Habits are structure. Habits are routine. Habits are short cuts. By the time we become adults, we rarely notice the habits that are running our lives. You are your habits. When you read books about top athletes, top entrepreneurs, top CEOs and special forces, it is all about ingrained behaviour that is repeated and repeated over and over again, as the platform for mastery and success.
I am fascinated by how the brain works. Books like “Inner engineer” and “Breaking the habits of being yourself” are all about how you program yourself (or how you are being programmed). Habits are pieces of programming. By being aware of your habits, you become aware of yourself. Changing your habit is changing your programming. If you control your habits, you control yourself. Hence “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones”.
It is not about the big-ticket items. It is about the small steps and marginal gains and sticking to those habits for the long term. Long term is important as it is a hallmark of any compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed. Change can take years before it happens all at once.
You are your habits
The holy grail of habit change is not a single 1% improvement, but a thousand of them. The aggregation of marginal gains or the compound interest of self-improvement. 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.
Forget about goals
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. 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 systems-first mentality is important. When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy.
You can create new habits by addressing three layers. Results, process and identity. The deepest layer is changing your identity. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level. Most people don’t even consider identity change when they set out to improve. But behind every system of actions are a system of beliefs. The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this. True behaviour change is identity change.
- 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.
Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief. After all, when your behaviour and your identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behaviour change. You are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be. The more deeply a thought or action is tied to your identity, the more difficult it is to change.
Changing your identity
You will only believe it because you have proof of it. Small habits can make a meaningful difference by providing evidence of a new identity. The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do.
- 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.
Decide the type of person you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins. You need to know whom you want to be. Otherwise, your quest for change is like a boat without a rudder. That’s why you should start here.
The feedback loop
Try, fail, learn, try differently. This is the feedback loop behind all human behaviour. With practice, the useless movements fade away, and the useful actions get reinforced. That’s habit-forming. Habit formation is incredibly useful because the conscious mind is the bottleneck of the brain. As a result, your brain is always working to preserve your conscious attention for whatever task is most essential. Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity so that you can allocate your attention to other tasks. Habits do not restrict freedom. They create it. When you have your habits dialled in, and the basics of life are handled and done, your mind is free to focus on new challenges and master the next set of problems. Building habits in the present allows you to do more of what you want in the future.
Cue, cravings, response, reward
First, there is the cue. The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behaviour. Cravings are the second step, and they are the motivational force behind every habit. Without some level of motivation or desire—without craving a change—we have no reason to act. The third step is the response. The response is the actual habit you perform, which can take the form of a thought or an action. Finally, the response delivers a reward. Rewards are the end goal of every habit. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop—cue, craving, response, reward; cue, craving, response, reward—that ultimately allows you to create automatic habits. If a behaviour is insufficient in any of the four stages, it will not become a habit. If a particular action requires more physical or mental effort than you are willing to expend, then you won’t do it. Your response also depends on your ability. It sounds simple, but a habit can occur only if you are capable of doing it.
You are a reward detector
The cue is about noticing the reward. We chase rewards because they serve two purposes: (1) they satisfy us and (2) they teach us. Second, rewards teach us which actions are worth remembering in the future. Your brain is a reward detector. As you go about your life, your sensory nervous system is continuously monitoring which actions satisfy your desires and deliver pleasure.
After decades of mental programming, we automatically slip into these patterns of thinking and acting. Whenever you want to change your behaviour, you can 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?
The human brain is a prediction and cue machine. With enough practice, you can pick up on the cues that predict certain outcomes without consciously thinking about. We underestimate how much our brains and bodies can do without thinking. This is one of the most surprising insights about our habits: you don’t need to be aware of the cue for a habit to begin.
Start with checklists
Pointing-and-Calling is a safety system designed to reduce mistakes. Pointing-and-Calling reduces errors by up to 85% and cuts accidents by 30%. Pointing-and-Calling is so effective because it raises the level of awareness from a non-conscious habit to a more conscious level. One of our greatest challenges in changing habits is maintaining awareness of what we are actually doing.
