by James Clear
Atomic Habits is a potentially life-changing book on the power of habits and how to harness them. James Clear exposes many nuggets of truth you know to be true, and organizes them into clear systems that enable you to build up new positive habits, and help break bad ones. As someone with ADHD who relies on good habit for managing life, this may be one of the most important books I've ever read.
Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you're willing to stick with them for years—the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits.
Aggregation of marginal gains
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The effects of habits multiply as you repeat them. Like compound interest, this effect does not seem significant for quite some time.
The slow pace of transformation make it easy to let a habit slide. A single bad decision is easy to dismiss as the negative effects aren't immediately obvious.
Your habits should be putting you on a path for success. You should be most concerned with your trajectory, rather than your results.
What Progress is Really Like
In the early and middle stages of any quest, there is often a Valley of Disappointment. You expect to make progress in a linear fashion and it's frustrating how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months. It doesn't feel like you are going anywhere. It's a hallmark of any compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed.
In order to make a meaningful difference, habits need to persist long enough to break through this plateau—what I call the Plateau of Latent Potential.
Stonecutting: A stonecutter will hammer away at a rock, perhaps a hundred times without showing any progress. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two. It was not that last blow, but all the ones that came before.
Forget About Goals, Focus on Systems
- Winners and losers have the same goals. (every team wants to win the championship, wanting to win is not enough)
- Achieving a goal is only a momentary change.
- Goals restrict your happiness. The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you're continually putting off happiness until the next milestone.
- It is unlikely that your actual path through life will match the exact journey you had in mind when you set out.
- Goals are at odds with long-term progress.
- You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
- An atomic habit is a little habit that is part of a larger system
Atomic habits—tiny habits that comprise of a larger system—are the building blocks of remarkable results.
Three Layers of Behavior Change
- Changing your outcomes. This is about changing your results: losing weight, publishing a book, winning a championship. Most goals you set are associated with outcomes.
- Change your process. This is about changing your habits and systems: new gym routine, decluttering desk for better workflow, developing a meditation practice. Most habits you build are associated with process.
- Change your identity. This is about changing your beliefs: your worldview, your self-image, your judgements about yourself and others. Most beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with identity.
Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.
All 3 layers are useful, but your direction of change is important. Most people focus on desired outcomes, not knowing that their existing identity can sabotage their efforts.
An alternative is to focus on identity-based habits, which will results in growth toward desired process and outcomes.
The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will e to maintain the habits associated with it.
I asked my wife for my first-ever manicure. My thought was that if I started paying attention to my nails, I wouldn't chew them. And it worked, but not for the monetary reason. What happened was the manicure made my fingers look really nice for the first-time. The manicurist even said that—other than the chewing—I had really healthy, attractive nails. Suddenly, I was proud of my fingernails. I've never chewed my nails since.
True Behavior Change is Identity Change
The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become.
- The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader.
- The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner.
- The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician.
Once you have adopted an identity, it can be easy to let your allegiance to it impact your ability to change.
Many people blindly follow norms they've attached to themselves, and accept them as fact. This increases their influence over our behavior, by making bad habits part of our identity.
- Saying "I'm trying to quit [smoking/swearing/chewing nails/etc]" says that you've accepted an identity with behaviors you do not want.
- Instead, say "I not a [smoker/swearer/nail-chewer/etc", which signals a shift in identity.
It can feel comfortable to believe what your culture believe (group identity) or to do what upholds your self-image (personal identity), even if it's wrong. The biggest barrier to positive change at any level—individual, team, society~~—~~is identity conflict.
Process for Identity Change
The more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior. James Clear (author) didn't start out as a writer, he became one through his habits.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
- Each time you write a page, you are a writer.
- Each time you practice the violin, you are a musician.
- Each time you start a workout, you are an athlete.
- Each time you encourage your employees, you are a leader.
The reverse is true: every time you choose to perform a bad habit, it's a vote for that identity.
Two step process for identity change:
- Decide the type of person you want to be. You can begin with desired outcomes and work backward, asking yourself "who is the type of person that could get the outcome I want?"
- Prove it to yourself with small wins. A friend lost over 100 pounds by asking herself, "what would a healthy person do?"
The Science of Habits
The process of habit formation begins with trial and error.
Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.
