Atomic Habits – Book Summary (Part 2)

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The Four Laws of Behavior Change

Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for – the actual steps to create good habits and end bad ones.

How to Create a Good Habit

The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.

The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.

The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.

The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.

How to Break a Bad Habit

Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible.

Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive.

Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult.

Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.

 

1st Law – Make it Obvious

Here’s something that may surprise you: the cues that spark our habits are often so common that they become invisible to our consciousness – the phone next to you while you study, the remote control next to the couch, the cookies on the counter. Our responses to these cues are so hardwired that we must begin the process of behavior change with awareness.

James provides an example of the Japanese railway system of Pointing-and-Calling as a safety system, where workers literally point and call to their various cues, like a signal being green, thereby bringing it to their conscious awareness. It seems silly, but it greatly reduces errors. In the operating room, we do the same exact thing with Time Out. Prior to any incision, the surgeon leads the healthcare team in verifying the patient’s medical record, name, date of birth, procedure, what side of the body the procedure is being done on, and the medications being administered prior to incision. You may do something similar when walking out your front door – patting your pockets and saying out loud “phone, wallet, keys”.

This intentional awareness overlaps with mindfulness, and I’ve covered how to cultivate mindfulness in your daily life in another video.

Another important aspect to making habits obvious is what Clear calls an implementation intention.

Implementation Intention Formula

“I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].”

Specifically describing the exact action you will take at a specific cue will greatly increase your chance of success. For example, at 7 A.M., I will meditate for 5 minutes in my living room. I personally use habit coupling or pairing, which is synonymous to what Clear calls habit stacking. This is associating one habit I consistently perform with a new one I’m creating. For example, I stretch every morning, but my meditation isn’t as consistent. By coupling the two, I’m much more likely to meditate.

Habit Stacking Formula

“After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”

The application of this is quite broad, but to be most effective, the cue should be highly specific and immediately actionable. For healthy eating, you can say “when I serve myself a meal, I will always put veggies on my plate first.”

Clear goes on to emphasize the importance of your environment. Remember, every habit is context dependent. Those of you who follow me on Instagram know that I’ve been posting much more regularly recently. It got to the point where I was checking Instagram multiple times per day, and it was encroaching into my productive time. Because vision is one of our greatest catalysts for behavior, I simply made a small tweak to my environment. I placed my phone off my desk, across the room on the charger. Out of sight, out of mind. What you see can lead to a big shift in what you do.

And don’t forget about the context of the cue. I’ve stated this in my How to Wake Up Early and Not Be Miserable video. If you’re serious about improving your sleep quality and waking up refreshed, that video has everything you need to know. If you watch T.V. or do things other than sleep in your bed, it will be associated with other habits and you’ll have difficulty falling asleep. Because of this, it is easier to build new habits in a new environment, as you aren’t fighting against old cues with old habits.

Again, the first law is to make it obvious. And we can use the inversion of the first law, by making something invisible, to break a bad habit.

Discipline isn’t about having tremendous self-control. Rather, it’s about structuring your life in a way that does not require massive amounts of willpower. It’s incredibly easy for me to avoid eating junk food simply because I don’t keep Twinkies or Ho Ho’s in my home.

 

2nd Law – Make it Attractive

We know that dopamine is the neurotransmitter most implicated in pleasure and addiction. But it isn’t just associated with the experience of pleasure – it’s also released when you anticipate pleasure. This anticipation is what gets us to take action.  I’m happy to say that in this book, James got the neuroscience right.

Before a habit is learned, dopamine is released when the reward is experienced for the first time.  As a behavior is repeated, dopamine spikes after the cue, contributing to the craving. It’s important to note that our body, including our neurotransmitter receptors, tend to a direction of homeostasis. That means we respond to our environments and adjust our processes accordingly to reach a physiologic baseline. This happens with temperature regulation – that’s how you maintain a temperature close to 98.6°F regardless of whether it’s hot or cold outside. The same thing applies to our neurotransmitters. This has been extensively studied with drug addiction, but the scientific principles hold true here as well. As a habit is learned, your brain anticipates the spike in dopamine. Because of homeostasis, it downregulates dopaminergic activity such that if upon receiving the reward, the magnitude of the spike is decreased. This is why drug addicts build tolerance and require higher and higher doses to get a high. If the reward is not experienced, dopamine dips. In short, reward sensitivity decreases and expectation sensitivity increases.

So how do we use this to our advantage? Temptation Bundling. You’re more likely to find a behavior attractive if you get to do one of your favorite things at the same time. I love the TV show Top Gear (and now The Grand Tour). I tell myself that I can watch it as long as I want, but I must stretch while doing so.

Temptation Bundling Equation

1. After [CURRENT HABIT], I Will [HABIT I NEED].

2. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].

Let’s say you want to cut down on your Instagram use.

1. After I pull out my phone, I will do ten burpees (need).

2. After I do ten burpees, I will check Instagram (want).

It’s key to also be aware of the importance of our family and friends. You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. We don’t choose our earliest habits – we imitate them. We tend to imitate the habits of three groups of people:

1. The close

2. The many

3. The powerful

The closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to imitate some of their habits. A person’s risk of becoming obese increases by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese. In light of this, one of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.

I’ve spoken about the power of language before. The author of Stick With It called it neurohacks. James provides an excellent example. Swap the word “have” with “get”. Instead of saying “I have to exercise”, say “I get to exercise”. “I get to make breakfast.” “I get to wake up early.” It’s a subtle nuance, but it makes all the difference. The mindset determines how pleasurable or painful the experience is – not the actual experience itself. A huge one for me that transformed my perception of public speaking was reinterpreting my physiologic response from fear to excitement. Yeah, my heart is racing, not because I’m scared to speak, but because I’m so excited to speak!

 

3rd Law – Make it Easy

People often ask me how long it takes to cultivate a new habit. Is it 3 weeks? Two months? When will I be done with creating a habit? Habits form based on frequency, not time. It’s not a question of how many weeks for a habit to stick, but rather the frequency and number of repetitions that make the difference. Over time, it should get easier, but there’s no magic duration at which that happens.

In a sense, every habit is just an obstacle to getting what you really want. We don’t want the habit, we want the result. Doing practice problems is just an obstacle to getting better grades. Meditation is an obstacle to feeling calm.

Most people resort to “why am I not more motivated? I need more motivation in my life!” They’ll listen to songs that pump them up or watch motivational YouTube videos to get into a better mindset. You’re totally capable of doing very difficult things, but the problem is that some days you feel like it, and other days you don’t.

Rather than brute forcing it, making the habit easy and effortless is much more likely to work. To do this, we want to reduce the friction of good habits and increase the friction associated with bad habits.

Consider your environment. Reduce the friction of working out by joining a gym that is on the way home from school. Even better, set out your workout clothes, shoes, gym bag, and water bottle the night before. If you find yourself watching too much T.V., remove the batteries from your remote control each time you finish watching, such that the next time you mindlessly grab for the remote, you’ll be able to assess whether you really want to watch something. The greater the friction, the less likely the habit.

It’s amazing how little friction is required to prevent unwanted behavior. Simply moving my phone to another room or out of sight drastically helps me focus when studying or doing Pomodoro’s.

US Navy Admiral William H. McRaven has an excellent speech on the importance of making your bed. The reason is simple. Habits are like the decision trees. If you’re able to start off the day with good choices that reinforce good habits, you’re much more likely to end up having a good day. 

These decisive moments are what determine the quality of your day – not your willpower. Decisive moments are all around you. Choosing a restaurant is a decisive moment, as you are limited to order things on the menu at that restaurant. If you go to McDonald’s for lunch, you’re much more likely to eat something unhealthy than if you went to Tender Greens.

Realize that a habit must be established before it can be improved. Don’t try perfecting your habit from the start, just try getting it to stick. Oftentimes, we are overzealous with our new habits and overdo them, burning ourselves out. For example, let’s say you understand the benefits of daily journaling and want to implement that. If you expect yourself to write too much, it quickly feels like a chore. The key is to stay below the point where it feels like work.

James extends this principle to what he calls the Two-Minute Rule. The Two-Minute Rule states, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” Essentially any habit can be scaled down to 2 minutes or less. “Reading before bed each night” becomes “read one page.” “Finish chapter 6 practice problems from physics textbook” becomes “finish 2 practice problems.”

Clear suggests using the technique of habit shaping alongside the Two-Minute Rule to scale your habit back up toward your ultimate goal. For example, let’s say you wanted to become a morning person. Phase 1, get in the habit of being home by 10 PM every night. Once that’s mastered, move on to phase 2, which is having all devices with screens turned off by 10 PM each night. In phase 3, you get in bed by 10 PM each night. In phase 4, lights off by 10 PM. And in phase 5, wake up by 6 AM every day.

The inverse of making it easy is to make it difficult, or rather, make it impossible. The single most effective way to do this is by using a commitment device. A commitment device relies on making a choice in advance that restricts our ability to carry out the bad habit in the future. It increases the friction of performing bad habits. For example, Nir Eyal, another habit expert, has an outlet timer that automatically turns off the power to his router, thus cutting off internet access, at 10 PM each night.

Similarly, you can lock in good habits by making decisions in advance. For example, buying blackout curtains or an eye mask can facilitate your good sleep hygiene habits. Using technology to automate your habits is a highly reliable and effective way to reinforce good behaviors. For example, set up an automatic savings plan that takes money from your paycheck and directly deposits it into your index fund or savings account, without it even going to your checking account.

 

4th Law – Make it Satisfying

The fourth and final law is to make it satisfying – to keep you coming back for more. The first three laws of behavior change – make it obvious, make it attractive, and make it easy – increase the odds that a behavior will be performed this time. The fourth law of behavior change is about increasing the odds that the behavior will be repeated next time.

Generally speaking, what is rewarded is repeated, and what is punished is avoided. We call that operant conditioning.

Unfortunately, we operate in a delayed-return environment and many of the habits we wish to ingrain aren’t immediately satisfying – they pay off in the long term.  And as humans, we exhibit time inconsistency, meaning we value the present more than the future. A reward that is certain right now is typically worth more than one that is merely possible in the future. But this bias to instant gratification often leads to problems.

With bad habits, the immediate outcome usually feels good, but the ultimate outcome feels bad. With good habits, it’s the opposite: the immediate outcome is not as pleasant, but the ultimate outcome feels great.

So how can we use our evolutionary machinery to our advantage? Simple. Add a little bit of immediate pleasure to the habits that pay off in the long-run and a little bit of immediate pain to the ones that don’t.

Immediate reinforcement is particularly effective when dealing with habits of avoidance, which are behaviors you want to stop doing. James gives an example of a couple that wanted to stop eating out so much and start cooking together more. They labeled their savings account “Trip to Europe”. Whenever they skipped going out to eat, they transferred $50 into the account. At the end of the year, they put that money toward the vacation.

Eventually, you’ll experience intrinsic rewards, like increased energy or better mood. At this point, you’ll be less concerned with chasing the secondary reward. The identity itself becomes the reinforcer.

Incentives start the habit. Identity sustains the habit.

I was excited when I read that one of Clear’s top tips to measure progress and make that progress satisfying is through the use of habit trackers. I have personally used several over the years, and I’ve found them to be crucial objective forms of measurement. I can’t lie to myself about how many times I went to the gym last week – the data is all there. And when I get a streak going, I don’t want to break it. My personal favorite is HabitShare, which allows you to share your habits with friends for accountability.

Habit tracking is powerful because it uses multiple laws of behavior change. It simultaneously makes a behavior obvious, attractive, and satisfying. One of my favorite things about habit tracking is that it keeps you focused on the process and not the result. You’re not trying to bench 3 plates – you’re focusing on the type of person that lifts 5 times per week.

There are some issues with habit tracking. It feels like an extra step, like more work. To get around that, here are a few tips.

1) First, automate the measurements whenever possible. I bought a smart scale that automatically syncs with my phone. It measures my weight and body fat percentage in just a few seconds. It’s not necessarily the most accurate, but it is very precise, which is actually more important in this use case.

2) Second, manual tracking should only be done for your most important habits.

3) And third, record the measurement after the habit occurs. Using stacking in this manner makes you much more likely to actually track the habits consistently.

That being said, be careful not to grow too obsessed with your habit tracking. You may find yourself caring more about reaching 10,000 steps per day rather than being healthy. We optimize for what we measure. Therefore, if we choose the wrong measurement, we get the wrong behavior.

It’s inevitable that you will miss days. You won’t be perfect. I guarantee that. Whenever you skip, the key is to remind yourself of a simple rule: never miss twice. Missing one workout happens, but you can’t let yourself miss two in a row. It’s never the first mistake that ruins you. It’s the spiral of repeated mistakes that follow.

Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.

The inverse of the fourth law is to make it immediately unsatisfying. The more concrete and immediate the negative consequence, the more likely it is to influence your behavior. To do this, we turn to the habit contract, which is a tool to add a social cost to any unwanted behavior. It makes the cost of violating your promises public and painful.

To make bad habits unsatisfying, your best option is to make them painful in the moment. Thomas Frank uses a habit contract to ensure he wakes up early each day. If he doesn’t , he has a tweet scheduled to say “It’s 6:10 and I’m not up because I’m lazy! Reply to this for $5 via PayPal!”

 

Summary

In summary, the four laws to create good habits and break bad habits are as follows:

How to Create a Good Habit

The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.

The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.

The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.

The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.

How to Break a Bad Habit

Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible.

Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive.

Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult.

Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.

If you’re serious about changing your habits and thereby changing your life, I recommend you read our book summary on Stick With It, a book covering a scientific process for changing your life.

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