Books with Impact: Atomic Habits

The “Books with Impact” series takes a deeper look at specific books that have had a profound impact on my financial, professional, and personal growth by extracting specific points of advice from those books and looking at how I’ve applied them in my life with successful results. The previous entry in this series covered The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.

If there's one thing I've learned over the last few years, it's that if you want to succeed at any life improvement goal, you have to alter your normal daily routine such that every single day naturally produces some progress toward your goal.

I was really able to observe this through my own personal experience with personal finance. I spent a lot of time during the early years of The Simple Dollar trying to reduce my burn rate and also automating as much of my savings plan as possible. The end result is that I go through what feels like a normal day right now and I simply move closer to my big goal of financial independence.

Over the years, I've tried to understand what made us succeed at our big personal finance goals while having a mixed bag of results at other personal goals in our lives. The two biggest runaway successes in my life (aside from my marriage and my children) were the personal finance changes we made and the construction of a successful business. Knowing that it was the daily routine that was at the heart of those successes, why did things work so well for those goals and flop with other goals? What was the difference?

The book Triggers, which was an earlier entry in the Books with Impact series, provided some insights. That book is all about correcting behaviors, and behaviors are simply made up of the things we do that are triggered by our internal and external environments. The book focuses on finding ways to alter one's internal and external environments so that better behaviors naturally occur, and the system it provides is extremely powerful at doing so, particularly when it comes to altering specific things you notice that you'd like to do differently.

The system in Triggers is really powerful for passive and reactive changes you want to make to yourself - things that are very automatic and internal - but it's not as good at stimulating proactive change - when you want to actually make doing something normal. For example, Triggers works well if you want to, say, eat X instead of Y or eat less period, but it doesn't work as well if you're trying to add a new habit to your life.

That's where Atomic Habits by James Clear comes in, and I think it's a great complement to Triggers.

The key idea behind Atomic Habits is that big goals are good for some inspiration and a bit of motivation and perhaps for setting some general direction, but goals alone won't make you change. Rather, Clear's book focuses on systems - very simple daily actions that constitute a step in the right direction toward your big goal - and elevating those systems and daily steps to being the main focus for change.

Let's dig in.

The Fundamentals: Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference

Many people, when they think about change, they think about having to make some radical shift in their life to accomplish a huge goal. "I want to lose 100 pounds this year, so I'm going to have to live off of carrots and move into the gym." That's not sustainable. Very, very few people are going to be able to do that.

Clear argues on behalf of a systematic approach. Big goals are fine as a tool for figuring out your direction going forward, but what he's interested in is defining the direction in which you want things to change and then coming up with a system that involves daily action that nudges you in that direction, and then focusing entirely on the system.

So, rather than having that stark "I want to lose 100 pounds this year" goal and planning around that, Clear advocates coming up with a system of very simple daily action that takes you toward that goal. For example, you might focus on something like a daily calorie counting goal or simply maintaining a one-meal-a-day or an intermittent fasting routine.

The point is that you have to have a daily system in place that takes you a step closer each day to your goal, and it has to be a system you can stick to. If you have that system, all you have to do is focus on that system and the goal becomes inevitable.

Clear offers a ton of examples of this in various fields. They all boil down to the same thing: a 1% improvement in your daily routine adds up over time and tends to have a multiplicative effect for many goals. You want to lose weight and feel more energetic? Do a very small amount of exercise daily and tweak your dietary routine just a bit. You will gradually start losing weight and as that starts to happen, you'll find yourself naturally becoming more active because you weigh less and you're more fit. This results in more daily calories burnt and if you're sticking to your tweaked routine, your movement toward a healthier body will accelerate.

A similar phenomenon is true for things like knowledge acquisition. If you spend, say, 30 extra minutes studying each day, you won't see much of a change at first, but over time, the extra studying you did earlier will enable you to dig further and further into the subject, allowing you to build knowledge and connections and skills at a continuously accelerating rate.

