The Big Idea
Drawing on research-backed examples, James Clear outlines a proven framework for improving every day through your habits
My favorite sentence
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.
9.5/10. This is the #1 book I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn how to build new habits. Docking a half point because James is an Ohio State fan
Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.
1% BETTER EVERY DAY 1% worse every day for one year. 0.99365 = 00.03 1% better every day for one year. 1.01365 = 37.78
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.
Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.
Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.
Mastery requires patience. The San Antonio Spurs, one of the most successful teams in NBA history, have a quote from social reformer Jacob Riis hanging in their locker room: “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.”
Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.
Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.
Goal setting suffers from a serious case of survivorship bias. We concentrate on the people who end up winning—the survivors—and mistakenly assume that ambitious goals led to their success while overlooking all of the people who had the same objective but didn’t succeed. Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal.
Problem #2: Achieving a goal is only a momentary change.
Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment. That’s the counterintuitive thing about improvement. We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results.
Problem #3: Goals restrict your happiness. The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.” The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone.
Furthermore, goals create an “either-or” conflict: either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are a disappointment.
Problem #4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress.
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
There are three layers of behavior change: a change in your outcomes, a change in your processes, or a change in your identity
The third and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is concerned with changing your beliefs: your worldview, your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level.
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.
Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.
The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader. The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician.
When you have repeated a story to yourself for years, it is easy to slide into these mental grooves and accept them as a fact. In time, you begin to resist certain actions because “that’s not who I am.” There is internal pressure to maintain your self-image and behave in a way that is consistent with your beliefs. You find whatever way you can to avoid contradicting yourself.
More precisely, your habits are how you embody your identity. When you make your bed each day, you embody the identity of an organized person. When you write each day, you embody the identity of a creative person. When you train each day, you embody the identity of an athletic person.
Your identity is literally your “repeated beingness.”
I didn’t start out as a writer. I became one through my habits.
This is a gradual evolution. We do not change by snapping our fingers and deciding to be someone entirely new. We change bit by bit, day by day, habit by habit. We are continually undergoing microevolutions of the self.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
Every time you choose to perform a bad habit, it’s a vote for that identity. The good news is that you don’t need to be perfect. In any election, there are going to be votes for both sides. You don’t need a unanimous vote to win an election; you just need a majority. It doesn’t matter if you cast a few votes for a bad behavior or an unproductive habit. Your goal is simply to win the majority of the time.
Decide the type of person you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins.
But the true question is: “Are you becoming the type of person you want to become?” The first step is not what or how, but who. You need to know who you want to be. Otherwise, your quest for change is like a boat without a rudder. And that’s why we are starting here.
A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.
As behavioral scientist Jason Hreha writes, “Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.”
The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious. The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive. The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy. The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.
This is one of the most surprising insights about our habits: you don’t need to be aware of the cue for a habit to begin.
Here’s a sample of where your list might start: Wake up Turn off alarm Check my phone Go to the bathroom Weigh myself Take a shower Brush my teeth Floss my teeth Put on deodorant Hang up towel to dry Get dressed Make a cup of tea . . . and so on.
If you’re still having trouble determining how to rate a particular habit, here is a question I like to use: “Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?”
Broadly speaking, the format for creating an implementation intention is: “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”
The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption that leads to additional purchases.
The habit stacking formula is: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
People often choose products not because of what they are, but because of where they are. If I walk into the kitchen and see a plate of cookies on the counter, I’ll pick up half a dozen and start eating, even if I hadn’t been thinking about them beforehand and didn’t necessarily feel hungry.
For example, 45 percent of Coca-Cola sales come specifically from end-of-the-aisle racks.
We like to think that we are in control. If we choose water over soda, we assume it is because we wanted to do so. The truth, however, is that many of the actions we take each day are shaped not by purposeful drive and choice but by the most obvious option.
If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment.
Create a separate space for work, study, exercise, entertainment, and cooking. The mantra I find useful is “One space, one use.”
they had learned that over 15 percent of U.S. soldiers stationed there were heroin addicts. Follow-up research revealed that 35 percent of service members in Vietnam had tried heroin and as many as 20 percent were addicted—the problem was even worse than they had initially thought.
This finding contradicted the prevailing view at the time, which considered heroin addiction to be a permanent and irreversible condition. Instead, Robins revealed that addictions could spontaneously dissolve if there was a radical change in the environment.
Instead, “disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.
It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often. So, yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment.
This practice is an inversion of the 1st Law of Behavior Change. Rather than make it obvious, you can make it invisible.
When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it.
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED]. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].
We don’t choose our earliest habits, we imitate them. We follow the script handed down by our friends and family, our church or school, our local community and society at large.
Each of these cultures and groups comes with its own set of expectations and standards—when and whether to get married, how many children to have, which holidays to celebrate, how much money to spend on your child’s birthday party.
We imitate the habits of three groups in particular: The close. The many. The powerful.
Your culture sets your expectation for what is “normal.” Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. You’ll rise together.
Join a culture where (1) your desired behavior is the normal behavior and (2) you already have something in common with the group.
The normal behavior of the tribe often overpowers the desired behavior of the individual. For example, one study found that when a chimpanzee learns an effective way to crack nuts open as a member of one group and then switches to a new group that uses a less effective strategy, it will avoid using the superior nut cracking method just to blend in with the rest of the chimps.
Most days, we’d rather be wrong with the crowd than be right by ourselves.
Historically, a person with greater power and status has access to more resources, worries less about survival, and proves to be a more attractive mate.
Find love and reproduce = using Tinder Connect and bond with others = browsing Facebook Win social acceptance and approval = posting on Instagram Reduce uncertainty = searching on Google Achieve status and prestige = playing video games
Once established, you can break it out anytime you need to change your emotional state. Stressed at work? Take three deep breaths and smile. Sad about life? Three deep breaths and smile. Once a habit has been built, the cue can prompt a craving, even if it has little to do with the original situation.
If you look at the most habit-forming products, you’ll notice that one of the things these goods and services do best is remove little bits of friction from your life
Nuckols dialed in his cleaning habits by following a strategy he refers to as “resetting the room.”
The purpose of resetting each room is not simply to clean up after the last action, but to prepare for the next action.
Researchers estimate that 40 to 50 percent of our actions on any given day are done out of habit.
The best way to break a bad habit is to make it impractical to do
(I’m not the only one. The average person spends over two hours per day on social media. What could you do with an extra six hundred hours per year?)
Stories like these are evidence of the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided.
Once you understand how the brain prioritizes rewards, the answers become clear: the consequences of bad habits are delayed while the rewards are immediate.
Put another way, the costs of your good habits are in the present. The costs of your bad habits are in the future.
With a fuller understanding of what causes our brain to repeat some behaviors and avoid others, let’s update the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided. Our preference for instant gratification reveals
Second, manual tracking should be limited to your most important habits. It is better to consistently track one habit than to sporadically track ten.
Whenever this happens to me, I try to remind myself of a simple rule: never miss twice.
You don’t realize how valuable it is to just show up on your bad (or busy) days. Lost days hurt you more than successful days help you.
As Charlie Munger says, “The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessarily.”
Simply doing something—ten squats, five sprints, a push-up, anything really—is huge. Don’t put up a zero. Don’t let losses eat into your compounding.
Furthermore, it’s not always about what happens during the workout. It’s about being the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts.
In our data-driven world, we tend to overvalue numbers and undervalue anything ephemeral, soft, and difficult to quantify.
We mistakenly think the factors we can measure are the only factors that exist. But just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing. And just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not important at all.
The secret to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition. This is just as true with habit change as it is with sports and business. Habits are easier to perform, and more satisfying to stick with, when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities.
This is true not just for physical characteristics but for mental ones as well. I’m smart if you ask me about habits and human behavior; not so much when it comes to knitting, rocket propulsion, or guitar chords. Competence is highly dependent on context.
As physician Gabor Mate notes, “Genes can predispose, but they don’t predetermine.”
The proper balance depends on whether you’re winning or losing. If you are currently winning, you exploit, exploit, exploit. If you are currently losing, you continue to explore, explore, explore.
In the long-run it is probably most effective to work on the strategy that seems to deliver the best results about 80 to 90 percent of the time and keep exploring with the remaining 10 to 20 percent. Google famously asks employees to spend 80 percent of the workweek on their official job and 20 percent on projects of their choice, which has led to the creation of blockbuster products like AdWords and Gmail.
What feels like fun to me, but work to others?
What makes me lose track of time?
Our genes do not eliminate the need for hard work. They clarify it.
People get so caught up in the fact that they have limits that they rarely exert the effort required to get close to them.
The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.
A flow state is the experience of being “in the zone” and fully immersed in an activity. Scientists have tried to quantify this feeling. They found that to achieve a state of flow, a task must be roughly 4 percent beyond your current ability.
Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.
Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery
Sustaining an effort is the most important thing for any enterprise. The way to be successful is to learn how to do things right, then do them the same way every time.”
The tighter we cling to an identity, the harder it becomes to grow beyond it.
One solution is to avoid making any single aspect of your identity an overwhelming portion of who you are. In the words of investor Paul Graham, “keep your identity small.”
The more you let a single belief define you, the less capable you are of adapting when life challenges you. If you tie everything up in being the point guard or the partner at the firm or whatever else, then the loss of that facet of your life will wreck you.
The holy grail of habit change is not a single 1 percent improvement, but a thousand of them.
Being curious is better than being smart. Being motivated and curious counts for more than being smart because it leads to action.
We can only be rational and logical after we have been emotional. The primary mode of the brain is to feel; the secondary mode is to think.
Your actions reveal how badly you want something. If you keep saying something is a priority but you never act on it, then you don’t really want it. It’s time to have an honest conversation with yourself. Your actions reveal your true motivations. Reward is on the other side of sacrifice. Response (sacrifice of energy) always precedes reward (the collection of resources). The “runner’s high” only comes after the hard run. The reward only comes after the energy is spent. Self-control is difficult because it is not satisfying.