Humans always look up to someone in their lives, say it Elon Musk, Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein or whom so ever. The reason why we do it is that is, they have achieved great things and they had their dent over the universe. If you study their behaviour closely, and if you dissect their behaviour it turns out that they’re doing the same pretty granular things that everyone was doing and many a time it usually comes down to great habits. They are not high-performance people they are just high-performing habits.
Your outcomes in life are often a lagging measure of your habits. Your bank account is a lagging measure of your financial habits, your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits and your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning and reading habits. So we wanted to change our lives to align with those who we look up to. We are often told that “we have to think big, we got to have a drastic change, or move to a new place where great people lives.” But, most of the time doing these things were very impossible. We must think of something better, smaller and cleaner.
Imagine achieving major transformations by using small tweaks in our daily routine. Our mind always has this tendency to overestimate and ignore the importance of a single big task or action and always underestimate the power of making small improvements repetitively over a significant period.
Atomic Habits, What exactly are they?
The Change which we are trying to achieve can be considered as compound interest. Real change comes from the compound effects of hundreds and thousands of small decisions or habits over time. Eventually, all small changes accumulate to produce Remarkable results.
Every action you take is like a vote for the type of person you want to become and if you can master the right actions if you can master the right habits, then you can start to cast votes for this new identity, this desired person that you want to be and that’s one of the reasons why small habits matter so much. They don’t necessarily transform your life overnight. Like, doing one pushup does not transform your body but it does cast a vote for being the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. Meditating for one minute might not give you an immediate sense of calm in your life but it does cast a vote for being a meditator.
The real goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to write a book, the goal is to become a writer. Because once you’ve adopted that identity, You’re really not even pursuing behavior change anymore You’re just kind of acting in alignment with the type of person you already see within yourself. There’s this book called Atomic Habits by James Clear, which talks exactly on the subject you are reading. This book explains the power and process of building Good habits and Breaking bad habits, and How tiny and minuscule changes can grow into life-altering outcomes, in turn, it will help us lead a healthier happier and more productive life.
The four key insights from the book Atomic habits were-
- The 1% change over time.
- Screwing goals and Why goals were overrated.
- Focus on Identity rather than Outcomes.
- The four fundamental laws of behavior change.
Why does 1% change matter?
1% is all about compounding. Compounding can be amazingly powerful both in positively and negatively if we leave it to develop over a period of time. If you can get one 1% better each day for a year you will end up 37 times better by the time you are done. But, if we get 1% worse each day for one year we will go down nearly to zero. James says, “Habits of the compound interest of self-improvement.” Habits don’t seem to make much difference on a given day. But the impact over months or years can be absolutely enormous. We don’t often think about these small changes just because it takes so long to see results. This is something I personally struggled with it and I think this problem applies to you and everyone around you.
We are so attuned to modern society to try and seek instant gratification. That why it’s really hard to focus on things that have long term benefits. For example, think yourself eating a Blueberry cheesecake. How does it feel? Isn’t it great, sweet, sugary and it tastes good too. It’s just instant gratification. But if you repeat this regularly for 6 months or year or two, the outcome is unfavorable, definitely not good for health. Equally the slower rate of transformation also means it’s very easy to let bad habits creep in. Like eating badly, not exercising, sitting all day with social media scrolling aimlessly. Doing these bad things once in a while is fine. The problem is when we repeat these 1% errors day after day. All these will accumulate into larger problems.
As James says, “Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.
One of the key points from James analysis of habits is what he calls the plateau of latent potential. Sounds fancy right? No, it’s much simpler actually. Habits often don’t seem to make a difference until we cross a critical threshold. We expect progress to be linear. The hallmark of any compounding process is that the greatest returns are delayed. This leads to an issue and James calls it as “initial valley of disappointment”, where we don’t feel like we are making progress as the results don’t follow a linear trajectory that we expected. As a human being, with typical human behaviour, we just give up because we are not getting the results we wanted. As you can see from the graph below, it does take times to build a habit to allow the compound interest of self-improvement to take hold and give us amazing results over time.
Focus on Systems, rather than Goals.
I am not against Goals, Goals do serve a purpose It’s not that they’re useless They are good for setting a sense of direction and clarity. There are some of the things that goals do poorly and systems are actually much better. So the way that I would describe it is a goal is focused on the outcome and System is focused on the process. We live in a very outcome-focused society. Things are only in news stories or shared on social media once they’re only a result and the success is visible and easy to view. You’re never going to see a story of behind the scenes, hard work, perseverance. It’s only the outcome that is visible not the process.
There are four main problems with goal setting.
- Firstly, winners and losers have the same goals. Everyone olympian wants to win the gold medal, every candidate wants the job so that it cannot be the goal that differentiates people.
- Secondly, achieving a goal is a momentary and temporary change. It doesn’t mean that you have developed a habit. Sure, I might bring up some motivation within me to clean my kitchen. But if I If don’t change the messy habits that led to a dirty kitchen in the first place, around two weeks later and I will have a messy kitchen again. In the same way, when we achieve a goal, we only change our life for a moment. we get these temporary results. So instead what we need to change, is the systems that cause the results in the first place. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. So actually you don’t need a cleanroom. You need better cleaning habits and your room or kitchen is always clean.
- Thirdly, goals restrict our happiness, There is an implicit assumption behind any goal and that is, “Once I reach the goal I will be happy”. And so we end up continuously putting of happiness until the next milestone and its a never-ending cyclic process.
