Atomic Habits

The foundational book on habits reviewed

  • Define who you want to be (and write it down)
    (Identity — eg. “I am someone who enjoys exercise and hence does triathlons”)
  • Define precisely (time and place) your desired habits that support that identity
    (eg. “I should get up at 6:30am and do yoga in the lounge”)
  • Make the habits super small
    (eg. “At 6:30am, I will roll the yoga mat out in the lounge and sit for 5 mins”)
  • Design your environment to make those small habits
    (eg. “I will roll the yoga mat out the evening before”)
  • Stack habits you already do together to make them more automatic
    (eg. “After brushing my teeth, I will roll the yoga mat out.”)
  • Ensure all new habits are obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying
  • To break habits, invert all of these rules.
https://s3.amazonaws.com/jamesclear/Atomic+Habits/Habits+Cheat+Sheet.pdf
Source: Nubelson Fernandes

Habits compound

Any habit has an effect on you. That is obvious. What is less obvious is the quantitative effect. James Clear is adamant that habits compound and hence continuing the habit is more important than achieving a goal.

Extending this, he warns that goals will not enforce strong habits — instead, you need a system.

The best are not the best because they win things, they are the best because what they do each day enables them to win.

The idea that people are trying to improve themselves every day can sound dull, brag-ish, or worse. Some believe that repetition and effort take away from life.

But good habits energise, give purpose and are freeing.

Identity

Imagine two people who want to quit smoking. Which person would you bet would quit long term when you offer them a cigarette:

Person 1: “No thanks, I am trying to quit”

Person 2: “No thanks, I have quit”

Person 3: “No thanks, I don’t smoke”

“True behaviour change is identity change”

Making something part of your identity from day 1 can make you feel like you’re jumping the gun or not allowed to say it yet. James Clear thinks this is simply us setting to high a bar: “if you go for one run you are now a runner; now that you are a runner, you go on runs.”

1. Decide the type of person you want to be.
2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.

Before you start — assess what you do

Clear says to do a survey of where you are. He recommends:

  • define who you want to be — your identity
  • write down everything that you do almost every day automatically (such as Brush Teeth, Floss, Have Breakfast, Go On X App, and so on…)
  • Then write next to them why do I do this? What is the motivation?
  • Then rate how it aligns with your identity (+, =, -)

Why? Well the intent is to recognise, to come off autopilot. This way you can spot things that should change and spot things you can latch on to for habit stacking.

His model

1. You are feeling some small stress from doing a task (Cue)
2. You want to relieve this small stress (Craving)
3. You open your phone (Response)
4. The distraction alleviates stress for a short time (Reward)
Hence it becomes a habit while under stress to look at our phone - our brains learn patterns and apply them regularly.

Eating when not hungry, biting nails, anything that momentarily provides a reward can be learnt as being beneficial and hence a craving can form.

In fact, Clear goes further to say the majority of things that give you instant rewards are likely not productive for your identity, as it tends to be a product of your mammalian mind, not your thinking one.

For “good” habits we can make each step better:
Cue — make it obvious
Craving — make it attractive
Response — make it easy
Reward — make it satisfying

Similarly, for “bad” habits we can make each step worse:
Cue — make it invisible
Craving — make it unattractive
Response — make it hard
Reward — make it unsatisfying

Now let’s make those habits…

Source: Drew Beamer

Make it obvious

The most common cues are time and location dependent. Clear says we should focus on them:

I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

Literally write it down so that it is completable.

Most people think they lack motivation when really they lack clarity.

Clear is a strong proponent of habit stacking — essentially using the completion of one habit to cue another one — as it can create natural momentum of completing things.

When trying to create a new habit, link it to something you already do — this way you are at least cognizant that you want to do it.

The more you are reminded of the thing you want to do, the more you will do it. Stating times, locations and stacking habits are all ways of creating little reminders, as would placing cues of the habit in different locations.

Make it attractive

The typical way is to habit stack: only watch Netflix when you are exercising.

This is so effective that big brands do it packaged as ‘giving you an excuse to do that naughty thing’ like suggesting to get popcorn in your house, as a cue to watch a movie —you’re more likely to want to watch a film if you see the popcorn.

Ultimately, this is habit stacking, but worth noting why this works.

There are three groups of people we look to as humans: the close, the powerful, and the many.

Because of this, Clear suggests that you should “join a culture” where your desired behaviour is normal and you have something in common with them. It will reinforce your habit in your environment, will make you want to comply with the normal and will receive praise and respect from the group which is motivational.

Shared identity reinforces personal identity.

Note: you can have many elements to your identity — no single group is all encompassing.

The two above are examples of designing our environment. Things that are easier to accomplish are more attractive.

