If we want to change our lives, we’re often told that we need to think big, make drastic changes, or perhaps even move across continents, but what if we could achieve major transformations just through small tweaks to our daily routines? We all tend to overestimate the importance of single actions and underestimate the power of making small improvements repetitively over a longer period of time.
Real change comes from the compound effects of hundreds of small decisions or small habits that, over time, accumulate to produce remarkable results. Changing the lifestyles, behaviours, and identities. In this blog, we will summarise the key insights and ideas from some of my favourite books, and today we’re talking about Atomic Habits by James Clear, which is all about the power and process of building good habits and breaking bad ones.
Through examples from sports, business, and education, along with evidence from psychology and neuroscience, the book explains the science and practical implications of how tiny habits and minuscule changes can grow into life-altering outcomes and help us lead healthier, happier, and more productive lives. There are basically four key insights from this book that we’re gonna talk about in turn.
Firstly we’ll talk about the power of one per cent changes over time.
Secondly, why we should screw goals and focus on systems instead.
Thirdly, why it’s all about identities rather than outcomes and
finally, we’ll look at what our boy, James, calls the four fundamental laws of behaviour change.
So firstly, why does one per cent matter?
Well, it’s all about the power of compounding. Compounding can be amazingly powerful both positively and negatively if we leave it to develop over a period of time. If we can get one per cent better each day for a year, we’ll end up 37 times better by the time we’re done but if we get one per cent worse each day for one year, we’ll go down nearly to zero.
As James says in his book, “habits are the compound interest “of self-improvement.” Habits don’t seem to make much difference on a given day but the impact over months or years can be absolutely enormous. We don’t often think about these small changes just because it takes so long to see the result, this is something that I really struggle with and I think this probably applies to everyone. We’re so attuned in modern society to try and seek instant gratification that it’s actually really hard to focus on things that have long-term benefits.
Equally, the slow rate of transformation also means that it’s really easy to let bad habits creep in. Like eating badly and not exercising, and when we repeat these one per cent errors day after day, they’ll accumulate into larger problems. As James says in the book, “time magnifies the margin “between success and failure, “it will multiply whatever you feed it. “Good habits make time your ally, “and bad habits make time your enemy.”
One of the other key points from our boy, James’, analysis of habits, is what he calls the plateau of latent potential.
Which sounds all very fancy. Habits often don’t seem to make a difference until we cross a critical threshold. We expect progress to be linear but the key aspect of any key compounding process is that the outcomes are delayed. This leads to an initial value of disappointment, where we don’t feel like we’re making progress as the results don’t follow the linear trajectory that we expect, and so we just give up because we’re not getting the results we wanted. But as we can see from the graph, it does take time to build a habit to allow the compound interest of self-improvement to take hold and give us amazing results over time.
Key point number two from the book is to screw goals and focus on systems instead.
James identifies four main problems with goal setting. Firstly, winners and losers have the same goals. Every Olympian wants the gold medal, every candidate wants the job, and so it can’t be the goal that actually differentiates people.
Secondly, achieving a goal is only a momentary change. Sure, I might be able to pluck up the activation energy to bring myself to clean my room, but if I continue my waste mad habits and systems that led to the room getting messy in the first place, I’m just gonna be left with a messy room again in a few days time.
In the same way, when we achieve a goal, we only change our life for the moment. We get these temporary results. Instead, what we really need to change, is the systems that cause those results in the first place. Thirdly, James argues that goals restrict our happiness. There’s an implicit assumption behind any goal and that’s once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy. And so we end up continuously putting off happiness until the next milestone.
Finally, goals are at odds with long-term progress. There’s another really nice quote here, “the purpose of setting goals is to win the game, “the purpose of building systems “is to continue playing the game.”I don’t want to try to win the game. – It’s this idea between the system and the goal and says you’re playing a sport, in every sport the goal is to have the best score on the scoreboard at the end of the game, but it would be ridiculous to spend all game looking at the scoreboard because it wouldn’t help you in any way.
So in fact, if you just ignored the score the entire time, and just focused on a better process, or playing a better way, or a better scheme or strategy, then you probably would end up with the best score. I think Bill Walsh, he was the Super Bowl-winning head coach for the San Francisco 49ers, he had this quote, “the score takes care of itself.” I think that probably applies to a lot of tracking and measuring.
So now that we’ve seen why systems are so important,
key point number three is another quote from the book, and that is, “identity change is the North Star “of habit change.”
We’ve got outcomes on the outside, concerned with changing the results. And then processes related to our habits and systems, and finally our identity, which is related to our beliefs. Most of us work from outcome to identity rather than identity to the outcome but as our boy, James, says, “the ultimate form of intrinsic motivation “is when a habit becomes part of our identity.” When we solve problems in terms of outcomes and results, we only solve them temporarily. But to solve problems in the longer term, at the systems level we need to change our identity.
