In this latest episode of our recurring Productive Reading series, I share my key takeaways from James Clear's outstanding book, Atomic Habits.
Productive reading about how small habits can make a huge difference in our productivity
In this episode we’re continuing our recurring “Productive Reading” series, this time talking about lessons I’ve learned from James Clear’s new book, Atomic Habits. In past Productive Reading episodes, we talked about Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing (episode 133), The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg (episode 147), 3 books written by Brené Brown in episode 166, Soulful Simplicity, by Courtney Carver, in episode 182, and The Free-Time Formula, by Jeff Sanders, in episode 211.
Who is James Clear?
According to the book's cover copy, “James Clear is an author and speaker focused on habits, decision-making, and continuous improvement. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Time, and Entrepreneur, and on CBS This Morning. He is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies and his work is used by teams in the NFL, NBA, and MLB.”
You can learn more about Clear and his work on his website at jamesclear.com. Atomic Habits is Clear’s first book.
What is this book about?
The book's subtitle, “An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones,” caught my attention. Atomic Habits is about how very small actions, taken consistently over time, will “compound into remarkable results.” Clear defines a habit as “a routine or behavior that is performed regularly and, in many cases, automatically.”
The book's framework is Clear's “4 Laws of Behavior Change.” If you want to develop a new habit or create a new behavior and turn it into a habit that serves you, Clear says you start by doing these things:
- Make it obvious: For example, lay out your gym clothes the night before if you want to develop a habit of working out in the morning.
- Make it attractive
“Desire is the engine that drives behavior. Every action is taken because of the anticipation that precedes it. It is the craving that leads to the response.”
This is his expansion on Charles Duhigg’s concept of the habit loops in The Power of Habit. Clear adds the concept of the craving to Duhigg’s idea of the Cue-Routine-Reward loop. He explains that the craving or desire, which is the result we look for or anticipate, is what motivates us to take action.
- Make it easy
- The 2-minute rule – scale it down to a two-minute version that moves you in the direction of where you want to go.
- Make it satisfying
In order for you to want to repeat this behavior, there needs to be something satisfying at the end. This is similar to Duhigg’s concept of “reward.”
I’m a fast reader, but this book took me longer to finish than most books do because I kept slowing down to underline passages, make notes in the margins, and go back to re-read sections of it. There was so much that made sense and really resonated with me at this stage in my life as I’m trying to create better habits.
The critical role habits play in our lives
“In the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits.”
There is so much truth in this quote. If we have habits that serve us to get us the results we want in our life, then we will have a better quality of life than with counterproductive habits. Many of us have counterproductive habits, but we don’t even realize they’ve become habits because they are just automatic responses to certain cues in our lives. The quote above made me really think about what habits I have in my life and whether they contribute to the quality of life I want.
“It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success. You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”
Again, this is a thought-provoking idea that we should be looking at the direction we’re headed. Is our life headed in a positive direction because we're developing habits that serve us? Or is our life headed in a direction we don’t want because of counterproductive habits?
“Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. You get what you repeat.”
In other words, whatever you’re experiencing right now in your life, in many ways, is a reflection of the habits you’ve developed so far. If our results right now don't satisfy us, we can look back to see what habits we put in place that have led us to this moment.
The good news is, as he says, “you get what you repeat.” If we change our habits, we can change our future by intentionally developing habits that serve us.
What we do once in a while matters FAR less than what we do regularly. For example, going to the gym once every 6 months is not going to have the impact that going on a daily walk would have. Small actions taken regularly have a bigger impact in the longer term than big gestures made every once in a while.
“The effect of one-off experiences tends to fade away while the effect of habits gets reinforced with time, which means your habits contribute most of the evidence that shapes your identity.”
We are what we repeatedly do. The actions we take and the thoughts we think are the evidence of who we are as a person.
The process for creating a new habit needs to be intentional
“People who make a specific plan for when and where they will perform a new habit are more likely to follow through. Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity.”
Creating that specific plan gives you the clarity you need to develop the action into a habit. You are telling yourself specifically, “I will take this certain action at this time at that location using these tools.” Having this plan increases the likelihood that you’ll be successful, following through and actually developing that habit you want in your life.
The other piece of the intentionality of developing a new habit that he talks about is monitoring it, being aware of what you’re doing.
“Life is constantly changing, so you need to periodically check in to see if your old habits and beliefs are still serving you. A lack of self-awareness is poison. Reflection and review is the antidote.”
Clear explains that habit stacking is the idea of tying a new habit that you want to develop to one that you already have. For example, if you brush your teeth at a certain time in the morning and you want to start meditating on positive thoughts, perhaps you can use the toothbrushing as a trigger to do 2 minutes of meditation.
Avoid bad habits by eliminating the triggers
“It’s easier to avoid temptation than to resist it. One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it.”
Here’s a simple illustration: If I've decided it’s a bad habit to eat ice cream every night, the way to avoid this is to not buy ice cream at all, so I don’t have it in the house to trigger the habit of eating it regularly.
Clear explains that people who are successful at avoiding bad habits don’t have stronger willpower, but rather they've learned to not put themselves in the situation where that bad habit would be triggered.
