Atomic Habits: James Clears Guide to Improve Your Life with Micro Habits

Cory Mazure | 31 Dec, 2021

Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results 

Love it or hate it, most of your day-to-day life is composed of habits that you have developed over the course of your life. The question is, are you composed of mostly good or bad habits? In order for us to correct our bad habits, we must first understand what a habit is. A habit is a behavior or minor action that has been repeated so many times, it becomes automatic. There is quite a bit of debate within the literature, but experts mostly agree that anywhere from 40-95% of your behaviors are because of habits you have formed. In essence, you are what you repeatedly do. Throughout this article, we will discuss my biggest takeaways from the book, “Atomic Habits” and how the author teaches us to make changes at the micro-level that will lead to macro changes in the long run. 

A Lesson in Compounding Interest

If you have ever invested in the stock market, you have most definitely heard of the term compounding interest. Instead of applying this to money, let’s apply it to our potential self-improvement efforts. Looking at the graphic below, even small adjustments lead to big results as a 1% increase each day makes you 37 times better over the course of a year. 

As you can see it does not take much on a daily basis to make a significant change over time, the key here though is to be consistent. You have to show up every day and make your small efforts to receive these great gains in the long run.

Buying into Delayed Gratification 

Great things come to those who wait. In the book, James Clear refers to the concept of “Plateau of Latent Potential” which describes the difference in time between what you think should happen, and what actually happens. 

As you can see in this graphic, much of the time spent working on a skill is spent within “the valley of disappointment” as your results do not live up to your expectations. You are still getting your compounding interest in this stage, but the progress is slower than you initially expected. It is important to remember this graphic and stay optimistic that your hard work will pay off as the results compound over time and will exceed your expectations if done consistently. James uses this term to let the reader know that when building a good habit, the reward will not come until later and you need to stick with it in the beginning until you see the results. Setting your future self up for success and understanding delayed gratification is crucial during the habit-building process.

4 Stages of Habit Formation

Before we can start breaking our bad habits and creating good habits, we must first understand the components of habits. As James Clear described in his book, there are 4 stages to habit formation. I will first explain the steps then give an example. 

The first stage is “The Cue” which indicted something that triggers your desire to fulfill a habit.  You are no longer occupied with the task at hand. This leads into stage two, “The Craving,” which is the feeling of wanting to pursue the habit. Stage three is, “The Response,” which is simply put as the habit. After executing the habit there is stage four, “The Reward,” which is how the habit makes you feel. 

In order to tie it all together, let’s walk through an example of the bad habit of going on a social media platform like Snapchat. The cue for going on Snapchat can be something like the feeling of boredom. If you are working on an essay or are uninterested in class, you will have a craving to pursue something that gives you a good reward.  Your response to the craving will be to use Snapchat as it is something that has given you good rewards in the past in the form of dopamine spikes. 

Hopefully, that example was helpful. Can you think of habits in your current life that can fall in this model?

How to Solidify a Positive Habit Change

Now that we have an understanding of the stages of habit formation, let’s discuss the strategies that lead to positive habit changes. Each stage of habit formation can be analyzed, starting with the cue. 

The best way to incorporate a positive habit is to make the cue to do that habit extremely obvious. This can be done by putting items easily in your view, and incorporating reminders on your phone to do a task. 

After setting up the cue to be more obvious, try to make the craving more attractive. You do not want the good habit you are forming to feel like a punishment. Try to mentally convince yourself that the habit will provide benefits to your life and that it is worth doing. Here is an optimal time to relate back to the plateau of latent potential and know that this hard work will pay off. I suggest researching the benefits of the habits you are about to uptake and keeping this list somewhere in plain sight like on your fridge or near your computer. 

The next step is to make the response easy. This can be done by removing obstacles that are preventing you from doing the desired habit. Want to go on a run but your running shoes are hidden in the closet? Bring them to a more obvious and easily accessible location. Try to also set up your environment to make it easier to achieve your goal. Want to go on a run tomorrow? Set out your clothes and running shoes in an obvious position. Lower the barrier of entry when you are first incorporating a new habit. If you want to incorporate running as a habit, start with a short 5-minute run. If you make your goals easier to achieve you will achieve them more often. Once you start consistently achieving your goals, you can begin increasing the level of difficulty. 

The final step is to make the reward more satisfying. Healthy habits have their own rewards in how it makes your body feel. Running, for example, will release neurotransmitters that have been known to give people the sensation of “runners high.” To add additional rewards, utilize an activity tracker to see how far you have come over time. Another strategy for additional rewards is to share your goals with others in order to gain encouragement and positive reinforcement. 

Follow these steps and see how helpful they are for solidifying habit changes. What habits in your life do you think could most benefit from this exercise?

How to Break a Bad Habit

Another exercise, arguably as important as the last, is to help you break bad habits. It follows the same 4 steps as before, but this time for breaking a habit rather than building one.

In order to break a bad habit, you must first start off by making the cue invisible. This is effective because it increases your barrier of entry to continue your bad habit. If you are trying to recover from your holiday addiction to cookies, do not buy more of them the next time you go to the store. If you do not have cookies readily available at your house, it will be more difficult for you to continue down this bad habit.

The next step is to make the craving unattractive. This is best done through research and journaling. Once you identify a habit you are trying to break, begin researching the negative effects of continuing this habit and the positives of stopping it. After performing this research, journal on how you know your behavior is bad and how you are looking forward to eliminating this behavior so you can take advantage of the positive physical or mental effects of not doing it. This is a crucial step in the process as our brains are malleable so you can convenience yourself to stop a bad habit by framing the habit appropriately in your mind.

The response is the next beast to tackle, and this is best done by making it difficult to execute your habit. You want to increase the difficulty to continue your habit by not buying the snack you are trying to quit or giving your phone to your roommate when you are trying to study. If you make it more difficult to continue your bad habit, over time you will stop doing the said habit.

Finally, you are tasked with making the reward unsatisfying. If you did the craving research and journaling exercise properly, this step should be easier. Keep your research and journaling exercise in the back of your mind when you do break your habit so that it does not give you the satisfaction it once did. 

Remember, no one is perfect, If you find that you went through the above steps and still going back to your bad habit, look on the bright side of how you are doing this habit less than you were before and that you are taking steps in the right direction. I find it is best to share with others the habits I am trying to break so that I have accountability buddies and a support system to encourage me to continue with my good intentions. It is important to redo these steps often if your previous attempts did not lead to success. This will help bulletproof your plan to beat your bad habit and in certain circumstances getting professional help might be required to break really bad habits.  

4 Stages of Behavior Change Matrix

For a quick guide on implementing these behavior changes, look back upon this matrix.

Most Effective Way of Changing a Habit

Now that we have learned what makes up a habit and how to solidify a habit change, let’s go over the mentality change that is a necessity to change an existing habit. The change that needs to be made is within our identity. You must identify as someone who does the habit you desire. Your goal is not to read a book, but to become someone who reads books. Embrace the identity of the habits you want to incorporate and make the daily changes required in order to become that person. Embrace yourself in communities that echo the values of the habits you want to incorporate. If you want to become a runner. join a local running Facebook group. This mindset shift is crucial to executing your beneficial habits. What do you want to redefine yourself as? 

Plan of Action

Hopefully, this book summary has helped you better understand habits and gave you the ability to make powerful changes in your life. I recommend referring back to the 4 stages of behavior changes often as you try to add good habits and break bad ones.  If you are interested in learning more about this subject, I highly encourage that you take a trip to James Clear website where you can download the first chapter for free. If you are interested in purchasing the book, you can do so on Amazon here.

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