But in the taxi, Lisa didn’t know that. And to the scientists at the laboratory, the details of her trek weren’t relevant. Because for reasons they were just beginning to understand, that one small shift in Lisa’s perception that Day in Cairo – the conviction that she had to give up smoking to accomplish her goal – had touched off a series of changes that would ultimately radiate out of every part of her life. Over the next six months, she would replace smoking with jogging, and that, in turn, changed how she ate, worked, slept, saved money, scheduled her workdays, planned for the future, and so on. She would start running half-marathons, and then a marathon, go back to school, buy a house, and get engaged. Eventually she was recruited into the scientists’ study, and when researchers began examining images of Lisa’s brain, they saw something remarkable: One set of neurological patterns – her old habits – had been overridden by new patterns. They could still see the neural activity of her old behaviors, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. As Lisa’s habits changed, so had her brain.
One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.
(The book) focuses on habits as they are technically defined: the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day. At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.
The scientists repeated their experiment, again and again, watching how each rat’s brain activity changed as it moved through the same route hundreds of times. A series of shifts slowly emerged. The rats stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns. Instead, they zipped through the maze faster and faster. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: As each rat learned how to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased. As the route became more and more automatic, each rat started thinking less and less.
(The) process – in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine – is known as “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits form. There are dozens – if not hundreds – of behavioral chunks that we rely on every day. Some are simple: You automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, such as getting dressed or making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex.
Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our mind to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage…An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games.
This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
Researchers have learned that cues can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people.
But we do know that for habits to permanently change, people must believe that change is feasible. The same process that makes AA so effective – the power of a group to teach individuals how to believe – happens whenever people come together to help one another change. Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.
How do habits change?
There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated – it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.
But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible.
Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers. This book’s first section explained how habits work, how they can be created and changed. However, where should a would-be habit master start? Understanding keystone habits hold the answer to that question: The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.
Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. “Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
This is the final way that keystone habits encourage widespread change: by creating cultures where new values become ingrained. Keystone habits make tough choices – such as firing a top executive – easier, because when that person violates the culture, it’s clear they have to go. Sometimes these cultures manifest themselves in special vocabularies, the use of which becomes, itself, a habit that defines an organization.
Put another way, the patients’ plans were built around inflection points when they knew their pain – and thus the temptation to quit – would be strongest. The patients were telling themselves how they were going to make it over the hump.
This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives. When the Scottish patients filled out their booklets, or Travis studied the LATTE method, they decided ahead of time how to react to a cue – a painful muscle or an angry customer. When the cue arrived, the routine occurred.
When Muraven started exploring why students who had been treated kindly had more willpower he found that the key difference was the sense of control they had over their experience. “We’ve found this again and again,” Muraven told me. “When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons – if they feel like it’s a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else – it’s much less taxing. If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster. In both cases, people ignored the cookies. But when the students were treated like cogs, rather than people, it took a lot more willpower.”
Retention, the data said, was driven by emotional factors, such as whether employees knew members’ names or said hello when they walked in. People, it turns out, often go to the gym looking for a human connection, not a treadmill. If a member made a friend at the YMCA, they were much more likely to show up for workout sessions. In other words, people who join the YMCA have certain social habits. If the YMCA satisfied them, members were happy.
However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it – and every chapter in this book is devoted to illustrating a different aspect of why that control is real.
This book is essential reading for people looking to start fashioning better habits. One day I’ll put together a list of mandatory reading for habit improvements and The Power of Habit will certainly be on it. Get it, highlight it, and whenever you hit a speed bump lean on your highlights to get things moving again.
At 274 pages this book is packed with tons of information (371 with appendix, notes, etc.). This isn’t a high bar, particularly in the self-help genre, but there’s less filler in this book compared to its contemporaries (although some sections could certainly be more concise).
Small wins are everything. Start small, establish the habit, and then build on it.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of community.
Atomic Habits and The Power of Habit (the two best books on habit building, in my opinion) both make a big point of emphasizing community. Joining a community where writing/working out/cooking/[insert preferred habit or skill here] is the norm seems to be the closest thing to a “cheat code” that exists in the real world.
Community is an area I hope to further explore in the not-so-distant future.
In an effort to simplify the publishing process I recently decided to push forward with blogging (temporarily) as a solo effort. But up until then, my editor was a huge source of camaraderie in addition to being a great source of edits and general writing wisdom. I look forward to adding an editor back into the mix once I’m in a better position to do so.
In the meantime, I’ll explore the possibility of joining a blogging community or maybe reaching out to some individuals over social media. Joining a community would be much easier than starting one. But, if that’s not an option, it could be fun to document the process of starting a (very) small blogging community from scratch.
Until Next Time,
10 Quotes From Atomic Habits by James Clear
13 Great Quotes from Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon