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  • Writer's pictureRyan Jeearry

Habits: Building Good Habits

“If you can get 1% better each day for one year, you’ll end up 37 times better by the time you’re done.” - James Clear.

The Power of Atomic Habits

A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly, and often, automatically.

Small habits can have a surprisingly powerful impact on your life, and yet you won’t notice the results straight away which can be disheartening. Going for a jog one day won’t make you lose weight overnight.

You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results. That’s because your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits, including breakthrough moments.

Habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. This is demonstrated by the Plateau of Latent Potential diagram (source: Atomic Habits by James Clear).

Successfully changing habits

If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead. Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.

Further, we are more likely to successfully change our habits if we focus on who we wish to become (identity-based habits) rather than focusing on what we want to achieve (outcome-based habits). You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity. For example, the aim is not to read a book, but instead to become a reader.

How do habits work?

Habits are made up of four distinct elements: cue, craving, response, reward.

Do you drink coffee every morning? Waking up or entering the office is your cue, triggering a craving to feel alert. Your response is to make or buy a cup of coffee. Your reward is feeling wide awake and ready to face the world. The reward satisfy our craving and teaches us which actions are worth remembering for the future. This is known as the feedback loop.

In his best-selling book ‘Atomic Habits’, James Clear lays out 4 simple laws of behaviour change to build better habits. They are based on the four elements mentioned above.

The 1st Law - Make It Obvious

Your habits change depending on the room you are in and the cues in front of you. If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment. For example, if you want to start reading a book, then place the book in a location where you can see it easily.

Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. A strategy to help here is the ‘implementation intention’, which is a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. The simple way to apply this strategy to your habits is to fill out this sentence: I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

Going one step further, one of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top (known as habit stacking). The habit stacking formula is: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].

The 2nd Law - Make It Attractive

Habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop. Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act. That’s why we need to make our habits attractive.

An effective strategy here is ‘temptation bundling’. It works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do. You are more likely to find a behavior attractive if you get to do one of your favorite things at the same time. Temptation bundling formula: After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].

You can make hard habits attractive if you learn to associate them with a positive experience. Reframing your habits to highlight their benefits rather than their drawbacks is a fast and lightweight way to reprogram your mind. You can reframe “I am nervous” to “I am excited and I’m getting an adrenaline rush to help me concentrate.”

The 3rd Law - Make It Easy

To master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. Just get your reps in! The more you repeat an activity, the more the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at that activity.

Every habit is just an obstacle to getting what you really want. You don’t actually want the habit itself. What you really want is the outcome the habit delivers. The more difficult the habit, the more friction there is between you and your desired state.

Rather than trying to overcome the friction in your life, try to reduce it. When we remove the points of friction that sap our time and energy, we can achieve more with less effort. Redesign your life so the actions that matter most are also the actions that are easiest to do.

Another trick for making a habit easier is the ‘two-minute rule’: when you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do. This is a way to make any new activity feel more manageable. If you want to read more, make a habit of reading just two pages a night. The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely it becomes that you can slip into the state of deep focus that is required to do great things.

Sometimes success is more about making bad habits hard. A ‘commitment device’ is a choice you make in the present that controls your future actions. It is a way to lock in future behavior, bind you to good habits, and restrict you from bad ones. For example, using app blockers to reduce your social media time.

The 4th Law - Make It Satisfying

The first three laws are concerned with a behaviour being performed this time. The 4th law is focused on a behaviour being repeated next time.

Our brain has a bias towards instant gratification. But we live in a delayed-return environment because you can work for years before your actions deliver the intended payoff. With bad habits, the immediate outcome feels good, but the ultimate outcome feels bad.

We should celebrate the small wins of our good habits. Immediate rewards are essential, because they keep you excited while the delayed rewards accumulate in the background. Immediate reinforcement can be especially helpful when dealing with habits of avoidance (e.g. no junk food). It can be hard to feel satisfied when there is no action in the first place. So, you want to make avoidance visible. A ‘temptation resisted’ tracker can help here.

If a failure is painful, it gets fixed. The more immediate and costly a mistake is, the faster you will learn from it. To prevent bad habits, add an instant cost to the action. For example, a ‘habit contract’ is an agreement in which you state your commitment to a particular habit and the punishment that will occur if you don’t follow through. Then find one person to act as your accountability partner and sign off on the contract with you.

5 daily habits for success

  1. Go to bed early & wake up at the same time each day

  2. Establish a morning routine & schedule your time

  3. Stay focused: Keep your daily to-do list small

  4. Move your body & fuel it with healthy food

  5. Get outside your comfort zone & level up your game

Bad habits affecting your life

  1. Overthinking - The scenarios you create in your head are unrealistic and unlikely to happen.

  2. Dominating conversations - Everyone wants to be heard but most of us just speak.

  3. Over-attachment to people - Focus on yourself and your needs first.

  4. Procrastination - There is never a perfect moment. Take action now.

  5. Social media - Spending too much time on social media can be harmful to your perception of life.

The holy grail of habit change is not a single 1% improvement, but a thousand of them. Small habits don’t add up, they compound. Success is not a goal to reach or a finish line to cross. It is a system to improve, an endless process to refine. The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements.


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