I just read the kindle edition of Atomic Habits by James Clear. Its worth the time investment, giving practical ways for building desired habbits and more importantly, breaking bad ones.
The habit loop⌗
The four stages of habit are an endless cycle. This habit loop is continually scanning the environment, predicting what will happen next, trying out different responses, and learning from the results.
- The cue triggers a craving
- That motivates a response
- That provides a reward
- That satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue
4 laws of behavior change⌗
The pillars of the book, are the four stages of the habit building process:
- Make it obvious
- Make it attrative
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
|1||Make it obvious|
|1.1||Write down your current habits to become aware of them (i.e. scorecard).|
|1.2||Use implementation intentions: “I will [BEHAVIOR] at[TIME] in [LOCATION].”|
|1.3||Use habit stacking: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”|
|1.4||Design your environment. Make the cues of good habits obvious and visible.|
|2||Make it attractive|
|2.1||Use temptation bundling. Pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do.|
|2.2||Join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.|
|2.3||Create a motivation ritual. Do something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit.|
|3||Make it easy|
|3.1||Reduce friction. Decrease the number of steps between you and your good habits.|
|3.2||Prime the environment. Prepare your environment to make future actions easier.|
|3.3||Master the decisive moment. Optimise the small choices that deliver impact.|
|3.4||Use the Two-Minute Rule. Downscale your habits until they can be done in two minutes or less.|
|3.5||Automate your habits. Invest in technology and one time purchases that lock in future behavior.|
|4||Make it satifying|
|4.1||Use reinforcement. Give yourself an immediate reward when you complete your habit.|
|4.2||Make “doing nothing” enjoyable. When avoiding a bad habit, design a way to see the benefits.|
|4.3||Use a habit tracker. Keep track of your habit streak and“don’t break the chain.”|
|4.4||Never miss twice. When you forget to do a habit, make sure you get back on track immediately.|
- I want to learn regularly.
- I want to read regularly and consistently.
- I want to meditate daily.
- I want to exercise daily.
- I want to shift to a plant based diet.
- I want to eat dinner with my wife, undistracted by devices.
- I want to build a software business with my friends.
By flipping the 4 laws on its head, can be used to bust bad habbits:
- Make it invisible
- Make it unattrative
- Make it difficult
- Make it unsatifying
|1||Make it invisible|
|1.5||Reduce exposure. Remove the cues of your bad habits from your environment.|
|2||Make it unattractive|
|2.4||Reframe your mindset. Highlight the benefits ofavoiding your bad habits.|
|3||Make it difficult|
|3.6||Increase friction. Increase the number of steps between you and your bad habits.|
|3.7||Use a commitment device. Restrict your futurechoices to the ones that benefit you.|
|4||Make it unsatisfying|
|4.5||Get an accountability partner. Ask someone towatch your behavior.|
|4.6||Create a habit contract. Make the costs of your badhabits public and painful.|
Concrete examples I have already put in place:
- I want to eliminate watching movies or TV shows. To stop consuming streaming services (e.g. Netflix, YouTube) I unplugged my Chromecast and put it away in a draw. This has created enough friction, between wasting moments of time with pointless forms of entertainment.
- I want to eliminate use of social networking.
- I want to stop eating meat and animal products.
Resources and templates⌗
- The Big Five inventory contains 44 items and will tell you how you score on the Big Five personality dimensions but will not include the 30 more specific facets of personality that will be included in the 120 and 300 item inventories listed above.
- The HEXACO-PI-R contains 100 questions and takes about 15 minutes to complete.
- The original IPIP-NEO (International Personality Item Pool Representation of the NEO PI-R™) contains 300 items and takes 30-40 minutes to complete. You can find the inventory here, here, and here.
- The new, short version of the IPIP-NEO was designed to measure the same traits as the original IPIP-NEO, but it only contains 120 items and takes 10-20 minutes to complete. You can find it here and here.
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.
Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.
Whenever you want to change your behavior, you can simply ask yourself: How can I make it obvious? How can I make it attractive? How can I make it easy? How can I make it satisfying?
