How to radically change your life through atomic habits
Atomic habits: “a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do but also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth”.James Clear
Atomic habits confirms that you do not need to take huge actions to change your life. The book dives into the compounding effect of consistent small changes, called atomic habits. It uncovers life hacks like habit stacking and the two-minute rule. Along with psychology and neuroscience, there are inspiring stories of others who have used the science of atomic habits to achieve their goals.
My personal reading notes
James Clear starts his book by telling a story about his background. He was hit by a baseball bat in the face, leading him into a coma. An operation was needed. After his recovery, he managed to finish high school and to play baseball again. Two years after his injury he started college. It was here that he started to build good habits. “A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly and, in many cases, automatically”. Due to the build and consistency of these good habits, he was selected as “top male athlete” and got the president’s medal (university’s highest academic honor).
His challenges taught him a valuable lesson: “changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you are willing to stick with them for years”.
The fundamentals: why tiny changes make a big difference
Small improvements lead to huge successes
We often think that success requires huge actions. However, by making small improvements on a daily basis, we can get much further than we think. James Clear explains that if you get 1% better each day for one entire year, you will end up thirty-seven times better by the time you are done. “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement”. This equally counts for bad habits. If you get 1% worse each day for one year, you will decline down to nearly zero.
Breakthroughs often seem like huge actions leading to success. However, breakthrough moments are often accumulated by many previous actions. These actions build-up towards major change. The plateau of latent potential, the critical threshold that needs to be crossed to make a meaningful difference, should be passed before breakthroughs will happen. So remember that next time when you struggle to build a good habit or break a bad one, you just haven’t reached the plateau of latent potential yet.
Goals versus systems
Goals are about the results you would like to achieve whilst systems include the process that can lead you to those results. Oftentimes, people focus too much on setting their goals. Just thinking of your results will not get you to them. Instead spend time on your systems. The achievement of a goal will only lead to momentary change. It is the system that makes sure that you structurally achieve goals and that results are kept. “Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves. The purpose of setting goals is to win the game, the purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game”.
“You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems”.James Clear
The levels of change
Changing our (bad) habits is often very difficult. This is because of two reasons: we either try to change the wrong thing or we try to change our habits the wrong way. There are three levels of behavioral change:
1.Changing your outcomes: this level includes changing the results you would like to see.
2.Changing your process: this level includes changing your habits and systems.
3.Changing your identity: this includes what you believe, your worldview, and your self-image.
When we want to change something we often start at level 1, then level 2, and last level 3. Changing in this order leads to outcome-based habits, meaning we focus on the outcome and then figure out the process of how to get there. However, you could also start with level 3 and work your way to level 1. This will lead to identity-based habits. Identity-based habits start with your identity, how you see yourself. If you see yourself as a writer, you will be more inclined to keep to your goal of writing each day.
The more pride in that identity the more motivation to maintain the associated habits. The frequency of your habits gives evidence of your identity. Therefore, you won’t need radical change, change will be formed by a lot of small actions. “Habits fundamentally are not about having something but are about becoming someone”.
How to build (better) habits
“Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment”Jason Hreha
Our conscious mind can only pay attention to one problem at a time. Consequently, the brain works hard to preserve this conscious attention to the most essential task, forming habits to do so.
Habits are built in 4 steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. It predicts a reward. Followed by a craving, the motivational force behind every habit. It is the reason we act. Our cravings differ from person to person, every person is motivated by different cues. Then comes the response, performing the actual habit. This can be a thought as well as an action. The response is dependent on motivation. The habit ends with the reward, this is the end goal of every habit. It serves two purposes: to satisfy us and to teach us which actions are worth remembering.
If the behavior is insufficient in any of the four stages, it will not become a habit. Without the first 3 steps, the behavior will not occur. Without all of the 4 steps, the behavior will not be repeated.
