Habits are the cornerstones of an individual that shapes up an identity to which he or she will rise or fall. Adopting good habits and breaking bad ones are a mere process of human behavioural change, which when recognised and utilized properly can yield remarkable positive change over time.
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement”
"When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.”
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
“You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
"Your habits shape your identity, and your identity shapes your habits."
A day in your life comprises a vast variety of activities, of which a large portion is subconsciously done in an involuntary manner. Let it be brushing teeth in the morning, drinking coffee, cooking food, eating at certain times of the day, going to the gym, taking a bath, getting ready for sleep and so on. You know you are doing it, but it has become more of a habit for you at this point that you do not feel like it's something out of the ordinary. These habits can be healthy and positive ones, as well as negative ones, that you feel the necessity to do subconsciously at a certain point. These habits eventually define who you are as a person, and so it becomes important to understand your habits and take control of it. Atomic Habits is all about comprehending your habits, replenishing the healthy ones and weeding out the unhealthy ones. On a fundamental level, habits are small things that are done repeatedly on a daily basis that eventually form your whole self-image.
Statistically speaking, if you make an improvement of 1% to something on a daily basis, you end up getting 37 times better at it by the end of one year. That means you could be 37 times better at your finance, or at your health or even in relationships if you have put a small effort into it daily. Even getting a fraction of 37 times better at something is enough to make your life successful. This is where the concept of habits comes into play. But before we can dive into habits, we need to define and understand what success is.
What is success and what determines it?
For most people, success is defined by the outcome of their goals. The mindset of doing whatever it takes to achieve a certain amount of money, buy a certain car, look a specific way or date a certain person is actually not a good way of approaching success. Goals are key to success, but this goal-driven behaviour towards achieving them does more damage than good. Think of an example where you are to run a marathon. If you are just concentrating on the outcome of the goal, i.e winning the race, then you are just one among all the participants who are also having the same goal. However, those who come out on the top are those who were concentrating on the continuous improvement of their running habits instead of just focusing on the outcome of that single marathon. Success doesn't happen overnight, it is a combination of self-control and discipline towards a goal over a long period of time. If you want to become a winner in the marathon, you should be focusing on becoming a good runner instead of the outcome of a marathon.
Similarly, concentrate on improving your financial habits, and soon you would be buying that dream car. Concentrate on improving your dietary habits, and soon you will have those six-pack abs. Likewise, focus on improving your personality and taking good care of yourself to attract the similar type of partner you want in life instead of just fantasising about it. As the author conveys "You do not rise to your goals, you fall to the level of your systems".
The formation of habit
Let's take a glimpse into how a habit is formed. It typically happens in four stages - the cue, the craving, the response and the reward.
Let's consider an example of you working on a project for your work or studying for your school. After a while, you get bored with the task you were doing. This boredom is your cue, and it forms a craving for some distraction from the task at hand, mostly in the form of some entertainment. In response, you take your smartphone and start browsing on social media. And as most of us already know, social media gives you an instant dopamine spike as a reward. Through this process, now boredom became associated with browsing social media on the phone. You will soon start to repeat the process every time you get bored and eventually you make it a habit. This must sound familiar to you, isn't it?
Steps to build a new habit
Since now we know how a habit is formed in the first place, let's put it to our advantage to form some healthy ones or even replace existing bad ones. We can build a new habit by following four laws of behavioural changes. They are - make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy and make it satisfying. Let's elaborate on each of them.
1. Making it obvious
Your mind is not good at reminding things, instead, we can say it is more capable of doing logical and creative stuff. When you make a plan to start a new habit, if you haven't set an alarm as a reminder or scheduled it on your daily calendar, it is more likely that you are going to forget it on most days than remember it. Your brain is not meant for remembering stuff at certain intervals of time automatically. This is why you need to make the "cues" really obvious.
In this book, the author refers to an interesting strategy called habit stacking. It is something that most of us are already doing in our daily life, but are not specifically aware of. It is basically just the process of associating one habit with another. For example, some people read the newspaper along with their morning coffee, some floss right after they brush their teeth, some take a bath right after a workout, these are good habits associated with some other ones. So next time if you plan to do something new like going to a gym, associate that action with the cue of getting in the car after work or getting on the bus from school. You get the idea right? As soon as you are done with one task, you instantly know that you are supposed to do another along with it. Just like reaching for the floss once you put down your toothbrush, that is if you already have that good habit established.
Similarly, if you are trying to break a bad habit from your life, remember, that there are cues in your environment that are triggering these bad habits. For example, if you are someone who is addicted to pornography, it would be wise to not follow Instagram models who post "sexy" pictures on social media. Because those pictures are a trigger that winds you up to watch pornography. So, understanding these cues is an important part of breaking existing unhealthy habits.
