One of the most useful books I’ve read lately. Improved my way of thinking about habits, both good and bad. Highly recommended.
See Goodreads for more details and reviews.
Habits compound. Both good and bad ones. Where do you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years? What habits will you need to get there?
Just as when you gradually increase the ambient temperature around a cube of ice until the it starts to melt, same thing happens with habits. They keep their effects hidden, until they suddenly become obvious1. Remember also the bamboo tree who takes the time to develop an extensive root system, before suddenly springing into action above ground.
All in all, don’t get discouraged if that new habit you’re trying to pick up doesn’t seem to have any effect at first. Be patient2.
Also remember the story of the stonecutter that strikes at a rock a hundred times, before the rock splits in two at his next strike. He knows that this last strike wasn’t the only one to break the rock, but instead this was achieved by all his strikes combined.
Goals versus systems
Systems are better, of course. Goals help you win the game, systems help you keep playing3.
Goals give you a direction, but you need a system to move forward. Winners and losers have the same goals, but some of them have better systems.
Goals restrict happiness. What happens when you reach your goal? You either set a new goal, or revert back to your old behavior. Systems can keep you happy(er). A goal is fixed, a system can be fluid.
The better your system, the more successful you’ll become.
Three layers for changing behavior:
- Outcomes (what you do - goals)
- Processes (how you do it - habits)
- Identity (who you are)
Best approach - start from your identity and let change ripple outwards. Otherwise if you don’t change who you are, you’ll have a hard time making lasting changes as your identity will be in the way.
Don’t get too attached to a specific version of your identity, otherwise you won’t be able to grow (as much).
You don’t run a marathon, you are a runner. You don’t keep a diet, you are a healthy eater.
The good & bad habits tied to your identity are the most difficult to change. E.g. believing you’re bad with technology leads you to make no meaningful efforts to observe and learn and get better.
Pride plays an interesting role here. If you’re proud of how you look then you’ll create habits around looking good. If you’re proud of how you swim, you’ll create habits around getting better times and swimming for longer periods4.
Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last.
Same thing goes for the identity of my tribe, which is of course not surprising but at the same time terribly interesting.
identity comes from the Latin words
essentitas (being) and
identidem (repeatedly). It literally means
Your identity is intertwined with your actions. One influences the other. Do something for long enough, and it will become part of your identity, whether you like it or not5.
Your actions prove your identity. If you swim regularly, it’s proof you are a swimmer. If you play an instrument, it’s proof that you are a musician. So be careful of what you prove to yourself.
Furthermore, behaving in a certain way acts somewhat like voting. You don’t need to behave in just the right way all the time, instead you need to do it in the majority of situations.
Think about what you want to achieve, then think what kind of person would achieve that (e.g. if you want to lose weight then ask yourself how a healthy person would behave). “What is the type of person that could get the outcome I want?” Once you’ve decided what kind of person you want to become, make small adjustments to your behaviors so that you advance towards being that person.
Habits are not about having something, but about becoming someone. You become your habits.
Seriously, you become your habits.
The recipe is:
- Decide the type of person you want to be
- Prove it to yourself with small wins
We don’t change by deciding to be someone new. We change bit by bit, day by day, habit by habit.
Habits are like suggestions6 to your subconscious.
Habits help decrease cognitive load by automating decisions and actions, thus allowing you to focus on the important stuff.
A habit is formed and reinforced via the habit loop: cue -> craving -> response -> reward.
Everything centers around the reward. A cue reminds you of the reward. A craving makes you want the reward. A response moves you towards obtaining the reward.
If any of these steps is missing/underpowered, then the habit will either weaken or won’t even be formed at all. This includes the cue being absent/not obvious, the craving failing to be ‘cravy’ enough, the response beyond your power, the reward unsatisfying.
Pay attention to the rewards - they are here to both satisfy and teach you. The latter only occurs after satisfaction, and consists in your brain trying to reverse-engineer the whole reward acquisition process: what worked, and what didn’t.
Habits are behaviors that have been repeated long enough for them to become automatic.
Creating good habits
- Cue -> Make it obvious
- Craving -> Make it attractive
- Response -> Make it easy
- Reward -> Make it satisfying
Breaking bad habits
- Cue -> Make it invisible
- Craving -> Make it unattractive
- Response -> Make it hard
- Reward -> Make it unsatisfying
Behavior change starts with awareness. It’s important to be aware of our current habits, otherwise we risk them controlling our lives7.
There are two techniques here:
- The Habit Scorecard, in which you write down all your habits for a regular day, and you mark them +(positive), -(negative), =(neutral) in relation to your long term goals/target identity. It’s important that you don;t pass any judgement at this phase, instead act like an external observer.