Often, progress like this has a "tipping point," in that you won't notice much progress for a while and then suddenly the visible changes come in a flood. I love Clear's ice cube analogy here, which he discusses on page 20 of the hardcover version of the book. Imagine that you're watching an ice cube and each day, your system turns up the temperature by one degree. You start at -10 F, and then the next day you go up to -9 F, and there's no change. -8, -7, -6, no change in the ice cube. Day after day after day, no change. But then, one day, you reach 32 F and suddenly the cube starts to melt - radical change, and you can see all of that effort paying off. That's why it's a good idea to trust your system for a long while. Do the homework and planning to make sure your system is good and then give it plenty of time and trust so that you don't give up before your ice cube melts.

So, how do you make an effective system? How do you come up with very basic daily habits that can be made into a routine that you'll stick with and will guide you meaningfully toward your goal? That's most of what the rest of the book is about.

This is the point in the book where the material overlaps the most with Triggers. They both identify a structure in which our normal behaviors become a cycle, each book offering up a few variations. In the case of Atomic Habits, Clear breaks habits down into a four part cycle: cue, craving, response, and reward. The end result of this is that we eventually associate the reward (and, to an extent, the response) with the cue.

Let's say, for example, that you're checking your email and this makes you a bit anxious and stressed (cue). You start to crave something that will alleviate your stress and the thing you find that's convenient is chewing your nails (response). This takes the edge off your feelings of anxiety (reward), and thus you start to associate checking your email with chewing your nails.

A good system identifies and disrupts some of those associations in your life. For example, if you respond to certain cues by eating, a good system will disrupt those relationships.

Clear identifies four "laws," one for each of the elements in that cycle (cue, craving, response, reward). Together, strategies that address all of these elements will make for a great system that will bring about the changes you want in your life.

The 1st Law: Make It Obvious

The first piece of the puzzle is to address cues, and the place to start with that is to figure out the things in our life that serve as cues. Clear recommends making a giant list of all of our daily habits as a first step in identifying what kinds of cues actually drive us. You'll find that there are lots of cues that exist in our life, some of which we can control and some of which we can't.

This is where I feel like Triggers and Atomic Habits diverge. Triggers focuses much more on dealing with habits with cues we don't control, whereas Atomic Habits deals with habits where we can control the cues.

The basic recipe that Clear proposes is that if we want to establish a new habit, it should follow a recipe:

I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

I will meditate at 7 AM for one minute in my kitchen.

I will study Spanish for 20 minutes at 6 PM in my bedroom.

I will preheat the oven for dinner the moment I walk in the door from work in my kitchen.

I will wash my car on the first Friday of every month on my way home from work at the car wash on Main Street.

You get the idea. A very specific behavior, at a very specific time, and a very specific location.

A system is essentially a handful of these habits that are all pushing you in the same overall direction. Often, these habits can be stacked - you do a handful of these habits at the same time in the same location so that they effectively become one habit.

I will preheat the oven and then meditate for one minute when I walk in the door from work each day in my kitchen.

I will wash my car and air up my tires on the first Friday of every month on my way home from work at the car wash on Main Street.

This sets the stage for things like morning routines, where you do a certain routine of specific actions upon waking up, or an evening routine or a before-bed routine.

Another element of making cues obvious is to make your environment conducive to remembering them. If you need an item to perform a habit, put that item in the right place so that you find it there. It's the same reason you keep your toothbrush by the sink in the bathroom. Do the same thing for every habit that you have - put the stuff you need right where you're going to do it so that there's minimal pushback against doing it. Set it out where you can see it.

Eventually, the habit gets associated with a lot of elements in the environment, and when that happens, it becomes more and more and more natural and ingrained in your life.

Similarly, if you want to reduce a bad habit, remove the cues for it from your environment. Throw away the junk food and the cigarettes. Cut up your credit card. Find a different commute. Remove the cues at all costs.

The 2nd Law: Make It Attractive

The problem with many new habits is that they're unpleasant. We don't necessarily want to do things in this new and different way, for any number of reasons. Maybe we don't want to exercise. Maybe we don't want to cook meals at home. Maybe we don't want to put aside time for prayer.

The way around this is to tie that difficult new habit to something we want to do via habit stacking.

For example, let's say we have a habit we want to establish like "At 7 AM each morning, I will exercise for 20 minutes in the living room." You don't really want to exercise, so that's going to be hard to establish.

So, instead, establish this second habit. "After I exercise for 20 minutes, I'll have a cup of coffee and sit down with my phone to read the news for 15 minutes."

That second part sounds really pleasant. If you tack it on to the first habit by linking them together, you utilize the craving you have for the enjoyable part by using it as a carrot to get through the challenging part.

You can also make a new habit feel more attractive by making it feel more normal. We find ourselves taking most of our behavioral cues from three different groups: the close (those we spend a lot of time with), the many (the mass of humanity), and the powerful (those in a strong and/or influential position). Putting effort into tuning each of these groups in your life can make your new systems seem much more natural and supported.

Spend more time with friends who do similar things to your new system. Look for media coverage of people doing things like what you're trying to do. Look for role models who are doing similar things as well. If you surround yourself with those elements, your new habits and systems feel more natural.

If you want to eliminate a bad habit, apply the inverse of all of this to it. Make it unattractive. Focus on the negatives of the habit and the positives of not doing it. Penalize yourself whenever you do it by associating a penalty of some kind. Look for negative role models associated with that habit - people who ended up in a bad place because of the habit.

The 3rd Law: Make It Easy

The more difficult and intrusive a new habit is, the harder it is going to be to add it to your life. A habit of one minute of meditation is easier to add to your life than an hour of meditation. A habit of one pushup is easier to add to your life than a habit of an hour of exercise.

Clear suggests utilizing this understanding and paring every single habit down to a two minute action. You absolutely should make your daily habit something like "meditate for two minutes" or "read one page" instead of "meditate for an hour" or "read fifty pages." Why? You're much more likely to actually do it each day if the habit is less intrusive and burdensome.

The nice part about such habits is that you usually feel inclined to do more of them if there is time. You don't have to read more than one page, but if you have nothing going on in the next half an hour, why not read ten pages? You don't have to do more than one push-up, but if you're down there, why not do a set of ten and then maybe another set of ten? You don't have to meditate for more than a minute, but you've got time, so you set that timer for fifteen minutes.

The point is not to do a very tiny trivial task, but to simply master the art of showing up. If you meditate for one minute a day, meditation is now a daily part of your life and you can choose to meditate for longer if you wish.

Another suggestion that Clear offers is to write down your tiny habit ("Atomic Habit," perhaps?) and then write down a few bigger versions of it. For example, your super-easy daily habit might be to do one push-up, but what about doing ten? A set of fifteen, a set of ten, then a set of five? A set of 70% of your max, then 60%, then 50%, then 40%, then 30%? The habit is all about doing the easiest version, but you have some options to choose from once you "show up."

If you want to take it even further, automate that habit if possible. This is a great way to approach a lot of personal finance goals, as you can easily automate savings plans and extra loan payments with online banking. You can set your phone to go to silent from 8 AM to noon and then from 12:30 PM to 5 PM. You can set up a water purifying filter right on or under your faucet so that having good drinking water is practically automatic. In terms of killing negative habits, you can install a website blocker that keeps you from visiting social media.

The 4th Law: Make It Satisfying

Clear argues here that if you want to get a habit to stick, it needs to feel immediately satisfying. If it doesn't feel good, then you're probably not going to stick with it for very long, because discipline only lasts so long. The first three laws are all about getting you to do the habit for the first few times; this is about sticking with it over the long haul.

