Habits are the invisible foundation that underline everything you’ll ever do, experience or achieve.
Any effort for self-improvement needs to start by looking at what you actually do every day. If a goal doesn’t cause you to change your habits, then there’s not much point of actually setting one.
Although there’s been many books and guides written about creating habits (including my own), I want to recommend a particularly good one: Atomic Habits, by James Clear.
James Clear, if you haven’t already subscribed to his newsletter, is one of the few writers who is both smart without being difficult to read. This book compresses down a huge swath of research, stories and insights into a four-step process for thinking about changing your behaviors.
A Habit-Driven Approach to Success
The title of Clear’s book refers to a different philosophy towards success. Rather than basing success on grand ambitions or overwhelming efforts, he sees it as being cultivated from thousands of small, atomic habits.
This is a view I’m sympathetic towards. For starters, it’s a lot more approachable than one which relies on extreme intensity. Not everyone can finish heroically difficult projects. Everyone can make simple changes to the habits that run their lives.
Second, despite the approachability, major changes are possible by slowly replacing the atomic building blocks of your behaviors. Change a dozen or so major habits—eat healthier, exercise more, wake up early, read every day, meditate, stop procrastinating, etc. and it’s not just that you become more effective, you become a different person.
This latter view, of changing one’s fundamental identity (“I’m the kind of person who eats healthy.”) rather than simply changing a behavior is a big part of Clear’s approach.
We all feel the weight of the person we are, that sometimes we’d like to change. Although we’re not infinitely flexible, investing in the process of changing habits can give you the freedom to become a lot closer to the person you’d like to be.
I experienced a similar kind of transformation the first time I seriously studied habit-changing, as I wrote about here.
Clear’s Four Laws of Behavior Change
Clear organizes his habit-changing framework into four “laws” of behavior change. They are:
- Make it Obvious.
- Make it Attractive.
- Make it Easy.
- Make it Satisfying.
Behind each of these laws is a surprising depth of psychological insight. For instance, for many casual observers #2 and #4 would seem to say the same thing. Except Clear highlights how our nervous system is wired up to experience “wanting” and “liking” differently, so something can cause cravings and not be too enjoyable, or be pleasurable but not as tempting.
Making habit changes work often depends on understanding subtle distinctions like these. Since many of these little adjustments are happening below our conscious awareness, there’s a lot of improvement that can be gained by just making yourself aware of it explicitly.
Beneath these broad laws, there are many smaller examples and tactical suggestions. Even as someone who was familiar with this topic, and have read a lot of the research being cited, I was pleased to find some suggestions I’d like to transfer to my own life. Clear’s idea of a cleaning habit based on “cleaning rooms as you exit them” is an interesting approach to handling larger habits which require ongoing work.
What’s more interesting to me, than which suggestions Clear imparts, are those he leaves out. While some of this is likely due to space constraints, I thought it was interesting that Clear avoids any recommendations based on setting a habit for a certain length of time (21, 30 or 60 days are all popular benchmarks).
I believe this omission is intentional, as Clear’s focus is on establishing semi-permanent, long-term habits, rather than aiming for a quick transformation. Frequency of habit, rather than duration, is his preferred benchmark for getting to automaticity.
Read Atomic Habits
Judging by the enormous success of his newsletter, I doubt Clear’s book will need much help from me in promoting it. However, in our time as friends and in reading his work, I’ve been pleased with how Clear tackles topics with nuance without overcomplicating things.
Atomic Habits is a great book for anyone who is starting their path to making behavior changes. Even if you’ve already been working on habits for years, the book is a good refresher course in what matters, and can help you reaffirm your commitment to building up the behaviors that run your life, one habit at a time.
Note from Scott: James Clear gave me a review copy early, however I’ve also purchased my own hardcover copy personally.