Change of habit - 10 reasons why you need to read Atomic Habits
I've written on this subject before, in a shorter, more compressed format in how I've applied the incremental improvements system in the 1% rule. That was merely a taster session. This is the real deal.
So, I read this book called Atomic Habits by James Clear.
First, let's get the review out of the way:
69.4 / 72 ⭐⭐⭐
It's pretty damn good. I would read it if I were you. If I were me, I already did.
It's everything I've learned, some things I've intuited and a lot of things I had no idea about in the fantastic realm of habit change.
And it's stuff that I know works, because I’ve tested it, often painfully, because I’ve also failed a lot.
Here's what's in this one and what you can learn from the magnificent work that is Atomic Habits:
The book was written by one of my favourite personal development writers, habit change expert extraordinaire, James Clear. I’ve been reading his blog for a long time, and it does what it says on the tin - it provides highly actionable and straightforward advice on changing your life in the only way that's sustainable: slowly and sneakily.
But first, before we delve into the tender marrow of Atomic Habits and my habit experiments:
Why do habits exist?
They allow the brain to expend much less energy to solve a problem. Conscious computation is taxing for the brain and habits exist as simplifications, learned modules that don't need all that complicated neural faffing around. Once the brain has figured out a way to solve a problem or complete a task in a few repetitions, it quickly moves it into the habit drawer to conserve power.
If every time you had to drive you had to invest the same mental energy you needed on your first day of driving school, you'd have a stroke after a month of work commutes. We'd all be cognitively deep fried if every mental act was conscious. The brain already runs on about 20% of the calories we consume, and for a little lump of fat, it's the gas-guzzling equivalent of a Dodge Durango.
Why is habit change important?
Isn't routine the death of freedom, the destroyer of lives, the smotherer of baby kittens?
Do we even need habits?
It's not a question of needing habits.
It's not even a question of having habits.
Habits have you.
You're a little cluster of mostly unconscious practices, just drifting habitually through life, one automation at a time.
The direction of your life, your happiness, your success, are all built upon a foundation of small and big habits. Running, smoking, reading, binge-eating, sleeping enough, zoning out on social media - these are all the daily fragments of our lives.
There's no way around it.
Habit change is life change.
40-45% of actions we take every day are habits. At a minimum.
So, by slowly adjusting the things we do every day, we can claim back that giant chunk of time and make it serve us.
"People do not decide their futures. They decide their habits and their habits decide their futures. "
As you can tell by now, I'm pretty excited about Atomic Habits.
No other habit change book feels as complete and as actionable. Some books are more scientific, some are more anecdotal. This one just has it all.
Here are 10 brilliant, life-changing things I've learned from Atomic Habits that you can use today to apply the unmitigated witchcraft of incremental change to your life.
1. Habit formation - How habits really get formed
Building a habit is both easy and hard.
It's easy because we do it all the time, it's hard(er) when you consciously want to alter your habits. To be able to change your habits, you need to understand how a habit is formed.
The four steps of habit formation are cue, craving, response, and reward.
Each of these steps is simple, but the sequence matters.
To illustrate how these steps work, I'll give you an example from my own life: my debilitatingly lousy habit of checking social media constantly.
I'm working on something hard - I hit a rough patch - it feels complicated and frustrating to solve this problem and continue.
I feel the need for something to get me over my frustration with the task.
I whip out my phone and browse Instagram, pleasantly zoning out and thinking about tropical destinations, suspicious slimming tea products and paleo recipes (I follow very stereotypical accounts).
I managed to forget my frustration with the task.
Aaaand now I link social media to the feeling of relief and soothing in the face of adversity - back to the cue.
Bad idea. But because I've reached for my phone so many times, it is now a habit.
James Clear calls going through this sequence, again and again, the habit loop, as it gets stronger and reinforces itself with every iteration. With every reward at the end of the loop, the cue becomes more and more tied to the satisfaction gained by performing the habit.
Knowing this structure makes it easier to notice and understand ourselves. To create lasting change, both in quitting bad habits and building new, sparklingly good ones, we need to be able to break down a habit on the basis this cycle.
2. A change in habit is a change in identity
What a game-changing idea. People act like the people they think they are. Sounds abstract, but here is what I mean:
An athletic person will work out no matter what.
A smoker will smoke no matter what.
A gritty person will pursue a goal no matter what.
A person who never finishes things will never finish things, no matter what.
Mine is the story of a non-smoker and casual drinker.
I stopped smoking and identified as a non-smoker from day one. I didn't feel sad, and I didn't feel deprived. I just wasn't a smoker anymore.
When I quit drinking for about four months this year, things were different. Though I had no physical need for alcohol, I kept feeling like a cheated drinker.
For four months I kept thinking: I'm the kind of person who really enjoys a night out drinking, it's fun, it makes me more social - but I've quit for my health.
Unsurprisingly I started drinking again, and it felt like I was myself again. A cool girl, who can have a pint with the lads and tell raunchy jokes and take. it. eaaasy.
Phew, it was so great to be her again. Not the boring, prohibition era schoolmarm with bad hair, dressed in a potato sack, wagging her finger at all the hip kids and their beers.
In Grease terms (the holy yardstick for identity) I saw myself as more of a greaser Sandy than a square Sandy. In my head, I’m constantly wearing high shine tights and chewing gum with my mouth open.
There's obviously no real-world correlation between drinking and being cool. But there is in my mind. It's part of the story of my identity. My effort of quitting drinking was doomed from the start by the fact that I was a drinker forcing myself to be something else.
Identity is an incredibly powerful force, but it's something you can change. You need to look closely at the identity you've chosen for yourself and see how you've constructed it over the years.
You're not a fixed set of attributes. You are what you do.
“Every action you take is a vote for the kind of person you want to be.”
J.C., Atomic Habits
With enough votes for your new identity you will slowly become:
3. How to form new habits easily
What if I told you that there is a magic formula for building habits?
I would be lying.
But there is a formula. Implemented correctly - it works.
That's pretty much as magic as it's going to get.
A British study looked at 248 people trying to build an exercise habit over the course of a few weeks. They were split into three groups:
The first one was simply asked to track when they exercised.
The second group had to track the exercise and watch a motivational presentation about the benefits of exercise.
The third group had to watch the same presentation as the second group, but also had to write down intentions like:
“During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”
In the first two groups, 35-38% exercised at least once per week.
In the third group that number was 91%.
The secret: implementation intentions.
The formula they had to write down made the action concrete. It had a time, a duration, a place and a clear plan of action. This method pulled the desired habit out of the wishy-washy realm of what we'd like to happen and catapulted it straight into reality - a clearly defined entry in your schedule.
If you have a habit that's important, schedule it like it's a doctors appointment. And keep it like it's your best friend's wedding.
There is nothing more important than keeping promises to yourself.
4. Your environment matters
The way a habit starts is with a cue. Something in your life or environment prompts your brain to start a craving.
You see your phone light up on the table, and you check social media.
You're in the kitchen, and you mindlessly open the fridge to "check" what's inside.
You see the jar of cookies on the counter, and before you know it, you've inhaled six of them.
Most of us don't realise the power of our environment.
We never consciously consider how the space around us influences our day to day decisions. But once we understand how helpless we can be in the face of environmental stimuli, we can start engineering it to our advantage.
Knowing that you have this hidden autopilot function that takes you over for 40% of your day helps you become the architect of an environment that speaks its language: Cues and nudges.
Enhance the right cues, hide the bad ones.
Here are a few ways I've changed my environment to help me change my habits:
- I've placed my yoga mat within eyesight of my bed, so it's the first thing I see in the morning. This helps me keep my morning yoga habit.
- I keep a bottle or glass of water within arm's reach at all times. This helps me keep my habit of staying hydrated.
- My phone charger is in the kitchen - this helps me keep my habit of reading instead of staying in the Matrix until 1 am
And this also works the other way around - you can hide cues.
For example, I store any alcoholic substances in a separate, isolated cupboard to avoid eye contact with the devil.
The more I think about my environment the more ideas I get about how to structure it to serve my good side and make me forget about the things that don't serve me.
5. Habit stacking - how to use it
Behaviours don't exist in isolation.
They are often embedded in a string of actions and cues and are each other's cues. Cueception.
Like the morning bathroom routine.
Go to bathroom, see shower -> shower, see toothbrush -> brush teeth in the shower (for efficiency and to selfishly destroy the world's water reserves) -> get out of the shower, see lotion -> apply lotion -> and on and on. If some necessary utensil for one of these steps is out of sight, then I'll probably forget to do it, as there's no cue. This is especially true for weaker habits - you won't forget to brush your teeth as the cue for that habit isn't the toothbrush, it's the bathroom, the morning, the feeling of an apocalyptic bacterial hellscape that you've created overnight, etc. The weaker the habit, the easier it is to skip it without an immediate cue.
This is a characteristic of habits that you can use to your advantage, by taking stock of which habits you already perform and stacking them with habits you'd like to add.
Make two lists:
Habits I have - a simple tally of all the habits you can identify in your day to day.
Habits I want - pretty self-explanatory.
Then, see if you can find the right moment in the day to stack your old habits with your new patterns.
For example, you can add flossing to your morning routine, by inserting it between two already existing habits, like brushing your teeth and picking lint out of your navel.
You can add reading to your evening routine in the same way. You use one habit as the cue for another. It won't be instantaneous, sure, but after a few repetitions, it will become part of the greater routine and much easier to integrate than create a habit from scratch.
6. Goals suck - try systems instead
Goals are where you want to go.
Systems are how you get there.
A goal would be to finish a marathon. The system would be to train twice a week for six months and steadily increase the distance you run every week.
Even though a goal is an excellent representation of where you want to get, it's static. It can't encompass what type of person you need to become to get there.
In the marathon example - is the marathon actually what you want? Will you go back to being a couch potato once you've checked this victory off your bucket list? Or is it that you want to become someone who has the qualities needed to finish a marathon?
Well, there you go.
You don't need a goal.
You need a system for becoming that someone. You need a sequence of actions that will help you prove to yourself that you're that kind of person.
Could you finish the marathon without the goal, only relying on the system?
Could you finish the marathon without the system, only relying on the goal?
Goals are also scary. They light up your Amygdala, your ancient fight-or-flight centre, like a Christmas tree and drive you into an anxious state. The difference between where you are now and what it will take to get to the goal is huge, and it feels overwhelming.
With a system, you don't have that problem.
How do you create a system you may ask. Take your goal, or an intermediate goal, and disassemble it. Slap a reasonable timeline on it and break it down day-by-day.
What do you need to do every day so that in 6 months you can run 42 kilometres?
Do it and stick to the schedule.
Then, when the day rolls around, you'll be the kind of person that runs a marathon, because of your system and WHO you are.
7. How to change your eating habit
Eating habits are probably the most complex, sensitive and emotionally loaded habits we have. And we live in a time where creating a habit for eating healthy foods is the exception, rather than the norm.
James mentions the power of supernormal stimuli. These are cues for things we're evolutionarily programmed to want, they're just much more powerful than we've ever had to encounter in our evolutionary past, so they're almost irresistible.
These are things we're pre-programmed to gravitate towards and things that were a great advantage in our evolutionary past.
For example, sexual arousal had a distinct purpose in evolution - getting us excited to make babies, but nothing prepared our brains for porn.
Symmetry and youth were essential markers of fertility in women, but nothing prepared our minds for photoshop and the overabundance of plastic surgery.
In ancestral times, we would binge as much as we could on foods that were sweet, fatty and salty. And for good reason - or species was commonly on the brink of starvation and overeating calorie dense foods sometimes meant the difference between living one more day or dying.
Those times are long gone, but this perspective on the nature of food is still extremely useful. If you look at modern processed foods as a supernormal stimulus, as a ploy designed to tickle your evolutionarily formed instincts, it's easier to see through it. It makes it clear what "real food" is supposed to look like - not processed, not adulterated, not finely tuned for our taste buds that were designed to avert starvation.
Once we understand our programming, we can distance ourselves from supernormal stimuli and take back the reins.
8. How long does it take to form a habit
Ok, probably a bit longer, but 2 minutes is the ideal length of time that a habit should take you to perform - at the start.
"Run three miles every day" is a habit that takes at least one hour out of your day. It involves a drastic, intense, strenuous change.
"Tie your running shoes" takes two minutes.
And once you have your running shoes on, it's easier to dart out of the house for a run than take them off and melt back into the folds of your couch.
The result might be: “run three miles every day", but you can't just jolt your entire being into that level of action every day.
You're probably not physically prepared to do that every day, and you're sure as hell not mentally ready for that kind of shi(f)t.
Life is complicated, and often full of surprises. You'll not be able to always keep up with your habits, and that's ok. If you miss a day, don't beat yourself up about it.
But make it a point to never miss twice.
"Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit."
J.C., Atomic Habits
The problem here is one I've battled with for a long time: all-or-nothing thinking.
It's that feeling of: "Meh, screw it" when you break your rules.
When you eat a doughnut on your diet: "Meh, screw it", and you go on a two-week binge that ends in desperation and tears.
When you have one beer: "Meh, screw it", and you have six more, make out with Karen from accounting, tell your boss to get bent and then you get fired.
It's the same with habits. Don't let missing once be the first domino. Even if coming back the next day feels like a bit more forced than usual, that's when you need to do it most.
You're still in the habit formation phase, and it's a fragile little creature that you have in your hands. You need to feed it, care for it and protect it until it gets strong enough to fend for itself.
9. Reframe your habits
This one is a bit subtle, but I found it extremely powerful.
Rather than thinking about the things you need to do, think about the things you get to do.
This will instantly change your perspective from one of coercion: "I am being forced by my tyrannical future self to do this workout, eat this broccoli, write this next page" to "I get to do all of these extraordinary things to improve my life, I am free and grateful for the opportunity to improve myself."
It sounds a bit like the ramblings of a cult member, I know, but if you can shift your perspective in the direction of gratitude, a door will open where you once just had resentment.
Life is a gift.
We're running so hard towards the future that we forget that there's nothing at the end of the race. It's just more of "today".
Gratitude isn't just some sneaky way of sticking to your habits. It's one of the juiciest and most fulfilling ways to live.
10. Join a new tribe
The spirit of the group possesses humans.
Monkey see - monkey do.
We need to fit in with our peers, and the habits we acquire throughout most of our life are imitations of other people's behaviour.
How did you learn how to walk, dress or eat with a fork? You imitated your parents.
How do most smokers start? They imitate their friends.
We like the same sports our childhood friends loved.
We make the same food our mother cooked.
it sounds like biography is destiny, but it's more positive than that. Nowadays we aren't confined to our hundred person tribe from birth to the grave. You can choose "your people". If you choose a group where your desired habits are the norm, you'll quickly feel drawn to align yourself with the crowd.
If you want to consistently bike 100+ km a week, joining a cycling club is the best way to get there. If you want to practice yoga every day, enrolling in an intensive yoga course and making friends, there is the optimal way to become that person.
You are the average of your five closest friends.