Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!

  • 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.” Brailsford and his coaches began by making small adjustments you might expect from a professional cycling team. They redesigned the bike seats to make them more comfortable and rubbed alcohol on the tires for a better grip. They asked riders to wear electrically heated overshorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature while riding and used biofeedback sensors to monitor how each athlete responded to a particular workout. The team tested various fabrics in a wind tunnel and had their outdoor riders switch to indoor racing suits, which proved to be lighter and more aerodynamic. But they didn’t stop there. Brailsford and his team continued to find 1 percent improvements in overlooked and unexpected areas. They tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery. They hired a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chances of catching a cold. They determined the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider. They even painted the inside of the team truck white, which helped them spot little bits of dust that would normally slip by unnoticed but could degrade the performance of the finely tuned bikes. As these and hundreds of other small improvements accumulated, the results came faster than anyone could have imagined.

  • Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they won an astounding 60 percent of the gold medals available. Four years later, when the Olympic Games came to London, the Brits raised the bar as they set nine Olympic records and seven world records. That same year, Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. The next year, his teammate Chris Froome won the race, and he would go on to win again in 2015, 2016, and 2017, giving the British team five Tour de France victories in six years. During the ten-year span from 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships and sixty-six Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured five Tour de France victories in what is widely regarded as the most successful run in cycling history.

  • 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.  
  • 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. If you want to predict where you’ll end up in life, all you have to do is follow the curve of tiny gains or tiny losses, and see how your daily choices will compound ten or twenty years down the line. Are you spending less than you earn each month? Are you making it into the gym each week? Are you reading books and learning something new each day? Tiny battles like these are the ones that will define your future self. Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.

  • Habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. In the early and middle stages of any quest, there is often a Valley of Disappointment. You expect to make progress in a linear fashion and it’s frustrating how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months. It doesn’t feel like you are going anywhere. It’s a hallmark of any compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed. This is one of the core reasons why it is so hard to build habits that last. People make a few small changes, fail to see a tangible result, and decide to stop. You think, “I’ve been running every day for a month, so why can’t I see any change in my body?” Once this kind of thinking takes over, it’s easy to let good habits fall by the wayside. But in order to make a meaningful difference, habits need to persist long enough to break through this plateau—what I call the Plateau of Latent Potential.  
  • Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. If you’re a coach, your goal might be to win a championship. Your system is the way you recruit players, manage your assistant coaches, and conduct practice. If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal might be to build a million-dollar business. Your system is how you test product ideas, hire employees, and run marketing campaigns. If you’re a musician, your goal might be to play a new piece. Your system is how often you practice, how you break down and tackle difficult measures, and your method for receiving feedback from your instructor.  
  • 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. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.

  • 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 accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.

  • 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. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

  • There are three layers of behavior change: a change in your outcomes, a change in your processes, or a change in your identity. The first layer is changing your outcomes. This level is concerned with changing your results: losing weight, publishing a book, winning a championship. Most of the goals you set are associated with this level of change. The second layer is changing your process. This level is concerned with changing your habits and systems: implementing a new routine at the gym, decluttering your desk for better workflow, developing a meditation practice. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level. The third and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is concerned with changing your beliefs: your worldview, your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level.

  • Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe. When it comes to building habits that last—when it comes to building a system of 1 percent improvements—the problem is not that one level is “better” or “worse” than another. All levels of change are useful in their own way. The problem is the direction of change. Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.  
  • The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this. The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it. If you’re proud of how your hair looks, you’ll develop all sorts of habits to care for and maintain it. If you’re proud of the size of your biceps, you’ll make sure you never skip an upper-body workout. If you’re proud of the scarves you knit, you’ll be more likely to spend hours knitting each week. Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.

  • True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity. Anyone can convince themselves to visit the gym or eat healthy once or twice, but if you don’t shift the belief behind the behavior, then it is hard to stick with long-term changes. Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are. The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader. The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician. Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity. What you do is an indication of the type of person you believe that you are—either consciously or nonconsciously.

  • Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief. For example, people who identified as “being a voter” were more likely to vote than those who simply claimed “voting” was an action they wanted to perform. Similarly, the person who incorporates exercise into their identity doesn’t have to convince themselves to train. Doing the right thing is easy. After all, when your behavior and your identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behavior change. You are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be.

  • Many people walk through life in a cognitive slumber, blindly following the norms attached to their identity. “I’m terrible with directions.” “I’m not a morning person.” “I’m bad at remembering people’s names.” “I’m always late.” “I’m not good with technology.” “I’m horrible at math.” . . . and a thousand other variations. When you have repeated a story to yourself for years, it is easy to slide into these mental grooves and accept them as a fact. In time, you begin to resist certain actions because “that’s not who I am.” There is internal pressure to maintain your self-image and behave in a way that is consistent with your beliefs. You find whatever way you can to avoid contradicting yourself. More precisely, your habits are how you embody your identity. When you make your bed each day, you embody the identity of an organized person. When you write each day, you embody the identity of a creative person. When you train each day, you embody the identity of an athletic person. The more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior. In fact, the word identity was originally derived from the Latin words essentitas, which means being, and identidem, which means repeatedly. Your identity is literally your “repeated beingness.”

  • We do not change by snapping our fingers and deciding to be someone entirely new. We change bit by bit, day by day, habit by habit. We are continually undergoing microevolutions of the self. Each habit is like a suggestion: “Hey, maybe this is who I am.” If you finish a book, then perhaps you are the type of person who likes reading. If you go to the gym, then perhaps you are the type of person who likes exercise. If you practice playing the guitar, perhaps you are the type of person who likes music.  
  • New identities require new evidence. If you keep casting the same votes you’ve always cast, you’re going to get the same results you’ve always had. If nothing changes, nothing is going to change. It is a simple two-step process: Decide the type of person you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins.  
  • Once you have a handle on the type of person you want to be, you can begin taking small steps to reinforce your desired identity. I have a friend who lost over 100 pounds by asking herself, “What would a healthy person do?” All day long, she would use this question as a guide. Would a healthy person walk or take a cab? Would a healthy person order a burrito or a salad? She figured if she acted like a healthy person long enough, eventually she would become that person. She was right.  
  • You have the power to change your beliefs about yourself. Your identity is not set in stone. You have a choice in every moment. You can choose the identity you want to reinforce today with the habits you choose today.

  • Building better habits isn’t about littering your day with life hacks. It’s not about flossing one tooth each night or taking a cold shower each morning or wearing the same outfit each day. It’s not about achieving external measures of success like earning more money, losing weight, or reducing stress. Habits can help you achieve all of these things, but fundamentally they are not about having something. They are about becoming someone.

  • A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic. The process of habit formation begins with trial and error. Whenever you encounter a new situation in life, your brain has to make a decision. How do I respond to this? The first time you come across a problem, you’re not sure how to solve it.  
  • Like Thorndike’s cat, you’re just trying things out to see what works. Neurological activity in the brain is high during this period. You are carefully analyzing the situation and making conscious decisions about how to act. You’re taking in tons of new information and trying to make sense of it all. The brain is busy learning the most effective course of action. Occasionally, like a cat pressing on a lever, you stumble across a solution. You’re feeling anxious, and you discover that going for a run calms you down. You’re mentally exhausted from a long day of work, and you learn that playing video games relaxes you. You’re exploring, exploring, exploring, and then—BAM—a reward. After you stumble upon an unexpected reward, you alter your strategy for next time. Your brain immediately begins to catalog the events that preceded the reward. Wait a minute—that felt good. What did I do right before that? This is the feedback loop behind all human behavior: try, fail, learn, try differently. With practice, the useless movements fade away and the useful actions get reinforced. That’s a habit forming.  
  • Habits are mental shortcuts learned from experience. In a sense, a habit is just a memory of the steps you previously followed to solve a problem in the past. Whenever the conditions are right, you can draw on this memory and automatically apply the same solution. The primary reason the brain remembers the past is to better predict what will work in the future.

  • 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.

  • The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.

  • The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. It is a bit of information that predicts a reward. Our prehistoric ancestors were paying attention to cues that signaled the location of primary rewards like food, water, and sex. Today, we spend most of our time learning cues that predict secondary rewards like money and fame, power and status, praise and approval, love and friendship, or a sense of personal satisfaction.  
  • 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.  
  • Without some level of motivation or desire—without craving a change—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.  
  • Cravings differ from person to person. In theory, any piece of information could trigger a craving, but in practice, people are not motivated by the same cues. For a gambler, the sound of slot machines can be a potent trigger that sparks an intense wave of desire. For someone who rarely gambles, the jingles and chimes of the casino are just background noise. Cues are meaningless until they are interpreted. The thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the observer are what transform a cue into a craving.

  • 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.

  • 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. Getting a promotion brings more money and respect. Getting in shape improves your health and your dating prospects. But the more immediate benefit is that rewards satisfy your craving to eat or to gain status or to win approval. At least for a moment, rewards deliver contentment and relief from craving. Second, rewards teach us which actions are worth remembering in the future.

  • Your brain is a reward detector. As you go about your life, your sensory nervous system is continuously monitoring which actions satisfy your desires and deliver pleasure. Feelings of pleasure and disappointment are part of the feedback mechanism that helps your brain distinguish useful actions from useless ones. Rewards close the feedback loop and complete the habit cycle. 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.

  • 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. This four-step process is not something that happens occasionally, but rather it is an endless feedback loop that is running and active during every moment you are alive—even now. The brain is continually scanning the environment, predicting what will happen next, trying out different responses, and learning from the results. The entire process is completed in a split second, and we use it again and again without realizing everything that has been packed into the previous moment. We can split these four steps into two phases: the problem phase and the solution phase. The problem phase includes the cue and the craving, and it is when you realize that something needs to change. The solution phase includes the response and the reward, and it is when you take action and achieve the change you desire.

