Ended: Nov. 3, 2018
changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years. We all deal with setbacks but in the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. With the same habits, you’ll end up with the same results. But with better habits, anything is possible.
At the start of 2017, I launched the Habits Academy, which became the premier training platform for organizations and individuals interested in building better habits in life and work.* Fortune 500 companies and growing start-ups began to enroll their leaders and train their staff. In total, over ten thousand leaders, managers, coaches, and teachers have graduated from the Habits Academy, and my work with them has taught me an incredible amount about what it takes to make habits work in the real world.
The backbone of this book is my four-step model of habits—cue, craving, response, and reward—and the four laws of behavior change that evolve out of these steps.
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 margin of 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 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”
It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. Whether it is losing weight, building a business, writing a book, winning a championship, or achieving any other goal, we put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.
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. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.
it doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success. You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results. If you’re a millionaire but you spend more than you earn each month, then you’re on a bad trajectory. If your spending habits don’t change, it’s not going to end well. Conversely, if you’re broke, but you save a little bit every month, then you’re on the path toward financial freedom—even if you’re moving slower than you’d like. 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.
Positive Compounding Productivity compounds. Accomplishing one extra task is a small feat on any given day, but it counts for a lot over an entire career. The effect of automating an old task or mastering a new skill can be even greater. The more tasks you can handle without thinking, the more your brain is free to focus on other areas. Knowledge compounds. Learning one new idea won’t make you a genius, but a commitment to lifelong learning can be transformative. Furthermore, each book you read not only teaches you something new but also opens up different ways of thinking about old ideas. As Warren Buffett says, “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.” Relationships compound. People reflect your behavior back to you. The more you help others, the more others want to help you. Being a little bit nicer in each interaction can result in a network of broad and strong connections over time. Negative Compounding Stress compounds. The frustration of a traffic jam. The weight of parenting responsibilities. The worry of making ends meet. The strain of slightly high blood pressure. By themselves, these common causes of stress are manageable. But when they persist for years, little stresses compound into serious health issues. Negative thoughts compound. The more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid, or ugly, the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. You get trapped in a thought loop. The same is true for how you think about others. Once you fall into the habit of seeing people as angry, unjust, or selfish, you see those kind of people everywhere. Outrage compounds. Riots, protests, and mass movements are rarely the result of a single event. Instead, a long series of microaggressions and daily aggravations slowly multiply until one event tips the scales and outrage spreads like wildfire.
succeeded at a few, but I failed at a lot of them. Eventually, I began to realize that my results had very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed. What’s the difference between systems and goals? It’s a distinction I first learned from Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind the Dilbert comic. Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.
Are goals completely useless? Of course not. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.
Problem #1: Winners and losers have the same goals. 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.
Problem #2: Achieving a goal is only a momentary change. Imagine you have a messy room and you set a goal to clean it. If you summon the energy to tidy up, then you will have a clean room—for now. But if you maintain the same sloppy, pack-rat habits that led to a messy room in the first place, soon you’ll be looking at a new pile of clutter and hoping for another burst of motivation. You’re left chasing the same outcome because you never changed the system behind it. You treated a symptom without addressing the cause. 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. When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level.
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. I’ve slipped into this trap so many times I’ve lost count. For years, happiness was always something for my future self to enjoy. I promised myself that once I gained twenty pounds of muscle or after my business was featured in the New York Times, then I could finally relax. Furthermore, goals create an “either-or” conflict: either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are a disappointment. You mentally box yourself into a narrow version of happiness. This is misguided. It is unlikely that your actual path through life will match the exact journey you had in mind when you set out. It makes no sense to restrict your satisfaction to one scenario when there are many paths to success. A systems-first mentality provides the antidote. When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running. And a system can be successful in many different forms, not just the one you first envision.
Problem #4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress. Finally, a goal-oriented mind-set can create a “yo-yo” effect. Many runners work hard for months, but as soon as they cross the finish line, they stop training. The race is no longer there to motivate them. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it? This is why many people find themselves reverting to their old habits after accomplishing a goal. The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single…
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level…
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Getting 1 percent better every day counts for a lot in the long-run. Habits are a double-edged sword. They can work for you or against you, which is why understanding the details is essential. Small changes often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold. The most powerful outcomes of any compounding process are delayed. You need to be patient. An atomic habit is a little habit that is part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results. If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. You may want more money, but if your identity is someone who consumes rather than creates, then you’ll continue to be pulled toward spending rather than earning. You may want better health, but if you continue to prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you’ll be drawn to relaxing rather than training. It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.
