Yes, this is another one of these American “help-yourself-because-life-is-your-own-destiny-and-you-are-the-architect-of-your-own-fortune” books. But just like the previous book—Deep Work—I’ve summarized, there are some genuinely helpful ideas in this one too.
This time, instead of focusing on how to work efficiently, we’ll basically obtain a bag of tricks to keep doing something you think you want to be doing but actually don’t. If you, like me, are in this predicament, I invite you to keep reading. In the worst case you lose 10 minutes and in the best case you take away some little thing worth your while.
Habits might not work the way you think
What is a habit: A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.
Adding vs. compounding: Before taking a look at how to form a habit, let’s first address some common misconceptions. You’re probably familiar with expressions along the line of “even the tiniest changes can add up over time” and you might be tempted to transfer this notion to habits. Actually though, little things you do habitually don’t really add up, instead they compound.
This simply means that progress is usually not a linear affair but quicker, though not necessarily exponential as well1. If you learn a new language 10 minutes a day, you aren’t twice as fluent after 20 days than you were 10 days before because each day you keep improving from your current level of proficiency instead of the level you started from in the beginning.
Still, we often give up too early, as even exponential growth needs some time to get off the ground. This is unfortunate, because many activities only start to be rewarding once a critical threshold is crossed. Take playing a musical instrument for instance. It might take a year to produce a clean sound and to know how to play every note but once you are there and start playing actual pieces, it becomes much more enjoyable.
This is to say, that the reward on a compounding process is delayed, so you might only get positive feedback after quite some time.
Goal vs. process: Another enemy of habits are goals. What, you might think, aren’t goals exactly the thing that’s motivating me to do anything at all? That might well be, but it’s actually not the wisest approach. If you think about it, there are at least three problems with goals:
- By definition, goals lye in the future, so you’re always focusing on what might one day be instead of the here and now.
- Because of that, goals never tell you anything about what you need to do right now to actually achieve them. They are detached from the only time where you can actually do something about them.
- Once you reach a goal, you’re back at square one. This has psychological consequences, often leading to a phase of disorientation and misery while you try to figure out what to tackle next, but additionally inhibits further progress during this reorientation period.
Instead, you can focus on the process of getting closer to a goal. Here, process if basically interchangeable with habit. If you want to speak Spanish, focus on learning a little Spanish every day. If you want to be able to play the piano, focus on playing a little piano every day. If you want to become a good writer, focus on writing something every day. This sounds obvious once pointed out, but the great thing is, that you immediately know how to get started and it is open ended. Even if you hold on to your goal “I want to be able to do X in six month”, you know how to get there, and you know what to do once you are; simply keep going.
What you do is who you are
“The real reason habits matter is not because they can get you better results (although they can do that), but because they can change your beliefs about yourself.”
What an American title!2 It’s somewhat true though if you are honest. Whether you are a vegan, a cyclist, a climber, a writer, a programmer, a protester, a musician or a reader; a large part of what is means to be you is what you do.
The interesting thing about this is: Don’t focus so much on what you want to achieve, but rather on who you want to become. If you want to be able to run a marathon, become a runner. If you want to write more, become a writer. Try to think of yourself as if you already were this kind of person. Then, the more you practice thing X that defines a person of type Y the more you become this person.
If you can’t bring yourself to think of yourself as being this type of person just yet, you can think instead “what would a person like this do in my situation right now?”. Would a runner spend all day in front of Netflix eating chocolate? Would a cyclist stop riding her bike because of some rain or a flat tire? You get the idea.
The Four Laws of Behavior Change
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate. – Carl Jung”
Make it obvious: If you want to do something more, or less, it helps to make it very visible or, reversely, to hide it. I guess most people have noticed this and it’s so simple but the embarrassing thing is: it works. We wanted to eat less chocolate, so we hid it in a hard to reach box on top of a cupboard. I wanted to play my clarinet more often, so I put it in a rather prominent spot.
The reason it works is, that your brain does a lot of unconscious processing, so when you see the chocolate, i.e. the image of a scene with chocolate in it is transfered to your brain, you suddenly feel the urge for something sweet, even before you might have consciously registered that there is chocolate lying around. “It is easier to avoid temptation than resist it [as] [s]elf-control is [only] a short-term strategy, not a long-term one”. The opposite is true for the clarinet, if I don’t see it, I don’t think about it, and I won’t play it.
If you don’t want to rely on your unconsciousness to trigger a desired behavior, consider formulating an “implementation intention”: I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
To become more aware of your unconscious behaviors, consider filling out a Habits Scorecard. Apart from being an interesting exercise, you can then use your current habits as a trigger for new ones: After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
Make it attractive: This one is a no-brainer: the more attractive something is, the more likely it is you will do it. Because it is sometimes hard to make an activity you would like to do every day more attractive, you can try bundling it with something pleasant and use it as an artificial reward.
Another way to make an activity more attractive is to chose a surrounding where it is already regarded as virtuous. If your parents think vegetarians are insane, you might be less likely to become one. If your friends think classical music is nuts, you will think twice about taking seriously this new Mozart piece you wanted to learn on the piano.
Conversely, if you want to stop doing something, highlight the benefits of avoiding it, instead of dwelling on the downsides it might have for you.
Make it easy: Somewhat connected to the first point. If it’s hard to reach something, i.e. the clarinet, or takes too long, i.e. cooking something tasty and healthy, you are less likely to regularly do it. Therefore, think about ways to facilitate that thing, i.e. buy a kitchen machine to prepare you vegetables effortlessly.
Also, don’t waste too much time on planning, because “[t]he most effective form of learning is practice”. If you think back at the definition of a habit stated in the beginning of this article, this becomes clear. You actually need to repeat something often enough for it to become automatic. It is about the number of times you perform it, not the amount of time.
“Create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.” You already know this: if you want to work with great concentration, eliminate all distractions around you. But it’s true for all kinds of behavior. Eat less sweets -> Have less sweets. Run more -> Have your running shoes at the ready and let it be good ones. Cook more -> Prepare your cooking material and ingredients beforehand.
This one is interesting: Many actions, often performed unconsciously and done in a few seconds, determine your behavior for a long time afterwards. You’re on your way home. If you get out next station you will go climbing, only eat a banana once your home because you’re an athlete now and sleep well because you’re positively exhausted. Or, you keep sitting, don’t leave the train, get home tired and throw yourself on the couch, watch some YouTube or Netflix and gobble down a bag of tacos because now it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s a small decision (in the sense that it’s performed quickly) but has huge implications. Once you start watching out for these crossroads you notice them everywhere.
Finally, the “two-minute-rule”: If you can’t motivate yourself to start a particular new habit, just do it for two minutes, but do it as often as possible. Over time, it will become automatic, and you might start to think “well, if I’m already at it, might as well continue for a few more minutes…“ The idea behind this is, that you need to “[s]tandardize before you optimize […]” because “[y]ou can’t improve a habit that doesn’t exist.”
Make it satisfying: So far, we’ve mostly seen how to get a new habit started. To keep doing it though, it also needs to be rewarding. And because we know from behavioral psychology that immediate rewards and punishments are much more effective than delayed ones, “you need to feel immediately successful—even if it’s in a small way.”
A very effective way to create a feeling of satisfaction is to feel that you’re making progress. Therefore, track your efforts over time, e.g. with the everyday calender.3
If you instead want to break a bad habit, try to make it unsatisfying by telling your friends about your plan to stop it—smoking comes to mind here—so they can punish you if you don’t keep your word. You can also use it to reinforce a good habit though: Make a contract with a friend to do what you promised and if you fail, e.g. pay him or her a painful sum of money.
I was quite surprised to see such a statement in an American book: “The secret to maximize your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition”. This basically means, even if you put in superhuman effort, you might not become competitively good in some fields. Of course in the rest of the world, or at least in science, this has been an established fact for a long time. Your genes do matter.
That’s no reason to despair though. In fact, it makes life much easier. Instead of potentially having to compete in every field, simply pick the ones you’re already predisposed towards. This has the added benefit that in those fields, you’re already at an advantage from the beginning. This is of course also true for habits: “Pick the right habit and life is easy. Pick the wrong habit and life is a struggle.” If you want to become more athletic, you don’t need to join a basketball team. You can also become a climber, a runner or a gymnast.
Interestingly, “the greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom”. Because good habits can have such an immense effect, it is usually enough to stick to them to become extremely good at something. But sometimes that requires years of diligence while your previously exciting habits become routine and boring. Therefore, try to experiment on your habits and even expand them slowly over time if they become to easy.
That’s it. If you found this material interesting, of course consider buying the book and have a look at James Clear’s website where you can also find his blog and more. There is also a rather succinct tabular overview of everything covered in the book floating around on the Internet which you can print out and stick to your wall. I think it’s usually part of the book, but you might find it for free when looking for “atomic habits cheat sheet”. Not saying you should do this of course.