Atomic Habits [affiliate link].
It’s such a crazy popular book, I’m sure most of you have heard of it. After seeing them for the 129839412th time on Facebook ads and book recommendation, I’ve been thoroughly brainwashed and finally decided to give it a read. I’m glad I did. The book turns out to be pretty darn insightful and at this point, I cannot not share it.
It’s a book about how miniscule things that we do subconsciously on a daily basis can, and will create life-changing breakthroughs. It’s about creating a system of habits that helps us get 1 percent better every day so that it compounds into remarkable progress in the long run.
In this New York Times Bestseller, James Clear shares practical strategies that will help us form great habits, break bad ones, and master the tiny behaviors that will take us to new heights, and maybe, becoming a frugal millionaire.
Here are some of the key takeaways from Atomic Habits that made a lasting impression on me.
Mindset That Kills Good Habits
John struck gold.
He’s the lucky winner of jackpot and now has ten million dollars to his name. It’s a financial goal that many people can only dream of accomplishing. But he became very complacent with his finances. He splurge on buying luxurious cars every month, move into a multi-million mansion and throw expensive parties every weekend. He spends more than what he earns.
Then, there is Bob.
Bob lost everything to a fire on one fateful night and now has zero dollar in his bank account. Despite the adversity, he subscribed to frugal-millionaire.com (yes, very important!), hustled hard and landed a normal 9-5 job and gets paid RM 10,000 per month. His salary is stupendously miniscule compared to John’s fortune but Bob continues to save, invest and work even harder.
My bet is that Bob will be financially ahead in 5 years time.
This is a classic case of current outcome versus trajectory. So often we get obsessed with what we have now, that we stop paying attention to where we are heading.
But much of the success that we enjoy now isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s an accumulation of all the right choices that we’ve made in the past. We may have made the decision to work hard, but we won’t get to see our successes until much later.
There is a delay between our action and our results.
Remember John and Bob? If we grade their successes based on a snapshot of what they have right now, then by that standard, our friend John would look like he is doing much better than Bob. At Year 4, his net worth is much higher than Bob’s.
|Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4|
But that doesn’t mean that emulating John’s lifestyle is the correct way to manage our finances. Looking only at their current predicament doesn’t paint the full picture.
Try using trajectory.
|Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4|
|John||RM 10,000||RM 9,000||RM 6,000||RM 1,000|
|Bob||RM 0||RM 80||RM 250||RM 750|
|Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4|
|John||–||– RM 1,000||– RM 3,000||– RM 5,000|
|Bob||–||+ RM 80||+ RM 170||+ RM 500|
By using trajectory and NOT current outcome as our arbitrary measure of success, it’s clear as days that John is actually bleeding out and that Bob is on the right track for financial success. Having the right trajectory is usually a far better indicator of success than any amounts of present results.
The question we should be asking ourselves is not whether we are at our best right now, but are we becoming better?
James argues that we should approach habits with the same mindset.
And I quote,
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.
You get what you repeat.James Clear
Habits are slow and steady investments, not a once-in-a-lifetime transformation. It takes time and consistency for the compounding to take place.
By judging the usefulness of a new habits to its current impact, we put ourselves in a very demotivating mindset where we are more likely to give up before the results even starts coming in.
Perhaps we should turn to trajectory as the default way to measure success.
Instead of looking at our Body Mass Index (current outcome), maybe we can keep track of the amount of time spent in gym this month (trajectory). The latter would be a much better motivator to keep us exercising.
If we are certain that our habits have the right trajectory, we just need to stay the course and the results will eventually show itself. I hope that this sets the pace of our expectations for the habits that we seek to cultivate.
Speaking of which, how do we cultivate good habits?
How Does Habits Forms?
Doesn’t matter if you’re Bill Gates or just Bill Cosby, everybody only has 24 hours in a day, 365 days in a year—a finite amount of years and energy within their life. To pursue every single opportunity that comes our way, no matter how attractive, is virtually impossible.
If we want to live life to the fullest, the best strategy is to be relentlessly efficient.
In fact, this notion has been so deeply embedded into our brain, whenever we want to do anything at all, we would subconsciously weigh the effort required to its potential reward. If it’s worth it, we commit resources into the pursuit. If it’s not, we move on. We are always on the hunt for the easiest thing to do that will add the most value in our lives.
When we finally find something that is worth doing, we would do it again, and again, and again until the actions become autonomous. Or maybe I should say, it becomes a habit.
Habits formation always, always follow the same pattern.
James took this general idea of habit formation and segmented them brilliantly into 4 definitive steps, namely (i) cue, (ii) craving, (iii) response, and (iv) reward.
First, there is the cue.
This is the trigger signal that hints to us that there is a possible reward nearby.
Our neanderthal ancestors are primed to pay attention to cues that signaled potential rewards like food, water, and shelter. They needed to know a trail of chicken footprint signifies a scrumptious feast, and the sound of a waterfall indicates a reservoir of drinkable water.
Just like our predecessors, our sensory nervous system has learned to associate cues to expected rewards.
When we see a phone, our brain subconsciously thinks of the good ol’ times when we saw funny cat videos on social media. The presence of a mobile phone (a cue), despite being in silent mode, is always fighting for our attention, trying to seduce us with entertainment.
“Bzz…Bzz! Hey beautiful, over here… by the charger port! I got some really funny cat videos that I want to show you. 5 minutes won’t hurt!”
And naturally, we start to crave.
Craving is about wanting the reward. It’s the motivational force behind every actions that we take.
Everything in our surroundings are constantly giving out cues and every cue invokes a certain level of craving within us. When bombarded with these never-ending streams of cravings, our brain needs to weigh the pros and cons to selectively, and subconsciously disregard the cues that are not worth doing.
The more intense our cravings, the more likely we are going to take action.
The author also shares about how cravings are personalised. Everyone’s craving-meters are calibrated differently based on their own beliefs, emotions, past experiences, and feelings.
For many, dining in at a local fast food restaurant can mean quality family time and an indulging treat. But for a hardcore gym enthusiast, the very same McChicken is a fat-fueled caloric bomb that is symbolic of a poisonous meal meant for the weak-hearted men who lacks discipline. To them, the mere sight of a processed cheese hamburger can and should warrant a full-blown lecture about our life choices.
The point is… craving is personal. Our own interpretation helps us decide what we want to do with the cue. In other words, the cue decides our response.
Response is the action we take. It is the cooking of our lunch, the physical act of lifting weights, or the motion of flipping the pages to read a book. Just about any kind of activity that we perform to inch closer to the reward.
The response we choose has to be confined within the realm of our capability. It’s possible that I may have a burning desire to impress my dream girl with a one-handstand while simultaneously juggling 3 sharp knives. But if I’m not physically capable of doing that, it’s not happening.
Reward is the ultimate end goal of everything we do. It is the reason why we even bother getting off the lazy couch in the first place – because we want to fulfill our survival necessities or satisfy our wants.
If we look at the preceding steps of our habit formation loop again, the cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. Everything we do is because of the reward.
Reward also reinforces our behavior.
Reminiscent of Pavlov’s conditioning theory of learning, or better known as the way we train our dogs, we treat ourselves to a sense of immediate satisfaction and relief when we satisfy our cravings. Notice the similarities? Whenever we fulfill our craving with a hot cup of coffee, finish an entire series of korean drama, or maybe even sex, we get a rush of feel-good moment that makes us want to do it again, and again, and again.
All the rules mentioned in this book so far gets us to take action this particular time, but by making it rewarding, it makes us want to do it the next time as well. When the reward is far greater than the effort required, we remember all the details that led us there in the first place, i.e the cue, craving, response, so that we will be ready to pounce again should the same opportunity arise.
Do it enough times, and it turns into a habit.
