An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones
By James Clear
Find it on Bookshop
James Clear’s habit strategies work. The evidence is in your hands (or on your screen)— he built this book through many years of work on his blog.
He makes a compelling case for the power of habit with regards to success in life. Whether it be in your career, a hobby, or with your family, making good habits and breaking bad ones will get you where you want to be.
This is one that I would recommend you read in its entirety. It is full of gems, and different examples will speak to different people. What follows is a summary of what spoke to me.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
Many people focus on willpower for achieving goals. Have you ever had someone tell you to “just do it”? Willpower will only take you so far in taking action, and most of the time, that is not very far at all. Your habits will take you the rest of the way. Each habit is not about appearance, it is about identity. You need to embody the person you want to be.
It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.
Habits can be especially difficult to continue when you aren’t seeing any results. This is when it is most important to keep going, the point when everyone else quits. You make yourself extraordinary by continuing through the crickets. Clear reminds us that we need to focus on trajectory, not outcomes. As long as you keep making progress in the right direction, in time, the outcomes will follow.
This point creates an interesting analogy to happiness. It is not possible to become happy through gaining success, wealth, or material items. Happiness is a mental outlook, and is part of the process rather than the product. It is the absence of desire. You can be happy as soon as you decide that what you have is enough. That doesn’t mean you can never have more– rather, if you enjoy the process of gaining, growing, and learning, you will no longer be dependent on outcomes to make you happy.
How to Create a Good Habit
Make it obvious
As an example of using visual cues to draw your attention to a desired habit, Clear tells us:
In the early 1990s, the cleaning staff at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam installed a small sticker that looked like a fly near the center of each urinal. Apparently, when men stepped up to the urinals, they aimed for what they thought was a bug. The stickers improved their aim and significantly reduced “spillage” around the urinals. Further analysis determined that the stickers cut bathroom cleaning costs by 8 percent per year.
Environmental association is very strong. This is why it is very important to have separate spaces for separate activities. An office for working, a bedroom for sleeping, a living room for relaxing. This works on a smaller scale too: a chair for reading, a desk for writing, a table for eating. It also works digitally: computer for working, tablet or e-reader for reading, phone only for social media and texting.
The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often. So, yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment.
Make it attractive
Much of our behaviors are those that help us fit in. We unconsciously imitate the people around us, the majority of people, and the people in power.
Hard things can be made easier with a mindset shift. You don’t “have” to do the dishes, you “get” to keep your house clean for your family. Saving money isn’t a sacrifice, it’s increasing your purchasing power in the future.
Make it easy
Don’t worry about the best approach to your desired change. Just take action. You will figure it out as you go.
Every habit is just an obstacle to getting what you really want.
Prepare healthy meals on the weekends so that they are easy to eat during the week when you have less time. “Reset the room” when you are done with it so the next time you can just start whatever you need to do without cleaning up first.
The hardest part is starting, so make the starting easy. When beginning a habit, start small, even if it seems stupid. If you want to read, make sure to read one page every day. You will probably end up reading more than that.
Make it satisfying
The first three points help your habit this time. This one helps your habit next time: it will make you want to do it again.
To make a habit stick, give yourself a reward that is aligned with the habit you are trying to set. If you’re trying to be healthy, a massage would be a better reward for running than a bowl of ice cream. Track your habit as a visual reward. Give yourself a reminder of your progress and consistency, like a wall calendar or workout log. No one is perfect, so you will probably miss a day. But never miss twice.
How to Break a Bad Habit
To break a bad habit, invert all the steps above.
- Make it hidden (put the ice cream in the back of the freezer)
- Make it unappealing (be mindful of why the habit is bad)
- Make it hard (unplug the TV)
- Make it unsatisfying (track your wasted time)
The Next Level
Keep your habit challenging. Change the challenge to match your skills as they improve.
The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. And as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty.
To make and keep a good habit:
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
Try it out! What is a goal you have that you are struggling to achieve? Break it down into an action you can take in less than a minute. Take your first step toward building a habit that will help you achieve your goal.
Did this intrigue you? James Clear has a great weekly newsletter that is the shortest and sweetest one I’ve ever read.
Want to read more? Find Atomic Habits here: Bookshop
This book made it onto my list of best nonfiction books of 2021! See the full list here.
The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂
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You might also like my notes on:
The Almanack of Naval Ravikant by Eric Jorgenson
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown