Book Summary: Atomic HabitsTweet
- Why habits matter
- Four Laws of Habits
- First Law: Make it obvious
- Second Law: Make it Attractive
- Third Law: Make it easy
- Fourth Law: Make it Satisfying
Atomic Habits is a book about importance of habits in our lives and techniques for building long lasting habits. This book is easy to read and most of the chapters in this book are about 10 pages long. This makes it very easy to read this book chapter by chapter as you can easily finish a chapter in one sitting.
Why habits matter
We think of goals when we are planning to achieve something, but goals are a flawed way of achieving anything. Goal is good for setting initial direction but to achieve that goal we need to build a system of habits that eventually make us successful. We do not rise to the level of our goals but fall to level of our system.
Focusing on Goals has following four problems
- Winners and losers have the same goals
- Achieving a Goal is only momentary change: Some things require daily habit. For example, having a goal of clean room will not do anything, since it does not have to be cleaned once. Once you clean it, it must be kept clean otherwise it will become same as before.
- Goals restrict your happiness: Once you set a goal, you think you will be happy once you achieve the goal. With habits you can be happy doing small things daily
- Goals do not offer long term solution: People lose motivation after achieving the goal and stop putting effort.
Small 1% gains over a period lead to a compounding effect, like the effect seen in systematic investment plans. 1% improvement steadily everyday can lead to 37 times improvement over a year. Similarly, 1% loss over the year can almost reduce anything to zero. When we exercise daily, we see that no change is happening, so we stop exercising. Gains made in initial days are very small, often invisible, but these small gains should not discourage us from continuing the habit. This same mentality lets bad habits slip into our life. For example, we eat junk food, as junk food does not do any bad when we eat it, but its bad effects also compound. Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. These, small often invisible, changes initially are like bamboo plant spending several years just building network of roots underground and then in very short time it shoots up the ground to a great height. Many things in life have compounding effect. For example, Productivity, effect of doing one extra task a day may seem small but over the years the effect of doing that one extra task is large. Automating one task may give exponential results. Similarly, do not underestimate the effect of learning a small new thing every day or week. Over the time, it will increase your knowledge tremendously. Similarly, relationships and many negative things like, negative thoughts, stress, outrage, also compound. We should not underestimate effect of having just one of them every now and then, as they would also compound.
Four Laws of Habits
The core idea in the book is related to known idea in psychology that triplet of cue, response, reward is an effective way to bring changes in behavior. As per the author not only external reward or punishment but also the internal emotions, feelings play a role in forming habits. That is where author has introduced the idea of “craving” in the triplet. With the addition of “craving” the book is based on four laws which are based on the quartet of cue, craving, response and the reward. For example, when you enter a dark room, the cue is that nothing is visible, the craving is to be able to see things, the response is pressing of the button and reward is finally being able to see things. There are two purposes of reward. First is to satisfy the craving and secondly, it acts as filter. The responses which do not have reward are not repeated. The action will not happen if any of the first three stages are not complete, and the action will not be repeated if the last stage is not present. Based on these four stages here are four laws of behavior change.
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it Satisfying
Similarly, to remove a bad habit we can invert above as follows
- Make it invisible
- Make it unattractive
- Make it difficult
- Make it unsatisfying
First Law: Make it obvious
Habit Score Card
Once a habit is formed, we don’t even think before following it. It is automated by our subconscious. We do not even the notice the cue. To make your habits more visible and obvious, create habits score card. Write down everything you do in your routine. If it is a good habit then mark it with a “+” and if it is a bad habit then mark it a “-“ and if it is a neutral habit then mark it as “=” e.g.
- Wake up =
- Turn off alarm =
- Check Phone -
- Go to bathroom =
- check weight +
- Brush teeth +
- exercise +
- take shower +
- make a tea +
In Implementation intention a person plans that he will do [Behavior] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]. Planning reduces complexity at the time of execution. Often lack of clarity is the reason of procrastination and not following the habit. Once everything is planned then it’s easy to just execute it. When you wake up and don’t know where to exercise or what exercise to do etc. you are more likely to not do it. Implementation intentions must be specific and not leave much room for decision making at the time of execution.
Habit Stacking is linking the new habit with an old habit or event in your life. For this, create a list of habits you already have, like we listed for habit score card. Also, list events that are bound to happen like receiving a message etc. Now attach your new habit to this old event/habit. For example, if you want to develop habit of gratitude, you might say that I would thank at least one thing in the day after dinner or after I pour my cup of tea, I will meditate for 1 min. Although, care must be taken that the frequency of old habit is same as the new habit otherwise you might miss out on few occasions. Also, make sure the environment is conducive for that habit. For example, planning to meditate after office lunch may not work as there may be no place to meditate in office.
One should tailor the environment so that cues of habit are more visible. For example, if you want to read a book before going to bed, it makes sense to place the book on the pillow after making bed in the morning so that, when you come back to bed in the evening, book is there right in front of you, and you can just pick it up and read. Similarly, try to make things invisible in your environment if they trigger unwanted habits. To further tailor your environment, create different contexts for different habits, for example, having a separate space for office is more likely to lead to more focus during office work and better work life balance. Similarly, if you are watching too much TV, it might be because of having TV in bedroom. Moving TV to a separate room might help. Also, if space is small, one can dedicate a separate corner of the room for a particular activity.