Reward completes the feedback loop of habit formation. It reinforces our association with the cue and then circles back to the never ending cycle of cue, craving, response, and reinforcement.
Let’s see how the feedback loop works in action.
|You notice the potato chips by the cashier when queueing at the cinema.||You start to crave for potato chips.||You buy the potato chips and eat it when watching a movie.||You satisfy your craving. You start to identify going to the cinema with potato chips.|
|You feel sleepy at work.||You want to stay awake.||You make yourself a cup of coffee.||You don’t feel the sleepiness anymore. So whenever you feel sleepy, you want coffee.|
|You have your gaming console in your bedroom.||You yearn for some form of entertainment.||You play games before you sleep.||You feel entertained, but you start to associate your bed time with video games.|
The Four Laws of Behavior Change
The feedback loop of habit formation tells a story of a domino effect. A cue sets off a chain reaction of craving, response, and ultimately, reward. In that order.
What happens if we take away one of the domino pieces? Or if we move a piece into or out of the way of other falling pieces?
Well, our habit stops.
We want to line up the domino pieces just right so that the momentum never stops. The author calls this the “Four Laws of Behavior Change”.
These four laws are the different ways in which we can tinker with the working mechanics of our feedback loop to either strengthen or weaken the different influencing forces of habit formation. By doing that, we can increase our odds of successfully cultivating desirable habits, and break bad ones.
Making it Obvious
All habits start with a cue. The cue signals us into action, and with repetitions, it becomes a habit. If there is no cue, then there will be no habit. So if we are trying to make changes to our habit, our job is to make cues that lead to favorable habits as obvious as a purple elephant in the room, and hide cues that encourage bad habits.
If you want to read more, take a book out of your cupboard and place it next to your bed.
If junk food is your weakness, hide the goddamn potato chips.
The point is… People who seem to have great self control, are more often than not, NOT trying to fight their own thoughts, but their surroundings just never give out cues that put them in undesirable situations.
Instead of relying on our will to resist temptations, we should consciously design an environment where motivation is not required.
James got really creative with how he is redesigning his surroundings. He even toyed with the idea of turning an existing habit into a cue. He calls this technique “Habit Stacking”.
Basically, we stack a habit that we want to cultivate on top of another existing habit. As soon as we finish a habit, the end point of the first habit becomes our cue for another habit. The beauty of this is that we can lend some of the strength and autonomy of our existing habit to the new behavior, helping to reinforce the unfamiliar routine until they themselves become a norm.
I happen to be able to testify to the effectiveness of this strategy!
It’s a shame to admit that a grown man like me didn’t always have the habit of brushing my teeth before I go to bed. If I had a really long day at work, I’ll usually find my exhausted body gravitates towards the bed with no intent to brush my teeth. “I’m gonna brush my teeth in the morning anyway” is the excuse I tell myself.
I have been meaning to change that so when I found out about habit stacking, I thought I’d try it.
The plan was simple. I would stack my new habit of brushing teeth with something that I have to do, and in this case, shower. After taking a shower, I force myself to march right over to my toothbrush and then brush my teeth.
To be honest, it took me a fair share of conscious effort to get the habit going. But after some time, I would sometimes catch myself thinking “hey, I didn’t brush my teeth,” as I walk out of the bathroom. It’s subtle, but the awareness gave me a chance to make a decision. Do I want to break the brushing streak? More often than not, I’ll make the right decision. I suppose that’s a good sign that the habit is slowly creeping into my brain.
I’ve always slept with a fresh mouth ever since. Thanks, James.
Make it Attractive
After we notice the cue, it makes us feel a certain level of craving. This is our source of motivation that will spring us either into action or inaction. So depending on what we are trying to achieve, we can take control of our motivation by adjusting the attractiveness of our craving.
For desirable habits, we want to make sure the thought of doing it excites us. When it’s a habit that we don’t want, we need to weaken its temptation.