Chapter Summary There are three levels of change: outcome change, process change, and identity change. The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become. Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity. The real reason habits matter is not because they can get you better results (although they can do that), but because they can change your beliefs about yourself.
Habits do not restrict freedom. They create it. In fact, the people who don’t have their habits handled are often the ones with the least amount of freedom. Without good financial habits, you will always be struggling for the next dollar. Without good health habits, you will always seem to be short on energy. Without good learning habits, you will always feel like you’re behind the curve. If you’re always being forced to make decisions about simple tasks—when should I work out, where do I go to write, when do I pay the bills—then you have less time for freedom. It’s only by making the fundamentals of life easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity. Conversely, when you have your habits dialed in and the basics of life are handled and done, your mind is free to focus on new challenges and master the next set of problems. Building habits in the present allows you to do more of what you want in the future.
How to Create a Good Habit 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.
How to Break a Bad Habit Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible. Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive. Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult. Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.
Chapter Summary A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic. The ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible. Any habit can be broken down into a feedback loop that involves four steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. The Four Laws of Behavior Change are a simple set of rules we can use to build better habits. They are (1) make it obvious, (2) make it attractive, (3) make it easy, and (4) make it satisfying.
Chapter Summary With enough practice, your brain will pick up on the cues that predict certain outcomes without consciously thinking about it. Once our habits become automatic, we stop paying attention to what we are doing. The process of behavior change always starts with awareness. You need to be aware of your habits before you can change them. Pointing-and-Calling raises your level of awareness from a nonconscious habit to a more conscious level by verbalizing your actions. The Habits Scorecard is a simple exercise you can use to become more aware of your behavior.
Diderot’s behavior is not uncommon. In fact, the tendency for one purchase to lead to another one has a name: the Diderot Effect. The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption that leads to additional purchases.
Chapter Summary The 1st Law of Behavior Change is make it obvious. The two most common cues are time and location. Creating an implementation intention is a strategy you can use to pair a new habit with a specific time and location. The implementation intention formula is: I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]. Habit stacking is a strategy you can use to pair a new habit with a current habit. The habit stacking formula is: After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
Chapter Summary Small changes in context can lead to large changes in behavior over time. Every habit is initiated by a cue. We are more likely to notice cues that stand out. Make the cues of good habits obvious in your environment. Gradually, your habits become associated not with a single trigger but with the entire context surrounding the behavior. The context becomes the cue. It is easier to build new habits in a new environment because you are not fighting against old cues.
The Vietnam studies ran counter to many of our cultural beliefs about bad habits because it challenged the conventional association of unhealthy behavior as a moral weakness. If you’re overweight, a smoker, or an addict, you’ve been told your entire life that it is because you lack self-control—maybe even that you’re a bad person. The idea that a little bit of discipline would solve all our problems is deeply embedded in our culture. Recent research, however, shows something different. When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. 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.
Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. You may be able to resist temptation once or twice, but it’s unlikely you can muster the willpower to override your desires every time. Instead of summoning a new dose of willpower whenever you want to do the right thing, your energy would be better spent optimizing your environment. This is the secret to self-control. Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.
Chapter Summary The inversion of the 1st Law of Behavior Change is make it invisible. Once a habit is formed, it is unlikely to be forgotten. People with high self-control tend to spend less time in tempting situations. It’s easier to avoid temptation than resist it. One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it. Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one.
It’s like the brain of each animal is preloaded with certain rules for behavior, and when it comes across an exaggerated version of that rule, it lights up like a Christmas tree. Scientists refer to these exaggerated cues as supernormal stimuli. A supernormal stimulus is a heightened version of reality—like a beak with three red dots or an egg the size of a volleyball—and it elicits a stronger response than usual. Humans are also prone to fall for exaggerated versions of reality. Junk food, for example, drives our reward systems into a frenzy.
Your brain has far more neural circuitry allocated for wanting rewards than for liking them. The wanting centers in the brain are large: the brain stem, the nucleus accumbens, the ventral tegmental area, the dorsal striatum, the amygdala, and portions of the prefrontal cortex. By comparison, the liking centers of the brain are much smaller. They are often referred to as “hedonic hot spots” and are distributed like tiny islands throughout the brain. For instance, researchers have found that 100 percent of the nucleus accumbens is activated during wanting. Meanwhile, only 10 percent of the structure is activated during liking.