This point really resonates with me when I first read the book. I’ve been struggling personally with A, eating healthily, and B, going to the gym for the last several years, and before I used to have an outcomes-based way of looking at this. So I used to think, I want to get rid of my belly fat, therefore I’m gonna follow Tim Ferriss’ low-carb diet. Therefore I’ll be a healthy person. But since reading the book, I know have more of an identity-based approach to looking at this. So I try to think in my head, I’m a healthy person, therefore, as a healthy person, I will eat wholesome food and exercise regularly and then one day maybe I’ll look like Zac Efron, we’ll see how that goes.
And finally, point number four, at this point we’re thinking, okay cool, I’m sold on the idea of building useful habits. I’m sold on the idea that it’s all about tiny improvements over a very long time, and that it’s all about systems rather than goals.
But how do we actually build those habits in the first place? How do we overcome the difficulty?
Well I’m glad you asked because we can actually split up the process of building habits into four stages, cue, craving, response, and reward. The cue triggers the brain to initiate an action, the craving provides the motivational force, the response is the action or habit that we perform, and the reward is the end goal.
And it’s these four things, cue, craving, response, and reward, which leads to what James Clear calls, the four laws of behaviour change.
The first law is to make it obvious,
and it relates to designing our environment around our cues. I applied this to my life just the other day actually. I realised I was vitamin D deficient as well because I spent way too much time in front of a computer and don’t ever leave the house, and so I got all these vitamin D tablets, but I kept on forgetting to take them, and I realised, the reason I kept forgetting to take them is that they were on the other side of the kitchen, to my Finasteride that I take every day as a habit.
And so, all I did was I moved the vitamin D tablets over to the other side of the kitchen, and now I see them in front of my Finasteride, and therefore I take both tablets every night. So just a little change that has now built that habit almost immediately. – Kind of the principle of environment design, in general, which is, you want to put fewer steps between you and the good behaviours, and more steps between you and the bad ones.
And imagine the cumulative impact of living in an environment that exposes you to the cues of the positive habits and reduces the cues of your negative habits. It’s kind of like you’re just gently being nudged in the right direction each day. –
The second law is to make it attractive,
Which relates to the craving aspect of the habit loop and tries to take advantage of what we know about dopamine. As humans, we’re all motivated by the anticipation of reward, so making habits attractive will help us stick to them.
The third law is to make it easy, and the aim here is to reduce the friction and to prime our environment for the habits that we’d like to develop. There’s a phrase that I like that I think I came up with, but I probably actually read it somewhere and then just forgot to cite the source. Anyway, the phrase is that “friction is the most powerful force in the universe.”
I’ve seen this so many times in my own life, like anything I can do to reduce the friction to make doing a good thing slightly easier, will pay dividends in the long run, like having a piano right next to me, having a guitar right next to my desk, means that my default procrastination when I can’t be bothered to do any work or writing a blog, is that I will play the guitar, or practise some stuff on the piano. Like, reducing the friction makes it far more likely for me to do the thing.
And the fourth law is to make it immediately satisfying.
Our brains have evolved to prioritise immediate rewards over delayed rewards, and the cardinal rule of behaviour change is, “what is immediately rewarded is repeated, “and what is immediately punished is avoided.” We get short term bursts of dopamine from going through the McDonald’s drive-through or scrolling aimlessly through Instagram, making us more likely to repeat these bad habits. To develop better habits, James says that we should try to attach some form of immediate gratification so that we can make the habit immediately satisfying. After reading the book, I realised that I needed to make this going to the gym thing more immediately satisfying. Sometimes if I’m going to the gym after work, I’ll do my workout and then I will jump in the swimming pool, do like a length or two just for fun, and then go into the spa and just kind of read a book for like 20 minutes, and this sounds really privileged and spoiled but like the fact that I’ve got those activities lined up after going to the gym, makes the whole process of going to the gym more immediately satisfying which means I’m far more likely to do it.
So by combining these laws and their opposites, we’ve got this diagram that comes from the book. We wanna ensure that our good habits are positioned towards the left side of the spectrum to make them obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying, and we wanna work to make our bad habits more difficult by making the cues invisible, the action unattractive and hard, and the reward unsatisfying in an ideal world. We rarely stop to think about our own habits or plan for long-term change when we start a new regime like going to the gym. The great power of Atomic Habits is the emphasis that it places on systems rather than goals, identity rather than outcomes, and small habits rather than drastic change. There isn’t a precise answer to how long it takes to build a habit because habits are not a finish line to cross, but a lifestyle to live. The key part to remember is that small habits compound. Atomic habits may be individually small, but collectively and given time, they could hold remarkable power to bring a remarkable change to our lives.