Atomic Habits by author James Clear is the kind of book that deserves a place on your shelf as it provides a step-by-step plan for building lifelong habits. This NYT bestseller with over 4 million copies sold is for anyone looking for a guide to gradually developing a system for continuous improvement in areas of productivity, health, finances, relationships, self-control, etc.
The central idea of the book is simple: habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. By improving just 1 percent every day consistently, we can become 37 times better off at the end of the year. To help us build healthy habits and get rid of bad ones, the author draws on the sciences of psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics. Here are some of the key takeaways that you can use to build good habits from today.
What is an atomic habit? It is a small and easy routine that is performed regularly and spontaneously. Since habits can compound over a lifetime, good habits can result in compounded improvements, i.e., knowledge, productivity, networking, etc. On the flipside, unchecked bad habits, such as worry, procrastination, addiction, etc. can spiral out of control. To illustrate, that extra spoon of sugar in your tea seems harmless now but in the long run, can lead to diabetes.
So how can we develop a system that promotes good habits while getting rid of bad ones?
Firstly, we need to understand that once a habit is developed, it is automatic and subconscious. For example, recall the times you kept scrolling through your phone for hours until realising what you were doing. Similarly, think about how you brush your teeth every day without being explicitly aware of it.
With that in mind, Clear suggests that we should try to automate good habits through repetition until it becomes almost subconscious. Also we should expose our bad habits by bringing it out of the subconscious level to our active consciousness so that we can identify it and deal with it (see the Habit Scorecard section). Moreover, he posits the four-step model that every habit (good and bad) follows: cue, craving, response and reward.
Cue: Your phone's notification bell rings.
Craving: You want to know what the notification is about.
Response: You check your phone and check your notifications.
Action: You just satisfied your craving, your mind remembers this and associates grabbing the phone every time it hears a ring from your phone.
This four-step pattern is biologically encoded into our brains over millions of years of evolution. Unless we adopt an effective countermeasure, our brain will reward bad habits that offer instant gratification and procrastinate over good habits.
That is where Clear's Four Laws of Behavior Change come in.
In a nutshell, for good habits, you should make it obvious (highlight the cues that trigger a good habit), attractive, easy and satisfying while for bad habits you should take opposite measures to make it invisible (hide the cues that trigger the habit), unattractive, difficult (i.e. lock your phone in a drawer and put the key in another room), and unsatisfying.
Self-images are crucial to habit formation. Clear argues that until we assign an identity to our habits, we cannot fully embrace them. In other words, he wants us to decide the person we want to be through our habits and prove it to ourselves with a small win every time we follow through with our habits. For example, when we want to become fit, instead of focusing on the end-goal of becoming fit, we should think of ourselves as athletes and reinforce that perception every time we work out.
This also works for bad habits. For example, when offered a smoke, the author suggests that we not say "No thanks, I am trying to quit," rather reframe and say "I am not a smoker" if we are trying to quit. Hence, support groups and the company you surround yourself with are crucial in determining that kind of identity you are likely to adopt at the exposure.
"Self-images are crucial to habit formation. Clear argues that until we assign an identity to our habits, we cannot fully embrace them. In other words, he wants us to decide the person we want to be through our habits and prove it to ourselves with a small win every time we follow through with our habits"
The environment is everything, motivation is overrated
"The truth is that many of the actions we take each day are shaped not by purposeful drive and choice but the most obvious option," the author said. And since we are dependent on vision more than on any other sense, 'visual cues' influence our behaviour the most in determining what is the most obvious option.
That is why there is no surprise that products placed at eye-level in the supermarket get purchased the most. Similar to that, we can prime our workspace and living quarters to highlight visual cues for good behaviors (make it obvious) while masking the cues that elicit negative behavior. Furthermore, the author recommends that we assign specific locations for specific habits so that we can easily transition into them as soon as we enter the area.
Want to read more? Leave a book on your nightstand so that you can read before you sleep. Similarly, making it a habit to exclusively use your phone on your couch can prevent you from doing so at other times because your mind will associate that behavior with that area.
Habit Scorecard and Habit Stacking
So how can you get started? The first thing you need to do is record all your existing habits in a non-judgmental way from when you wake up till you fall asleep. Because certain habits are subconscious, you can try pointing and calling out to them to bring them to consciousness. Once you are done listing your behavior, it is time to determine which habits are good, bad and neutral with a '+', '-', and '=' respectively. This will help you identify some of the habits you did not know you had, especially the bad ones. Only once we map out our habits can we take action.
Here is a sample list:
Wake up =
Turn off alarm =
Check phone –
Brush teeth =
Make a cup of green tea+
Read the newspaper +
Want to develop a new habit? Start small and try connecting it to an existing habit which is known as habit stacking. For example, if you habitually eat breakfast every morning, you can stack meditation on top of it by saying, 'After [Current Habit-breakfast], I will [New Habit-meditate].
Similarly, to stick to a habit, we are more likely to follow through if we make a prior commitment or specify the exact time and location where our habit will be performed.
This is not a self-help book you are supposed to just read, you are supposed to use the techniques immediately if you want meaningful changes in your life. I have merely explored the tip of the iceberg of the content offered in the book but hopefully given you enough tools to try its methods out. Both winners and losers have the same goals, it is the systems we develop that make the difference.
The Habits Cheat Sheet: https://s3.amazonaws.com/jamesclear/Atomic+Habits/Habits+Cheat+Sheet.pdf