The Trap of Hard Work

Atomic Habits

So this post will be a very quick reflection on some of the insights I gained from reading the book “Atomic Habits”. It’s been a while since I read self-help books. I only picked this one up because I realized that my productivity has been going down in the past few months and I needed a change.

This is not a review. This is specifically what I got out of the book and how I interpreted it. The stuff here might work for you, or it might not, this is merely my own experience.

On Hard Work

Growing up, I always assumed that to succeed, I needed to work hard. If I wanted good grades, I should study harder. If I wanted a good body, I should work harder in the gym. This is somewhat true, but we have to be careful what we define “working hard” to be.

  • Does it mean I should study for more hours a day? Should I just focus more when I study?
  • Does it mean I should push my limits in the gym? or should I spent more time in the gym?

My reflection is that all the above is false. Based on Atomic Habits and my own experience, the best path to achieving a long term goal (like learning something challenging, having a healthy lifestyle, etc) is building habits. It’s less about how hard you work, and more about how often you work, and how effortless working is.

It’s less about how hard you work, and more about how often you work, and how effortless working is.

Let me expand. Lets use the example of exercise and building a healthy lifestyle. You can go the gym and work your ass off, but you will not see a difference unless you do it consistently for a longer period of time. The longer you are forcing yourself to “work hard”, the less motivated you will be to do it and thus you’ll experience what a lot of us experience, a short period of high motivation followed by quickly reverting back to your usual lifestyle.

The key to it seems to be the effortless part. How do you make something effortless?

Make Hard Work Easy

Think about something you do everyday, lets say (hopefully) brushing your teeth. Do you ever carefully think about your brushing? Or, do you notice that your mind is thinking about other things while you’re brushing your teeth. This is what I mean by effortless, you don’t have to activate your conscious thinking, and instead it feels automatic (thus, Atomic habit!)

On Conscious thinking

There’s been a ton of research on two types of thinking, conscious and unconscious thinking. There are a few amazing books about this I’ve read in the past, if you’re interested, check out Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman or Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

The basic idea is as follows:

  • Your conscious thinking is activated when you have to make decisions you don’t usually make, or when you are learning something new.
  • Your unconscious thinking takes over any repeated tasks.

There is tons of insights in the above books, way more than I can go into. Your unconscious mind is faster, it makes instant decisions (think of how tennis players just know when to hit the ball) and it’s effortless to use. Your conscious mind is slower, but allows you to learn new things, that eventually your unconscious thinking can take over.

The goal here is to take tasks that require conscious thinking and turn them into task the your unconscious mind can take over.

This doesn’t mean all tasks we do should be effortless, that doesn’t make sense. If your goal is to learn about distributed systems and you know nothing about it, the act of learning will take effort, and you will have to focus. But, what we can do is make the repeated decision to learn about distributed systems an effortless one. Why am I mentioning distributed systems? That, along with consistent physical exercise is what I decided to test this habit building approach on, and it seems to be working!

How It’s Working So Far

There are many techniques to create effortless habits. Atomic Habits approaches this by describing the different stages in habit forming as follows:

  1. Trigger
  2. Decision to take action
  3. The action
  4. The reward

(The book has different names for those, but this is what I took from it) If you want to make a habit effortless, you have to target those stages and make them (or some of them) effortless. Here’s how that went when it came to creating a habit of reading about distributed systems:

  • Every day, right after breakfast, I pick up the book (Designing Data Intensive Applications, which I’ll hopefully write a post about soon!) - This is making the trigger easy! I associated it with breakfast, making it easy to remember every day.
  • I keep the book right by my desk, pen right beside it, and I make sure to block the next 2 hours in my calendar - This making my decision to go ahead easy, it’s right in front of me and I know nothing will distract me from it.
  • I use the pomodoro technique, play some lo-fi hip-hop (no lyrics!) and on my monitor I soothing calm video. - All this makes the action easy! I know I’ll take breaks every 25 minutes, the music keeps me focused.
  • I eat a small snack on the very last break. - An easy reward! But also, the reward of talking about what I learned with my professors and colleagues has kept it attractive.
I have had a great experience with the Pomodoro technique! The idea is simple, you create a task, and set up 25 minute intervals with 5 minute breaks in between, and a possible 15 minute break after 3 or 4 cycles. There is a lot more information about it around the web, so check it out if you’re looking for a way to be more effective with your time when you’re working on a task.

So far it’s going really well, I’ve learned a ton - and I genuinely feel closer to achieving goals this way… More reflection on how this works on a longer term when… it’s been a longer term 🙃

Important - Unequal opportunity

One thing that I must talk about when I talk about hard work is a common unfortunate belief many, including myself in the past, believe. The belief that if you “work hard” then you will be successful.

This is ignorant to a fundamental problem. We are living in a world of unequal opportunity. Yes, assuming everyone had exactly the same upbringing with exactly the same luck, exactly the same parental income and everyone was treated exactly the same way, sure. But that’s not how the world works. We must recognize that many don’t even have the opportunity to “work hard” and learn new things. There are many that are treated grossly and unfairly. There is a large scarcity in income growing up, directly affecting one’s opportunity.

This requires a lot more than a blog post to tackle. We must fight this unrealistic expectation that not only damages our self esteem when we think “I just didn’t work hard enough”, but also skews or perception of value. This is apparent in hiring, many times when hiring the “best” candidate, a company would pick the candidate who seems to be the one with highest potential. When in reality, they are the candidate that were given the best opportunities.

We can go down a rabbit hole here of bias and discrimination that I am far from qualified to talk about. There are many great resources on this, that I myself need to learn more about, so I’ll stop here not to be ignorant.

What I wrote about in this post is my experience, and I’m lucky to even have the opportunity to think about habits this way.