It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.
~ Benjamin Franklin
And yet, there’s a way you can build good habits and leave the bad ones behind.
According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, you can create better habits in any area of life.
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James labels these habits as atomic.
Atomic Habits are tiny routines and behaviors that build on one another to multiply outcomes over time.
Ironically, we tend to prioritize big breakthroughs over tiny improvements. But it’s the small daily decisions and actions that matter.
James Clear further sheds light on becoming 1% better every day.
It works similarly if you slide by 1% every day.
In a nutshell, your habits define your trajectory and future outcomes – for better or worse. But there’s no denying that habits are hard to change because they take a long time to deliver visible results. For example, you can’t become a millionaire by saving money for six months. And you’ll still be out of shape if you just went to the gym for three days.
So, making a few changes, failing to see results, and quickly sliding back into the old routines won’t work. You need to tap on the compounding effect.
The compounding effect is sticking with your daily actions and habits long enough to cross the Plateau of Latent Potential.
Take an example of an ice cube on a table. It will look the same when the temperature rises from 25 to 31 degrees Fahrenheit. But at 32 degrees, you will see visible signs of the ice melting.
And that’s how it is with good habits.
You may not see results for some time. But one day, you will suddenly notice exponential growth.
The key is to keep going until you reach that tipping point.
Most importantly, remember that there are three levels of change:
Although all three are crucial for change, the best way is to change from the inside out. That means focusing on the person you want to become [your identity] than the outcomes you want to achieve. Because:
- Goals can reduce happiness if we fail to reach the target.
- We relax and break out of good habits when we achieve our goals.
- Focusing on outcomes means addressing symptoms instead of the causes.
But when you focus on long-term change at the systems level, that’s when results will take off.
4 Laws to Build Better Habits
There are four parts to habit formation:
- Cue – that triggers a craving
- Craving – that triggers a response
- Response – that brings the reward
- Reward – that links with the cue to complete the loop
James uses this habit loop to present four laws to build good habits and break bad ones.
Law Number 1 – Make It Obvious
When your cues are more obvious, it paves the way for making a habit permanent. Habits become automatic when our brain picks cues and predicts certain rewards without conscious thought.
Once a cue is formed, it’s impossible to forget. Once you’re exposed to the cue, you tend to fall into the habit.
Remember that the best way to break a bad habit is not via self-control but by removing temptation. For example, if your phone distracts you from work, put it in a different room.
Law Number 2 – Make It Attractive
You might be more inclined towards an action when you know its reward.
The more rewarding the action, the more you will repeat it until it becomes a habit you do automatically or subconsciously. And that’s why you must make your habits attractive to form good ones.
Here, the effects of dopamine come into play.
Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that affects our motivation levels. When dopamine levels rise, we feel more motivated to take action.
It’s important to understand that we’re programmed to respond to inbuilt motives. The motives can be anything from getting food or water, feeling loved, connected, and accepted, and the desire to reproduce.
Your craving is merely an expression of the underlying motives. The goal is not the action itself but to change an inner state. That’s why some people smoke to relieve stress, and others spend hours on social media to feel connected.
The opposite goes for breaking a bad habit.
If you want to break a bad habit, play up the negatives and bad feelings to make the habit unattractive.
Law Number 3 – Make It Easy
The best way to build a habit is to practice it, and the best way to start practicing is to make the steps easy.
The worst mistake is falling into a rut of analysis paralysis, i.e., spending so much time and energy figuring out the best way to do something than actually taking action.
Your mind might tell you that you’re making progress when you think, research, and plan. But real learning and progress come from actually doing something.
Don’t worry if forming a habit requires a lot of effort initially. Over time, it will become easier and eventually automatic.
It all goes down to the frequency with which you act than how much time it takes.
Use the 2-minute rule to develop mini-habits leading to bigger ones. Your two-minute version can be about running a marathon.
The mini habit could be to change into your workout clothes in 2 minutes to run a marathon.
Once you’ve mastered the 2-minute habit, you can progressively move on to subsequent phases. For example, walking 10 minutes a day – walking 10,000 steps a day – running 5km a day – to eventually participating in a marathon.
Using the 2-minute version, you can also break out of your bad habits. So, if you’re addicted to T.V., unplug the T.V. and remove the batteries from the remote control.
Law Number 4 – Make It Satisfying
This law closes the habit loop to decide if you’ll repeat the action.
Your decision to take and repeat an action also depends on whether that action delivers instant rewards.
The ones delivering instant punishments will be avoided.
The irony is that most of us know the value of delayed gratification.
Yet, our brain seeks instant gratification. Because we’re wired to believe that a definite reward now will have a higher value than a possible reward in the future. That’s why bad habits like smoking and overeating persist because the immediate outcomes feel good.
Good habits are hard to form because immediate outcomes, like giving up chocolate for a salad, feel bad.
Businesses leverage this need for instant gratification when marketing their products. For instance, minty flavors aren’t added to toothpaste to make your teeth cleaner but to make your mouth feel fresh.
This gives you a satisfying experience when you brush your teeth.
You can use this tendency to give yourself an immediate reward. So, when you pass on a milkshake, transfer $5 to your account for holiday savings.
To break bad habits, make them instantly unsatisfying or painful. Write a habit contract for how you’ll be punished if you violate them.
You can also get a partner to hold you accountable for it.
Since we want others to like and respect us, it will add a social cost to make our habit failures more painful.
Finally, James Clear emphasizes aligning habits with talents, interests, and context.
When you align your habits with your natural abilities and environmental context, you improve 10x faster. On the other hand, trying to build habits that go against your personality, interests, and abilities results in struggles.
If you prefer rock climbing over running, practicing rock climbing is pointless. Go with running instead.
You always have the choice to explore various options and narrow down to the areas that fit your natural strengths and inclinations.
Options that fit your strengths won’t just be enjoyable to you but will also get you in flow. You’ll be immersed in it enough to lose track of time.
Ultimately, you will:
- Get higher-than-average returns
- Feel natural and energized.
When combined, it will make you unbeatable and beyond compare.
So, are you ready to improve by 1% every day?