Clear's big universal suggestion for all habits is to track them. Keep track of the fact that you executed your habit each day and perhaps a number associated with the effort. Try to start building a chain of Xs or of non-zero numbers and you'll eventually start feeling great satisfaction from that chain and want to keep adding to it. Doing something two days in a row feels good; doing something 100 days in a row feels amazing.

This kind of tracking becomes an addendum to your habit. "After I do my push-up(s), I'll record how many I did in my spreadsheet." "After I read, I'll record my current page count on Goodreads." "After I put away my dishes, I'll record what I ate."

What if you break that chain? Start a new chain as quickly as possible. One misstep isn't a problem; two missteps is the beginning of a new negative habit.

Eventually, continuing the chain becomes incredibly satisfying, and it can be enough of a lure to keep you doing the habit even when you don't want to. We all have days where we don't want to exercise, but pushing through and keeping that chain alive is really rewarding.

The reverse is true when trying to undo a bad habit - you want to make it unsatisfying. A good way to do this is with an accountability partner, where you have to tell that person if you screwed up, or perhaps with a promise to announce your screw-ups on social media. That sounds like misery, so it's a strong nudge to stay on a good path.

Advanced Tactics: How to Go from Being Merely Good to Being Truly Great

The last, rather short section of the book is essentially a number of short essays on building habits that really don't fit into the above sections.

For example, Clear goes into a discussion about finding habits that are going to be incredibly transformative for you. One thing he suggests doing is finding things that you enjoy doing that others view as work and using habits to build your skill in that area. Also, look for things that make you lose track of time and things that come naturally to you. Habits centered around those often end up leading to fantastic results, as you become very good at something that other people struggle with. It can be a skill that you can easily make money from.

Another suggestion Clear offers is to find that happy middle point between something being so simple that you're bored with it and so difficult that you fail at it. You want it to be challenging, but not so difficult you have no chance at it. Don't lift 5 pounds, but don't lift 1,000 pounds. Find the spot in the middle that works well for you.

If you're struggling with being bored in your habit, find some way to add variability to it. For example, I find that rather than having a set fitness plan, I get a lot of value out of doing a random set of exercises each day. My fitness "habit" is just doing the Darebee daily exercises, then doing a random set of taekwondo practices from an app I set up on my phone. That way, it doesn't feel the same every day. I also switch up my stretching routine regularly; if it begins to feel dull, I find a new one to do, ideally one that's fairly challenging but not impossible. The goal is to stretch every morning, not to do that specific routine every morning.

Clear also points to the value of developing a handful of synergistic habits, things that actually nudge each other to better results than you would have achieved with a single habit on its own. For example, I stretch, do a bodyweight exercise routine, and do some taekwondo practice every day, and those actually aid each other and make each one easier and more effective. The same is true for habits like saving money for the future and being frugal with your spending - they aid each other and the more you put into frugality, the more you can save.

Final Thoughts

I found that the advice in this book works best for goals and habits that you can approach with very clear and specific daily activities, like a daily exercise routine or writing in a journal each day or meditating each day or doing a load of laundry each day or simply getting out of bed and showering each day. If you have a big goal that can be approached with systematic daily small habits like these, Clear's advice is tremendous.

However, it doesn't really hit home as well when you're trying to change more nebulous things about yourself, like your proclivity to eat out of boredom at random moments throughout the day or your shyness around other people. If the thing you want to improve about yourself is best described with a "to be" verb, this system doesn't work quite as well. I think that Triggers is a much better system for this.

Over the last few months, I've been using both systems in my life. I have a bunch of "atomic habits" I'm tracking in a notebook, along with a bunch of "daily questions" (from Triggers). I will likely show off my system in a future article once I give it a few more months to really refine it.

I think if you're struggling to make changes in your life, both books are well worth reading and both systems are worth applying in your life, but some elements will click better with some people than others.

Good luck!

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