- Pointing and calling - inspired by the behavior of train operators in Japan, this technique involves making the unconscious conscious by describing your actions out loud, pointing them out physically, etc. These serve as extra checks, preventing you from slipping into full-on auto mode.
You dramatically increase your chances of adopting a habit8 if you create an
implementation intention. This means deciding the conditions in which you’ll perform said habit. Writing this down helps. It seems that time & location conditions work best, so your template will look like this:
I will [behavior] at [time] in [place].
This helps you eliminate indecision and sets you up for success. It also forc es you to be clear on your priorities (i.e. you can say no to other things9).
Another approach is habit stacking, which involves inserting new habits into your existing routines. It’s especially effective because you transform an existing habit into your cue for a new one. Awareness is crucial here as it helps notice your current habits so you can decide how to make use of them.
You can also use more general if-then statements, e.g. “When I want to buy something that costs more than 200$, I will first wait for 24 hours.”
Be specific and clear. “After I eat dinner I will read 20 pages” is so much better than “I will read more”.
Habits depend on cues.
Since we, as a species, focus so much on vision, it makes sense to architect our environments so that they offer us visual cues for reinforcing our habits. It also makes sense to remove the visual cues for the habits we want to get rid of. The most obvious cues will win, and you will end up performing the behavior they encourage the most.
Additionally, context matters A LOT for habits. Ideally, you shouldn’t associate the same context with multiple habits, e.g. you shouldn’t use the same bed for sleeping, eating, working, and whatnot. As the author says, sleep comes quickly if it’s the only thing that happens in the bedroom10.
One habit, one context.
A corollary of this rule is that when you start a new habit, it’s significantly easier if you do it in a new context instead of reusing an existing context. This is because the existing context comes with significant pre-existing baggage.
The same idea applies to changing existing habits, too - you can alter your existing context so that cues enforcing bad habits are removed/less obvious.
If you want to be more creative, switch contexts.
Divide your space into activity zones, try not to re-use them.
The context/cues of a habit are important, important enough to make or break a habit. Remember the story of the Vietnam veterans who got home from the war - only 12% of the ones that were addicted to heroin relapsed in the first 3 years after returning home. Because environment that got them addicted in the first place was gone, and so were its cues.
So if you want to break a habit, make it invisible. Make it so that it doesn’t display the cues that are reminding you of the bad habit. This is a technique used by people with good self control - they arrange their environment in a way that enables good habits and prevents bad habits from occurring11.
Self control is a short-term strategy. It needs to be paired with a long-term one.
Once a habit has been formed, it will be hard (maybe impossible) to forget, so you need to remove the cues that remind you of it.
The good news is that our brains are hardwired to desire things that are good for us. The bad news is that this hardwiring hasn’t changed in the last 50k years, whereas our environment has. Dramatically.
We are being exposed to exaggerated versions of the stimuli we’ve evolved to react to12.
A key takeaway is that our brains are tuned to experience more pleasure when anticipating a reward, than when actually receiving said reward. You experience more pleasure before eating that ice cream than while you eat it.
This is useful because you can use your brain’s penchant for enjoying anticipation by employing the so-called temptation bundling strategy, in which you associate a behavior you enjoy (e.g. massages) with a habit you need to do (e.g. going to the gym four times a week. for massages). This will help make the habit much more attractive, and hence more likely to be performed.
“Desire is the engine that drives behavior. Every action is taken because of the anticipation that precedes it.”
I enjoyed the story about the Polgar chess prodigies.
We imitate others' behaviors. Especially the behaviors of the close, the many, and the powerful.
This means that if you want to adopt a behavior, it will be so much easier if you join a group that considers that behavior normal. If you have something in common with that group even better, as that will improve your sense of belonging.
However, if the group you’ve joined displays some inefficient/bad beliefs/behaviors, you’ll be much more likely to adopt those beliefs and behaviors13. Remember the study of chimps that adopted less efficient nut-cracking methods once they joined new groups just for the sake of blending in. Also remember the Asch line length experiment .
Pay attention to those you admire14. You’ll imitate their behaviors to get status, praise, respect, approval.
Once we fit in, we look for ways to stand out.
We imitate the behaviors of the close (family & friends), the many (our tribe), and the powerful (status & prestige).
At each and every step, we unconsciously make predictions about what will happen next. We use those to make decisions. If we predict that something desirable or undesirable will happen, we act on it.
Predictions are linked to habits - the associations we make while predicting and observing the outcomes of our predictions are used to build/reinforce our habits.
Habits are all about associations - in order to change a habit or to adopt a hard habit, we need to work on those associations.
