The best system for making improvements in your life
How to become a better human by hijacking your habits
How habits change our lives
It is often said that 45% of what we do is done without thinking by habits we have established - both good and bad (Neal et al.). How do we reach this magical state of automaticity of doing what we feel we should be doing? Clear says it starts with identity, moves to your habits, and then you get the magical results.
Identity: What do you believe about yourself? Consider the type of person you want to be. Brainstorm a list of activities that type of person would do. Start with the easiest actions and realize that each time you complete one of these actions, you are becoming the person you envision. Success builds more success.
Processes: What do you do to become the person you want to be? Now that you have a list of what you need to do, you want to develop systems to take these actions. Most of the book is dedicated to how you can implement these systems, and I summarize it in the next section.
Outcomes: What did you achieve? We usually tend to focus on what we want to happen, i.e. lose ten pounds, but Clear (and Gretchen Rubin) argue that only by focusing on the daily actions we will see outcomes.
"Focus on actions, not outcomes." Gretchen Rubin
Why Habits Stick
Habits have been wired into our brains after years or decades of us following a habit feedback loop that tells our brains that whatever we have been doing is, for some reason, rewarding.
It all starts with some dilemma or decision we need to make. For example, should I get out of bed or hit snooze?
The first step in the habit loop is some cue or trigger that tells your brain to initiate behaviors. In my example, that would be your alarm clock going off.
You have some motivation to urge you to act in a certain way. Maybe you are feeling tired and dreading the day ahead.
In this part of the habit loop, you act on the dilemma and send messages to the brain about how to respond in future situations.
The thoughts or behaviors you choose in response to the cue are your habits. Maybe it is hitting snooze.
The reward is what you have gained from your response. In this case, it was a few extra minutes of sleep. This reward has now sent a message to your brain that will make it more likely for you to choose this same response the next time you face the same cue.
How to Hijack the Habit Feedback Loop
In order to develop habits of our better human self, we must consider these 4 phases of the habit feedback loop and hijack them in our favor.
1. Cue for better habits by making it obvious
You are hijacking the cue part of the loop by thinking of ways to cue your brain for the desired behavior or thought.
Analyze your habits by rating all of your habits, then make a specific plan for your desired habit.
Stack your habits by pairing the new habit with an old habit.
Design your environment with obvious cues to encourage success. For example, put your alarm on the other side of the room so that you have to get out of bed to hit snooze or prepare fresh fruits and vegetables for snacks.
2. Create cravings for better habits by making them attractive
Most of our habits are solutions to ancient desires like finding food and water or social acceptance. Hijack this craving by identifying how this new habit benefits you so that you will connect it with that deep human desire.
One ancient desire we are wired for is bonding with a group. Find a way to join a group that encourages the habit you want to develop.
Whenever you think something will be rewarding, it increases your dopamine, and increased dopamine leads to increased motivation to act. You can reward yourself with something you want to do after something you need to do to hijack the reward system.
3. Make it easy to respond with the desired habit
The two-minute rule means you start with an action you can complete in two minutes. You can map out steps to gradually increase your habit, but by starting with just two minutes per day, you will start to feel immediate results. It will feel more achievable, and you are developing the habit through your consistency.
Set up a commitment device to help you choose future actions. A class is a classic commitment device because you have a group, a specific time, and usually money down. These are 3 different levels of commitment that will increase your likelihood of following through. You can also use technology to help you like an automatic savings plan to save for a goal or shutting down app access with screen time to help you focus.
Reduce every point of friction to simplify and make it easier to make the right choice. For example, cut up veggies on a platter in the fridge for healthy snacks or a menu plan of healthy options, so you don't have to think about what to eat, and it is easier to eat something healthy because it is ready.
4. Reward your brain by making your new habit satisfying
If it is pleasant to do the new habit, we will want to do it in the future.
A tracking device offers the simplest and most satisfying way to see progress. You can tick off days on your calendar, or you can mark them in an app. Your brain feels a sense of reward when you check it off immediately, and you are rewarded again when you look back and see your progress. Habit trackers also make your habit obvious, attractive, and satisfying.
When you make a road map of how your daily habits will help you reach your goals, you feel a larger sense of purpose and are more motivated.
A social contract stating your commitment to a group and the punishment if you don't follow through will offer that extra motivation and is likely to work when other techniques don't.
If you are serious about making changes to become a better human, I highly recommend James Clear's, Atomic Habits. He also has support resources once you buy the book and a free 30-day email series to give you these ideas in smaller bites with daily actionable items.
Ersche, Karen D., et al. “Creature of Habit: A Self-Report Measure of Habitual Routines and Automatic Tendencies in Everyday Life.” Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 116, Oct. 2017, pp. 73–85, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5473478/, 10.1016/j.paid.2017.04.024. Accessed 4 Jan. 2023.
Neal, David T., et al. “Habits—a Repeat Performance.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 15, no. 4, Aug. 2006, pp. 198–202, 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00435.x.