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Build better habits

Updated: Jun 7, 2022

Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits...You get what you repeat. (p.18)

That quote has been replaying in my head since reading James Clear's book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.

It delivers on that tagline. You can tell from looking at my copy how many parts I found helpful, insightful and applicable.

🎉🎉Quick shout-out to the author's generosity: you can freely download a number of resources he discusses here.

In the introduction, when explaining how and why he came to write this book, Clear writes:

We all face challenges in life. This injury was one of mine, and the experience taught me a critical lesson: changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you're willing to stick with them for years. We all deal with setbacks but in the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. (p.7)

I'm mostly writing this blog post to continue to reinforce the things I want to apply. So, without further ado, here are five concepts from his book that have helped me build better habits already:

1. Aim for 1% better everyday

Improve every day. I first heard of this concept from NBA legend, Kobe Bryant. He described it as his Mamba Mentality. 🏀🐍 Kobe challenged himself and others to get better every day. Even the best can get better.

Clear explains why tiny changes can make remarkable results.

Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action...Meanwhile, improving by 1 percent isn't particularly notable - sometimes it isn't even noticeable - but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here's how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you'll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you're done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you'll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more. (p. 15)

Here's a helpful analogy he uses: "Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement."

The question then is: Are your habits compounding for you or against you?

Positively - our productivity, knowledge and relationships compound. But stress, negative thoughts and outrage also compound.

Never miss twice...I can't be perfect, but I can avoid a second lapse. The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit. (p. 201)

2. Recognise the four step habit loop

This four-step loop is the backbone to every habit we have:

  • Cue - something that triggers a behaviour (noticing the reward)

  • Craving - motivational force behind every habit (makes you want it)

  • Response - the actual habit you perform (thought or action)

  • Reward - delivers the end goal

In short: The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. We chase rewards because they serve two purposes: (1) they satisfy us and (2) they teach us. (p.15)

We don't crave brushing our teeth - we crave a clean mouth. We're alerted to our need for this by our bad breathe (cue). We crave a clean mouth, we respond by brushing our teeth and voila - minty fresh!

Here's another example:

  • Cue - You wake up.

  • Craving - You want to feel alert.

  • Response - You drink a cup of coffee. ☕

  • Reward -You satisfy your craving to feel alert. Drinking coffee becomes associated with waking up.

Here's a third:

  • Cue - Your phone buzzes with a new text message.

  • Craving - You want to learn the contents of the message.

  • Response - You grab your phone and read the text.

  • Reward - You satisfy your craving to read the message. Grabbing your phone becomes associated with your phone buzzing.

3. The power of habit stacking

Clear explores four laws to build good habits: Make it Obvious, Attractive, Easy and Satisfying.

One way to make it easy is to use something Clear calls Habit Stacking. Identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behaviour on top. Build a new habit, by taking advantage of old ones.

Habit stacking is something I now use and it's helped tremendously. Here's two examples:

Goal: Use my phone less.

  • Habit I do every day: Go to the bathroom.

  • Habit I stacked onto it: Don't take my phone.

Goal: strengthen my legs (I just got a new thigh tattoo so was focused on this, lol)

  • Habit I do every day: Drink a cup of coffee. (Despite vowing I never would)

  • Habit I stacked onto it: Do 10 band kicks on each side while waiting for the coffee to brew.

Honestly it's great! And highly effective.

4. Use the 2 minute rule

Set yourself up for success. Maybe you're like me and you set an ambitious goals, declare some ambitious habits to help you get there and inevitably within a week you fail to do said ambitious habits.

Clear has a rule of thumb - a new habit shouldn't take more than 2 minutes. Why? Because we're biologically designed to be lazy and conserve as much energy as possible. The more energy that's required, the less likely it is to occur.

It shouldn't feel like a challenge - at least not the first two minutes. Read more, becomes read one page. Write more, becomes write one sentence. Think of it as a gateway-habit.

The point is not necessary to do the two minute exercise - the point is to master the art of showing up.

Once you've read one page, you're likely to read a few more. Write one sentence and a paragraph follows. Do 10 band kicks with coffee and you'll likely do another 50. Go for a two minute run and, more than likely, you'll do more!

We have to make it as easy as possible for us to do. Then we have to get our reps in to shift it from being effortful to automatic and easy. (System 1 + System 2 thinking).

5. Build identity based habits

Imagine this scene: Two people you know are trying to quit smoking. They're each offered a cigarette. 🚬🚬

One friend says "No, thanks. I'm trying to quit smoking."

The other friend says, "No, thanks. I'm not a smoker."

It may sound like a small difference, but it highlights a shift in identity. The first person still believes they're a smoker and they're trying to change their behaviour to be something else. The second person has a new identity (non-smoker) and recognises the action isn't part of their new identity.

True behaviour change is identity change. 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. (p. 34)

Is your identity helping or hindering you?

Have you heard any of these?

  • I'm not good with technology.

  • I'm always late.

  • I'm terrible with directions.

  • I just can't stick to a diet.

  • I'm bad at remembering people's names.

An identity change can be a powerful self-improvement driver. But it can also become something you attach yourself to and affects your ability to change.

We adopt the identity and then slide into accepting the norms with that identity as fact. This quote on page 39 really stuck with me, so I'll leave you with it:

New identities require new evidence. If you keep casting the same votes you've always cast, you're going to get the same results you've always had. If nothing changes, nothing is going to change. It's a simple two step process: 1) Decide the type of person you want to be. 2) Prove it to yourself with small wins.


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