James Clear is an author focused on habits, decision-making, and continuous improvement. He is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies and his work is used by teams in the NFL, NBA, and MLB.
This book gives a complete and practical guide of personal habits based on proven scientific research. The content is well-structured, and is divided into: Fundamentals, 4 Laws of Behavior Change, and Advanced tactics.
I personally think this is an important book in this fast-changing era. We have a very different environment today compared to our ancestors after thousand and hundred years of evolution, but the mechanism of our brain hasn’t changed much. We need to reeducate ourselves on how behaviors work to fit in our modern desire and to improve our life.
Idea 1: Tiny changes (plural) make a big difference.
The power of compounding, (Simplified model- 1% better every day for one year: 1.01³⁶⁵ = 37.78). Small improvements on every bit of your life accumulate into remarkable results. Inversely, repeated bad habits lead to toxic results.
It is a common trap to think we need massive changes or one key defining moment to achieve success. Also, when we fail to see tangible results, we slide back into our previous routine. The fact is the outcome will only be noticeable after crossing a critical threshold, and this comes from the previous accumulation of small habit changes.
Idea 2: Systems are more important than goals.
Goals only set the direction, systems are important for making actual progress. Winners and losers have the same goals, it is the system behind that sets the difference.
Achieving a goal is only a momentary change, you will need another burst of motivation for the next similar goal. It is like treating a symptom without addressing the cause. Fix the inputs and outputs will fix themselves. Long term success is about the sustainable cycle of continuous improvements.
Idea 3: True behavior change is identity change.
Two ways to resist a cigarette: #1 “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.”, #2 “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.” The latter response is more powerful, because they no longer identify as someone who smokes. The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity or belief. Identity-based habits >>> outcome-based habits.
Conversely, your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. The more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior.
Feedback loop: Your identity shapes your habits, and your habits shape your identity.
Core idea: Laws of behavior change.
The habit loop: #1 cue (noticing rewards), #2 craving (wanting rewards), #3 response (obtaining rewards), #4 reward (your brain remembers it for the future, the cycle repeats). The laws for each stage:
1st Law- Make it Obvious:
Idea 1: Behavior change always starts with awareness.
With enough practice, the brain predicts certain outcome without consciously thinking about it. The cues from the surrounding spark our habits (ex. the phone in our pocket). Our responses to them are so deeply encoded that it feels like the urge to act comes from nowhere.
To raise awareness of from nonconscious actions, create your Habits Scorecard. Observe and record your every tiny habit without judgement. You can even verbalize your actions before doing them. The goal is to simply notice what is actually going on.
Idea 2: Be specific, pair your habits with specific cues.
The simple sentence to implement a new habit: “I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].” It is much better than goals like “I’m going to eat healthier.” With enough repetition, you get an urge to do the right thing at the right time.
Habit-stacking. The formula: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].” The key is to tie your desired behavior into something you already do each day (ex. After I pour my cup of coffee each morning, I will meditate for one minute). Each action becomes a cue that triggers the next behavior.
Idea 3: Design your environment.
We are more likely to notice cues that stand out. Among all human sensory abilities, visual cue is more obvious to trigger behavior. (ex. If you want to practice guitar more frequently, place your guitar stand in the middle of the living room.)
Our behavior is influenced by our interaction with the environment. Whenever possible, avoid mixing the context of one habit with another. (ex. use different browsers for different purposes). It is easier to build new habits in a new environment because you are not fighting against old cues. (ex. move to another room or another chair to do different thing)
Idea 4: Self-control? Make it invisible.
Once habits are encoded, no matter how hard you try to resist them, you are more likely to fail when the cues reappear. A more reliable approach is to cut bad habits off at the source. (ex. leave your phone in another room for a few hours.)
The people with the best self-control are the ones who need to use it the least. Instead of wishing yourself to be more disciplined, create an environment that reduces exposure to the cue that causes bad habit.
2nd Law — Make it Attractive:
Idea 1: Make use of the anticipation of rewards.
Modern version of reality is highly engineered to exploit the temptation that evolved from our ancestors’ needs. (ex. social media, shopping, junk food, porn etc.)
It is the anticipation of a reward, not the fulfillment of it, get us to take action. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. You are wanting the rewards, which you do not necessarily like it.
Temptation bundling. Link an action “you want to do” with what “you need to do”. You’re will find a behavior attractive if you get to do one of your favorite things at the same time. Combine this with habit stacking: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED]. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].”
Idea 2: The role of surrounding people.
We imitate the habits unconsciously of three social groups: the close (friends and community), the many (social norm), and the powerful (who you admire).
Join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. If a behavior can get us approval, respect, and praise, we find it attractive.
Idea 3: Reprogram your predictions.
