The book Atomic Habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones by James Clear is a great review and application of how instrumental conditioning drives behavior. What is unique about it is that it takes how we respond to reward and punishment and applies it intentionally to change our behavior.
James lays out a case for the cumulative impact of good habits. He begins by stating that if you improve by 1% a day for a year your overall improvement will be more than 37%. However, you may not notice much difference with repeated use of habits until critical thresholds are reached. For example, with weight loss, exercise begins by building muscle, and then at a certain point your muscle mass is sufficient to burn the fat.
Transformation to mastery can be slow and persisting with small improvements can be challenging when the results are not immediately apparent. However, desired outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits so persistence is key.
Intentional use of habits improves all areas of life. For example, repeated action leads to automaticity that frees resources for other activities making you more productive. Repeated learning leads to greater availability of mental resources. Repeated investment in relationships leads to stronger connections. Conversely, not intentionally improving habits in these areas results in greater stress, less mental health, and a weaker support structure.
Your results over time are not so much about the goals set but about the systems you adopt to reach them. This shift in focus means aiming for being happy about the path processes followed rather than the goal reached. The idea is to improve systems and keep them in place even when the goal is achieved.
According to James, you need to prioritize how you will change your habit rather than the goal of changing your habit. In other words, make changes according to the person you want to be rather than the outcome you want to achieve. The likelihood of achieving your goal is increased when your beliefs align with the system you establish rather than the goal itself. This means paying attention to and continuously editing the belief associated with your identity. Processes following these beliefs provide evidence for your identity. So this is also a way to become the person you want to be.
James summarizes the formation of habits from 4 aspects of cue, craving, response, and habit. Something you want (cue) that provides improvement (craving), where a specific action (response) brings a reward that you can repeat (habit). These can happen outside of awareness which may lead to the development of bad habits. But, if applied mindfully you can implement good ones.
Making habits stick
Habits are created by identifying and supporting these aspects so that the response is easy and attractive. There are many ways in which you can increase your ability to establish a new habit by making it easy and attractive so that it is fun and you do not have to go out of your way to do it.
- Create an intention statement of the form: I will (enter behavior) at (give time/date) in (specify location/place).
- Habit stack: Add new behavior to something specific that you already do.
- Change the environment to make it front of mind. Make use of positioning and reminders.
- Pair activity with context: Create unique places/equipment dedicated to a certain activity to engage rote memory.
- Remove tempting distractions: e.g. lock social media.
- Anticipation of rewards triggers dopamine which is critical to taking action on a desire. If a process for one habit is not very rewarding you can piggyback on another one that is. For example, listening to podcasts while exercising.
- Leverage the need to belong: do this by surrounding yourself with people who already have the habits you want.
- Change your mindset: Associate your habit with a positive experience e.g. shift from “I have to” to “I get to”.
- Limit your initial commitment: Just doing 2 minutes repeatedly shapes your identity and increases follow-through.
- Commit to standardizing before optimizing: You can’t improve a habit that doesn’t exist. Eventually, repetition provides the opportunity to refine by adapting according to feedback as you explore.
- Identify the crossovers: these are the places between activities when you might be pulled into something less conducive.
- Use a commitment device: this is doing something to deliberately constrain your future actions such as packaging food positions in advance or setting automatic deductions.
- Make the end of a behavior satisfying: That way even if a final goal is delayed will feel good to move towards it.
- Use streaks: This is tracking completion with a check mark or coin. On occasion, the streak will break so start again as soon as possible.
- Allow it to be good enough: On occasion, the work done will not be your best and you will just be going through the motions but it is still better than not doing at all.
- Choose the right habits for you. Our genes (physical and mental strengths) determine our areas of opportunity this means identifying your unique skills.
- Try to stay in the zone. Being in the flow occurs when you are working just above your current ability. Revise your habits to find the balance between progress and challenge.
- Find ways to address boredom: This is an inevitable outcome of repeated practice. People who are able to manage this are more successful.
- Track your mastery: Find ways to access whether you are getting better (or worse).
These are all ways to deliberately use our psychological responses to support a healthy lifestyle. The key takeaway to creating new habits is to make the action steps fun and effortless. If it is not already fun what can you do to make it enjoyable? If it is not easy what can you do to reduce difficulty?