2. Making it attractive
Now we talk about making a habit attractive. For many, going to the gym might not be an exciting thing to do. If you find it as an activity that you have to force yourself to do, you are more likely to quit it. Here, the author suggests another interesting technique called temptation bundling.
The concept of temptation bundling is simply "You can only do x if you do y", get it? We are bundling one activity with another. Personally, I can only watch my favourite show during my stationary cycling section. This way I get to enjoy the show and also do my cardio. Another example would be to allow yourself to drink your favourite flavour of vitamin water only during your gym section. Most healthy habits take a huge amount of time to yield a reward, which makes it less motivating and is also the reason why many fall off from the habit-building process. "If it was easy, everyone would do it!", isn't that the saying? Therefore, using temptation bundling is a good strategy to reward yourself daily when trying to build a new habit.
3. Making it easy
Overcoming the initial struggle to get going with an activity is the hardest part. So, in order to make it easy, we need to remove as many obstacles as possible that are in the way of getting started with the activity. Atomic Habits exemplifies a 2-minute rule which will help you in this regard. When you are forming a new habit, it should only take less than 2 minutes to do.
Suppose, you want to start doing a cardio section every morning, the process of getting your cloth, searching for the shoes, finding your keys and filling up water can be slow and a tiring process, especially when you just woke up. Instead, if you lay out your clothes, organise your shoes, and keys and filled up the water bottle the night before, it would become so much easier to roll out of bed and get straight to the cardio section. This way, you will be out of your house by the time your brain comes up with an excuse to get back in bed.
It is also important not to set your goals extremely high. Instead of setting your goal as a cardio section of 30 minutes, set it as 10 minutes. It is very likely that once you start the section, you can do more than that. This way, you will overcome the initial struggle to get going and also wouldn't be setting yourself up for a chance of failing to hit a goal. Remember what I mentioned earlier about what success is? Your goal should be to embrace the identity of becoming a better runner or an athlete, not to attain the goal of doing cardio for a certain period of time for a single day.
Similarly, if you want to make a habit go away, simply use inversion of the third rule, i.e instead of making it easy, make it hard to do.
4. Making it satisfying
The final step is to make the rewards satisfying. Keeping track of your habits on a calendar, or on a habit-tracking app will be very useful for you to visualise how much progress you have made. This will act as a motivation for you to continue with the habit and reassures your identity as an athletic or financially responsible or healthy person.
Likewise, making a bad habit unsatisfying can help break it. We are less likely to stick with a habit if it is painful or uncomfortable. An accountability partner can help create this discomfort by pointing out the mistake when you repeat a bad habit. Another way for breaking a bad habit is to change the environment you are in. It is difficult to outgrow a bad environment, it could be anything such as your friend circle, the place where you live, or having obvious cues in your room that lead to bad habits.
Working towards an identity
Identity is the key element to the formation of habits and becoming a better version of yourself. Once you set your identity as something, your goals and habits will fall into their place. For example, your goal is not to eat a certain type of food or hit a certain number of calories at the end of the day, but to become a healthy person. Similarly, your goal is not to run for a certain period of time every morning, but to become a runner or an athlete. It is not to read a bunch of books, but to become a reader. And it is not about giving up alcohol or smoking, it's about being identified as a non-alcoholic / smoker. Once you start believing who you want to identify yourself as a person, your mind will start to reinforce it with certain habits and goals in your daily routine. Your mind will subconsciously start aiding you in fulfilling your identity like a normal routine.
Putting the knowledge to use
Well, now we know how to improve our life based on the framework of Atomic habits. What's next for you is to identify your habits. It doesn't matter whether it is good or bad, you need to identify them and write them down on a habit scorecard. Identifying all your habits is not an easy task, because habits happen automatically and subconsciously. So you would need to put in some effort to track your habits throughout your day, whether it is in your personal life or work life, and also look for cues and track your reaction to them. The cues can be anything from a certain smell or a conversation with someone, a specific location and so on. It can be something like pulling out your phone and browsing social media every time you get bored. So, find out those cues, figure out the rewards and then write them on your habit scorecard.
Once you identify all your good and bad habits, you can decide to improve your life one step at a time according to the principles defined in the Atomic Habits. Always remember, that habits are a building block to who you are going to be. You are a compounded reflection of the repeated actions throughout your entire history.
I hope to have shared with you the concepts of Atomic Habits to the best of my knowledge. And I hope this would help to improve your life by building new healthy habits just like I have done with my life after reading this book. If you have enjoyed reading this, you would also enjoy reading some of the other book summaries that I have written in my blog. See you in the next one, till then...