The most life-changing book on personal development that everyone should readThe most life-changing book on personal development that everyone should read
If you’re like me, you’ve probably tried to change your existing behaviour for something better due to many different circumstances. Common themes like “exercise more”, “reduce personal expenses”, and “read more widely” come to mind. Many times, I’ve tried to change many old habits and replace them with new ones, but they often don’t stick. I often attribute these failures to a lack of motivation and discipline; deep down inside I know those are merely excuses.
Everything changed when I read “Atomic Habits”. Written by James Clear, the book opened my eyes to what makes some habits stick while others don’t. He then goes on to share an effective strategy to build good habits via a 4-step process. Finally, he goes on to share various tips and tricks to make sure our new behaviour sticks.
As you can see, this is a very comprehensive book with many valuable lessons! I won’t be able to cover every aspect of the book, but I’m going to share my biggest takeaways below. Let’s dive right into it!
The power of tiny gains
Readers are first introduced to the notion that “habits are the compound interest of self-improvement”. This suggests that small actions repeated every day can have a large influence on our lives many years later. To illustrate this point, Clear talks about the “Law of 1%”.
While the chart is pretty self-explanatory, I’ll like to highlight a subtle point beneath the surface. As it turns out, we don’t always need to make big changes to achieve big goals. Even if we only improve by 1% a day, it can still compound into quite a substantial amount.
Imagine two buddies, Tom & Jerry, who are trying to reduce their sugar intake. From tomorrow onwards, Tom will drink one less can of soft drink a day while Jerry will swear off it forever. Who do you think will have a higher chance of accomplishing their goal? I don’t know about you, but my money will be on Tom for this one. Jerry will probably succumb to cold-turkey within 3 days and start gulping down more soft-drinks with a vengeance.
Perhaps this is why some habits don’t stick – people try to change too much at one go. Jerry is not used to the sudden change in circumstances and thus went into some state of shock. On the other hand, Tom has the luxury to acclimatize himself to his new state bit by bit every day. “But the truth is that most of the significant things in life aren’t stand-alone events,” as Clear puts it across elegantly, “but rather the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things 1% better or 1% worse.”
Goals do not drive change behaviour, systems do
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
This was my biggest takeaway from the book: while goals are great for planning our progress towards change, systems are crucial for actually making progress. When we set specific and actionable goals, we are preparing ourselves for the journey ahead. However, we need to have effective systems in place – real physical actions – in order to bring us closer to our goals. Consider the following examples:
|Lose 10 kg by the end of the year||Exercise at least 1 hour, 5 times a week|
|Secure a spot in the national choir in the upcoming auditions||Practice techniques for at least 45 minutes every day|
|Learn a new language||Enroll in a course and commit to lessons 3 times a week|
|Cook the perfect medium-rare rib-eye steak||Watch and learn from instructional videos and practice at least once per week|
Another great point highlighted by Clear is that goals are counter-intuitive to long-term self-improvement. Take the first example in the table above for instance. If you are overly goal-oriented, then it is highly likely that you will stop exercising when you do lose 10kg. Similarly, the moment you get your place in the national choir, your motivation to practice your singing techniques will wane off as well. According to Clear, this is why many people find themselves reverting to their old habits after accomplishing a goal.
In order to sustain continuous improvements, we need to have a strong commitment to our systems. But how do we do that without thinking too much about goals? This brings me to my next major takeaway…
Our behaviour reflects our identity
I am a firm believer that our beliefs determine our thoughts, which in turn influence the actions we take. In other words, if our beliefs make up our identity, then our behaviour is a direct result of the way we perceive ourselves. In the book, Clear illustrates this with a simple but powerful example.
Imagine another pair of friends, Jack and Jill. When their friend, Charlie, offers them a cigarette, they both reject him. Jack says, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.”; Jill says, “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.” Notice the subtle difference in the choice of words used? From this illustration, you can deduce that Jack still identifies himself as a smoker, but Jill clearly does not. After a night of drinks and reduced inhibitions, I’m guessing Jack will be much less likely to turn down a smoke as compared to Jill.
“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity.”
So how does our perception of our identity help us to stay committed to our systems? The answer lies in our minds – we need to first decide the type of person we want to be. This will help us re-frame the way we engage our systems. Let’s revisit our examples from above again. If we identify ourselves as someone who exercises regularly, we will be more likely to stick to our regime; if we aspire to the type of chorister that practices every day, we are less likely to skip practices. By simply asking ourselves, “Who is the type of person that could get the outcome I want?”, we will be able to rewire our minds to focus on who we wish to become. instead of what we want to achieve.
The 4 Laws of Behaviour Change
No review of “Atomic Habits” will be complete if we don’t talk about the book’s most important lesson right? According to any habit can be broken down into a feedback loop that involves four steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. In response to this, Clear introduces the 4 Laws of Behaviour Change:
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
The 1st Law: Make it obvious
The first step is to make it obvious, which addresses the cue. This acts as a trigger to remind you of the habit so that you’ll do it. To do this, we must first come up with a concrete plan, e.g. “I will exercise every day at 6 pm”. The time thus acts as the trigger for us to initiate the action. We can also leverage on our environment to reinforce this. For instance, we can set a recurring reminder on our smartphones.
The 2nd Law: Make it attractive
The second step is to make it attractive, which addresses the craving. This is where we pair the new habit with a reward, such as watching another episode of your favourite show on Netflix. Clear calls this “temptation bundling”. We can also join a community where this action is encouraged and seen as “normal”, like the neighbourhood running club. This will make you want to do it.
The 3rd Law: Make it easy
The third step is to make it easy, which addresses the response. The key here is to reduce the number of steps needed to do the action as much as possible. Again, you can use your environment to your advantage by priming it prior to the action. Perhaps you can leave your running shoes out instead of keeping it in your cabinet, or prepare your running attire the night before. One interesting trick that the author suggests here is to downscale the habit until it can be done within two minutes. When it’s already that simple, it’s really hard to not do it.
The 4th Law: Make it satisfying
The previous three laws serve to increase the odds that a behaviour will be performed at all. This last rule fulfils a greater purpose – it increases the odds that a behaviour will be repeated. From Clear’s point-of-view, this is the “Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change”: What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.
One way to make the habit satisfying is to maintain a habit tracker. According to the text, “habit trackers and other visual forms of measurement can make your habits satisfying by providing clear evidence of your progress”.
At first, I was sceptical. Can marking crosses off a calendar really spark that much joy? At that point, I just started a Bullet Journal, and one of the use cases of it was a habit tracker. I decided to give it a shot, and somehow it really works! At the end of my morning reading routine every day, I would flip to my habit tracker excitedly and start crossing out days to track my progress.
Habits – small as they are, they sure do pack a punch. This is why they embody the two different meanings of the word “atomic”. James Clear couldn’t have come up with a better name for his greatest work so far. If you’re passionate about becoming a better version of yourself, then this book must be in your reading repertoire.
If the book isn’t enough for you, the author’s website also hosts a ton of complementary content on habits, productivity and personal development. I’ve personally also signed up for his mailing list and often refer to his articles for inspiration. My first experience with “Atomic Habits” was through an audiobook on Audible, but I do intend to get a physical copy for easier reference. If you don’t have one yet, I strongly recommend that you get it!
Share your thoughts with me!
If you’ve read “Atomic Habits“, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book. Drop a comment below, or share this post with your friends with the tag @kopi.thoughts!