Author: James Clear
Category: Productivity, Self-Improvement
Related Books & Resources:
Have you made your life up of good habits? Or…bad ones?
Have you ever tried to add a new habit, but failed? Ever tried to break a bad one, but it’s still apart of your routine?
Maybe it was trying to learn a new language, or start your day with a morning walk…but, for some reason they didn’t stick…
Turns out, it’s not you, your willpower or the cut of your jib.
Rather, you were working on the “wrong system” for habit formation.
Man, isn’t it great when something isn’t your fault? Ahh…what a release.
Like most everything else, habit making and habit breaking are both skills. Skills that we can be good at, or like most folks (myself included), can be horrid at.
I’ll often set goals, without thinking completely about how I will get there (the habits). Time passes and goals remain unachieved.
Sometimes, I will come up with some habits to put in place. But, I make it insanely difficult on myself. Like, I should bake a carrot ziti every single day or something.
Does that sound like you at all?
If it does, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear will be a fitting read for you.
Finally, our teeth will be flossed every morning, and our gratitude journals will be full. Rejoice!
You’ll become the master of self-improvement that you’ve always hoped to be.
Lessons from Atomic Habits by James Clear
The lessons extracted from this book are plenty, but rather simple:
- Habits are important because they quality of our lives. Daily habits (or actions) make up how we spend our days. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.
- Bad habits are easier to break and good new habits are easier to make if we learn about human behavior. Then, learn how to use that to our advantage.
Based on my reading, I want to provide you with a book summary that explains two things:
- Why we should focus on habits, more so than goals
- What is the framework for 1% improvement that James shares with us in the book?
Let’s get into it.
So, why focus on habits, more than anything else?
Clear makes the following claims to begin his book…
The quality of your habits dictate the quality of your life…
Our habits (actions) make up our days and days make up our lives.
And at some point your actions dictate who you are and what sort of “fruits” you do or don’t enjoy in your life…right?
Are you acting as a professional writer might (writing everyday)?
Or, are you still aspiring to write?
Do you binge on crappy food? Do you spend most of your day sitting? Or, do you get out and go on walks?
Our habits, both good or bad, will end up leading to results in our life that are likewise, good or bad.
It’s not always easy to see; skipping exercise once won’t make you out of shape, but if you routinely do so, that will. And worse, there may be detrimental health effects to pay.
Both our good habits and bad work like “compounding interest” as Clear explains.
Saving $100 / month may not seem like a lot, but if you start early enough in your life, and invest it in an account with annual returns of 4%, that cheddar will stack.[Insert image representing savings and compound interest]
Likewise, if you eat enough midnight burgers in your lifetime, one day, you may be fat. And, if you write everyday you may just publish a book one day.
So, if we investing in our habits, we should yield big returns, right?
We will all be better looking, have more perfectly shaped penises, more money and have way more sex…you get it…
But, why don’t people invest in habits?
Why habits don’t have the “rep” they should
Continuing with the theme of”compounding interest,” Clear believes habits don’t get the sexy reputation of goals because habits don’t make a difference in your life until you hit a “critical threshold.”
You don’t write one morning of your life and publish a New York Times Best-Seller. That sort of ambition takes time.
Goals are more alluring. Like, making whatever money you want, installing the new Windows 10 on your computer, or getting a short line at the DMV.
We forget success (yet we define it) won’t hit until plenty of consistent action has been taken.
Most people forget that success (in whatever way that’s defined) is not hit until a “critical mass” of action has been taken. And those actions, are our habits.
Goals are sexy, but habits get the results.
How goals and habits relate
Goals can act as our compass and our habits act as the process or the system we use to get there.
Habits are what lead to the outcomes (goals) we want to achieve.
As Clear states well, “Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.” (24)
Habits are the gears that turn the machine of you. What sort of output do you want? Look at how the machine is running.
Goals and fulfillment
It’s also important to note, that the fulfillment that comes with achieving goals is temporary.
Happiness is never found at the end of the tunnel, it’s found on the journey, man (emphasis on man).
Our habits, the actions we take everyday, are what have the most potential to be and should be what are most fulfilling in our lives.