Aiming for perfection is not the way to build a habit. Repetition is.
“If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. Repeating a habit leads to clear physical changes in the brain.”
Clear’s point here is that a lot of us get flummoxed by our perfectionism, that “If I can’t get it perfect, why bother at all?” But he says that repetition is what matters when you’re building a habit, not perfection.
“The point is to master the habit of showing up. The truth is, a habit must be established before it can be improved.”
Introduce the habit in the easiest way possible and let it become part of your routine, and then improve it. This is the approach I use when I fall off the wagon of my exercise habit. For a while, I was really good about working out 30-45 minutes a day. But for various reasons, I quit doing it.
To get back into this routine, I could’ve said, “In order for it to be worthwhile, I need to exercise for 30-45.” But at this point, what I need to tell myself is, “I’m going to do 10 minutes on the elliptical. Just 10 minutes. Then I can check it off my list and move on. But I have to do it every day.”
So I show up and do my 10-minute exercise. Once that becomes a part of my routine, and I start to have that subconscious craving to do it, which signals it has become a habit, then I can start to improve it by adding a few minutes each day until I reach the length of workout that I want.
The same thing can be said about any habit. If you want to become a writer, don't worry about writing something perfect. Start with developing the habit of sitting yourself down and writing two bad sentences or whatever smallest increment that will get you on the boards.
The value of tracking habits you want to develop
- Tracking your habits keeps you aware and honest about what you’re doing.
“The mere act of tracking a behavior can spark the urge to change it. Measurement offers one way to overcome our blindness to our own behavior and notice what’s really going on each day. When the evidence is right in front of you, you’re less likely to lie to yourself.”
- It also gives you visible evidence of your progress.
- It keeps you focused on the process rather than the result.
Jerry Seinfeld's story of how he became a great comedian is a good illustration of the effect of tracking habits.
When an aspiring comedian asked Seinfeld how he got good at what he does, Seinfeld replied that he had a habit of writing a joke a day. He had a calendar on the wall, and he would cross out that day once he wrote a joke. After a couple of days, he would get a streak going, and the idea is simply not to break that streak.
There is something in our psyche that doesn't want to see the streak broken. Whatever habit you want to build, put a calendar on the wall and cross it out each day after acting on it.
Any streak is ultimately broken, but…
“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. The problem is not slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can’t do something perfectly, then you shouldn’t do it at all.”
This is a mindset issue that I’ve really been working hard to change, because this is something I struggle with. For example, if I give in and eat a cookie while I'm trying to what I eat, I have a tendency to think, ‘Well, I might as well eat all the cookies since I've blown my diet for the day.'
When you break a streak, the idea is to get back on that horse and just start a new streak.
It's better to focus on the systems rather than outcomes.
Instead of setting goals that are an objective or outcome-based, Clear encourages us to put systems in place that ultimately will get us to that outcome.
“Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”
“If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”
For example, instead of saying, “I’m going to lose x pounds,” he would suggest to set a process-related goal or develop a system that would lead you to that outcome, involving actions like eating more vegetables or eating only at mealtimes.
He explains there are problems that arise from focusing too much on outcome goals and not enough about your systems.
- Winners and losers have the same goals
For example, there are many people whose goals are to win a marathon, but not everyone can get that.
“If successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers.”
The factor that allows those who achieve what they're going for are the systems they put in place and the helpful habits they develop.
- Achieving a goal is only a momentary change
“Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment. That’s the counterintuitive thing about improvement. We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results. When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.”
- Goals restrict your happiness.
When you focus on goals, you’re delaying happiness until the future date when the goal is achieved.
“When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.”
- Goals are at odds with long-term progress.
If you focus on achieving a goal, the motivation to “do the thing” goes away when you’ve achieved it.
“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game.”
Habits as an expression of identity and basing habit change in changing our identity
According to Clear, there are three layers of behavior change and developing identity-based habits.
- Outside layer – change your outcomes
- Middle layer – change your processes
- Deepest layer – change your identity, your beliefs, worldview, self-image, judgments about yourself and others
“With outcome-based habits, the focus is on what you want to achieve. With identity-based habits, the focus is on who you wish to become.”
I love this so much because it's a whole different level of motivation. Instead of shooting for an outcome, you're thinking about who you want to be in the world.
“Behind every system of actions [is] a system of beliefs. Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior.”
This book is calling us to be conscious about who we are, what we think about ourselves, what we believe about ourselves in the world, because it's not until we get to that deeper layer that we’re going to be able to make the changes to our behavior that will get us the results we want.
“True behavior 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.”
“Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity. When your behavior and identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behavior change. You are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be.”
The question you’re asking is not, “What do I want to do, and what outcome do I want to achieve? And what do I have to do to get that?” Rather, the question you need to be asking is, “Who do I need to be? Who do I want to be? And how does that kind of person behave? What kind of action does that person take?”
“The more deeply a thought or action is tied to your identity, the more difficult it is to change it. The biggest barrier to positive change at any level is identity conflict. Good habits can make rational sense, but if they conflict with your identity, you will fail to put them into action.”
Again, this requires us to look deeply and ask, “Who do I think I am?”