— Jason Hreha (behavioral scientist)
When habits are created, the level of brain activity decreases: if this, then that.
The four-step process of building a habit:
- Cue - triggers your brain to initiate a behavior.
- Craving - linked to a desire to change your internal state.
- Response - the actual habit you perform (either through thought or action).
- Reward - the end goal of every habit.
A response only occurs if you are sufficiently motivated and there isn't significant friction. If a particular action requires more physical or mental effort than you are willing to expend, then you won't do it.
- The cue is about noticing the reward.
- The craving is about wanting the reward.
- The response is about obtaining the reward.
Purpose of rewards:
- Satisfy your cravings.
- Teach us actions worth remembering.
If a behavior is insufficient in any of the four stages, it will not become a habit.
How to make a good habit (aka The Four Laws of Behavior Change):
- Make it obvious. (cue)
- Make it attractive. (craving)
- Make it easy. (response)
- Make it satisfying. (reward)
How to break a bad habit:
- Make it invisible. (cue)
- Make it unattractive. (craving)
- Make it difficult. (response)
- Make it unsatisfying. (reward)
The ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible.
When you want to change your behavior, 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?"
Over time, the cues that spark our habits become so common that they are essentially invisible. Our responses to these cues are so deeply encoded that it may feel like the urge to act comes from nowhere. Consider hunger: your body has a variety of feedback loops that gradually alert you when it is time to eat again and that track what is going on around you and within you.
Getting a handle on our current habits can be challenging—once a habit is firmly rooted in your life, it is mostly non-conscious and automatic. If a habit remains mindless, you can't expect to improve it.
The Japanese railway system is one of the best in the world. One process they use is pointing-and-calling. It's exactly what it sounds like: as operators proceed through their ritual, they first point at an object and then call out it's meaning. (Point at speedometer, call out the current speed; point at approaching signal, call out "Signal is green"; etc).
Pointing-and-Calling is so effective because it raises the level of awareness from a non-conscious habit to a more conscious level.
James Clear's wife before leaving the house for a trip will point-and-call: "I've got my keys. I've got my wallet. I've got my glasses. I've got my husband."
The Habits Scorecard
We can use a point-and-call system for improving our own lives, making ourselves aware of our unconscious habits. This is called the Habits Scorecard.
To building a Habit Scorecard, create a list of your daily habits. Then look at each habit and determine if it is a good habit ("+"), neutral habit ("="), or bad habit ("-"), marking them with the corresponding character.
Habits Scorecard example ======================== = Wake up = Turn off alarm - Check my phone = Go to the bathroom + Weight myself + Take a shower + Brush my teeth + Floss my teeth + Put on deodorant = Hang up towel to dry = Get dressed + Make a cup of tea
As you create your Habits Scorecard, there is no need to change anything at first. The goal is simply to notice what is actually going on.
The first step to changing bad habits is to be on the lookout for them.
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."
Starting a New Habit
An implementation intention is a place you make beforehand about when and where to act. That is, how you intend to implement a particular habit. The general format is "When situation X arises, I will perform response Y."
People who make a specific plan for when and where they will perform a new habit are more likely to follow through. Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity.
The simplest way to apply the strategy of implementation intention to your habits: write out the sentence:
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
When your dreams are vague, it's easy to rationalize little exceptions all day long and never get around to the specific things you need to do to succeed.
The Diderot Effect: obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption that leads to additional purchases. While this initially sounds like something bad, we can use this effect to our advantage in building new habits.
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 behavior on top. This is call habit stacking.
Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit.
BJ Fogg's habit stacking formula:
After I [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
The habit stack can be used for preparing for another habit as well. If you want to develop the habit of reading more each night. Currently your morning routine looks like Wake up > Make bed > Take shower. You can expand your habit stack with Wake up > Make bed > Place book on pillow > Take a shower. Now when you climb into bed, a book will be sitting there waiting for you to enjoy.
Some Habit Stack examples:
- Social skills. When I walk into a party, I will introduce myself to someone I don't know yet.
- Finances: When I want to buy something over $100, I will wait twenty-four hours before purchasing.
- Healthy eating. When I serve myself a meal, I will always put veggies on my plate first.
- Minimalism. When I buy a new item, I will give something away. ("One in, one out.")
Unlike an implementation intention, which specifically states the time and location for a given behavior, habit stacking implicitly has the time and location built into it.
Create a list of things that happen to you every day without fail. (e.g. the sun rises, you get a text message, the song you are listening to ends, the sun sets). Compare this with your habits from the Habits Scorecard to find opportunities to layer your new habit into your lifestyle.
Habit stacking works best when the cue is highly specific and immediately actionable. Many people select cues that are too vague. I made this mistake myself. When I wanted to start a push-up habit, my habit stack was "when I take a break for lunch, I will do ten push-ups." At first glance, this sounded reasonable. But soon, I realized the trigger was unclear. Would I do my push-ups before I ate lunch? After I ate lunch? Where would I do them? After a few inconsistent days, I changed my habit stack to: "When I close my laptop for lunch, I will do ten push-ups next to my desk." Ambiguity gone.
Design Your Environment for Success
Creating obvious visual cues can draw your attention toward a desired habit.
Stop thinking about your environment as filled with objects. Start thinking about it as filled with relationships. Think in terms of how your interact with the space around you.
Habits can be easier to change in a new environment. 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.
Create a separate space for work, study, exercise, entertainment, and cooking. The mantra I find useful is "One space, one use."
If your space is limited, divide your room into activity zones: a chair for reading, a desk for writing, a table for eating. You can do the same with your digital spaces. I know a writer who uses his computer only for writing, his tablet only for reading, and his phone only for social media and texting. Every habit should have a home.
The Secret to Self-Control
The idea that a little bit of discipline would solve all our problems is deeply embedded in our culture.
Recent research shows that "disciplined people" don't have more self-control, they simply are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.
Cue-induced wanting is when an external trigger causes a compulsive craving to repeat a bad habit. You can break a bad habit, but you are unlikely to forget it. Habits are often permanently etched in our memory.
I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.
Instead we need to cut off bad habits at the source by reducing 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 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.
Rather than make it obvious, you can make it invisible.
Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. 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.
The Dopamine-Driven Feedback Loop
Every behavior that is highly habit-forming—taking drugs, eating junk food, playing video games, browsing social media—is associated with higher levels of dopamine. The same can be said for our most basic habitual behaviors like eating food, drinking water, having sex, and interacting socially.
Dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act. It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action.
Ronan Byrne built a contraption that only let him watch Netflix when riding his stationary bike, using temptation bundling to make his exercise habit more attractive. Temptation bundling links an action we want to do with an action we need to do.
The habit stacking + temptation bundling formula:
1. After I [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED]. 2. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].
If you want to watch sports, but you need to make sales calls:
- After I get back from my lunch break, I will call three potential clients (need).
- After I call three potential clients, I will check ESPN (want).
The hope is that eventually you'll look forward to calling three clients because it means you get to read the latest sports news. Doing the thing you need to do means you get to do the thing you want to do.
The Seductive Pull of Social Norms
Whatever habits are normal in your culture are among the most attractive behaviors you'll find.
We imitate the habits of three groups in particular: the close, the many, and the powerful.
Imitating the close
One study showed that a person's chances of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if he or she had a friend who became obese. Another study showed that if one person in a relationship lost weight, the other partner would also slim down about one third of the time.
One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. New habits seem achievable when you see others doing them every day.
Join a culture where (1) your desired behavior is the normal behavior and (2) you already have something in common with the group.
Imitating the many
The reward of being accepted is often greater than the reward of winning an argument, looking smart, or finding truth. The human mind knows how to get along with others. It wants to get along with others.
Imitating the powerful
Once we fit in, we start looking for ways to stand out.
We try to copy the behavior of successful people because we desire success ourselves.
Reprogramming Your Brain to Enjoy Hard Habits
I'm not confined to my wheelchair—I am liberated by it. If it wasn't for my wheelchair, I would be bed-bound and never able to leave me house.
Every behavior has a surface level craving and a deeper underlying motive.
Reframing your habits to highlight their benefits rather than their drawbacks is a fast and lightweight way to reprogram your mind and make a habit seem more attractive.
- Exercise. Instead of a challenging task that drains energy and wears you down → a way to develop skills and build you up.
- Finance. Instead of saving being associated with sacrifice → living below your current means increases your future means.
