Atomic Habits: The Power of Tiny Changes

April 16, 2024 Eric Hinkle

"We become our habits." – James Clear

Your life is the sum of your choices. Every action you take is a “vote” for the type of person you wish to become. If you keep casting the same votes you’ve always cast, you’re going to keep getting the same results you’ve always had. If nothing changes, nothing changes. So how do we change?

True behavior change begins by changing your identity. As a “non-smoker”, you wouldn’t even think about picking up a cigarette. But someone who still sees themself as a “smoker,” but is trying to quit, has a tough decision to make all day, every day. Behaviors that are not consistent with our beliefs won’t last.

We aren’t born with our beliefs. We learned them. So we can unlearn them too, if we adopt a growth mindset. “Fake it till you make it” can work, but you have to "make it." In other words, you can call yourself a non-smoker. But your brain won’t believe it for long without any evidence to support it. Your new habits provide the evidence.

What is a habit?
All behavior is driven by a desire to solve a problem. Habits just do it with less energy. They’re mental shortcuts to free up your conscious mind to focus on more important decisions and activities. When your habits are generally aligned with your identity, you don’t have to stop and think about specific details of every decision.

Invest now or pay later.

❌ Bad habits tend to reward you now and cost you later (instant gratification). That cookie tastes SO good, but eat one every day and, well, you know what happens. That’s why grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, etc.) are the #1 source of calories in our diet. No surprise 82% of us are overweight or have obesity and 50% have diabetes or prediabetes.

✔️ Good habits generally cost you now and reward you later (delayed gratification). Think about your financial retirement plan. You have to invest up front, right? Exercise is your physical retirement plan. If you don’t invest in your health now, you may not enjoy your golden years. No matter how much money you have.

Our ancient ancestors lived in an environment that rewarded immediate gratification for survival. But we don’t live in that world anymore. Now, we go to work for a paycheck in 2 weeks. Study in school for a degree in 4 years. And hope to save enough money to retire in 20 years.

compound-interestAs with compound interest, the rewards start small and grow exponentially over time. To make a meaningful difference, habits need to persist long enough to break through the plateau you see in the diagram. Be patient. Keep going!

The cardinal rule of behavior change.

  • Behaviors that get immediately rewarded get repeated
  • Behaviors that get immediately punished get avoided

Rewards teach our brains which actions are useful, or useless. Yum! What did I do right before I ate that bag of chips? That’s how we form habits.

We have to make good habits pleasurable enough that we want to keep doing them. Try “habit stacking” as BJ Fogg suggests in his book, Tiny Habits. Associate activities you NEED to do with activities you WANT to do. Watch TV or read on the treadmill. Personally, I reward myself on exercise days with ice cream and my favorite coffee (with caffeine). Otherwise, decaf it is.

Trying to avoid a behavior? It’s hard to feel a reward when there is no action. So each time you skip your daily latte, how about transferring $5 into your savings account? Do that every day and 5 years later (with compounding) you will have saved $10,000. Is that cup of coffee worth $10,000?

Input vs output goals.

In sports, both teams had the same (“output") goal. Goals to make more money or lose weight don’t actually do anything. We don’t have direct control over our results (ie, lagging indicators). Focus on what you CAN control: your decisions and actions. Inputs (ie, leading indicators). If you reach your input goals, the outputs will take care of themselves. If there's a gap between your goals and your daily habits, your habits will win every time.

Change your environment.

We have the same brains as our ancestors, but we face unnatural temptations every day they never knew. Junk food is not natural. Social media is not natural. Our brains are not designed to fight against our cravings for them.

When we’re short on time or energy, we will choose the path of least resistance. We often choose products because of where they are. Not because of what they are. So while you’re still thinking straight, create an environment with enough friction between you and the things you’re trying to avoid. Get the cookies out of the house. And put your exercise clothes by your bed. Sleep in them if you have to.

Change your tribe.

Our actions are also signals to the people around us. “I get it. I fit in.” Jim Rohn said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Join groups where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. If we have to choose between doing what we want or conforming with the crowd, most of us will choose to go along with the crowd. We choose belonging over loneliness.

👉 Inspired by James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits.



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