We have two approaches here:
- reframe the way you think about the habit (I don’t have to meditate every day, I “get” to meditate every day)
- adopt motivation rituals - associate a hard habit with something you enjoy (e.g. breathing deeply before doing something you love will associate deep breaths with things you love, hence you’ll be able to use deep breaths to bring you to a feel-good state)
Prediction -> Feeling/craving -> Action -> Repeat = Habit
Highlight the benefits of avoiding bad habits in order to make them seem unattractive.
Habits are attractive when we associate them with positive feelings, and unattractive when we associate them with negative feelings. Create a motivation ritual by doing something you enjoy before a hard habit.
The more often you perform a behavior, the better you become at performing it. So, in order to create a habit you need to perform the behaviors associated a significant number of times15.
It might be worth it to start small and only practice the behaviors you can perform reasonably well. Only after you master the basic behaviors should you go for the more advanced ones.
Keep in mind that we have a tendency to procrastinate via planning, because we’re afraid to fail. So after you research something, always do the work associated with the research.
The Principle of Least Action - the path followed between any two points will always be the one requiring the least energy.
Same thing with habits - you’ll go for the ones requiring the least energy. That doesn’t make you lazy, it just makes you smart. What makes you smarter though is when you redesign your environment so that good habits are easy and bad habits are hard. This includes not having any social media apps on your phone, forcing yourself to use their mobile versions (friction), or prepping your gym bag the night before each workout session so that you only need to grab it and go.
Remove the points of friction that sap your time and energy. The less friction you face, the more likely you are to adopt certain behaviors. Reduce friction of good behaviors, increase friction of bad behaviors.
Habits are easier to build when they fit into the flow of your life16.
Around 40%-50% of all actions you perform in a day are out of habit17.
Decisive moments - those moments that limit your choices for future actions (e.g. going into that steakhouse at lunch will most likely not end up with you having a salad). Picking good habits helps with this.
You know that if you want to start a habit you should make it easy. This includes picking the easiest version of the habit and performing it repeatedly. If you want to adopt a 45-minute workout every two days, start by adopting a 5-minute workout first, and gradually increase the difficulty/time spent.
The idea is that every time you perform the habit, your unconscious takes this as a vote cast for your new identity. After you master the easy version, you can switch to a more challenging version and so on. Only practice the behaviors you can perform reasonably well, otherwise you risk imprinting incorrect behaviors.
This also helps transform the beginning of a habit into a ritual, effectively priming yourself for performing the habit. Remember the highway entry-points analogy.
Stay below the point where it feels like work.
You can use commitment devices to lock in future behavior, so you don’t have to make decisions while in a willpower-depletion state. E.g. you can ask the waiter to pack half of your portion as to-go before the meal is served.
Make strategic onetime decisions that also lock in future behaviors.
Our behaviors are motivated by rewards and demotivated by punishments. But that’s not entirely true. More accurately, our behaviors are motivated by immediate rewards and demotivated by immediate punishments.
This is because we’ve evolved to place more emphasis on immediate returns than on delayed returns. Which makes total sense in the savannah, but not so much in Manhattan.
Looking at the bright side here, we can influence our habits by immediately rewarding ourselves after we perform them. This creates a positive feedback loop and makes us repeat the habit over and over again.
- The reward must not compete with your identity, but instead it should be consistent with it18. Otherwise, you risk getting all confused about what you’re really trying to achieve, and the habit won’t stick.
- The reward doesn’t have to occur forever, but it needs to at least occur at first. After a while your identity extends to incorporate the habit and you will no longer need external stimuli such as rewards. You’ll perform the behavior because this is who you are not.
Incentives start a habit, identity sustains it.
Habits need to make you feel immediately successful, even if only in a small way - remember the idea of starting off with just one pushup.
Habit tracking helps reinforce your habits. It works because it’s obvious and satisfying. Remember the jar with 200 paperclips used to measure the number of sales calls.
Never miss a habit twice. It’s ok to miss an instance of a habit every now and then, but if you miss it several times in a row then you’re casting votes against the identity you’re trying to adopt and your unconscious gets confused.
Get back on track even if you’re having a bad day. Especially if you’re having a bad day. This is what separates successful people from the others - what they do in their bad days.
Track your habits. Automatically or manually. You should manually track only your most important habits - otherwise you risk getting into tracking overload and quitting everything.
Careful that you don’t confuse the tracking with your end-goal. Your goal is not to reach a certain weight, it is to be healthy. Not to have a certain number in your bank account, but to be wealthy.
