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These 7+ Steps Will Help YOU Create Habits That Actually Change Your Life — by James Clear

“All big things come from small beginnings.”

Sarah Cy
Sarah Cy
Dec 26, 2018 · 29 min read

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About

This clear, well-organized, and straightforward book by well-known blogger James Clear takes a close look at habit formation and its importance to a person’s eventual success — in life, business, health, everything.

With interesting anecdotes, reviews at the end of each chapter, and powerful ideas expressed clearly (ha! Pun!), is a great book for anyone who is frustrated with the way they can’t seem to kick that one (or two dozen) bad habit(s) and wants to finally achieve health, fitness, financial freedom, great relationships, and a good life.

THE FUNDAMENTALS: WHY TINY CHANGES MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE

  • James’ story: Got hit by a baseball bat as a kid. Nearly died. Nov 2012, began publishing articles on jamesclear.com re: personal habit experiments. 2015: book deal with Penguin Random House to write this book. 2016: wrote for Time, Entrepreneur, Forbes. 2017: started Habits Academy.
  • Naval Ravikant: “To write a great book, you must first become the book.”

Chapter 1: The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits

  • In 2003, British Cycling changed when Dave Brailsford decided to aggregate marginial gains, breaking down everything about riding a bike intending to improve it all by 1% (including redesigning more comfortable seats, rubbing alcohol on tires for better grip, etc)

It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.

  • Habits multiply like money with compound interest. It takes 2–5–10 years to see the value or cost of habits

It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success…you get what you repeat.

  • Time multiplies whatever you feed it.
  • Knowledge compounds: reading doesn’t teach you something new but gives you different ways to think about old ideas.

What progress is really like

  • An ice cube won’t melt aat 29, 30, 31 degrees. But at 32, it starts to melt = breakthrough. Breakthroughs are due to many previous actions built up. Bamboo spends 5 years growing underground, then shoots up “overnight”
  • To make a meaningful difference, habits have to persist through the Plateau of Latent Potential.
  • Work isn’t wasted, but stored. Success isn’t linear, there is a valley of disappointment then an upshoot.

All big things come from small beginnings.

Forget about goals, focus on systems instead

  • Goals = results you want. Systems = processes to lead to those results.
  • With the right process, the score takes care of itself. “If you want better results, then forget about setting goals.”
  • There are 4 problems with goals:
  1. Winners and losers have the same goals: Don’t just look at successful people’s goals — many unsuccessful people have the same ones. It isn’t the goal that creates success, but the SYSTEM.
  2. Achieving a goal = momentary change: You’ll always be chasing the same result if you treat a symptom without addressing the cause/system behind it. Goals are temporary. Results are not the problem. We have to change the systems that cause those results.
  3. Goals restrict your happiness: If you think only achieving goals makes you happy, you will only be happy for short times — when you’ve achieved a goal. But your path in life won’t match your ideal path. You need to love the process > the product so you can be happy as long as your system is running.
  4. Goals conflict with long-term progress: Goal-orientation can create a yoyo effect. If you stop training after you hit the finish line, if you’re only motivated when you have a race to run, you have nothing to push yourself when you’ve achieved it. Build systems to continue playing the game — long-term thinking.
  • If you have trouble changing habits, the problem is your system, not you.

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

Summary

  • Habits = compound interest. 1% improvement every day = huge benefit in the end.
  • Habits are a double edged sword working for or against you.
  • Small changes seem to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold.

Chapter 2: How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (And Vice Versa)

Changing habits is hard because:

  1. We try to change the wrong thing
  2. We try to change habits in the wrong way.

There are 3 layers of behavior change, from outside to inside:

  1. change in outcome (results) What you get.
  2. processes (habits and systems and routines) What you do.
  3. and identity (beliefs, worldview, self-image, judgments of yourself and others) What you believe.

When quitting smoking, one person says “I’m trying to quit” = they believe they’re a smoker who is trying to be something else. The other person says “No thanks, I don’t smoke.” They have embraced a new life where smoking is not their identity.

But your old identity can sabotage your new plans for change.

Behind every system of actions are a system of beliefs…behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last.

Another ex: a man who chewed his nails as a nervous habit stopped when he got a manicure and realized that he had healthy, attractive nails. His pride in his nails caused him to stop chewing.

In other words, the more PRIDE you have in some aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain habits associated with it.