- Meditation. Instead of being frustrated by distractions → interruptions are an opportunity to practice returning to your breath.
- Pregame jitters. Instead of "I am nervous" → "I am excited and getting an adrenaline rush to help me concentrate."
Highlight the benefits of avoiding a bad habit to make it seem unattractive.
Habits are attractive when we associate them with positive feelings and unattractive when we associate them with negative feelings. Create a motivation ritual by doing something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit.
Practice over Planning
The more effective form of learning is practice, not planning.
The best is the enemy of the good.
Being in motion vs taking action. When you're in motion, you're planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don't produce a result.
- Motion: I outline twenty ideas for articles I want to write.
- Action: I actually sit down and write an article.
- Motion: I search for a better diet plan and read a few books on the topic.
- Action: I actually eat a healthy meal.
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.
Motion is attractive because it allows us to feel like we're making progress without running the risk of failure. The biggest reason you slip into motion rather than taking action: you want to delay failure.
Motion makes you feel like you're getting things done. But really, you're just preparing to get something done. When preparation becomes a form of procrastination, you need to change something. You don't want to merely be planning. You want to be practicing.
The key to mastering a habit is to start with repetition, not perfect. You don't need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it. You need to get your reps in.
How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit
The more you repeat an activity, the more the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at that activity.
Long-term potentiation: the strengthening of connections between neurons in the brain based on recent patterns of activity.
Neurons that fire together wire together.
— Hebb's Law
All habits follow a similar trajectory from effortful practice to automatic behavior, a process known as automaticity. Automaticity is the ability to perform a behavior without thinking about each step, which occurs when the non-conscious mind takes over.
Make It Easy
Out of all the possible actions we could take, the one that is realized is the one that delivers the most value for the least effort. We are motivated to do what is easy.
You don't actually want the habit itself. What you really want is the outcome the habit delivers. 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, it's crucial to have as many things working in your favor as possible so that you can overcome the challenges life naturally throws your way. The less friction you face, the easier it is for your stronger self to emerge.
How to Achieve More with Less Effort
Addition by subtraction: when we remove the points of friction that sap our time and energy, we can achieve more with less effort.
Business is a never-ending quest to deliver the same result in an easier fashion.
Priming Your Environment for Future Use
We will naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work. Create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.
Reduce the friction associated with good behaviors. When friction is low, habits are easy.
- Want to cook a healthy breakfast? Place the skillet on the stove, set the cooking spray on the counter, and lay out any plates and utensils you'll need the night before.
- Want to draw more? Put your pencils, pens, notebooks, and drawing tools on top of your desk, within easy reach.
- Want to exercise? Set out your workout clothes, shoes, gym bag, and water bottle ahead of time.
- Want to improve your diet? Chop up a ton of fruits and vegetables on weekends and pack them in containers, so you have easy access to healthy ready-to-eat options during the week.
Increase the friction associated with bad behaviors. When friction is high, habits are difficult.
- Watching too much television? Unplug it after each use. Only plug it back in if you can say out loud the name of the show you want to watch.
How can we design a world where it's easy to do what's right?
Habits Set the Trajectory
Researchers estimate that 40 to 50 percent of our actions on any given day are done out of habit. This is already a substantial percentage, but the true influence of your habits is even greater than these numbers suggest.
The ritual is not the stretching and the weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.
It's a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it—makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.
— Twyla Tharp
If I change clothes, I know the workout will happen. Everything that follows—driving to the gym, deciding which exercises to do, stepping under the bar—is easy once I've taken the first step.
Every day has a handful of moments that deliver an outsized impact. These decisive moments are forks in the road that set the options available for your future self. Mastering these moments sets up the trajectory for how you spend the next chunk of time.
Habits are the entry point of decisive moments, not the end point.
When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.
Any habit can be scaled down to a two-minute version.
- Read before bed → Read one page
- Do thirty minutes of yoga → Take out my yoga mat
- study for class → Open my notes
- Fold the laundry → Fold one pair of socks
- Run three miles → Tie my running shoes
Anyone can meditate for one minute, read one page, or put one item of clothing away. A new habit should not feel like a challenge.
The point is not to do one thing. The point is to master the habit of showing up. The truth is, a habit must be established before it can be improved.
Someone used this strategy to lose over one hundred points. In the beginning, he went to the gym each day, but he told himself he wasn't allowed to stay for more than five minutes. He would go to the gym, exercise for five minutes, and leave as soon as his time was up. After a few weeks, he looked around and thought, "well, I'm always coming her anyway. I might as ell start staying a little longer." A few years later, the weight was gone.
Nearly everyone can benefit from getting their thoughts out of their head and onto paper, but most people give up after a few days or avoid it entirely because journaling feels like a chore. The secret is to always stay below the point where it feels like work.
The best way is to always stop when you are going good.
— Ernest Hemingway
When you've established a two-minute habit, you can use habit shaping to scale your habit up towards your ultimate goal.
Habit shaping phases to start exercising regularly:
- Change into workout clothes.
- Step out the door (try taking a walk).
- Drive to the gym, exercise for five minutes, and leave.
- Exercise for fifteen minutes at least once per week.
- Exercise three times per week.
Standardize before you optimize. You can't improve a habit that doesn't exist.
Commitment devices enable you to take advantage of good intentions before you can fall victim to temptation. Whenever looking to cut calories, I will ask the waiter to split my meal and box half of it to go before the meal is served. If I waited until the meal came out and told myself "I'll just easy half," it would never work.
Commitment devices increase the odds that you'll do the right thing in the future by making bad habits difficult in the present.
I'm fascinated by the idea that a single choice can deliver returns again and again.
When working in your favor, automation can make your good habits inevitable and your bad habits impossible. It is the ultimate way to lock in future behavior rather than relying on willpower in the moment.
Onetime actions that lock in good habits:
- Use smaller plates to reduce caloric intake.
- Remove your television from your bedroom.
- Unsubscribe from emails.
- Turn off notifications and mute group chats.
- Set your phone to silent.
- Buy good shoes to avoid back pain.
- Buy a supportive chair or standing desk.
- Enroll in an automatic savings plan.
- Set up automatic bill pay.
- Cut cable service.
Make It Satisfying
It is a lot easier for people to adopt a product that provides a strong positive sensory signal, for example the mint taste of toothpaste, than it is to adopt a habit that does not provide pleasurable sensory feedback, like flossing one's teeth.
— Stephen Luby
We are more likely to repeat a behavior when the experience is satisfying. Pleasure teaches your brain that a behavior is worth remembering and repeating.
Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change:
- What is rewarded is repeated.
- What is punished is avoided.
Positive emotions cultivate habits. Negative emotions destroy them.
The first three laws of behavior change—make it obvious, make it attractive, 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.
The trick is, we are not looking for just any type of satisfaction. We are looking for immediate satisfaction.
Immediate vs Delayed Rewards
The brain's tendency to prioritize the present moment means you can't rely on good intentions. When you make a place, you are actually making plans for your future self.
We all want long-term benefits for improving the lives of our future selves, but when the moment of decision arrives, instant gratification usually wins.
Updated Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change:
- What is immediately rewarded is repeated.
- What is immediately punished is avoided.
It can be challenging to stick with habits like "no frivolous purchases" or "no alcohol this month" because nothing happens when you skip happy hour drinks or don't buy that pair of shoes.
One solution is to turn the situation on its head. You want to make avoidance visible.
- Open a savings account and label it something you want—maybe "Leather Jacket"
- Whenever you pass on a purchase, put the same amount of money in the account.
- Skip your morning latte? Transfer $5.
- Pass on another month of Netflix? Move $10 over.
It is worth nothing that it is important to select short-term rewards that reinforce your identity rather than ones that conflict with it. If your reward for exercising is easting a bowl of ice cream, then you're casting votes for conflicting identities, and it ends up being a wash.
To get a habit to stick you need to feel immediately successful—even if it's in a small way.
Tracking Your Habits
Trent Dyrsmid began each morning with two jars on his desk. One was filled with 120 paper clips. The other was empty. As soon as he settled in each day, he would make a sales call. Immediately after, he would move one paper clip from the full jar to the empty jar and the process would begin again. "Every morning I would start with 120 paper clips in one jar and I would keep dialing the phone until I had moved them all to the second jar."
Why track your habits:
- Habit tracking is obvious. Recording your last action creates a trigger that can initiate your next one. When you look at the calendar and see your streak, you'll be reminded to act again.
People that kept a daily food log lost twice as much weight as those who did not. The mere act of tracking a behavior can spark the urge to change it.
- Habit tracking is attractive. The most effective form of motivation is progress. When we get a signal that we are moving forward, we become more motivated to continue down that path.
- Habit tracking is satisfying. Tracking can become its own form of reward. It is satisfying to cross an item off your to-do list, to complete an entry in your workout log, or or mark an X on the calendar.
Don't break the chain. Try to keep your habit streak alive.
Whenever possible, measurement should be automated. Once you know where to get the data, add a note to your calendar to review it each week or each month, which is more practical than tracking it every day.
It is better to consistently track one habit than to sporadically track ten.
The habit stacking + habit tracking formula:
After I [CURRENT HABIT], I will [TRACK MY HABIT].
- After I hang up the phone from a sales call, I will move one paper clip over.
- After I finish each set at the gym, I will record it in my workout journal.
- After I put my plate in the dishwasher, I will write down what I ate.
How To Recover Quickly When Your Habits Break Down
Never miss twice.
If I miss one day, I try to get back into it as quickly as possible. Missing one workout happens, but I am not going to miss two in a row. I can't be perfect, but I can avoid a second lapse. As soon as one streak ends, I get started on the next one.
Winners vs losers. Anyone can have a bad performance, a bad workout, a bad day at work. But when successful people fail, they rebound quickly. The breaking of a habit doesn't matter if the reclaiming of it is fast.
Too often, we fall into an all-or-nothing cycle with our habits. The problem is not slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can't do something perfectly, than you shouldn't do it at all.
Going to the gym for five minutes may not improve your performance, but it reaffirms your identity.
We repeat bad habits because they serve us in some way, and that makes them hard to abandon. We need to make it immediately unsatisfying. The more immediate the pain, the less likely the behavior.
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.
An accountability partner can create an immediate cost to inaction. We care deeply about what others think of us, and we do not want others to have a lesser opinion of us.
How To Create a Good Habit
- Make It Obvious
- Fill out the Habits Scorecard. Write down your current habits to become aware of them.
- Use implementation intentions:
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME} in [LOCATION].
- Use habit stacking:
After I [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
- Design your environment. Make the cues of good habits obvious and visible.
- Make It Attractive
- Use temptation bundling. Pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do.
- Join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.
- Create a motivation ritual. Do something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit.
- Make It Easy
- Reduce friction. Decrease the number of steps between you and your good habits.
- Prime the environment. Prepare your environment to make future actions easier.
- Master the decisive moment. Optimize the small choices that deliver outsized impact.
- Use the Two-Minute Rule. Downscale your habits until they can be done in two minutes or less.
- Automate your habits. Invest in technology and onetime purchases that lock in future behavior.
- Make It Satisfying
- Use reinforcement. Give yourself an immediate reward when you complete your habit.
- Make "doing nothing" enjoyable. When avoiding a bad habit, design a way to see the benefits.
- Use a habit tracker. Keep track of your habit streak and "don't break the chain."
- Never miss twice. When you forget to do a habit, make sure you get back on track immediately.
How To Break a Bad Habit
- Make It Invisible
- Reduce exposure. Remove the cues of your bad habits from your environment.
- Make It Unattractive
- Reframe your mindset. Highlight the benefits of avoiding your bad habits.
- Make It Difficult
- Increase friction. Increase the number of steps between you and your bad habits.
- Use a commitment device. Restrict your future choices to the ones that benefit you.
- Make It Unsatisfying
- Get an accountability partner. Ask someone to watch your behavior.
- Create a habit contract. Make the costs of your bad habits public and painful.
Aligning Your Habits with Your Talents
The secret to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition. Habits are easier to perform, and more satisfying to stick with, when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities.
The "Big Five" spectrums of personality:
- Openness to experience: from curious to 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 (aka extroverts vs. introverts).
- Agreeableness: friendly and compassionate to challenging and detached.
- Neuroticism: anxious and sensitive to confident, calm, and stable.
If scientists play a loud noise in the nursing ward, some babies turn toward it while others turn away. When the researchers tracked these children through life, they found that the babies who turned toward the noise were more likely to grow up to be extroverts. Those who turned away were more likely to become introverts.
There is a version of every habit that can bring you joy and satisfaction. Find it. Habits need to be enjoyable if they are going to stick.
