ecently I was listening to Scott Barry Kaufman’s Psychology Podcast, which I highly recommend. Scott was speaking with James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, about the way we achieve growth in our personal and professional lives. Many of us see goal setting as the best approach to achievement, but Clear sees it differently. In his view, habits are the foundation of growth and change, in large part because they help us form our identity: “Every action you take is like a vote for the type of person you want to become.”
Here are some of Clear’s fantastic recommendations for building good habits and breaking bad ones:
1. Make it about your identity
Usually, we think of achieving our goals in terms of outcomes which will eventually reshape our identity, but Clear recommends inverting the process: tell yourself you are “the type of person” who does the action, and the outcomes will naturally fall into place.
For example, if you ask yourself, “Who’s the type of person who loses weight? Maybe it’s the person who doesn’t miss workouts,” then you are focusing on identity rather than outcomes. Tell yourself “I’m a writer” rather than “I want my blog to be full of content” and it will be easier to write even one short post each day because you are bridging the gap between your current self and some future, goal-achieving self. You become more likely to stick to those goals because you’ve conceptualized them as part of your identity.
“Then the process falls into place because you try to create and reinforce that identity,” Clear explains. “Habits reinforce the identity, which leads to the outcome in the long run… Even if it’s five pushups or a short run, you are still the type of person who does it.”
For better or worse, your habits are an embodiment of the person you are or want to become. Every time you write, you embody the identity of a writer. Every time you work out, you embody the type of person who is in good shape. “Every action you take is like a vote for the type of person you want to become.”
Clear says these small things—writing one line or doing five pushups—may seem insignificant because they don’t help us generate the results we want, but they can reinforce the identity of who you want to become, which is very powerful and feeds your motivation to keep up the habit better than focusing on the outcome itself.
“Identity change is true behaviour change,” Clear says, “because once you identify as that kind of person, you’re no longer even looking to achieve some kind of behavior change; you’re just acting in alignment with who you already think that you are. It’s one thing to say I want this; it’s another thing to say I am this.”
2. Create an optimal environment for your personality to facilitate good habits
Considering the influence of genes/personality on habits, Clear says: “The utility of your genes is often determined by the environment you’re in, and this is true for physical characteristics as well as psychological ones.” In that light, he poses an interesting question: Can you set up an environment for yourself that favors you [genetically] and makes it easier to build better habits?
Maybe you have the type of personality that makes it easy for you to get sucked into watching too much Netflix, and you’d like to change this habit. If you know this about yourself, don’t just try to change your behavior as though “getting sucked in” is some internal flip you can switch off; change your environment so that you’re not so tempted.
One example is the way we often set up living rooms—to face the TV—which feeds our tendency to watch a lot of TV. Clear recommends rearranging the furniture to promote different habits rather than simply telling yourself “I’m not going to watch as much TV.”
Another example is keeping your home tidy if tidiness doesn’t come naturally to you: “If you’re low in conscientiousness,” he says, “and not the type of person who is orderly and organized and not the type of person who would remember to do something, maybe your strategy could benefit from a more optimized environment, like a physical environment, that has more cues in it to prompt you and remind you to perform a habit rather than just leaving it up to being orderly.”
The point is to make personality informative for strategy, and to recognize that your potential for growth and change doesn’t stop at the end of your genetic code.
“Genes do not eliminate the need for hard work; they show you what to work hard on. They do not eliminate the need for strategy. You don’t just say, Oh there’s biological determinism, no need to worry about this, it’s all fixed anyway. They tell you, based on your characteristics, where your strategy should be focused.”
3. Consider the compounding effect of good (and bad) habits
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement,” Clear says.
The compound interest can be positive or negative, depending on whether your habits promote or inhibit your self-improvement. Whether you want to learn a new language, build a business, brush up on world history, or what have you—it’s all about having faith in the potential of those little steps along the way.
“It’s very easy to dismiss those small daily habits, but five or ten years down the road, we see how much value or cost was in those choices that were one percent better or one percent worse.”
4. Choose the best solution to the problem
“Habits are the solutions that your brain automates to repeated problems you face throughout life,” Clear says. “The more that you face the same problem, the more your brain starts to develop fluency and speed and accuracy with coming up with a solution for it.”
When you get home from a long day at work, your brain tells you to do something that will help you relax. There are countless ways to respond to this need, from calling a friend to smoking a cigarette to reading in the bathtub. All are solutions to the same recurring problem, and some are healthier than others.
