If you want to build a habit, this is the definitive book on the topic. 1 You could read about habits in other books, to learn more, but if you actually want to be building them, look no further.
This was the first book in a long time that moved me to actually take action. Succint, pithy and packed with advice, there isn’t a wasted word in its 300 odd pages. And unlike other, it does not feel like three-hundred-pages. Moving from introduction to positing its arguments to tactical advice to conclusion, this feels more like a fast paced novel.
On we go to the things that moved me.
Get 1% better every day
1% worse every day for one year. vs 1% better every day for one year.
Improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable—sometimes it isn’t even noticeable—but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat. YOUR HABITS CAN COMPOUND FOR YOU OR AGAINST YOU.
Beware the Valley of Disappointment.
Habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. In the early and middle stages of any quest, there is often a Valley of Disappointment. You expect to make progress in a linear fashion and it’s frustrating how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months. It doesn’t feel like you are going anywhere. It’s a hallmark of any compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed. This is one of the core reasons why it is so hard to build habits that last.
In order to make a meaningful difference, habits need to persist long enough to break through this plateau—what I call the Plateau of Latent Potential. If you find yourself struggling to build a good habit or break a bad one, it is not because you have lost your ability to improve. It is often because you have not yet crossed the Plateau of Latent Potential. Complaining about not achieving success despite working hard is like complaining about an ice cube not melting when you heated it from twenty-five to thirty-one degrees. Your work was not wasted; it is just being stored. All the action happens at thirty-two degrees. Change can take years—before it happens all at once.
Forget about goals, focus on systems instead
Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. 2You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
Be the change, you wish to see in yourself
Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke, the first person says, “No thanks. I’m trying to quit.” It sounds like a reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker who is trying to be something else. They are hoping their behavior will change while carrying around the same beliefs. The second person declines by saying, “No thanks. I’m not a smoker.” It’s a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes.
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this. Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are.
- The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader.
- The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner.
- The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician.
So how do we go about changing our identity?
It is a simple two-step process:
- Decide the type of person you want to be.
- Prove it to yourself with small wins.
I have a friend who lost over 100 pounds by asking herself, “What would a healthy person do?” All day long, she would use this question as a guide. Would a healthy person walk or take a cab? Would a healthy person order a burrito or a salad? She figured if she acted like a healthy person long enough, eventually she would become that person. She was right.
The four laws of behavior change
How to Create a Good Habit
- The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
- The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
- The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
- The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.
How to Break a Bad Habit
- Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible.
- Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive.
- Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult.
- Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.
The Best Way to Start a New Habit
Broadly speaking, the format for creating an implementation intention is:
When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.
The simple way to apply this strategy to your habits is to fill out this sentence:
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
- Meditation. I will meditate for one minute at 7 a.m. in my kitchen.
- Exercise. I will walk for two hours at 6 p.m. in my neighbourhood.
- Marriage. I will make my wife a cup of lemon & honey at 5.45 a.m. in the kitchen.
Give your habits a time and a space to live in the world. The goal is to make the time and location so obvious that, with enough repetition, you get an urge to do the right thing at the right time, even if you can’t say why.
Then, stack ’em!
Many human behaviors follow this cycle. You often decide what to do next based on what you have just finished doing. Going to the bathroom leads to washing and drying your hands, which reminds you that you need to put the dirty towels in the laundry, so you add laundry detergent to the shopping list, and so on. No behavior happens in isolation. Each action becomes a cue that triggers the next behavior.
So we best stack our habits. Easiest way to form new ones. How?
The habit stacking formula is:
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
- Meditation. After I meditate for one minute, I will go do physio
- Study. After I start walking, I will learn French lessons
- Marriage. After I get into bed at night, I will give my partner a kiss.3
Motivation Is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More
Alter the spaces where you live and work to increase your exposure to positive cues and reduce your exposure to negative ones. Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your life. Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it.
Try and use a single device as much as possible for a single task. Associate a place with a specific action.
… divide your room into activity zones: a chair for reading, a desk for writing, a table for eating. You can do the same with your digital spaces. I know a writer who uses his computer only for writing, his tablet only for reading, and his phone only for social media and texting. Every habit should have a home.
What happens if we do this?
If you can manage to stick with this strategy, each context will become associated with a particular habit and mode of thought. Habits thrive under predictable circumstances like these. Focus comes automatically when you are sitting at your work desk. Relaxation is easier when you are in a space designed for that purpose. Sleep comes quickly when it is the only thing that happens in your bedroom. If you want behaviors that are stable and predictable, you need an environment that is stable and predictable.
You take my Self Control
Simply resisting temptation is an ineffective strategy. It is hard to maintain a Zen attitude in a life filled with interruptions. It takes too much energy. In the short-run, you can choose to overpower temptation. In the long-run, we become a product of the environment that we live in. To put it bluntly, I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.
So how do we get out of this pickle? By using what Taleb calls, via negativa. Like James clarifies …
Cut bad habits off at the source. One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it.
- If you can’t seem to get any work done, leave your phone in another room for a few hours.
- If you’re continually feeling like you’re not enough, stop following social media accounts that trigger jealousy and envy.
- If you’re wasting too much time watching television, move the TV out of the bedroom.
Give yourself a cookie
Now that you’ve made habits and have made more by stacking, you want to make them irresistible to do. How? Reward yourself by doing something you want to do.
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED]. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].
I have to do my physio daily, and I love Jon Stewart shows so …
- After I meditate, I will do physio.
- After physio, I will check out Jon Stewart on Youtube.
This shit is hard! (Or how to reprogram your brain to enjoy hard habits)
What if you’re trying to do something that is hard and unpleasant? I have to do this. I have to do that. I have to go work. I hate this, but I have to.
Imagine changing just one word: You don’t “have” to. You “get” to.
Exercise. Many people associate exercise with being a challenging task that drains energy and wears you down. You can just as easily view it as a way to develop skills and build you up. Instead of telling yourself “I need to go run in the morning,” say “It’s time to build endurance and get fast.”
Finance. Saving money is often associated with sacrifice. However, you can associate it with freedom rather than limitation if you realize one simple truth: living below your current means increases your future means. The money you save this month increases your purchasing power next month.
And then, just keep swimming. Make it easy to do. And keep doing it!
Walk Slowly, but Never Backward When preparation becomes a form of procrastination, you need to change something. You don’t want to merely be planning. You want to be practicing. If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. You don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it. You just need to get your reps in.
Why? Because of Hebb’s Law
Hebb’s Law: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Repeating a habit leads to clear physical changes in the brain. Mathematicians, have increased gray matter in the inferior parietal lobule, which plays a key role in computation and calculation. Its size is directly correlated with the amount of time spent in the field; the older and more experienced the mathematician, the greater the increase in gray matter.
To build a habit, you need to practice it. And the most effective way to make practice happen is to make it easy.
Every habit is just an obstacle to getting what you really want. Dieting is an obstacle to getting fit. Meditation is an obstacle to feeling calm. Journaling is an obstacle to thinking clearly. You don’t actually want the habit itself. What you really want is the outcome the habit delivers. The greater the obstacle—that is, the more difficult the habit—the more friction there is between you and your desired end state. This is why it is crucial to make your habits so easy that you’ll do them even when you don’t feel like it. If you can make your good habits more convenient, you’ll be more likely to follow through on them
How now? Remember environment design above? This is where you see its benefits.
When deciding where to practice a new habit, it is best to choose a place that is already along the path of your daily routine. Habits are easier to build when they fit into the flow of your life. Prime the environment for future use. There are many ways to prime your environment so it’s ready for immediate use. If you want to cook a healthy breakfast, place the skillet on the stove, set the cooking spray on the counter, and lay out any plates and utensils you’ll need the night before. When you wake up, making breakfast will be easy. Want to exercise? Set out your workout clothes, shoes, gym bag, and water bottle ahead of time. Want to improve your diet? Chop up a ton of fruits and vegetables on weekends and pack them in containers, so you have easy access to healthy, ready-to-eat options during the week.
You can also invert this principle and prime the environment to make bad behaviors difficult.
Redesign your life so the actions that matter most are also the actions that are easiest to do.
How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the Two-Minute Rule
The Two-Minute Rule states, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” You’ll find that nearly any habit can be scaled down into a two-minute version:
- “Read before bed each night” becomes “Read one page.”
- “Study for class” becomes “Open my notes.”
- “Run three miles” becomes “Tie my running shoes.”
This is a powerful strategy because once you’ve started doing the right thing, it is much easier to continue doing it. A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy. What you want is a “gateway habit” that naturally leads you down a more productive path.
As you master the art of showing up, the first two minutes simply become a ritual at the beginning of a larger routine. This is not merely a hack to make habits easier but actually the ideal way to master a difficult skill. The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely it becomes that you can slip into the state of deep focus that is required to do great things. By developing a consistent power-down habit, you make it easier to get to bed at a reasonable time each night. You may not be able to automate the whole process, but you can make the first action mindless. Make it easy to start and the rest will follow.
