James Clear is a best-selling author and world leading expert on habit formation. Reading this book allows us to appreciate the magnitude of the decisions that we make on a daily basis. It provides numerous ideas on how to overcome the barriers to creating good habits that we face. If you do go on to read the book, I hope that you extract as much value from it as I did. Here are some of my main takeaways:
Create systems of habits, not goals.
‘Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.’
‘An atomic habit is a little habit that is part of a larger system.’
‘An atomic habit refers to a tiny change, a marginal gain, a 1 percent improvement.’
Clear argues that we should be more concerned with our current daily habits than our current results. Our results are a lagging indicator of our habits. For example, your knowledge is a lagging indicator of how much you read and learn every week. Further, we should shift our focus from setting goals to building systems of habits. A goal might be to have a six pack. Your system is how often you work out and train your abs, as well as your diet. Though goals can help to motivate us, systems help us to achieve results. This is a powerful framing because it changes our focus from attaining one-off goals to maintaining our routines for the long term. Our aim should not be to win one match, but to continue playing the game.
‘Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress’.
Identity change is an important part of habit change.
Clear differentiates between outcome-based and identity-based habits.
‘With outcome-based habits, the focus is on what you want to achieve. With identity-based habits, the focus is on who you wish to become.’
Behaviour that is incongruent with the self will not last.’
Our actions are based on our system of beliefs and worldview. Hence, we need to ensure compatibility between our habits and our beliefs. For instance, if you see yourself as a fit person, you might find it easier to stick to your workout routine. Identity change can be achieved through repeating behaviours which are in line with this identity. If you train each day, this builds up evidence to support your belief that you are an athletic person.
Set implementation intentions to make your habits obvious.
An implementation intention is ‘a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. That is, how you intend to implement a particular habit.’
‘Broadly speaking, the format for creating an implementation intention is: “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”’
The most common features of an implementation intention are location and time. For example, every day at 11am I will workout in my living room. Through repeating this process, you will start to feel the urge to complete your task at the assigned time. One particular form of implementation intention is habit stacking. This involves finding a behaviour that you already complete every day and stacking a new habit on top. For instance, every morning after I turn off my alarm, I will make my bed. Habit stacking is effective because it makes our intentions specific. Comparing the habit of ‘reading more’ with that of ‘reading 20 pages before going to sleep’, the latter gives us a clearer idea of what we need to do.
Design your environment to make your habits easy.
‘Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your own life. Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it.’
‘Most people live in a world others have created for them.’
Habits are triggered by environmental cues. We can exploit this phenomenon through creating obvious visual cues in our surroundings. Placing your guitar in your living room offers a constant reminder to practise. Buying a box of ‘thank you’ cards makes it easier to foster the habit of sending them out. The idea is to make your desired choice the most obvious. Clear also recommends adopting the ‘one space, one use’ mantra. This could mean assigning separate spaces for working, exercising and sleeping. Environmental design is effective because it allows us to reduce our reliance on self-control. In the short term, self-control alone can help us to overcome temptation. But in the long term, our behaviour is a product of our environment.
Find a commitment device.
‘A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that locks in better behaviour in the future.’ ‘By utilising commitment devices...you can create an environment of inevitability - a space where good habits are not just an outcome you hope for but an outcome that is virtually guaranteed.’
Time consistency is the idea that we value rewards differently over time. We tend to assign a higher weighting to satisfaction in the present than in the future. It is easy to see the long term benefits of learning a new language for our future self. But, in the short term, we tend to place a greater weight on immediate gratification. Commitment devices allow us to leverage our good intentions before we are tempted to deviate. For example, at the moment you are feeling inspired to study in the morning, you may choose to place your phone in a different room, to avoid the temptation of checking notifications. In Homer's 'The Odyssey', Ulysses anticipates that he will be enticed by the Sirens’ enchanting songs and tempted to jump into the sea after them. Hence, he makes the choice to ‘tie himself to the mast’ to prevent this. Locking in future actions gives us the freedom to not be ruled by desires in the future.
Track your progress.
There are many ways to track a habit. For example, you could take a calendar and mark a cross on each day that you exercise. Following the rule, ‘don’t break the chain’ can be useful to help encourage us to complete our tasks. Further, we often believe that we behave better than we do. Habit tracking is powerful because it prevents us from lying to ourselves. Tracking your progress can also be a source of motivation on a bad day. It can be uplifting to see how far you have come. Though it is inevitable that our chain will eventually break, what matters is that we get back up and keep going the next day.
‘This is a distinguishing feature between winners and losers. Anyone can have a bad performance, a bad workout, or a bad day at work. But when successful people fail, they rebound quickly. The breaking of a habit doesn’t matter if the reclaiming of it is fast.’
‘As Charlie Munger says, “The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessarily.”’