True behavior change is identity change.

The only way you stick to a habit is when it becomes part of your identity. What you do indicates what type of person you believe you are, consciously or unconsciously.

The goal:

  • Not to read more books, but to be a READER
  • Not to run a marathon, but to be a RUNNER
  • Not to play an instrument, but to be a MUSICIAN

We often repeat our identity through stories like “I have a bad memory,” “I’m bad at math,” “I’m not a morning person.” When we do that, we create mental grooves and accept these statements as fact.

The biggest barrier to positive change at any level — individual, team, society — is identity conflict.

Progress requires unlearning.

You’ll need to continuously edit your beliefs, upgrading and expanding your identity.

Habits are how you embody your identity. Frequent habits modify your self-image. Accumulating evidence causes your self-image to change.

Identity comes from the Latin “essentitas” = being, and “identidem” = repeatedly. Ergo, identity = repeated beingness.

The process of building habits is actually the process of becoming yourself…We are continually undergoing microevolutions of the self.

Each habit is like a suggestion: “Hey, maybe this is who I am.”

As the “votes” (actions) mount up, you build evidence to change your story and yourself. And you don’t need unanimous votes to win an “election,” just the majority vote. Your goal: win most of the time.

New identities requiries new evidence.

How to begin identity change:

  • Ask yourself “Who is the type of person that could get the outcome I want?”
  • Now start making small steps to reinforce the desired identity by asking, “What would [a healthy person] do?”

Your habits shape your identity and vice versa. But let your values, principles, and identity drive the loop rather than the results. Focus on being a particular type of person, not getting a particular result.

The first step is not WHAT or HOW, but WHO.

Summary

  • 3 levels of change: outcome, process, identity
  • To change, focus on WHO you want to be, not WHAT you want to achieve
  • Identity emerges out of habits. Every action is a vote for your identity.
  • Habits matter not because they get you resuts but because they change your beliefs about yourself.

Chapter 3: How to Build Better Habits in 4 Simple Steps

Author starts with an anecdote about an 1898 experiment by Edward Thorndike involving teaching cats to get out of a maze. Each time, cats learned faster and their actions became more automatic.

Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment. — Jason Hreha

The conscious mind is the “bottleneck” of the brain. Habits allow you to conserve conscious attention for more essential tasks.

Habits do not restrict freedom. They create it…it’s only by making the fundamentals of life easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity.

How habits worok:

  1. Cue: a trigger to the brain. Cues are meaningless until they are interpreted by thoughts, feelings, emotions of the observer into a…
  2. Craving: motivational force behind every habit. You crave the change in internal state that the habit delivers. (Eg: it’s not the cigarette you want, but the relief it brings)
  3. Response: the habit you perform (thought or action). Depends on your ability and motivation, and leads to…
  4. Reward: the end goal of every habit.

1+2 = Problem phase. 3+4 = Solution phase.

All behavior is driven by desire to obtain good or relieve pain.

The 4 Laws of Behavior Change

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

How to Break a Bad Habit

  1. Make it invisible
  2. Make it unattractive
  3. Make it difficult
  4. Make it unsatisfying

Summary

  • Habits are behaviors repeated until they’re automatic, which helps solve life problems with as little energy as possible.
  • Every habit consists of a feedback loop of 4 steps: cue, craving, response, reward.
  • The Four Laws of Behavior Change are easy rules to build better habits. Invert them to learn how to break habits.

THE 1ST LAW: MAKE IT OBVIOUS

Chapter 4: The Man Who Didn’t Look Right

Clear begins w ith a story told to him by psychologist Gary Klein, about a former paramedic who detected and averted her father-in-law’s imminent heart attack before anyone else sensed anything was wrong, just by looking at his face.

Many experts in different fields have had the same super power: military analysts (Gulf war, Michael Riley), radiologists, museum curators, etc. Why? Because human brains are prediction machines.

The surprising thing about habits:

You don’t have to be aware of a cue for the habit to begin. This is what makes habits both useful AND dangerous.

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate. — Carl Jung

In Japan, they have a process called Pointing-And-Calling, a safety system where each train operator has to point and verbalize things. Ex: point at a signal and say “signal is green.” Or point at the platform and say “All clear!”

This seems silly but reduces errors by 85% and accidents by 30%. This system once saved a woman who had her arm caught by a train door.