Make it easy

Practice is better than study. The start is the hardest part. The more you do it, the easier and more automatic it will become.

The less effort, the higher success.

Note: this doesn’t mean only do the easy things, but instead strip things down to be the easiest it can be. Instead of “do 30 minutes of yoga at 6am”, “get out of bed and lie on the already-laid-out mat at 6am”.

To really kick start these two steps, Clear suggests making the desired behaviour be only a glimpse of what you want it to be in the future — by making it only last two minutes.

“Read one page”… “Take out my yoga mat” … etc

Once two minutes are up then assess if you want to carry on, and it is fine if you don’t as you have already achieved your goal and have continued the habit once again.

Note: Reading this back I am tempted to say “ahh bull, you need to do something more than that” but the point Clear is trying to make is that habits die when you skip them — making them unskippable because they are so easy will help build momentum.

Make it satisfying

Like how domestication and society have drastically changed our diet, lifestyle and health, it has also given us challenges mentally.

Evolutionarily, we along with all other animals are programmed in an “immediate-return environment” which is essentially optimised for instant reward. In our modern day environment however this is not true, most tasks and actions have delayed rewards and some can clash directly against out instant gratification programming.

The net effect of this is that we view short term reward as much more valuable than long term reward.

To help our ‘old school’ brains, we can manufacture rewards to hit us immediately. He recommends different ways to celebrating a habit such as a nice bath, a break, purchasing something, food and so on (so long as that doesn’t conflict with another of your goals).

Ultimately, these rewards are a crutch to help you build the habit initially until it is part of your identity and hence not needed after each time.

Source: Alex Loup

Remove your Cues

Those with “strong willpower” are shown to simply build systems and environments where willpower is rarely needed.

Clear suggests that you need to find what the cues are for that bad behaviour and remove them or make them invisible. Move things to be hard to reach and reduce or remove your exposure to cues.

Make it hard

The harder it sounds the better. Write down how you view the bad habit, what is it actually (i.e. eating a cake is eating sugar and carbs,

We listen to three groups — the close, the crowd, and the powerful.

If your social circle would judge you for doing an activity, you will likely feel this positive pressure and it will be hard for you to make those decisions. Find a group of others that have similar habit goals and you have something in common. They will help you.

Make it difficult

The more painful something is, the worse it is, the less you will want to do it.

He lists many examples, from houses using 30% less energy because the heating switch was in the basement, through giving wallets to friends, or buying smaller plates, to having automatic plugs that turn the wifi off.

Make the bad habit inconvenient. This is a commitment device — something you decide in the present that will stop you in the future.

Make it unattractive

One great challenge of making things unattractive when you are trying to avoid particular behaviours is that there is no obvious end case. When you workout you can celebrate that you finished it with some for of instant reward. When you avoid doing something this isn’t possible.

Clear suggests to make an action from it.

Whenever you pass on a purchase, put the same amount of money in [a savings] account

Source: Amy Shamblen

Challenges you will face and how to get around them

“The dark side of tracking a particular behavior is that we become driven by the number rather than the purpose behind it”

Additionally, he adds that if your measure stagnates, your motivation is hit — when the quantifiable isn’t helpful, think of the qualitative, the other half of your motivation. What has got better because of this habit — regardless of whether the measure you are using is getting better.

Clear gives many examples of accountability but notably a habit contract with steep monetary terms and also the recommendation of accountability partners to encourage you much like a voice on the shoulder.

Writing your goals down, telling others and joining groups are all for accountability. Use them as reminders to yourself.

“The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities”

Once you have gained a habit, keep trying to stretch yourself with small atomic challenges — this is where flow state tends to appear too!

Source: ElgeeWrites

To combat this, Clear heavily recommends building systems of reflection and review so that you may course adjust when things are slipping out of the goldilocks zone. He uses the Lakers “Career Best Effort” system.

Basketball players gained points for their performance on the court — which was reviewed after every game and intended to target a 1% improvement. Again, this has the potential of making behaviour focus on the numbers which may detract from the intended output; despite this, it had a great effect on the team.

Extending this thinking around review, he suggests keeping decision logs with definition, explanation and expected outcome and more heavily promotes year reviews — specifically revolving around identity and achievement.

This I fully support and have been writing my year reviews — I would fully recommend even if you won't make them public.

A final note on identity

The more a single belief or thing defines you, the less you may adapt, the more you will be defensive to change, and the more “it will wreck you”- says Clear.

Additionally, tying your entire identity to one role can be broken into a more general and adaptable identity easily:

Athlete — mentally tough and loves physical challenge
Soldier — disciplined, reliable and team player
CEO — leader, builder and creator

Founder of EveryHour.xyz and Product Owner @ dunnhumby; just genuinely interested in a lot of things. Built racecars, built electronics, now building software

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