Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years. We all deal with setbacks but in the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. With the same habits, you’ll end up with the same results. But with better habits, anything is possible.
Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference
Improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable — sometimes it isn’t even noticeable — but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.
Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. Success is the product of daily habits — not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.
In order to make a meaningful difference, habits need to persist long enough to break through this plateau — what I call the Plateau of Latent Potential.
Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.
A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing you systems: winners and losers have the same goal; achieving a goal is only a momentary change; goals restrict your happiness; goals are at odds with long term progress.
Changing our habits is challenging for two reasons: (1) we try to change the wrong thing and (2) we try to change our habits in the wrong way.
Three layers of behavior change:
Many people begin process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.
The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it.
True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.
Good habits can make rational sense, but if they conflict with your identity, you will fail to put them into action.
New identities require new evidence. If you keep casting the same votes you’ve always cast, you’re going to get the same results you’ve always had. If nothing changes, nothing is going to change. It is a simple two-step process:
- Decide the type of person you want to be.
- Prove it to yourself with small wins.
The focus should always be on becoming that type of person, not getting a particular outcome.
The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.
The cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop that ultimately allows you to create atomic habits. This cycle is known as the habit loop.
How to Create a Good Habit
- Cue. Make it obvious.
- Craving. Make it attractive.
- Response. Make it easy.
- Reward. Make it satisfying.
How to Break a Bad Habit
- Cue. Make it invisible.
- Craving. Make it unattractive.
- Response. Make it difficult.
- Reward. Make it unsatisfying.
THE 1ST LAW
Make It Obvious
You don’t need to be aware of the cue for a habit to begin. You can notice an opportunity and take action without dedicating conscious attention to it. This is what makes habits useful. It’s also what makes them dangerous.
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
The process of behavior change always starts with awareness. Strategies like Pointing-and-Calling and the Habit Scorecard are focused on getting you to recognize your habits and acknowledge the cues that trigger them, which makes it possible to respond in a way that benefits you.
The two most common cues are time and location. Implementation intentions leverage both of these cues. The format for creating and implementation intention is: “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”
Once an implementation intention has been set, you don’t need to wait for inspiration to strike. When the moment of action occurs, there is no need to make a decision. Simply follow your predetermined plan.
One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. This is called habit stacking.
The 1st Law of Behavior Change is to make it obvious. Strategies like implementation intentions and habit stacking are among the most practical ways to create obvious cues for you habits and design a clear plan for when and where to take action.
When the cues that spark a habit are subtle or hidden, they are easy to ignore. By comparison, creating obvious visual cues can draw you attention toward a desired habit.
Making a better decision is easy and natural when the cues for good habits are right in front of you.
Whenever possible, avoid mixing the context of one habit with another. When you start mixing contexts, you’ll start mixing habits — and the easier ones will usually win out.
Individuals with tremendous self-control aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead “disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words they spend less time in tempting situations.
One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it.
Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. You may be able to resist temptation once or twice, but it’s unlikely you can muster the willpower to override you desires every time. Instead of summoning a new dose of willpower whenever you want to do the right thing, your energy would be better spent optimizing your environment. This is the secret of self-control. Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.
THE 2ND LAW
Make It Attractive
Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act.
We need to make our habits attractive because it is the expectations of a rewarding experience that motivates us to act in the first place.
Behaviors are attractive when they help us fit in. We imitate the habits of three groups in particular:
- The close.
- The many.
- The powerful.
1. Imitating the Close. One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. Nothing sustains motivation better than belonging to the tribe.
2. Imitating the Many. When changing your habits means challenging the tribe, change is unattractive. When changing your habits means fitting in with the tribe, change is very attractive.
3. Imitating the Powerful. Once we fit in, we start looking for ways to stand out. This is one reason we care so much about the habits of highly effective people. We try to copy the behavior of successful people because we desire success ourselves.
Re-framing your habits to highlight their benefits rather than their drawbacks is a fast and lightweight way to reprogram your mind and make a habit seem more attractive.
THE 3RD LAW
Make It Easy
If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. You don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it.
All habits follow a similar trajectory from effortful practice to automatic behavior, a process known as automaticity. Automaticity is the ability to perform a behavior without thinking about each step, which occurs when the nonconscious mind takes over.
You need to string together enough successful attempts until the behavior is firmly embedded in your mind and you cross the Habit Line.
The greater the obstacle — that is, the more difficult the habit — the more friction there is between you and your desired and state. This is why it is critical to make your habits so easy that you’ll do them even when you don’t feel like it.
When we remove the points of friction that sap our time and energy, we can achieve more with less effort.
The central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.
Whether we are approaching behavior change as an individual, a parent, a coach, or a leader, we should ask ourselves the same question: “How can we design a world where it’s easy to do what’s right?” Redesign your life so the actions that matter most are also the actions that are easiest to do.
Every day, there are a handful moments that deliver an outsized impact. I refer to these little choices as decisive moments. The difference between a good day and a bad day is often a few productive and healthy choices made at decisive moments. Each one is like a fork in the road, and these choices stack up throughout the day and can ultimately lead to very different outcomes.
When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do. Whenever you are struggling to stick with a habit, you can employ the Two-Minutes Rule. It’s a simple way to make your habits easy.
Sometimes success is less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard. If you find yourself continually struggling to follow through on your plans, then you can make your bad habits more difficult by creating what psychologists call a commitment device.
By utilizing commitment devices, strategic onetime decisions, and technology, you can create an environment of inevitability — a space where good habits are not just an outcome you hope for but an outcome that is virtually guaranteed.
THE 4TH LAW
Make It Satisfying
We a more likely to repeat a behavior when the experience is satisfying. Pleasure teaches your brain that a behavior is worth remembering and repeating.
The first three laws of behavior change — make it obvious, make it attractive, and make it easy — increase the odds that a behavior will be performed this time. The fourth law of behavior change — make it satisfying — increases the odds that a behavior will be repeated next time. It completes the habit loop.
Most people know that delaying gratification is the wise approach. They want the benefits of good habits: to be healthy, productive, at peace. But these outcomes are seldom top-of-mind at the decisive moment. Thankfully, it’s possible to train yourself to delay gratification — but you need to work with the grain of human nature, not against it. The best way to do this is to add a little bit of immediate pleasure to the habits that pay off in the long-run and a little bit of immediate pain to ones that don’t.
The vital thing in getting a habit to stick is to feel successful — even if it’s in a small way. The feeling of success is a signal that your habit paid off and that the work was worth the effort.
The ending of any experience is vital because we tend to remember it more that other phases. You want the ending of your habit to be satisfying.
The more a habit becomes part of your life, the less you need outside encouragement to follow through. Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit.
A habit tracker is a simple way to measure whether you did a habit. Habit tracking is powerful because it leverage multiple Laws of Behavior Change. It simultaneously makes a behavior obvious, attractive, and satisfying.
Habit tracking creates a visual cue that can remind you to act, is inherently motivating because you see the progress you are making and don’t want to lose it, and feels satisfying whenever you record another successful instance of your habit. Furthermore, habit tracking provides visual proof that you can casting votes for the type of person you wish to become, which is delightful form of immediate and intrinsic gratification.
The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.
We optimize for what we measure. When we choose the wrong measurement, we get the wrong behavior.
If you want to prevent bad habits and eliminate unhealthy behaviors, the adding an instant const to the action is a great way to reduce their odds.
An accountability partner can create an immediate cost to inaction. We care deeply about what others think of us, and we do not want other to have a lesser opinion of us.
A habit contract can be used to add a social cost to any behavior. It makes ti cost of violating your promises public and painful.
How to Go from Being Merely Good to Being Truly Great.
The secret to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition. This is just as true with habit change as it is with sports and business.
The takeaway is that you should build habits that work for your personality. You don’t have to build the habits everyone tells you to build. Choose the habit that best suits you, not the one that is most popular.
The work that hurts you less than it hurts others is the work you were made to do.
Flow is the mental state you enter when you are so focused on the task at hand that the rest of the world fades away. It is nearly impossible to experience a flow state and not find the task satisfying at least to some degree.
We are continually comparing ourselves to those around us, and a behavior is more likely to be satisfying when the comparison is in our favor.
Whenever you feel authentic and genuine, you are headed in the right direction.
When you can’t win by being better, you can win by being different. By combining your skills, you reduce the level of competition, which makes it easier to stand out.
If you can find a more favorable environment, you can transform the situation from one where the odds are against you to one where they are in your favor.
One of the best ways to ensure your habits remain satisfying over the long-run is to pick behaviors that align with your personality and skills. Work hard on things that come easy.
The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.
Once a habit has been established, however, it’s important to continue to advance in small ways. These little improvements and new challenges keep you engaged. And if you hit the Goldilocks Zone just right, you can achieve a flow state.
Really successful people feel the same lack of motivation as everyone else. The difference is that they still find a way to show up despite the feelings of boredom.
Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.
The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.
Mastery is the process of narrowing your focus to a tiny element of success, repeating it until you have internalized the skill, and then using this new habit as the foundation to advance to the next frontier of your development. Each habit unlocks the next level of performance. It’s an endless cycle.
Improvement is not just about learning habits, it’s also about fine-tuning them. Reflection and review ensures that you spend your time on the right things and make course corrections whenever necessary. You don’t want to keep practicing a habit if it becomes ineffective.
Reflection and review offers and ideal time to revisit one of the most important aspects of behavior change: identity.
Everything is impermanent. Life is constantly changing so, you need to periodically check in to see if your old habits and beliefs are still serving you.