Many failures are simply due to lack of self-awareness. So the way to change habits is to maintain awareness of what we’re doing.

Exercise — Make a Habits Scorecard:

  • Make a list of your daily habits
  • Now look at each behavior and mark them positive (+) negative (-) or neutral (=)
  • Ask yourself if this habit helps you become the type of person you want to be. Does it cast a vote for your desired identity?
    Remember, all habits serve you in some way — even bad ones. That’s why you repeat them.
  • You can also try the Point-and-Call system in your life. Say the action you are thinking of and the outcome. Ex “I’m about to eat this cookie, but I don’t need it. Eating it will make me gain weight and hurt my health.”

Summary

  • Your brain picks up on cues without consciously thinking about it.
  • Habits that are automated = we stop paying attention to them.
  • To change, you have to be aware of your habits.
  • Use a Habit Scorecard and Pointing-and-Calling to raise awareness

Chapter 5: The Best Way to Start a New Habit

In a 2001 British experiment on exercise, researchers found that the group that formulated a plan for when/where they’d exercise followed through more than the group that only received motivational info.

Implementation intention: a plan you make beforehand about when/where to act. How you INTEND to IMPLEMENT a particular habit.

Here’s how to create one:

  • “When situation X occurs, I will respond with Y.”
  • “I will [Behavior] at [Time] in [Location]”
  • Be specific! Vague dreams = easy to rationalize little exceptions.

Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity.

The best time to start a new habit is at the beginning of a week, month, or year. Hope tends to be higher then.

The Diderot Effect: obtaining one new possession often creates a spiral of consumption. eg: you buy a dress…and shoes…and earrings…to complete the outfit.

You often decide what to do next based on what you just finished doing. Going to the bathroom →washing hands →drying hands →oh yeah, you have to do laundry…etc.

No behavior happens in isolation. Each action becomes a cue that triggers the next behavior.

You can use this to your benefit.

Habit stacking: Using an existing habit as a base for your new habit. See BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program.

  • “After [current habit] I will [new habit]”
  • Eg: “After I take off my work shoes, I will change into workout clothes.”

The key to making this work is to pick the right cue to kick things off. Consider when you’re most likely to be successful.

Habit stacking works best when the cue is extremely specific and immediately actionable. Eg: not just “when I break for lunch I will do 10 pushups.” but “when I close my laptop for lunch, I”ll do 10 pushups by my desk.” No more ambiguity.

Summary

  • 1st law: Make it obvious.
  • 2 common cues: time and location
  • Use implementation intention strategies to pair a habit with time and location.
  • Habit stacking pairs a new habit with a current one.

Chapter 6: Motivation is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More

Anne Thorndike redesigned the hospital caffeteria to encourage people to drink water by adding water to the fridges by the cash registers and placing water everywhere.

Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.

The most common form of change isn’t internal, but external: we’re changed by the world around us. Every habit is context dependent.

Behavior is a function of the Person in their Environment, or B = f(P,E) — Kurt Lewin, 1936

People buy things not because they want them, but because of how the products are presented to them. Visual cues are our greatest behavior catalyst, since vision is one of our most powerful abilities.

How to design your successful environment:

  • Make cues stand out (if you want to read, put a book on your pillow, not a bookshelf)

Our behavior is determined by our relationship to objects. Stop thinking about your environment as filled with objects, but as filled with relationships. How do you interact with spaces around you? (Eg: couch can be a place for reading or for TV)

Habits can be easier to change in a new environment.

Create separate spaces for different things: work, study, exercise, entertainment, cooking. One space, one use. Avoid mixing the context of one habit with another. Habits thrive under predictable circumstances.

Summary

  • Small changes in context = large changes in behavior over time.
  • We notice cues that stand out. Make cues obvious in your context.
  • It’s easier to build habits in new places because you’re not fighting old cues.

Chapter 7: The Secret to Self-Control

1971: many Vietnam War vets were addicted to heroin. But researcher Lee Robins found that when vets came home, most lost the addiction overnight.

Addictions can spontaneously dissolve if there is a radical change in the environment.

People who are “disciplined” only appear so because they have structured their lives in a way that does NOT require heroic willpower/self-discipline.

Habits encoded create an urge to act whenever the environmental cues appear. Ex: a smoker who used to smoke while riding her horse quit both smoking and horse riding for years. The first time she got on a horse again, she suddenly had an urge to smoke.

