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The surprising power of habits

It was about 3 years ago that I got started in the world of software engineering. I was coming from a career more oriented to mechanics and electronics (Mechatronics Engineering), but with the great interest I’ve always had in coding and all the amazing things that can be made with software, I was very interested in the idea of becoming a developer so I could not reject the opportunity when I got a job offer from a big tech consulting company.

 

I started very excitedly, knowing I would have the opportunity to learn development and work on big projects. And my excitement grew further when I knew this company had an ‘Innovation’ area, where they worked with IoT, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and more new technologies that integrate things that I love about my career. However, I soon realized that I would have to work a lot to get where I wanted to be. 

 

As you probably may know, in these companies the priority is to get you assigned as soon as possible to something that makes revenue to them, so they started to train me in QA and testing automation which was where there was more demand at the moment. I said to myself “It’s fine, this still is interesting, I will start learning development aside from my main project in the company”… But things didn’t go quite as I planned.

 

There were a lot of learning opportunities and side projects I could join in the company. I got involved in an initiative to learn AI, where I took a full course of Python; got involved in a project to develop a hybrid mobile application for the company internal use, where I learned a lot in the Xamarin technology; participated in an AI self-driving cars contest, and even participated once in a contest to win a client who was working to develop a voice assistant (which we didn’t win, but still was a great learning experience).

 

Nevertheless, after more than two years working in the company, I wasn’t progressing too much towards what I wanted; I still haven’t been able to work for a single client as a developer, nor even as an automation tester, I  was still only able to get QA positions —not saying that is a bad thing, it had very interesting challenges and I learned a lot from it, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted—.

 

I thought a lot about this, and why I wasn’t able to achieve my objectives. There were many factors, but a common one was a lack of persistence.

 

I had the initiative, a lot of it. I was very excited to start any new project, but I lacked something much more important, the persistence to go forward and get the achievements I needed to get. I made the mistake of expecting too many results in the short run, and not seeing those results came with much more persistence than the one I had.

 

‘It’s often easy to start something, but it’s much harder to maintain it’.

 

At the start, you have the momentum and the excitement on the new project you’re overtaking, but as time goes on, many things happen; your client’s project demands a lot of time and you end up your working day too tired to continue your courses; sometimes you encounter something very difficult to understand or face an issue you just can’t figure out, so you get demotivated, start postponing it for later; sometimes you feel that you’re just going too slow and don’t see the moment when you’re finally doing this in an actual project for a client and not just as a side project.

 

Just, life happens. Many obstacles show up and when you fail to achieve, you start to feel that you’re too lazy, not productive enough, or that maybe this is not for you. At least that’s what I felt many times.

 

Sometime later I read a book that helped me view things from a different angle. It’s called Atomic Habits by James Clear.

 

I realized that the problem wasn’t exactly that I was too lazy, it was that I never really worked towards creating a habit. Even though I tried to establish a 30 minutes a day goal, I would often find myself making excuses: like having to postpone workload because I was stuck with an issue, postponing a very difficult module of the course, or simply being too tired that day to do any more work. And then, I would try in one day to compensate and do all the things that I was missing, investing many hours that day to the course; and then I would finish very tired with not as much progress as I expected but giving myself a reason to justify not working on it the next day. You can see it’s a vicious cycle.

 

My main problem was that I was focusing too much on the goal, when I should have been focusing on my methods, on my habits. A habit is defined as something you do automatically, without even thinking about doing it. You’re just used to doing it every day, and keep repeating it.

 

Likely, many of you who are reading this have already developed very good study habits (that was also a big issue for me in my university days). But this is something incredibly valuable for almost anything you want to achieve.

 

Maybe you have a similar story as me, but with learning an instrument, practicing a sport, exercising daily, eating healthy, improving your finances… and the list can go on.

I found out how habits were way more important than I thought in our daily lives and our long-term goals. Just small daily habits can determine whether you will get where you dream to be with that objective.

 

Learning this brought to me a really important concept: it’s not about in a day stretching yourself to make a huge change or huge progress, it’s about doing something small every day. Small but constant efforts are what will get you where you want to get.

 

There’s a story in the book about the British Cycling team. This team for many years was pretty mediocre. They have never been in the Tour de France, they hadn’t won medals in many years back then. But in 2003 they brought in a new performance director who believed in a concept called “aggregation of marginal gains”. This consists of making small 1% improvements that in the long run would add up to really big changes.