Find Satisfying Habits That Better Suit You
- What feels like fun to me, but work to others? 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.
- What makes me lose track of time? Flow is the mental state you enter when you are so focused on the task at hand that the rest of the world fades away.
- Where do I get greater returns than the average person?
- What comes naturally to me? What feels natural to me? When have I felt alive? When have I felt like the real me? Whenever you feel authentic and genuine, you are headed in the right direction.
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 for you to stand out.
The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation whenw orking on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.
- Too easy → boredom
- Just right → peak motivation
- Too hard → failure
At some point [the difference between the best athletes and everyone else] comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.
Really successful people feel the same lack of motivation as everyone else. The difference is that they still find a way to show up despite the feelings of boredom.
The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom.
Men desire novelty to such an extent that those who are doing well wish for a change as much as those who are doing badly.
— Niccolò Machiavelli
The most habit-forming products are those that use continuous forms of novelty, a variable reward. This variance leads to the greatest spike of dopamine, enhances memory recall, and accelerates habit formation.
It doesn't matter what you are trying to become better at, if you only do the work when it's convenient or exciting, than you'll never be consistent enough to achieve remarkable results.
Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way.
- There have been a lot of sets I didn't feel like finishing, but I've never regretted doing the workout.
- There have been a lot of articles I haven't felt like writing, but I've never regretted publishing on schedule.
The only way to be excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.
How to Review Your Habits and Make Adjustments
Los Angeles Lakers head coach Pat Riley used a system called Career Best Effort (CBE) to track players performance against their potential.
As an example, let's say that Magic Johnson—the Lakers start player at the time—had 11 points, 8 rebounds, 12 assists, 2 steals, and 5 turnovers in a game. Magic also got credit for an "unsung hero" deed by diving after a loose ball (+1). Finally, he played a total of 33 minutes in this imaginary game.
The positive numbers (11 + 8 + 12 + 2 + 1) add up to 34. Then we subtract the 5 turnovers (34-5) to get 29. Finally, we divide 29 by 33 minutes played.
29 / 33 = 0.879 CBE: 879
Riley asked players to improve their CBE numbers by 1 percent over the season. This wasn't a perfect formula, but it was so simple that it was easy to score and track and provide a single number that gave an overall score to a player's performance (and improvement).
Reflection and review enables long-term improvement of all habits because it makes you aware of your mistakes and helps you consider possible paths for improvement.
Improvement is not just about learning habits, it's also about fine-tuning them.
Each December, I perform an Annual Review, in which I reflect on the previous year. I tally my habits for the year by counting up how many articles I published, how many workouts I out in, how many new places I visited, and more.
Annual Review questions:
- What went well this year?
- What didn't go so well this year?
- What did I learn?
When summer rolls around, I conduct an Integrity Report. This helps me realize where I want 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.
Integrity Report 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?
Never reviewing your habits is like never looking in the mirror. You aren't aware of easily fixable flaws—a spot on your shirt, a bit of food in your teeth. There is too little feedback.
Reflection and review offers an ideal time to revisit one of the most important aspects of behavior change: identity. The tighter we cling to a single identity, the harder it becomes to grow beyond it. The more you let a single belief define you, the less capable you are of adapting when life challenges you.
Additional Lessons from the Four Laws (Cue, Craving, Response, Reward)
- Awareness comes from desire.
- Happiness is simply the absence of desire.
- It is the idea of pleasure that we chase.
- Peace occurs when you don't turn your observations into problems.
- With a big enough why you can overcome any how.
- "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how." — Friedrich Nietzsche
- Being curious is better than being smart.
- Emotions drive behavior.
- We can only be rational and logical after we have been emotional.
- Your response tends to follow your emotions.
- Suffering drives progress.
- Your actions reveal how badly you want something.
- Reward is on the other side of sacrifice.
- Self-control is difficult because it is not satisfying.
- Our expectations determine our satisfaction.
- "Being poor is not having too little, it is wanting more." — Seneca
- The pain of failure correlates to the height of expectation.
- Feelings come both before and after the behavior.
- Cue → Craving (feeling) → Response → Reward (feeling)
- Desire initiates. Pleasure sustains.
- Hope declines with experience and is replaced by acceptance.