Habit: A Tale of Two Water Bottles

Ryan James Spencer

I've the same one-litre water bottle at work as I do at home. I always drink water at work, and I usually drink about 2L a day. When I work from home, however, I barely hydrate.

Atomic Habit has four basic rules stipulated for habit formation.

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

If you want to kick a habit, you reverse each of these four rules.

Access can affect ease, but easiness isn't just access. Before I owned a camelback I had twist-lid water bottle. This isn't as easy as the standard camelback because you always have to unscrew the lid if you want to take a swig.

At home, my water bottle is endlessly lifted by the resident little people. When I do find my water bottle, it tends to be a greasy, dirty mess. Camelback came out with these new plastic valves and my children have happened to chew them to plastic mush. Whenever I get a chance to drink water, it is room temperature or warmer.

Contrast this to my water bottle at work: it is always at my desk or near my person, it is appealing because I don't have to use any cups and interact with the dishwasher. It's also nice I don't have to contribute to the washing. It is satisfying because I can always fill the bottle with refreshing, cold water from the zip tap.

I see attractiveness about prospective satisfaction versus enjoyment during the process, but you could also argue fuzziness about the terms "obvious" and "easy". Despite what you may think about the book, these principles are helpful at forming habits (and breaking bad ones) and I've tried to apply them to other things in my life.

I read a lot. I've talked before about some formats I use for reading. I've learned to overcome the discomfort of not reading all books from cover-to-cover, but I still enjoy reading front-to-back with certain titles.

A clear, plastic chair is positioned next the shoe cupboard near the shower room. I sit there when my kids shower before they are put to bed. The shoe cupboard has a stack of Communications of the ACM magazines on its top. It was a straightforward habit to form: attractive (reading always is for me), satisfying (they are written on subjects I like reading), easy (it's a part of my daily routine), and obvious (the top of the cupboard is only a little below shoulder height. That ticks all four principles of habit formation.

Within time I found other places to put books. A fresh collection of paperbacks arrived last month along with a title I haven't finished. "DOOM" by Fabien Sanglaard went to the nook where my keys, wallet, and similar live. "Unix: A History and a Memoire" by Brian Kernighan went next to mantle in the living room. "How to Lie with Statistics" sits near the clear chair next to the shoe cupboard. I am similar to Naval Ravikant in that I enjoy exploring several books simultaneously. Progress is now far easier to make on each of these books in tandem. Having progress on several different titles let's me connect disparate ideas and sometimes certain titles discuss different sides of an argument.

Habit formation has high practicality because its range of application is high. A modern opinion is that we don't even build products for people to rationally consume; heavy habit forming interfaces are more likely to be the products that "delight users".

Part of this leads back into code. People sometimes refer to the "pit of despair" as the state where an ecosystem or user interface leads people to do the wrong thing. The "pit of the success" is the facetiously named inverse of the effect; doing the right thing is trivial. Not only are user interfaces and ecosystems prime examples of habit formation for their end users, but the processes used in how they are built are subject to habit formation, too. Want you or your team to code or operate in a particular manner? Make it addictive. And please, don't try to manipulate others into every imaginable whim. The autonomy of people is their most valuable asset to a technical team.