Bad habits are autocatalytic: the process feeds itself. They foster the feelings they try to numb. Feel bad →eat junk food →feel worse. Watching TV →feel sluggish →watch more TV because you don’t want to move.

You can break a habit, but you won’t relaly forget it. It’s hard to consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.

How to break bad habits. Invert the 1st Law of Behavior Change: Make it INVISIBLE.

Remove a single cue and often the entire habit fades away.

Self-control is for the short term, not a long term strategy.

Summary

  • Invert the 1st law of behavior for bad habits: make them invisible
  • Formed habits are hard to forget.
  • High self control people really just spend less time in tempting situations.
  • Reduce exposure to the cue to eliminate a bad habit.

THE 2ND LAW: MAKE IT ATTRACTIVE

Chapter 8: How to Make a Habit Irresistible

1940s: Niko Tinbergen did an experiment with gulls and found that baby chicks pecked at a red dot on their parents’ beak for food. He found that even fake beaks with large red dots would cause the babies to peck for food. This is called supernormal stimuli, a heightened version of reality.

Humans also fall for this. Junk food drives our reward system crazy because it has so much fat and sugar in it.

Society is filled with highly engineered versions of reality that are more attractive than the world our ancestors [lived] in.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that causes us to desire things. Without it, animals don’t want to eat or do anything, and they die of thirst. Without desire, action stops.

Habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop. When you predict something will be rewarding, your dopamine levels spike, and so does your motivation.

Use temptation bundling to make your habits more attractive: link an action you WANT to do with one you NEED to do. Ex: Ronan Byrne created an exercise machine linked to a TV. In order to watch his favorite show, he had to keep cycling at a certain speed.

Premack’s Principle: more probable behaviors reinforce less probable behaviors. This is the psych theory that is applied when you do temptation bundling. You will be conditioned to do something you have to do (but don’t want to do) if you combine it with something you want to do.

Ex: “After [habit I need] I will [habit I want]” = After I call three clients, I will check ESPN.

Summary

  • 2nd Law of Behavior Change: make it attractive
  • Habits are dopamine-driven feedback loops. The more dopamine, th emore motivation.
  • It is the ANTICIPATION of reward, not fulfillment itself, that makes us act. The greater the anticipation, the bigger the dopamine spike.
  • Temptation bundling can help make habits more attractive.

Chapter 9: The Role of Family and Friends in Shaping Your Habits

1965 the Polgar sisters all became grand champions in chess because their home environment promoted chess above everything else.

Whatever habits are normal in your culture are among the most attractive behaviors you’ll find…[because] one of the deepest human desires is to belong.

We don’t choose our earliest habits, we imitate them.

Who do we imitate?

  1. The close — So join a culture where 1) your desired behavior is normal and 2) you already have something in common with that group so that change feels appealing because it feels like something people like you already do.
  2. The many — Look up Solomon Asch’s psychology experiments about line lengths. It showed: the more people, the more conformity. We look to the group when we’re unsure how to act.
  3. The powerful — We all want to be acknowledged/recognized/praised. We borrow our favorite famous people’s recipes, storytelling strategies, marketing tricks, communication styles, etc.

Summary

  • We tend to adopt habits praised by our culture because we want to fit in.
  • The 3 social groups that we imitate are the close (family/friends), the many (tribe), and the powerful (status/prestige)
  • To change your habits, join a culture where your desired behavior is normal and you have something in common
  • The behavior of the tribe often overpowers the individual

Chapter 10: How to Find and Fix the Causes of Your Bad Habits

Every behavior has a surface craving and a deeper motive. Some of these motives include:

  • Conserve energy
  • Obtain food, water, love, connection with others
  • Reduce uncertainty
  • Achieve status/prestige

But there are many ways to address the same underlying motive.

Habits are all about associations. We sense cues all the time, but it’s only when you think you’d be better off in a different state that you act.

Desire: the difference between where you are now and where you want to be in the future.

Even the tiniest action is tinged with the motivation to feel differently than you do in the moment…What you really want is to FEEL different.

When emotions are impaired we actually lose the ability to decide.

To reprogram your brain to enjoy hard habits: Change one word. Instead of “have to” you “get to.”

We can find evidence for whatever mind-set we choose.

