The Clear Way To Form New Habits

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The year was 2012. I just went book shopping and can’t wait to immerse myself in Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. was really excited about the new book I bought. With over a thousand 4 and 5-star reviews on Amazon, this was THE book to read. All I needed to do then was to read it every day for the following 3 weeks and become Terry v2.0.

Except that it didn’t happen.

Nine days and 76 pages later, I found the book chucked away at the corner of my desk, collecting dust alongside the three other unfinished self-help books I bought two months earlier.

Fast forward to December 31, 2020. I had just logged into Goodreads to update my reading log for the last time that year. I silently gave myself a pat on the back, feeling proud as I reflected how far I’ve come.

F*ck yea I smashed my target!

So… What changed?

Enter James Clear and Atomic Habits

James Clear is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits. Having published over 250 articles online on topics like habits, self-improvement, and productivity, he is easily one of the biggest influences in my life. Like an oasis in a desert, his book opened my eyes to what makes some habits stick while others don’t.

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In this article, I want to share the concepts from James Clear and his work that have resonated with me the most. Hopefully, they can inspire you as much as they did for me to help you build and sustain habits in your life.

How Habits Work

One of the biggest reasons why I found it so difficult to build my reading habit was that I was doing it all wrong; As James explains in his book, we usually either try to change the wrong things, or we change it in the wrong way.

Unfortunately for me, it was a little bit of both.

Back then, I wanted to read for a full hour every day, but that was impossible given my hyperactive social life and classes at the university; I simply did not prioritise reading enough to make time for it.

Instead, I squeezed in random pockets of time to read, and was always distracted when sometime else came along. Obviously, the habit did not stick, and the book soon got forgotten.

What we should do instead is to break down the habit into smaller parts to make it easier to assimilate into our lifestyle. James calls it the “Four Laws of Behaviour Change”.

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In this article, he builds upon the work of Charles Duhigg and Nir Eyal about the four stages of habit and describes that a four-step framework to create good habits:
  • The 1st Law: Make it obvious (cue)
  • The 2nd Law: Make it attractive (craving)
  • The 3rd Law: Make it easy (response)
  • The 4th Law: Make it satisfying (reward)
When I revisited my intent to build my reading habit in 2019, I turned to this framework to help me, and this is what I did:
  • Make it obvious: I place my book on my desk, next to my phone which doubles as my alarm clock in the morning.
  • Make it attractive: I want the new knowledge that I can apply to my life and improve my status and/or well-being.
  • Make it easy: I start out by just reading one page a day, and slowly increase this number over time.
  • Make it satisfying: I’ve learnt something new that improved some aspects of my life, and that makes me feel happy and fulfilled.
By cycling through these steps over and over again, a “neurological feedback loop” is formed and results in a habit being formed. This framework is also useful to help us make it easier to execute the habit in the future, which is described in this other article.

The Power Of Tiny Gains - The 1% Rule

In my previous example, you saw that I started my reading habit by simply reading ONE page a day. Today, I’m easily reading 10-20 pages a day, sometimes even entire chapters! How does this happen?

This is compounding at work. This idea is best known in the financial world as “compound interest” – You start with an investment, it grows and that amount becomes the new starting point. The next time it grows, it starts with that larger amount as its base.

Similarly, good habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. James calls this “the power of tiny gains”, in which he describes that marginal gains by themselves may not be immediately noticeable, but will make astounding improvements in the long run. See the math in action below, or read more about it here.

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Goals do not drive behaviour change; systems do

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

I want you to think about all the New Years’ resolutions that you’ve made earlier this year. Have you made any progress towards them?

If your answer is no, it’s worth reflecting on why that is the case. According to James Clear, while goals are great for planning our progress, systems are crucial for actually making progress.

In other words, it is obviously not enough to simply know that I want to read 20 books by the end of the year; I also need to know how I am going to achieve that goal, and actively execute that plan to arrive at the outcome I desire.

This is why I have a morning routine – it is my system to ensure that I consistently read every day.

Want to learn how to set up your system? Check out this article.

Photo credits: vadymvdrobot

Our identity is what makes habits stick

Have you ever noticed how the words you use can influence your behaviour?

Consider the two statements below:

  1. I am trying to read more books this year
  2. I am an avid reader

Notice how each statement reflects a very different mindset, which will in turn determine a different set of behaviours?

In the first statement, this person is focusing on an outcome-based goal. It is a surface-level change that lacks dedication and conviction.

On the other hand, the person who said the second statement has already embodied being a reader as part of his/her identity. Loosely put, this person will almost always read by default, while the previous person has to invest extra effort just to read.

Which of the two do you think will continue reading for years and years to come? (Hint: it’s not the first person)

If you’re intrigued by this concept, you’re not alone. See what James Clear has to say about it here.

Now it's your turn

Humans are naturally resistant to change, and building new habits is often a challenge. I hope you find James Clear’s work as inspiring and influential as I have. Try it out, and share your stories by tagging me on LinkedIn, Instagram, or Twitter, or send me an email if you ever want to discuss.

If you’d like to read more of James Clear’s work, you can check out his website here.

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About the author
Terry Toh

Terry Toh

Terry is an aspiring life coach working towards his accreditation by the International Coaching Federation. He loves to read about personal development and entrepreneurship, often with a nice cup of coffee or G&T in hand.
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