  • Cue: Your phone buzzes with a new text message. 2. Craving: You want to learn the contents of the message. Solution phase 3. Response: You grab your phone and read the text. 4. Reward: You satisfy your craving to read the message. Grabbing your phone becomes associated with your phone buzzing. Problem phase 1. Cue: You are answering emails. 2. Craving: You begin to feel stressed and overwhelmed by work. You want to feel in control. Solution phase 3. Response: You bite your nails. 4. Reward: You satisfy your craving to reduce stress. Biting your nails becomes associated with answering email. Problem phase 1. Cue: You wake up. 2. Craving: You want to feel alert. Solution phase 3. Response: You drink a cup of coffee. 4. Reward: You satisfy your craving to feel alert. Drinking coffee becomes associated with waking up. Problem phase 1. Cue: You smell a doughnut shop as you walk down the street near your office. 2. Craving: You begin to crave a doughnut. Solution phase 3. Response: You buy a doughnut and eat it. 4. Reward: You satisfy your craving to eat a doughnut. Buying a doughnut becomes associated with walking down the street near your office.

  • 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. We can invert these laws to learn how to break a bad habit. 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.

  • The more automatic a behavior becomes, the less likely we are to consciously think about it. And when we’ve done something a thousand times before, we begin to overlook things. We assume that the next time will be just like the last. We’re so used to doing what we’ve always done that we don’t stop to question whether it’s the right thing to do at all. Many of our failures in performance are largely attributable to a lack of self-awareness.

  • One of our greatest challenges in changing habits is maintaining awareness of what we are actually doing. This helps explain why the consequences of bad habits can sneak up on us. We need a “point-and-call” system for our personal lives. That’s the origin of the Habits Scorecard, which is a simple exercise you can use to become more aware of your behavior. To create your own, make a list of your daily habits. Here’s a sample of where your list might start: Wake up Turn off alarm Check my phone Go to the bathroom Weigh myself Take a shower Brush my teeth Floss my teeth Put on deodorant Hang up towel to dry Get dressed Make a cup of tea . . . and so on. Once you have a full list, look at each behavior, and ask yourself, “Is this a good habit, a bad habit, or a neutral habit?” If it is a good habit, write “+” next to it. If it is a bad habit, write “–”. If it is a neutral habit, write “=”. For example, the list above might look like this: Wake up = Turn off alarm = Check my phone – Go to the bathroom = Weigh myself + Take a shower + Brush my teeth + Floss my teeth + Put on deodorant + Hang up towel to dry = Get dressed = Make a cup of tea + The marks you give to a particular habit will depend on your situation and your goals. For someone who is trying to lose weight, eating a bagel with peanut butter every morning might be a bad habit. For someone who is trying to bulk up and add muscle, the same behavior might be a good habit. It all depends on what you’re working toward.  
  • If you’re still having trouble determining how to rate a particular habit, here is a question I like to use: “Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?” Habits that reinforce your desired identity are usually good. Habits that conflict with your desired identity are usually bad. As you create your Habits Scorecard, there is no need to change anything at first. The goal is to simply notice what is actually going on. Observe your thoughts and actions without judgment or internal criticism. Don’t blame yourself for your faults. Don’t praise yourself for your successes. If you eat a chocolate bar every morning, acknowledge it, almost as if you were watching someone else. Oh, how interesting that they would do such a thing. If you binge-eat, simply notice that you are eating more calories than you should. If you waste time online, notice that you are spending your life in a way that you do not want to. The first step to changing bad habits is to be on the lookout for them. If you feel like you need extra help, then you can try Pointing-and-Calling in your own life. Say out loud the action that you are thinking of taking and what the outcome will be. If you want to cut back on your junk food habit but notice yourself grabbing another cookie, say out loud, “I’m about to eat this cookie, but I don’t need it. Eating it will cause me to gain weight and hurt my health.” Hearing your bad habits spoken aloud makes the consequences seem more real. It adds weight to the action rather than letting yourself mindlessly slip into an old routine. This approach is useful even if you’re simply trying to remember a task on your to-do list. Just saying out loud, “Tomorrow, I need to go to the post office after lunch,” increases the odds that you’ll actually do it. You’re getting yourself to acknowledge the need for action—and that can make all the difference.

  • The cues that can trigger a habit come in a wide range of forms—the feel of your phone buzzing in your pocket, the smell of chocolate chip cookies, the sound of ambulance sirens—but the two most common cues are time and location. Implementation intentions leverage both of these cues. Broadly speaking, the format for creating an implementation intention is: “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”  
  • Hundreds of studies have shown that implementation intentions are effective for sticking to our goals, whether it’s writing down the exact time and date of when you will get a flu shot or recording the time of your colonoscopy appointment. They increase the odds that people will stick with habits like recycling, studying, going to sleep early, and stopping smoking.  
  • Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. It is not always obvious when and where to take action. Some people spend their entire lives waiting for the time to be right to make an improvement. Once an implementation intention has been set, you don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike. Do I write a chapter today or not? Do I meditate this morning or at lunch? When the moment of action occurs, there is no need to make a decision. Simply follow your predetermined plan. The simple way to apply this strategy to your habits is to fill out this sentence: I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]. Meditation. I will meditate for one minute at 7 a.m. in my kitchen. Studying. I will study Spanish for twenty minutes at 6 p.m. in my bedroom. Exercise. I will exercise for one hour at 5 p.m. in my local gym. Marriage. I will make my partner a cup of tea at 8 a.m. in the kitchen. If you aren’t sure when to start your habit, try the first day of the week, month, or year. People are more likely to take action at those times because hope is usually higher. If we have hope, we have a reason to take action. A fresh start feels motivating.  
  • Give your habits a time and a space to live in the world. The goal is to make the time and location so obvious that, with enough repetition, you get an urge to do the right thing at the right time, even if you can’t say why. As the writer Jason Zweig noted, “Obviously you’re never going to just work out without conscious thought. But like a dog salivating at a bell, maybe you start to get antsy around the time of day you normally work out.”  
  • The French philosopher Denis Diderot lived nearly his entire life in poverty, but that all changed one day in 1765. Diderot’s daughter was about to be married and he could not afford to pay for the wedding. Despite his lack of wealth, Diderot was well known for his role as the co-founder and writer of Encyclopédie, one of the most comprehensive encyclopedias of the time. When Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, heard of Diderot’s financial troubles, her heart went out to him. She was a book lover and greatly enjoyed his encyclopedia. She offered to buy Diderot’s personal library for £1,000—more than $150,000 today.* Suddenly, Diderot had money to spare. With his new wealth, he not only paid for the wedding but also acquired a scarlet robe for himself. Diderot’s scarlet robe was beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that he immediately noticed how out of place it seemed when surrounded by his more common possessions. He wrote that there was “no more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty” between his elegant robe and the rest of his stuff. Diderot soon felt the urge to upgrade his possessions. He replaced his rug with one from Damascus. He decorated his home with expensive sculptures. He bought a mirror to place above the mantel, and a better kitchen table. He tossed aside his old straw chair for a leather one. Like falling dominoes, one purchase led to the next. 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. You can spot this pattern everywhere. You buy a dress and have to get new shoes and earrings to match. You buy a couch and suddenly question the layout of your entire living room. You buy a toy for your child and soon find yourself purchasing all of the accessories that go with it. It’s a chain reaction of purchases. Many human behaviors follow this cycle. You often decide what to do next based on what you have just finished doing. Going to the bathroom leads to washing and drying your hands, which reminds you that you need to put the dirty towels in the laundry, so you add laundry detergent to the shopping list, and so on. No behavior happens in isolation. Each action becomes a cue that triggers the next behavior. Why is this important? When it comes to building new habits, you can use the connectedness of behavior to your advantage. One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. This is called habit stacking. Habit stacking is a special form of an implementation intention. Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit. This method, which was created by BJ Fogg as part of his Tiny Habits program, can be used to design an obvious cue for nearly any habit.* The habit stacking formula is: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].” For example: Meditation. After I pour my cup of coffee each morning, I will meditate for one minute. Exercise. After I take off my work shoes, I will immediately change into my workout clothes. Gratitude. After I sit down to dinner, I will say one thing I’m grateful for that happened today. Marriage. After I get into bed at night, I will give my partner a kiss. Safety. After I put on my running shoes, I will text a friend or family member where I am running and how long it will take. The key is to tie your desired behavior into something you already do each day. Once you have mastered this basic structure, you can begin to create larger stacks by chaining small habits together. This allows you to take advantage of the natural momentum that comes from one behavior leading into the next—a positive version of the Diderot Effect.  
  • The 1st Law of Behavior Change is to make it obvious. Strategies like implementation intentions and habit stacking are among the most practical ways to create obvious cues for your habits and design a clear plan for when and where to take action.

  • People often choose products not because of what they are, but because of where they are.

  • If I walk into the kitchen and see a plate of cookies on the counter, I’ll pick up half a dozen and start eating, even if I hadn’t been thinking about them beforehand and didn’t necessarily feel hungry. If the communal table at the office is always filled with doughnuts and bagels, it’s going to be hard not to grab one every now and then. Your habits change depending on the room you are in and the cues in front of you.

  • Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. Despite our unique personalities, certain behaviors tend to arise again and again under certain environmental conditions. In church, people tend to talk in whispers. On a dark street, people act wary and guarded. In this way, the most common form of change is not internal, but external: we are changed by the world around us. Every habit is context dependent.

  • The more obviously available a product or service is, the more likely you are to try it. People drink Bud Light because it is in every bar and visit Starbucks because it is on every corner. We like to think that we are in control. If we choose water over soda, we assume it is because we wanted to do so. The truth, however, is that many of the actions we take each day are shaped not by purposeful drive and choice but by the most obvious option.

  • I’ve experienced the power of obvious cues in my own life. I used to buy apples from the store, put them in the crisper in the bottom of the refrigerator, and forget all about them. By the time I remembered, the apples would have gone bad. I never saw them, so I never ate them. Eventually, I took my own advice and redesigned my environment. I bought a large display bowl and placed it in the middle of the kitchen counter. The next time I bought apples, that was where they went—out in the open where I could see them. Almost like magic, I began eating a few apples each day simply because they were obvious rather than out of sight. Here are a few ways you can redesign your environment and make the cues for your preferred habits more obvious: If you want to remember to take your medication each night, put your pill bottle directly next to the faucet on the bathroom counter. If you want to practice guitar more frequently, place your guitar stand in the middle of the living room. If you want to remember to send more thank-you notes, keep a stack of stationery on your desk. If you want to drink more water, fill up a few water bottles each morning and place them in common locations around the house.

  • If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment. The most persistent behaviors usually have multiple cues. Consider how many different ways a smoker could be prompted to pull out a cigarette: driving in the car, seeing a friend smoke, feeling stressed at work, and so on. The same strategy can be employed for good habits. By sprinkling triggers throughout your surroundings, you increase the odds that you’ll think about your habit throughout the day. Make sure the best choice is the most obvious one. Making a better decision is easy and natural when the cues for good habits are right in front of you. Environment design is powerful not only because it influences how we engage with the world but also because we rarely do it. Most people live in a world others have created for them. But you can alter the spaces where you live and work to increase your exposure to positive cues and reduce your exposure to negative ones. Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your life. Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it.

  • We mentally assign our habits to the locations in which they occur: the home, the office, the gym. Each location develops a connection to certain habits and routines. You establish a particular relationship with the objects on your desk, the items on your kitchen counter, the things in your bedroom. Our behavior is not defined by the objects in the environment but by our relationship to them. In fact, this is a useful way to think about the influence of the environment on your behavior. Stop thinking about your environment as filled with objects. Start thinking about it as filled with relationships. Think in terms of how you interact with the spaces around you. For one person, her couch is the place where she reads for an hour each night. For someone else, the couch is where he watches television and eats a bowl of ice cream after work. Different people can have different memories—and thus different habits—associated with the same place.

  • The good news? You can train yourself to link a particular habit with a particular context. In one study, scientists instructed insomniacs to get into bed only when they were tired. If they couldn’t fall asleep, they were told to sit in a different room until they became sleepy. Over time, subjects began to associate the context of their bed with the action of sleeping, and it became easier to quickly fall asleep when they climbed in bed. Their brains learned that sleeping—not browsing on their phones, not watching television, not staring at the clock—was the only action that happened in that room. The power of context also reveals an important strategy: habits can be easier to change in a new environment. It helps to escape the subtle triggers and cues that nudge you toward your current habits. Go to a new place—a different coffee shop, a bench in the park, a corner of your room you seldom use—and create a new routine there.

  • It is easier to associate a new habit with a new context than to build a new habit in the face of competing cues. It can be difficult to go to bed early if you watch television in your bedroom each night. It can be hard to study in the living room without getting distracted if that’s where you always play video games. But when you step outside your normal environment, you leave your behavioral biases behind. You aren’t battling old environmental cues, which allows new habits to form without interruption. Want to think more creatively? Move to a bigger room, a rooftop patio, or a building with expansive architecture. Take a break from the space where you do your daily work, which is also linked to your current thought patterns. Trying to eat healthier? It is likely that you shop on autopilot at your regular supermarket. Try a new grocery store. You may find it easier to avoid unhealthy food when your brain doesn’t automatically know where it is located in the store. When you can’t manage to get to an entirely new environment, redefine or rearrange your current one. Create a separate space for work, study, exercise, entertainment, and cooking. The mantra I find useful is “One space, one use.” When I started my career as an entrepreneur, I would often work from my couch or at the kitchen table. In the evenings, I found it very difficult to stop working. There was no clear division between the end of work time and the beginning of personal time. Was the kitchen table my office or the space where I ate meals? Was the couch where I relaxed or where I sent emails?

  • Whenever possible, avoid mixing the context of one habit with another. When you start mixing contexts, you’ll start mixing habits—and the easier ones will usually win out. This is one reason why the versatility of modern technology is both a strength and a weakness. You can use your phone for all sorts of tasks, which makes it a powerful device. But when you can use your phone to do nearly anything, it becomes hard to associate it with one task. You want to be productive, but you’re also conditioned to browse social media, check email, and play video games whenever you open your phone. It’s a mishmash of cues.

  • You may be thinking, “You don’t understand. I live in New York City. My apartment is the size of a smartphone. I need each room to play multiple roles.” Fair enough. If your space is limited, divide your room into activity zones: a chair for reading, a desk for writing, a table for eating. You can do the same with your digital spaces. I know a writer who uses his computer only for writing, his tablet only for reading, and his phone only for social media and texting. Every habit should have a home.

  • You can break a habit, but you’re unlikely to forget it. Once the mental grooves of habit have been carved into your brain, they are nearly impossible to remove entirely—even if they go unused for quite a while. And that means that simply resisting temptation is an ineffective strategy. It is hard to maintain a Zen attitude in a life filled with interruptions. It takes too much energy. In the short-run, you can choose to overpower temptation. In the long-run, we become a product of the environment that we live in. To put it bluntly, I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment. A more reliable approach is to cut bad habits off at the source. One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it. If you can’t seem to get any work done, leave your phone in another room for a few hours. If you’re continually feeling like you’re not enough, stop following social media accounts that trigger jealousy and envy. If you’re wasting too much time watching television, move the TV out of the bedroom. If you’re spending too much money on electronics, quit reading reviews of the latest tech gear. If you’re playing too many video games, unplug the console and put it in a closet after each use.

  • 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.

  • Society is filled with highly engineered versions of reality that are more attractive than the world our ancestors evolved in. Stores feature mannequins with exaggerated hips and breasts to sell clothes. Social media delivers more “likes” and praise in a few minutes than we could ever get in the office or at home. Online porn splices together stimulating scenes at a rate that would be impossible to replicate in real life. Advertisements are created with a combination of ideal lighting, professional makeup, and Photoshopped edits—even the model doesn’t look like the person in the final image. These are the supernormal stimuli of our modern world. They exaggerate features that are naturally attractive to us, and our instincts go wild as a result, driving us into excessive shopping habits, social media habits, porn habits, eating habits, and many others. If history serves as a guide, the opportunities of the future will be more attractive than those of today. The trend is for rewards to become more concentrated and stimuli to become more enticing. Junk food is a more concentrated form of calories than natural foods. Hard liquor is a more concentrated form of alcohol than beer. Video games are a more concentrated form of play than board games. Compared to nature, these pleasure-packed experiences are hard to resist. We have the brains of our ancestors but temptations they never had to face. If you want to increase the odds that a behavior will occur, then you need to make it attractive.

  • Habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop. Every behavior that is highly habit-forming—taking drugs, eating junk food, playing video games, browsing social media—is associated with higher levels of dopamine. The same can be said for our most basic habitual behaviors like eating food, drinking water, having sex, and interacting socially.

  • For years, scientists assumed dopamine was all about pleasure, but now we know it plays a central role in many neurological processes, including motivation, learning and memory, punishment and aversion, and voluntary movement. When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. Cocaine addicts get a surge of dopamine when they see the powder, not after they take it. Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act. It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action. Interestingly, the reward system that is activated in the brain when you receive a reward is the same system that is activated when you anticipate a reward. This is one reason the anticipation of an experience can often feel better than the attainment of it. As a child, thinking about Christmas morning can be better than opening the gifts. As an adult, daydreaming about an upcoming vacation can be more enjoyable than actually being on vacation. Scientists refer to this as the difference between “wanting” and “liking.”

  • Your brain has far more neural circuitry allocated for wanting rewards than for liking them.

  • Desire is the engine that drives behavior. Every action is taken because of the anticipation that precedes it. It is the craving that leads to the response.

  • The habit stacking + temptation bundling formula is: After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED]. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].

  • If you want to read the news, but you need to express more gratitude: After I get my morning coffee, I will say one thing I’m grateful for that happened yesterday (need). After I say one thing I’m grateful for, I will read the news (want). If you want to watch sports, but you need to make sales calls: After I get back from my lunch break, I will call three potential clients (need). After I call three potential clients, I will check ESPN (want). If you want to check Facebook, but you need to exercise more: After I pull out my phone, I will do ten burpees (need). After I do ten burpees, I will check Facebook (want).

  • The hope is that eventually you’ll look forward to calling three clients or doing ten burpees because it means you get to read the latest sports news or check Facebook. Doing the thing you need to do means you get to do the thing you want to do.

  • Behaviors are attractive when they help us fit in. We imitate the habits of three groups in particular: The close. The many. The powerful.

  • Proximity has a powerful effect on our behavior.

  • We pick up habits from the people around us. We copy the way our parents handle arguments, the way our peers flirt with one another, the way our coworkers get results. When your friends smoke pot, you give it a try, too. When your wife has a habit of double-checking that the door is locked before going to bed, you pick it up as well.

  • Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. You’ll rise together. To make your habits even more attractive, you can take this strategy one step further. Join a culture where (1) your desired behavior is the normal behavior and (2) you already have something in common with the group. Steve Kamb, an entrepreneur in New York City, runs a company called Nerd Fitness, which “helps nerds, misfits, and mutants lose weight, get strong, and get healthy.” His clients include video game lovers, movie fanatics, and average Joes who want to get in shape. Many people feel out of place the first time they go to the gym or try to change their diet, but if you are already similar to the other members of the group in some way—say, your mutual love of Star Wars—change becomes more appealing because it feels like something people like you already do. Nothing sustains motivation better than belonging to the tribe. It transforms a personal quest into a shared one. Previously, you were on your own. Your identity was singular. You are a reader. You are a musician. You are an athlete. When you join a book club or a band or a cycling group, your identity becomes linked to those around you. Growth and change is no longer an individual pursuit. We are readers. We are musicians. We are cyclists. The shared identity begins to reinforce your personal identity. This is why remaining part of a group after achieving a goal is crucial to maintaining your habits. It’s friendship and community that embed a new identity and help behaviors last over the long run.

  • Whenever we are unsure how to act, we look to the group to guide our behavior. We are constantly scanning our environment and wondering, “What is everyone else doing?” We check reviews on Amazon or Yelp or TripAdvisor because we want to imitate the “best” buying, eating, and travel habits. It’s usually a smart strategy. There is evidence in numbers. But there can be a downside. The normal behavior of the tribe often overpowers the desired behavior of the individual.

  • The human mind knows how to get along with others. It wants to get along with others. This is our natural mode. You can override it—you can choose to ignore the group or to stop caring what other people think—but it takes work. Running against the grain of your culture requires extra effort. When changing your habits means challenging the tribe, change is unattractive. When changing your habits means fitting in with the tribe, change is very attractive.

  • Humans everywhere pursue power, prestige, and status. We want pins and medallions on our jackets. We want President or Partner in our titles. We want to be acknowledged, recognized, and praised. This tendency can seem vain, but overall, it’s a smart move. Historically, a person with greater power and status has access to more resources, worries less about survival, and proves to be a more attractive mate. We are drawn to behaviors that earn us respect, approval, admiration, and status. We want to be the one in the gym who can do muscle-ups or the musician who can play the hardest chord progressions or the parent with the most accomplished children because these things separate us from the crowd. Once we fit in, we start looking for ways to stand out. This is one reason we care so much about the habits of highly effective people. We try to copy the behavior of successful people because we desire success ourselves. Many of our daily habits are imitations of people we admire. You replicate the marketing strategies of the most successful firms in your industry. You make a recipe from your favorite baker. You borrow the storytelling strategies of your favorite writer. You mimic the communication style of your boss. We imitate people we envy. High-status people enjoy the approval, respect, and praise of others. And that means if a behavior can get us approval, respect, and praise, we find it attractive. We are also motivated to avoid behaviors that would lower our status. We trim our hedges and mow our lawn because we don’t want to be the slob of the neighborhood. When our mother comes to visit, we clean up the house because we don’t want to be judged. We are continually wondering “What will others think of me?” and altering our behavior based on the answer.

  • Your habits are modern-day solutions to ancient desires. New versions of old vices. The underlying motives behind human behavior remain the same. The specific habits we perform differ based on the period of history.

  • A craving is the sense that something is missing. It is the desire to change your internal state. When the temperature falls, there is a gap between what your body is currently sensing and what it wants to be sensing. This gap between your current state and your desired state provides a reason to act.

  • Desire is the difference between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. Even the tiniest action is tinged with the motivation to feel differently than you do in the moment. When you binge-eat or light up or browse social media, what you really want is not a potato chip or a cigarette or a bunch of likes. What you really want is to feel different.

  • The specific cravings you feel and habits you perform are really an attempt to address your fundamental underlying motives. Whenever a habit successfully addresses a motive, you develop a craving to do it again. In time, you learn to predict that checking social media will help you feel loved or that watching YouTube will allow you to forget your fears. Habits are attractive when we associate them with positive feelings, and we can use this insight to our advantage rather than to our detriment.

  • You can make hard habits more attractive if you can learn to associate them with a positive experience. Sometimes, all you need is a slight mind-set shift. For instance, we often talk about everything we have to do in a given day. You have to wake up early for work. You have to make another sales call for your business. You have to cook dinner for your family. Now, imagine changing just one word: You don’t “have” to. You “get” to. You get to wake up early for work. You get to make another sales call for your business. You get to cook dinner for your family. By simply changing one word, you shift the way you view each event. You transition from seeing these behaviors as burdens and turn them into opportunities. The key point is that both versions of reality are true. You have to do those things, and you also get to do them. We can find evidence for whatever mind-set we choose. I once heard a story about a man who uses a wheelchair. When asked if it was difficult being confined, he responded, “I’m not confined to my wheelchair—I am liberated by it. If it wasn’t for my wheelchair, I would be bed-bound and never able to leave my house.” This shift in perspective completely transformed how he lived each day. Reframing your habits to highlight their benefits rather than their drawbacks is a fast and lightweight way to reprogram your mind and make a habit seem more attractive.

  • Create a motivation ritual. You simply practice associating your habits with something you enjoy, then you can use that cue whenever you need a bit of motivation. For instance, if you always play the same song before having sex, then you’ll begin to link the music with the act. Whenever you want to get in the mood, just press play. Ed Latimore, a boxer and writer from Pittsburgh, benefited from a similar strategy without knowing it. “Odd realization,” he wrote. “My focus and concentration goes up just by putting my headphones [on] while writing. I don’t even have to play any music.” Without realizing it, he was conditioning himself. In the beginning, he put his headphones on, played some music he enjoyed, and did focused work. After doing it five, ten, twenty times, putting his headphones on became a cue that he automatically associated with increased focus. The craving followed naturally.

  • 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.

  • It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change: the fastest way to lose weight, the best program to build muscle, the perfect idea for a side hustle. We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action. As Voltaire once wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.” I refer to this as the difference between being in motion and taking action. The two ideas sound similar, but they’re not the same. When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce a result. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will deliver an outcome. If I outline twenty ideas for articles I want to write, that’s motion. If I actually sit down and write an article, that’s action. If I search for a better diet plan and read a few books on the topic, that’s motion. If I actually eat a healthy meal, that’s action. Sometimes motion is useful, but it will never produce an outcome by itself. It doesn’t matter how many times you go talk to the personal trainer, that motion will never get you in shape. Only the action of working out will get the result you’re looking to achieve. If motion doesn’t lead to results, why do we do it? Sometimes we do it because we actually need to plan or learn more. But more often than not, we do it because motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure. Most of us are experts at avoiding criticism. It doesn’t feel good to fail or to be judged publicly, so we tend to avoid situations where that might happen. And that’s the biggest reason why you slip into motion rather than taking action: you want to delay failure. It’s easy to be in motion and convince yourself that you’re still making progress. You think, “I’ve got conversations going with four potential clients right now. This is good. We’re moving in the right direction.” Or, “I brainstormed some ideas for that book I want to write. This is coming together.” Motion makes you feel like you’re getting things done. But really, you’re just preparing to get something done. When preparation becomes a form of procrastination, you need to change something. You don’t want to merely be planning. You want to be practicing. If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. You don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it.

  • 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.

  • All habits follow a similar trajectory from effortful practice to automatic behavior, a process known as automaticity. Automaticity is the ability to perform a behavior without thinking about each step, which occurs when the nonconscious mind takes over.

  • Habits form based on frequency, not time.

  • One of the most common questions I hear is, “How long does it take to build a new habit?” But what people really should be asking is, “How many does it take to form a new habit?” That is, how many repetitions are required to make a habit automatic? There is nothing magical about time passing with regard to habit formation. It doesn’t matter if it’s been twenty-one days or thirty days or three hundred days. What matters is the rate at which you perform the behavior. You could do something twice in thirty days, or two hundred times. It’s the frequency that makes the difference. Your current habits have been internalized over the course of hundreds, if not thousands, of repetitions. New habits require the same level of frequency. You need to string together enough successful attempts until the behavior is firmly embedded in your mind and you cross the Habit Line.

  • Every action requires a certain amount of energy. The more energy required, the less likely it is to occur. If your goal is to do a hundred push-ups per day, that’s a lot of energy! In the beginning, when you’re motivated and excited, you can muster the strength to get started. But after a few days, such a massive effort feels exhausting. Meanwhile, sticking to the habit of doing one push-up per day requires almost no energy to get started. And the less energy a habit requires, the more likely it is to occur.

  • Look at any behavior that fills up much of your life and you’ll see that it can be performed with very low levels of motivation. Habits like scrolling on our phones, checking email, and watching television steal so much of our time because they can be performed almost without effort. They are remarkably convenient. In a sense, every habit is just an obstacle to getting what you really want. Dieting is an obstacle to getting fit. Meditation is an obstacle to feeling calm. Journaling is an obstacle to thinking clearly. You don’t actually want the habit itself. What you really want is the outcome the habit delivers. The greater the obstacle—that is, the more difficult the habit—the more friction there is between you and your desired end state. This is why it is crucial to make your habits so easy that you’ll do them even when you don’t feel like it. If you can make your good habits more convenient, you’ll be more likely to follow through on them.

  • If you look at the most habit-forming products, you’ll notice that one of the things these goods and services do best is remove little bits of friction from your life. Meal delivery services reduce the friction of shopping for groceries. Dating apps reduce the friction of making social introductions. Ride-sharing services reduce the friction of getting across town. Text messaging reduces the friction of sending a letter in the mail. Like a Japanese television manufacturer redesigning their workspace to reduce wasted motion, successful companies design their products to automate, eliminate, or simplify as many steps as possible. They reduce the number of fields on each form. They pare down the number of clicks required to create an account. They deliver their products with easy-to-understand directions or ask their customers to make fewer choices.

  • Idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.

  • Whenever you organize a space for its intended purpose, you are priming it to make the next action easy. For instance, my wife keeps a box of greeting cards that are presorted by occasion—birthday, sympathy, wedding, graduation, and more. Whenever necessary, she grabs an appropriate card and sends it off. She is incredibly good at remembering to send cards because she has reduced the friction of doing so. For years, I was the opposite. Someone would have a baby and I would think, “I should send a card.” But then weeks would pass and by the time I remembered to pick one up at the store, it was too late. The habit wasn’t easy. There are many ways to prime your environment so it’s ready for immediate use. If you want to cook a healthy breakfast, place the skillet on the stove, set the cooking spray on the counter, and lay out any plates and utensils you’ll need the night before. When you wake up, making breakfast will be easy. Want to draw more? Put your pencils, pens, notebooks, and drawing tools on top of your desk, within easy reach. Want to exercise? Set out your workout clothes, shoes, gym bag, and water bottle ahead of time. Want to improve your diet? Chop up a ton of fruits and vegetables on weekends and pack them in containers, so you have easy access to healthy, ready-to-eat options during the week. These are simple ways to make the good habit the path of least resistance. 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. If that doesn’t do it, you can take it a step further. Unplug the television and take the batteries out of the remote after each use, so it takes an extra ten seconds to turn it back on. And if you’re really hard-core, move the television out of the living room and into a closet after each use. You can be sure you’ll only take it out when you really want to watch something. The greater the friction, the less likely the habit. Whenever possible, I leave my phone in a different room until lunch. When it’s right next to me, I’ll check it all morning for no reason at all. But when it is in another room, I rarely think about it. And the friction is high enough that I won’t go get it without a reason. As a result, I get three to four hours each morning when I can work without interruption.

  • If sticking your phone in another room doesn’t seem like enough, tell a friend or family member to hide it from you for a few hours. Ask a coworker to keep it at their desk in the morning and give it back to you at lunch. It is remarkable how little friction is required to prevent unwanted behavior. When I hide beer in the back of the fridge where I can’t see it, I drink less. When I delete social media apps from my phone, it can be weeks before I download them again and log in. These tricks are unlikely to curb a true addiction, but for many of us, a little bit of friction can be the difference between sticking with a good habit or sliding into a bad one. Imagine the cumulative impact of making dozens of these changes and living in an environment designed to make the good behaviors easier and the bad behaviors harder. 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.

  • Researchers estimate that 40 to 50 percent of our actions on any given day are done out of habit. This is already a substantial percentage, but the true influence of your habits is even greater than these numbers suggest. Habits are automatic choices that influence the conscious decisions that follow. Yes, a habit can be completed in just a few seconds, but it can also shape the actions that you take for minutes or hours afterward. Habits are like the entrance ramp to a highway. They lead you down a path and, before you know it, you’re speeding toward the next behavior. It seems to be easier to continue what you are already doing than to start doing something different. You sit through a bad movie for two hours. You keep snacking even when you’re already full. You check your phone for “just a second” and soon you have spent twenty minutes staring at the screen. In this way, the habits you follow without thinking often determine the choices you make when you are thinking.

  • Every day, there are a handful of moments that deliver an outsized impact. I refer to these little choices as decisive moments. The moment you decide between ordering takeout or cooking dinner. The moment you choose between driving your car or riding your bike. The moment you decide between starting your homework or grabbing the video game controller. These choices are a fork in the road.

  • Decisive moments set the options available to your future self. For instance, walking into a restaurant is a decisive moment because it determines what you’ll be eating for lunch. Technically, you are in control of what you order, but in a larger sense, you can only order an item if it is on the menu. If you walk into a steakhouse, you can get a sirloin or a rib eye, but not sushi. Your options are constrained by what’s available. They are shaped by the first choice. 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.

  • Even when you know you should start small, it’s easy to start too big. When you dream about making a change, excitement inevitably takes over and you end up trying to do too much too soon. The most effective way I know to counteract this tendency is to use the Two-Minute Rule, which states, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” You’ll find that nearly any habit can be scaled down into a two-minute version: “Read before bed each night” becomes “Read one page.” “Do thirty minutes of yoga” becomes “Take out my yoga mat.” “Study for class” becomes “Open my notes.” “Fold the laundry” becomes “Fold one pair of socks.” “Run three miles” becomes “Tie my running shoes.” The idea is to make your habits as easy as possible to start. Anyone can meditate for one minute, read one page, or put one item of clothing away. And, as we have just discussed, this is a powerful strategy because once you’ve started doing the right thing, it is much easier to continue doing it. A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy. What you want is a “gateway habit” that naturally leads you down a more productive path.

  • People often think it’s weird to get hyped about reading one page or meditating for one minute or making one sales call. But the point is not to do one thing. The point is to master the habit of showing up. The truth is, a habit must be established before it can be improved. If you can’t learn the basic skill of showing up, then you have little hope of mastering the finer details. Instead of trying to engineer a perfect habit from the start, do the easy thing on a more consistent basis. You have to standardize before you can optimize.

  • As you master the art of showing up, the first two minutes simply become a ritual at the beginning of a larger routine. This is not merely a hack to make habits easier but actually the ideal way to master a difficult skill. The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely it becomes that you can slip into the state of deep focus that is required to do great things. By doing the same warm-up before every workout, you make it easier to get into a state of peak performance. By following the same creative ritual, you make it easier to get into the hard work of creating. By developing a consistent power-down habit, you make it easier to get to bed at a reasonable time each night. You may not be able to automate the whole process, but you can make the first action mindless. Make it easy to start and the rest will follow.

  • At some point, once you’ve established the habit and you’re showing up each day, you can combine the Two-Minute Rule with a technique we call habit shaping to scale your habit back up toward your ultimate goal. Start by mastering the first two minutes of the smallest version of the behavior. Then, advance to an intermediate step and repeat the process—focusing on just the first two minutes and mastering that stage before moving on to the next level. Eventually, you’ll end up with the habit you had originally hoped to build while still keeping your focus where it should be: on the first two minutes of the behavior. EXAMPLES OF HABIT SHAPING Becoming an Early Riser Phase 1: Be home by 10 p.m. every night. Phase 2: Have all devices (TV, phone, etc.) turned off by 10 p.m. every night. Phase 3: Be in bed by 10 p.m. every night (reading a book, talking with your partner). Phase 4: Lights off by 10 p.m. every night. Phase 5: Wake up at 6 a.m. every day. Becoming Vegan Phase 1: Start eating vegetables at each meal. Phase 2: Stop eating animals with four legs (cow, pig, lamb, etc.). Phase 3: Stop eating animals with two legs (chicken, turkey, etc.). Phase 4: Stop eating animals with no legs (fish, clams, scallops, etc.). Phase 5: Stop eating all animal products (eggs, milk, cheese). Starting to Exercise Phase 1: Change into workout clothes. Phase 2: Step out the door (try taking a walk). Phase 3: Drive to the gym, exercise for five minutes, and leave. Phase 4: Exercise for fifteen minutes at least once per week. Phase 5: Exercise three times per week.

  • A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future. It is a way to lock in future behavior, bind you to good habits, and restrict you from bad ones. When Victor Hugo shut his clothes away so he could focus on writing, he was creating a commitment device.* There are many ways to create a commitment device. You can reduce overeating by purchasing food in individual packages rather than in bulk size. You can voluntarily ask to be added to the banned list at casinos and online poker sites to prevent future gambling sprees. I’ve even heard of athletes who have to “make weight” for a competition choosing to leave their wallets at home during the week before weigh-in so they won’t be tempted to buy fast food.

  • As another example, my friend and fellow habits expert Nir Eyal purchased an outlet timer, which is an adapter that he plugged in between his internet router and the power outlet. At 10 p.m. each night, the outlet timer cuts off the power to the router. When the internet goes off, everyone knows it is time to go to bed. Commitment devices are useful because they enable you to take advantage of good intentions before you can fall victim to temptation. Whenever I’m looking to cut calories, for example, I will ask the waiter to split my meal and box half of it to go before the meal is served. If I waited until the meal came out and told myself “I’ll just eat half,” it would never work.

  • The key is to change the task such that it requires more work to get out of the good habit than to get started on it. If you’re feeling motivated to get in shape, schedule a yoga session and pay ahead of time. If you’re excited about the business you want to start, email an entrepreneur you respect and set up a consulting call. When the time comes to act, the only way to bail is to cancel the meeting, which requires effort and may cost money.

  • Commitment devices increase the odds that you’ll do the right thing in the future by making bad habits difficult in the present. However, we can do even better. We can make good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible.

  • ONETIME ACTIONS THAT LOCK IN GOOD HABITS Nutrition Buy a water filter to clean your drinking water. Use smaller plates to reduce caloric intake. Sleep Buy a good mattress. Get blackout curtains. Remove your television from your bedroom. Productivity Unsubscribe from emails. Turn off notifications and mute group chats. Set your phone to silent. Use email filters to clear up your inbox. Delete games and social media apps on your phone. Happiness Get a dog. Move to a friendly, social neighborhood. General Health Get vaccinated. Buy good shoes to avoid back pain. Buy a supportive chair or standing desk. Finance Enroll in an automatic savings plan. Set up automatic bill pay. Cut cable service. Ask service providers to lower your bills.

