There are a few books I’ve read that are specifically about habits. This one by far is the best. The author is informative, gives plenty of good examples and stories, and is specific enough to explain why and how to approach habit formation. Here are ten things I learned from “Atomic Habits.”
1) Habits rely on cues.
Habits rely on cues. An even better way of thinking about habits is that they are conditioned reactions to specific stimuli. Plopping on the couch with a TV dinner the moment you get home and you’re hungry may not be the same reaction if you came home after going out to eat. Similarly, the urge to procrastinate is better managed if you break it down to the level of “when I think about how much work I have to do, I feel anxious and get an immediate craving to browse facebook.” Another example is “I get the urge to eat chocolate when I see chocolate.” Doing this gives you the freedom to attack that habit either by managing your response to a cue (associate meditation and breath work with feeling anxious) or by managing the cue directly (remove all the chocolate from your house).
2) Cues must be specific!
You may not know it, but the cues for your current habits are quite specific themselves. When planning a habit, let’s say doing the dishes, “immediately after dinner” is far more specific than “sometime in the evening.” Specificity will make your attempt at designing new habits far more successful.
3) Habit planning is more effective if you decide to do X, at Y location at Z time (or when Z cue occurs).
This is really a continuation of point 2, except that here we propose a template. For instance “I’m going to work on this blog post at my apartment as soon as I get home from work on Wednesday” creates a specific framework for when and where to perform the habit. Had I just decided “sometime Wednesday” I would most likely be working on this at 11:45PM and cutting into my sleep.
4) Habit stacking works more easily when you map out your current habits over the course of the day.
Habit stacking is when you condition one positive habit to follow another one, leading to hours of productivity. Maybe Sunday you cook a special breakfast (preferably pancakes), which you then associate with doing the dishes, which then cues you to clean the floor, which then cues you to vacuum the carpeted areas, etc. The thing is we have a ton of existing habits and cues already. Mapping out what you currently do after you make breakfast on Sunday, and what you do after that, etc, allows you to find injection points to replace your worst habits with better ones.
5) Disciplined and successful people control their environment.
It also is key to overcoming drug addiction. The author gives the example that 90% of Vietnam soldiers addicted to heroin kicked the habit upon returning home, the reverse trend is seen in rehab clinics. For things that are overwhelmingly addictive, careful control of the cues that you are exposed to (are you surrounded by other addicts?) is key. This is also good to know in the case of super-normal stimuli, such as pornography, video games and social media, behaviors which are all inherently addictive.
Regarding Youtube and social media, which have been massive time sinks for me, I installed the firefox extension “Leechblock.” It kicks me out of those sites if I am on there for more than ten minutes a day. If that seems extreme for you, you can configure it differently, just know that these tools are out there.
6) One trick is to break a large habit (“Clean Apartment”) into a two minute starting task and associate that with a cue (“Put away three items every time you enter a room”).
For those people who can’t seem to open up a large chunk of time, or who find the thought of the larger task particularly daunting, this can be a useful tool. The idea is that even though you only force yourself to do the first two minutes, after that there is a strong chance you will want to continue doing it. I do this with working out each week. Instead of chaining myself to the exercises, all I force myself to do is put on workout shorts and enter the gym. Once there, if I want to leave, I can, but I almost never do.
7) Logging progress can be as simple as “move one paperclip from one jar to the other jar.”
Logging or journaling is one of the most powerful ways to solidify a habit. One part of that is “that which gets measured gets managed.” Another part is that watching your progress serves as encouragement for you. There was one study that showed if people just snap a cell phone picture of whatever they’re about to eat, that group will lose weight. Unfortunately, writing stuff down takes rigor and time, and can be a habit in itself. It should only be reserved for the things that are truly important to you (I write down my workouts, and whenever I finish a new book, nothing else yet). Fortunately, there are easier ways to make progress. One top salesperson had this ritual. There are 250 paperclips in one jar and the other is empty. He would make a phone call, and then move one paperclip to the other jar. He would do this until he moved all the paperclips, every day.
8) When it comes to maintaining a habit, doing something badly is way better than not doing it at all.
The temptation when sick or injured is not to work out, but then your brain starts to overwrite your habitual responses to your ordinary cues. Simply showing up to the gym and walking around a bit still reinforces the habit of showing up, putting in time and getting some healthy motion. The general rule is, don’t cheat twice.
9) One thing that separates the best (in a field) from the merely good is a tolerance for boredom. (Also from Peak by Anders Ericcson)
This is one thing Anders Ericcson talks about in “Peak: secrets from the new science of expertise.” The amount of focus required for deliberate practice makes it a form of work distinct from playing around. Top violinists who enjoy playing the violin still find the practice unpleasant. There is a form of consolation in this: passion is not what makes someone successful, good habits (and patience) are.
10) Lasting change takes place at the level of one’s identity.
In order for change to last, it has to take place at the level of your own self-image. Someone who refuses a cigarette by saying “No thanks, I’m trying to quit” still sees himself as a smoker. If this persists, he will eventually find himself smoking again. But, if at the same time he starts training for a marathon, and he says “No thanks, I am training for a marathon.” The extra lung capacity and stamina he gets from not smoking will improve his time while training, and the pride one gets when making progress (I managed to run two miles today when last week I could only do one!) further reinforces that identity. We protect those aspects of our identity that we are proud of. Leverage that for your own good.
Now as to the choice of words. “I am training for a marathon” is not quite as good as “I am someone who makes healthy choices.” This is because the former has an inherent deadline to it. What happens when you take up swimming instead? Is it time to smoke again?
I thoroughly recommend this book. If you haven’t, go check it out!