Bad habits can be dealt with by making them unsatisfying. You can achieve this by associating them with punishments, on condition that the punishments are local, tangible, concrete, and especially immediate. Otherwise, if they’re global, intangible, vague, and delayed, then they won’t be as effective19.
You can combine punishments with the idea of a social contract. This more or less outsources the monitoring & punishment to a third party.
Genes predispose you to certain behaviors in certain contexts. They determine your areas of opportunity.
Therefore it’s best if you pick habits that complement those areas. E.g. if you’re the kind of person best suited for team sports, picking up long distance running is probably not ideal.
Build habits that work for your personality. In doing so, you’ll also find them to be easier and more enjoyable, effectively increasing the odds of you actually sticking with them.
Remember the explore/exploit trade-off. Explore at the beginning, then once you found something that works exploit it, while also keeping your eyes open for opportunities. The ratio of explore/exploit should depend on whether or not you’re winning (in which case you should exploit like crazy), losing (explore for your life), and on how much time you have left (if you’re near the end of the game, any game, favour exploiting over exploration).
- What feels like fun to me, but work to others?
- What makes me lose track of time?
- Where do I get greater returns than the average person?
- What comes naturally to me?
Win by being different.
If you can’t win a game, change it so that it suits your context and abilities20.
A good player works hard to win the game everyone else is playing. A great player creates a new game that favors their strengths and avoids their weaknesses.
Are you a potato or an egg?
Work hard on the things that come easy.
Genes don’t eliminate the need for hard work, they clarify it. They tell you what to work hard on.
Doing the same thing over and over and over feels boring.
This is why:
- You should change it subtly so that it keeps you challenged. Maintaining it at ~4% over your current level of ability will yield the best results.
- Stick with it. Other people might get bored, but not you. Other people might quit or continually switch strategies, but not you. Remember Machiavelli’s observation - men who are successful desire novelty just as much as the unsuccessful ones.
Do boring things, but don’t be boring.
Professionals stick with the schedule21. Even when they don’t feel like it.
Once you start mastering a habit you have the tendency of going on autopilot, not paying attention to the little details anymore, running the risk of being unable to adapt if something new comes along.
Avoid becoming complacent.
The important habits should be continually refined and improved. Additionally, you should monitor your habits to make sure they stay on the right track.
Several techniques here - decision journaling, performance reviews, integrity reviews.
You need to take regular reflection time to analyze your output. Once you review your output, you can think of ways to improve it.
Be aware of your performance over time.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.
- Lao Tzu
Keep your identity small22.
The tighter you cling to it, the harder it will be to adapt once the circumstances change. Circumstances always change23.
Redefine yourself so that you’re not identified as a role (CEO), but as a series of attributes (creative, builder).
Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery
Make it obvious. Make it attractive. Make it easy. Make it satisfying.
When you’re looking to improve, go through this list. Over and over. Don’t stop.
These principles are summarized in a downloadable cheatsheet on jamesclear.com.
Reminds me of that Hemingway quote - “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.". ↩︎
But not too patient, obviously 😉. ↩︎
Keep playing. Play infinite games rather than finite ones. ↩︎
But what if you’re not a prideful person? I disagree a bit with the author here, as I’m not entirely convinced it’s healthy to tie your pride to your habits (speaking here as a somewhat prideful person). ↩︎
The wolf you feed is the one that wins ↩︎
This sounds like a bit of a stretch. I’d say behaviors/actions are like suggestions, habits are pretty much beyond those. ↩︎
In ways we might not fully appreciate. ↩︎
Or of performing a behavior. ↩︎
I remember reading something similar in Willpower. ↩︎
And this is how eating disorders are created. ↩︎
We all want to belong. ↩︎
Echoed by Shane Parrish paraphrasing Charlie Munger - “Learn to love and admire the right people, alive or dead." ↩︎
One of the most valuable ideas I’ve gotten from Total Immersion is “Practice makes permanent”. Careful what you practice. ↩︎
So buying an expensive XLR microphone for your up-and-coming podcasting habit and assembling it each and every time you want to record something might not work as well as you’d think. ↩︎
So you’d better have good habits 😉. ↩︎
This means you shouldn’t eat an ice cream as a reward for working out unless it’s made of lean protein. Better to pick a reward that a healthy person would enjoy, i.e. a massage. ↩︎
Think cigarettes and lung cancer, poor eating habits and heart issues, etc. ↩︎
Seth Godin: “Don’t pole vault on Jupiter. Do it on the moon if you need a good score." ↩︎
But they don’t post 💩. ↩︎
This reminds me, you should absolutely positively read Ken Liu’s short story The Waves. It’s included in the beautiful The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. ↩︎