What is Avid Weekly Ideas?
Each week I publish an idea or two either from a book I am currently reading or from my backlog of book notes. 📚
Of course, this isn’t intended to replace book notes or reading the book itself. Instead the aim is to extract a key idea or two from a book that struck me as insightful and share-worthy. Then I package it into a bite-sized digestible chunk. I hope these little nuggets of insight will spark some inspiration or ideas in your own mind. 💡
How to Build Better Habits
This week’s installment of Avid Weekly is a continuation of last week’s piece: Avid Weekly Ideas #11 – Tiny Habits Make a Big Difference.
Last week I focused on the power of small changes when compounded over time.
Today I will share some practical insights from Atomic Habits around the science of habit building.
Let’s dive in.
First, don’t be dismayed
Sometimes progress is hard to see, and this causes many people to give up when they are so close yet don’t realize how close they are.
Clear explains that “breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change.”
Similarly, habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance.
Clear calls this the Valley of Disappointment.
It is important to keep going at this stage, until you reach a tipping point (what he calls the Plateau of Latent Potential) where you break through this plateau.
When you finally break through this plateau, it will happen so fast people looking from outside will think you are an overnight success.
This is because the outside world “only sees the most dramatic event rather than all that preceded it.”
So if you feel like giving up after trying for some time with seemingly little results, here is a powerful takeaway:
Complaining about not achieving success despite working hard is like complaining about an ice cube not melting when you heated it from twenty-five to thirty-one degrees. Your work was not wasted; it is just being stored. All the action happens at thirty-two degrees.
Focus on systems not goals
When trying to achieve success it is important to distinguish between the goals you seek to achieve and the systems in place that will bring you there.
Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.
While goals are good for setting direction, systems are best for making progress. If all you do is spend all your time thinking about your goals you will not have enough time to design your systems which are the vehicles that will bring you there.
Clear uses a sporting analogy to explain this, which I really like:
The only way to actually win is to get better each day. In the words of three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Walsh, “The score takes care of itself.” The same is true for other areas of life. If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.
Focusing on the overall system, rather than a single goal, is one of the core themes of Atomic Habits.
How to build better habits in 4 simple steps
Clear breaks down the process of building a habit into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.
Let’s break that down.
Cue → the cue triggers the brain to initiate a behavior. It is the bit of information that predicts a reward.
Your mind is continuously analyzing your internal and external environment for hints of where rewards are located. Because the cue is the first indication that we’re close to a reward, it naturally leads to a craving.
Cravings → cravings are the next step. They are the motivational force behind every habit. Without some level of motivation or desire – without craving a change in internal state – we have no reason to act. What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers.
You do not crave smoking a cigarette, you crave the feeling of relief it provides. You are not motivated by brushing your teeth but rather by the feeling of a clean mouth. You do not want to turn on the television, you want to be entertained. Every craving is linked to a desire to change your internal state.”
Response → the third step is the response.
The response is the actual habit you perform, which can take the form of a thought or an action. Whether a response occurs depends on how motivated you are and how much friction is associated with the behavior. If a particular action requires more physical or mental effort than you are willing to expend, then you won’t do it. Your response also depends on your ability. It sounds simple, but a habit can occur only if you are capable of doing it. If you want to dunk a basketball but can’t jump high enough to reach the hoop, well, you’re out of luck.
Reward → this is the final stage.
Finally, the response delivers a reward. Rewards are the end goal of every habit. The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. We chase rewards because they serve two purposes: (1) they satisfy us and (2) they teach us.
The first purpose of rewards is to satisfy your craving. Yes, rewards provide benefits on their own. Food and water deliver the energy you need to survive.
Second, rewards teach us which actions are worth remembering in the future.
Here is a succinct summary by Clear:
In summary, the cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop—cue, craving, response, reward; cue, craving, response, reward—that ultimately allows you to create automatic habits. This cycle is known as the habit loop.
It is important to pay attention to each of the four stages because:
If a behavior is insufficient in any of the four stages, it will not become a habit. Eliminate the cue and your habit will never start. Reduce the craving and you won’t experience enough motivation to act. Make the behavior difficult and you won’t be able to do it. And if the reward fails to satisfy your desire, then you’ll have no reason to do it again in the future. Without the first three steps, a behavior will not occur. Without all four, a behavior will not be repeated.
Now that we understand the cue, craving, response, reward framework (the habit loop) for habit formation, the natural corollary is to figure out how we can interject in the loop to break bad habits or encourage the creation of better habits.
Enter the Four Laws of Behavior Change.
The Four Laws of Behavior Change
The question to be answered now is: how can we transform these four steps into a practical framework that we can use to design good habits and eliminate bad ones?
Clear refers this framework as the Four Laws of Behavior Change.
…and it provides a simple set of rules for creating good habits and breaking bad ones. You can think of each law as a lever that influences human behavior. When the levers are in the right positions, creating good habits is effortless. When they are in the wrong positions, it is nearly impossible.
The following two tables from the book summarize the Four Laws very nicely.
So as you can see from the tables above, the key to changing your behavior is to simply ask yourself.
- How can I make it obvious?
- How can I make it attractive?
- How can I make it easy?
- How can I make it satisfying?
So that’s it for today. In the coming week I would encourage you to reflect on these questions as well as the habits in your life (both good and bad).
I hope these lessons from Atomic Habits will help you towards better habit building.
TL;DR of key ideas
- When starting a habit do not be dismayed if you see little to no progress at the outset. Habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance.
- When trying to achieve success it is important to distinguish between the goals you seek to achieve and the systems in place that will bring you there. The only way to actually win is to get better each day. If you do this, “the score takes care of itself.”
- Clear breaks down the process of building a habit into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. He calls this the habit loop.
- The habit loop naturally lends itself to the The Four Laws of Behavior Change, which provide a simple set of rules for creating good habits and breaking bad ones. The key to changing your behavior is to simply ask yourself these four questions: 1) how can I make it obvious? 2) how can I make it attractive? 3) how can I make it easy? 4) how can I make it satisfying?
What do you think of Clear’s habit framework and Four Laws? Do you have any examples of how you or someone you know have applied this principle to great success? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comments or tweet me @AvidBookReadr.
If you liked this week’s ideas, please consider reading the entire book to get the full context, meaning and nuance. As always, happy reading! 📚
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