Startimg to develop new behaviours is hard. Everyone gets that. During those first few days running in the park, or writing anovel, or whatever it is you are tryong to do, its tempting to just stop and rivert back to your old, lazy self. What less well understood is that once those new behaviours become rote- when running or writting becomes a breeze – it can be equally hard to stick with them.
James Clear sums it up in a single sentence towards the end of his new book, “Atomic Habits” , “The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom.”
Clear, who runs a popular productivity website, says that once our habits stop being interesting because we know what the outcome will be, we’re inclined to look elsewhere for stimulation. He posits that this is why we’re always ” Jumping from one work out to the next, one diet to next – even if the initial plan is working.”
Clear mentions the psychological term “Variable reward,” which means that someties you get a positive outcome from a certain behaviour, but sometimes you don’t, and there’s no way to predict whether you will. That element of suprise is key for keeping us hooked. (Clear cites the example of a gambler using a slot machine).
“A variable reward system can help you stick with good but boring habits.”
For his part, Clear doesn’t offer much of a solution to the pelroblem of boredom exepy “falling in love” with it. He writes, “There have been alot of articles I haven’t felt like writting, but I’ve never reggretted publishing on schedule… The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over.”
I wasn’t quite satisfied with that suggestion so I looked elsewhere and found out about self-improvement system called “Habit Judo” which was cited in The Guardian ( The Habit Judo website appears to no longer be in operation).
As The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman explains it, everytime you perform a certain behaviour, you reward yourself with a random (computer-generated) score between one and 10. When you reach a certain number, you earn a prize of your choosing. The person who developed Habit Judo, Allen Reece, reportedly used the system to meditate and get a better at weightlifting, he rewarded himself with wristbands that were coloured like Judo Belts.
In “Atomic Habits” Clear writes, “Professionals stick to the schedule ameteurs let life get in the way.” But maybe its more that professionals trick themselves into sticking to the schedule, while amateurs (get! that savvy).
You don’t rise to the occassion of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems. We are so focused on optimizing that we don’t give ourselves permission to show up, even if its just in small way. But if you can’t become the type of person who goes to the gym for five minutes, four days aweek, you have no raw material to work with. There’s nothing to optomize.