Four laws of behavioral change
Laws to follow for good habits:
1.Cue: Make it obvious
2.Craving: Make it attractive
3.Response: Make it easy
4.Reward: Make it satisfying
Laws to follow for bad habits:
1.Cue: Make it invisible
2.Craving: Make it unattractive
3.Response: Make it difficult
4.Reward: Make it unsatisfying
The 1st law: make it obvious
Awareness of a cue
One of the most surprising insights about habits: you don’t need to be aware of the cue for a habit to begin. This can make habits extremely useful but also dangerous. Therefore, to change habits we should start with awareness. One way to do this is through a point-and-call system, doing this can enhance conscious thinking and awareness. When you do something just point towards it and say out loud what you are doing.
Besides the point-and-call system, you could also create a list of daily habits and score them negative, neutral, or positive. The goal of this exercise is to notice what is going on in your life. Seeing this list and the rating will give you a clear idea if you are moving towards your goals or away from them.
Strategies like point-and-call and the habit scorecard are focused on getting you to recognize your habits and be aware of the cues that trigger them. This makes it possible to respond in a way that is aligned with your goals.
Starting a new habit
Hundreds of studies have shown that implementation intentions, a plan that you make beforehand about when, how, and where to act, are effective for sticking to our goals. When your goals and habits are vague it is easy to rationalize little exceptions and never do the things you need to do to succeed.
One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new habit on top. James Clear calls this habit stacking. Once you have successfully stacked two habits together (one already existing habit and one new habit) you can begin to create larger stacks by chaining small habits together. The habits that get stacked together should have the same frequency.
The power of environment
Habits are highly influenced by our environment. It is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. Most of our daily actions are shaped by the most obvious option not by purposeful drive. Since humans are highly dependent on vision, visual cues are the greatest catalytic-agent of human behaviour.
How to design your environment for success
Environment charge is a powerful tool to influence how we engage with the world. However, we rarely change our environment. Designing our environment allows us to take control of our life and our goals. So, if you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment.
The people with the best self-control are typically the people who need to use it the least. Improving willpower and perseverance should be achieved by creating a more disciplined environment, not by wishing to be a more disciplined person. Once a habit has been encoded in the brain, the urge to act follows whenever the environmental cues reappear. In bad habits, this is called cue-induced wanting, an external trigger that causes a compulsive craving to repeat a bad habit. Bad habits can be broken but are almost impossible to forget. Remove the cue of the bad habit and the entire habit often fades away.
The 2nd law: make it attractive
How to make a habit irresistible
A supernormal stimulus is a heightened version of reality and it elicits a stronger response than usual. This means that the more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming. In the modern world features that are naturally attractive to us are exaggerated, and our instincts go wild as a result. This is why a lot of marketing is so effective. However, we can use these tactics as well. If you want to increase the odds that a behavior will occur, then you need to make it more attractive.
Habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop. The heightened level of dopamine in the body causes you to desire the result or reward of the habit. Dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act.
Our brain has far more neural circuitry allocated for wanting rewards than for liking them. So, by making our habits attractive the expectation of a rewarding experience motivates us to act. This is where temptation bundling comes into play. Temptation bundling works bĳ linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do. The action you want to do will give you the motivation to complete the action you need to do.
The role of family and friends in shaping your habits
Humans want to fit in and to earn the respect and approval of their peers. This used to be essential to our survival. As a result, one of the deepest human desires is to belong. Resulting in the imitation of habits. We imitate the habits of three groups in particular:
1. Imitating the close
The closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to imitate some of their habits. If we want to build better habits we could join a group where our desired behavior is normal behavior. Your new habits seem more achievable when others are doing them on a daily basis. Ideally, you already have something in common with this group. Belonging sustains motivation. The shared identity of the group will begin to reinforce your personal identity.
2. Imitating the many
Whenever we are unsure how to act, we look to the group to guide our behavior. This is quite a smart thing to do since the evidence is in numbers. However, there is a downside to doing this. The behavior of the group can overpower the desired behavior of individuals because of the internal pressure to comply with the norms of the group. Change is very unattractive when it is challenging the habits or norms of the group. Whenever changing your habits complies with the group, change is very attractive.
3. Imitating the powerful
Historically, a person with greater power and status has access to more resources, worries less about survival, and proves to be a more attractive mate. Once we fit the group, we start looking for ways to stand out. This is why we imitate the behavior of successful people. We desire their success ourselves. Many of our daily habits are imitations of people we admire.