The cause of your habits is actually the prediction that precedes them. The prediction leads to a feeling. Whenever a habit successfully addresses a motive (checking phone to reduce anxiety), your brain develops a craving to do it again (it is not necessarily the best way to address it)
Reprogram hard habits, associate them with positive interpretation. Instead of telling yourself “I need to go run in the morning,” say “It’s time to build endurance and get fast.” Also, highlight the benefits of avoiding a bad habit to make it seem unattractive.
Create a motivation ritual by doing something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit. Many athletes associate certain rituals with feeling competitive and focused before the game.
3rd Law — Make it Easy:
Idea 1: Take action > in motion.
We often spend too much time on planning and strategizing. Those keep us in motion, but they don’t produce a result. They allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure.
If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. The more you repeat an activity, the more the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at that activity. It is about frequency, that is why “make it easy” is important.
Idea 2: The law of least effort.
Our brain is wired to conserve energy, we gravitate towards what is convenient. Technology is addictive because they are remarkably convenient. So, reduce friction for good habits. Prime your environment so it’s ready for immediate use. Want to exercise? Set out your workout clothes, shoes, gym bag, and water bottle ahead of time.
How about unwanted behavior? Create a setup that produces just enough friction to prevent mindless action. (ex. unplug television after watching it, only plug it back in if you can say out loud the name of the show you want to watch.)
Idea 3: Habits are entry point.
Many habits occur at decisive moments, they determine the path you take. These little choices stack up, each one setting the trajectory for how you spend the next chunk of time.
Two-minute rule: A new habit should take less than two minutes to start. Any habit can be scaled down. (ex. “Do thirty minutes of yoga” becomes “Take out my yoga mat.”) What you need is a entrance that leads into the state of deep focus to do great things.
Idea 4: Design your actions by commitment devices.
A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future. (ex. purchase food in individual packages rather than in bulk size to reduce overeating.) It enables you to take advantage of present good intentions before you fall victim to temptation.
Take onetime actions that automate your future habits. (ex. buy a good mattress or enroll in an automatic savings plan.) On the other end, 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.
4th Law — Make it Satisfying
Idea 1: The mismatch between immediate and delayed rewards.
The flavors on toothpaste do not improve effectiveness, they simply create a “clean mouth” feel. It is the immediate reinforcement keeps us doing the habit. The human brain did not evolve for life in a delayed-return environment. You can’t rely on good intentions because instant gratification usually wins when making decision.
The ending of any experience is vital because we tend to remember it more. To get a habit to stick you need to feel immediately successful — even if it’s in a small way. Ex. someone want to cook more, he labels his savings account “Trip to Europe.” Whenever he skips going out to eat, $30 is put into the account. The money is later put toward the vacation. He makes his avoidance ‘visible’.
Idea 2: Track your habit, never miss twice.
Habit trackers and other visual forms of measurement can make your habits satisfying by providing clear evidence of your progress. More importantly, it makes you to be focused on the process rather than the final result.
Make tracking easier. #1 whenever possible, it should be automated. (You can get data from credit card usage or phone screen time.) #2 manual tracking should be limited to your most important habits. #3 record each measurement immediately after the habit occurs.
No matter how consistent you are with your habits, it is inevitable that life will interrupt you at some point. The simple rule: never miss twice. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit. I can’t be perfect, but I can avoid a second lapse.
Idea 3: Habit contract.
We repeat bad habits because they serve us in some way, and that makes them hard to abandon. The solution: increase the speed of the punishment associated.
A habit contract is a verbal or written agreement in which you state your commitment to a habit and the punishment that will occur if you don’t follow through. Simply having an accountability partner is also useful. We care deeply about what others think of us, and we do not want others to have a lesser opinion of us.
Idea 1: Hard truth about talent and genes.
The people at the top of any competitive field are not only well trained, they are also well suited to the task. Habits are easier when they align with your natural abilities. There are certain tasks we feel more engaged and has more ability to handle the pain of it compared to others.
Biological differences matter, BUT the fact that you have a natural limit to any specific ability has nothing to do with whether you are reaching the ceiling of your capabilities. Genes do not eliminate the need for hard work. They tell us what to work hard on.
Idea 2: Goldilocks Rule — not too hard, not too easy.
The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the optimal zone of difficulty. Not too hard. Not too easy. If you hit the zone just right, you can achieve a flow state.
The ability to keep going when work isn’t exciting makes the difference. Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. 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.
Idea 3: Reflection and review.
With habits, we might stop paying attention to little errors. Reflection and review allows you to remain conscious of your performance over time. You should keep fine-tuning your system.
Everything is impermanent. Life is constantly changing, so you need to periodically check in to see if your old habits and beliefs are still serving you.