Atomic Habits (2018) provides a practical and proven framework for creating good habits and shedding bad ones. Drawing on scientific research and real-life examples, it shows how tiny changes in behavior can result in the formation of new habits and help you achieve big things.
Habit expert James Clear believes small changes in human behavior have a more profound impact on habits over time than singular, large shifts. He calls for coupling a desired new behavior with a usual behavior. He warns against boredom and self-satisfaction, which, he asserts, impede the formation of new habits built on frequent repetition of the behavior. To change bad habits, Clear maintains, you first must develop an awareness of your daily routines. He urges taking continuous, small steps toward forming new habits that will eventually replace old ones. Frequent repetition automates behaviors and turns them into habits. Rewards and incentives, such as enjoyable activities, nurture the effort of instilling good habits. Your identity aligns with your habitual behavior. Clear cautions against complacency – a drawback to cultivating good habits – and recommends refining your behavior continues to achieve lasting change. To that end, he provides simple, actionable steps. Those seeking to switch bad habits for good ones will benefit from his guidance.
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Introduction: Learn how small habits can have a big impact on your life.
What positive change would you like to make in your life? Maybe you want to eat healthier. Maybe you want to read more books, learn a new language, or master the clarinet. Whatever changes you’d like to make, actually making them and sticking to them is easier said than done. Just wanting to eat more salad doesn’t actually mean you will. Simply saying you’ll read more books doesn’t mean you’ll pick up War and Peace instead of binging Netflix.
But that’s where habits come in.
In these summaries, I’m going to take you through the key ideas from James Clear’s best seller Atomic Habits.
Together, we’re going to discover that the key to making big changes in your life doesn’t have to involve major upheaval; you don’t need to revolutionize your behavior or reinvent yourself. Rather, you can make tiny changes to your behavior, which, when repeated time and time again, will become habits that can lead to big results.
Habit expert James Clear believes frequent repetition automates behaviors and turns them into habits. Most people undervalue applying little changes to their routines but, over time, a minuscule adjustment can create “atomic habits,” the foundation for extraordinary outcomes.
These atomic habits function, Clear maintains, as part of a methodical system that does a better job of helping you achieve progress than setting a goal without outlining a process for attaining it. Atomic habits interconnect like building blocks to provoke remarkable adaptations to behavior. Clear is adamant that achieving long-lasting results requires establishing a path for permanent change.
A person’s actions arise from a belief system based on a set of assumptions that form his or her identity. Normally, individuals try to change their habits by listing “what” they want. This produces an “outcome-based” goal. An alternative to this approach centers on “who” the person wants to become through creating “identity-based habits.” For example, people who take pride in their athletic skills will carry out the habits affiliated with maintaining their physical ability and their identity as athletes.
Small habits can have a surprisingly powerful impact on your life.
To kick things off, I want you to imagine a plane preparing to take off from Los Angeles. The plane’s destination is New York City. The pilot enters all the correct information into the plane’s computer, and the plane takes off heading in the right direction. But now imagine that, not long after takeoff, the pilot accidentally changes the flight path slightly. He only changes it by 3.5 degrees – which is nearly nothing, just a few feet. The plane’s nose shifts slightly to one side, and no one – not the pilot, not the passengers – notices anything.
But over the journey across the United States, the impact of this slight change would be considerable. At the end of their journey, the confused passengers – and even more confused pilot – would find themselves landing in Washington DC, not New York City.
So, why am I telling you this?
It’s because – just like the confused pilot – we don’t notice tiny changes in our lives. Small changes leave a negligible immediate impact. If you are out of shape today, and go for a 20-minute jog, you’ll still be out of shape tomorrow. If you eat a family-size pizza for dinner, it won’t make you overweight overnight.
But if we repeat these small behaviors day after day, our choices compound into major results. Eat pizza every day, and you will likely have gained considerable weight after a year. Go jogging for 20 minutes every day, and you’ll eventually be leaner and fitter, even though you won’t notice the change happening.
You’ve probably worked out the main insight here: it’s that small habits can have a surprisingly powerful impact on your life – and you won’t necessarily see this impact happening in real-time. You’ll only see the results of your habits after a while.
Now, we know that not seeing the impact of your efforts can be dispiriting. If this is happening to you – if you’re feeling discouraged by the lack of immediate positive change – then it’s important to try to focus on your current trajectory rather than your current results.
Let’s say you have little money in the bank. But you are saving something each month. Your current results might not be that great – your nest egg is still pretty small. But you can be confident that your trajectory is right. Keep going in this direction and, in a few months or a few years, you will notice a major improvement. When the lack of perceived progress gets you down, remember that you’re doing the right things and that you’re moving in the right direction.
But how do you get yourself on the right trajectory? You need to develop habits. In the next chapter, we’ll learn how they are built.
Changing a Habit
To change a habit, first, identify the underlying beliefs that created it. Since behavior reflects a person’s identity, altering behavior, or a habit in a lasting way requires making sure the alteration aligns with your identity. You can see the ancient roots of the relationship between identity and habits in the Latin translation of “identity” as “repeated beingness.” Clear believes that daily routines represent an individual’s identity precisely because he or she repeats them.
He reminds you that the quest to change revolves around who you wish to be. Self-improvement requires deciding what type of person you want to become and making small changes to achieve that identity. Define your desired identity, then begin the effort to achieve it. The process of honing and improving your identity calls for continuous corrections and improvements to your beliefs and, thus, to your habits.
Habits are automated behaviors that we’ve learned from experience.
When you walk into a dark room, you don’t think about what to do next; you instinctively reach for a light switch. Reaching for a light switch is a habit – it’s a behavior that you’ve repeated so many times that it now happens automatically.
Habits like this dominate our lives, from brushing our teeth to driving our car. They are immensely powerful.
But how are they formed?
In the nineteenth century, a psychologist named Edward Thorndike tried to answer this question. First, he placed some cats inside a black box. Then, he timed how long it took them to escape. To start with, each cat behaved exactly as you’d expect when placed inside a box. It desperately looked for a way of escape. It sniffed and pawed at the corners; it clawed at the walls. Eventually, the cat would find a lever that, when pressed, would open a door, enabling it to escape.
Thorndike then took the cats that’d successfully escaped and repeated the experiment: he placed them back inside the box. And what did he find? After being put in the box a few times, each cat learned the trick. Rather than scrambling around for a minute or more, the cats went straight for the lever. After 20 or 30 attempts, the average cat could escape in just six seconds.
In other words, the process of getting out of the box had become habitual for the cats.
With his experiment, Thorndike had discovered something important: behaviors that give satisfying consequences – in this case, gaining freedom – tend to be repeated until they become automatic.
We’ve learned a lot more about habits in the decades after Thorndike’s experiment. We now know that habits are made up of four distinct elements.
First, there’s the cue, or a trigger to act. Walking into a dark room cues you to perform an action that will allow you to see. Then comes a craving for a change in state – in this case, from darkness to light. Then comes a response, or action – flicking the light switch. The final step in the process, and the end goal of every habit, is the reward. In this case, it’s the feeling of mild relief and comfort that comes from being able to see your surroundings.
Every habit follows the same process. Do you drink coffee every morning? Waking up is your cue, triggering a craving to feel alert. Your response is to drag yourself out of bed and make a cup of joe.
Your reward is feeling wide awake and ready to face the world.
OK, now that you have an idea of how habits work, let’s look at how you can develop good habits that can change your life for the better.
When you encounter a specific situation, your brain determines how to react. Clear says that when it decides to enact the same behavior repeatedly, the behavior becomes a habit: the standard solution in that situation. Habits decrease your level of stress and “cognitive load” because their automated performance derives from memories of your reactions to past situations. Habits perform a twofold purpose: They solve life’s problems and they expend as little energy as possible while doing so.
Habits follow a four-step process: “Cue, craving, response, and reward.” Cues are the activators; cravings are the motivators. Responses are the answers which yield a reward.
Building new habits requires hard-to-miss cues and a plan of action.
So, we have just discovered how habits are formed. Let’s briefly recap. A habit consists of four things: a cue – a trigger that gets you to act; a craving – a desire you want to achieve; a response – the action of the habit itself; and a reward – the positive feeling you get from completing the habit.
Once you know how they work, you can start to hack the habit-forming process to get good, productive habits to stick.
Let’s say you’re desperate to learn the guitar. You’ve got your instrument, you’ve picked up the basics, but you struggle to keep up with practice. Each morning, you tell yourself that you’ll play later on, but the end of the day soon comes, and you haven’t picked up your guitar once.
But now that you know the secrets to building a habit, you can use it to your advantage. In this case, you want to make the cue to pick up your guitar impossible to miss. Instead of keeping your instrument in the cupboard or in the corner of your spare room, leave it right in the middle of your living room – in full view. Make your cue visible and unmissable; this will make it easier to turn your desire to practice into a habit.
Changing your environment to put your cues front and center will help, but if you want to perfect your triggers even more, you can use what’s known as implementation intentions. So what are these?
When it comes to setting good habits, most of us tend to be too vague about our intentions. We say, “I’m going to eat better,” or “I’m going to learn guitar.” And we simply hope that we’ll follow through.
An implementation intention can help us move beyond the vague intention. Implementation intentions introduce a clear plan of action; they help you set out when and where you’ll carry out the habit you’d like to cultivate.
OK, let’s return to our guitar example. Instead of telling yourself that “you’re going to practice guitar sometime this week,” tell yourself, “On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, when the alarm goes off, the first thing I’ll do is pick up my guitar and practice for one hour.” And don’t forget to leave your guitar in the middle of the room.
By creating an implementation intention, you’ll give yourself both a clear plan and an obvious clue, and it may surprise you how much easier it will be to build a positive habit.
Let’s take a little pause in our exploration here.
So you might be wondering, this all sounds quite plausible, but does it really work? Can I actually tweak my environment and make it easy to form positive habits? Sounds good on paper, right? But in practice?
To answer the question, let’s look at the work of Anne Thorndike, a doctor based in Boston, and in case you’re wondering, she isn’t related to the cat lover, Edward Thorndike. Dr. Anne Thorndike faced a problem most health professionals face: she wanted to help her patients improve their diets and their snacking habits. But she also knew that making a conscious decision to eat healthier can be hard. It takes a lot of willpower and discipline – and not all of us have endless supplies of willpower and discipline.
So, Anne Thorndike and her colleagues designed a test. As part of the experiment, she had the hospital cafeteria rearranged. The soda in the refrigerators next to the cash registers was replaced with bottled water, and baskets of bottled water were placed all around the cafeteria. Dr. Thorndike and the team then watched to see what would happen.
And what do you think happened? Well, over three months, soda sales fell by 11 percent, and water sales shot up by over 25 percent. Simply by creating more cues for people to drink water, Dr. Thorndike and her team were able to get people to make the healthier choice.
In other words, they were able to help people build better habits, without forcing them to make a conscious decision to do so. Clear evidence that altering your environment can help you adopt better habits.
“The Four Laws of Behavior Change”
To construct desired habits, Clear teaches, follow the Four Laws of Behavior Change. They are integral to the design function of good habits and to the process of eliminating bad habits.
The First Law: “Make It Obvious”
Clear describes how the brain operates by continually absorbing information and analyzing it. Its operations run in a clerical manner, highlighting pertinent items and dismissing irrelevant ones. The brain acknowledges repetitive experiences, cataloging them for future use. Through practice, it recognizes the “cues” which initiate certain patterns. Consequently, repeated experiences culminate in a habit, because the brain identifies a recurring situation and reacts in a standardized way. For the brain to be able to alter an automatic action, it first needs to raise its level of consciousness about that action.
Clear suggests “pointing-and-calling:” Before taking an action, verbalize its predicted outcome. Hearing about the consequence of a good or a bad habit requires the brain to think about your behavior and helps you change it.
“Habit stacking” is another effective tactic for behavioral adjustments. This strategy marries a new habit with a current one. For a positive outcome, select a specific time to insert a fresh pattern into an established routine. In effect, habit stacking creates a chain effect by linking small new habits together one-by-one.
Your environment provides a context around your habits. Stable settings promote habit formation and alteration. Each habit is initiated by a cue and promulgated under certain conditions. To eliminate a bad habit, Clear instructions, remove the cues that trigger it. He explains, “It’s easier to avoid temptation than resist it.” More numerous cues prompt predominant behaviors, and the most blatant, visual cues trigger the greatest behavior change. This reaction is natural because humans react most strongly to their most obvious option. The positive habit-forming cues in your environment need to be large and clear to influence your patterns. While a single cue may be sufficient to trigger a behavior initially, the entire context may eventually turn into a cue. Build new habits in new environments to prevent known cues from interfering.
The Second Law: “Make It Attractive”
When you experience pleasure, the brain’s reward system releases dopamine. And, you are likely to repeat a rewarding experience. But, Clear explains, when you simply plan to repeat a specific behavior that you found pleasant, the release of dopamine occurs. That is, it happens when you merely expect the reward. Thus, the expectation becomes rewarding in itself. That’s why it’s easier to form a habit if an opportunity is attractive. Then, “habits turn into a dopamine-driven feedback loop.” To increase the attractiveness of a habit, couple an activity “you want to do” with an activity “you need to do” – this is called “temptation bundling.”
The culture you belong to determines the attractiveness of behaviors. Humans strive to fit in with others in their “herd” to earn “approval, respect, and praise.” They imitate social groups, especially “the close,” like family and friends, “the many,” who provide the wisdom of the crowd, and “the powerful,” who act as role models for becoming successful. One way to build a habit is to identify the desired behavior and assimilate into the culture or social group that practices it. By doing this, you embrace the concept that a “shared identity” bolsters a personal one. Being embedded in a community guarantees that your new, community-supported behaviors will last.
Behaviors work on two operational levels: they satisfy “surface” or “superficial” cravings or they address “underlying” or “deep” motives. Your habits are manifestations of an essential purpose originating from ancient desires. Feelings and emotions can alter habit-triggering cues, so how you feel about a given situation matters.
Humans are motivated by the anticipation of reward, so making habits attractive will help you stick to them.
We’re now about halfway through our exploration of Atomic Habits. We’ve looked at how powerful habits are, how they are made, and how you can use habit cues to your advantage.
Now, it’s time to talk about the rewards side of habit building.
In 1954, neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran an experiment to look into the neuroscience behind desire. Using electrodes, they blocked the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in some rats. The results were surprising; the lab rats simply lost the will to live. Without dopamine, they had no desire to eat, drink, reproduce or do anything else. Just a few days later, they all died of thirst.
This rather disturbing story tells us one thing: dopamine is a crucial motivator. When we do something beneficial for our survival – eating, drinking, having sex – dopamine is released, and we feel good. This feeling of pleasure motivates us to do the beneficial action again and again.
So far, so clear. But what does this have to do with habit-building?
Well, we don’t actually have to do the pleasurable activity to get the hit of dopamine. The mere anticipation of doing something pleasurable is enough to get the dopamine flowing. In the brain’s reward system, desiring something is on par with getting something!
We can turn this to our advantage. When building our new habit, if we make it something we look forward to, we’ll be much more likely to follow through and actually do it.
Here’s where I’d like to introduce you to the concept of temptation bundling. Temptation bundling is where you take a behavior that you think of as important but unappealing and link it to a behavior that you’re drawn to. This is how you can use dopamine to your advantage when building a new habit.
Consider the story of Ronan Byrne, an engineering student from Ireland. Ronan knew he should exercise more, but he got little enjoyment from working out. However, he did enjoy watching Netflix. So Ronan hacked an exercise bike. He connected the bike to his laptop and wrote some code that only allowed Netflix to run if he was cycling at a certain speed. By linking exercise to a behavior that he was naturally drawn to, he transformed a distasteful activity into a pleasurable one.
You don’t have to engineer a complex Netflix/exercise bike contraption to apply this to your own life. There are easier ways to do this. For example, if you need to work out, but you want to catch up on the latest A-list gossip, you could commit to only reading magazines while at the gym. Or if you want to watch sports, but you need to make sales calls, promise yourself a half-hour of ESPN after you talk to your tenth prospect.
Just find a way of making those unattractive but important tasks enjoyable, and you’ll be surfing a wave of dopamine, and creating positive habits, at the same time.
The Third Law: “Make It Easy”
Clearly defines a habit as a repetitive behavior you perform so often it becomes automatic. And, he notes, the more frequently you repeat an action, the more automatic that action becomes. This process is mediated by strengthening the connections between neurons, that is, by physical changes in the brain. Neuroscientists call the enduring strengthening of neuronal synapses due to current patterns of activity “long-term potentiation” (LTP).
“Automaticity” means that an individual “performs a behavior without thinking” (exercising cognition) about it. Because the brain seeks to conserve energy, it selects options that require the least effort. To acquire a new behavior you should thus choose the path of least resistance. One way to trick the brain into a new habit is to incorporate the desired activity into an already established routine. Your learning is effective, when you practice (“take action”) instead of just planning. To bring about change, Clear instructions, you need to “be in motion.”
You can improve a habit only after it is established. To establish a new habit, start small by engaging in the relevant activity for only two minutes. This “showing up” helps to “ritualize the beginning of a process.” Once you start, it’s easier to focus and perform a routine.
To break a bad habit, make it more difficult to perform; increase the “friction” you experience carrying it out. Use helpmates or “commitment devices” to adjust your current choices to affect your future behavior. Clear offers the example that paying for a yoga session in advance means committing to attend it. Such devices help you capitalize on and actualize your good intentions. They make it harder for you to select a bad habit, and they pave the way for good habits to develop. Technology can function as a helpmate. For example, to help you focus on important tasks, and not get distracted by social media-related activities, delete your social media apps or reset their passwords to make it harder for you to use them again.
If you want to build a new habit, make that habit as easy to adopt as possible.
Making a habit pleasurable is a surefire way to make it stick. Another way we can hack the habit-building process is to make it easy.
Easy behaviors dominate our lives. We scroll through social media or munch through a bag of potato chips because these are easy things to do. On the other hand, doing a hundred push-ups or studying Mandarin are both pretty tough and take a lot of effort. This is why we don’t find ourselves drawn to intensive exercise or language learning in our spare time.
By making our desired behaviors as easy as possible, we stand the best chance of turning them into a
habit. And the good news is, there are various ways we can make this happen.
The first way is by reducing friction. Here’s what it means.
James Clear has always been hopeless at sending greeting cards. His wife, though, never misses an occasion to send a card. And there’s a clear reason for this. She keeps a box of greeting cards at home, presorted by occasion. This little bit of preparation makes it easier to send congratulations or condolences or whatever is called for. She doesn’t have to go out and buy a card when someone gets married or gets a new job, and this reduces the friction involved in sending one.
Friction is a two-way process. You can reduce friction to turn a beneficial behavior into a habit, but you can also increase friction if you want to kill a bad habit.
So, if you want to waste less time in front of the TV, unplug it and take the batteries out of the remote. This will introduce enough friction to ensure you only watch when you really want to.
So that’s friction. The second trick for making a habit easier in the long term is what’s known as the two-minute rule. This is a way to make any new activity feel manageable. The principle is that any behavior can be distilled into a habit that is doable within two minutes. So, if you want to read more, don’t commit to reading one book every week. Instead, make a habit of reading two pages per night.
Or, if you want to run a marathon, commit to simply putting on your running gear every day after work.
The two-minute rule is a way to build easily achievable habits – small accomplishments that can lead you to greater things. Once you’ve pulled on your running shoes, you’ll probably head out for a run. Once you’ve read two pages, you’ll likely continue. Simply getting started is the first and most important step toward doing something.
