Effective habits; the infinite power of tiny shifts in our behaviour
Updated: Mar 1
Tiny grains of behaviour- shift are all that's needed!
Many people recognise the crucial part effective habits can play to help life become smoother, overcome overwhelm and introduce order, yet they fail to keep them. Why should this be?
If you have ADHD, the mere mention of the word ‘habit’ can be enough to make you want to switch off. The thought of having to do the same thing, day in day out can be boring beyond description.
But it doesn’t have to be like that!
James Clear, a promising and ambitious baseball player had to rebuild his life from scratch when damage to his vision left him having to re-learn even basic motor skills. His journey to achieving his potential as an Academic All-American player was a painstakingly slow one, but one which taught him how the tiniest of changes can, over time, produce extraordinary results. He details this in his book ‘Atomic Habits’.
I was fascinated to read in it that the British cycling team, having won only one gold medal in the Olympic games in over a hundred years, scooped 60% of all the available medals in the Beijing Olympic games and in London set nine Olympic records and seven world records.
By committing to a strategy referred to as the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’, in other words, identifying the tiniest improvements in every stage of performance and turning them into habits.
Imagine, then, if instead of wanting to win cycling medals, we envisaged for ourselves a life where we became organised, happy, healthy, wealthy, calm or kind. How could we look at the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ to create habits to bring this about?
It’s important to recognise from the start that focusing on the end result saps the spirit. It’s far more effective to embody those marginal gains as a ‘movement towards’. For example, if I wanted to be an organised person, and focused only on that end result of being an organised person, the moment I did anything I considered disorganised, I would see this as a failure and would be tempted to abandon my mission, thinking of myself as a failure.
However, if I thought instead about creating habits around evolving into an organised person, it would be a much easier ride.
So how do we set about making habits which work for us?
In his book he explains the ‘habit loop’ which is based on the four stages of a habit.
In summary, the cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop – cue, craving, response, reward, cue, craving, response, reward. This loop ultimately allows us to create automatic habits.
Of course, this cycle is identical for people with ADHD. However, it is worth remembering that due to disruptions in the executive function and irregular levels of effective dopamine we might find it quite tricky to recognise the validity of a cue, curb our response, and ‘tune in’ to the reward.
Here, then, is that loop for a person with ADHD who wishes to improve their quality of sleep:
Consider this loop instead, this time benefiting from the marginal gain of simply setting a timer at 8 pm and being open to the opportunities it presents:
This is merely one example, but how might you combine the habit loop with the aggregation of marginal gains to shape your identity? They are a very powerful combination!
To conclude, the two main lessons I took from Atomic Habits are
1. That regular, miniscule, carefully crafted changes are all that’s required to make massive changes. For those with ADHD we might need to pay closer attention to the individual stages of the habit loop in the early days to allow the habit to take on an energy of its own. It’ll be well worth it though!
2. That by considering habits to be a way of shaping our identity, rather than achieving goals, we make it naturally easier to incorporate them into our daily life.
One final word. One at a time! Only once a habit is given a chance to become automatic should you consider adopting a new one.
Enjoy crafting your new, effective habit! Why not make a note in your diary of the date it began? Just think of that massive reward when you look back in a few months' time!
Published Autumn 2020
Enormous thanks for inspiration to:
1. James Clear https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits
2. Laurie Dupar, inspirational founder of https://www.iactcenter.com/
3. Emma Slade https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Slade