“Habits are like the atoms of our lives. Each one is a fundamental unit that contributes to your overall improvement” — James Clear, Atomic Habits
It’s not a new idea. Or a groundbreaking philosophy which our parents did not try to distill in us at a time, when we thought we knew better or were too lazy. But the thing about ideas and communication is that, for them to stick, you need to reiterate.
Atomic Habits became a runaway bestseller on the NYT charts and the credit of a successful book lies with its author. When writers can communicate an idea which resonates with millions overnight — there is something in that writing that people from various cultures and backgrounds can relate to immediately. James Clear does that with finesse and expertise.
Here are 7 key insights from his book worth imbibing.
#1 — Small actions done regularly can become habits that change your life
As a species who love instant gratification, our biggest challenge with adopting habits is that our actions today don’t always have an impact tomorrow. Tiny changes have negligible immediate impact. Playing the violin for 20 minutes one day will not make us concert violinists the next day. Conversely having a glass of whiskey today won’t make us alcoholics tomorrow.
Repeat those actions every day for six months and in all possibility we will be able to play a better violin solo or end up in AA with an alcohol abuse problem.
Habit rewards come from compounding. Most of us know this, but the challenge lies in building the patience, discipline and mental will that is required to pursue a habit that we want to adopt.
There is no easy solution to this. The only way is to find successes in our past, and analyse what led to it. In most cases there will be repetition of some activities that led us to that success. This will differ for each individual based on their background, culture and upbringing. Making realistic choices is essential. Trying to change many things at one time will almost never work. So being picky on the few things we want to change is key.
The second step is disassociating everyday action with ultimate reward, but doubling down on associating everyday action with everyday reward. Again, very hard, which is why choosing things that we enjoy doing, have better chances of success. The everyday action has to provide some immediate reward in the form of joy, satisfaction, self actualisation or adrenalin which can help us to keep going.
The idea is to create a daily trajectory of activities, and finding joy in exercising that trajectory.
Purpose is the third step. What we chose to imbibe as a habit, needs to be associated with a purpose that matters to us. Inherently. Only purpose has the power to make us focus on long term goals.
We cannot re-invent ourselves completely. Hence, ambitious self changing prophecies often fail. But we can do things slightly differently everyday. Test if they drive marginal improvements for things and people that matter to us. Whatever does drive marginal improvement is where the opportunity lies. That’s where habits can be cultivated. Because what is marginal today can compound tomorrow to something much bigger if done regularly.
In short, trajectory matters more than the end point. If we are true to trajectory, the reward takes care of itself.
2#- Experience drives human behaviours and thereby habits
What we learn through our experience becomes an automated behaviour for us, thereby forming habits. Our brain figures out how to respond to situations through a process of trial and error. So we err on the side of error until we figure out a solution. Then the activity and its corresponding impact become second nature to us.
“Nineteenth-century psychologist Edward Thorndike famously demonstrated this with an experiment where cats were placed in a black box. Unsurprisingly, each cat immediately tried to escape from the box, sniffing at its corners and clawing at its walls. Eventually, the cat would find a lever that, when pressed, would open a door, enabling escape.
Thorndike then took the cats that’d successfully escaped and repeated the experiment. His findings? Well, 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.
Thorndike had discovered that behaviours that give satisfying consequences — in this case, gaining freedom — tend to be repeated until they become automatic”
Habits begin with a cue, or a trigger to act, which leads to a reward. Let’s take the act of having a morning shower. Waking up is our cue, triggering a craving to feel alert. Our response is to crawl out out of bed and stand under a hot stream of water to enable a feeling of cleanliness and freshness. Our reward is feeling alert and ready to face the world.
A satisfying consequence to an otherwise grungy feeling of laziness.
#3- Habits require a plan of action built around cues
We all have certain cues that trigger a set of habits in us. These are mostly directed by personal experiences and/or compulsion. Research shows that simple changes to our environment can make a big difference to the habits we imbibe.
“Anne Thorndike wanted to improve her patients’ dietary habits without requiring them to make a conscious decision. How did she pull this off? She had the hospital cafeteria rearranged. Originally, the refrigerators next to the cash registers contained only soda. Thorndike introduced water, not only there, but at every other drink station. Over three months, soda sales dropped by 11 percent, while water sales shot up by 25 percent. People were making healthier choices, just because the cue to drink water rather than soda was more prominent.”
Understanding the stimuli that prompt specific behaviour in us is key towards understanding the formation of habits. The next step is to commit action to those stimuli which cause behaviours that we want to convert into habits.
Example — We all intend to be healthy, but what is required is a committed action to support that intent on a regular basis. We need to commit the dates, the time and the duration to carry out a regular set of activities like gymming, cycling, running to make our wish of healthy living into a habit.