So reframe your habits to highlight their benefits instead of their drawbacks. Ex: Exercise is not wearisome, but a way to develop skills and build you up.

You can also create a motivation ritual, practice associating your habits with something you enjoy. Ex: some writers put on headphones before writing to get themselves focused.

Summary

  • To invert the 2nd law of behavior change: make undesired behaviors unattractive.
  • Every behavior has an underlying motive, and your habits are solutions to deep desires.
  • The cause of your habits is the prediction that precedes the.
  • Highlight the benefits of avoiding a bad habit to make it unattractive.
  • Create a motivation ritual with something you enjoy right before a difficult habit, because habits are attractive when we associate them with positive feelings.

THE 3RD LAW: MAKE IT EASY

Chapter 11: Walk Slowly, but Never Backward

In David Bayles and Ted Orland’s book Art & Fear, there is a story that the art students asked to produce lots of art ended up producing better quality art than those who were told to do the best they could on one piece.

We can be so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get started. Some kinds of motion are not really action. Motion makes you FEEL like you’re getting things done, but you’re only PREPARING to get things done.

Long term potentiation: the more you repeat an activity, the more your brain structures change to be efficient at that thing. Ex: musicians have a larger cerebellum (the cerebellum directs physical m ovements)

Simply putting in your reps is one of the most critical steps you can take to encode a new habit.

Don’t ask “how long does it take to build a new habit,” ask “how MANY [reps] does it take to form a new habit.” What matters is the RATE at which you perform the behavior, the frequency.

Summary:

  • 3rd law of behavior change: make it easy.
  • Practice > planninng. Action > motion.
  • Habit becomes automatic through repetition.
  • Number of reps > amount of time performing a habit.

Chapter 12: The Law of Least Effort

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond points out that the shapes of countries led to the proliferation of agriculture and therefore civilization.

Conventional wisdom says motivation is the key to habit change. If you REALLY wanted it, you’d do it. But our real motivation is to be lazy. And that is actually a smart strategy — we’re wired to conserve energy because it’s precious.

The less energy a habit takes, the more likely it will happen.

You don’t want the habit itself. You want the outcome the habit delivers. That’s why it’s crucial to make your habits so easy/convenient, you’ll do them even when you don’t feel like it.

Make as many things work in your favor as possible so that you can overcome life challenges that always come.

Addition by subtraction: Japanese companies looked for areas in manufacturing where they could eliminate friction. Similarly, we can look for how to remove points of friction to do more with less effort.

The most habit-forming products try to remove friction.

Business is a never-ending quest to deliver the same result in an easier fashion.

Prime the environment for future use by “resetting it” — cleaning it up after the last action to prepare for the next action. Be “proactively lazy” so you don’t have to waste time doing things later.

Summary

  • Human behavior follows the Law of Least Effort
  • Create a frictionless environment associated with good behaviors to make habits easy. Prime the environment for the future.
  • Increase frictioin for bad behaviors

Chapter 13: How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the Two-Minute Rule

Twila Tharp, dancer, says her first ritual of the day is hailing a cab. (In order to go to the gym to work out for two hours).

Habits are automatic choices that influence the conscious decisions that follow. Habits can take a few seconds, but effect your actions for the next few hours. (Checking a phone “for a sec” can lead to frittering away hours)

Everything else is easy when you take the first step (decisive moments) like putting on your workout clothes.

Your options are constrained by what’s available. They are shaped by the first choice. (Choose to go to a sushi restaurant and you can’t eat steak. You can only have whatever’s on that menu).

Habits are the entry point, not the end point.

Two Minute Rule: when you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes. These are gateway habits that will lead to your desired outcome.

  • Ex: if you want to run, your gateway habit is to put on your running shoes. Then walk ten minutes. Then walk a thousand steps. Then run.
  • To start, force yourself to do the thing for 2 minutes and then stop, so it won’t feel forced. Ex: Greg McKeown built a daily journaling habit by writing LESS than he felt like.

Always stop when you are going good. — Ernest Hemingway

  • Nearly any large life goal can be transformed into a 2-min behavior.

The point is to master the habit of showing up…a habit must be established before it can be improved.

Summary

  • Habits can be done in a few seconds, but impact your behavior much longer than that
  • Habits occur at decisive moments, forks in the road, sending you in a productive or nonproductive direction
  • The Two Minute Rule: starting a new habit should take less than 2 minutes.
  • The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely you can slip into a state of deep focus.
  • You can’t improve a habit that doesn’t exist. Make a habit first.

