This article is an excerpt from my book, Atomic Habits.
John Henry Patterson was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1844. He spent his childhood doing chores on the family farm and working shifts at his father’s sawmill. After attending college at Dartmouth, Patterson returned to Ohio and opened a small supply store for coal miners.
It seemed like a good opportunity. The store faced little competition and enjoyed a steady stream of customers, but—for some reason—Patterson’s shop still struggled to make money.
Eventually, he learned why: his employees were stealing from him.
In the mid-1800s, employee theft was a common problem. Receipts were kept in an open drawer and could easily be altered or discarded. There were no video cameras to review behavior and no software to track transactions. Unless you were willing to hover over your employees every minute of the day, or to manage all transactions yourself, it was difficult to prevent theft.
As Patterson mulled over his predicament, he came across an advertisement for a new invention called Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier. Designed by fellow Dayton resident James Ritty, it was the first cash register. The machine automatically locked the cash and receipts inside after each transaction. Patterson bought two for fifty dollars each.
Employee theft at his store vanished overnight. In the next six months, Patterson’s business went from losing money to making $5,000 in profit—the equivalent of more than $100,000 today.
Patterson was so impressed with the machine that he changed businesses. He bought the rights to Ritty’s invention and opened the National Cash Register Company. Ten years later, National Cash Register had over one thousand employees and was on its way to becoming one of the most successful businesses in America.
The Best Way to Change a Habit
The brilliance of the cash register was that it automated ethical behavior by making stealing practically impossible. Rather than trying to change the motivations of his employees, Patterson used technology to make the preferred behavior automatic.
There is an important lesson within this story that we can apply to all habits and behaviors. The best way to break a bad habit is to make it impossible to do. And the best way to create a good habit is to automate a habit, so you never have to think about it again.
Typically, when people think about automating something, they imagine technology or a piece of software. And, certainly, this is a great way to automate a habit. You can save for retirement with an automatic deduction from your paycheck. You can curtail social media browsing with a website blocker.
Technology can transform actions that were once hard, annoying, and complicated into behaviors that are easy, painless, and simple. It is the most reliable and effective way to guarantee the right behavior.
But there are also many ways to “automate” your future decisions that don’t necessarily involve a piece of software.
Onetime Actions That Lock In Good Habits
One of the most practical ways to automate a habit is to look for onetime choices that require a little bit of effort up front but create increasing value over time.
I’m fascinated by these single choices that can deliver returns again and again. Not long ago, I surveyed my readers on their favorite onetime actions that lead to better long-term habits.
Here are a few of the popular answers…
- Nutrition: Use smaller plates to reduce caloric intake.
- Sleep: Remove your television from your bedroom.
- Productivity: Delete games and social media apps from your phone.
- Focus: Permanently set your phone in Do Not Disturb mode.
- Happiness: Get a dog.
- Health: Buy better shoes to avoid back pain.
- Finance: Call your service providers (cable, electric, etc.) and ask for a lower rate.
These onetime actions only require effort once and make it easier to get better sleep, eat healthy, be productive, save money, and generally live better.
The Upside of Automation
The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”
Today, technology and automation can handle an increasing number of daily tasks. Meal-delivery services can go grocery shopping for you. Healthcare services can automatically refill your prescriptions and ship them to you. IUDs can manage birth control on autopilot.
Each habit that we hand over to the authority of technology frees up time and energy to pour into the next stage of growth. When you automate a habit as much of your life as you possibly can, you can spend your mental energy on the tasks machines cannot yet do.
Automation is particularly useful for behaviors that happen too infrequently to become habitual. Things you have to do monthly or yearly—like rebalancing your investment portfolio—are never repeated frequently enough to become a habit, so they benefit in particular from technology “remembering” to do them for you.
The Downside of Automation
Of course, the power of technology can work against us as well.
Binge watching becomes a habit because it takes more effort to stop Read More…