The Fourth Law: “Make It Satisfying”
Behavioral change works through repeating behavior that is “immediately rewarded” and by avoiding behavior that is “immediately punished.” The brain craves quick success, even in small increments. It evolved to value and prioritize “the present more than the future.” Habits change when people find the alternatives “attractive, easy and obvious.” Given that understanding, Clear says, choose a reward that fortifies the habit stacks that fit your identity. Such a selection reinforces your personality, makes the activity enjoyable, and leads to lasting results.
If you find a new habit difficult to stick to, remind yourself that one failure does not break a new habit, especially if you notice the failure quickly and adjust your activities back to the path you want to follow. Bad habits won’t form if they turn out to be unsatisfying or painful.
Clear suggests tracking your embrace of good habits. Use a log to gauge your progress and maintain focus. This tracking process monitors your good efforts and helps you adjust your behavior. Seeing that you are making progress is deeply satisfying.
To add an element of accountability in making good habits stick, you also can make a “habit contract.” This tactic is based on the premise that if you build in and sustain a positive, direct consequence, good habits will grow. Habit contracts are like attaching a painful penalty to laws and regulations. You can make your habit contract public as a value-added incentive. An upfront contract and an accountability partner can be mainstays to your habit-change success. Enlist someone you trust who supports and shares your desire to improve your habits. Tell your partner about your contract, and ask him or her to call you out when you fail to reinforce your new worthy habit or slip back into bad habits.
Making your habits immediately satisfying is essential to effective behavior change.
We’re getting closer to the end now. But before we’re done, let’s talk about the final rule for using habits to improve your life. And to do this, we need a story. It’s the story of a very successful public-health researcher named Stephen Luby.
Back in the 1990s, Luby was working in a neighborhood of Karachi, Pakistan – and was excellent at his job. He reduced diarrhea among the local children by a huge 52-percent. He also cut pneumonia rates by 48 percent and the rate of skin infection by 35 percent.
So what was his secret?
Nice soap. Yes, that’s right, Luby’s huge public health achievements were the result of nice soap.
Luby knew that handwashing and basic sanitation were essential to reducing illness. The locals understood this, too. But they just weren’t turning their knowledge into a habit. Everything changed when Luby worked with Proctor and Gamble to introduce a premium soap into the neighborhood for free. Overnight, handwashing became a satisfying experience. The new soap lathered easily and smelled delightful. Suddenly, everyone was washing their hands because it was now a pleasing activity.
Stephen Luby’s story illustrates the final and most important rule for behavioral change: habits need to be satisfying.
Making good behaviors satisfying can be difficult. This is due to human evolution. Today, we live in what is known as a delayed-return environment. You turn up at the office today, but the return – a paycheck – doesn’t come until the end of the month. You go to the gym in the morning, but you don’t lose weight overnight.
Unfortunately, our brains evolved to cope with an immediate-return environment. Our distant ancestors weren’t thinking about long-term returns like saving for retirement or sticking to a diet. They were focused on immediate concerns like finding their next meal, seeking shelter, and staying alert enough to escape any nearby saber-toothed tigers.
This focus on immediate returns can encourage bad habits. Smoking may give you lung cancer in 20 years, but, in the moment, it relieves your stress and the craving for nicotine. The immediate hit from your cigarette will likely override the long-term costs to your health.
All this means is that when pursuing habits with a delayed return, you need to try to attach some immediate gratification to them.
I can explain this best by using the experiences of a couple the author knows. This couple wanted to eat out less, cook more, get healthier and save money. These are goals with delayed returns. To give their objectives a little immediate-return kick, they opened a savings account called “Trip to Europe.” Every time they avoided a meal out, they transferred $50 to the account. The short-term satisfaction of seeing $50 land in that savings account provided the immediate gratification they needed to keep them on track for the ultimate, longer-term reward.
The Right Balance
Your genes, Clear says, also sway your habits and shape your personality and behaviors. Your assessment of your inherent abilities plays a crucial role.218, Selecting habits that complement your personality also enhances your ability to achieve change. To help ensure your success, engage in activities that match your innate abilities, inclinations, or competency level.
