5 Lessons on Habits From James Clear
James Clear and his lessons on habits.
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 sees it is success doesn’t come from break through 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 take aways?
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 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. 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 time leads you to fulfill your potential. There’s nothing else to it. Simple, good old habits.
So simple 1% gains over a long time do work. They work very well. James is proof of it. So what did I learn from this habit guru?
#1 We all have habits, whether we like it or not
Depending on what you read about 40–50% of our daily lives are ran 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 every day. Guaranteed for me, in one day, I’ll have a couple of coffees, I’ll wash the pots, I’ll do a spot of cleaning, I’ll walk my dogs. There are something (roughly 50% of things) that are foregone conclusions. They are going to happen because you’ve made them a habit.
I used to think that I didn’t have any habits. What I learnt through Clear’s book is that contrary to my belief, I did have some habits, they just happen to be quite bad ones.
#2 You can hack your habits
So now I’d established that I did have some habits, they were just pretty rubbish, I’d learnt that there are way to reverse engineer the habits we have. The system already exists, the skeleton of the habit is already there, you just need to work out how you want to change it and reverse engineer it.
It might be easier if I give you an example. Let’s say for the sake of argument that every day I get up from my desk at 1pm and get a cookie. Annoyingly over the last 5 months I’ve put on a few pounds from my cookie habit, unsurprisingly. The cookie habit already exists. I just need to work out what part of it I want to change. Now obviously there is something in this that I am getting a reward from. It might be the cookie but I doubt it, it’s either the rest from the computer screen, the feeling of getting up and walking giving me a bit of a boost for my afternoon or it’s the sugar. Or perhaps it’s the people I’m bumping into on the way to the office kitchen.
So over the next few days I experiment. I replace the cookie with a drink of water to see if that does the trick. Then I try replacing the cookie with calling a friend at 1pm. I try walking round the block at 1pm and I even try swapping my cookie for an apple. Somewhere along the way I realise, through my various tests, that the reward was the sugar rush and I seem to be content with an apple instead.
The trick is not to avoid the habit altogether, it’s to reverse engineer it. To hack them.
#3 Let the notion of ‘an over night success go’ James says it’s about habits
By getting our expectations in check we can get a little bit of perspective of how long something will take. The reality is there is near enough no such thing as an overnight success. I think 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. I’m not quite sure my opinion on luck. I think we make our own luck, through hard work.
Some numbers on how long things take (in my opinion):
Ongoing quest to find our what you want to do with your life but at least 5 years testing things out.
Three years of consistent work to see any decent returns on your efforts.
Between 100–150 articles to get half-decent at formatting
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 before anyone listened to him. You’ve got to earn your stripes and that takes time.
#4 We are incentivised by reward
Clear draws up the cycle of habits. Cue → Habit → Reward. There is something alerts us to do that habit i.e. the time (1pm cookie run), a feeling (hunger pain to is our cue to eat), a thought (remembering that you haven’t written today). Then of course there is the action of doing it: eating the cookie, making some dinner, writing an article. Lastly there is the reward the sugar rush of the cookie, the feeling of being full, the satisfaction of a wonderfully worded article.
Knowing this is very powerful. 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 I’d recently wanted to conquer the habit of cycling. Now, prior to my injury (another story completely) I was riding consistently, maybe too consistently given the injury. I’d managed doing that by rewarding myself. My bike is hooked up to a turbo trainer so it’s to be ridden indoors. Now, my reward for riding the bike was that I got to watch YouTube or whatever programme I wanted. I was finding that I was wasting hours watching TV. However, using it as a reward for cycling worked really well. It meant that I was carefully picking what programmes I wanted to watch whilst cycling and in a lot of cases I ended up cycling longer because I wanted to watch the end of the programme.
#5 Set yourself up for success, James says make habits easier
We are creatures of habit that is true. However, we are also creatures of finding the easiest thing and doing that. So if we’re trying to drink 2L of water every day but we have to go downstairs to get our bottle, we will probably just not drink the water. If we want to eat healthy but we stock our cupboards full of pasta and chips, we’re likely to resume the diet next week.
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 lettuce, you’re more likely to make a salad than pizza and chips.
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:
Work out three times a week in the morning = the night before put your work out clothes next your bed.
Drink 2L of water a day = fill up your water bottle before bed and stick it in the fridge.
Read 50 pages a day = put your book on your bedside table to be read before bed.
Habits are so fascinating. I think mostly because they are, at least in my opinion, the quickest, most sustainable way to get where you want to go.