Gym memberships, vegan diets, keeping a diary, reading challenges, Dry January… At this time of year, many of us will be in the early, optimistic days of putting into practice our New Year’s resolutions. Hopefully some might last the course, and this year you really will become that healthier, happier, more productive version of yourself that you committed to on January 1st.
If experience is anything to go by, though, it’s likely that at least some of these good intentions will have fallen by the wayside long before we get to New Year’s Eve 2023.
But what if I was to tell you that there is a proven way for any of us to change our habits for the better, and stick to them? And that instead of a big life overhaul, it would only require a few small, incremental steps?
With a hectic work schedule and busy family life I only managed to read six books in 2021. I resolved to do better in 2022 and, if you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen me proudly share that I managed to complete a book a week last year. One of my favourites of the 52 was James Clear’s bestselling book on behaviour change - Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.
Clear argues that, when it comes to trying to improve ourselves, most of us get something fundamental quite wrong. Instead of obsessing over big goals, we should think small. Real change comes from hundreds of small decisions that build up over time – reading an extra page, doing an extra push-up, waking up five minutes earlier. These are our atomic habits.
1 PER CENT BETTER EVERY DAY
Business leaders, distinguished scientists and Olympic gold medallists have all achieved phenomenal success by embracing the science of small habits, Clear tells us. One of the most striking examples is the extraordinary turnaround which saw Great Britain lead the world in professional cycling after a century of mediocrity.
Back in 2003, the sport’s governing body in Great Britain hired Dave Brailsford as its new performance director. He faced an uphill struggle. British cyclists had only won one Olympic gold medal in almost 100 years and had never claimed victory in the sport’s biggest race – the Tour de France.
What followed was extraordinary. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the British cycling team dominated, winning over half of the gold medals up for grabs. At the London 2012 Olympic Games they did even better, setting new Olympic and world records along the way. Between 2012 and 2016, British cyclists Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome won the Tour de France four times. All in all, this golden patch for British cyclists is considered the most successful run of any team in the sport’s history.
So, how did they do it? I’m sure that the prospect of a home Olympic Games in 2012 must have had a galvanising effect on the team’s ambition. But, as Clear explains, this was about more than just goals. After all, it’s not like British cyclists had spent the previous 100 years not trying to win races and medals.
“Brailsford had been hired to put British Cycling on a new trajectory. What made him different from previous coaches was his relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as ‘the aggregation of marginal gains,’ which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny improvement in everything you do. Brailsford said, ‘The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 per cent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.’”
Brailsford and his coaches redesigned bike seats, rubbed alcohol on tyres to improve grip, made riders’ outfits lighter and more aerodynamic and even hired a surgeon to teach every cyclist the best way to wash their hands to reduce the risk of infections. No stone was left unturned, and the cumulative impact of these small improvements was remarkable.
This philosophy of marginal gains is one we can all benefit from (even though the shining examples of the British cycling team has more recently been tainted by revelations that they took their pursuit of every single competitive advantage too far).
If we can get 1 per cent better at something every day, it stands to reason that the effects over time will be transformative. As Clear explains:
“Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 per cent better each day for one year, you’ll end up 37 times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 per cent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly to zero. What starts as a small win or minor setback accumulates into something much more.”
This is why habits matter. Clear argues that these daily behaviours shape our identity and ultimately define us – if you can stick to the habit of reading a few pages everyday then you are a reader. If you can’t shake the habit of a daily cigarette, you’re a smoker.
Thought about in this way, it’s no surprise that some of these New Year’s Resolutions can be so hard to keep – we’re not just trying to keep a diary, we’re trying to forge a new identity.
MOTIVATION IS OVER-RATED
If you’re coming around to the idea that fine-tuning small daily habits can reap dividends over time, Atomic Habits includes some good practical advice on how to get started.
According to Clear, it’s not about motivation. If you’ve decided you want to change a habit, you’ve got the motivation you need. To make it stick, you will need to be sure you are trying to change the right thing, in the right way:
“If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change.”
Take a popular choice of New Year’s resolution – this year I’ll run a marathon. It’s great to have something tangible and ambitious to aim for. But Clear argues that you can improve your chances of success by thinking about this differently, and getting to the heart of what this resolution is about.
What is the real change you are looking to make? Perhaps you want to be healthier and would like to achieve this by becoming a runner. And if that’s the case, you might decide that the best way to put this into practice is to build a new habit of lacing up your trainers each day after work. Clear puts it more succinctly: “Optimise for the start line, not the finish line.”
HACKING OUR HABITS
Here’s the crux: our habits are formed by four simple steps – cue, craving, response and reward. These repeat themselves in a cycle, creating a ‘habit loop’. By understanding this process, we can build our own systems to lose the bad habits, and stick to the good ones.
Step 1: All habits are initiated by a cue, something that triggers our brain to take an action without too much thought
When my phone buzzes, I’ll usually pick it up to check my alerts without it even feeling like a conscious decision.
If we become more aware of these cues, we can start to reconfigure them. To break the habit of picking up my phone too often, I can remove the cue by putting it in a different room.
Clear’s book is packed full of interesting research studies, including a few which seem to show conclusively that one of the best ways to stick to an intention to do something is to make an explicit plan setting out exactly when, where and how you will do it. As he argues, somewhat reassuringly: “Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. It is not always obvious when and where to take action.”
Step 2: For a habit to stick, you must want to do it after your brain has registered the cue
It’s often the case that things that are bad for us (like junk food and social media doom-scrolling) feel more attractive in the moment than things that are good for us in the long term (like going to gym or reviewing our pension plan).
So, we need to find a way to make good habits attractive and bad habits unattractive. Clear tells the story of how electrical engineering student Ronan Byrne set about making exercise a more attractive habit. He developed a hack to link up his bike, laptop and TV and built a programme which allowed him to watch Netflix only when he cycled above a certain speed. We may not all have Byrne’s engineering ingenuity, but there are simpler methods available to make good habits more attractive by bundling them together with things we enjoy.
Step 3: Response – having acknowledged the cue and made our desired habit attractive, how do we make sure we go ahead and do it?
Building on the insights of behavioural economics and nudge theory, we now know that there is one guaranteed way to improve the likelihood of anyone doing a specific thing: make it easy.
Something called the ‘two-minute rule’ might help with this. The theory goes that any habit can be started in two minutes. If you want to be a reader, build a daily habit of reading for two minutes every day. If you want to be a musician, build a daily habit of playing a musical instrument for two minutes every day. The hardest part of any habit is always getting started – by making this difficult hurdle easier to clear, habits are more likely to stick. And if you feel no inclination to continue beyond the initial two minutes, this habit may not have been the right one for you anyway!
We can also root out bad habits by making them difficult. This might be as simple as removing social media apps from your phone’s home screen to increase the number of clicks needed to open then. Clear went to even more extreme lengths – to keep on track with his deadline for completing Atomic Habits he had his assistant change all his social media passwords.
Step 4: Make it satisfying so we’ll want to do it again next time
Our brains are wired so that we only tend to repeat an action if we got an immediate sense of reward and enjoyment the first time. (See my recent video on dopamine for more about how our brain’s reward system drives our behaviour).
Thousands of year ago we got our dopamine hits from hunting and foraging, forming tribes and telling stories around the campfire – things that were essential for our survival.
These days, it’s a lot more complicated. The world we live in has evolved at a much faster pace than our brains. As a result, we get instant gratification from unhealthy habits like eating donuts, but no immediate reward for doing things that are good for us.
To compensate for this, we can engineer our own reward systems and hack our brains into wanting to repeat a habit. Progress is often slow and difficult to recognise on a day-by-day basis. So, a common tactic to make progress more immediately rewarding is to track it. This concept will be familiar if you use a step counting app and derive a seemingly disproportionate amount of pleasure from seeing how long you can keep your daily streak running (yes, that’s me).
(and how I completed 52 books in a year)
Atomic Habits includes a lot of practical examples and tactics for changing habits. But the real value of this book was the fresh perspective it inspired in taking stock of my habits, how they are formed, and how I can manage them. We can all fall into the trap of continuing to do things without really thinking, just because we’ve always done them.
My secret to completing 52 books last year? I replaced podcasts with audiobooks.
Don’t get me wrong, I think podcasts are brilliant and I do find myself occasionally missing the BBC Newscast crew and Darknet Diaries. But I feel I’ve replaced a habit with a better one which helps me to learn more and feel more inspired. To use Clear’s terminology, I also did some ‘habit stacking’, pairing up an hour or two of audiobook listening every morning with walking the dog. Setting an ambitious goal was important to me, but only because I had a system in place and the goal helped to reinforce it. It even drove some other good habits – in my efforts to stay on track, I found extra time by getting up a little earlier, not scrolling social media first thing, and extending my daily dog walks.
There’s no secret hack that we can all use to magically change our habits overnight – different tactics are likely to work better for different people in different scenarios. But at least a couple of the ideas in this book have really stuck with me – our habits define us, and if we want to change them, we need to look at systems first, rather than goals.
As Clear puts it: “Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you develop your deepest beliefs about yourself. Quite literally, you become your habits.”