We all want to become masters of our habits, but few of us ever get there.
As many of us set out to adopt new habits this year, I thought it would be a great time to revisit one of my favorite books, Atomic Habits by James Clear, as well as offer my own insights and experiences with regards to building habits.
Here are the tips and strategies that helped me finally stick to my habits.
Habits Are The Compound Interest of Self Improvement
The underlying idea behind Atomic Habits is that small, incremental changes lead to massive results.
A common misconception is that massive success requires massive action. In reality, success isn’t the result of a once-in-a-lifetime transformation, rather, it is the product of dozens of daily habits growing and compounding over time.
The most successful investor in the world, Warren Buffet, did not grow his net worth to over 100 billion dollars overnight, nor did he get there by throwing all of his money into Gamestop and AMC and yelling “to the moon!”
Instead, he began investing at the age of 11 and continued to invest consistently for the next 80 years of his life. He focused on good fundamentals and invested in companies that he believed would perform well in the long term – not over weeks to months, but over years to decades. His consistency and long-term mentality allowed him to gradually build his net worth until now he is one of the wealthiest people in the world.
Habits are no different. You can think of them as the compound interest of self-improvement. Individually, minor improvements to our habits may seem insignificant, but over time they will continue to build and compound until they become exponentially more than the sum of their parts.
If you were to improve by just one percent every day for a year, you would be thirty-seven times better than you were when you started. On the other hand, if you were to get worse by just one percent each day for an entire year, you would decline nearly to zero. This is the power of compound interest.
The issue is that we don’t always see the long-term value of good habits or the long-term consequences of bad habits. As humans, we suffer from time inconsistency – a reward that is certain right now is usually worth more to us than one that is merely possible in the future.
We prioritize feeling good in the moment, even if it ends up hurting us in the long run.
To make things even more difficult, most habits don’t appear to make a difference until you reach a breakthrough moment. Before this, there is often a discrepancy between what you think should happen and what actually happens. Clear refers to this as the valley of disappointment.
What you don’t see though is that once you get out of the valley of disappointment, the benefits start to compound.
You Are Only As Strong As Your Systems
So now that we know the importance of good habits, how do we actually go about building them?
When trying to build a new habit, most people put too much emphasis on the end goal. The problem with this approach is that goals only change your life for the moment, and the results you achieve are often only temporary.
In order to create lasting change, you need to shift your focus away from the outcome itself and place it on the systems that will get you to your desired outcome instead.
You need to solve the problem at a systems level.
This is why winners and losers have the same goals but different outcomes. We focus on the winners and mistakenly attribute their success to their ambitious goals when, in reality, it’s not the goal that made them successful but rather their underlying systems.
Goals also make success black or white. You either achieve your goal and are successful, or you don’t achieve your goal and are a failure. The problem with this is that achieving your goal doesn’t necessarily mean that your systems were good and failing to achieve your goal doesn’t necessarily mean that your systems were bad.
Although it’s true that good systems typically lead to good outcomes and bad systems typically lead to bad outcomes, this isn’t always the case. We often look at the outcome to judge the merit of one’s approach which leads to survivorship bias.
Take for instance you have two millionaires. One started a business and spent thousands of hours growing it before they ever made their first million dollars. The other spent all of their money on lottery tickets and won the jackpot.
If we only look at outcomes, you would say that these two are equal; however, if you look at their systems, they are clearly very different. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather take advice on how to build wealth from the guy who built a business than the guy who won the lottery.
This is why you should focus on building good habits that will lead to your desired results. “The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game.”
When you focus on building effective systems and learn to love the process, the score often takes care of itself.
Habits Shape Your Identity
So how do you learn to love the process?
It all comes down to changing your identity.
There are three levels of behavior change: outcomes, processes, and identity.
The outcome level is concerned with changing our results. This might include something like losing weight or getting into medical school.
The process level is concerned with habits and systems. This might be something like implementing a new routine at the gym or going through the Med School Insiders website to optimize your medical school applications.
Identity is the third and deepest level and is concerned with our beliefs. If you believe you are a fit and athletic person, or that you are well suited to be a doctor, your behaviors and results will follow.
When making a change, most people start with the end goal and work inward. This is a mistake because you are only solving the problem temporarily. To make a lasting change, you need to change at the systems level. You need to start with identity and then move outward.
You do this by adopting an identity-based approach. Decide the type of person that you want to be, and then prove to yourself that you are that person through your actions.
For example, instead of saying, “I want to get better grades,” tell yourself that, “I am a good student, and as a good student I will study every day and not procrastinate.” This subtle difference can completely change your mindset, and the more you repeat that behavior, the more you reinforce the identity that is tied to that behavior.
The 4 Laws of Behavior Change
This brings me to Clear’s Four Laws of Behavior Change.
The first thing to know is that there are four parts to any habit: the cue, the craving, the response, and the reward.
Every behavior starts with a cue. This cue then triggers a craving, which motivates a response. That response then provides a reward, which satisfies the craving, and ultimately becomes associated with the cue.
If you’re studying for an exam, for instance, the cue might be coming across a difficult question. The craving is that you feel stuck and want to relieve your frustration. In response, you pull out your phone and check social media. Doing so then relieves your frustration and satisfies your craving.
Now pulling out your phone and checking social media becomes associated with feeling frustrated or bored while studying and the next time you come across a difficult question, you’ll be tempted to use your phone again.