Challenges motivate you only if they are attainable. Clear warns that the tasks you take on must balance a degree of difficulty against your abilities by being neither too easy or too hard. This principle applies to habits as well. Starting small and continually practicing a new habit of assures mastery. Boredom is a dangerous pitfall. People won’t practice activities that become too routine because those activities no longer interest or delight them.
Every behavior requires a modicum of mastery exercised in small, continuous steps until the activity blossoms into a good habit. This is the bedrock of Clear’s system. Over time, good habits become mindless, everyday practices. Self-reflection and a sense of perspective are necessary to detect unnoticed errors and to improve or change behavior. Continuously practiced good habits incorporated in tiny, sustainable steps compound into powerful conduct. Developing good habits builds your authentic identity.
The Little Things Count
James Clear provides practical guidance on how to change your habits or build new habits. While perhaps not offering a lot of innovation, he succeeds in delivering a great pep talk. His enthusiasm makes you want to start right away and put his recipes into practice. Although Clear refers to some of the science underlying the nature of habits, his book focuses on practical guidance and presents lots of useful examples to illustrate its key concepts. He links to further resources available on his websites, offering templates and bonus chapters. Anyone who has the intention to change something in his or her life – but who has struggled to get started – should read Clear’s counsel. It’s good to hear that an investment of as little as two minutes can be the starting point for achieving a remarkable change in the long run. And even if you knew this already, it’s reassuring to learn that the little, “atomic” things in life count.
Create a framework to keep your habits on track, using trackers and contracts.
OK, so we’ve learned how to build great habits. But no matter how pleasurable and satisfying we make our habits, we may still fail to maintain them. So in this final chapter, let’s take a look at how we can stick to our good intentions.
One simple trick for making new habits stick is called habit tracking.
Throughout history, many people have succeeded by keeping a record of their habits. One of the most well-known is Benjamin Franklin. From the age of 20, Franklin kept a notebook where he recorded adherence to 13 personal virtues. These virtues included aims like avoiding frivolous conversation and to always be doing something useful. Each night, Franklin would record his progress in each area.
You can follow Franklin’s habit-tracking lead by using a simple calendar or diary, and crossing off every day that you stick with your chosen behaviors. You’ll find it effective – habit tracking is itself an attractive and satisfying habit. The anticipation and action of crossing off each day will feel good and keep you motivated.
The next thing I recommend you do is to develop a habit contract that imposes negative consequences if you fail to stay on track.
Bryan Harris is an entrepreneur from Nashville, and he took his habit contract very seriously. In a
contract signed by him, his wife, and his personal trainer, he committed to get his weight down to 200 pounds. He identified specific habits that would help get him there. These included tracking his food intake each day and weighing himself each week. He then set up penalties for not doing those things. If he failed to track food intake, he would have to pay $100 to his trainer; if he failed to weigh himself, he would owe $500 to his wife.
The strategy worked, driven not just by his fear of losing money but by his fear of losing face in front of two people who mattered to him. Humans are, after all, social animals. We care about the opinions of those around us – simply knowing that someone is watching you can be a powerful motivator for success.
So why not set yourself a habit contract? Even if it isn’t as detailed as Bryan Harris’s, consider making a commitment to your partner, your best friend, or one of your coworkers. If you agree upon a set of consequences for failing to follow through, you’ll be much more likely to stick to your habits. And as we’ve seen, sticking to a positive habit, however small, is a surefire way to achieve big things in life.
If you’ve failed to adopt a healthy or productive habit you either failed to make your new behavior obvious, easy, attractive, or satisfying.
These are what author James Clear calls ‘The Four Laws of Behavior Change’. Failing to abide by any one of these laws means you’ll fail to adopt a new behavior.
- Don’t have an obvious daily cue to exercise? You’ll forget about your new healthy habit and stick to your old daily routine.
- Don’t have an easy exercise routine? You’ll perform an easy and familiar routine instead (like watching TV).
- Don’t find exercise appealing (i.e. exercise isn’t attractive)? You’ll resist exercise enough to avoid doing it consistently.
- Don’t get immediate satisfaction after exercise? You’ll lack the motivation to exercise it consistently.
