Ten years ago, I was having after-work drinks with one of my best friends. Her husband was reading 100+ books per year and I found it fascinating (I was in the 20-30 books per year category).
I don’t have time to read 100 books per year, I said, thinking of my (then) schedule, packed with work, events, activities, a rich social life, and tons of sports (little did I know that I will learn the true meaning of busy a bit later, when my son came into the world).
Of course you do, she said wisely. You just choose to put it into other things. My husband is busy as well, yet reading is a priority for him, (her husband is the CEO of a 500+ people, international, rent-a-car company, so arguably he was busier than I was at that moment).
That conversation stays with me to this day: we have time, what matters is what we choose to do with it.
I am now reading 80 books per year on average. I detailed in this blogpost how I got to read over one book a week in 2017.
In 2019 I raised the bar for myself. I managed to read 163 books in total. I doubled the number of books I read by purposefully creating a reading habit, following James Clear‘s framework from Atomic Habits.
Creating tiny habits leads to huge improvements
I found James Clear’s book liberating: we can create the life and identity we want for ourselves, one tiny habit at a time. I didn’t get as motivated to work on building new habits since I read Tim Ferris’s 4-Hour Work Week, which gave me hope that one day I can live the life I want by working only four hours per week (disclaimer: it didn’t happen).
According to James, if you choose to get better at something by a 1% daily improvement, you end up being 37.78 times better at it. On the other side, if you get 1% worse every day for one year, you decline down to 0.
This is liberating, as 1% daily is not very much effort, but also scary, as you now understand what it means to eat just one tiny, 120 calories, piece of chocolate every day.
Doing an improving activity daily for a year is not an easy feat though. And here’s where James suggests you should focus on the process that leads to getting results, rather than on the result itself.
The main idea of the book is that you can create a system of continuous improvement that you can apply to reach any type of goal, rather than setting goals and trying hard to achieve them.
If you have trouble changing your habits, the problem is not you. The problem is the systemAtomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, by James Clear
Atomic habits focuses on building small habits, that are part of a larger system, by regular practice or routine, easy to do, but the source of incredible power for change and growth.
Three layers of behavioural change
Why do habits fail? Because you try to change the wrong thing or we try to change the right thing in the wrong way.
According to James, there are three layers o behavioural change:
- You can change your outcome: change your results (goals) -> change what you get
- You can change your process: change your habits and systems -> change what you do
- You can change your identity: change your beliefs -> change what you believe
When you go about a change, you focus on the levels in the wrong way: you start with changing outcome, to get to eventually change your identity.
James has a different approach: start with changing your identity. Focus on who you wish to become, as “behaviour that is incongruent with the self will not last“.
Instead of “I’m the type of person who writes“, use “I am a writer“. Instead of “I’m the type of person who reads a lot of books“, “I am a reader“. I don’t want to “run a marathon“, “I am a runner“.
This way, you don’t just pursue to change a behaviour, you are behaving according to who you are, the type of person you believe yourself to be.
The most interesting part of this theory is that you need to decide who you want to become, before you jump into how to get there. That means, in order for consistent improvement and growth – changing habits – you need to look at yourself, your values, purpose, vision and really define who you wish to be.
The best framework I found to define an ideal self and create a plan to get there – which jells beautifully with James Clear’s Atomic Habits framework – is the coaching with compassion framework. Find it in my blogpost.
Build better habits in four steps
James Clear’s habit changing formula builds on the science of creating and changing habits, which has four steps: cue, craving, response and reward.
(1) The cue triggers the brain to initiate a behaviour, it’s a bit of information that predicts a reward. It is meaningless until it’s interpreted.
(2) The craving is the motivational force behind the habit. You crave the state that the habit change delivers; without craving, there is no desire to act.
(3) The response is the actual habit you perform – it can be a thought or an action. A habit can only occur if you are capable of doing it.
(4) The reward is the end goal of each habit. It will satisfy your craving, but also teach you what behaviours are worth repeating.
Without 1+2+3 (cue + craving + response), a behaviour doesn’t occur. Without 4 (reward), a behaviour won’t repeat.
The four laws of behaviour change
Based on the science of creating and changing habits, James Clear came up with the four laws of behaviour change (how to create new habits and how to break habits):
1. Make it obvious
The first law is to make it obvious. In order to change a habit or create a new habit, you need to acknowledge its need first.
James suggest you create a habit scorecard: a list of all your habits, from the moment you wake up (hopefully sleeping is already one of your habits), until you get back to bed. The list is purely observational, so you don’t need to change or judge anything, just write down every little thing you do since the moment you wake up.