If I think I’m the type of person who doesn’t finish what she starts, then it will be very hard for me to develop a habit of taking the actions I need to finish a particular project.
If I believe I’m the type of person who can’t control herself around sugar, it will be difficult to develop a habit of not eating sugar.
The idea is being aware of what you believe about who you are and deciding whether that belief serves you.
“Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.”
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
Each time you work out or eat a salad rather than a bag of chips or each time you brush your teeth, you are casting a vote for being a person who takes care of her body.
Each time you write, you’re casting a vote for being a writer.
Each time you go to work and give your 100%, you’re casting a vote for being a person who works diligently.
2-step process for changing your identity
This is not about denying who you are or deciding you’re not good enough so you need to improve. It’s about being intentional about who you are in the world and who you want to be. If you are content and satisfied with who you are, and your actions reflect the kind of person you want to be, that’s great! Then that’s where you need to be!
But if you’ve ever felt like, “I just don’t know why I keep doing that,” or “I don’t want to be the type of person who gossips,” or “I don’t want to be the kind of person who (fill in the blank) ,” then this is a process for becoming the person you want to be, keeping in mind that the actions you take are votes for the kind of person you want to be.
STEP 1. Decide who you want to be.
”What do you want to stand for? What are your principles and values? Who do you wish to become?”
Clear notes these might be hard questions to answer; we don’t always know how to answer them, but perhaps we know the outcome we want. Maybe it is to wear size 4 jeans or to publish a book or get a promotion. So ask yourselves this question instead: “Who is the type of person that could get the outcome I want?”
STEP 2. Then you can ask in any situation, what action that type of person would take. Take those small actions, and one by one they add up as evidence to yourself that you are that type of person.
“Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you develop your deepest beliefs about yourself. Quite literally, you become your habits.”
The science of how habits work: Cue – Craving – Response – Reward
“All behavior is driven by the desire to solve a problem.”
We want to change our state from what it is to something else. We don’t want to feel hungry or sad or afraid or ashamed or cold or lonely, so we crave something that will take away that feeling.
The importance of awareness
“Before we can effectively build new habits, we need to get a handle on our current ones. This can be more challenging than it sounds because one a habit is firmly rooted in your life, it is mostly nonconscious and automatic.”
“One of our greatest challenges in changing habits is maintaining awareness of what we are actually doing.”
He offers a habits scorecard you can use to list your habits and then evaluate them as to whether or not they serve you.
Even “bad” habits serve us, which is why we repeat them.
“There are no good habits or bad habits. There are only effective habits. That is, effective at solving problems. All habits serve you in some way, even the bad ones, which is why you repeat them.”
“We repeat bad habits because they serve us in some way, and that makes them hard to abandon.”
When we ask ourselves, “Why do I keep doing that?” we have to get really honest with ourselves. The fact is, whatever “bad” habit we have is serving us in some way. The way to find a way past, around, and through it is to figure out how that habit is serving you. What is it giving you that you need and how can you find a more productive way to get that need served?
“Every action is preceded by a prediction. Life feels reactive, but it is actually predictive. All day long, you are making your best guess of how to act given what you’ve just seen and what has worked for you in the past. [O]ur behavior is heavily dependent on how we interpret the events that happen to us, not necessarily the objective reality of the events themselves.”
We know this is true, because two different people experiencing the same event can have completely different responses. What we choose to do very much depends on how we interpret what happens, not necessarily the objective reality of it.
“[I]t is only when you predict that you would be better off in a different state that you take action. A craving is a sense that something is missing. It is the desire to change your internal state. Desire is the difference between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. Even the tiniest action is tinged with the motivation to feel differently than you do in the moment. When you binge-eat or light up or browse social media, what you really want is not a potato chip or a cigarette or a bunch of likes. What you really want is to feel different.”
This is SO important. When we become aware of the underlying, subconscious reason for the action we want to change–the desire to feel differently–then we can start to intentionally set ourselves up for better choices. What is the change we want? What is the feeling we’re having now that we want to change? How do we want to feel?
AND THEN . . . what other options do we have to get the feeling we want?
“You don’t have to build the habits everyone tells you to build. Choose the habit that best suits you, not the one that is most popular.”
There is so much more to this book than I’ve summarized here. It's one of the best books I’ve read recently in terms of practical impact. My copy is full of underlined passages and marginal notes. I encourage you to read it and see if the system he describes will help you intentionally develop new habits that will help you make a life that matters.
What do you think?
Have you read Atomic Habits? What spoke to you most strongly? Have you made any changes as a result of it? Please share them in the comments section of this post at the bottom of in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
Resources and Links
- Atomic Habits, by James Clear
- The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller
- The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
- Soulful Simplicity, by Courtney Carver
- TPW Episode 133 – Productive Reading: The ONE Thing by Gary Keller
- TPW Episode 147 -Productive Reading: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
- TPW Episode 166 – Productive Reading: 3 books written by Brené Brown
- TPW Episode 182 – Productive Reading: Soulful Simplicity by Courtney Carver
- TPW Episode 211 – Productive Reading: The Free-Time Formula by Jeff Sanders
James Clear's Habits Scorecard
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