To read more, join a book club. You’ll get to share your interests with people who genuinely care, enriching your social life.
To play less video games, buy a slow laptop that is only fast enough to support your work. I don’t think you’ll ever play any games if your computer freezes everytime you enter a dungeon.
Much to my delight, James also happens to have a “hot tip” on how we can make our habits more attractive — “Temptation Bundling”.
The idea is to take something that we need to do, but don’t feel like doing, and then bundle it with something that we love to do. By carefully balancing our want and need, we can make even the most mundane task more fun by combining it with an enjoyable task.
“After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].”
“If I wake up on time tomorrow, I will treat myself to a cup of Starbucks coffee.”
A word of caution.
The two habits that we bundle together should complement one another to further our overarching goal, not to be counterproductive. We can’t go to the gym and then reward ourselves with a bag of chips.
Try this instead. For every minute of workout that we do, we get to watch Netflix for the same amount of time later in the evening. This way, we’ll be incentivized to get the exercise we need, and by the time our body is sore in the evening, we get to snug into our blanket and enjoy a good episode of The Big Bang Theory.
Play around with the variations, see what floats your boat.
Make it Easy
I don’t like trouble! Nobody does and I have the perfect excuse.
From an evolutionary standpoint, back when food was scarce, it’s in the best interest of our ancestors to conserve as much energy as they can so they won’t be too exhausted to fend off predators. Although we enjoy an abundance of food now, our innate inclination to the path of least resistance lingers on.
Take a look at our lives right now. Most of the things we do demand little to no action, like watching television, scrolling through social media, etc. These actions are so easy that we do it often enough that it becomes a habit without us realizing it.
But that doesn’t mean we are not capable of doing tough things. If we are motivated enough in the moment, anyone can achieve impressive feats. The problem is doing it consistently. When we struggle to do things that we don’t want to do, having to always seize control of our willpower can become exhausting to the point where we just want to give up. I have yet to see someone who can consistently force themselves to do something they hate for long periods of time.
The trick here, according to James, is to make it easy. Break the habit down into smaller chunks of actionable steps that we can complete within 2 minutes. Instead of studying for 30 minutes, read one page. Instead of going to the gym, I could just pack my workout clothes and put it in my car every morning.
He calls this the “Gateway Habit”.
Yes, just showing up at the gym and not doing anything probably won’t get us our dream summer body. But the main goal of Gateway Habit is to get us to take the first step. By internalizing the small steps that are a precursor to the habit we are trying to build, we are gradually removing the friction associated with the habit. When it’s so easy, we have no excuse to skip it.
Of course we don’t have to limit ourselves to read just one page everyday. When our current routine starts to become easy or automatic, we can start thinking about taking it up a notch so that we can reap the benefit of our habits faster. From reading 1 page a day, it becomes 2, then 4, into 8 and so on and so forth.
Besides helping us get started, Gateway Habit is also a great way to help us build our identity. Every time we do something, we are making a statement of who we want to become. If we go to the gym, it signifies that we are an individual who cares about our health. If we read, it means that we are someone who values growth.
James thinks of it as a vote of identity. Whenever we do something, we are putting our vote of identity into a poll box. When we put enough votes into the box and it becomes the majority, whatever that we voted for becomes our core identity. It can work for, or against us.
So when we are just starting out, it shouldn’t be so much about the results or pushing ourselves to the limit, but more about showing up for the occasion and becoming the person we want to become.
Everytime we show up at the gym, we are convincing our inner voices that we are the kind of person who never misses a workout session. Doesn’t matter if it’s just a 10 minutes exercise, we want to internalize that mental narrative.
The next time when we are on the fence about skipping gym, our subconscious mind will remind us that we are not someone who misses a workout session. As a result, it will help tip the decision making into our favor.
Make it Rewarding
I like to think of reward as the carrot and stick that keeps the habit going.
