How to Change Your Life One Tiny Habit at a Time. My Lessons from Reading Atomic Habits by James Clear.
We are often told that if we want to change our lives, we must think big and make drastic changes. This idea of change is not rooted in reality. It comes from our optimism-bias and innocent expectation that we should be able to change our lives all at once. Change, however, does not work like that. Quick changes do happen but most major transformations come 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.
When it comes to personal growth, real change comes from the compound effects of hundreds of small decisions or small habits that, over time, accumulate to produce remarkable results by changing lifestyles, behaviors, and identities. The book Atomic Habits by James Clear 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.
Here I will discuss basically four key insights from the book:
First, I’ll talk about the power of one percent changes over time.
Second, why we should screw goals and focus on systems instead
Third, why it is all about identities rather than outcomes
Fourth, the 4 fundamental laws of behavior change.
Now, let’s go into the details of these 4 fundamental insights.
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 percent better each day for a year, we will end up 37 times better by the time we are done. But, if we get one percent worse each day for one year, we will 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 everyone really struggles with. We are so attuned to 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 percent errors day after day they will 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 your time enemy”.
One of the other key points from the book is the plateau of latent potential. 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 are making progress. As the results don’t follow the linear trajectory that we expect, and so, we just give up because we are 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.
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. 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 and bad habits and systems that led to the room getting messy in the first place, I am going to be left with a messy room again in a few days.
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. To improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.
Thirdly, Goals restrict our happiness.
There is an implicit assumption behind any goal and that is- once I reach my goal, then I will be happy. The problem with goals- the first mentality is that you are continuously putting off happiness until the next milestone.
On the other hand, a systems-first mentality provides the antidote. When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to permit yourself to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running. And a system can be successful in many different forms, not just the one you first envision.
Fourthly, Goals are at odds with long-term progress.
The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.
Basically, outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.
Most of us work from outcome to identity rather than identity to an outcome. But according to James Clear, “ 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.
The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become. Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and upgrade and expand your identity. The real reason habits matter is not because they can get you better results, but because they can change your beliefs about yourself
We can split up building habits into four stages. These are- cue, craving, response, and reward.
These four things lead to what James Clear calls the four laws of behavior change.
The First Law is Make it Obvious (Cue): And it relates to designing our environment around our cues. One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it.
The principle of environmental design, in general, is you want to put fewer steps between you and the good behaviors, 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 positive habits and reduces the cues of your negative habits. It’s kind of like you are just gently being nudged in the right direction each day.
The 2nd Law is Make it Attractive (Craving): This relates to the craving aspect of the habit loop and tries to take advantage of what we know about dopamine. As humans, we are all motivated by the anticipation of reward. So, making habits attractive will help us stick to them. And in fact, one of the attractive things that I did before starting my daily work is I read 2 or 3 pages of a book I love the most.
The Third Law is Make it Easy (Response): The main aim here is to reduce friction and to prime our environment for the habits that we would like to develop. Because when friction is low, habits are easy. They say, “ Friction is the most powerful force in the universe”. And everyone also experiences this so many times in their own life. Like, anything people can do to reduce the friction to make doing a good thing slightly easier, will pay dividends in the long run. Like, reducing the friction makes it far more likely for anyone to do the thing.
The Fourth Law is Make it Immediately Satisfying (Reward): Our brains have evolved to prioritize immediate rewards over delayed rewards. The cardinal rule of behavior change is “what is immediately rewarded is repeated, what is immediately punished is avoided”. We get short-term bursts of dopamine from having rich food or scrolling aimlessly through Facebook/ Instagram, making us more likely to repeat these bad habits. To develop better habits, James suggests we should try to attach some form of immediate gratification so that we can make the habit immediately satisfying.
As we strive to establish more good habits, we want to make sure they are obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. And we would work to make our bad habits more difficult by making the cues invisible, the action hard, and the reward unsatisfying.
We rarely think about our own habits or plan for long-term changes. What makes Atomic Habits unique is that it stresses systems over goals, identities over outcomes, and small changes over big changes. There is no 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 important thing to remember is that small habits accumulate. Although atomic habits may be small individually, collectively and over time they can make a significant difference in our lives.
This article was originally published on 1 September 2021. Updated on 24 October 2022.