We also need to have a plan of action around achievable goals, since doing it for one day is not going to get us our six packs. Eg: daily 1 km or running or 10 minutes of rowing or 3 miles of cycling. Daily achievable goals give us instant gratifcation. Once these activities become a part of our daily life, they automatically become habits.
#4 — The anticipation of reward is as good as the reward itself when it comes to habits
“In 1954, neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran an experiment to test the neurology of desire. Using electrodes, they blocked the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in rats. To their surprise, the rats simply lost the will to live. They had no desire to eat, drink, reproduce or do anything else. Mere days later, they all died of thirst.
The human brain releases dopamine, a hormone that makes us feel good, when we do pleasurable things such as eating or having sex. But we also get a hit of feel-good dopamine when we simply anticipate those pleasurable activities. It’s the brain’s way of driving us onward and encouraging us to actually do things. So, in the brain’s reward system, desiring something is on par with getting something, which goes a long way toward explaining why kids enjoy the anticipation of Christmas so much. It’s also why daydreaming about your upcoming hot date is so pleasurable.”
Hence, building anticipation for a reward can help us in building habits. But let’s be honest. Most habits we aspire for, need a modicum of effort on an everyday basis which can be quite unappealing. So, if we could reward ourselves with something we enjoy, for every time we put in the effort, we can habitually start to do that activity, in anticipation of that good feeling.
It can give us that dopamine hit.
Ronan Byrne, an engineering student in Ireland, knew he should exercise more, but he got little enjoyment from working out. However, he did enjoy watching Netflix. So he hacked an exercise bike, connecting it to his laptop and writing code that would only allow Netflix to run if he was cycling at a certain speed. By linking exercise — literally — to a behavior that he was naturally drawn to, he transformed a distasteful activity into a pleasurable one.
#5- Habits need to be easy to adopt
By nature we abhor friction. Be it in relationships or at work. Activities that provide us with the maximum dopamine for the least amount of friction are the one’s we gravitate to, easily.
That’s why scrolling through social media is so addictive. It requires zero effort but provides us with more than adequate dopamine to keep us hooked.
Learning Japanese however, is quite not as easy.
Given that we only have limited time in a day to contribute to our hobbies and habits, this time is precious to us. We can use it to binge on social media or learn Japanese. However, the friction in learning Japanese is much higher than the friction involved in “liking” instagram posts. Hence in our limited free time, we lose the motivation to learn Japanese over time, since Instagram is just easier and more enjoyable.
The way to combat this by trying two things
- Having a dedicated plan towards learning Japanese in daily byte size bits, making it simpler
- Increasing the barriers to accessing “Instagram”
Making behaviors as easy as possible is key to turning them into habits. The first step is thereby to focus on reducing friction.
The second trick for making a habit easier in the long term is the two-minute rule, a way to make any new activity feel manageable. The principle is that any activity can be distilled into a habit that is doable within two minutes. Want to read more? Don’t commit to reading one book every week — instead, make a habit of reading two pages per night. Want to run a marathon? Commit to simply putting on your running gear every day after work.
#6- Instant gratification is essential for habits to stick
Academics say, that in today’s world we live in a delayed-return environment. This means that most of the things we do now, have a delayed return. Eg: we go to work today, but the return — a paycheck — doesn’t come until the end of the month.
Evolution wise though, our ancestors were more concerned with immediate returns, like finding shelter for the night or the next meal. Our brains (through evolution) are more wired to immediate returns than long term gains. This is precisely why vices are easier to acquire than good habits. Smoking can give us cancer in 20 years, but the immediate nicotine hit gives us a good feeling, making it a pleasurable activity.
Attaching an instant gratification to activities with a delayed return can thereby help us in crafting better habits.
A couple wanted to eat out less, cook more, get healthier and save money. To do so, they opened a savings account called “Trip to Europe,” and every time they avoided a meal out, transferred $50 to it. 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.
#7- Self binding contracts help track progress
Whether we are trying to writing a blog or giving up on smoking, managing our own behaviours can be hard.
Developing a habit contract goes a long way in managing behaviours, since it enforces a negative consequence for failing to be on track.
Bryan Harris, an entrepreneur from Nashville, 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, including tracking his food intake each day and weighing himself each week. Then he 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 social animals. We care about the opinions of those around us, so simply knowing that someone is watching you can be a powerful motivator for success.
A tiny change in our behaviour will not transform our life overnight. But if we can turn that behaviour into a habit that we perform every day it can absolutely transform us. Changing our life is not about making big breakthroughs or revolutionising our entire life. Rather, it’s about building a positive system of habits that, when combined, deliver remarkable results.
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.