  • When you automate as much of your life as possible, you can spend your effort on the tasks machines cannot do yet. Each habit that we hand over to the authority of technology frees up time and energy to pour into the next stage of growth. As mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.” Of course, the power of technology can work against us as well. Binge-watching becomes a habit because you have to put more effort in to stop looking at the screen than to continue doing so. Instead of pressing a button to advance to the next episode, Netflix or YouTube will autoplay it for you. All you have to do is keep your eyes open.

  • Technology creates a level of convenience that enables you to act on your smallest whims and desires. At the mere suggestion of hunger, you can have food delivered to your door. At the slightest hint of boredom, you can get lost in the vast expanse of social media. When the effort required to act on your desires becomes effectively zero, you can find yourself slipping into whatever impulse arises at the moment. The downside of automation is that we can find ourselves jumping from easy task to easy task without making time for more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding, work.

  • We are more likely to repeat a behavior when the experience is satisfying. This is entirely logical. Feelings of pleasure—even minor ones like washing your hands with soap that smells nice and lathers well—are signals that tell the brain: “This feels good. Do this again, next time.” Pleasure teaches your brain that a behavior is worth remembering and repeating.

  • Take the story of chewing gum. Chewing gum had been sold commercially throughout the 1800s, but it wasn’t until Wrigley launched in 1891 that it became a worldwide habit. Early versions were made from relatively bland resins—chewy, but not tasty. Wrigley revolutionized the industry by adding flavors like Spearmint and Juicy Fruit, which made the product flavorful and fun to use. Then they went a step further and began pushing chewing gum as a pathway to a clean mouth. Advertisements told readers to “Refresh Your Taste.” Tasty flavors and the feeling of a fresh mouth provided little bits of immediate reinforcement and made the product satisfying to use. Consumption skyrocketed, and Wrigley became the largest chewing gum company in the world. Toothpaste had a similar trajectory. Manufacturers enjoyed great success when they added flavors like spearmint, peppermint, and cinnamon to their products. These flavors don’t improve the effectiveness of toothpaste. They simply create a “clean mouth” feel and make the experience of brushing your teeth more pleasurable. My wife actually stopped using Sensodyne because she didn’t like the aftertaste. She switched to a brand with a stronger mint flavor, which proved to be more satisfying. Conversely, if an experience is not satisfying, we have little reason to repeat it. In my research, I came across the story of a woman who had a narcissistic relative who drove her nuts. In an attempt to spend less time with this egomaniac, she acted as dull and as boring as possible whenever he was around. Within a few encounters, he started avoiding her because he found her so uninteresting. Stories like these are evidence of the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided. You learn what to do in the future based on what you were rewarded for doing (or punished for doing) in the past. Positive emotions cultivate habits. Negative emotions destroy them. 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.

  • 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.

  • Every habit produces multiple outcomes across time. Unfortunately, these outcomes are often misaligned. With our bad habits, the immediate outcome usually feels good, but the ultimate outcome feels bad. With good habits, it is the reverse: the immediate outcome is unenjoyable, but the ultimate outcome feels good. The French economist Frédéric Bastiat explained the problem clearly when he wrote, “It almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. . . . Often, the sweeter the first fruit of a habit, the more bitter are its later fruits.” Put another way, the costs of your good habits are in the present. The costs of your bad habits are in the future. The brain’s tendency to prioritize the present moment means you can’t rely on good intentions. When you make a plan—to lose weight, write a book, or learn a language—you are actually making plans for your future self. And when you envision what you want your life to be like, it is easy to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits. We all want better lives for our future selves. However, when the moment of decision arrives, instant gratification usually wins. You are no longer making a choice for Future You, who dreams of being fitter or wealthier or happier. You are choosing for Present You, who wants to be full, pampered, and entertained. As a general rule, the more immediate pleasure you get from an action, the more strongly you should question whether it aligns with your long-term goals.* With a fuller understanding of what causes our brain to repeat some behaviors and avoid others, let’s update the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.

  • The vital thing in getting a habit to stick is to feel successful—even if it’s in a small way. The feeling of success is a signal that your habit paid off and that the work was worth the effort. In a perfect world, the reward for a good habit is the habit itself. In the real world, good habits tend to feel worthwhile only after they have provided you with something. Early on, it’s all sacrifice. You’ve gone to the gym a few times, but you’re not stronger or fitter or faster—at least, not in any noticeable sense. It’s only months later, once you shed a few pounds or your arms gain some definition, that it becomes easier to exercise for its own sake. In the beginning, you need a reason to stay on track. This is why immediate rewards are essential. They keep you excited while the delayed rewards accumulate in the background. What we’re really talking about here—when we’re discussing immediate rewards—is the ending of a behavior. The ending of any experience is vital because we tend to remember it more than other phases. You want the ending of your habit to be satisfying. The best approach is to use reinforcement, which refers to the process of using an immediate reward to increase the rate of a behavior.

  • Reinforcement ties your habit to an immediate reward, which makes it satisfying when you finish. Immediate reinforcement can be especially helpful when dealing with habits of avoidance, which are behaviors you want to stop doing. It can be challenging to stick with habits like “no frivolous purchases” or “no alcohol this month” because nothing happens when you skip happy hour drinks or don’t buy that pair of shoes. It can be hard to feel satisfied when there is no action in the first place. All you’re doing is resisting temptation, and there isn’t much satisfying about that. One solution is to turn the situation on its head. You want to make avoidance visible. Open a savings account and label it for something you want—maybe “Leather Jacket.” Whenever you pass on a purchase, put the same amount of money in the account. Skip your morning latte? Transfer $5. Pass on another month of Netflix? Move $10 over. It’s like creating a loyalty program for yourself. The immediate reward of seeing yourself save money toward the leather jacket feels a lot better than being deprived. You are making it satisfying to do nothing.

  • It is worth noting that it is important to select short-term rewards that reinforce your identity rather than ones that conflict with it. Buying a new jacket is fine if you’re trying to lose weight or read more books, but it doesn’t work if you’re trying to budget and save money. Instead, taking a bubble bath or going on a leisurely walk are good examples of rewarding yourself with free time, which aligns with your ultimate goal of more freedom and financial independence. Similarly, if your reward for exercising is eating a bowl of ice cream, then you’re casting votes for conflicting identities, and it ends up being a wash. Instead, maybe your reward is a massage, which is both a luxury and a vote toward taking care of your body. Now the short-term reward is aligned with your long-term vision of being a healthy person. Eventually, as intrinsic rewards like a better mood, more energy, and reduced stress kick in, you’ll become less concerned with chasing the secondary reward. The identity itself becomes the reinforcer. You do it because it’s who you are and it feels good to be you. The more a habit becomes part of your life, the less you need outside encouragement to follow through. Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit. That said, it takes time for the evidence to accumulate and a new identity to emerge. Immediate reinforcement helps maintain motivation in the short term while you’re waiting for the long-term rewards to arrive. In summary, a habit needs to be enjoyable for it to last. Simple bits of reinforcement—like soap that smells great or toothpaste that has a refreshing mint flavor or seeing $50 hit your savings account—can offer the immediate pleasure you need to enjoy a habit. And change is easy when it is enjoyable.

  • A habit tracker is a simple way to measure whether you did a habit. The most basic format is to get a calendar and cross off each day you stick with your routine. For example, if you meditate on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, each of those dates gets an X. As time rolls by, the calendar becomes a record of your habit streak. 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. Jerry Seinfeld reportedly uses a habit tracker to stick with his streak of writing jokes. In the documentary Comedian, he explains that his goal is simply to “never break the chain” of writing jokes every day. In other words, he is not focused on how good or bad a particular joke is or how inspired he feels. He is simply focused on showing up and adding to his streak. “Don’t break the chain” is a powerful mantra. Don’t break the chain of sales calls and you’ll build a successful book of business. Don’t break the chain of workouts and you’ll get fit faster than you’d expect. Don’t break the chain of creating every day and you will end up with an impressive portfolio. Habit tracking is powerful because it leverages multiple Laws of Behavior Change. It simultaneously makes a behavior obvious, attractive, and satisfying. Let’s break down each one. Benefit #1: Habit tracking is obvious. Recording your last action creates a trigger that can initiate your next one. Habit tracking naturally builds a series of visual cues like the streak of X’s on your calendar or the list of meals in your food log. When you look at the calendar and see your streak, you’ll be reminded to act again. Research has shown that people who track their progress on goals like losing weight, quitting smoking, and lowering blood pressure are all more likely to improve than those who don’t. One study of more than sixteen hundred people found that those who kept a daily food log lost twice as much weight as those who did not. The mere act of tracking a behavior can spark the urge to change it. Habit tracking also keeps you honest. Most of us have a distorted view of our own behavior. We think we act better than we do. Measurement offers one way to overcome our blindness to our own behavior and notice what’s really going on each day. One glance at the paper clips in the container and you immediately know how much work you have (or haven’t) been putting in. When the evidence is right in front of you, you’re less likely to lie to yourself. Benefit #2: Habit tracking is attractive. The most effective form of motivation is progress. When we get a signal that we are moving forward, we become more motivated to continue down that path. In this way, habit tracking can have an addictive effect on motivation. Each small win feeds your desire. This can be particularly powerful on a bad day. When you’re feeling down, it’s easy to forget about all the progress you have already made. Habit tracking provides visual proof of your hard work—a subtle reminder of how far you’ve come. Plus, the empty square you see each morning can motivate you to get started because you don’t want to lose your progress by breaking the streak. Benefit #3: Habit tracking is satisfying. This is the most crucial benefit of all. Tracking can become its own form of reward. It is satisfying to cross an item off your to-do list, to complete an entry in your workout log, or to mark an X on the calendar. It feels good to watch your results grow—the size of your investment portfolio, the length of your book manuscript—and if it feels good, then you’re more likely to endure. Habit tracking also helps keep your eye on the ball: you’re focused on the process rather than the result. You’re not fixated on getting six-pack abs, you’re just trying to keep the streak alive and become the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. In summary, habit tracking (1) creates a visual cue that can remind you to act, (2) is inherently motivating because you see the progress you are making and don’t want to lose it, and (3) feels satisfying whenever you record another successful instance of your habit. Furthermore, habit tracking provides visual proof that you are casting votes for the type of person you wish to become, which is a delightful form of immediate and intrinsic gratification.* You may be wondering, if habit tracking is so useful, why have I waited so long to talk about it? Despite all the benefits, I’ve left this discussion until now for a simple reason: many people resist the idea of tracking and measuring. It can feel like a burden because it forces you into two habits: the habit you’re trying to build and the habit of tracking it. Counting calories sounds like a hassle when you’re already struggling to follow a diet. Writing down every sales call seems tedious when you’ve got work to do. It feels easier to say, “I’ll just eat less.” Or, “I’ll try harder.” Or, “I’ll remember to do it.” People inevitably tell me things like, “I have a decision journal, but I wish I used it more.” Or, “I recorded my workouts for a week, but then quit.” I’ve been there myself. I once made a food log to track my calories. I managed to do it for one meal and then gave up. Tracking isn’t for everyone, and there is no need to measure your entire life. But nearly anyone can benefit from it in some form—even if it’s only temporary. What can we do to make tracking easier? First, whenever possible, measurement should be automated. You’ll probably be surprised by how much you’re already tracking without knowing it. Your credit card statement tracks how often you go out to eat. Your Fitbit registers how many steps you take and how long you sleep. Your calendar records how many new places you travel to each year. Once you know where to get the data, add a note to your calendar to review it each week or each month, which is more practical than tracking it every day. Second, manual tracking should be limited to your most important habits. It is better to consistently track one habit than to sporadically track ten. Finally, record each measurement immediately after the habit occurs. The completion of the behavior is the cue to write it down.

  • The habit stacking + habit tracking formula is: After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [TRACK MY HABIT]. After I hang up the phone from a sales call, I will move one paper clip over. After I finish each set at the gym, I will record it in my workout journal. After I put my plate in the dishwasher, I will write down what I ate. These tactics can make tracking your habits easier. Even if you aren’t the type of person who enjoys recording your behavior, I think you’ll find a few weeks of measurements to be insightful. It’s always interesting to see how you’ve actually been spending your time. That said, every habit streak ends at some point. And, more important than any single measurement, is having a good plan for when your habits slide off track. HOW TO RECOVER QUICKLY WHEN YOUR HABITS BREAK DOWN No matter how consistent you are with your habits, it is inevitable that life will interrupt you at some point. Perfection is not possible. Before long, an emergency will pop up—you get sick or you have to travel for work or your family needs a little more of your time. Whenever this happens to me, I try to remind myself of a simple rule: never miss twice. If I miss one day, I try to get back into it as quickly as possible. Missing one workout happens, but I’m not going to miss two in a row. Maybe I’ll eat an entire pizza, but I’ll follow it up with a healthy meal. I can’t be perfect, but I can avoid a second lapse. As soon as one streak ends, I get started on the next one. 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.

  • Throughout our discussion of the 4th Law of Behavior Change we have covered the importance of making good habits immediately satisfying. Fisher’s proposal is an inversion of the 4th Law: Make it immediately unsatisfying. Just as we are more likely to repeat an experience when the ending is satisfying, we are also more likely to avoid an experience when the ending is painful. Pain is an effective teacher. If a failure is painful, it gets fixed. If a failure is relatively painless, it gets ignored. The more immediate and more costly a mistake is, the faster you will learn from it. The threat of a bad review forces a plumber to be good at his job. The possibility of a customer never returning makes restaurants create good food. The cost of cutting the wrong blood vessel makes a surgeon master human anatomy and cut carefully. When the consequences are severe, people learn quickly.

  • The more immediate the pain, the less likely the behavior. If you want to prevent bad habits and eliminate unhealthy behaviors, then adding an instant cost to the action is a great way to reduce their odds. We repeat bad habits because they serve us in some way, and that makes them hard to abandon. The best way I know to overcome this predicament is to increase the speed of the punishment associated with the behavior. There can’t be a gap between the action and the consequences. As soon as actions incur an immediate consequence, behavior begins to change. Customers pay their bills on time when they are charged a late fee. Students show up to class when their grade is linked to attendance. We’ll jump through a lot of hoops to avoid a little bit of immediate pain. There is, of course, a limit to this. If you’re going to rely on punishment to change behavior, then the strength of the punishment must match the relative strength of the behavior it is trying to correct. To be productive, the cost of procrastination must be greater than the cost of action. To be healthy, the cost of laziness must be greater than the cost of exercise. Getting fined for smoking in a restaurant or failing to recycle adds consequence to an action. Behavior only shifts if the punishment is painful enough and reliably enforced. In general, the more local, tangible, concrete, and immediate the consequence, the more likely it is to influence individual behavior. The more global, intangible, vague, and delayed the consequence, the less likely it is to influence individual behavior. Thankfully, there is a straightforward way to add an immediate cost to any bad habit: create a habit contract.

  • Just as governments use laws to hold citizens accountable, you can create a habit contract to hold yourself accountable. A habit contract is a verbal or written agreement in which you state your commitment to a particular habit and the punishment that will occur if you don’t follow through. Then you find one or two people to act as your accountability partners and sign off on the contract with you. Bryan Harris, an entrepreneur from Nashville, Tennessee, was the first person I saw put this strategy into action. Shortly after the birth of his son, Harris realized he wanted to shed a few pounds. He wrote up a habit contract between himself, his wife, and his personal trainer. The first version read, “Bryan’s number 1 objective for Q1 of 2017 is to start eating correctly again so he feels better, looks better, and is able to hit his long-term goal of 200 pounds at 10% body fat.” Below that statement, Harris laid out a road map for achieving his ideal outcome: Phase #1: Get back to a strict “slow-carb” diet in Q1. Phase #2: Start a strict macronutrient tracking program in Q2. Phase #3: Refine and maintain the details of his diet and workout program in Q3. Finally, he wrote out each of the daily habits that would get him to his goal. For example, “Write down all food that he consumes each day and weigh himself each day.” And then he listed the punishment if he failed: “If Bryan doesn’t do these two items then the following consequence will be enforced: He will have to dress up each workday and each Sunday morning for the rest of the quarter. Dress up is defined as not wearing jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, or shorts. He will also give Joey (his trainer) $200 to use as he sees fit if he misses one day of logging food.” At the bottom of the page, Harris, his wife, and his trainer all signed the contract. My initial reaction was that a contract like this seemed overly formal and unnecessary, especially the signatures. But Harris convinced me that signing the contract was an indication of seriousness. “Anytime I skip this part,” he said, “I start slacking almost immediately.” Three months later, after hitting his targets for Q1, Harris upgraded his goals. The consequences escalated, too. If he missed his carbohydrate and protein targets, he had to pay his trainer $100. And if he failed to weigh himself, he had to give his wife $500 to use as she saw fit. Perhaps most painfully, if he forgot to run sprints, he had to dress up for work every day and wear an Alabama hat the rest of the quarter—the bitter rival of his beloved Auburn team. The strategy worked. With his wife and trainer acting as accountability partners and with the habit contract clarifying exactly what to do each day, Harris lost the weight.* To make bad habits unsatisfying, your best option is to make them painful in the moment. Creating a habit contract is a straightforward way to do exactly that. Even if you don’t want to create a full-blown habit contract, simply having an accountability partner is useful. The comedian Margaret Cho writes a joke or song every day. She does the “song a day” challenge with a friend, which helps them both stay accountable. Knowing that someone is watching can be a powerful motivator. You are less likely to procrastinate or give up because there is an immediate cost. If you don’t follow through, perhaps they’ll see you as untrustworthy or lazy. Suddenly, you are not only failing to uphold your promises to yourself, but also failing to uphold your promises to others.

  • The secret to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition. This is just as true with habit change as it is with sports and business. Habits are easier to perform, and more satisfying to stick with, when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities. Like Michael Phelps in the pool or Hicham El Guerrouj on the track, you want to play a game where the odds are in your favor. Embracing this strategy requires the acceptance of the simple truth that people are born with different abilities. Some people don’t like to discuss this fact. On the surface, your genes seem to be fixed, and it’s no fun to talk about things you cannot control. Plus, phrases like biological determinism makes it sound like certain individuals are destined for success and others doomed to failure. But this is a shortsighted view of the influence of genes on behavior. The strength of genetics is also their weakness. Genes cannot be easily changed, which means they provide a powerful advantage in favorable circumstances and a serious disadvantage in unfavorable circumstances. If you want to dunk a basketball, being seven feet tall is very useful. If you want to perform a gymnastics routine, being seven feet tall is a great hindrance. Our environment determines the suitability of our genes and the utility of our natural talents. When our environment changes, so do the qualities that determine success. This is true not just for physical characteristics but for mental ones as well. I’m smart if you ask me about habits and human behavior; not so much when it comes to knitting, rocket propulsion, or guitar chords. Competence is highly dependent on context. The people at the top of any competitive field are not only well trained, they are also well suited to the task. And this is why, if you want to be truly great, selecting the right place to focus is crucial. In short: genes do not determine your destiny. They determine your areas of opportunity. As physician Gabor Mate notes, “Genes can predispose, but they don’t predetermine.” The areas where you are genetically predisposed to success are the areas where habits are more likely to be satisfying. The key is to direct your effort toward areas that both excite you and match your natural skills, to align your ambition with your ability.