Second Law: Make it Attractive
In this technique we do something we don’t like just before doing something we like. E.g., if you don’t like to exercise but if you like drinking milkshake. You can say that you will have milkshake after exercising Also, we can combine this with habit stacking. And we can use following formula After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED]. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].
Humans are herd animals. We want to fit in, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of our peers. Such inclinations are essential to our survival. For most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in tribes. Becoming separated from the tribe or worse, being cast out was a death sentence. “The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.” We in general try to imitate either the people we are close with like family members or if there are too many people doing the same thing or if there is someone important or powerful person like a celebrity doing something. Therefore, good company matters. If you want to form a habit of reading than joining a reading group may help.
Author tells a story where when someone asked a wheel chaired man if he does not feel confined in the wheelchair. The man said that wheelchair in fact frees him, without wheelchair he would be stuck to the bed. Similarly, we can change our mindset towards our habits and see them in more positive light. For example, exercising is a challenging task, but we can also see it as opportunity to develop strength and agility. Also, in order to make habits attractive, attach positive feelings with them. For example, if you feel happy when patting your dog then you can repeat, taking deep breath, smiling and patting dog again and again. This will associate feeling good with smiling and deep breathing.
Being Action Oriented
Author talks about another experiment where a group of people were divided into two groups. One group was asked to prepare one perfect picture and another group was asked to prepare as many pictures as possible. At the end of the experiment, it was found that group that produced many pictures also produced the best picture. Author says that we sometimes spend a lot of time in thinking and planning perfectly but we do not act. Author calls state of planning as being in motion but state of executing as action. As per author action is important and repeated action is what causes behavior change over time. Motion does not produce results motion gives you illusion of progress, but nothing gets done. It’s the action which makes the actual progress. Also, as you repeat action repeatedly it becomes automatic. It is important to take actions you need to take to make progress.
Third Law: Make it easy
When trying to make a new habit try to make it as easy as possible. For example, you can add a 2 min ceremony before each habit. As ceremony takes only 2min it is very easy to follow. First aim to make habit of performing ceremony, you can continue if you want after ceremony but performing the ceremony is sufficient to count as following the habit. For example, if habit you want to form is to run then wearing sport shoes could be a ceremony. Of course, after wearing shoes, you can go for run but even if you don’t go for run but just wear the shoes then also it will count as following the habit.
Most of the things do not even require action from you. They are so simple that they can be automated. For example, if you want to form the habit of paying bills on time, you can just setup automatic bill payment.
Many times, making advance commitment like paying gym fee in advance can help you follow the habit.
Fourth Law: Make it Satisfying
To make habits stick we need to provide some form of instant gratification. But this instant gratification should not counter the effect of habit. For example, we cannot choose ice-cream as a reward of doing exercise, but we can choose massage as a reward. Similarly, if you are trying to save money then create an account named “car”, and every time you resist the urge to spend, credit that amount to the car account. These instant rewards would be required only initially. Once your habits have provided enough evidence for it to be your identity, you would not need rewards, your identity will cause habit to be continued. Rewards form the habit, but identity continues it. In short, habit must be enjoyable to last.
Benjamin Franklin used to track his virtues on a booklet he caried every day. Jerry Seinfeld once said that he would make sure that he writes at least one joke every day and he would make sure that this chain does not break. He did not focus on how good or bad a particular joke was. Just making sure the chain of making at least one joke everyday did not break. There are various benefits of Habit tracking
- Habit tacking is obvious
- Habit tracking is attractive: It keeps you motivated even if you skipped a particular day as you can see the already made progress in past days and that motivates you
- Habit tracking is satisfying: It’s satisfying to check off the items off your list
In case you break the streak of following the habit, make sure you don’t miss twice. Its ok to miss occasionally but missing twice starts another habit of missing. Even if you can just show up and do the two-minute ritual but showing up is important each time especially second time once you have missed it once.
An immediate pain is a very good way to avoid doing something as we try to avoid pain at all costs. We can use this to make breaking habit even more difficult by creating something known as habit contract. This contract is done with your one or more accountability partner. You make the contract such that if you break the habit you would have to pay some fixed amount to your accountability partner. For example, if accountability partner is your wife, you could make a contract that if you skipped exercise you would have to pay your wife 500 dollar which she could use whatever way she would like. This creates an immediate pain, which makes skipping habit extremely difficult.