We always want the carrot to be big enough, and the stick close enough to entice ourselves to keep doing the things that we hope we would be doing. If the reward is more attractive, we will be more likely to follow through.
You’ve probably experienced this first hand through the use of toothpaste, or more specifically, their flavoring. As you stand on the aisle of a hypermarket, you will find dozens upon dozens of different flavors for the exact same brand of toothpaste.
From a hygiene standpoint, the mint flavor doesn’t make your mouth any cleaner than the orange flavor or the strawberry flavor. But hey, the mint flavoring encourages me to pick up the toothbrush because I like the satisfying feeling of a minty fresh breath. Swap it with a diabetic sweet orange flavor and I’d probably think twice the next time around.
When we want to cultivate any habit, we should try our best to make the existing rewards even more appealing than it needs to be. If we want to get rid of the habit, then make it less rewarding.
The second part of the equation… is the stick.
We should also pay attention to the stick that we are using to hang our carrot. We want the carrot to be dangling right in our faces, not too far or too close. The reward needs to be obvious and achievable to create that motivation.
So often, we find rewards that are delayed, or aren’t clear enough. When we neither see nor feel the benefits immediately, we start to question whether the carrot even existed at all. This is especially important in scenarios where we want to avoid doing something.
Consider William, a smoker who’s trying to quit smoking.
Every time he lights up a cigarette, he is rewarded with an immediate sense of relief from the nicotine and perhaps a sense of belonging to his social circle where everybody smokes. For just less than RM 1 per cig, I’d say that is a pretty good bargain. The reward is so attractive and it makes it really easy to get addicted.
But William is not oblivious to the fact that smoking is not healthy, so he decides to quit. To quit smoking, all he needs to do is to not light up any cigarettes. A victory is literally just inaction. He needs to do… nothing.
But when he stops himself from taking a puff, he is rewarded with… nothing. Sure, at the back of his mind, he may know that his lungs are getting healthier, but he neither sees nor feels the progress. When there is nothing tangible for show, it strips away his ability to appreciate the reward for what it is. In the present moment, not smoking feels more like a punishment because instead of feeling relieved, now Mr.Quit Smoking needs to fight his nicotine withdrawal.
The author emphasizes the importance of making “doing nothing” enjoyable. When avoiding a bad habit, we should design a way to help us see the benefits, ideally something that is immediate and tangible. Something to tell us that we’ve won.
Let’s assume that William has been smoking 3 cigarettes on average everyday. For every day that he doesn’t smoke, he can transfer the equivalent amount of cigarette money that he’s saved into a savings account. At the end of the year, he can take out this money and spend it however he likes without feeling guilty. Heck, he might even feel proud because he knows damn well he earned it.
This is his victory token. Not only that it help him track his progress, it also provides him with a reward that he can feel, touch, and enjoy. He no longer has to tell himself that his lungs are getting better anymore. Instead, he just knows it is because right now, he has something quantifiable to show for.
By finishing strong with a solid reward system, we’re setting ourselves up to want to repeat the action. Do it multiple times, and we got ourselves a habit.
Just My 2 Cents
This book is one dense mother*beep beep*, and you can probably tell from the amount of words in this article. It is imbued with so much more powerful concepts that I didn’t even get the chance to talk about. There’s the three layers of behavioral change, Goldilocks Rule, Plateau of Latent Potential, just to name a few.
Seriously, this book is helpful, fun to read, actionable and I just can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s one of the books that I highly recommend to people who want to deepen their understanding of habits, and figure out a way to cultivate sticky habits without giving up too much of their “me time”. After all, Atomic Habits are about making a big impact, with small effort.
If you’re interested in getting the book for yourself, feel free to use my affiliate link. This way, I’ll get make a small commission from the affiliate website but at no extra cost to you. If you’re from Malaysia, I recommend using…
- The Book Depository [affiliate link] for normal books
- Audible UK [affiliate link], or Audible US [affiliate link] for audio books.
Until then, keep hustling!