Chapter Summary The 2nd Law of Behavior Change is make it attractive. The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming. Habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop. When dopamine rises, so does our motivation to act. It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action. The greater the anticipation, the greater the dopamine spike. Temptation bundling is one way to make your habits more attractive. The strategy is to pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do.
Of course, peer pressure is bad only if you’re surrounded by bad influences. When astronaut Mike Massimino was a graduate student at MIT, he took a small robotics class. Of the ten people in the class, four became astronauts. If your goal was to make it into space, then that room was about the best culture you could ask for. Similarly, one study found that the higher your best friend’s IQ at age eleven or twelve, the higher your IQ would be at age fifteen, even after controlling for natural levels of intelligence. We soak up the qualities and practices of those around us. One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.
Chapter Summary The culture we live in determines which behaviors are attractive to us. We tend to adopt habits that are praised and approved of by our culture because we have a strong desire to fit in and belong to the tribe. We tend to imitate the habits of three social groups: the close (family and friends), the many (the tribe), and the powerful (those with status and prestige). One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to 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. Most days, we’d rather be wrong with the crowd than be right by ourselves. If a behavior can get us approval, respect, and praise, we find it attractive.
Pregame jitters. Many people feel anxious before delivering a big presentation or competing in an important event. They experience quicker breathing, a faster heart rate, heightened arousal. If we interpret these feelings negatively, then we feel threatened and tense up. If we interpret these feelings positively, then we can respond with fluidity and grace. You can reframe “I am nervous” to “I am excited and I’m getting an adrenaline rush to help me concentrate.”
Athletes use similar strategies to get themselves in the mind-set to perform. During my baseball career, I developed a specific ritual of stretching and throwing before each game. The whole sequence took about ten minutes, and I did it the same way every single time. While it physically warmed me up to play, more importantly, it put me in the right mental state. I began to associate my pregame ritual with feeling competitive and focused. Even if I wasn’t motivated beforehand, by the time I was done with my ritual, I was in “game mode.” You can adapt this strategy for nearly any purpose. Say you want to feel happier in general. Find something that makes you truly happy—like petting your dog or taking a bubble bath—and then create a short routine that you perform every time before you do the thing you love. Maybe you take three deep breaths and smile. Three deep breaths. Smile. Pet the dog. Repeat. Eventually, you’ll begin to associate this breathe-and-smile routine with being in a good mood. It becomes a cue that means feeling happy. 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.
Chapter Summary The inversion of the 2nd Law of Behavior Change is make it unattractive. Every behavior has a surface level craving and a deeper underlying motive. Your habits are modern-day solutions to ancient desires. The cause of your habits is actually the prediction that precedes them. The prediction leads to a feeling. Highlight the benefits of avoiding a bad habit to make it seem unattractive. Habits are attractive when we associate them with positive feelings and unattractive when we associate them with negative feelings. Create a motivation ritual by doing something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit.
Habit formation is the process by which a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through repetition. The more you repeat an activity, the more the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at that activity. Neuroscientists call this long-term potentiation, which refers to the strengthening of connections between neurons in the brain based on recent patterns of activity. With each repetition, cell-to-cell signaling improves and the neural connections tighten. First described by neuropsychologist Donald Hebb in 1949, this phenomenon is commonly known as Hebb’s Law: “Neurons that fire together wire together.”
Chapter Summary The 3rd Law of Behavior Change is make it easy. The most effective form of learning is practice, not planning. Focus on taking action, not being in motion. Habit formation is the process by which a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through repetition. The amount of time you have been performing a habit is not as important as the number of times you have performed it.
People think I work hard but I’m actually really lazy. I’m just proactively lazy. It gives you so much time back.”
You can also invert this principle and prime the environment to make bad behaviors difficult. If you find yourself watching too much television, for example, then unplug it after each use. Only plug it back in if you can say out loud the name of the show you want to watch. This setup creates just enough friction to prevent mindless viewing.
Whether we are approaching behavior change as an individual, a parent, a coach, or a leader, we should ask ourselves the same question: “How can we design a world where it’s easy to do what’s right?” Redesign your life so the actions that matter most are also the actions that are easiest to do.
Chapter Summary Human behavior follows the Law of Least Effort. We will naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work. Create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Reduce the friction associated with good behaviors. When friction is low, habits are easy. Increase the friction associated with bad behaviors. When friction is high, habits are difficult. Prime your environment to make future actions easier.
We are limited by where our habits lead us. This is why mastering the decisive moments throughout your day is so important. Each day is made up of many moments, but it is really a few habitual choices that determine the path you take. These little choices stack up, each one setting the trajectory for how you spend the next chunk of time. Habits are the entry point, not the end point. They are the cab, not the gym.
The best way to break a bad habit is to make it impractical to do. Increase the friction until you don’t even have the option to act. The brilliance of the cash register was that it automated ethical behavior by making stealing practically impossible. Rather than trying to change the employees, it made the preferred behavior automatic.
Chapter Summary The inversion of the 3rd Law of Behavior Change is make it difficult. A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that locks in better behavior in the future. The ultimate way to lock in future behavior is to automate your habits. Onetime choices—like buying a better mattress or enrolling in an automatic savings plan—are single actions that automate your future habits and deliver increasing returns over time. Using technology to automate your habits is the most reliable and effective way to guarantee the right behavior.
The first three laws of behavior change—make it obvious, make it attractive, and make it easy—increase the odds that a behavior will be performed this time. The fourth law of behavior change—make it satisfying—increases the odds that a behavior will be repeated next time. It completes the habit loop. But there is a trick. We are not looking for just any type of satisfaction. We are looking for immediate satisfaction.
It is only recently—during the last five hundred years or so—that society has shifted to a predominantly delayed-return environment.* Compared to the age of the brain, modern society is brand-new. In the last one hundred years, we have seen the rise of the car, the airplane, the television, the personal computer, the internet, the smartphone, and Beyoncé. The world has changed much in recent years, but human nature has changed little.
Similar to other animals on the African savannah, our ancestors spent their days responding to grave threats, securing the next meal, and taking shelter from a storm. It made sense to place a high value on instant gratification. The distant future was less of a concern. And after thousands of generations in an immediate-return environment, our brains evolved to prefer quick payoffs to long-term ones. Behavioral economists refer to this tendency as time inconsistency. That is, the way your brain evaluates rewards is inconsistent across time.* You value the present more than the future. Usually, this tendency serves us well. A reward that is certain right now is typically worth more than one that is merely possible in the future. But occasionally, our bias toward instant gratification causes problems.
Why would someone smoke if they know it increases the risk of lung cancer? Why would someone overeat when they know it increases their risk of obesity? Why would someone have unsafe sex if they know it can result in sexually transmitted disease? Once you understand how the brain prioritizes rewards, the answers become clear: the consequences of bad habits are delayed while the rewards are immediate. Smoking might kill you in ten years, but it reduces stress and eases your nicotine cravings now. Overeating is harmful in the long run but appetizing in the moment. Sex—safe or not—provides pleasure right away. Disease and infection won’t show up for days or weeks, even years.
Chapter Summary The 4th Law of Behavior Change is make it satisfying. We are more likely to repeat a behavior when the experience is satisfying. The human brain evolved to prioritize immediate rewards over delayed rewards. The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided. To get a habit to stick you need to feel immediately successful—even if it’s in a small way. The first three laws of behavior change—make it obvious, make it attractive, and make it easy—increase the odds that a behavior will be performed this time. The fourth law of behavior change—make it satisfying—increases the odds that a behavior will be repeated next time.
Countless people have tracked their habits, but perhaps the most famous was Benjamin Franklin. Beginning at age twenty, Franklin carried a small booklet everywhere he went and used it to track thirteen personal virtues. This list included goals like “Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful” and “Avoid trifling conversation.” At the end of each day, Franklin would open his booklet and record his progress.
The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit. This is a distinguishing feature between winners and losers. Anyone can have a bad performance, a bad workout, or a bad day at work. But when successful people fail, they rebound quickly. The breaking of a habit doesn’t matter if the reclaiming of it is fast. I think this principle is so important that I’ll stick to it even if I can’t do a habit as well or as completely as I would like. Too often, we fall into an all-or-nothing cycle with our habits. The problem is not slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can’t do something perfectly, then you shouldn’t do it at all.
This is sometimes referred to as Goodhart’s Law. Named after the economist Charles Goodhart, the principle states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Measurement is only useful when it guides you and adds context to a larger picture, not when it consumes you. Each number is simply one piece of feedback in the overall system.
Chapter Summary One of the most satisfying feelings is the feeling of making progress. A habit tracker is a simple way to measure whether you did a habit—like marking an X on a calendar. Habit trackers and other visual forms of measurement can make your habits satisfying by providing clear evidence of your progress. Don’t break the chain. Try to keep your habit streak alive. Never miss twice. If you miss one day, try to get back on track as quickly as possible. Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing.
Chapter Summary The inversion of the 4th Law of Behavior Change is make it unsatisfying. We are less likely to repeat a bad habit if it is painful or unsatisfying. An accountability partner can create an immediate cost to inaction. We care deeply about what others think of us, and we do not want others to have a lesser opinion of us. A habit contract can be used to add a social cost to any behavior. It makes the costs of violating your promises public and painful. Knowing that someone else is watching you can be a powerful motivator.
The most proven scientific analysis of personality traits is known as the “Big Five,” which breaks them down into five spectrums of behavior. Openness to experience: from curious and inventive on one end to cautious and consistent on the other. Conscientiousness: organized and efficient to easygoing and spontaneous. Extroversion: outgoing and energetic to solitary and reserved (you likely know them as extroverts vs. introverts). Agreeableness: friendly and compassionate to challenging and detached. Neuroticism: anxious and sensitive to confident, calm, and stable.
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? The mark of whether you are made for a task is not whether you love it but whether you can handle the pain of the task easier than most people. When are you enjoying yourself while other people are complaining? The work that hurts you less than it hurts others is the work you were made to do.
What makes me lose track of time? Flow is the mental state you enter when you are so focused on the task at hand that the rest of the world fades away. This blend of happiness and peak performance is what athletes and performers experience when they are “in the zone.” It is nearly impossible to experience a flow state and not find the task satisfying at least to some degree.
Where do I get greater returns than the average person? We are continually comparing ourselves to those around us, and a behavior is more likely to be satisfying when the comparison is in our favor. When I started writing at jamesclear.com, my email list grew very quickly. I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing well, but I knew that results seemed to be coming faster for me than for some of my colleagues, which motivated me to keep writing.
What comes naturally to me? For just a moment, ignore what you have been taught. Ignore what society has told you. Ignore what others expect of you. Look inside yourself and ask, “What feels natural to me? When have I felt alive? When have I felt like the real me?” No internal judgments or people-pleasing. No second-guessing or self-criticism. Just feelings of engagement and enjoyment. Whenever you feel authentic and genuine, you are headed in the right direction.
If you can’t find a game where the odds are stacked in your favor, create one. Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind Dilbert, says, “Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.” When you can’t win by being better, you can win by being different. By combining your skills, you reduce the level of competition, which makes it easier to stand out. You can shortcut the need for a genetic advantage (or for years of practice) by rewriting the rules. A good player works hard to win the game everyone else is playing. A great player creates a new game that favors their strengths and avoids their weaknesses.
Our genes do not eliminate the need for hard work. They clarify it. They tell us what to work hard on. Once we realize our strengths, we know where to spend our time and energy. We know which types of opportunities to look for and which types of challenges to avoid. The better we understand our nature, the better our strategy can be. Biological differences matter. Even so, it’s more productive to focus on whether you are fulfilling your own potential than comparing yourself to someone else. The fact that you have a natural limit to any specific ability has nothing to do with whether you are reaching the ceiling of your capabilities. People get so caught up in the fact that they have limits that they rarely exert the effort required to get close to them.
Chapter Summary The secret to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition. Pick the right habit and progress is easy. Pick the wrong habit and life is a struggle. Genes cannot be easily changed, which means they provide a powerful advantage in favorable circumstances and a serious disadvantage in unfavorable circumstances. Habits are easier when they align with your natural abilities. Choose the habits that best suit you. Play a game that favors your strengths. If you can’t find a game that favors you, create one. Genes do not eliminate the need for hard work. They clarify it. They tell us what to work hard on.
Why is it that some people, like Martin, stick with their habits—whether practicing jokes or drawing cartoons or playing guitar—while most of us struggle to stay motivated? How do we design habits that pull us in rather than ones that fade away? Scientists have been studying this question for many years. While there is still much to learn, one of the most consistent findings is that the way to maintain motivation and achieve peak levels of desire is to work on tasks of “just manageable difficulty.”
This is a challenge of just manageable difficulty and it is a prime example of the Goldilocks Rule. 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. In real life it’s typically not feasible to quantify the difficulty of an action in this way, but the core idea of the Goldilocks Rule remains: working on challenges of just manageable difficulty—something on the perimeter of your ability—seems crucial for maintaining motivation.
I can guarantee that if you manage to start a habit and keep sticking to it, there will be days when you feel like quitting. When you start a business, there will be days when you don’t feel like showing up. When you’re at the gym, there will be sets that you don’t feel like finishing. When it’s time to write, there will be days that you don’t feel like typing. But stepping up when it’s annoying or painful or draining to do so, that’s what makes the difference between a professional and an amateur.
Chapter Summary The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. As habits become routine, they become less interesting and less satisfying. We get bored. Anyone can work hard when they feel motivated. It’s the ability to keep going when work isn’t exciting that makes the difference. Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way.
Although habits are powerful, what you need is a way to remain conscious of your performance over time, so you can continue to refine and improve. It is precisely at the moment when you begin to feel like you have mastered a skill—right when things are starting to feel automatic and you are becoming comfortable—that you must avoid slipping into the trap of complacency. The solution? Establish a system for reflection and review.
The CBE program is a prime example of the power of reflection and review. The Lakers were already talented. CBE helped them get the most out of what they had, and made sure their habits improved rather than declined. Reflection and review enables the long-term improvement of all habits because it makes you aware of your mistakes and helps you consider possible paths for improvement. Without reflection, we can make excuses, create rationalizations, and lie to ourselves. We have no process for determining whether we are performing better or worse compared to yesterday.
I know of executives and investors who keep a “decision journal” in which they record the major decisions they make each week, why they made them, and what they expect the outcome to be. They review their choices at the end of each month or year to see where they were correct and where they went wrong.*
Personally, I employ two primary modes of reflection and review. Each December, I perform an Annual Review, in which I reflect on the previous year. I tally my habits for the year by counting up how many articles I published, how many workouts I put in, how many new places I visited, and more.* Then, I reflect on my progress (or lack thereof) by answering three questions: What went well this year? What didn’t go so well this year? What did I learn?
Six months later, when summer rolls around, I conduct an Integrity Report. Like everyone, I make a lot of mistakes. My Integrity Report helps me realize where I went wrong and motivates me to get back on course. I use it as a time to revisit my core values and consider whether I have been living in accordance with them. This is when I reflect on my identity and how I can work toward being the type of person I wish to become.* My yearly Integrity Report answers three questions: What are the core values that drive my life and work? How am I living and working with integrity right now? How can I set a higher standard in the future?
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. If you’re a vegan and then develop a health condition that forces you to change your diet, you’ll have an identity crisis on your hands. When you cling too tightly to one identity, you become brittle. Lose that one thing and you lose yourself.
Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail. —LAO TZU
Chapter Summary The upside of habits is that we can do things without thinking. The downside is that we stop paying attention to little errors. Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery Reflection and review is a process that allows you to remain conscious of your performance over time. The tighter we cling to an identity, the harder it becomes to grow beyond it.
Happiness is simply the absence of desire. When you observe a cue, but do not desire to change your state, you are content with the current situation. Happiness is not about the achievement of pleasure (which is joy or satisfaction), but about the lack of desire. It arrives when you have no urge to feel differently. Happiness is the state you enter when you no longer want to change your state.
It is the idea of pleasure that we chase. We seek the image of pleasure that we generate in our minds. At the time of action, we do not know what it will be like to attain that image (or even if it will satisfy us). The feeling of satisfaction only comes afterward. This is what the Austrian neurologist Victor Frankl meant when he said that happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. Desire is pursued. Pleasure ensues from action.
Emotions drive behavior. Every decision is an emotional decision at some level. Whatever your logical reasons are for taking action, you only feel compelled to act on them because of emotion. In fact, people with damage to emotional centers of the brain can list many reasons for taking action but still will not act because they do not have emotions to drive them. This is why craving comes before response. The feeling comes first, and then the behavior.
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.
Our expectations determine our satisfaction. The gap between our cravings and our rewards determines how satisfied we feel after taking action. If the mismatch between expectations and outcomes is positive (surprise and delight), then we are more likely to repeat a behavior in the future. If the mismatch is negative (disappointment and frustration), then we are less likely to do so. For example, if you expect to get $10 and get $100, you feel great. If you expect to get $100 and get $10, you feel disappointed. Your expectation changes your satisfaction. An average experience preceded by high expectations is a disappointment. An average experience preceded by low expectations is a delight. When liking and wanting are approximately the same, you feel satisfied. Satisfaction = Liking – Wanting This is the wisdom behind Seneca’s famous quote, “Being poor is not having too little, it is wanting more.” If your wants outpace your likes, you’ll always be unsatisfied.