In Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that goals shouldn’t be your main focus in life. Instead, you should be utilizing frequent actions and systems to help develop habits that stick.
The significant changes you want to make in your life depend more on creating small habits than sizeable shifts. For example, suppose you want to get in shape. In that case, your best bet is eating slightly better, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. Additionally, instead of wasting your time setting yourself unachievable goals, all you have to do is make one small change every day. Losing weight does not require extreme changes. This theme runs throughout Atomic Habits. The quality of your life depends on the quality of your habits. Some habits are so small like an atom, and yet they’re capable of making a significant impact in our lives because these habits produce results that accumulate over time.
About James Clear
James Clear has been researching habits and decision making for many years. He made his name as the author of one of the fastest-growing email newsletters in history, which grew from zero to 100,000 subscribers in under two years.
Today, his newsletter has over 400,000 subscribers, and the articles on his website receive 10 million hits each year. His work frequently appears in publications including the New York Times, Forbes, and Business Insider.
What are Habits?
“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.”– James Clear
Habits are behaviors that we perform automatically, with little or no thought. Habits are powerful. Hence, if repeated daily, even the smallest actions can have a considerable effect. However, positive change requires patience. You can be confident that good habits keep you on the right trajectory, even if you don’t see immediate results.
Making significant changes in your life doesn’t require major upheaval. Often, tiny changes to your behavior are enough to lead to the desired results.
Why is it Hard to Build Habits?
Habits are built based on a form of conditioning. In effect, behaviors that result in satisfying consequences tend to be repeated until they become automatic. For example, when you were a baby, you would have sucked your thumb to calm yourself. This calming feeling was the satisfying consequence that would have encouraged you to repeat the behavior. As adults, we engage with habits like going on a morning run as we get an endorphin buzz and feel more productive.
It is very easy to underestimate the value of making small improvements, such as going on a morning run. When repeated several times, due to the habit being daily, the benefits will accumulate. Humans tend to convince themselves that massive success requires massive action.
Why should we try and get a little better each day? James Clear outlines that 1% of personal improvement per day will lead to you being 37 times better by the same time next year.
According to atomic habits, habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies to produce compound interest, the effect of your habits multiplies as you repeat them. They seem to make little or even no difference on any given day. Still, the impact they deliver over months or years can be enormous.
Although it is possible to develop compound interest on good habits, bad habits compound too. Hence, putting off a project until tomorrow may seem to make no difference. However, if you repeat this 1% error day after day, these tiny errors can be compounded into toxic results.
Success is the product of daily habits, not once in a lifetime transformations. You will not identify immediate positive outcomes from daily habits as outcomes will always lag behind habits. For example, habits appear to make no difference until we cross a threshold and unlock a new performance level. The plateau of latent potential shows us why it can be hard to build habits. Habits do not provide us with the immediate gratification that humans often crave. Habits need to persist long enough to break through this plateau. Habit gratification will take time, so you must learn to be patient and have faith.
Forget about Goals, Concentrate on Systems
“You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”– James Clear
Goals are the results you want to achieve. In comparison, systems are the processes that lead to those results.
Atomic Habits states that you should aim to focus on the system. If you adopt this mindset, then the goal will take care of itself. James Clear provides a few reasons how systems can take care of goals:
- Winners and losers have the same goals. For example, every Olympian wants to win a gold medal, and every entrepreneur wants to be successful. Merely creating this goal does not guarantee success. Otherwise, we would have millions of gold medallists. Therefore, the winners’ systems help them achieve their goals and obtain the required results.
- Achieving a goal is only a momentary change. Therefore, goals can restrict your happiness. Our implicit assumption is once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy. However, this approach to life sets us up to fail. Either you achieve your goal, but you don’t feel fulfilled. Alternatively, you fail to achieve your goal, and that makes you feel unhappy.
- Goals do not create long-term progress.
If you have trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Therefore, aim to focus on the overall system rather than your individual goals.
One of the core themes of Atomic habits is that you do not rise to the level of your goals. Instead, you fall to the level of your system. So, it’s all about the system, not goals.
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.”– James Clear
The Three Layers of Behavior Change
You can think about outcomes as what you get from an action or group of actions. Comparatively, processes are about what you do. Finally, your identity is about what you believe. So, when people set out to improve themselves, they’re thinking about the outcome and then thinking about the process.
It’s hard to change your habits if you don’t change the underlying beliefs that led to your previous behaviors. You might create a habit because of increased motivation. However, you will not maintain this habit unless it becomes part of your identity.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No individual action will transform your beliefs. As the positive actions build-up, though, so does the evidence of your new identity.
Here’s a simple two-step process for change
- Be the type of person you want to be.
- Prove your identity to yourself with small wins and small atomic habits.
Habits are self-reinforcing. Hence, there is a clear step-by-step process that actions travel through to become a habit:
- The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior because it predicts a reward.
- After receiving this initial reward, you will start to develop cravings. You are not craving the habit itself, but the change it delivered in your life.
- Based on these cravings, this action becomes part of your identity and becomes a habit you perform in your life.
- Finally, this habitual behavior starts to deliver long-term rewards.