By learning how to manipulate the four parts of a habit, we can help reinforce good habits and fight against bad habits.
The first law is to make it obvious. The issue with cues is that they are often so common that we don’t even realize they’re even there. Something as simple as leaving sweets out on the counter can be enough to influence you, so the first step in changing your behavior is awareness. We have to identify and acknowledge our cues.
Once you are aware of them, you can modify your environment to manipulate them. You want to make cues for good habits obvious and cues for bad habits invisible.
The second law of behavior change is to make it attractive – make it so you actually want to do it.
One technique to accomplish this is temptation bundling. You pair your new habit with something that you already enjoy doing.
A great example of this was when I was trying to make stretching a daily habit. I would tell myself that I could only watch television if I stretched while watching. I combined my new habit of stretching with watching TV, which I already enjoyed, to make it a much more attractive option.
Alternatively, you can also use language to change your perception of the behavior. The behavior itself isn’t inherently pleasurable or painful, rather it is our perception of the behavior that determines this. A simple technique to help change your mindset is to try swapping “have” or “need” with “get”.
Instead of saying I ‘have’ to exercise, try saying I ‘get’ to exercise. This subtle nuance can make all the difference.
When I was trying to become more comfortable with public speaking, I employed this exact same strategy. I reinterpreted my physiological response from fear to excitement by telling myself, “Yea, my heart is racing, but not because I’m scared to speak, but because I’m so excited to speak!” This small modification helped me get over the fear of public speaking and I even grew to enjoy it.
The third law of behavior change is to make it easy. You want to decrease the number of steps between you and the good behavior and increase the number of steps between you and the bad behavior.
If you’re trying to eat out less, try making healthy options readily available by meal prepping. If you have home-cooked food readily available, eating out becomes the more difficult option, which decreases the likelihood that you’ll go out to eat.
It is important not to bite off more than you can chew though. Clear argues that starting a new habit should never take more than two minutes to do. This greatly reduces the activation energy it takes to perform the behavior because you only have to motivate yourself for a couple of minutes. The goal is to make it so easy that it’s almost difficult not to do it.
The fourth and final law is to make it satisfying.
We operate in a delayed-return environment, meaning that many of the habits that we want to adopt are not immediately satisfying despite paying off in the long term. We often prefer the instant gratification that comes with a bad habit even though we know it might not be the best for us in the long term.
Generally speaking, what is rewarded gets repeated, and what is punished gets avoided, so you want to add a bit of immediate pleasure to the habits that help you in the long run and apply some immediate pain to the ones that don’t.
Clear gives the example of a couple that wanted to stop eating out so much and start cooking together more. Whenever they skipped going out to eat, they transferred fifty dollars into an account labeled “Trip to Europe.” At the end of the year, they put that money towards the vacation.
Adding a little bit of an incentive to keep your habit can make a big difference in adherence, especially early on. If you stick with your habit long enough though, you will eventually reach that breakthrough point and begin to enjoy the long-term benefits. At this point, you become less concerned with the secondary reward, and the habit itself and the identity that it reinforces becomes the source of motivation.
As Clear writes, “incentives start the habit, but identity sustains the habit.”
Other Tips To Help Make Your Habits Stick
Now that we’ve gone over Clear’s four laws, here are some additional tips from my personal experience to help make your habits stick.
Habit trackers can be a powerful tool to help make your habits stick. Not only do they focus on the process as opposed to the outcome, but they also hold you accountable, and incorporate three out of the four laws of behavior change – make it obvious, make it attractive, and make it satisfying.
The main drawback with habit tracking though is that it can feel like a chore. To compensate for this, I recommend automating the process whenever possible. Manual tracking should be reserved for your most important habits and should be done right after the habit occurs.
As an example, one of my goals right now is to increase my lean muscle mass. In order to track my progress, I’m using a smart scale. It’s convenient because all I have to do is step on the scale each morning and it automatically tracks my weight and lean body mass.
Experimentation is another key aspect of building a habit. As you build your systems, you will have to determine what works for you and what doesn’t, and the only way to do this is through experimentation.
People usually fall into one of two categories when it comes to experimenting with systems. On the one hand, you have people who experiment too much. They make a change for a week or two, don’t see the results they expect, and then jump ship to another strategy, without giving any strategy a chance to work. They get stuck in the valley of disappointment and never hold on long enough to reach the breakthrough moment.
On the other hand, you have those who stick with a habit for months and months even when it’s not working. This is why it’s so important to have an objective way to measure your progress. If things aren’t working, you need to be able to know so that you can change things up.
You want to strike the balance between giving habits a chance to stick and experimenting with new habits. If you experiment too soon, you don’t give things time to stick, but if you let things go too long, then you’re essentially trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It’s not going to work.
Once you find something that works though, there is a benefit to getting into a rhythm. Remember, habits are based on frequency, not time. You should change your mindset from “how long will it take for my habit to stick” to “how many times do I need to do this behavior for it to become a habit?”
The best way I’ve found to make sure I am getting my repetitions in is to have a certain rhythm to my weekly routine. If you do the same thing, at the same place, at the same time every day, then you’re telling your brain that this is important, it needs to be remembered, so start making it easy for me.
I typically make sure that I have higher intensity workdays and habits on weekdays and lower intensity on weekends. This allows me to sustain my habits without burning out.
And once you find a rhythm that works for you, the only thing left to do is to stick with it.
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