- Finally, goals are at odds with long-term progress. The purpose of setting goals is to win the game, the purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. Like for me with this blog I deliberately don’t have any goals, because what’s the point? I might say to myself that I may hit 10,000 visits by the end of this year or whatever, but I am not trying to win Google search by hitting certain numbers. I just love the process of writing blogs, recording podcasts and it’s fun and it’s great, I want to continue playing the game, I don’t want to try to win the game. Imagine you playing a football match. It would be ridiculous to spend all the time looking at the scoreboard because it wouldn’t help you in any way. If you just ignored the score the entire time, and just focused on a better process, or playing a better way, or a better scheme or strategy, then you probably would end up with the best score. Bill Walsh, American football coach quotes, “the score takes care of itself.”
Why Identity matters rather than Outcomes
Another important point James says in Atomic habits is, “Identity change is the north star of habit change.” In the image mentioned below, we have got
- Outcomes on the outside concerned with changing the results.
- Processes related to our habits & systems and
- The identity, which is related to our beliefs.
Most of us work from outcomes to identity rather than working from identity to outcomes. But, James, says, “the ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of our identity.” When we solve problems in terms of outcomes and results, we only solve them temporarily. But to solve problems in the longer term at the systems level we need to change our identity.
This point and resonate with me a lot. I’ve been struggling personally with eating healthily and having some physical activity for the last several years. All these years all I have is an outcome-based approach where I want to keep my weight under check and reduce my belly fat and so I will eat healthily. After reading Atomic habits, I have come to a sullen realization that it’s not about outcome-based it’s all about identity-based. So my thinking processes changed to, “I am a healthy person, I should act like a healthy person & eat a healthy diet,” and one fine day, I’ll be fit and achieve physique what I wanted.
Now we are sold you the importance of tiny and minuscule habits over a long time, and Focus on systems rather than goals, Now the question in our minds is, how do we build those habits In the first place and how do we overcome the difficulty?
Habits Formation Process
There’s a lot of research happened and happening in behavioural psychology and in a nutshell, all these summarize that, the process of building habits into four stages Cue, Craving, Response, Reward. The cue triggers the brain to initiate an action, the Craving provides the motivational force, the Response is the action or habit that we perform, and the Reward is the end goal. These four things can lead to, something called the four laws of behaviour change.
- The first law is to make it obvious. And it relates to designing or changing our environment around our cues. I apply it to my life so regularly. I have got all these calcium & vitamin tablets every day I have to take in the morning, But, I keep forgetting to take them. The reason I kept forgetting to take is that they were locked Inside cupboard within my medicines box. So, I moved my pills to my bedside table where I keep my eyeglasses. Now I see them everyday morning before I go to work an when I’m about to wear eyeglasses and therefore I don’t skip taking these. I have been doing this for the last 6 months and never missed a single dose, except once when I was at my friend’s house during the weekend. So, it’s just a little change that has now built the habit immediately. You want to put fewer steps between you and good behaviours, and more steps between you and the bad ones. Now you can observe the cumulative impact of living in an environment that exposes you to the cues of the positive habits and reduces the cues of your negative habits. It’s kind of like you’re just gently being nudged in the right direction each day.
- The second law is to make it attractive, which relates to the craving aspect of the habit loop and tries to take advantage of what we know about Dopamine. As humans, we all are motivated by the anticipation of reward. So making habits attractive will help stick us to them. And in fact, one of the things I did to my evening sprints, “to make it attractive” is listening podcasts and audiobooks.
- The third law is to make it easy and the main aim here is to reduce the friction and to change our environment for the habits that we’d like to develop. There is this book called ‘Friction, the untapped force that can be your most powerful advantage by Roger Dooley’. In a nutshell, it summarizes, about how friction is the most powerful force in the universe. Anything you can do to reduce friction, to make good things, slightly easier, will pay dividends in the long term. Like for example, there’s always a book right on bedside table means that my default procrastination when I can’t able to write, or work, is that I’ll read a book, by the time I’m writing this article, the book on the table is, ”The fault in our stars by John Green.” And, reading is always a good habit. I always believe in one phrase, Sleep is good but, books are better.
- The fourth law is that make it immediately satisfying. Our brains have evolved to prioritize immediate rewards over delayed rewards. the Cardinal rule of behaviour change is, ”What is immediately rewarded is repeated and what is immediately punished is avoided.” We get short term bursts of dopamine from going through to an Italian Cafe or chocolate shop for scrolling aimlessly through Instagram or watching back to back videos in YouTube, making us more likely to repeat these bad habits. To develop better habits, we should try to attach some form of immediate gratification so that we can make the habit immediately satisfying. After reading this book Atomic habits, I’ve realized I need to make my evening sprints immediately satisfying. After coming back from work in the evening, ill go for evening sprints, then I’ll read a chapter from Harry Potter or watch one or two episodes of my favourite TV show or watch a movie with popcorn. Sound fun and spoiling, Right!. But, the fact that I have got those activities lined up after my workout sessions makes the whole process of going to evening workouts immediately satisfying, which means I’m far more likely to do it.
So, by combining these laws and their opposites we have got to the point where we want to ensure that our good habits have to be obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying and we want to work to make bad habits more difficult, invisible, hard & unsatisfying.
The great power of atomic habits is that it emphasizes more on systems rather than goals, Identity rather than outcomes, and small habits rather than a drastic change. There is not a precise answer to how long it takes to build a habit. Because habits are not the finish line to cross it’s a lifestyle to live. The hallmark remember is that small habits compound over a period of time. Individually, atomic habits are small but collectively and in a given time they could hold remarkable power to bring remarkable change your lives.