The secret is to always stay below the point where it feels like work.
Strategies like this work for another reason, too: they reinforce the identity you want to build. If you show up at the gym five days in a row—even if it’s just for two minutes—you are casting votes for your new identity. You’re not worried about getting in shape. You’re focused on becoming the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. You’re taking the smallest action that confirms the type of person you want to be.
Once you’ve established the habit and you’re showing up each day, you can combine the Two-Minute Rule with a technique we call habit shaping to scale your habit back up toward your ultimate goal. Start by mastering the first two minutes of the smallest version of the behavior. Then, advance to an intermediate step and repeat the process—focusing on just the first two minutes and mastering that stage before moving on to the next level. Eventually, you’ll end up with the habit you had originally hoped to build while still keeping your focus where it should be: on the first two minutes of the behavior.
Examples of habit shaping – Becoming an Early Riser
- Phase 1: Be home by 10 p.m. every night.
- Phase 2: Have all devices (TV, phone, etc.) turned off by 10 p.m. every night.
- Phase 3: Be in bed by 10 p.m. every night (reading a book, talking with your partner).
- Phase 4: Lights off by 10 p.m. every night.
- Phase 5: Wake up at 6 a.m. every day.
Make sure you are happy at the end of it all
We are more likely to repeat a behavior when the experience is satisfying. This is entirely logical. Feelings of pleasure are signals that tell the brain: “This feels good. Do this again, next time.” Pleasure teaches your brain that a behavior is worth remembering and repeating.
The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided. You learn what to do in the future based on what you were rewarded for doing (or punished for doing) in the past. Positive emotions cultivate habits. Negative emotions destroy them.
The first three laws of behavior change—make it obvious, make it attractive, and make it easy—increase the odds that a behavior will be performed this time. The fourth law of behavior change—make it satisfying—increases the odds that a behavior will be repeated next time. It completes the habit loop.
I want it all, now!
Our preference for instant gratification reveals an important truth about success: because of how we are wired, most people will spend all day chasing quick hits of satisfaction. The road less traveled is the road of delayed gratification. If you’re willing to wait for the rewards, you’ll face less competition and often get a bigger payoff. As the saying goes, the last mile is always the least crowded.” Most people know that delaying gratification is the wise approach. They want the benefits of good habits: to be healthy, productive, at peace. But these outcomes are seldom top-of-mind at the decisive moment. Thankfully, it’s possible to train yourself to delay gratification—but you need to work with the grain of human nature, not against it. The best way to do this is to add a little bit of immediate pleasure to the habits that pay off in the long-run and a little bit of immediate pain to ones that don’t.
“One of my readers and his wife used a similar setup. They wanted to stop eating out so much and start cooking together more. They labeled their savings account “Trip to Europe.” Whenever they skipped going out to eat, they transferred $50 into the account. At the end of the year, they put the money toward the vacation.
Select short-term rewards that reinforce your identity rather than ones that conflict with it. If your reward for exercising is eating a bowl of ice cream, then you’re casting votes for conflicting identities, and it ends up being a wash. Instead, maybe your reward is a massage, which is both a luxury and a vote toward taking care of your body. Now the short-term reward is aligned with your with your long-term vision of being a healthy person.
Eventually, as intrinsic rewards like a better mood, more energy, and reduced stress kick in, you’ll become less concerned with chasing the secondary reward. The identity itself becomes the reinforcer. You do it because it’s who you are and it feels good to be you. The more a habit becomes part of your life, the less you need outside encouragement to follow through.
Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit.
It takes time for the evidence to accumulate and a new identity to emerge though. Immediate reinforcement helps maintain motivation in the short term while you’re waiting for the long-term rewards to arrive.
How to keep your habits on track? You just track it all!
A habit tracker is a simple way to measure whether you did a habit. The most basic format is to get a calendar and cross off each day you stick with your routine. As time rolls by, the calendar becomes a record of your habit streak.
What can we do to make tracking easier? First, whenever possible, measurement should be automated. You’ll probably be surprised by how much you’re already tracking without knowing it. Your credit card statement tracks how often you go out to eat. Once you know where to get the data, add a note to your calendar to review it each week or each month, which is more practical than tracking it every day. Second, manual tracking should be limited to your most important habits. It is better to consistently track one habit than to sporadically track ten. Finally, record each measurement immediately after the habit occurs. The completion of the behavior is the cue to write it down. This approach allows you to combine the habit-stacking method, with habit tracking
The habit stacking + habit tracking formula is:
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [TRACK MY HABIT].
