This article delves deeper into a book titled ‘Atomic habits.’ This book, written by James Clear, discusses how to learn good practices and unlearn bad ones. It doesn’t matter how well you are doing at the moment. What does matter is whether your habits are leading you towards (more) success
Habits are a subject close to my heart. I read several books about it. I discussed one of them in “How to Create Any Habit You Want With BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habit Method.” But now, it is my turn to cover “Atomic Habits.” This book was released earlier than the aforementioned Tiny Habits. But both are worth reading.
The #1 New York Times bestseller. Over 2 million copies sold!
Atomic Habits will reshape the way you think about progress and success. It will give you the tools and strategies you need to transform your habits. Whether you are a team looking to win a championship, an organization hoping to redefine an industry, or merely an individual who wishes to quit smoking, lose weight, reduce stress, or achieve any other goal.
We all strive for better lives. It is an inherent characteristic of human nature to cherish desires and wishes. We want to become our own boss, master a foreign language, or spend more time with family.
At the same time, we struggle to realize our dreams. We often start new projects and then fall back into old patterns. Then we conclude that changing our behavior turns out to be damn difficult.
Atomic habits nudge you in the right direction. It provides you with an evidence-based framework that helps you build the habits you want.
The writer believes you can achieve remarkable results through tiny changes. He offers his readers a straightforward four-step program to do so.
What is so fascinating about atomic habits.
After only 20 minutes of a single-day workout, you won’t notice any difference in your waistline. But if you keep that up for every morning during an entire summer, you will. You might even end up with an impressive six-pack.
Eating that single pizza will not make you unhealthy or fat. But devouring pizza every day, for a prolonged time, will have a substantial adverse effect. The reason behind this is that repetitive actions lead to impressive outcomes.
Or in other words, habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
So small changes often appear to make no difference. They usually don’t until they reach a critical threshold. The power of atomic habits lies in the fact that small and easy-to-do practices have incredible power once they get to a critical point. The author uses the analogy of compounded growth. A small routine can yield results through ceaseless repetitions. Just as atoms are the building blocks from which everything around us is built, atomic habits are the building blocks of striking results.
How do you realize lasting behavioral change?
Coaches and self-help literature tell time and again to set specific goals. James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, thinks it’s smarter to focus on the systems you have in place to reach your goals.
There is nothing wrong with setting goals. After all, a target is essential to determine the direction you want to head in. But targets also have a temporary and interchangeable character. Every olympian wants a gold medal, and every applicant goes for that exciting job. Winners and losers share the same goal. Goals in themselves do not turn out to be the determining factor for success. You need a system in place.
The best approach to improve your systems is by working on your routines. No less than 40% of our daily actions consist of more or less automatic behavior, i.e., habits. You can think of habits as the invisible fundament of your life.
Won’t working with habits be dull?
Aren’t habits lethal to creativity? Don’t they add to the rut?
Make no mistake. Thanks to a healthy routine, more cognitive space is freed up. Meaningful habits save time and develop speed in repetitive tasks. Thanks to the right habits, you will finally get things done that bring the life and skills you dream of within reach.
Make the subconscious conscious.
So it is worthwhile to analyze how your autopilot operates. By definition, we are not always aware of our ingrained patterns. So this is not an easy task. Often our shortcomings can be traced back to a lack of self-awareness.
But, once you have mapped out your patterns, the question is which habits you desire and which ones you resist. Dividing habits into good or bad is not always straightforward. After all, habits always solve a problem that repeatedly arises—even bad habits. After work, you can relieve stress by playing a game, walking around, or complaining against your partner. These different strategies will all have a stress-reducing effect.
How do you determine what is desirable?
These questions can be useful:
- Is this habit helping me in the long run?
- Is this habit helping me to become the person I want to be?
The anatomy of a habit
Now that we know which patterns we want to pursue and which we better give up, we can call upon Atomic Habits. Here James Clear describes an evidence-based method to become a master of your habits. Clear starts with the ‘anatomy’ of a habit.
You can divide each habit into 4 phases
- context (you wake up and get out of bed)
- longing (you think, unconsciously or not, of coffee)
- action (you drink a cup of coffee)
- reward (you experience the energetic effect of caffeine)
Clear links 4 ‘laws’ of behavioral change to these phases.