James Clear provides the example of morning coffee in the formation of a habit loop:
- Cue = waking up
- Craving = feeling alert
- Action = drinking coffee
- Reward = feeling alert
The four steps of the habit loop combine to form a neurological feedback loop. This loop is:
cue – craving – response – reward
Ultimately, this loop allows you to create and reinforce automatic habits.
The more you practice this habit loop with any particular habit, the more it will become automatic.
Step 1: The Cue – Make it Obvious
For good habits, we want to make the cue obvious. Subsequently, for bad habits, we want to make their cues invisible. For example, if you want to get better at playing the guitar, you need an obvious cue that acts as a reminder to play the guitar. One way of doing this is by putting the guitar in the middle of the living room so that your brain is triggered more often.
Another great way to introduce new cues is by creating a habit stack. Habit stacking is simply the act of adding habits before and after each other.
Step 2: The Craving – Make it Attractive
To make a habit stick, you must obtain positive feedback from this habit. A good way of developing this positive feedback is by utilizing temptation bundling. Temptation bundling is based on the phenomenon that you are more likely to find a behavior attractive if you get to do one of your favorite things simultaneously.
The second method you could use to make craving more attractive is by joining a culture where your desired behavior is normalized.
For example, if you want to become well-read, then you could join a book club. Joining this club will hold you accountable, and you will likely find reading more fun than doing it alone. Similarly, if you want to break bad habits, you will want to do the inverse by joining a culture that doesn’t endorse your bad habits. Plus, leaving a culture where your bad habits are normalized. For example, if you want to quit smoking, then it might be advisable to stop spending time with people who are habitual smokers.
Step 3: The Response – Make it Easy
Conventional wisdom holds that motivation is the key to changing a habit. If we want to change enough, then we will change. However, the relationship between motivation and habit changing is a bit more complicated than this. Specifically, human behavior follows the law of the least effort. We naturally gravitate towards the option that requires the least amount of work. However, we can use this to our advantage by creating an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.
Based on these claims, we should reduce the friction associated with good behaviors. Similarly, if you want to get fit, you could join a gym that is en route to your work. You can also get your gym bag organized and ready the night before.
For bad behaviors, you should increase the friction. If you want to watch less television, make it so that you can only turn on the TV as you say out loud the name of the program you want to watch. This will stop mindless viewing and switching channels.
Step 4: The Rewards – Make it Satisfying
As humans, it can be hard to pick up new habits. This difficulty is associated with the beginning of a new habit being characterized by sacrifice without any rewards. You can go to the gym a few times a week, and nothing will change physically. Instead, it takes months to see real results. Therefore, if you want to make a habit stick, you need to figure out a way to give yourself an immediate reward. One technique you can use when the reward is long term is to set up a loyalty system for yourself. For example, imagine you want to give up alcohol. On its own, there is no satisfaction in merely abstaining. However, suppose you transfer $25 to your holiday bank account every week you go without alcohol. In that case, you’ll be immediately rewarding yourself for your new habit.
How to Form Good Habits
“The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it. If you’re proud of how your hair looks, you’ll develop all sorts of habits to care for and maintain it. If you’re proud of the size of your biceps, you’ll make sure you never skip an upper-body workout. If you’re proud of the scarves you knit, you’ll be more likely to spend hours knitting each week. Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.”– James Clear
Certain stimuli can trigger habitual behavior. Once you understand that, you can use this knowledge to change your habits.
- Encourage better habits by changing your environment. Make your cues as obvious as possible, and you’ll be more likely to respond to them. For example, suppose you want to eat healthier snacks. In this instance, you could leave these healthy snacks out on the counter rather than hiding them in the salad drawer.
- Use implementation intentions. Don’t make vague statements such as “I will eat better.” Instead, create a clear plan of action, and set out when and where you will carry out the habit you want to cultivate.
- Build temptation. Humans are motivated by the anticipation of reward. Our brain not only releases dopamine (the feel-good hormone) when we do pleasurable things but also when we anticipate them. Note that making habits attractive will help you stick to them. Link the habit you want to form (but are not enjoying) with a behavior that you’re drawn to. For example, allow yourself to watch episodes of your favorite show while you’re cycling at the gym.
- Make the habit as easy to adopt as possible. Reduce friction for good habits and increase friction for bad habits.
- Use the two-minute rule. Make any new activity feel manageable by only committing to two-minutes of it. This is a way to build easily achievable habits, and those can lead you on to more extraordinary things. Getting started is the most critical step.
- Make your habits immediately satisfying. When you’re pursuing habits with a delayed return, try to attach an immediate gratification to them.
How to Keep Your Habits on Track
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”– James Clear
Option 1: Habit Tracker
Habit trackers help ensure you maintain the daily behaviors required to feed a habit. For example, Use a calendar or diary to create a habit tracker. Also, cross off every day that you manage to stick to your good habit. Habit tracking itself is an attractive and satisfying habit. Hence, this is why habit tracking is so effective.
Option 2: Contract
Develop a habit contract that imposes negative consequences if you fail to stay on track. Try to involve other people. Simply knowing that someone is watching you can be a powerful incentive to keep going.
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