• Eve Arnold

5 Insights on Habit Formation from James Clear

James Clear is a Habit guru. He is the king of habit formation

If you haven’t read James Clear’s book ‘Atomic Habits’* I’ll fill you in. Atomic, meaning small pieces that make up big things, James talks about how the power of embedding tiny changes in our lives leads to big, big things.

The way James Clear sees it is success doesn’t come from breakthrough moments or the light bulb switching on. Success comes from being conscious about good habit formation, creating systems and leveraging success.

*the book is totally marvellous. It tells a great story, backed up by interesting evidence. It’s clear, concise and totally logical. If you haven’t read it I would really recommend it.

So what are the takeaways?

The Power and Proof

James says that there is proof that tiny habits, embedded over a long period of time, work. He knows because he’s lived it. The book starts off by telling us about a horrific accident, James gets whacked in the face by a hurling baseball bat. Long story short, the guy was swinging the bat, let go and well… you get the picture.

Two shattered eye-sockets and a series of seizures later, James talks about his recovery process. It was eight months before he could drive again, things were really foggy for a while, so it was a given that it was going to be a long road to getting back on the baseball team.

Between his goal of getting back on the team, James worked on his habits. Good sleeping habits, good gym habits, good cleaning habits. Six years on from his eye socket incident, he held eight records for Denison University and he received the highest accolade of all time, the President’s medal.

Quite literally from a coma to the top-performing student. Six years and a shit load of good habits.

Where is he now? Well, the book I mentioned has sold over 1 million copies. He’s written for Forbes, Entrepreneur and Times. He’s got an email subscription list of 500,000 and he spends his time talking to big corporates about how to improve habits. So, safe to say, he’s doing quite well. And in James’s words, tiny habits over a long period of time leads you to fulfil your potential.

There’s nothing else to it. Simple, good old habits.

Simple 1% gains over a long time do work. They work very well. James is proof of it. So what insights can we take from this habit god?

#1 We All Have Habits (Whether We Like It or Not)

“Depending on what they are, our habits will either make us or break us. We become what we repeatedly do.” ―Sean Covey

Depending on what you read about 40–50% of our daily lives are consumed by habits. What I mean by that is about half of your day is predetermined by the habits you have already instilled.

Think about it. The coffee you have every day, the dinners you make, the pots you leave on the side time and time again. There are somethings (roughly 50% of things) that are foregone conclusions.

They are going to happen because you’ve made them a habit.

Whether you like it or not, you’ve already got a lot of habits. The commute to work, that coffee you drink on the way, that podcast you always listen too. Those are the habits you are living and breathing.

Lesson 1: we all have habits, you might think you are habit free but a good part of your day is made up of things you do routinely without thinking about it.

#2 Your Existing Habits Can Be Hacked According to James Clear

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.” ―Aristotle

The system already exists, the skeleton of the habit is already there, you just need to work out how you want to change it or reverse engineer it to achieve the things you want.

It might be easier if I give you an example. Let’s say for the sake of argument that every day you get up from your desk at 1 pm and get a cookie. Annoyingly over the last 5 months, you’ve put on a few pounds from your cookie habit.

The cookie habit already exists. I just need to work out what part of it I want to change.

The first thing is to understand what you are craving. Is it the cookie? The sugar rush? Or is it the break from your desk? The Change of scenery.

If you’re not sure, the best bet is to experiment. Replace the cookie with a drink of water to see if that does the trick. Replace the cookie by calling a friend at 1 pm. Try walking around your local neighbour at 1 pm or try having an apple.

You might realise, through your various testing, that what you need at 1 pm is a rest from the computer screen. So instead of heading to the cookie draw at 1 pm, you head for the door.

Lesson 2: Don’t try and avoid a bad habit, identify the need for the habit and reverse engineer it.

#3 An Overnight Success Is the Power of Habit James Clear’s Advice

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” ―Colin Powell

The reality is there is no such thing as an overnight success.

Some people are at the right place at the right time but again that’s probably because they’ve worked hard at understanding the market and put themselves in a position to understand that.

Some numbers on how long things take:

  1. The ongoing quest to find out what you want to do with your life takes at least 5 years to figure out where you fit.

  2. Three years of consistent work to see any decent returns on your efforts.

  3. Between 100–150 articles to get half-decent at formatting.

  4. 10,000 hours to master something.

The reality is that things take time. James Clear himself is a good example of this. I write about him now as a guru but he was writing articles consistently every week for years before anyone knew his name.

You’ve got to earn your stripes and that takes time.

Lesson 3: Overnight success is years of consistently putting in the effort to perform your chosen habit. Compound interest will take care of the rest.

#4 According to James Clear, We Are Incentivised By Reward

“Our character is basically a composite of our habits. Because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character.” ―Stephen Covey

Clear explains that habits aren’t just random acts. They are part of a cycle.

Cue → Routine → Reward.

This breaks down into the following:

  1. There is something alerts us to do that habit i.e. the time (1 pm cookie run), a feeling (hunger pain to is our cue to eat), a thought (remembering that you haven’t written today). This is called the cue.

2. Then of course there is the action of doing it: eating the cookie, making some dinner, writing an article. This is referred to as the routine.

3. Lastly, there is what we get out of it. The sugar rush of the cookie, the feeling of being full, the satisfaction of a wonderfully worded article. This is called a reward.

It’s powerful stuff. Once we know we are incentivised by reward we can use this to our advantage. In the case of starting a new habit, we can heavily reward ourselves for completing the habit in the early stages.

For example, you might want to write every day. In order to achieve this goal, you need to heavily incentivise yourself to sit down in the chair and get typing. In order to do that, you need to think about what you love in your day and if you can use it as a reward. Food is a good example. Try using breakfast or lunch as your incentive. If you write 200 words you can have your favourite breakfast.

Lesson 4: Habits are made up of elements, cue, routine, reward. You can use the reward to your advantage in the early stages of forming a habit.

#5 Set Yourself Up For Success (Make Habits Easy) from James Clear

“I have learned that champions aren’t just born; champions can be made when they embrace and commit to life-changing positive habits.” ―Lewis Howes

We are creatures of habit that is true. However, we are also creatures of ease.

Say for instances, you are trying to drink 2L of water every day. In order to do so, you have to go downstairs to get your bottle. The bottle isn’t full of water, and you’ve lost the lid amongst the other things in the Tupperware drawer. You are making it hard for yourself to achieve the habit.

Another good example is eating healthy. If you want to eat healthily but you stock your cupboards full of pasta and chips your unlikely to achieve the beach body you’re looking for.

Conversely, if you’ve got your water bottle next to you, every time you are thirsty, you drink. If you’ve got cupboards full of goodness and a fridge full of fruit and veg, you’re more likely to choose the healthy option.

This is the same for all habits. If you want to conquer a new habit and you want to increase your success rate, you need to set yourself up for success. Here are some good examples of habits and how to set yourself up for success:

  1. To work out three times a week in the morning = the night before put your work out clothes next to your bed.

  2. To drink 2L of water a day = fill up your water bottle before bed and stick it in the fridge.

  3. To read 50 pages a day = put your book on your bedside table to be read before bed.

Lesson 5: Habit is more likely to be completed when you set yourself up for success. Make it easy for yourself.

If you can conquer habits you can conquer your dreams. Whilst habits may feel tedious and arduous, they prove time and time again one of the best ways to achieve whatever you want to.

Embedding habits might feel overwhelming but there are ways to make that easier, like setting yourself up for success and hacking the habits you already have. If you can focus on cultivating the right habits, the compound interest will take care of the success part of the equation.

James Clear is a brilliant example of someone who has used the power of habits to achieve his dreams, New York Times bestseller, prolific writer, and consultant to athletes on habit formation.

He is a prime example of how to use habits to achieve success. James, luckily, has told us the secrets to his success.

Now go out and start building your habits.

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