Law 1: make it obvious (context)
Law 2: make it attractive (longing)
Law 3: make it easy (act)
Law 4: make it satisfactory (reward)
Law 1: Make It Obvious.
Motivation is often seen as the decisive driver of behavior. Although motivation is relevant, your environment exerts more influence. The environment is the invisible hand that drives our behavior.
In an environment that remains unchanged, you don’t easily change your behavior. If you want to pick up new habits faster, then strategically design your environment in the desired behavior function. Healthier food? Place the vegetables at eye level in the refrigerator and not hidden at the bottom. Scroll through your phone less often? Put your phone in another room. These are simple solutions with striking results.
When you want to get rid of a habit, you can turn this law around: make the things you want to get rid of invisible instead of conspicuous.
During the Vietnam War, a remarkable number of American soldiers became addicted to heroin on the spot. The stuff was easy to get there and came in handy to combat the stress and boredom. Once back in the U.S., the majority of them quickly and easily got clean again. Yet, heroin has a reputation for being extremely addictive. However, it was easier for the soldiers to kick off because they didn’t have to compete against an old context. The ‘cues’ that triggered them to use heroin in Vietnam were gone.
Another effective strategy to make habits more conspicuous is habit stacking or habit clustering. Here you link the desired habit to an existing habit. Do you want to start with meditation? Meditate for 5 minutes before your daily cup of coffee. As soon as you have mastered this new structure, you can add other habits to it.
Let’s say you want to learn to play guitar:
- Leave the guitar in the middle of your room.
Suppose you want to eat healthy food.
- Leave a salad on your counter, and keep snacks way back in the drawers, because sometimes, all you need is a little nudge in the right direction.
Law 2: Make It Attractive.
The second phase in the habit-process is desire. The neurotransmitter dopamine plays a crucial role in the creation of desire. It’s the main chemical needed to feel pleasure. During an experiment, scientists blocked the dopamine supply in some rats. The animals died after a few days because their will to reproduce, eat or drink disappeared completely.
The rats just gave up.
Just like these rats in this experiment, we want to do certain things. After all, they offer a reward because they are enjoyable. If we don’t find pleasure in experiences, then what’s the point in living. Without dopamine, these lab rats felt the same as, for instance, severely depressed people do.
Another exciting aspect of dopamine is that even when you merely think about a pleasurable activity, it will be released. You don’t have to do actually do it. For instance, fantasizing about sex can result in the same physical pleasure. It is the dopamine that drives you to do things because it makes you look forward to that.
If we want to fix a habit, we have to make it attractive. The desire for a reward will cause dopamine to be released, and we begin to act. This involves linking a behavior you want to establish to an existing habit. For example, you can plan 5 minutes of yoga before drinking your daily coffee. Or you can force yourself to do 20 push-ups for every Netflix series you watch. Hack an exercise bike so that it allows you to watch Netflix only after cycling at a certain speed.
If you don’t want to do the dishes, play your favorite music while doing them for a few months, and then one day, you’ll find you want to do them.
The dominant role of your social environment
Most of our evolutionary history was tribal. Wanting to hear about it is rooted in our human needs. We are only too happy to conform to a group. Even if we claim the opposite, we imitate our loved ones, the masses, and individuals who inspire us. And that feels good.
The research itself has shown that we are more likely to agree with a large group of people, even if their views go against what our senses tell us. So we would rather be wrong together than right on our own. The culture in which we live determines to a large extent which habits we find attractive.
You can make good use of this. Look for the company of a group that appreciates the behavior you want to exhibit. If you want to become a musician, mingle with people who like to play well. They will stimulate your progress. If you’re going to live a healthier life, look for connections with people who think health is important.
Law 3: Make It Easy.
Energy is precious. Human nature, therefore, always tends towards the path of least resistance. The less friction there is, the easier behavior will be. Scrolling through your phone, for example, requires little energy. And it is a lot easier than preparing for an exam or learning a new language. That is why we do it so often. Our brain strives for cognitive comfort.
Your brain is not designed to tire itself needlessly. It would do anything to get a reward through minimum effort.