As the psychologist Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
This process, known as Pointing-and-Calling, is a safety system designed to reduce mistakes. It seems silly, but it works incredibly well. Pointing-and-Calling reduces errors by up to 85 percent and cuts accidents by 30 percent.
Many of our failures in performance are largely attributable to a lack of self-awareness.
That’s the origin of the Habits Scorecard, which is a simple exercise you can use to become more aware of your behavior. To create your own, make a list of your daily habits.
For this exercise, categorize your habits by how they will benefit you in the long run.
“Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?”
If you feel like you need extra help, then you can try Pointing-and-Calling in your own life. Say out loud the action that you are thinking of taking and what the outcome will be. If you want to cut back on your junk food habit but notice yourself grabbing another cookie, say out loud, “I’m about to eat this cookie, but I don’t need it. Eating it will cause me to gain weight and hurt my health.”
The sentence they filled out is what researchers refer to as an implementation intention, which is a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. That is, how you intend to implement a particular habit. The simple way to apply this strategy to your habits is to fill out this sentence: I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
In fact, the tendency for one purchase to lead to another one has a name: the Diderot Effect.
My favorite approach is one I learned from Stanford professor BJ Fogg and it is a strategy I refer to as habit stacking. Habit stacking is a special form of an implementation intention. Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit. The habit stacking formula is: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
Habits like “read more” or “eat better” are worthy causes, but these goals do not provide instruction on how and when to act. Be specific and clear: After I close the door. After I brush my teeth. After I sit down at the table.
The 1st Law of Behavior Change is to make it obvious. Strategies like implementation intentions and habit stacking are among the most practical ways to create obvious cues for your habits and design a clear plan for when and where to take action.
One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it.
Instead of summoning a new dose of willpower whenever you want to do the right thing, your energy would be better spent optimizing your environment. This is the secret to self-control. Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.
We need to make our habits attractive because it is the expectation of a rewarding experience that motivates us to act in the first place. This is where a strategy known as temptation bundling comes into play.
Then he wrote a computer program that would allow Netflix to run only if he was cycling at a certain speed. If he slowed down for too long, whatever show he was watching would pause until he started pedaling again. He was, in the words of one fan, “eliminating obesity one Netflix binge at a time.” He was also employing temptation bundling to make his exercise habit more attractive.
Temptation bundling is one way to apply a psychology theory known as Premack’s Principle. Named after the work of professor David Premack, the principle states that “more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.
As Charles Darwin noted, “In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
We imitate the habits of three groups in particular: The close. The many. The powerful.
Now, imagine changing just one word: You don’t “have” to. You “get” to. You get to wake up early for work. You get to make another sales call for your business. You get to cook dinner for your family.
As Voltaire once wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.”
If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. You don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it. This is the first takeaway of the 3rd Law: you just need to get your reps in.
The more you repeat an activity, the more the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at that activity. Neuroscientists call this long-term potentiation, which refers to the strengthening of connections between neurons in the brain based on recent patterns of activity.
To build a habit, you need to practice it. And the most effective way to make practice happen is to adhere to the 3rd Law of Behavior Change: make it easy.
Conventional wisdom holds that motivation is the key to habit change. Maybe if you really wanted it, you’d actually do it. But the truth is, our real motivation is to be lazy and to do what is convenient. And despite what the latest productivity best seller will tell you, this is a smart strategy, not a dumb one.
One of the most effective ways to reduce the friction associated with your habits is to practice environment design.
“Japanese firms emphasized what came to be known as ‘lean production,’ relentlessly looking to remove waste of all kinds from the production process, down to redesigning workspaces, so workers didn’t have to waste time twisting and turning to reach their tools. The result was that Japanese factories were more efficient and Japanese products were more reliable than American ones.
Nuckols dialed in his cleaning habits by following a strategy he refers to as “resetting the room.”
The idea is to make your habits as easy as possible to start. Anyone can meditate for one minute, read one page, or put one item of clothing away.
What you want is a “gateway habit” that naturally leads you down a more productive path.
The secret is to always stay below the point where it feels like work.
At some point, once you’ve established the habit and you’re showing up each day, you can combine the Two-Minute Rule with a technique we call habit shaping to scale your habit back up toward your ultimate goal.8 Start by mastering the first two minutes of the smallest version of the behavior.