 

So he started to make the 1% improvements first that many other teams were also doing: improved tires for the bicycles, heated clothing, biofeedback sensors, etc.

 

But then they started looking at the 1% improvements that nobody was doing. They hired a surgeon who taught them how to wash their hands properly, so they reduced the risk of catching a cold; they tested different types of massage gels to find out which led to the fastest muscle recovery; they found out that the indoor clothing was a little more aerodynamic than the outdoor ones.

 

The director was pretty confident that if they could execute all these small improvements they would be able to win the Tour de France in five years. None of the changes seemed like too much, but they went for it... They worked on these small improvements, and they managed to win the Tour de France, not in 5, but 3 years. Then they won the fourth year with a different rider, and then after a year off, they won the next 3 years in a row.

 

From not having won it in decades, they already got five victories in the last few years.

 

It’s really impressive the way so many small improvements that don't even seem to be worth it can add up and give you significant results. This team was committed and constant in these small improvements which gave them the key to success.

 

This impressed me, and I tried to translate this concept to what I was doing (and this book gave me really good examples of how to understand it). So instead of forcing myself to finish a whole module every day, or give it a whole hour, I tried with small improvements, maybe 15 minutes every day, but focusing on being constant and never missing my daily objective.

I managed to develop the habit of daily study, and now that I had the momentum every day, I could start doing small increments. Start working 20 minutes, 25, 30, and so on.

 

This helped me a lot to break that initial barrier I often had to start, which led me to break my progress. And as you can see it is the same as any other habit you want to develop.

 

Do you want to learn the piano but can’t find the time to do so? Just practice 5 minutes a day, you’ll see how those practice sessions will start to get longer and you’ll slowly start finding the time for your new habit. Want to exercise every day but feel tired too soon? Start exercising just 10 minutes every day, and you’ll see how you start to get in better shape, will get less tired, and soon you’ll want longer sessions. It may seem these tiny sessions won’t make anything at the start, but just as the UK cyclists, you’ll start doing these small 1% improvements that will give you the momentum you need, and in the long run, those big changes will start to show up.

 

There’s a whole lot of concepts this book touches on how to develop a habit, and that also helped me get those improvements I wanted. And these are condensed into 4 laws which I will mention briefly here:

  • 1st law: Make it Obvious

It helps a lot to have a constant place and time for your habits, not just so you don’t forget them, but to wire your brain on doing it almost automatically. For example, “I will do a 15-minute meditation right after I get out of the shower in the morning”, or “I will play guitar every day after eating my lunch in the afternoon”.

  • 2nd law: Make it Attractive

There are many ways to make a habit attractive. An interesting one is to pair it with something you want to do. For example, you want to see the next chapter of your series, but you want to get in shape, so you could set yourself to only watch your series while you’re at the gym exercising.

Something else that helps to motivate you is surrounding yourself with people with the same goals. These can work out to make your habit desirable.

  • 3rd law: Make it Easy

This is mostly the one I explained earlier here that I applied in my case, but to give you another example: suppose you want to become vegan, but it’s really difficult for you to stop eating meat all of a sudden. You could make it easier by first starting eating more vegetables each meal, after some time, stop eating animals with four legs, then stop eating animals with two legs, stop eating animals with no legs, and finally stop eating animals at all. The key is to find the way to reduce the friction to start by making your habit easier, and so then you can start doing those small increments.

  • 4th law: Make it Satisfying

You may feel good after finishing a habit, but more often you’ll also feel tired or start losing momentum and feeling it’s not worth it. A great example of how to apply this concept is by a salesman who wanted to improve his sales target. He’d bring an empty transparent cup every morning and a bunch of paper clips. Each time he made a sale he’d throw a paperclip into the cup. As the day went on, the cup would start filling, and he would see it and feel proud of his progress on the day.

This may seem simple but many times having a reward or visual feedback in our progress helps a lot not to lose motivation, and remember all we’ve achieved so far.

I recommend you to read the book and get the full picture of how to apply these rules to your habits because I assure you that they will make a big difference if you are struggling with forming habits like me. These were of great help for me since I was able to identify what was preventing me from forming the habits I needed, and how I was sabotaging myself.

Going back to my personal story... At last, I left the company for different reasons, but just before I left my newly formed habits helped me complete a full stack development certification, and now I’m working on what courses I will take next to persist in my effort to become a developer.

 

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David L.

Maker, passionate about technology and DIY. He enjoys tinkering with 3d printing and electronics projects. He also loves music, mostly classical music, but enjoys diving into many different genres.

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