During those first few days running in the park, or writing a novel, or whatever it is you're trying to do, it's tempting to just stop and revert back to your old, lazy self.
What's less well understood is that once those new behaviours become rote - when running or writing 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 workout to the next, one diet to the next, one business idea to the next" - even if the initial plan is working.
Clear mentions the psychological term "variable reward," which means that sometimes 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 surprise is key for keeping us hooked (Clear cites the example of a gambler using a slot machine).
For his part, Clear doesn't offer much of a solution to the problem of boredom except "falling in love" with it. He writes: "There have been a lot of articles I haven't felt like writing, but I've never regretted 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 a 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, every time 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 better at weightlifting; he rewarded himself with wristbands that were coloured like judo belts.
In "Atomic Habits," Clear writes, "Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way." But maybe it's more that professionals trick themselves into sticking to the schedule, while amateurs aren't (yet) that savvy.
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