If they aren’t, they wuddya doing?!?!?!
So we get it…right?
We focus on habits to make us more of who we want to be and allow us to spend our days how we would like, and those will lead to results that we enjoy.
Now that we have settled that, let’s talk about the process for making a good habit or breaking a bad, that Clear introduces us to.
The Framework for 1% Improvement (Extracted from James Clear’s Atomic Habits)
Before briefing us on his system, Clear first shares with us how habits work.
Through doing so, we should better be able to understand how we can succeed in the future and avoid tragic failure.
To paraphrase Clear, our brain builds habit to make the fundamentals of life easier.
Could you imagine if you had to re-figure out how to tie your shoes everytime you put them on? That would be obnoxious as fuck. We’d most likely all start wearing flip flops more often. A
Think about what that would do for people where it’s cold?!?
Thank the lord for habits, because now as functioning adults, we can tie our shoes like a bat out of hell and get on with our days.
“Building habits in the present allows you to do more of what you want in the future (47).”
Forget getting caught up with double knotting your Jordans and focus on painting the next Starry Night.
This framework for continuous improvement is simple to understand.
You select the habit you want to add to your life. Then, you determine how to set yourself up for success by “hacking” the habit loop (the process for forming habits).
Finally, you track your progress, review your results and make adjustments.
Let’s look at each step in more detail.
1. Select the habit you want
Determine what type of person you want to be, and determine what that type of person does.
James calls these “identity-based” habits as oppose to outcome based habits (31).
“You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity (34),” as James tells us.
We must draw attention to our existing values and principles, who we wish to become, and discern what habits might bridge the gap for us.
Self-awareness is the first step.
To do this, James suggests making a list of existing habits and use the tactic of “pointing and calling.” This is a tactic used by Japanese railway operators, literally pointing and calling out each of their actions as they go through a departure checklist.
Know what good habits you’ll make? What bad habits you’ll break?
Awesome, let’s set ourselves up to win. BIG TIME.
2. Set yourself up for success, understanding how habits work and how to “hack” them.
This is where we first learn about the “habit loop,” a concept popularized by Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. [link].
The habit loop, an introduction to the science of habits, proceeds as follows:
- There’s a Cue (noticing the potential reward of an action)
- We then have a Craving (desire to complete the action to get that reward)
- This ideally initiates a Response (action)
- Which produces the sought after Reward, and that feedback returns to our brain.
Through understanding this, how can we hack this? This is where James introduces his Four Laws of Behavior Change.
The keys to hacking the habit loop. Quit battling a “lack of motivation” and set yourself up to succeed.
Law #1, Make Your Cues Obvious
Imagine you are trying to learn how to play guitar.
Will you pick up and play your guitar more if it’s out on a stand in your living room? Or, will you play more if it’s in it’s case in your closet.
Obviously, if the guitar is in plain site, we will play and think about playing more. This is in a nutshell, the essence of hacking our “cues.”
We want to make it as easy for ourselves to do the “right thing,” which in this case, is our new habit. This is the act of decreasing any friction between ourselves and taking action.
In doing so, we let the habit loop run it’s course.
The largest cues as James reminds us are time and location. He explains, for best results, “every habit should have a home (90).”
He goes on to say…”structure your life in a way that doesn’t require heroic willpower.” (93)
A few tips and tricks James introduces are:
- “implementation intentions” — (a plan you make beforehand about when and where to do the habit), like “I will open my Fluent Forever language app to practice Spanish after I meditate each morning.
- “Habit stacking,” — which is using momentum to make one habit a cue for the next (like in my last example, I’ve been meditating since I was 17, so I’m using the solidity of that habit to add in a new one.
Remember, environment is greater than motivation, so setup your environment for success.
Think about what sort of productive cues you have around you, vs. unproductive cues.
This is why I eat so terribly and drink 3x my weight’s worth during the holidays, all friction is setup one way.
Ask yourself, can I increase the convenience of doing this new habit I want to do? Or, is there anyway I can decrease the friction?
On the inverse, for the bad habits, make your cues disappear. Easiest example, do you want to stop eating junk food? Get it out of your house!
