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Atomic Habits – Four Laws of Behavior Change

If you think about it, a lot of our lives and who we are is shaped by our habits. Small actions that we consistently perform day in day out. How would your life be better if you had better habits? (Whatever “better” means for you in your life.)

I have finally, finally read “Atomic Habits – Tiny changes, remarkable results” by James Clear and planned out “who I want to be in 2024 and the habits that will support this” with it.

Before reading the book, I had already watched some of Clear’s talks and what he said about “always striving for 1% better” really matched with my experiences with retrospectives: Small changes and many of them add up to big changes – with compound interest.

I wasn’t sure what else the book would be able add. Now I can say: A LOT. It gives very concrete, very actionable advice on how to establish new habits and break old ones. (Hence me using it to plan 2024.)

Because the book contains so much brilliance, I’ve summarized the Four Laws of Behavior Change in a 3-pager (couldn’t fit on 1 page, sorry). Not sure how useful it is without having read the book, but it should work great as a reminder.

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Content of 1-Pager:

Atomic Habits

How to establish new habits with the Four Laws of Behavior Change by James Clear

Habits preserve your brain’s energy by doing things on autopilot. If you want a better life, set up your systems and environment to support good habits. Habits are likelier to stick if they reinforce your identity. If you think of yourself as someone who’s not into sports, it will be very hard to establish a gym habit. Figure out who you want to become, then build habits that reinforce that identity.

1) CUE – Make it obvious

    List your current habits to become aware of them. Which of them contribute to the life you want?
    Many people think they lack motivation, when what they really need is clarity. Specify:”I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]”
    It’s easier to establish a new habit by making an existing habit (or outside event) its trigger:
    “After [CURRENT HABIT] I will [NEW HABIT]”
    You can create entire chains of habits.
    Our environment provides many cues. What you see can make a big difference in what you do. Make the best choice the most obvious and available one.
    One space (or device) -> one use. Over time the entire context becomes the cue that triggers your habit. Habits can be easier to change in new environments.

2) CRAVING – Make it attractive

Dopamine makes you want stuff and take action. Anticipating a reward releases more dopamine that actually receiving the reward.

    Combine things you need to do with things you want to do. The probable behavior reinforces the less likely one.
    Social norms are the invisible rules that guide our behavior. They are incredibly strong. We would rather be wrong with the crowd than right by ourselves. Therefore, join a culture where your desired behavior is the norm.
    Do something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit. That way you create a ritual to trigger the habit.

Habits are easier when they align with what you like and are good at. Find an environment that favors you. Of every habit, there’s a version that suits you. Find it!

3) RESPONSE – Make it easy

Motion (preparing to get something done) is different from action (actually doing). Motion cannot produce an outcome by itself. You need to repeat a new behavior often enough for it to become a habit. Set up your systems so that you get the reps in even on bad days. (In a way, habits are obstacles to what we really want, the outcome.)

    Decrease the steps between you and your good habits. Plan habits to fit into your existing life.
    Prepare everything so that good habits are the easiest thing to do (path of least resistance).
    Habits are the entry points, not end points of a behavior. Every day there are some key decisions that have an big impact on the rest of the day like a fork in the road. Master these moments.
    We often make the mistake of starting new habits too big. Instead, break them down to something you can do in two minutes. Make it as easy as possible to start and build from there, like a “gateway habit”. Use inertia to your advantage: It’s often easier to keep doing what we’re doing than to switch to something else.
    Master the habit of showing up. Each time you do you reinforce the identity you are trying to build.
    First establish, then build it out from there. The first two minutes become the ritual at the beginning of a larger routine.
    Some one time decisions pay off again and again. Set up your home and digital things to serve you.

Create an environment of inevitability where good habits are not an outcome you hope for, but one that’s virtually guaranteed.

4) REWARD – Make it satisfying

Time Inconsistency means that we value the present more than the future. Unfortunately, the costs of good habits are due now, the costs of bad habits are in the future. We make plans for future-us that then-present-us has to actually implement.
The first three laws increase the odds that a behavior will be performed this time. This law increases the odds it will be performed next time.

    We are more likely to repeat a behavior that is immediately satisfying, especially if the imme-diate pay off comes at the end of the behavior.
    If your desired habit is avoiding something, find a way to make the “not having done it” visible.
    The reward mustn’t contradict the new identity. Incentives can start a habit, identities sustain them.
    Make progress visible! The mere action of tracking can spark the desire to change. Progress is very motivating and tracking can become a reward. For best results track automatically or directly after performing the habit.
    “After [CURRENT HABIT] I will [TRACK HABIT].”
    Build a continuous chain of performing the habit.
    Emergencies happen but never break the chain twice – bounce back and reclaim the habit. Just because you can’t do it perfectly, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it at all. Lost days will hurt you more than very successful days help. Maintain the compound interest! Affirm the identity even on bad days.

How to break bad habits

The inverted Laws of Behavior Change

1) CUE – Make it invisible

We can break habits but we are unlikely to forget them. People with great self-control are better at structuring their lives in ways that require less will power to begin with.

    Hide cues for bad behavior. Fewer cues mean fewer temptations and less will power needed to resist.

2) CRAVING – Make it unattractive

    Highlight the benefits of avoiding a bad behavior.

3) RESPONSE – Make it difficult

    Make bad habits hard. Increase the number of steps between you and a bad habit so that it becomes impractical.
    Use your good intentions to take a choice now that limits your future choices to ones that benefit you. It needs to take more effort to get out of the good habit than to just see it through.

4) REWARD – Make it unsatisfying

We repeat bad habits because they serve us in some way. Make bad behavior imme-
diately painful. There can be no delay between the habit and the punishment.

    Add an immediate social cost for not doing the habit by partnering with someone.
    You can formalize your intentions and consequences of failing with a contract. Don’t forget to sign.


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