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James Clear

Tips from our James Clear masterclass on Atomic Habits

How to get 1% better every day and boost your self-improvement

James Clear

“Habits = the compound interest of self improvement” - James Clear, Atomic Habits

Before coach Dave Brailsford came along, British cycling was in the doldrums. But with him on board something extraordinary began to happen. The team started winning gold medals; 70% of the gold available at the 2012 Olympics, 60% of the gold in 2016. 

Brailsford credited his method of “the aggregation of marginal gains.” Elite levels of success were the result of 1% improvements in nearly everything the cycling team did, from choosing better pillows to improve sleep, to lighter tyres, to lessons in improved personal hygiene.    

This story opens James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, and his Growth Faculty live virtual masterclass Atomic Habits: How to Get 1% Better Every Day.  We learned that excellence is not about radical changes, but about accruing small improvements over time. 

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Time becomes your friend, or your enemy

“You’d be surprised how small improvements can turn into major gains,” James told us. After all, getting 1% better or 1% worse at something doesn’t make a lot of difference on any given day. 

“We just go about our day following our habits, but then, three years on, ‘Knock, Knock, Who’s There? Oh, it’s the consequences of my actions,” he explains. “If you have good habits, all you need is patience. If you have bad habits, time becomes your enemy.”

James’s Tip: Don’t worry about your current position, but worry about your trajectory. 

Why it’s so hard to stick to good habits

Most of us have tried to stick to a good habit. If you’re struggling to improve, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. 

“You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems,” says James. Your system is the collection of your daily habits. Most of your outcomes in life are a lagging measure of your habits. For the outcome to change, the system must change. 

James’s Tip: Spend the vast majority of your time to work on your system. 

4 stages of habit formation (and 4 laws to build or break habits)

If a behaviour is not rewarding, it’s not likely to become a habit. Therefore, there are 4 stages of habit formation:

  1. Cue - the trigger to initiate the habit (ie. bikkie jar on the kitchen counter)
  2. Craving - the prediction that compels you to act (‘This will taste sweet’)
  3. Response - the actual habit you perform (‘I’ll just have one’)
  4. Reward - the result that satisfies the craving (‘Mmm, that was delicious’)

James's Tip: The 2 Minute Rule. Give yourself permission to show up. Read one page of the book, take out your yoga mat. Ask yourself, 'What is the lead action to make it possible?'

Before we continue with this article, a friendly invitation from us: If your leadership skills could do with further development join our leader learning community with a 12 month Leadership Pass. 

The trick of more or less

To reinforce or break a habit requires you to consider two questions for each stage: 

  • How can I make it more……? 
  • How can I make it less…….?

So, the 4 laws to build a good habit:

A habit must be established before it can be improved. Start small and ask, 'How can I make it more.....obvious, attractive, easy, satisfying?' (as below)

  • Cue - Law 1: Make it obvious (ie. change your physical environment)
  • Craving - Law 2: Make it attractive (ie. exercise with a friend, join tribes where your behaviour is the norm)
  • Response - Law 3: Make it easy (ie. like dancer Twyla Tharp hailing her daily cab to get to the gym, choose an easy ritual to get yourself going)
  • Reward - Law 4: Make it satisfying (ie. The Seinfeld Strategy of marking a calendar every day with an ‘X’ and creating a ‘streak’ of small actions - for Seinfeld this was writing a joke every day. The key is ‘Don’t break the chain.’). 

James’s Tip: ‘Never Miss Twice’. If you skip an action (breaking the chain), don’t fall into a pit of despair. Promise yourself you will complete the next action scheduled. Remember, the key to all this is the power of tiny gains over time. (see graphic below) A couple of lapses won't change your trajectory.


The 4 laws to break a bad habit 

Each morning there is a moment that determines the rest of your day. To break bad habits you invert the laws that build a good habit. So "How can I make it less obvious, attractive, easy, satisfying? (as below): 

  • Cue - Law 1: Make it invisible 
  • Craving - Law 2: Make it unattractive 
  • Response - Law 3: Make it difficult
  • Reward - Law 4: Make it unsatisfying (especially the immediate cost of the action)

James’s Tip: Walk into the spaces you inhabit. Ask yourself 'What is this space designed to encourage?' For example, sofas facing the television in a living area encourage tv watching. Drinks cabinets full of soft drinks in prominent positions encourage you to drink them. Tweak and adjust your environment to encourage better habits. 

Believing something new about yourself

James Clear says it’s not just about little habits. It’s about believing something new about yourself. True behaviour change is identity change. 

  • 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 do a silent meditation retreat, the goal is to become a meditator. 

“Every action you take is a vote for the person you wish to become,” James says in one of our favourite quotes from Atomic Habits

James’s Tip: Ask yourself ‘What do I actually want?’ day after day. Write down answers in your journal. The answers may change over time. Also, ask yourself, ‘How can I get 1% better every day?’ 

If you like James Clear, we have a range of world class speakers who understand what it takes to become a great leader. Check out what our other favourite leaders have to say about listening skills, women in leadership, diversity, and being a CEO.

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