Make a list of your daily habits
Once you have a full list, look at each behaviour, and ask yourself, “Is this a good habit, a bad habit, or a neutral habit?” If it is a good habit, write “+” next to it. If it is a bad habit, write “–”. If it is a neutral habit, write “=”. As you create your Habits Scorecard, there is no need to change anything at first. The goal is to simply notice what is actually going on. Observe your thoughts and actions without judgment or internal criticism. Don’t blame yourself for your faults. Don’t praise yourself for your successes.
The process of behaviour change always starts with awareness. Strategies like Pointing-and-Calling and the Habits Scorecard are focused on getting you to recognise your habits and acknowledge the cues that trigger them, which makes it possible to respond in a way that benefits you.
This is a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. That is, how you intend to implement a particular habit. People who make a specific plan for when and where they will perform a new habit are more likely to follow through. The simple way to apply this strategy to your habits is to fill out this sentence: I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption that leads to additional purchases.14 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 behaviour on top. This is called habit stacking. The habit stacking formula is: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].” No matter how you use this strategy, the secret to creating a successful habit stack is selecting the right cue to kick things off. One way to find the right trigger for your habit stack is by brainstorming a list of your current habits. Habit stacking works best when the cue is highly specific and immediately actionable.
Make it obvious
The 1st Law of Behavior Change is to make it obvious. Strategies like implementation intentions and habit stacking are among the most practical ways to create obvious cues for your habits and design a clear plan for when and where to take action.
Alter the “choice architecture”
People often choose products not because of what they are, but because of where they are. The environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour. In other words, customers will occasionally buy products not because they want them, but because of how they are presented to them. The more obviously available a product or service is, the more likely you are to try it. People drink Bud Light because it is in every bar and visit Starbucks because it is on every corner. The truth, however, is that many of the actions we take each day are shaped not by purposeful drive and choice but by the most obvious option.
Create the visual cues
In humans, perception is directed by the sensory nervous system. We perceive the world through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. But we also have other ways of sensing stimuli. Some are conscious, but many are non-conscious. The most powerful of all human sensory abilities, however, is vision. The human body has about eleven million sensory receptors. Approximately ten million of those are dedicated to sight. Some experts estimate that half of the brain’s resources are used on vision. For this reason, a small change in what you see can lead to a big shift in what you do. When the cues that spark a habit are subtle or hidden, they are easy to ignore. By comparison, creating obvious visual cues can draw your attention toward the desired habit. Once you notice something, you begin to want it.
- If you want to eat more fruit, but a fruit bowl in front of you.
- If you want to remember to send more thank-you notes, keep a stack of stationery on your desk.
- If you want to drink more water, fill up a few water bottles each morning and place them in common locations around the house.
Create the right environment
If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment. The most persistent behaviours usually have multiple cues. The cues that trigger a habit can start out very specific, but over time, your habits become associated not with a single trigger but with the entire context surrounding the behaviour. Our behaviour is not defined by the objects in the environment but by our relationship to them. Stop thinking about your environment as filled with objects. Start thinking about it as filled with relationships. The power of context also reveals an important strategy: habits can be easier to change in a new environment.
Every habit has a home
Whenever possible, avoid mixing the context of one habit with another. Every habit should have a home. A stable environment where everything has a place and a purpose is an environment where habits can easily form. “Disciplined” people 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. So, yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment.
Make bad cues invisible
You can break a habit, but you’re unlikely to forget it. Once the mental grooves of habit have been carved into your brain, they are nearly impossible to remove entirely—even if they go unused for quite a while. Rather than make it obvious, you can make it invisible. Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. This is the secret to self-control. Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.
Your hardware is out of date
You are walking around with the same hardware as your Paleolithic ancestors. When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, eating as much as possible is an excellent strategy for survival. Today, however, we live in a calorie-rich environment. The modern food industry relies on stretching our Paleolithic instincts beyond their evolutionary purpose. Foods that are high in dynamic contrast keep the experience novel and interesting, encouraging you to eat more. Ultimately, such strategies enable food scientists to find the “bliss point” for each product—the precise combination of salt, sugar, and fat that excites your brain and keeps you coming back for more. These are the supernormal stimuli of our modern world. Read “Prometheus rising” or any other book about being mindful.
Marketeers exaggerate features that are naturally attractive to us, and our instincts go wild as a result, driving us into excessive shopping habits, social media habits, porn habits, eating habits, and many others. The trend is for rewards to become more concentrated and stimuli to become more enticing. Junk food is a more concentrated form of calories than natural foods. Hard liquor is a more concentrated form of alcohol than beer. Video games are a more concentrated form of play than board games. Compared to nature, these pleasure-packed experiences are hard to resist. We have the brains of our ancestors but temptations they never had to face. There is a war going on for your mind.
Anticipation is the key
For years, scientists assumed dopamine was all about pleasure, but now we know it plays a central role in many neurological processes, including motivation, learning and memory, punishment and aversion, and voluntary movement. Dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfilment of it—that gets us to take action. Interestingly, the reward system that is activated in the brain when you receive a reward is the same system that is activated when you anticipate a reward. Your brain has far more neural circuitry allocated for wanting rewards than for liking them.
Make a habit attractive
The wanting centres in the brain are large: the brain stem, the nucleus accumbens, the ventral tegmental area, the dorsal striatum, the amygdala, and portions of the prefrontal cortex. Desire is the engine that drives behaviour. Every action is taken because of the anticipation that precedes it. We need to make our habits attractive because it is the expectation of a rewarding experience that motivates us to act in the first place. This is where a strategy known as temptation bundling comes into play.
Associating the thing you need to do with activities you want to do. More probable behaviours will reinforce less probable behaviours. After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED]. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT]. The hope is that eventually, you’ll look forward to calling three clients or doing ten burpees because it means you get to read the latest sports news or check Facebook. Doing the thing you need to do means you get to do the thing you want to do. Engineering a truly irresistible habit is a hard task, but this simple strategy can be employed to make nearly any habit more attractive than it would be otherwise.
Your brain did not evolve with a desire to smoke cigarettes or to check Instagram or to play video games. At a deep level, you simply want to reduce uncertainty and relieve anxiety, to win social acceptance and approval, or to achieve status. Your habits are modern-day solutions to ancient desires.
Habits are all about associations. The specific cravings you feel and the habits you perform are really an attempt to address your fundamental underlying motives. You can make hard habits more attractive if you can learn to associate them with a positive experience. Motion and action. Motion makes you feel like you’re getting things done. But really, you’re just preparing to get something done.
Long-term potentiation refers to the strengthening of connections between neurons in the brain based on recent patterns of activity. Repeating a habit leads to clear physical changes in the brain. Automaticity is the ability to perform a behaviour without thinking about each step, which occurs when the nonconscious mind takes over.
Frequency is the key
One of the most common questions is, “How long does it take to build a new habit?” But what people really should be asking is, “How many does it take to form a new habit?” That is, how many repetitions are required to make a habit automatic? What matters is the rate at which you perform the behaviour. It’s the frequency that makes the difference.
Energy is precious
Our real motivation is to be lazy and to do what is convenient. And despite what the latest productivity best seller will tell you, this is a smart strategy, not a dumb one. Energy is precious, and the brain is wired to conserve it whenever possible. It is human nature to follow the Law of Least Effort, which states that when deciding between two similar options, people will naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work. Every action requires a certain amount of energy. The greater the obstacle—that is, the more difficult the habit—the more friction there is between you and your desired end state.
Trying to pump up your motivation to stick with a hard habit is like trying to force water through a bent hose. Too often, we try to start habits in high-friction environments. Look for every point of friction and eliminate it. Whenever you organise a space for its intended purpose, you are priming it to make the next action easy. The greater the friction, the less likely the habit. It is remarkable how little friction is required to prevent unwanted behaviour. Redesign your life, so the actions that matter most are also the actions that are easiest to do.
Create an entrance ramp
Researchers estimate that 40 to 50% of our actions on any given day are done out of habit. Habits are like the entrance ramp to a highway. If I change clothes, I know the workout will happen. Every day, there are a handful of moments that deliver an outsized impact. The moment you decide between ordering takeout or cooking dinner. The moment you choose between driving your car or riding your bike. The moment you decide between starting your homework or grabbing the video game controller. Habits are the entry point, not the endpoint. They are the cab, not the gym.
When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do. You will 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.”
The idea is to make your habits as easy as possible to start. A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The point is to master the habit of showing up.
Create a ritual
You have to standardize before you can optimise. The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely it becomes that you can slip into the state of deep focus that is required to do great things. Make it easy to start, and the rest will follow. Strategies like this work for another reason, too: they reinforce the identity you want to build. You’re focused on becoming the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. Start by mastering the first two minutes of the smallest version of the behaviour. Sometimes success is less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard.
Make bad habits impractical
The best way to break a bad habit is to make it impractical to do. Increase the friction until you don’t even have the option to act. We are more likely to repeat a behaviour when the experience is satisfying. Conversely, if an experience is not satisfying, we have little reason to repeat it. What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided.
We do not like delay
The human brain did not evolve for life in a delayed-return environment. The earliest remains of modern humans, known as Homo sapiens sapiens, are approximately two hundred thousand years old. Similar to other animals on the African savannah, our ancestors spent their days responding to grave threats, securing the next meal, and taking shelter from a storm. It made sense to place a high value on instant gratification. The distant future was less of a concern. It is only recently—during the last five hundred years or so—that society has shifted to a predominantly delayed-return environment. Behavioural economists refer to this tendency as time inconsistency. That is, the way your brain evaluates rewards is inconsistent across time. The consequences of bad habits are delayed while the rewards are immediate. Every habit produces multiple outcomes across time. The road less travelled is the road of delayed gratification. In a perfect world, the reward for a good habit is the habit itself.
Make rewards immediate
In the beginning, you need a reason to stay on track. This is why immediate rewards are essential. The best approach is to use reinforcement, which refers to the process of using an immediate reward to increase the rate of a behaviour. Immediate reinforcement can be especially helpful when dealing with habits of avoidance, which are behaviours you want to stop doing. It’s like creating a loyalty program for yourself. Making progress is satisfying, and visual measures—like moving paper clips or hairpins or marbles—provide clear evidence of your progress. As a result, they reinforce your behaviour and add a little bit of immediate satisfaction to any activity. As soon as actions incur an immediate consequence, behaviour begins to change. In general, the more local, tangible, concrete, and immediate the consequence, the more likely it is to influence individual behaviour.
But perhaps the best way to measure your progress is with a habit tracker. “Don’t break the chain” is a powerful mantra. Habit tracking is powerful because it leverages multiple Laws of Behavior Change.
- Benefit #1: Habit tracking is obvious. Habit tracking also keeps you honest. Most of us have a distorted view of our own behaviour. When the evidence is right in front of you, you’re less likely to lie to yourself.
- Benefit #2: Habit tracking is attractive. The most effective form of motivation is progress.
- Benefit #3: Habit tracking is satisfying. This is the most crucial benefit of all. 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 to mark an X on the calendar.
Habit tracking (1) creates a visual cue that can remind you to act, (2) is inherently motivating because you see the progress you are making and don’t want to lose it, and (3) feels satisfying whenever you record another successful instance of your habit.
Habit break down
Whenever this happens there is a simple rule: never miss twice. If you miss one day, try to get back into it as quickly as possible. Missing one workout happens, but you are not going to miss two in a row. The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit. This is a distinguishing feature between winners and losers.