Next, ask yourself: “Does this behaviour serve me? Does this behaviour help me be the person I strive to be? Does this habit take me towards my desired identity?“.
After you get clarity on what habit you need to change, you have to create a plan to change it – an implementation intention – set when and where (exactly) you’re going to act to change the habit. Fill in the phrase “I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]“:
It seems that people that specify when and where to do a new action or habit are more likely to follow through.
Another technique you can use is habit stacking: you decide to add your new behaviour to one that is already routine; you stack your new habit on top of the old one: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]“:
As a side note – but worthy to mention – James Clear is a great advocate of creating an environment that supports your new habits, as context change drives habits change. Surround yourself with people whose habits you want to adopt, design your house to support or even drive your habits, etc. E.g. if you don’t have any chocolate in the house, you are not likely to snack on chocolate a few times a day.
To break a bad habit, you have to make it invisible: hide the chocolate in the back of the fridge (or don’t buy it at all), move the TV out of the living room (or hide it in the cupboard or sell it altogether), delete Facebook on your phone (to limit your wasting time on social media), and so on.
2. Make it attractive
In order for a habit to stick, it needs to be attractive for you. The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit forming.
It’s all about the dopamine – which is the chemical that is released when you receive a reward (you eat chocolate), but also when you anticipate a reward (you buy the chocolate).
Habits are dopamine-driven feedback loops. It’s the anticipation of reward that drives us into action, not the reward per se (also not getting the reward will push you not do the action).
To make habits attractive, you need to build temptation. Temptation building works when you link an action you need to do with one that you enjoy doing: “more probable behaviours will reinforce less probable behaviours“.
Combined with habit stacking, temptation building will look like this:
Another method to build better habits, is to create a motivation ritual: associate a new habit with another behaviour that you enjoy. For example, if there’s a favourite song that you listen to when you are happy, you can listen to that song to bring happiness into what you are doing now.
One important thing to mention here is that the people around you influence your habits: we tend to imitate (1) friends, (2) the many, and (3) the powerful.
(1) In order to build the habits that fit your ideal self, join a community of people that have those habits, a tribe that you already have something in common with. Maintaining your desired behaviour is easy when your tribe exhibits it.
(2) At the same time, be aware of the influence of others on your behaviour, as we tend to follow the crowd, and change our opinions or behaviours to fit in, to belong. (3) Especially the powerful and influential have a great pull on what habits we adopt, as we want to imitate their success. Copying their habits or behaviours might be a path to take us there.
If you want to break a bad habit, make it unattractive, or reframe your habits. According to James Clear, simply changing your language from “I need to go to work” to “I get to go to work” can influence our mindset and our attitude towards behaviours that we want in our lives.
3. Make it easy
The third law of habit change is to make it easy. That means to drop out of the analysis paralysis state and get to actually doing the new habit. As Voltaire said, the best is the enemy of the good.
James makes a very interesting distinction between being in motion and taking action (and it painfully hits home for me): being in motion involves planning, strategising, learning, which produces no results; taking action is the only way to deliver an outcome.
Otherwise put, my 100 notes on the types of blogposts to write won’t make the posts happen. The only way for it to get done is for me to actually start writing (which I am happily doing, pumped up by James Clear’s book and inspiration).
Why do we spend so much time being in motion and so little in taking action? I am pretty sure you have a lot of things planned – things to do, articles to write, apps to build, and so on. It seems that preparing to get something delays failure, while getting something done might move us closer to fail. It’s the fear of failure that keeps us in the planning stage.
To create a new habit, start with repetition, not perfection. This is the core of creating new habits: it’s not about finding the perfect habit, the best way to reach your ideal, but about experimenting, getting feedback, experimenting again until the habit becomes part of your routine.
Remember one essential thing: habits build on frequency, not time. That’s why there is no real answer to the question – how much time does it take for a new habit to form? It’s more about repeating that habit enough times until it becomes routine, like brushing your teeth.
How do you make a habit easy, as little-energy consuming as possible? You have to make your habits so easy, that you’ll do them even if you don’t feel like it.
On the tough days, it’s crucial to have as many things working in your favor as possible so that you can overcome the challenges life naturally throws your way. The less friction you face, the easier it is for your stronger self to emerge. The idea behind make it easy is not to only do easy things. The idea is to make it as easy as possible in the moment to do things that payoff in the long run.Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, by James Clear
These are actions you can take to make it easy for your good habits to happen:
- practice environment design: if you need to focus, turn of Facebook, notifications, email; if you want to journal daily, leave your notebook on the kitchen table (for me, it’s the first thing I’m going to look at in the morning); if you’re learning to draw, leave your drawing tools and notebooks on top of your desk, etc.
- start small: use the two-minute rule (you shouldn’t start a new habit that takes less than two minutes): creating a habit to read before bed will turn into I will read one page before sleep; doing thirty minutes of yoga will turn into I will take out my yoga mat; running for half an hour will become I will tie my running shoes. This way, a new habit doesn’t feel like a challenge, and it’s entirely doable (and easy).
The point of making a habit easy – the two-minutes rule – is not to build light, two-minutes habits, but to master the act of showing up. You show up for your habits, you are the person who has that habit (reinforcing your identity).
How do you scale from a tiny habit to a long-term behaviour change? James proposes habit shaping:
- you master the first two minutes of your ultimate habit goal
- you advance to the next, intermediate step, and repeat the process, still focusing on the first two minutes, and mastering that stage before you move on to the next
- eventually you will reach your ultimate goal.
How to make bad habits impossible in this stage? Make them difficult to occur: increase tension, friction, and number of steps between you and the bad habit; restrict your future choices to the ones that benefit your identity (e.f. don’t buy that chocolate if your objective is to lose weight).
4. Make it satisfying
The fourth and last law of behaviour change is to make the habit satisfying. As mentioned, without a reward, the habit will not be repeated. The cardinal rule is “What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided“.
The first three laws – make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy – increase the odds that a behaviour is performed this time, but the fourth habit ensures that the behaviour will be repeated tomorrow.
The trick here is the relationship between habits and rewards: bad habits have immediate good outcome and a future bad outcome; good habits have no immediate outcome (they are mostly unenjoyable), but a great future outcome. The cost of bad habits is in the future, while the cost of good habits is in the present.
How do you go around this, considering that humans are driven by immediate rewards? It’s vital to make good habits feel satisfying, to reward yourself for doing it. The immediate reward here is the last moment of your habit, as we remember it more than the entire experience, so you want to make the ending of a habit be satisfying.
Use reinforcements – an immediate reward to increase the rate of a behaviour, if you want to execute it again. Here are some strategies suggested by James:
- The Paper-Clip Strategy: you can track progress by moving paper clips from a jar to another one (as in one of James’s stories, in banker would move a paper clip from one jar to another for each sales call he made, and he would stop only when the jar was empty and the other one full)
- The paper clip strategy is another way to track habits: I prefer to use Trello to track my to-dos or habits, or Notes (they have the little checkmarks that are highly satisfying to complete).
You can use any method to track your habit – from crossing a day in your calendar, to moving a post-it from To-Do into Done, using an app or any other method, but it’s essential for it to be:
- obvious: very visual, to become satisfying
- attractive: moving cards in a board is satisfying as it implies progress
- easy: don’t make it feel like another habit, use the simplest method that would work for you
- satisfying: the tracking is in itself a form of reward and keeps you focused.
The formula for the habit tracker is:
How to make habits unsatisfying? You can keep on your new habits also by taking an accountability partner to make sure you keep on with your habit (can be a friend, the wife, or your gym instructor), or create a habit contract (e.g. your spouse gets $300 every time you miss doing your action).
To summarise the 4 laws of behaviour change
What’s important to remember is that frequency of the habit, repetition is what makes it for a successful, long-term transformation.
You are human though, and humans are deeply flawed, so that means there will be days when you miss your habit. What happens then, did you endanger the entire endeavour? Don’t fret, if you missed a day, the important thing is to never miss twice. Pick up your new habit the second day and stay with it.
It is ideal to check in on yourself and where you are with achieving new habits: James suggests yearly retrospectives (I am doing them monthly, updating my backlog and working on the validity of my goals), a habit journal, where you track your habits (check out the one offered by James, it looks great), and the integrity report, to revisit your core values and how your habits help you fulfil them.
I used atomic habits to read 160+ books in 2019
I used atomic habits to build a stronger reading habit in 2019. I managed to double my yearly average, to 160 books. I can proudly say now that I am a reader (identity).
My challenge was not to create a new habit – reading is already one of my habits – but to increase my reading time, so getting rid of other habits and including reading where I found idle (or unproductive) time.
I will explain my approach next. 2020 looks promising as well, I am at 10 books in January I can definitely push towards 100+ this year.
Before starting, I made a habit journal: I listed all my actions during the day, since the moment I woke up. I discovered a few habits that I want to give up (checking social media, playing a game that is not very learning-oriented, pretty much all time wasting activities, that don’t fit the person I want to be). A few of these released time that I could put into reading.
Make it obvious
The question here was: how can I make reading obvious?
These are the actions I took to make reading an integral part of my day (and life):
- I always have an exciting book at hand. Always!
