I read a number of “self-help” books, often categorized as best sellers found in the back of a Barnes and Noble. When I picked this up Atomic Habits by James Clear, I thought this would be one of those quick throw-away reads. In a few months, stacks of unread copies will be in the five dollar bin box. I admit, I was wrong. No, this is a masterpiece on taking action and getting better. I placed this on my book shelf next to Deep Work, another favorite of mine.
This work is more than defining and understanding the process of habit creation: Cue, craving, response, and reward—the four laws of behavior change. The focus on system level of thinking, why iteration matters in any endeavor, and his process for building a solid habit from the ground up is what sets this apart from other contemporaries on the shelf. Unlike any Gladwell yarn, who I hold in the highest regard, there are so many great takeaways on fine-tuning to make your day truly shine. By reading this book, I’ve made four simple adjustments that have made a world of difference:
- Instead of thinking about taking a run each morning, I subtlety changed my daily habit to putting my tennis shoes on when the alarm clock chimes. Instead of begrudging a five mile run in high humidity, I found myself leaping out of bed a half hour earlier, which increased my weekly mileage by 20 percent.
- I turned my phone into a … wait for it … a phone. By removing or limiting most of the applications, I ended up getting more accomplished and stayed off the evil places deep inside the world-wide web (a similar tip can be found in this book as well). Maybe, I’m the only person down on web technology these days. The open web used to be a shining star. Now, I feel it’s built to suck my time away and turn me into one of those side characters inside the matrix. By trolling from article to article, I’m the sleeping extra Agent Smith knocks off in the first five minutes of the film. No, most of us are not the One.
- Hide the evil snacks lurking in my kitchen. By creating obstacles to find double stuff Oreo cookies (or pick your sweet of choice), I find devouring the cream impossible. You have to truly want the cookie of goodness to drive to the grocery store, pick up a bag not on sale, and devour five cookies. Mindless habits lurk in all corners. Shape your environment.
- Leave the home or office. Your environment dictates your life. The portion of the book on drug addiction and rehab makes this purchase worth on its own.
And the most magical portion of the book was stepping back to find ways to improve. Once you change one habit, well, you look for more. Good to look into the mirror at times.
My highlights are below. And yes, I took more notes here than I did on Mark Manson’s opus and best selling effort. This might not be as entertaining of a read, but there are more tangible ways to improve. Thank you, James. This is an achievement. And sleep well at night knowing you made some poor saps day a little bit better.
The Power of Iteration
Meanwhile, improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable—sometimes it isn’t even noticeable—but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more. 1% BETTER EVERY DAY 1% worse every day for one year.
Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.
“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.”
System Level Thinking
Eventually, I began to realize that my results had very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed. Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.
Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems.
We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results. When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. 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. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.
The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.* Breaking it down into these fundamental parts can help us understand what a habit is, how it works, and how to improve it.
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Blindspots. When you find one, these are aha moments. Cherish the magic.
If you’re still having trouble determining how to rate a particular habit, here is a question I like to use: “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?” Habits that reinforce your desired identity are usually good. Habits that conflict with your desired identity are usually bad.
Environmental Changes Lead to Great Habits
People often choose products not because of what they are, but because of where they are. If I walk into the kitchen and see a plate of cookies on the counter, I’ll pick up half a dozen and start eating, even if I hadn’t been thinking about them beforehand and didn’t necessarily feel hungry.
Most people live in a world others have created for them. But you can alter the spaces where you live and work to increase your exposure to positive cues and reduce your exposure to negative ones. Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your life. Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it.
It helps to escape the subtle triggers and cues that nudge you toward your current habits. Go to a new place—a different coffee shop, a bench in the park, a corner of your room you seldom use—and create a new routine there. It is easier to associate a new habit with a new context than to build a new habit in the face of competing cues.
Create a separate space for work, study, exercise, entertainment, and cooking. The mantra I find useful is “One space, one use.” When I started my career as an entrepreneur, I would often work from my couch or at the kitchen table. In the evenings, I found it very difficult to stop working. There was no clear division between the end of work time and the beginning of personal time. Was the kitchen table my office or the space where I ate meals?
Whenever possible, avoid mixing the context of one habit with another. When you start mixing contexts, you’ll start mixing habits—and the easier ones will usually win out. This is one reason why the versatility of modern technology is both a strength and a weakness. You can use your phone for all sorts of tasks, which makes it a powerful device. But when you can use your phone to do nearly anything, it becomes hard to associate it with one task. You want to be productive, but you’re also conditioned to browse social media, check email, and play video games whenever you open your phone.