“You brain is just looking for an effective solution in the moment; it doesn’t mean that the original solution you came up with, the original habit you built, is necessarily the optimal habit.”
Clear describes the mind as a “suggestion engine,” churning out ideas for how to solve the problem at hand, and it’s those solutions that develop into habits. Which means we actually have a lot of power over our actions—more than we might think.
“Habits are just your brain’s best attempt to find a solution to the problems you face. Once you realize this, you can start thinking about which habits are better ones which will serve you more in the long run but also solve challenges you face on daily basis.”
5. See distractions for what they are
Many of our habits are a response to what is obvious, convenient, or what Clear calls “frictionless.”
Clear gives example of how we are distracted by our phones only when they are within reach. Citing his own experience, he says that if he keeps his phone in a different room up the stairs from his home office, he no longer thinks about it and instead focuses on his work. Doesn’t that mean that he doesn’t really want to check it, and only checks it because it happens to be handy? In that sense, Clear calls digital devices “mental candy” in our environment that only distract us superficially, possibly because our brains just like immediate gratification, in any form.
Keeping this in mind makes it much easier to not let these distractions have power over us. We don’t really need to know right now if someone messaged us; the impulse to know only exists because it’s convenient to satisfy the urge. Sort of like how people become more attractive to us when they enter our social circle, because proximity and convenience appear to increase the chances of a relationship.
“Technology has created a lot of habits like that: they’re so frictionless and convenient that we find ourselves falling into them whenever we have a down moment or whenever we’re bored for a fraction of a second, but we don’t want them in some deeper sense.” He never wants his phone enough to climb the stairs from his home office for 45 seconds and go into a different room. “So when you remove those distractions, you slide back into the work that is deeper and more meaningful to you. It’s not that I didn’t want to write an article today; it’s just that my phone was right there.”
When you remove that mental candy, he says, it’s easier to eat the healthy stuff.
6. Incorporate the laws of behaviour change
In his book, Clear introduces four laws of behaviour change which dictate how good habits should form:
1) make it obvious (cues in the environment);
2) make it attractive;
3) make it easy;
4) make it satisfying.
Interestingly, if you want to avoid something or break a bad habit, just reverse the same habits for that thing:
1) make it non-obvious (remove cues);
2) make it unattractive;
3) make it difficult; and
4) make it unsatisfying.
So, if you want to have a healthier diet,
1) fill your fridge with healthy foods and your kitchen shelves with healthy cookbooks;
2) read up on the health benefits of your new diet or start a health food blog;
3) start out with a food ingredient delivery service like Sun Kitchen to help make the cooking process easier;
4) keep a journal and track the way your body feels after improving your diet.
At the same time,
1) remove junk food from your kitchen;
2) read up on the negative effects of junk food on your health;
3) redirect your budget for sweets to better quality ingredients for healthy meals;
4) keep a journal and track the way your body feels after eating junk food.
7. Put systems ahead of goals
What’s the purpose of goals? They’re useful for clarity and direction, but when it comes to the process of making change, it’s systems that reign supreme.
Clear makes a brilliant point: “Achieving a goal only changes our life for a moment.” Only if the goal achievement was supported by a system of habits that will continue to allow us to achieve similar goals rather than plunge us back into the unaccomplished state we were in before—only then will we have made true change.
Managing to clean your whole house is great, but unless you create a system to keep it clean on a regular basis, you’ll only achieve the goal once in a while.
We live in a results-oriented society, but Clear thinks goals deserve less of our attention than habits. “The action of setting a goal doesn’t guarantee anything… almost immediately you should put goals on shelf and focus on systems.”
Build the system and the outcomes will naturally fall into place.
8. Create unique contexts for developing different habits
“Habits are all about associations,” Clear says. “They’re about the solution you associate with a certain problem or context.” So, if you want to create a new habit and make it stick, it’s best to create a new context along with it.
If you want to read more, for instance, don’t do it on the couch where you normally watch TV. Do it in a special “reading chair” or go to a café you designate as your reading café. It’s best if you can build the new habit in a place you don’t already have behavioral associations with.
Clear’s thoughts on goals and habits can be applied to learning and education in a variety of contexts. Whether we’re studying for a test, learning a new language, or mastering a new skill, thinking of achievement in terms of habits rather than outcomes can be hugely beneficial. If you’d like to learn more about Clear’s work, check out his website or order his book here: https://www.jamesclear.com/.