Shelf Indulgence: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results
Atomic Habits Cover

Each Spring, the CWM Team participates in our annual Team Retreat. In years past we’ve welcomed guest speakers like former NHL player Ryan Walter with his inspirational coaching on productivity, workplace gurus with CultureWise with whom we developed our 33 Fundamentals, and Elise Enriquez with her GYST program that taught us a system for organizing our time and projects.

For this year’s team retreat we had our very own CWM book club and read the book Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear. I am not usually a fan of self-help or self-improvement books (because you can’t improve upon perfection). However, I figured there was a good reason CWM President Shilo Lockett selected this book for us to read, so I picked it up while enjoying a large bowl of air-popped popcorn and a glass of wine (unknowingly employing the 4th Law of Atomic Habits – Make it Satisfying.)

James Clear describes this book as an operating manual that draws on ideas from biology, psychology, and neuroscience to help make good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible. What resonated with me the most was that we do not rise to the level of our goals, rather we fall to the level of our systems. At CWM we are big on process. Our processes support our ability to perform with consistency and are the foundation of our organizational effectiveness. Every process we have is made up of smaller steps – what we call workflows – with cues that spur us to the next step in the process. There are many reasons we do this, but for me the most important reason is to systematize behavior so that we don’t have to think or second-guess how we provide service. In other words, we set up systems that allow us to better and more consistently support our wonderful clients!

But what is a habit, how are habits useful, and how do we build new ones? According to Clear, “whether we are conscious of it or not, about 50 percent of our actions on a daily basis are already established habits”. Previously, I’d been told that it takes twelve weeks to create a habit. While that is an easy way to quantify habit building, Clear explains that it’s less about the time dedicated to the habit and more about the repetition of the habit you wish to build. It really is as simple as “practice makes perfect.” When I was a theater major we did NOT just put on a show. We rehearsed five days a week for at least a month ahead of opening night. And on the days we weren’t rehearsing I would run lines in order to be prepared for “going off book.” During rehearsals we would block the scene and then once the movement patterns were set, we would do it repeatedly until we didn’t have to think about what our next move needed to be. In short, there was a lot of hard work and repetition as we built the muscle memory (aka habit) of our show before we ever went in front of an audience.

If repetition is the key to establishing a habit, what are the components of a habit? Clear breaks down habits into four parts: cue, craving, response, and reward.

  1. Cue - this triggers your brain to initiate a behavior/habit
  2. Craving - this is the motivation force behind every habit. According to Clear, what you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state the behavior delivers. It’s important to note that cravings are not the same for everyone; what motivates me (peanut M&Ms and Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups) may not necessarily motivate you (although have you tried those peanut butter cups?!?!)
  3. Response - this is the actual behavior/habit you perform
  4. Reward - the end goal of every habit (aka peanut M&Ms)

Clear calls this The Habit Loop (see figure).

Habit Loop

Clear posits that the two best ways to ensure you implement a habit is to make a specific plan for when and where you will perform the new habit and to do what he calls “habit stacking”. Habit stacking is when you connect the desired behavior to something you already do each day.

According to Clear, the key to creating (or breaking) habits is to understand the Four Laws of Behavior Change (p.53-55). Since our habits are shaped by the systems in our lives, we can use these laws as a practical framework for habit building.

The Four Laws of Behavior Change:

  1. The 1st Law (Cue) - Make it obvious / Make it invisible
  2. The 2nd Law (Craving) - Make it attractive / Make it unattractive
  3. The 3rd Law (Response) - Make it easy / Make it difficult
  4. The 4th Law (Reward) - Make it satisfying / Make it unsatisfying

I’m currently laying the foundation to train for a marathon – because you don’t just wake up one day and say, “I think I’d like to run 26.2 miles”. Before I head into my marathon training, I want to have a base of easily running 30-miles per week (that’s a habit!), knowing that I will be running 60+ miles by the end of my training. Those distances are daunting, but I do them one mile at a time, because hidden in my running ritual are elements of the Four Laws of Behavior Change:

  1. Cue (Make it obvious) - I know when and where I will be running and who I will be running with (it helps me to vary the routes and distances).
  2. Craving (Make it attractive) - I wear comfy shoes, weather appropriate clothes, pick a pretty route, and if I’m running solo have an audiobook or music queued up.
  3. Response (Make it easy) - Whether I’m running after work or first thing in the morning I have my running kit ready to go, my watch and headphones charged, and a prepped water bottle with a healthy snack on hand for fuel. Most importantly, I do not sit down when I get home from work. I change into my gear within two minutes of getting home - any longer than that and I’ve found I can make many excuses to not leave the house again.
  4. Reward (Make it satisfying) - During my run I pick an audiobook that will keep me entertained (I prefer memoirs and most recently listened to “Baggage” by Alan Cumming) or I’ll listen to musicals (because they’re just the right length for a long run and I can imagine the story as I run). On my Sunday Runs with friends we end our runs at a bakery so we can look forward to a pastry and coffee at the end of our miles. (Fun fact: I have a favorite bakery for practically every neighborhood in Seattle). And for every run, the ultimate reward is a sense of accomplishment for working towards my goals – chipping away at my distance goal for the year and getting stronger. I have never regretted going for a run.

Investors can use these same concepts to create intentional habits around their financial goals. By setting goals during the financial planning process with your CWM advisor, you understand how much you should be saving while establishing benchmarks to track your progress (cue / make it obvious). Is your goal to buy a vacation home? Retire and move to Italy? Start a new business? Fund college for your children or grandchildren? Whatever the goal is, allow yourself to daydream - what will realizing your goal look like? - identify what you want and when you will act (craving / make it attractive). Armed with the knowledge of how much you need to save each month, automate the task by setting up regular contributions to your 401(k) or other investment accounts (response / make it easy). Understanding your real return will help monitor progress and necessary risk, while staying mindful of your ultimate goals. Then, celebrate the milestones as you make progress along the way (reward / make it satisfying).

One thing I want to highlight in all this is that if something is important to you, you will figure out a way to do it. I think it is not practical to expect yourself to build a habit just because you follow the steps. These tactics can be helpful at work or in your personal life, but ultimately if there is not an intrinsic motivation for improvement or change it probably won’t happen.

For me, the benefit of building habits is not to be held captive to the habit and never deviate, but to have the framework of the behavior so that when external environmental factors encroach on your good intentions, you can adapt and still maintain steady progress forward.

I recently encountered a quote from American long-distance runner and Olympian Des Linden – “Every day I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better. My advice: keep showing up.” Atomic habits, those tiny choices we make every day that build on each other to create more remarkable systems and lifestyles, are only possible if we make the choice to show up for ourselves and the people in our lives. You can build any habit with the right cues, tools, and motivations. You just need to make the choice and put it into action.

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