading and expanding our identity.
Looking back on my life, I have always felt that I have been giving myself too many mixed messages at different times about what I want out of life. I now realized that it has been a journey of gradually discovering myself, as-hoc as it is. Certainly, I now no longer aspire to be the next Prime Minister of Singapore — believe me, that vacancy is already taken anyway! Like everybody else, I still dream of becoming very rich, but vague dreams are clearly not the bedrock for habit formation. Going forward, what should be the — next — version of my future self that will finally be close to the best version of myself, and which will please me so? More to the point, how do we proactively identify the opportunities and habits that are right for each of us? Life is short, and we do not want to meander along and subsequently find that we have to backtrack, because our starting point was wrong.
It is in this area that James Clear presents a fascinating discussion of how although our genes do not determine our destiny, they do define our areas of opportunity. In life, we need to find a game where the odds are in our favour — this is critical to staying motivated and feeling successful while learning to become an expert of the game. If we can’t find a game where the odds are stacked in our favour (as in my case, unfortunately), we may have to create a new game or try to win by being different. History indeed abounds with many examples of people who have succeeded in this manner.
My own takeaway from this excellent book is that we need to think big, but start small, and definitely keep on improving. This book will provoke our thoughts about how we can maximize our potential and find our own niche, while living life in more purposeful way. Post the coronavirus pandemic, the future may unfold in unpredictable ways, but this great disruption of the status quo will also throw up new and interesting opportunities for the more agile amongst us.
I have a personal website where I continue this line of thought. Click here to visit and stay in touch.
Disclosure: This post includes Amazon affiliate links.