To put it bluntly, I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment. A more reliable approach is to cut bad habits off at the source. One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it. If you can’t seem to get any work done, leave your phone in another room for a few hours. If you’re continually feeling like you’re not enough, stop following social media accounts that trigger jealousy and envy. If you’re wasting too much time watching television, move the TV out of the bedroom. If you’re spending too much money on electronics, quit reading reviews of the latest tech gear. If you’re playing too many video games, unplug the console and put it in a closet after each use.
HOW TO CREATE A GOOD HABIT The 1st Law: Make It Obvious. The 2nd Law: Make It Attractive. The 3rd Law: Make It Easy. The 4th Law: Make It Satisfying.
HOW TO BREAK A BAD HABIT Inversion of the 1st Law: Make It Invisible 1.5: Reduce exposure. Remove the cues of your bad habits from your environment. Inversion of the 2nd Law: Make It Unattractive. Inversion of the 3rd Law: Make It Difficult. Inversion of the 4th Law: Make It Unsatisfying
He was also employing temptation bundling to make his exercise habit more attractive. Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do. In Byrne’s case, he bundled watching Netflix (the thing he wanted to do) with riding his stationary bike (the thing he needed to do).
We see Thursday night as a viewership opportunity, with either couples or women by themselves who want to sit down and escape and have fun and drink their red wine and have some popcorn.” The brilliance of this strategy is that ABC was associating the thing they needed viewers to do (watch their shows) with activities their viewers already wanted to do (relax, drink wine, and eat popcorn).
Sometimes motion is useful, but it will never produce an outcome by itself. It doesn’t matter how many times you go talk to the personal trainer, that motion will never get you in shape. Only the action of working out will get the result you’re looking to achieve. If motion doesn’t lead to results, why do we do it? Sometimes we do it because we actually need to plan or learn more. But more often than not, we do it because motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure. Most of us are experts at avoiding criticism. It doesn’t feel good to fail or to be judged publicly, so we tend to avoid situations where that might happen. And that’s the biggest reason why you slip into motion rather than taking action: you want to delay failure.
Whether we are approaching behavior change as an individual, a parent, a coach, or a leader, we should ask ourselves the same question: “How can we design a world where it’s easy to do what’s right?” Redesign your life so the actions that matter most are also the actions that are easiest to do.
You’ll find that nearly any habit can be scaled down into a two-minute version: “Read before bed each night” becomes “Read one page.” “Do thirty minutes of yoga” becomes “Take out my yoga mat.” “Study for class” becomes “Open my notes.” “Fold the laundry” becomes “Fold one pair of socks.” “Run three miles” becomes “Tie my running shoes.” Easy matters.
The secret is to always stay below the point where it feels like work. Greg McKeown, a leadership consultant from the United Kingdom, built a daily journaling habit by specifically writing less than he felt like.
The first three laws of behavior change—make it obvious, make it attractive, and make it easy—increase the odds that a behavior will be performed this time. The fourth law of behavior change—make it satisfying— increases the odds that a behavior will be repeated next time. It completes the habit loop. But there is a trick. We are not looking for just any type of satisfaction. We are looking for immediate satisfaction.
“Don’t break the chain” is a powerful mantra. Don’t break the chain of sales calls and you’ll build a successful book of business. Don’t break the chain of workouts and you’ll get fit faster than you’d expect. Don’t break the chain of creating every day and you will end up with an impressive portfolio. Habit tracking is powerful because it leverages multiple Laws of Behavior Change. It simultaneously makes a behavior obvious, attractive, and satisfying.
You don’t have to build the habits everyone tells you to build. Choose the habit that best suits you, not the one that is most popular.
What feels like fun to me, but work to others? The mark of whether you are made for a task is not whether you love it but whether you can handle the pain of the task easier than most people. When are you enjoying yourself while other people are complaining? The work that hurts you less than it hurts others is the work you were made to do.
When you can’t win by being better, you can win by being different. By combining your skills, you reduce the level of competition, which makes it easier to stand out. You can shortcut the need for a genetic advantage (or for years of practice) by rewriting the rules. A good player works hard to win the game everyone else is playing. A great player creates a new game that favors their strengths and avoids their weaknesses.
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.
Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life. David Cain, an author and meditation teacher, encourages his students to avoid being “fair-weather meditators.” Similarly, you don’t want to be a fair-weather athlete or a fair-weather writer or a fair-weather anything. When a habit is truly important to you, you have to be willing to stick to it in any mood. Professionals take action even when the mood isn’t right. They might not enjoy it, but they find a way to put the reps in.