- After I hang up the phone from a sales call, I will move one paper clip over.
- After I finish each set at the gym, I will record it in my workout journal.
- After I put my plate in the dishwasher, I will write down what I ate.
It’s all shot to hell! What now?
No matter how consistent you are with your habits, it is inevitable that life will interrupt you at some point. Perfection is not possible. Before long, an emergency will pop up—you get sick or you have to travel for work or your family needs a little more of your time. Remind yourself of this simple rule:
Never miss twice. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.
The breaking of a habit doesn’t matter if the reclaiming of it is fast. The problem is not slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can’t do something perfectly, then you shouldn’t do it at all.
This is why the “bad” workouts are often the most important ones. Sluggish days and bad workouts maintain the compound gains you accrued from previous good days. Simply doing something—ten squats, five sprints, a push-up, anything really—is huge. Don’t put up a zero. Don’t let losses eat into your compounding. Furthermore, it’s not always about what happens during the workout. It’s about being the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. It’s easy to train when you feel good, but it’s crucial to show up when you don’t feel like it—even if you do less than you hope. Going to the gym for five minutes may not improve your performance, but it reaffirms your identity.
How to stay focused when you get bored working on your goals
“What’s the difference between the best athletes and everyone else?” I asked. “What do the really successful people do that most don’t?” He mentioned the factors you might expect: genetics, luck, talent. But then he said something I wasn’t expecting: “At some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.”
Really successful people feel the same lack of motivation as everyone else. The difference is that they still find a way to show up despite the feelings of boredom. Mastery requires practice.
But the more you practice something, the more boring and routine it becomes. The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. And as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty. Perhaps this is why we get caught up in a never-ending cycle, jumping from one workout to the next, one diet to the next, one business idea to the next. As soon as we experience the slightest dip in motivation, we begin seeking a new strategy—even if the old one was still working. Perhaps this is why many of the most habit-forming products are those that provide continuous forms of novelty. Video games provide visual novelty. Porn provides sexual novelty. Junk foods provide culinary novelty. Each of these experiences offer continual elements of surprise.
Everyone faces the same challenge on the journey of self-improvement: you have to fall in love with boredom. We all have goals that we would like to achieve and dreams that we would like to fulfill, but it doesn’t matter what you are trying to become better at, if you only do the work when it’s convenient or exciting, then you’ll never be consistent enough to achieve remarkable results. I can guarantee that if you manage to start a habit and keep sticking to it, there will be days when you feel like quitting. When you start a business, there will be days when you don’t feel like showing up. When you’re at the gym, there will be sets that you don’t feel like finishing. When it’s time to write, there will be days that you don’t feel like typing. But stepping up when it’s annoying or painful or draining to do so, that’s what makes the difference between a professional and an amateur. Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.”
The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.
Break the beliefs that hold you back
In the beginning, repeating a habit is essential to build up evidence of your desired identity. As you latch on to that new identity, however, those same beliefs can hold you back from the next level of growth. When working against you, your identity creates a kind of “pride” that encourages you to deny your weak spots and prevents you from truly growing. This is one of the greatest downsides of building habits. The more sacred an idea is to us—that is, the more deeply it is tied to our identity—the more strongly we will defend it against criticism.
The key to mitigating these losses of identity is to redefine yourself such that you get to keep important aspects of your identity even if your particular role changes.
- “I’m an athlete” becomes “I’m the type of person who is mentally tough and loves a physical challenge.”
- “I’m a great soldier” transforms into “I’m the type of person who is disciplined, reliable, and great on a team.”
- “I’m the CEO” translates to “I’m the type of person who builds and creates things.”
Habits deliver numerous benefits, but the downside is that they can lock us into our previous patterns of thinking and acting—even when the world is shifting around us. Everything is impermanent. Life is constantly changing, so you need to periodically check in to see if your old habits and beliefs are still serving you. A lack of self-awareness is poison. Reflection and review is the antidote.
And in conclusion
The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It’s remarkable what you can build if you just don’t stop. It’s remarkable the business you can build if you don’t stop working. It’s remarkable the body you can build if you don’t stop training. It’s remarkable the knowledge you can build if you don’t stop learning. It’s remarkable the fortune you can build if you don’t stop saving. It’s remarkable the friendships you can build if you don’t stop caring.
Small habits don’t add up. They compound. That’s the power of atomic habits. Tiny changes. Remarkable results.