  • There are a series of questions you can ask yourself to continually narrow in on the habits and areas that will be most satisfying to you: 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.

  • 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.

  • When you’re starting a new habit, it’s important to keep the behavior as easy as possible so you can stick with it even when conditions aren’t perfect. This is an idea we covered in detail while discussing the 3rd Law of Behavior Change. Once a habit has been established, however, it’s important to continue to advance in small ways. These little improvements and new challenges keep you engaged. And if you hit the Goldilocks Zone just right, you can achieve a flow state.* 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. Improvement requires a delicate balance. You need to regularly search for challenges that push you to your edge while continuing to make enough progress to stay motivated. Behaviors need to remain novel in order for them to stay attractive and satisfying. Without variety, we get bored. And boredom is perhaps the greatest villain on the quest for self-improvement.

  • The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. And as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty. Perhaps this is why we get caught up in a never-ending cycle, jumping from one workout to the next, one diet to the next, one business idea to the next. As soon as we experience the slightest dip in motivation, we begin seeking a new strategy—even if the old one was still working. As Machiavelli noted, “Men desire novelty to such an extent that those who are doing well wish for a change as much as those who are doing badly.”

  • Perhaps this is why many of the most habit-forming products are those that provide continuous forms of novelty. Video games provide visual novelty. Porn provides sexual novelty. Junk foods provide culinary novelty. Each of these experiences offer continual elements of surprise.

  • David Cain, an author and meditation teacher, encourages his students to avoid being “fair-weather meditators.” Similarly, you don’t want to be a fair-weather athlete or a fair-weather writer or a fair-weather anything. When a habit is truly important to you, you have to be willing to stick to it in any mood. Professionals take action even when the mood isn’t right. They might not enjoy it, but they find a way to put the reps in. There have been a lot of sets that I haven’t felt like finishing, but I’ve never regretted doing the workout. There have been a lot of articles I haven’t felt like writing, but I’ve never regretted publishing on schedule. There have been a lot of days I’ve felt like relaxing, but I’ve never regretted showing up and working on something that was important to me. The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.

  • Habits are necessary, but not sufficient for mastery. What you need is a combination of automatic habits and deliberate practice. Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery To become great, certain skills do need to become automatic. Basketball players need to be able to dribble without thinking before they can move on to mastering layups with their nondominant hand. Surgeons need to repeat the first incision so many times that they could do it with their eyes closed, so that they can focus on the hundreds of variables that arise during surgery. But after one habit has been mastered, you have to return to the effortful part of the work and begin building the next habit. Mastery is the process of narrowing your focus to a tiny element of success, repeating it until you have internalized the skill, and then using this new habit as the foundation to advance to the next frontier of your development. Old tasks become easier the second time around, but it doesn’t get easier overall because now you’re pouring your energy into the next challenge. Each habit unlocks the next level of performance. It’s an endless cycle.

  • 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.

  • 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. Top performers in all fields engage in various types of reflection and review, and the process doesn’t have to be complex. Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge is one of the greatest marathoners of all time and an Olympic gold medalist. He still takes notes after every practice in which he reviews his training for the day and searches for areas that can be improved. Similarly, gold medal swimmer Katie Ledecky records her wellness on a scale of 1 to 10 and includes notes on her nutrition and how well she slept. She also records the times posted by other swimmers. At the end of each week, her coach goes over her notes and adds his thoughts. It’s not just athletes, either. When comedian Chris Rock is preparing fresh material, he will first appear at small nightclubs dozens of times and test hundreds of jokes. He brings a notepad on stage and records which bits go over well and where he needs to make adjustments. The few killer lines that survive will form the backbone of his new show. 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.* Improvement is not just about learning habits, it’s also about fine-tuning them. Reflection and review ensures that you spend your time on the right things and make course corrections whenever necessary—like Pat Riley adjusting the effort of his players on a nightly basis. You don’t want to keep practicing a habit if it becomes ineffective.

  • The more sacred an idea is to us—that is, the more deeply it is tied to our identity—the more strongly we will defend it against criticism. You see this in every industry. The schoolteacher who ignores innovative teaching methods and sticks with her tried-and-true lesson plans. The veteran manager who is committed to doing things “his way.” The surgeon who dismisses the ideas of her younger colleagues. The band who produces a mind-blowing first album and then gets stuck in a rut. The tighter we cling to an identity, the harder it becomes to grow beyond it. 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.

  • For most of my young life, being an athlete was a major part of my identity. After my baseball career ended, I struggled to find myself. When you spend your whole life defining yourself in one way and that disappears, who are you now? Military veterans and former entrepreneurs report similar feelings. If your identity is wrapped up in a belief like “I’m a great soldier,” what happens when your period of service ends? For many business owners, their identity is something along the lines of “I’m the CEO” or “I’m the founder.” If you have spent every waking moment working on your business, how will you feel after you sell the company? The key to mitigating these losses of identity is to redefine yourself such that you get to keep important aspects of your identity even if your particular role changes.

  • “I’m an athlete” becomes “I’m the type of person who is mentally tough and loves a physical challenge.” “I’m a great soldier” transforms into “I’m the type of person who is disciplined, reliable, and great on a team.” “I’m the CEO” translates to “I’m the type of person who builds and creates things.” When chosen effectively, an identity can be flexible rather than brittle. Like water flowing around an obstacle, your identity works with the changing circumstances rather than against them.

  • Can one tiny change transform your life? It’s unlikely you would say so. But what if you made another? And another? And another? At some point, you will have to admit that your life was transformed by one small change. The holy grail of habit change is not a single 1 percent improvement, but a thousand of them. It’s a bunch of atomic habits stacking up, each one a fundamental unit of the overall system.

  • 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. However, happiness is fleeting because a new desire always comes along. As Caed Budris says, “Happiness is the space between one desire being fulfilled and a new desire forming.” Likewise, suffering is the space between craving a change in state and getting it.

  • 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. Peace occurs when you don’t turn your observations into problems. The first step in any behavior is observation. You notice a cue, a bit of information, an event. If you do not desire to act on what you observe, then you are at peace. Craving is about wanting to fix everything. Observation without craving is the realization that you do not need to fix anything. Your desires are not running rampant. You do not crave a change in state. Your mind does not generate a problem for you to solve. You’re simply observing and existing. With a big enough why you can overcome any how. Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher and poet, famously wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” This phrase harbors an important truth about human behavior. If your motivation and desire are great enough (that is, why are you are acting), you’ll take action even when it is quite difficult. Great craving can power great action—even when friction is high. Being curious is better than being smart. Being motivated and curious counts for more than being smart because it leads to action. Being smart will never deliver results on its own because it doesn’t get you to act. It is desire, not intelligence, that prompts behavior. As Naval Ravikant says, “The trick to doing anything is first cultivating a desire for it.”

  • 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. We can only be rational and logical after we have been emotional. The primary mode of the brain is to feel; the secondary mode is to think. Our first response—the fast, nonconscious portion of the brain—is optimized for feeling and anticipating. Our second response—the slow, conscious portion of the brain—is the part that does the “thinking.”

  • Suffering drives progress. The source of all suffering is the desire for a change in state. This is also the source of all progress. The desire to change your state is what powers you to take action. It is wanting more that pushes humanity to seek improvements, develop new technologies, and reach for a higher level. With craving, we are dissatisfied but driven. Without craving, we are satisfied but lack ambition. 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.

  • 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. You’re perpetually putting more weight on the problem than the solution.

  • Happiness is relative. When I first began sharing my writing publicly it took me three months to get one thousand subscribers. When I hit that milestone, I told my parents and my girlfriend. We celebrated. I felt excited and motivated. A few years later, I realized that one thousand people were signing up each day. And yet I didn’t even think to tell anyone. It felt normal. I was getting results ninety times faster than before but experiencing little pleasure over it. It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized how absurd it was that I wasn’t celebrating something that would have seemed like a pipe dream just a few years before. The pain of failure correlates to the height of expectation. When desire is high, it hurts to not like the outcome. Failing to attain something you want hurts more than failing to attain something you didn’t think much about in the first place. This is why people say, “I don’t want to get my hopes up.” Feelings come both before and after the behavior. Before acting, there is a feeling that motivates you to act—the craving. After acting, there is a feeling that teaches you to repeat the action in the future—the reward. Cue > Craving (Feeling) > Response > Reward (Feeling) How we feel influences how we act, and how we act influences how we feel. Desire initiates. Pleasure sustains. Wanting and liking are the two drivers of behavior. If it’s not desirable, you have no reason to do it. Desire and craving are what initiate a behavior. But if it’s not enjoyable, you have no reason to repeat it. Pleasure and satisfaction are what sustain a behavior. Feeling motivated gets you to act. Feeling successful gets you to repeat. Hope declines with experience and is replaced by acceptance. The first time an opportunity arises, there is hope of what could be. Your expectation (cravings) is based solely on promise. The second time around, your expectation is grounded in reality. You begin to understand how the process works and your hope is gradually traded for a more accurate prediction and acceptance of the likely outcome. This is one reason why we continually grasp for the latest get-rich-quick or weight-loss scheme. New plans offer hope because we don’t have any experiences to ground our expectations. New strategies seem more appealing than old ones because they can have unbounded hope. As Aristotle noted, “Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope.” Perhaps this can be revised to “Youth is easily deceived because it only hopes.” There is no experience to root the expectation in. In the beginning, hope is all you have.

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