Most people when they go about forming new habits, they think of achieving a goal and then they must adapt the processes eventually and finally it becomes part of their identity. Once it becomes part of their identity it is very difficult to get rid. We generally do whatever suits our identity and it’s very difficult to go against our identity. Therefore, true habit or behavior change is done when it becomes part of our identity. Our identity is what we do repeatedly. Our actions are little votes in favor of the identity they support. For example, if a person smokes only once, he would not say that he is a smoker but as he smokes more often slowly smoking will become part of his identity. Therefore, whenever you are trying to take any action think about if that action supports the kind of person I want to become. Instead of asking what outcomes you want by forming a habit, ask what type of person you want to become. Instead of having a goal to read a book, think about becoming a reader. Instead of having a goal to run a marathon think about becoming a runner because a well-formed habit will eventually become part of your identity. Here is the two-step process for changing your identity.
- Think of the type of person you want to become
- Prove it to yourself with small wins each day
One way to make life easy for you is to make sure choices you make align more with your talent or genetics. For example, if you are introvert than trying to be a party star might be very difficult. For this you must try different things and then find the one that suits you the most. If you think that you do not have such a talent where you are outstanding then it may be that you have couple of talents where you are above average. Combining such talents to create your own niche may help you find success. E.g., author of Dilbert comics once said that he might not be best drawing artist or comic, but he is probably good comic who can draw.
This rule says that one is most motivated to do a work when that work is at the edge of their capability. We are most motivated when chances of success are not too high or low but somewhere in the middle 50%. If you can keep increasing difficulty of the task you are performing such that they do not become boring or try little easier task if current task is too difficult. In the end, everything repeated over a long time becomes boring and, in the end, one must learn to love doing boring and fall in love with boredom.
Downsides of habits
In the beginning habits help you master the skill to a level, but it can also get you stuck in the rut. It can make you inflexible as well. In order to continue to grow one must combine habit with deliberate practice to achieve true mastery
Habit + Deliberate Practice = Mastery
To avoid this pitfall, you must create a system of review and reflection. Over the period not only we need to maintain the habits we also need to fine tune as per changing circumstances and make sure that they are up to date and that we are not becoming complacent or getting stuck in the rut. Author does two kinds of reviews, first is Annual review and other is integrity review In Annual review author asks following questions
- what went well this year?
- What didn’t go so well this year?
- What did I learn?
The Integrity review asks following questions
- What are the core values that drive my life and work?
- How am I living and working with integrity right now?
- How can I set a higher standard in the future?
They provide author an annual reminder to revisit desired identity and consider how habits are helping become the type of person author wish to be. It’s important to make sure feedback of the review is from a correct distance. Feedback should not include teeny tiny, day to day details but should indicate a broad direction. The second drawback of habits is that it can make you brittle by making your identity too narrow. It’s important to keep the identity broad so that there is scope for improvement. For example, instead of having identity that “I’m an athlete” one can have an identity that “I’m a person who is mentally tough and loves challenges” Habits are essential but they can lock us into fix patterns. As in life everything changes after some time one should be ready for the changes. Lack of self-awareness is poison and reflection, and review is the antidote.
The four rules of habit formation can be applied to parenting as well to make sure that children develop good habits.
First Law: Make it obvious
One of the ways it is done is to follow kindergarten model of organization. Room is divided into multiple sub sections. Each sub section has different color denoting the activity that takes place there. All the items related to that activity are also kept there. It also helps in focusing on the activity. Also, habit stacking can be used with children, for example, after I finish my dinner, I will rinse my dish and place it in the dish washer.
Second Law: Make it Attractive
One way to make habits attractive is to make sure your child is part the group which follows those habits. Imitation is attractive to humans and once your child is part of right group, he is more likely to follow those habits. Another way to make it attractive is to make sure your children have illusion of autonomy and freedom. For example, if child says I don’t want to put on pajamas. Instead of telling him to put pajamas, you can instead ask if he would like to wear pajamas now or after 5mins. Or you can give option as to which pajama the child would like to wear.
Third Law: Make it easy
To make the habits easy to follow, you can make the environment such that it’s easy to follow the habits. For example, author gives example where one parent decided not to have television at home. This caused children to become voracious readers.
Fourth Law: Make it Satisfying
Praise your children when they do the right thing. Children often crave for their parents’ approval and praise. If children do something wrong, then either ignore them or give ho-hum responses. Also, whenever possible give the positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement. For example, you can increase the pocket money by small token when child performs the right thing.
For a business to be successful, its products must be used by users. The same four laws apply to make people use the products.
First Law: Make it Obvious
We see this law being used everywhere. For example, in a mall, expensive things are generally placed at a place where they are more visible. The notifications in your phones are there to make it obvious to you to use a particular app.
Second Law: Make it attractive
If you run a website than making website good looking is as important as making it functionally robust. Also, personalizing messages in your marketing campaign can also make them more attractive.
Third Law: Make it easy
This is about making your product easy to use or acquire. For example, if your product is a ride booking app then you can make the method of payment as easy as possible. We can make it easier to wait for ride by telling them estimate of the arrival time.
Fourth Law: Make it Satisfying
Implementing this rule requires a good balance between 2nd and 4th law. As for the product to be satisfying, it must have reward that is more than the 2nd law promised. One way is to sprinkle small rewards throughout the process. Many companies have for example started adding fake engine noise when someone presses accelerator. This same principle can be used to enforce good habits of employees by praising when they perform good.