Here are two strategies to make every new healthy and productive behavior (i.e. exercising, cooking, writing, reading, etc.) obvious, easy, attractive, and satisfying so that it may turn into a daily habit.
Stacking & Starting
You’ve probably used ‘habit stacking’ to build new hygiene habits without realizing it. As a child, you stacked the habit of flushing the toilet with the habit of washing your hands. Flushing the toilet became the cue for your hand washing habit.
Habit stacking involves using an old and reliable daily habit as the trigger for a new habit. When you stack a new habit on an existing habit, you use the momentum of the old habit to make the new habit easier to initiate. I think of it as riding a bike down a hill to build up enough speed to get up the next hill with minimal peddling.
But if the hill of your new habit is too daunting, the momentum of the old habit won’t be enough. That’s why you need to reduce your new habit to an easy two‐minute ‘starting ritual’.
James Clear: “Even when you know you should start small, it’s easy to start too big. When you dream about making a change, excitement inevitably takes over and you end up trying to do too much too soon. The most effective way I know to counteract this tendency is to use the Two‐Minute Rule, which states, ‘When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.’”
- “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.”
Syncing & Scoring
Ronan Byrne, an electrical engineering student in Dublin, Ireland knew that he should exercise more, so he used his engineering skills to synchronize his stationary bike with his laptop. He wrote a program on his laptop to play his favorite Netflix shows on the TV in front of the stationary bike when he cycled at a certain speed. If he slowed down, Netflix would pause, and he’d need to cycle harder to finish the episode he was watching ‐ binge‐watching Netflix meant burning calories.
Like Byrne, if you only allow yourself to enjoy your favorite experiences while executing a healthy and productive new habit, you’ll find the new habit is something you look forward to doing.
- Entrepreneur Kevin Rose only allows himself to play his favorite video game on the treadmill.
- I only allow myself to enjoy my favorite protein cookie if I’m at the gym.
- I only allow myself to listen to my favorite DJ (Deadmau5) while I’m writing the scripts for my videos.
When you synchronize an experience you crave with a new habit you dread doing, the craving will counteract the resistance to executing the new habit and allow you to get started.
Synchronizing is a great tool for building a new habit, but to make a habit stick the habit must become inherently satisfying. And to make a habit inherently satisfying you must keep score.
Imagine on January 30th you look up at your wall and see 27 red check marks, on 27 of the last 30 days. Each check‐mark represents a successful workout. That calendar is visual proof that you are someone who cares about their health. You should take pride in that fact!
If you take time to score the completion of a habit in a habit tracker (ex: calendar on your wall, app on your phone, or physical habit tracking notebook), you’ll start to see a pattern of behavior that proves you’re becoming the type of person you’ve dreamed of being. The immediate pride you experience after using a habit tracker provides the satisfaction you need to return to the habit over and over until the habit sticks.
So, we’ve reached the end of the summaries. Here’s what we’ve learned.
A tiny change in your behavior will not transform your life overnight. But turn that behavior into a habit that you perform every day, and it absolutely can lead to big changes. Changing your life is not about making big breakthroughs or revolutionizing everything you do. Rather, it’s about building a positive system of habits that, when combined, deliver remarkable results.
And, I’d like to leave you with one final piece of advice: Use habit stacking to introduce new behaviors.
If you want to build a new habit, you could try stacking it on top of an existing habit. Let’s say you want to start meditating, but you’re struggling to find the time. Try thinking about those things you do effortlessly each day, like drinking coffee in the morning. Then just stack the new habit on top. Commit to meditating each morning when you’ve finished your coffee, and build on the natural momentum that comes from a habit you already have.
About the Authors
James Clear writes about habits and self-improvement at his popular website, jamesclear.com. He speaks on habits and decision-making to Fortune 500 companies.
James Clear is a writer and speaker focused on habits, decision making, and continuous improvement. He is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits. The book has sold over 5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages. Clear is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies and his work has been featured in places like Time magazine, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and on CBS This Morning. His popular “3-2-1” email newsletter is sent out each week to more than 1 million subscribers.