Law #2, Make Your Cravings Attractive
Once we’ve made our cues obvious, we need to make them even more attractive.
We need to make it so compelling to do the good behavior it’s almost irresistible.
So, what do we do to make the habit more attractive?
Clear suggests a few of the following:
- “Temptation Bundling,” which is linking something you often crave or binge over (i.e. watching TV) with something beneficial. This could be a nightly routine of stretching and yoga while you watch The Office.
- Hacking “Social Norms,” which is making your desired behaviors the norm of a group or social circle you are part of, to make the positive change a means for you to fit into the “tribe.” Join a writers group if you want to build the habit of writing, etc.
- Habit “Reframe,” this is a simple mental shift that you can work on brainwashing yourself with…is working out something you have to do, or is it something you get to do, that then has you feeling energetic, more inspired and and hopeful for the world’s course to right, where Donald Trump will no longer be President. Big differences.
Luckily for us, we are playing a momentum game here. The more you do your habit, the easier it becomes to do, and the more we want to do it.
Relatable to the concept of “Making Smaller Circles,” introduced in Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning.
Get the wheel turning and things will be easier.
Law #3, Make Your Responses Easy
This for me is a tipping point. One thing I have failed on time and time again in the past.
In it’s simplest form, this rule is about making the action you have to take as easy as possible.
So, it’s not; practice guitar everyday for 30 minutes. It’s not even practice the guitar for 10 minutes!
If we want to succeed, our habit should first be to pick up the guitar everyday.
How easy is that?
This rule is playing on the crucial component of momentum and feedback mechanisms.
When you “pick up the guitar,” a few things happen:
- That action produces feedback.
- You feel a positive sense of accomplishment,
- You build your confidence,
- Your brain begins to build the connection, that picking up the guitar is something you do, and enjoy.
- Also, you’ll feel silly picking up the guitar and not playing, so you’ll most likely practice anyways. This is called Long-term potentiation (143).
Our aim is to dissolve the friction that exists when building a completely new habit.
How awkward does it feel to walk around with a camera when you are trying to pick up photography?
Make it easier to pick up the camera. Then, make it easier to take photos. One step at a time will produce the best results.
Focusing on “frequency” first, is they key to making a behavior automatic. It may sound tedious, but this is where we let our unconscious mind take over and habits take hold.
Make your habits easy, and be patient to take them through the evolution required to get you where you want to be.
Law #4, Make the Rewards Satisfying
The last law of behavior change is to make the rewards from doing the habit as satisfying as possible.
As Clear says, “What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided (189).”
There are a few ways we can do this, and a few ways our habits do it for us:
- Habits like exercise, will reward themselves. We feel positive endorphins, we feel energized, simple enough.
- With other habits, we can find ways to reward ourselves. Maybe it’s a piece of dark chocolate after a focused work session with your cell phone away. Get creative.
At it’s simplest, habit tracking (introduced next), can be the easiest way to make a habit more rewarding.
Checking off a box spikes the dopamine and gets you fired off.
Finally, track your progress, review your results, and continue evolving.
And finally, let’s take a note from the adage of management guru, Peter Drucker, “what’s measured gets managed.”
As Clear explains, “…people who track their progress on goals like losing weight, quitting smoking, and lowering blood pressure are all more likely to improve than those who don’t (197).”
There are plenty of apps that can help you do this. As well, a good ol’ spreadsheet will do some damage too. Just make it easy.
Finally, review this performance in a time period that makes sense for you. Maybe it’s weekly, or monthly. Either way, having a good sense for if you are “on track” or not, is important.
Conclusion: Better Habits Make Better Results
In every instance of the process of making good habits we are “greasing the wheels.”
We make things as attractive and rewarding as possible to do, while as well making the actions we take even easier.
We already have habits in our lives, for better or for worse. And, for this reason, I appreciated Clear’s book if only for the reason that it spiked my awareness.
Action seems to be better than inaction. And, there’s nothing wrong with starting small.
As Clear says, “you don’t rise to the level of your goals…you fall to the level of your systems.”
Where are you systems falling short?
To read more from James and learn more about him, visit jamesclear.com.