Chapter 14: How to Make Good Habits Inevitable and Bad Habits Impossible

In 1830 Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in less than 6 months by locking away his clothes to force himself to stay inside and write, beating his procrastination.

Sometimes success is less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard.

Commitment device: What Hugo did. Made his bad habits difficult.

Ulysses pact: When Ulysses had his sailors tie him to the ship so he could hear the Sirens without steering the ship toward them and crashing. There are benefits of locking in future actions while your mind is in the right place rather than wait to see where your desires take you in the moment.

In the mid 1800s, John Henry Patterson of Ohio stopped his employees from stealing from him by buying a lockable cash register. He later went into the cash registry business.

A single choice can deliver returns again and again. Just like installing a cash register once can pay off again and again.

One time actions that lock in good habits:

  • Use smaller plates to reduce calories
  • Remove TV from room to sleep better
  • Unsubscribe from emails / set phone to silent / turn off notifications and mute group chats / delete games and social media apps for better productivity
  • Get a dog, move to a friendly neighborhood for happiness
  • Buy a supportive chair or standing desk for health
  • Set up auto pay for financial health

For things you have to do monthly or yearly (like rebalancing your investments) they aren’t done frequently enough to be a habit, so you can use technology to do them for you.

Technology can work for or against us. It lets us act on our smallest whims, and binge-watching TV is easy because it takes more effort to stop than to continue.

Minor distractions/taking a break can add up. Once you remove bad habits by making them impossible, you may find that you have more motivation to work on meaningful tasks.

Summary

  • To invert the 3rd law of behavior change: make it difficult.
  • A commitment device: a choice you make in the present that locks in better behavior in the future.
  • You can automate your habits using technology

THE 4TH LAW: MAKE IT SATISFYING

Chapter 15: The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change

In the laste 1990s, Stephen Luby went to Pakistan and helped Karachi slum residents improve life quality simply by promoting sanitation through pleasant smelling soap. People already knew they had to wash their hands, but they weren’t consistent. With the fragrant soap, people WANTED to wash their hands, so they did.

I see the goal…not as behavior change but as habit adoption. — Stephen Luby

Pleasure teaches your brain that a behavior is worth repeating. Ex: Wrigley’s made chewing gum taste good, and gum became a hit.

The cardinal rule of behavior change:

What is IMMEDIATELY rewarded is repeated. What is IMMEDIATELY punished is avoided.

But we live in a delayed-return environment. And our brains evaluate rewards inconsistently over time. We value present > future. A reward that is certain now is worth more than one that is possible in the future. (hyperbolic discounting; time inconsistency)

The problem with bad habits: consequences are delayed while rewards are immediate.

It almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa — Frederic Bastiat

General role: The more immediate pleasure you get from something, the more you should question whether it aligns with your goals.

You can train yourself to delay gratification, but you need to work with the grain of human nature, not against it: add immediate pleasure to habits you want, and immediate pain to pleasures you don’t.

The end of any experience is vital because we remember it better. Make sure the end of your habit is satisfying. Ex: If you skip your morning latte, reward yourself by transfering $5 to a savings account for something you want.

Remember: Select short term rewards that reinforce your identity rather than ones that conflict!

Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit.

Summary

  • 4th law of behavior change: make it satisfying.
  • We are more likely to repeat a behavior when it is satisfying.
  • To get a habit to stick, you need to make it feel immediately successful, even in a small way.

Chapter 16: How to Stick with Good Habits Every Day

In 1993, beginning stockbroker Trent Dyrsmid got himself to make 120 sales calls a day using a jar full of 120 paper clips. After each call, he would move a clip to another jar. Within a few years, he was making hundreds of thousands.

Making progress is satisfying and visual measures are clear evidence of progress.

Habit tracking: recording your last action can trigger/initiate your next one. Seeing a streak of X’s through your calendar can motivate you to keep the streak going.

And if you miss a day of the habits, tell yourself to keep going and “never miss twice.” Perfection is not possible, so don’t beat yourself up. But missing twice is the start of a new habit.

Too often we fall into an all-or-nothing cycle with our habits. The problem is not slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can’t do something perfectly, then you shouldn’t do it at all.

