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Building good habits and breaking bad ones

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

This blog article is based on lessons from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear

This whole book is based on the fact that, contrary to popular opinion, massive success does not require massive action. Even barely noticeable changes can be meaningful in the long run because the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. Picture the smallest thing you could change. Something that would be equivalent to changing only 1% of your habits. Now look at this calculation:

1% better every day for one year = 37 times better after 1 year. 1% worse for one year: decline to nearly 0.

You probably wouldn’t notice those 1% because the change would be so small. But repeat this tiny change in behavior enough times and add enough 1% changes over a long period of time and it will make a huge difference. Even if you don’t see results for a while because the changes are so small, when you are on the “right” trajectory and you resist, you are bound to see results at some point. You just need to be patient.

“The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow”

Important things to remember

  1. Focus on improving your system instead of focusing on your goals to guarantee long-term progress and avoid any yo-yo effect. Your goals are the potential result and give you a direction, but your system defines if you will get there or not and can give you a sense of satisfaction no matter if you reach your goal or not.

  2. You need to focus on changing your identity and your beliefs and unlearning instead of just focusing on your behavior. That way, you will act like the person you believe yourself to be and take pride in it. Here are some important aspects related to this:

    • First, you need to decide who you want to be, what your principles and values are, what you want to become, etc.

    • If you don’t change your beliefs and identity, you might experience a contradiction that will make sticking to your new habits very difficult.

    • The more you repeat a behavior, the more you provide evidence for your beliefs and reinforce your identity.

    • “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. As the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity”. That is why even small habits can make such a huge difference.


How do habits even work and why are they so important?

It all starts with trial and error. You come across a new problem and don’t know how to solve it so you are analyzing the situation, taking in all the information you can access and consciously deciding how you want to act. When you do this, your brain has to be very active, and it costs energy. At some point, you come across a pleasant or unpleasant consequence after an action and your brain catalogs all the steps that lead to this so you can alter your strategy for the next time. The feedback loop looks like this: Try -> fail -> learn -> try differently

“Behaviors followed by satisfying consequences tend to be repeated and those that produce unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated” - Thorndike

As you learn which behaviors work and which don’t, your brain creates a mental rule “if this, then that” that you can follow automatically. This way, the next time this situation occurs, you won’t need much energy at all, you will just automatically show whatever behavior became a habit. Therefore, habits make your day-to-day life easier and give you more mental space for new challenges. Otherwise, you would need to think about every tiny thing you do, including walking or brushing our teeth, before and during the action.

The four necessary steps for a habit to be created

First, there is a cue (you notice a potential reward), which is meaningless in itself but transformed into a craving for this reward through your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. After experiencing a craving, you respond by performing a habit. This depends on your motivation to obtain the reward and your ability to perform this habit, of course. Then comes the reward, which is the end goal of every habit. The reward satisfies us because it provides momentary relief from the craving, and it teaches us which actions are worth repeating in the future.

“By the time we become adults, we rarely notice the habits that are running our lives. After decades of mental programming, we automatically slip into these patterns of thinking and acting.”

The four laws to build a good habit / to break a bad habit

Make it obvious / Make it invisible
Make it attractive / Make in unattractive
Make it easy / Make it difficult
Make it satisfying / Make it unsatisfying

There are plenty of techniques to follow these laws and make them work that you can alter to fit your specific needs. I hope you enjoyed reading this article! I will write another article based on this book in the following weeks, this time with specific techniques for each of the four laws. Let me know your thoughts or any questions in the comments.



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