At the beginning of 2021, I was ready to level up and improve myself. One of the ways I planned to do so was through reading 1 book per month. More specifically, I wanted to read 1 personal development book per month.
I grew out of that pretty quickly as I realized that many of these personal development/self-help books are unrealistic. They would recommend to, "get up at 4 am, run 10 miles, take a cold shower," etc. The recommendations made no difference in my life. It was too much and I came to appreciate balance much more than these books told me I should.
That said, one of the books I read was "Atomic Habits" by James Clear. This book focused on how to build great habits through simple, applicable steps. I can confidently say that everyone can take something from "Atomic Habits" to create good habits and cut out the bad ones.
Here's exactly what you need to know from "Atomic Habits" by James Clear.
Why Should We Build Habits?
There is a common misconception that by falling into a routine, our life becomes monotonous and robotic. This is true to an extent, but it is no reason to neglect building good habits.
Building good habits will free you more than locking you into any way of life. By building good habits, we free up brainpower and have the freedom to make the more important decisions. We can be creative and innovative.
Think of it similarly to how Steve Jobs used to wear the same thing every day; it was one less decision he had to make. Steve Jobs is an extreme example, but the principle applies nonetheless.
Habits do the same thing in that they reduce the number of decisions we have to make, leaving us fresh and energized for when we truly need it.
How to Build Great Habits
Whether or not we acknowledge it, our lives are just a conglomeration of our daily habits. We wake up in the morning at a specific time, and then maybe brush our teeth or work out. We repeat these small actions every single day.
From this, we can see that our habits are small, but they can compound and create drastic changes over time. If you made small changes to your eating habits, you would see drastic differences in the long run. This is essential to keep in mind: small habits compound to create big change.
Another key concept to keep in mind is that systems should be prioritized over goals. Goals are great for direction but do not bring results by themselves; the system brings the results.
Through smaller habits and systems, we can build great habits. To build these small habits and systems for action, we rely upon the four laws mentioned in "Atomic Habits."
Four Laws of Habit-Building
Habits are made out of cues, cravings, responses, and rewards. Cues are what prompt us to act in the first place, cravings are the reason we want to act, the response is our actual habit or behavior, and the reward is what we seek to achieve from our habit or behavior.
To build long-term habits, all four of these stages must be met. One missing piece can easily demolish the longevity of any given habit. We meet all four stages by following the four laws, each of which corresponds to its' own stage.
Law #1: Make It Obvious
The first law corresponds with the first stage of habit-building: cues. By making cues obvious, we eliminate the guesswork involved in beginning a specific habit.
A great way to make cues obvious is through the use of an implementation intention. An implementation intention is a sentence block we can fill out to define when a habit is to be performed.
"I will [behavior] at [time] in [location]."
For example, "I will run at 9 am in my neighborhood. This eliminates all ambiguity in whether or not to act. Simply follow the intention. The more defined, the better.
More specifically, we can use these intentions to habit stack. Habit stacking is performing habits in successive order: one habit, then the next, then the next, so on and so forth.
"After I [pre-existing habit], I will [new habit]."
By using an existing habit, we can add new habits seamlessly and scale up to large chains of habits. The end of one behavior serves as a cue to start the next one; it doesn't get more obvious than that.
Law #2: Make It Attractive
The second law corresponds to the second stage of habit-building: cravings. Making behavior more attractive increases the chance that we will perform said behavior.
One way to make habits more attractive is to pair a habit you need to do with something you want to do. This is also known as temptation bundling. Because we get to do what we want to do, doing what we need to do automatically becomes more attractive.
An example of temptation bundling would be if I wanted to watch a movie but I also needed to study for my physics test. If I study physics for an hour, then I can watch my movie. I have to study (what I need to do) to watch my movie (what I want to do).
Another way to make habits more attractive is to insert yourself into a culture or group which encourages the behavior you are trying to achieve. We as humans have a tribe mindset, and we conform to act similarly to those around us. Therefore, if those around us exhibit our desired behavior, it is that much more attractive for us to also display the same behavior.
If you wanted to become a writer, join a writing group. If you want to become someone who hikes, join a hiking group. Being around others not only encourages your desired behavior but also reinforces your identity surrounding that specific behavior.
Law #3: Make It Easy
The third law corresponds to the third stage of habit-building: our response. Our response is the actual habit we perform, so this is arguably the most crucial step to building good habits.
Naturally, we choose the road most traveled; we want the easy way out that gives us the best results for the least effort. Honestly, who wouldn't? By making actions easier to perform, we will likely choose the easier action over the more involved action.
A great way to make actions easier to take is through controlling our environment, also known as environment design.
Environment design allows us the opportunity to remove the friction that is keeping us from performing any given behavior. Anything that makes an action harder to perform could be considered friction.
For example, if I wanted to sit down and practice an instrument for an hour, I could do a few things to create an optimal environment that would make it easier for me to practice. I could leave my guitar in sight as a reminder, and I could remove my phone from the room to reduce distractions. These are just examples as there are many ways to manipulate your environment.
Using gateway habits is also great for making habits easy to perform. Instead of setting out to run an hour every day, start by walking for 10 minutes. Slowly but surely, you can scale your habits up to exactly where you want to be.
Law #4: Make It Satisfying
The fourth law corresponds to the final stage of habit-building: the reward. We take action for the reward, plain and simple. So, we must reward ourselves for performing a good habit to positively reinforce that habit.
The best way to make a behavior satisfying is to track it. By checking habits off as you perform them, you keep track of your habits and visually see your progress.
It is important to track your habits as you perform them because reinforcement must be immediate. What is immediately rewarded will be repeated.
Disclaimer: don't let habit tracking control you or convince you that habits are all or nothing. It is imperative to get back on track when we fly off the rails. No one is perfect; it's perseverance that brings results.
"Atomic Habits" is a cheat code to create the life you've been wanting. I regret not implementing the points I mention in this article into my life to the extent that I should have. Writing this was a great chance for me to skim and reflect on the book again so I can use all the information.
Regardless, I can't do the book justice in one article. I would go pick it up for yourself (or shoot me a message and I'd be happy to let you borrow my copy).
I'll leave you with a cheat sheet for everything I mentioned in this article. You can find the cheat sheet at: https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits/cheatsheet.
Thank you for reading!