Whenever you are struggling to stick with a habit, you can employ the Two-Minute Rule. It’s a simple way to make your habits easy.
The key is to change the task such that it requires more work to get out of the good habit than to get started on it. If you’re feeling motivated to get in shape, schedule a yoga session and pay ahead of time.
Commitment devices increase the odds that you’ll do the right thing in the future by making bad habits difficult in the present.
The best way to break a bad habit is to make it impractical to do. Increase the friction until you don’t even have the option to act.
These onetime actions are a straightforward way to employ the 3rd Law of Behavior Change. They make it easier to sleep well, eat healthy, be productive, save money, and generally live better.
As a general rule, the more immediate pleasure you get from an action, the more strongly you should question whether it aligns with your long-term goals.
As the saying goes, the last mile is always the least crowded.
This is precisely what research has shown. People who are better at delaying gratification have higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, and superior social skills.20 We’ve all seen this play out in our own lives.
The best way to do this is to add a little bit of immediate pleasure to the habits that pay off in the long-run and a little bit of immediate pain to ones that don’t.
In summary, a habit needs to be enjoyable for it to last. Simple bits of reinforcement—like soap that smells great or toothpaste that has a refreshing mint flavor or seeing $50 hit your savings account—can offer the immediate pleasure you need to enjoy a habit. And change is easy when it is enjoyable.
A habit tracker is a simple way to measure whether you did a habit. The most basic format is to get a calendar and cross off each day you stick with your routine. For example, if you meditate on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, each of those dates gets an X. As time rolls by, the calendar becomes a record of your habit streak.
A habit contract is a verbal or written agreement in which you state your commitment to a particular habit and the punishment that will occur if you don’t follow through. Then you find one or two people to act as your accountability partners and sign off on the contract with you.
To make bad habits unsatisfying, your best option is to make them painful in the moment. Creating a habit contract is a straightforward way to do exactly that. Even if you don’t want to create a full-blown habit contract, simply having an accountability partner is useful.
The most proven scientific analysis of personality traits is known as the “Big Five,” which breaks them down into five spectrums of behavior. Openness to experience: from curious and inventive on one end to cautious and consistent on the other. Conscientiousness: organized and efficient to easygoing and spontaneous. Extroversion: outgoing and energetic to solitary and reserved (you likely know them as extroverts vs. introverts). Agreeableness: friendly and compassionate to challenging and detached. Neuroticism: anxious and sensitive to confident, calm, and stable.
Pick the right habit and progress is easy. Pick the wrong habit and life is a struggle.
You don’t have time to try every career, date every eligible bachelor, or play every musical instrument. Thankfully, there is an effective way to manage this conundrum, and it is known as the explore/exploit trade-off.
As you explore different options, there are a series of questions you can ask yourself to continually narrow in on the habits and areas that will be most satisfying to you:
What feels like fun to me, but work to others?
What makes me lose track of time?
Where do I get greater returns than the average person?
What comes naturally to me?
The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.
The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.
Personally, I employ two primary modes of reflection and review. Each December, I perform an Annual Review, in which I reflect on the previous year.9 I tally my habits for the year by counting up how many articles I published, how many workouts I put in, how many new places I visited, and more.fn2 Then, I reflect on my progress (or lack thereof) by answering three questions: What went well this year? What didn’t go so well this year? What did I learn?
Six months later, when summer rolls around, I conduct an Integrity Report. Like everyone, I make a lot of mistakes. My Integrity Report helps me realize where I went wrong and motivates me to get back on course. I use it as a time to revisit my core values and consider whether I have been living in accordance with them. This is when I reflect on my identity and how I can work toward being the type of person I wish to become.fn3 My yearly Integrity Report answers three questions: What are the core values that drive my life and work? How am I living and working with integrity right now? How can I set a higher standard in the future?
“Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.” —LAO TZU
Whenever you’re looking to improve, you can rotate through the Four Laws of Behavior Change until you find the next bottleneck. Make it obvious. Make it attractive. Make it easy. Make it satisfying.
You can see my previous Annual Reviews at jamesclear.com/annual-review. You can see my previous Integrity Reports at jamesclear.com/integrity.