Habits are easy to maintain when you integrate them into the flow of your life. It’s best to choose a gym on the way to work. And try not to concentrate on a smartphone full of distractions nearby.
Create an environment where habits take less effort.
Have you ever noticed that you train more easily when your sports clothes are ready in the morning? Well, that’s that.
This principle also works the other way around. Habits you prefer to get rid of can make you more difficult. Having no chocolate in the house often works best to eat less chocolate. Think also of gambling addicts who volunteer to be put on the blacklist of casinos.
People often fail because they immediately set the bar too high. They want to start walking, and during the first training, they immediately go for a challenging hill training of 10 kilometers. They are followers of the all-or-nothing mentality. They walk dutifully for a few months three times a week, miss one week of training, and then pull the plug on their running project. They hold the irrational view that their condition is completely destroyed by that missed week.
You have to start with a habit before you can optimize them.
Here is a handy tip to launch into a new habit:
- Start with a 2-minute version.
Suppose you want to start walking or writing.
- Start with 2 minutes a day.
Anyone can walk for 2 minutes or read 1 page from a book. This mental trick may seem pointless, but it is powerful because it confirms the identity you want to install, and identity is the underlying driver of behavioral change. Behavior that does not match your self-image will be challenging to sustain.
In other words, make the actions that lead to the desire to reward as easily as possible and do the opposite if you want to drop a bad one. Increase the friction between cue and reward. If you watch TV a lot, then unplug the television and take the batteries out of the remote.
Law 4: Make It Satisfying.
This is the most challenging part of creating a good habit or breaking a bad one. Evolution works against you when rewards are in question.
Usually, a lack of knowledge is not the problem. Everyone knows that too much sugar, alcohol, and smoking are unhealthy in the long run. However, we are inclined, almost doomed, to repeat an action if we like the experience.
The core rule of behavioral change reads:
What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided.
Since its existence, man has sought immediate gratification: food, sex, a hiding place. Our “hardware” is no different from that of our paleolithic ancestors, with the result that our brain values the present more than the future. Our ancestors couldn’t care less about any long-term plans, because they had much more immediate concerns, like finding a shelter for the night or hunting for the next meal.
That’s why we still smoke, overeat, and have unsafe sex. It is also the reason why you cannot rely on your good intentions. After all, you make plans for your future self, and that rarely works.
Nowadays, valuable rewards are handed out to those who manage to postpone satisfaction and don’t run after quick hits all the time. In a modern context, we see a striking mismatch between fast and slow rewards. The quicker the rewards (smoking, sugar, drinking), the more damaging the long-term effects. The good news is that you can train yourself to fight this factory error, but you must take your human nature into account. You will need to link a little instant gratification to the habits that reward you in the long run. Suppose you don’t want to drink alcohol for a month; set aside 10 dollars for every drink you turn down. At the end of the month, treat yourself to a little city break.
Visual progress and failure
Videogames are masterful at handing out visual rewards. They throw medals and badges on reaching the next level. It works satisfactorily when progress is visually represented. To strengthen your habits, the same principles work. For example, Mark them on a list when you finished them. In addition, listen to Jerry Seinfeld’s advice, ‘Don’t break the chain.’ Write at least one sentence every day, and do not break the chain! Or challenge yourself to a running streak: walk every day (even if it’s only 1.500m) and visually keep track of how long you can keep it up.
Even if you are a master of a habit, sooner or later, you will fail because of, say, an illness or a trip. No worries. Perfection is impossible. Remember the following rule: Never miss twice in a row. Missing once is an accident; missing twice is the start of a new habit. Think about how valuable it is to stand there when everything goes wrong. It’s raining; you’ve had a busy day, you feel some muscle pain, and yet you go for a walk.
Master of habits
Transformation never happens in the blink of an eye. Mastery requires practice and consistency.
Good habits are the central nervous system of your transformation process.
Are you looking for a method to focus on your routine, then the book Atomic habits is the perfect starting point. The author James Clear knows his stuff. You can browse through clear and well-founded articles about habits, behavioral change, and motivation on his website. His book Atomic Habits is an extension of his site. I recommended it highly!