- I have Kindle, Apple Books, Google Books, and Kobo Books on my phone
- I have books everywhere in the house, by my bed, in my office, living-room, even kitchen. Yes, I definitely love books 🙂
- I read about 10 books at the same time, from entirely different genres:
- at least on technical book (agile frameworks, or software development, product development)
- one behavioural sciences or psychology book (it’s what I’m passionate about)
- a book on facilitation, playing, games at work
- coaching and helping people change (or systems – organisation)
- a scientific book, investigative journalism, biographical book (I am a big supporter)
- most importantly – a science fiction or any fiction book (including fantasy, thriller, etc.). You don’t need to read only non-fiction, the point of this is to just read.
With implementation intention, I ended up deciding to read every day from 8-8:40 am on the way to work and with habit stacking I decided to read evert day after I put my son to sleep, 8-10 pm. I got a solid 3+ hours of reading per day. Add to that the idle time between meetings, waiting for the elevator, etc. I used it to the maximum (fiction works well in 10-15 minutes bouts).
Make it attractive
The question I asked here was: how can I make reading attractive? (or, in my case, more attractive than it already was).
I found two ways here to spike up my passion for reading:
- I read books in a flow: one book leads me to another, and that one to another. For example, I would read a book on coaching and I discover the intentional change theory, which leads me to habits changing, which leads me to Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.
- I connect reading with practical application – solving problems I’m currently facing. For example the above research was meant to discover ways to make my coaching more effective.
- I am part of a book club, where we share our reading and passion for reading. I read a lot of books just because some of my friends recommended them highly. So being part of a passionate community helped with level up my habit.
- I also committed to open Kindle or Books the first thing in the morning (after I open my eyes), versus Facebook or news.
Make it easy
The question to answer here was: how can I make reading easy?
These are the steps I took to make reading as easy as possible for me (some overlap with the above):
- I dropped one-book-at-a-time rule, and read ten books in parallel. This way, I would always have at least one book I was excited about in the pipeline.
- I got rid of notifications from all social media apps (including emails. I won a t least one and a half hours per day for reading (check your phone to figure out how much time you spend on social media; all those 15 minutes add up to 2-3 hours per day). Currently I restricted all social media to one hour maximum per day.
- I also hid the social media apps in a folder and kept the reading apps in view.
- I learned to read faster. Try to read this:
An interesting find (in Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware) was that you don’t actually need to read each letter to understand the meaning of the words. You can make associations based on incomplete data, by recognising patterns. Reading this way increased my reading speed by 30%. The condition here is that I am rested.
As I am used to read in long bouts, I didn’t need to apply the two minute rule. The challenge for me was to double my current reading time (which felt stretched already, with work, a toddler, and other commitments).
Make it satisfying
The question to answer here was: what is it about reading that is satisfying to you?
I thought I had this one figured out – getting knowledge, discovering novel ideas, discovering things about myself and the world, or solutions to questions or problems I am dealing with – they are all incredibly satisfying to me. Not to mention immersing myself in a fictional story and living a different life for a while (actually reading is more fulfilling than travelling for me, especially since I have a toddler 🙂 less hustle).
I did discover ways to make reading more satisfying or to help others find pleasure in reading:
- Read everything! Don’t be choosy. If you’re into steamy romances versus non-fiction, get into what you love. The purpose here is to create the habit of reading (for now). You can expand it later to reading more non-fiction if that’s what you wish.
- Track your reading. My life changed since I started to use Goodreads, track the books I am reading (and be aware if I don’t read enough for example), make book wish lists, a list for what read next (connected to my current focus), and just filling the reading percentage for my books there. Just checking that is a satisfying action in itself.
- Last year I also focused on writing about what I read and learn. Nothing compares with the satisfaction of completing a new post, or having a conversation with someone and sending them to a blogpost if they want to learn more. I found another usage for reading that is very, very satisfying.
After a couple of months of implementing the above strategy, reading became a routine. Whenever I have a spare minute, I would open up a book and get immersed in it. Also, the first app I check in the morning is Kindle or Books.
As a final thought, building habits is not difficult if you focus on what works for your personality: read the books you enjoy, do the physical activity that works for you (I have friends that absolutely hate jogging, but have no issue to chase a ball for hours while playing football), choose what works and gets you excited. Do a little bit of it every day, and it all adds up to 38x improvement over a year. Easy! 🙂
- Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, by James Clear.
- My blogpost on changing behaviour with compassionate coaching and intentional change theory
- Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware, by Andy Hunt
- Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
- My Goodreads profile: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/12870991-andreea-visanoiu
I made a small workshop on creating a reading habit with my teams, here’s the material: