Imagine you’re in IKEA. There’s the winding main road that everyone takes. But you know exactly where you want to go and you want to get there fast. So you take a shortcut and you’re there in no time. You saved time—and gained a nice feeling of superiority for using your brain rather than taking the obvious winding way.
Habits are the shortcuts for our productivity. They help us work smarter and not harder. And in my quest for ever-improved habit-building no book has made a bigger impression than James Clear’s “Atomic Habits”. And it will come as no surprise that the first draft of this post featured 12 pages of notes. Wooh!
So get ready – this will be a long one. But each point Clear makes is definitely worth your time!
If you want a quick primer on the topic, you can watch this short intro by James Clear himself:
The power of habits
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Success is the product of daily habits – not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.
Let’s quickly set the stage and explain why habits are worth the effort anyway. After all, they are small, right? Wrong, says Clear: “They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous.”
This concept is known as “the aggregation of marginal gains”. According to it, we need to search for a tiny margin of improvement in everything we do, because our success lies in gradual improvement, not in once-in-a-lifetime transformations.
How your habits shape your identity
Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits. True behavior change is identity change.
The true power of habits is that in time they meld into the background and become an integral part of your identity. Go to the gym three times a week long enough and then it’s not a question of whether you like it or not but just something you do because you’re a gym rat. The habit of going to the gym has given way to the identity of a fitness lover.
When your behavior and your identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behavior change. You’re simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be.
So we can think of habits and identity as a self-reinforcing loop. The more we work on the habit, the stronger the identity becomes—and the more automatic the habit is. “Of course, your habits are not the only actions that influence your identity,” Clear says, “but by virtue of their frequency they are usually the most important ones.”
So is it as easy as this? You just decide the type of person you want to be and then prove it with the right habit? Of course not—otherwise we’d all be successful without much effort.
Why is habit building so hard—and what can we do about it?
Habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance.
One of the core reasons why it is so hard to build habits is the hope that you will see results quickly. But you need to understand that tangible results are a long way away. The only thing that matters is whether you’re putting yourself on the path to success—not where you are now.
Clear rightly names this “the Valley of Disappointment” – the period when you’re still working hard at building habits with little results to show for that effort.
When you finally break through the Plateau of Latent Potential people will call it an overnight success. The outside world only sees the most dramatic event rather than all that preceded it. But you know that it’s the work you did long ago – when it seemed that you weren’t making any progress – that makes the jump today possible.
To get through the Valley, we need to find ways in which our new habits can be sustained until we reach the Plateau.
The habit building process
In his wonderfully simple and concise way, Clear splits the process of building a habit into a repeatable four-step flow:
- Cue: it triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. It is a bit of information that predicts a reward.
- Craving: the motivational force behind every habit. What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers. Every craving is linked to a desire to change your internal state.
- Response: the actual habit you perform, which can be a thought or an action. The response depends on your motivation’s strength and the amount of friction associated with completing it.
- Reward: the end goal of every habit. They satisfy your craving and teach us which actions are worth remembering in the future.
In summary, the cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop…
And if we know the steps we go through to form a habit, then we can influence the process.
The four laws of behavior change
Clear takes the habit-building process and explains that each step can be influenced in a different way. He states one law for each step:
- The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
- The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
- The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
- The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.
We can invert these laws to learn how to break a bad habit:
- Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible.
- Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive.
- Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult.
- Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.
We then dive deeper into each law and define different techniques that will help.
Make the cue obvious
This law covers all the ways in which we can remind ourselves about our habits—to strengthen the good ones and stop the bad ones.
Start with awareness
You need to be aware of your habits before you can change them.
We do so much every day that sometimes we forget why we do the same things over and over. To break the chain of bad habits and promote the good ones, we need to build an inventory of our actions—The Habit Scorecard:
- make a list of your daily habits, starting from the beginning of your day;
- once you have a full list, look at each behavior, and ask yourself, “Is this a good habit, a bad habit, or a neutral habit?”
When you know what habits you have, you can start improving them.
Set implementation intentions
Being specific about what you want and how you will achieve it helps you say no to things that derail progress, distract your attention, and pull you off course.
Research shows that people who are deliberate about their habits stick with them longer. Creating an implementation intention is a strategy you can use to pair a new habit with a specific time and location. It’s as simple as writing:
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
Stack your habits
You often decide what to do next based on what you have just finished doing.
One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify something you already do each day and then tie your new behavior to it. This is called habit stacking:
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
Clear says that habit stacking ideally requires a cue that is “highly specific and immediately actionable”. The more easily you can identify your cue, the better the odds are that you will notice it and act upon it.
Pair different context to different habits
Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your life.
“We mentally assign our habits to the locations in which they occur,” says Clear. So we usually link locations with specific routines—that’s why it’s so hard to work on your dinner table or take a rest while you’re still in front of your office desk.
This means that if you want to build a new habit, you should choose a new context for it. And you should also avoid using a context that’s already associated with an existing habit. “When you start mixing contexts, you’ll start mixing habits – and the easier ones will usually win out.”
Reduce exposure for bad habits
Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.
If having a clear cue is the way to start a new habit, then “hiding” a cue is a good way to eliminate existing bad habits.
Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. If cookies are right there on the table, you’ll probably take one or three. But if they are put away in a cupboard—or even better, still on the shelf of the supermarket—you’re unlikely to binge on them.
So people who look disciplined are just better at editing out the cues for bad habits out of their lives.
Ignite craving by making habits attractive
If you want to increase the odds that a behavior will occur, then you need to make it attractive.
It’s not enough to make the cue for your new habit obvious—you also need to make it interesting enough for your system to push you into motion.
“Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act,” Clear explains. This is known as a dopamine loop. It’s not the actual reward that drives you to act, but the anticipation of the reward.
So your goal is to make the habit as pleasant as possible in order to get things going.
Link the new habit to something satisfying
Psychology professor David Premack stated that “more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.” So the easiest way to make a new habit attractive is to link it to something you already want to do. Clear calls this principle temptation bundling. It looks like this:
After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].
So if you find your time on the treadmill boring, then watching your favorite series while running is likely to help make the habit stick.
You can also create a motivation ritual by doing something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit to get it to stick.
Join a culture that reinforces good habits
There’s so much we do without thinking or questioning, just because others are doing it. Behaviors are attractive when they help us fit in. There are three groups whose behavior we usually try to emulate:
- Our close ones: the closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to imitate some of their habits. So you should aim to surround yourself with ambitious people who pull you forward.
- The majority: “When changing your habits means challenging the tribe, change is unattractive. When changing your habits means fitting in with the tribe, change is very attractive.”
- Powerful and successful people: we copy the behaviors of successful people because they are likely to earn us respect, approval, admiration, and status.
Find and fix the causes of bad habits
A craving is the sense that something is missing. It is the desire to change your internal state.
Everything we do is induced by a surface level craving, but there’s a deeper, underlying motive, too. The desire we feel is the difference between our current state and where we want to be in the future. So in order to cut bad habits from your life find the desire and try to highlight the benefits of avoiding the behavior to make it seem unattractive.
Highlight the benefits of avoiding a bad habit to make it seem unattractive.
Make the response easy
When you’re at the stage of acting in the habit-building process, you really need to make the action as easy as possible.
Don’t confuse motion with action
The first step in inciting action is to understand what action really means. We often think that planning, researching, or strategizing are actions, but they are not. They don’t produce a result. Action is the type of behavior that will deliver an outcome.
Why do we need this distinction? Because “motion” becomes a form of procrastination. So focus on taking action, not being in motion.
Automaticity is the ability to perform a behavior without thinking about each step, which occurs when the nonconscious mind takes over.
Think of the number of steps you need to take to get to the gym. You need to get off the sofa, prepare your workout bag, change in your workout clothes… What if you have all of this ready to go when you wake up? There are fewer actions to take—and fewer moments to think “Do I really want to do this or not?”
Design your environment to make good habits easy
If you can make your good habits more convenient, you’ll be more likely to follow through on them. Make it as easy as possible in the moment to do things that payoff in the long run.
We already mentioned environment design in the sense that we link action and location. Here we’re talking about optimizing the environment to make the right actions easier. Eat more fruit by putting washed apples in a bowl on your dining table. As Clear says, “Redesign your life so the actions that matter most are also the actions that are easiest to do.”
Optimize the small choices
By definition, habits are small actions that can be completed in a few seconds. But the thing that makes them important is that they occur at decisive moments that either send you in the direction of a productive day or an unproductive one.
We often think that a day is either good or bad. But the reality is it’s a succession of small steps that impact your behavior for minutes or hours afterward. And these are the things you need to optimize.
Downscale big habits
The secret for building a habit is to “always stay below the point where it feels like work.” Clear dubs it the Two-Minute Rule: new habits should take less than two minutes to do.
Make good habits inevitable with a commitment device
Sometimes success is less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard. […] When working in your favor, automation can make your good habits inevitable and your bad habits impossible.
A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future. It can be a technological device you set up (like muting notifications on your phone) or a one-time choice (like buying a better mattress or enrolling in an automatic savings plan). In any case, the end goal is to automate your future habits and deliver increased returns over time.
Use rewards to make the habit satisfying
It all comes down to satisfaction. Pleasure teaches us that certain behavior is worth remembering and repeating. So the more successful you are at making the experience satisfying, the more likely you are to stick to a habit.
Create immediate rewards for reinforcement
What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided.
Our brains are fickle things. We’ve been trained by thousands of years of evolution to make sure we survive in the current moment. So we value the present more than the future. And to get a habit to stick you need to start with an immediate reward. It helps maintain motivation in the short term while you’re waiting for the long-term rewards to arrive.
Use a habit tracker
The reward from the previous step can be as small as the feeling of satisfaction you get from drawing a checkmark in your notebook. Visual measures provide clear evidence of your progress—they are obvious, attractive, and satisfying.
The first step is to start tracking. The second is to make it meaningful:
- Try to keep your habit streak alive—don’t break the chain.
- If you do miss once, make sure you don’t miss twice. Try to get back on track as quickly as possible.
This breeds consistency. “The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows,” Clear says and continues: “Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”
Get an accountability partner
So if we can make positive habits stick by making them satisfying, we can then make bad habits painful or unsatisfying. That doesn’t mean physically hurting—you can put money or your reputation on the line.
An accountability partner is someone who keeps you… well, accountable… for your actions—even if it’s simply by judging you! Jokes aside, we do care a lot about what others think of us, so the pain of disappointing our accountability partner is very real.
You can add a habit contract to the equation, too. It’s a short piece that specifies a particular penalty for you if you fall off the habit wagon. Say, you’ll need to donate $100 to a charity of choice or scream “I’m a failure!” off your balcony—whatever fills you up with dread.
Advanced tactics and additional notes
The last few chapters of the book cover “advanced tactics”—or the points Clear wanted to make that didn’t fit in the Laws section, I believe. I’ll just give you a short overview of the most interesting ones here:
- The areas where you are genetically predisposed to success are the areas where habits are more likely to be satisfying. And our genes do not eliminate the need for hard work. They clarify it. They tell us what to work hard on.
- The way to maintain motivation and achieve peak levels of desire is to work on tasks of “just manageable difficulty” (known as the Goldilocks Rule).
- 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.
- The downside of habits is that you get used to doing things a certain way and stop paying attention to little errors. Reflection and review is a process that allows you to remain conscious of your performance over time.
- Your identity will help you stick to habits but it can also become hard to keep to these habits if your role changes. So you need to redefine yourself such that you get to keep important aspects of your identity even if your particular role changes. You’re not “a CxO”, because this can change. But you will always be “a person who takes the lead”.
Success is not a goal to reach or a finish line to cross. It is a system to improve, an endless process to refine.
Habits are not the end of the road. They are the mechanism to sustain you going forward. So take the time to build them right. “Atomic Habits” is definitely the right manual to get you there—and I hope that my book notes become the second best thing to actually reading the book.
P.S. If you’re a marketer like me, you might focus on these habits that will surely propel your career forward.