I can distinctly remember my father telling me a story a few years back about one of his coworker’s morning routine. She would wake up at 4 AM, run three miles to a parking garage, run up and down all the stairs in the complex, and run the three miles back all before clocking into a shift at work. I’m sure we all know someone like this: the person who seems all put together, who wakes up early to start their day off right, who is a ball of efficiency and is always diligently working to better themselves. Superheroes, I know. For us mere mortals the common presumption is that we will never be like them, that they are wired differently and some odd exception to the conventional inertia most of us can’t seem to get out of. However, it hasn’t been until I read a particular book that I feel I can understand how people like my dad’s coworker are able to repeatedly do the seemingly impossible.
Rarely do I ever recommend a book saying someone, “Needs to read it,” because I think taste is subjective and it’d be a whole shame for someone to make a large commitment to reading a book they don’t even like. However, I will go out on a limb and say that Atomic Habits by James Clear is a book you should read as soon as humanly possible. While I’m sure my friends are all tired of me relaying Clear’s insights, it is one of the few books that not only drastically transformed my worldview, but has physically changed my everyday actions. Books seldom have implications that stretch to someone changing how they live, but I can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t sincerely be motivated to do so after the first few pages. It was also one of the few books that I actively took notes to try and retain the information. Going over my twelve pages of notes, I’ll synthesize what I felt were the key points and provide my commentary along the way.
Before we get into the nitty gritty details of the book, I feel it is paramount that I explain the broader contextual importance of building strong habits, and the misevaluation of goal setting. Here at Heads Up Teens, we have consistently tried to give you some of our insights to help you set and achieve your goals. However, I do feel the need to say that while goals are great for creating direction, they are not the system that gets us there. Goals by themselves do not differentiate who succeeds and who does not. We mistake that every Olympic champion, every major CEO, and every celebrity is in the position they are in because they had some unique vision and set an ambitious goal. Yet, we fail to see those who had the same exact goals but didn’t succeed. With every Usain Bolt who plans on winning Gold there are a number of losers who had the same goal but came up short. The difference maker was not the goal or the competitor’s ambition, rather it was their system of training beforehand, their regimen of repeated actions that brought them to that very moment. It’s said that Usain Bolt worked every day on his starts off the blocks, trying to shave his time off by the smallest hundredth of a second. After years of training and several micro-improvements later, those hundredths of seconds started adding up to full seconds, cementing him as the best sprinter of all time. This is the very essence of the power of habits. It is the small aggregations of getting one percent better over an extended period of time that translate into unimaginably large consequences. Habits are the secret system to success, and I will show you how to make them work for you.
Recipe for Success
Habits consist of four main components: 1) Cue 2) Craving 3) Response 4) Reward. If that sounds overly complex, here’s a very common example broken down into the four stages: Cue: your phone buzzes a notification
Cue: your phone buzzes a notification
Craving: you want to know who it’s from
Response: you open your phone and check
Reward: your craving of wanting to know who it’s from is satisfied by reading the message
As you can see, we already have habits ingrained in our very lives that we do automatically; our brains process these decisions in a split second. Without willing ourselves to really focus we’ll never make our habits work for ourselves. We have to master each one of these steps in order to take back control of our habits.
- Cue: Make it Obvious
All week you’ve been telling yourself that you want to be the type of person that meditates everyday. However, day after day passes and it seems to slip your mind or you can’t ever sustain it for an extended period of time. Why is it that we fail to follow through on our promises to ourselves? The problem has nothing to do with your willpower or motivation, rather it’s just that the cues that jump start the habit are too invisible. Think about what you need to meditate: pillows and a quiet space. These are both fairly ornate things that we wouldn’t pay attention to separately, but put them together and they look like the perfect scene for a meditation. The solution here is to make the cue obvious by setting up all these things beforehand, and when you stumble into a nice pillow in a quiet room, you’ll feel this urge to meditate. It just feels right. Make that decision to prime your environment while you have that jolt of motivation, and your future self will thank you by doing the habit. Our surroundings have more influence on us than we can ever imagine. Rather than being a puppet to it, we can redesign it ourselves and become the architect to our environment.
- Craving: Make it Attractive
I’m sure we’ve all thought about doing an assignment for school, but then get repulsed by the very idea of sitting down and having to slave away working. It doesn’t seem like a desirable task to do, and, therefore, we usually ignore it and continue to procrastinate. The second rule is to make the habits we need to do more attractive by pairing them with habits we want to do. The official term for this is called “Habit Bundling,” and a common example of this would be setting a rule that you can only watch your favorite TV show while you also workout. That way, you unconsciously get excited about working out because it is associated with a positive stimulant. Another way to get rid of the nervous tension before a task is by rephrasing your approach. Rather than saying you need to do it, say you get to do it. You are not dreading studying, but excited to improve your future knowledge and continue your academic career. If you can approach your habits with a generally positive and excited attitude, you’ve set yourself on the fasttrack to success.
- Response: Make it Easy
Humans are naturally lazy. I know that sounds like a depressing statement, but it’s a true principle of our evolution. Our ancestors knew food was scarce, so out of necessity to conserve energy, humans became wired to instinctively choose the task that requires the least amount of effort. Unfortunately for us modern descendents, this means that following through on our productive habits seems a lot less appealing than lying in bed and watching Netflix. It’s just much easier to do the latter. This is where the Five Minute Rule kicks into place. When starting a new habit, spend a maximum of five minutes on it before stopping. If your goal is to read before bed, get through about three pages and stop. While this seems completely counter-intuitive and a waste of time, the theory is that anyone can do anything for five minutes a day. Working out for five minutes won’t magically make you fit, but what’s happening is that you are consistently showing up and reinforcing this activity as a part of your identity. You’ll notice the days piling up until the point of going to the gym is a regular part of your life .After a few days, you’ll want to read a little longer or stay at the gym for some more sets. Before optimizing a habit, it’s essential that you first master the step of showing up.
- Reward: Make it Satisfying
We have a tendency to prioritize rewards in the short-term rather than the long-term. That’s why so many people can ignore the delayed consequences of smoking or fast-food; it just feels good immediately after the action is taken. What is rewarded is repeated, so in order to make our beneficial habits stick, we need to reward ourselves instantaneously. The obvious and standard approach is giving ourselves an external reward for when we complete a rep of our habit. However, it should be noted that any reward we give ourselves shouldn’t conflict with the habit in place (ie. Following a workout the reward should not be fast food. A massage is an appropriate reward as it synthesizes with the identity of taking care of your body). A second and more subtle approach is to utilize a tool called a “Habit Tracker.” This is essentially any device that counts how many times you have been completing your habit. It could be as simple as a sticky note with tally marks, or a calendar with red Xs for every day you complete your task. The idea behind it is that you will be able to see your habits materialize in some fashion as the Xs stack up, and you’ll gain a sense of satisfaction taking your marker and marking off another day. At a certain point, the intrinsic motivation to maintain this routine will take over, and that will be enough of a reward to sustain your habit.
Dreams to Reality
“Habits are the channel in which you develop into your deepest beliefs.” Everyone wants to be the best version of themselves, yet achieving such high expectations can be a daunting task. We have this “All or Nothing” mentality deeply embedded into our society, that if we can’t do something perfectly or create some radical change there’s no point of doing it. Maybe moving your pillow to a quiet room in order to meditate is no big deal, but imagine making dozens of these improvements all at once. There’s no doubt that your life wouldn’t drastically be changed for the better. Clear made a point in his book that I had often thought about before. We usually regret the things we don’t do rather than the things we choose to do. I have never regretted doing a workout when I didn’t feel like it, but I can’t count how many times I’ve felt bad for missing a day. There’s a simple question I ask myself when I need to gain some motivation: “Is this current action leading me to become the person I want to be?” Every time you workout you are becoming someone who works out, every time you write a sentence you are a writer, every time you meditate you are a meditator. Each action you do everyday casts a vote for the identity you want to take on. Make sure each vote matters.