But when successful people fail, they rebound quickly. You don’t realize how valuable it is to just show up on your bad (or busy) days. “The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessarily.” This is why the “bad” workouts are often the most important ones. Sluggish days and bad workouts maintain the compound gains you accrued from previous good days. When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Measurement is only useful when it guides you and adds context to a larger picture, not when it consumes you. This is why non-scale victories can be effective for weight loss. The number on the scale may be stubborn, so if you focus solely on that number, your motivation will sag. But you may notice that your skin looks better or you wake up earlier or your sex drive got a boost. All of these are valid ways to track your improvement. Each measurement provides a little bit of evidence that you’re moving in the right direction and a brief moment of immediate pleasure for a job well done.
Flow and boredom
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. And if you hit the Goldilocks Zone just right, you can achieve a flow state. And boredom is perhaps the greatest villain on the quest for self-improvement. 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. Mastery requires practice. But the more you practice something, the more boring and routine it becomes.
Desire and boredom
The sweet spot of desire occurs at a 50/50 split between success and failure. Half of the time, you get what you want. Half of the time, you don’t. You need just enough “winning” to experience satisfaction and just enough “wanting” to experience desire. At some point, everyone faces the same challenge on the journey of self-improvement: you have to fall in love with boredom. 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.
- There have been a lot of sets that I haven’t felt like finishing, but I’ve never regretted doing the workout.
- There have been a lot of days I’ve felt like relaxing, but I’ve never regretted showing up and working on something that was important to me.
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 foundation for mastery
Each chunk of information that is memorized opens up the mental space for more effortful thinking. When you know the simple movements so well that you can perform them without thinking, you are free to pay attention to more advanced details. In this way, habits are the backbone of any pursuit of excellence. You can’t repeat the same things blindly and expect to become exceptional. Habits are necessary, but not sufficient for mastery. What you need is a combination of automatic habits and deliberate practice. Mastery is the process of narrowing your focus to a tiny element of success, repeating it until you have internalized the skill, and then using this new habit as the foundation to advance to the next frontier of your development.
Reflection and review enable the long-term improvement of all habits because it makes you aware of your mistakes and helps you consider possible paths for improvement. Never reviewing your habits is like never looking in the mirror. When working against you, your identity creates a kind of “pride” that encourages you to deny your weak spots and prevents you from truly growing. The more sacred an idea is to us—that is, the more deeply it is tied to our identity—the more strongly we will defend it against criticism. One solution is to avoid making any single aspect of your identity an overwhelming portion of who you are. In the words of investor Paul Graham, “keep your identity small.”Lack of self-awareness is poison. Reflection and review is the antidote.
The lessons at the end of the book are great:
- Awareness comes before desire.
- Happiness is simply the absence of desire.
- It is the idea of pleasure that we chase.
- Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.
- Desire is pursued. Pleasure ensues from action.
- Peace occurs when you don’t turn your observations into problems.
- Craving is about wanting to fix everything. Observation without craving is the realization that you do not need to fix anything.
- With a big enough “why”, you can overcome any “how”.
- Great craving can power great action—even when friction is high.
- Being curious is better than being smart.
- Emotions drive behaviour.
- 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.
- The reward is on the other side of the sacrifice.
- The “runner’s high” only comes after the hard run.
- Self-control is difficult because it is not satisfying.
- Our expectations determine our satisfaction.
- The pain of failure correlates to the height of expectation.
- Feelings come both before and after the behaviour.
- Desire initiates. Pleasure sustains.
- Hope declines with experience and is replaced by acceptance.
- Your expectation (cravings) is based solely on a promise. The second time around, your expectation is grounded in reality.
Just as one coin won’t make you rich, one positive change like meditating for one minute or reading one page each day is unlikely to deliver a noticeable difference. Gradually, though, as you continue to layer small changes on top of one another, the scales of life start to move. Make it obvious. Make it attractive. Make it easy. Make it satisfying. Round and round. Always looking for the next way to get 1% better. The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements.