Tiny habits, atomic habits, kaizen —all are variations of a simple idea, each with helpful distinctions. The essence: start small or give up in a few days or weeks when initial motivation wanes. Motivation is a fickle ally. It’s great at getting us started but it doesn’t have our back in the long run and we can’t count on it when inevitable difficulties arise.
What these approaches advocate, besides motivation, are some behavioral hacks. These hacks don’t replace motivation, but they reduce our dependence on always having it on tap to tackle our resolutions. Some hacks deal with clarifying values, aligning our motivation so parts of ourselves are not battling each other. One part’s motivation to enjoy the moment can conflict with another part’s need for discipline to complete an important project. Taking the time to sort big picture objectives and find our 80/20s of biggest bang for the buck ensures we’re leveraging whatever motivation is in our tank without our foot simultaneously on the brake.
Another hack is noticing the amount of motivation required is proportional to the difficulty of the task. The easier the task, the less motivation needed, so one tactic is to aim for the minimum effort. The option is always on the table to do more, if motivation supports it that day, but the minimum is always sufficient when done regularly. This also creates habit which perpetuates itself without taxing limited reserves of willpower.
The third hack, and key to the post, is what prompts or cues trigger our actions. If we rely on reminders, external prompts, schedules or just remembering to do something, especially something different from what we usually do, chances for success are not great. So this hack relies on hooking it to something already part of our routines. The author of Tiny Habits, for example, did two pushups immediately after a bathroom break to kick-start an exercise habit. It naturally expanded to many more, but he always reserved the option to just do two, count it as success, and still be on track. Continuity is the key to shifting our baseline, not effort.
Following are two ways these hacks can lead to more lucidity, both in dreams and waking. (which are intrinsically connected)
- Rather than seated meditation for a fixed time, hook into an action, like checking email, drinking water, just before you eat, etc. Take a moment immediately before or after and ask yourself: “who is experiencing this?” Then take a few seconds to notice both what “this” is and who/what is experiencing it. This is one of the most direct meditational practices often referred to as self-inquiry. It does not mean the question is to be answered with words or a thought or feeling, the answer requires shifting attention into immediate awareness of what is present. And who it is that is aware of what is present.
- Hook into some activity that recurs in your dreams (this is where some initial groundwork with a dream journal is handy.) In dreams, I am often traveling from place to place. So when I leave some place to go to another in waking life, I ask myself “is this a dream?” And don’t just jump to “no”… take some time to assess, as if it may be a trick. Look around. Think of where I was just before this and how I got here. Dreams often violate this linear checkpoint egregiously.
Another frequent dream marker, related to the above, is getting lost and trying to find the way from here to there. Since it rarely happens in waking life, I place another hook, just before I open a certain application, to imagine for a second that feeling in the dream of being lost and frustrated and rehearse the same question, once that feeling sparks: “is this a dream?”
So now we have several things during the day, as part of our normal routines, that trigger the performance of a simple task to achieve larger goals. These hooks, cues and prompts leveraging existing routines offer opportunity beyond simple productivity hacks discussed in the references at the beginning of the post. They can also be used to re-enchant our world and remind us of our potentials.