How to find and fix the causes of your bad habits
Our behavior is heavily dependent on how we interpret the events that happen to us, not necessarily the objective reality of the events themselves. Our feelings and emotions tell us whether to hold steady in our current state or to make a charge. Reframing habits to highlight the benefits of the habits and their action is an easy way to reprogram your mind and make a habit more attractive.
The 3rd law: make it easy
The difference between motion and action is that when you are in motion you are planning, strategizing, and learning. Whilst action is the type of behavior that will deliver an outcome. Sometimes motion is useful but it will never produce an outcome by itself. Oftentimes, we stay in motion, because motion makes us feel like we are making progress without the risk of failure.
Habit formation is the process by which a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through repetition. The more you repeat an activity, the more the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at that activity. Long-term potentiation is the strengthening of connections between neurons in the brain based on recent patterns of activity. With each repetition, cell-to-cell signaling improves and the neural connections tighten. Therefore, habits are not formed in a matter of time but a matter of repetitions.
“Neurons that fire together wire together”.Donald Hebb
The law of least effort
Reality shows that our motivation is lazy and we want what is convenient. Energy is precious, and the brain is wired to conserve it whenever possible. Every action you take requires a certain amount of Energy. The more energy required, the less likely that action is to be followed through.
With habits, we often want the outcome of the habit, not necessarily the habit itself. The more difficult the habit, the more friction there is between you and your desired end state. This is why it is crucial to make your habits so easy that you’ll do them even when you don’t feel like it. On the tough days, you want to have as many things working in your favor as possible to overcome the challenges of life. As discussed before, one of the most effective ways to reduce the friction associated with your habits is to practice environmental design. The majority of habit building comes down to reducing the friction associated with good habits and increasing the frictions of bad habits.
How to stop procrastinating by using the two-minute rule
Researchers estimate that 40 to 50 percent of our actions on any given day are done out of habit. But these automated habits influence the actions and decisions that follow. Therefore, having a huge impact on your daily life. In a way, the habits you follow without thinking often determine the choices you make when you are thinking. The first trigger towards a path of habits and choices can be called a “decisive moment”. Mastering the decisive moments throughout your day is essential to forming your day.
As discussed before it is essential to make new habits as easy as possible to reduce friction. This can be done through the two-minute rate. Meaning when you start a habit it should take you less than two minutes. This makes starting really easy, once you start it is much easier to continue working on it. It should function as a “gateway habit” that leads to a more productive path. As said before, the point is to master showing up, to standardize before optimizing. It is better to do less than you hoped than to do nothing at all.
How to make good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible
A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future. By doing so you lock in future behavior, binding yourself to good habits and restrict yourself from bad ones. Commitment devices are useful because they enable you to take advantage of good intentions before you can fall victim to temptation. Examples of commitment devices: get rid of junk food in the house so it requires way more work to eat bad, get a year membership for the gym instead of a day-pass, or leave your laptop in the office so you won’t continue working at home. Thoughtful automation can make good habits inevitable and bad ones impossible. Locking in your future behavior is way more powerful than relying on willpower at the moment.
The 4th law: make it satisfying
The satisfaction rate and our behavior
The satisfaction rate of our behavior determines if the action or experience is worth repeating or not. This can become very difficult since a lot of our goals are based on delayed-returns, meaning that sometimes a lot of work is required before the intended pay-off becomes visible. We have all gotten used to instant gratification since this has become the way the modern world works. This makes it even harder to comply with the delayed gratification. We have become time-inconsistent, meaning that our brains evaluate rewards inconsistent across time. Making the value of the present higher than that of the future. This makes it easy for bad habits to form since they often do have instant gratification. Whilst good habits are reversed: the immediate outcome is unenjoyable, but the ultimate outcome feels good.
“The cost of your good habits is the present. The cost of your bad habits is the future”.James Clear.
What is immediately rewarded is repeated, inversely what is immediately punished is avoided. Reinforce good behavior by creating a loyalty program for instance. Every time you follow a good habit or don’t act on a bad one you put some money into a savings account for something you would really like to do or have. When you are further along the process, this secondary reward becomes less important since you have now made the habit part of your identity.
Daily performance of good habits
Tracking your habits is a great way to reward yourself with instant gratification, making habits obvious, attractive, and satisfying. However, do keep in mind that we optimize what we measure (sometimes unknowingly). If you choose the wrong measurement, you might optimize the wrong behavior. Also, having a slip-up every now and then is inevitable, so make sure that you have a plan for when you do. A good rule is to not slip-up twice in a row. This makes sure there will not follow a spiral of repeated mistakes after the first one.
If you want to prevent bad habits and eliminate unhealthy behaviors, then adding an instant cost to the action is a great way to reduce their odds. As discussed before, when a behavior is immediately punished it will be avoided. Make sure the punishment is painful enough and reliably enforced. You could create a habit contract, which is a verbal or written agreement in which you state your commitment to a particular habit, and the punishment will occur if you don’t follow through. Then find one or two accountability partners to sign the contract with you. They are in charge of the punishment.
This contract is a way to keep yourself to your habits but is not necessary. If you don’t want to create a full-blown habit contract, simply having an accountability partner is useful.
Advanced tactics: how to go from being merely good to being truly great
Genes and habits
Habits are easier to form and more satisfying to stick with when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities. Genes do not determine your destiny. They determine your areas of opportunity. Our habits are not solely determined by our personalities, but there is no doubt that our genes nudge us in a certain direction. Our deeply rooted preferences make certain behaviors easier for some people than for others. Pick the right habit and progress is easy, pick the wrong habit and it will be a struggle. So pick something which comes easy to you. However, do note that our genes do not eliminate the need for hard work. They only tell us what to work hard on.
How to stay motivated in life and work
The Goldilocks rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. When you are starting a new habit, it’s important to keep it as easy as possible so you will stick with it even in sub-optimal conditions. However, once a habit has been established it’s important to continue to advance in small ways. Little improvements and new challenges will keep you engaged and the work varied. This is extremely important since boredom is the villain in the quest for self-improvement.
Oftentimes boredom works as follows: as soon as we experience the slightest dip in motivation we seek a new strategy, even If the old one is still working. The way to counteract is to keep working on challenges of just manageable difficulty, this means if you improve your challenges should increase in difficulty as well. This is a great way to keep things interesting.
“Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way”.James Clear
Combine automatic habits with deliberate practice
The great benefit of habits is that we can do things without thinking. However, this benefit could come at a cost if not vigilant. In the first stages of habit-forming, each repetition develops fluency, speed, and skill. But after some time it becomes a fully automated habit and you’ll become less sensitive to feedback. Mistakes become easier to let slide since you can do “good enough” on autopilot.
Habits are necessary to save energy, but will not be sufficient for mastery. For mastery, a combination of automatic habits and deliberate practice is required. Reflection and review of your existing habits ensure that you spend your time on the right things and make course corrections whenever necessary.
In the beginning, small improvements can often seem meaningless because they get washed away by the weight of the system. Gradually, though, as you continue to layer small changes on top of one another, the scale starts to move. Eventually, If you stick with it, you hit a tipping point. Suddenly, it feels easier to stick with good habits. The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It’s remarkable what you can build If you just don’t stop. Small habits won’t just add up, they compound.
What I take from the book
It has become very clear to me that to achieve what you want in life, you need the right habits. The powerful thing about atomic habits is that they are small and therefore easy to do.
As already in the post about The power of habit by Charles Duhigg I am very cautious about routinizing bad behavior. Atomic habits has made this even more clear to me by explaining that growing by 1% each day will make you improve extremely over the path of a year. However, getting worse 1% each day for one year will make you decline to nearly zero. With this extra stimulus, I will review where I can better my (routinized) bad behavior.
Since it is the start of the new year it is a perfect time to set goals for this year. However, due to Atomic habits, I will now focus more heavily on the systems behind my goals instead of only the goals. I will write both of them down so it will be easy for me to review at a later moment. Whilst writing both down I will pay attention to the four laws of behavioral change as well as making the goals identity-based instead of output-based.
With my new goals, I will use the technique of habit stacking, since this has already proven it’s worth to me. I am currently workout immediately after I have gotten out of bed and drunk my glass of water. I have been doing this for around 4 weeks now and it has really improved the ease with which I start my workout.
Find out more about James Clear on his website.