Lost days hurt you more than successful days help you.

The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessaril y— Charlie Munger.

That’s why even “bad workouts” are important. They maintain your compound gains. It’s not about what happens during your workout, but about being the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts.

The dark side of habit tracking: when we become driven by the number rather than the purpose behind it. Human minds want to win whatever game is being played.

Goodhart’s Law: We optimize for what we measure, so if we choose the wrong measurement, we get the wrong behavior. “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Summary

  • Making progress is one of the most satisfying feelings.
  • A habit tracker can help — like marking an X on the calendar each day. Visual reminders provide evidence of progress.
  • Don’t break the chain. Keep your habit streak going. If you miss, never miss twice.
  • Measure the right thing.

Chapter 17: How an Accountability Partner Can Change Everything

Roger Fisher came up with an interesting suggestion to keep the president from starting a nuclear war: implant the nuclear code next to the heart of a volunteer carrying a knife. If the president wanted to fire nuclear weapons, he’d have to physically kill the volunteer to do it — reality of tens of millions of deaths brought home.

The more immediate and costly a mistake, the faster you learn from it.

We repeat bad habits because they serve us in a way, making them hard to abandon.

Bryan Harris used Habit Contracts to keep himself working out. If he failed to meet his goals, he had to pay his trainer and wife.

Knowing that someone is watching can be a powerful motivator.

Summary

  • Inverting the 4th Law of Behavior Change: make it unsatisfying
  • We’re less likely to repeat painful/unsatisfying habits
  • Accountability partners can help create an immediate cost. We can draw up a habit contract with them. Knowing someone is watching is a powerful motivator.

ADVANCED TACTICS: HOW TO GO FROM BEING MERELY GOOD TO BEING TRULY GREAT

Chapter 18: The Truth About Talent (When Genes Matter and When They Don’t)

Michael Phelps is a powerful swimmer, partly because his body is built perfectly for swimming. But he would suck at running.

The secret to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition.

Habits are easier to do and more satisfying to stick witih when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities.

Genes don’t determine your destiny, but they determine your areas of opportunity.

Genes can predispose, but they don’t predetermine — Gabor Mate

Virtually every trait has a genetic component.

“We literally can’t find a single [trait] that isn’t influenced by our genes.” — Robert Plomin

Personality traits can be broken into the Big 5

  1. Openness to experience: curious vs cautious
  2. Conscientiousness: organized vs spontaneous
  3. Extroversion: outgoing vs reserved
  4. Agreeableness: friendly vs detached
  5. Neuroticism: anxious vs calm

All of these traits have genetic underpinnings.

Build habits that work with your personality. If you want to exercise you can do it alone or with others, etc. There’s a version of every habit that can bring you satisfaction. Find it. Habits must be enjoyable to stick.

In theory you can enjoy almost anything. In practice, you enjoy what comes easily to you. Play a game where the odds are in your favor.

Experiment: Spend 80–90% of your time on things that have proven to deliver results, and use the remaining 10–20% to explore other things.

Ex: Google asks employees to spend 80% work time on their official job and 20% on any project of their choice. This has led to creations like AdWords and Gmail.

As you explore, ask yourself:

  • What feels like fun to me but work to others? Whether or not you were made for a task often depends not on whether you love it but whether you can handle the pain of it better than most people.
  • What makes me lose track of time? Think of flow/being in the zone.
  • Where do I get greater returns than the average person? Behaviors are more satisfying when the comparison is in our favor.
  • What comes naturally to me? Ignore what society told you, what others expect of you. Ask when you have felt alive, like the real you. No second-guessing or criticism.

Ex: Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert:

Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand…”

When you can’t win by being better, you can win by being different. By combining your skills, you reduce the level of competition.

Specialization is a way to overcome the accident of genetics. The more you master a skill, the harder it is for others to compete with you.

Summary

  • Secret to maximizing your odds of success: choose the right field to compete in
  • Pick the right habit and progress is easy. Pick the wrong habit and life is a struggle.
  • Genes can’t be easily changed — they can be a powerful advantage or disadvantage, depending on the circumstances.
  • Habits are easier when they align with your natural abilities. Genes don’t remove hard work. They clarify — they tell us what to work on.

Chapter 19: The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and Work

Scientists are studying why some people persist until they succeed while others give up. How to maintain motivation and achieve peak levels of desire: work on tasks of “just manageable difficulty.”

The Goldilocks Rule: The brain loves challenges within an optimal zone of difficulty.

Also we need regular searches for challenges. Without variety, we get bored.

Passion isn’t everything: What separates Olympic athletes from others? At some point “it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day.”

Variable reward: habit-forming products (video games, slot machines) give rewards, but not at predictable intervals. Variable rewards don’t create cravings, but amplify them. But we can’t have variation all the time:

Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way.

Don’t be a “fair-weather” anything.

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.

Summary

  • Humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks on the edge of their current abilities.
  • The greatest threat to success is boredom, not failure.
  • The more routine the habits, the less satisfying they are. We get bored.
  • It’s the ability to keep working when the work is not exciting that makes the difference.

Chapter 20: The Downsides of Creating Good Habits

Habits are the foundation for mastery. Every memorized chunk of info opens mental space for more thinking.

The downside: as habits become automatic, you are less sensitive to feedback.

Mastery requires habits + deliberate practice.

You must progressively layer improvements on each other to reach new levels of performance.

Lakers coach Pat Riley helped them win by creating a Career Best Effort program and asking players to improve 1% over a season. He tracked not only points and rebounds, etc., but also things people don’t usually track — diving after loose balls, going after rebounds, helping teammates, etc.

The way to be successful is to learn how to do things right, then do them the same way every time. — Pat Riley

Top performers use reflection and review. We need to know if we are performing better or worse compared to yesterday.

Comedians keep track of killer lines. Executives keep “decision journals,” recording major decisions they make, why, and expected outcomes. Etc.

Improvement is not just about learning habits, it’s also about fine-tuning them.

The author performs an Annual Review each December. He tallies habits like workouts and articles, then answers 3 questions:

  1. What went well this year?
  2. What didn’t go so well this year?
  3. What did I learn?

6 months later, he does an Integrity Report to review core values and reflect on his identity and realign. Again, 3 questions:

  1. What are the core values that drive my life and work?
  2. How am I living and working with integrity right now?
  3. How can I set a higher standard in the future?

How to break beliefs that hold you back

The tighter we cling to an identity, the harder it becomes to grow beyond it.

Paul Graham: Keep your identity small. When you let a single belief define you, you’re less able to adapt when life challenges you.

When you spend your whole life defining yourself in one way and that disappears, who are you now?

To mitigate identity losses, redefine yourself so you get to keep important aspects of identity even if your role changes.

Ex: “I’m an athlete” → “I’m mentally tough and love physical challenges.” etc.

Life is always changing, so you need to check in regularly to see if your habits and beliefs still serve you.

Summary

  • Upside of habits: we do things without thinking. Downsides: we stop paying attention to little errors.
  • Reflection and review keeps you conscious of your performance over time.
  • The tighter we cling to an identity the harder it is to grow beyond it.

CONCLUSION: THE SECRET TO RESULTS THAT LAST

The Sorites Paradox: one coin can’t make you rich…But if you keep getting one more coin, one more coin, eventually you’ll be rich.

Atomic habits is about small improvements that gather. Eventually if you stick with them, you hit a tippig point.

Review: The Four Laws of Behavior Change

  1. make it obvious
  2. make it attractive
  3. make it easy
  4. make it satisfying

To break habits:

  1. make it invisible
  2. make it unattractive
  3. make it hard
  4. make it unsatisfying

The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It’s remarkable what you can build if you just don’t stop.

Small habits don’t add up. They compound. That’s the power of atomic habits. Tiny changes. Remarkable results.

APPENDIX

Little Lessons from the Four Laws

  • Happiness is the absence of desire. But it’s fleeting because another desire always comes along.
  • We chase the idea of pleasure. We don’t actually know if the attainment will satisfy (that’s why Victor Frankl said happiness can’t be pursued, it must ensue)
  • Peace means not turning observations into problems.
  • Emotions drive behavior. We can only be rational after we’ve been emotional. (That’s why appealing to emotion works better than appeals to reason)
  • Suffering: a desire for change in state. It is also the source of progress.
  • Seneca: being poor is not having too little, it is wanting more.
  • If your wants > your likes, you’ll always be unsatisfied.
  • Desire initiates, pleasure sustains.

Acknowledgments

  • Leo Babauta, Charles Duhigg, Nir Eyal, BJ Fogg

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