Main Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

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Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results

No matter your goals, Atomic Habits offers a proven framework for improving--every day. James Clear, one of the world's leading experts on habit formation, reveals practical strategies that will teach you exactly how to form good habits, break bad ones, and master the tiny behaviors that lead to remarkable results.

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. Here, you'll get a proven system that can take you to new heights.

Clear is known for his ability to distill complex topics into simple behaviors that can be easily applied to daily life and work. Here, he draws on the most proven ideas from biology, psychology, and neuroscience to create an easy-to-understand guide for making good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible. Along the way, readers will be inspired and entertained with true stories from Olympic gold medalists, award-winning artists, business leaders, life-saving physicians, and star comedians who have used the science of small habits to master their craft and vault to the top of their field.

Learn how to:
  •  make time for new habits (even when life gets crazy);
  •  overcome a lack of motivation and willpower;
  •  design your environment to make success easier;
  •  get back on track when you fall off course;
...and much more.

Atomic Habits will reshape the way you think about progress and success, and give you the tools and strategies you need to transform your habits--whether you are a team looking to win a championship, an organization hoping to redefine an industry, or simply an individual who wishes to quit smoking, lose weight, reduce stress, or achieve any other goal.

Penguin Random House
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375 Hudson Street
New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2018 by James Clear
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Ebook ISBN 9780735211308
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publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the
publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or
their content.

1. an extremely small amount of a thing; the single irreducible unit of a
larger system.
2. the source of immense energy or power.
1. a routine or practice performed regularly; an automatic response to a
specific situation.

Title Page
Introduction: My Story
The Fundamentals
Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference
1 The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits
2 How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa)
3 How to Build Better Habits in 4 Simple Steps
The 1st Law
Make It Obvious
4 The Man Who Didn’t Look Right
5 The Best Way to Start a New Habit
6 Motivation Is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More
7 The Secret to Self-Control
The 2nd Law
Make It Attractive
8 How to Make a Habit Irresistible
9 The Role of Family and Friends in Shaping Your Habits
10 How to Find and Fix the Causes of Your Bad Habits
The 3rd Law
Make It Easy
11 Walk Slowly, but Never Backward
12 The Law of Least Effort
13 How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the Two-Minute Rule
14 How to Make Good Habits Inevitable and Bad Habits Impossible
The 4th L; aw
Make It Satisfying
15 The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change
16 How to Stick with Good Habits Every Day
17 How an Accountability Partner Can Change Everything

Advanced Tactics
How to Go from Being Merely Good to Being Truly Great
18 The Truth About Talent (When Genes Matter and When They Don’t)
19 The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and Work
20 The Downside of Creating Good Habits
Conclusion: The Secret to Results That Last
What Should You Read Next?
Little Lessons from the Four Laws
How to Apply These Ideas to Business
How to Apply These Ideas to Parenting
About the Author

My Story



of my sophomore year of high school, I was hit in
the face with a baseball bat. As my classmate took a full swing, the
bat slipped out of his hands and came flying toward me before striking
me directly between the eyes. I have no memory of the moment of
The bat smashed into my face with such force that it crushed my
nose into a distorted U-shape. The collision sent the soft tissue of my
brain slamming into the inside of my skull. Immediately, a wave of
swelling surged throughout my head. In a fraction of a second, I had a
broken nose, multiple skull fractures, and two shattered eye sockets.
When I opened my eyes, I saw people staring at me and running
over to help. I looked down and noticed spots of red on my clothes.
One of my classmates took the shirt off his back and handed it to me. I
used it to plug the stream of blood rushing from my broken nose.
Shocked and confused, I was unaware of how seriously I had been
My teacher looped his arm around my shoulder and we began the
long walk to the nurse’s office: across the field, down the hill, and back
into school. Random hands touched my sides, holding me upright. We
took our time and walked slowly. Nobody realized that every minute
When we arrived at the nurse’s office, she asked me a series of
“What year is it?”
“1998,” I answered. It was actually 2002.
“Who is the president of the United States?”
“Bill Clinton,” I said. The correct answer was George W. Bush.

“What is your mom’s name?”
“Uh. Um.” I stalled. Ten seconds passed.
“Patti,” I said casually, ignoring the fact that it had taken me ten
seconds to remember my own mother’s name.
That is the last question I remember. My body was unable to handle
the rapid swelling in my brain and I lost consciousness before the
ambulance arrived. Minutes later, I was carried out of school and taken
to the local hospital.
Shortly after arriving, my body began shutting down. I struggled
with basic functions like swallowing and breathing. I had my first
seizure of the day. Then I stopped breathing entirely. As the doctors
hurried to supply me with oxygen, they also decided the local hospital
was unequipped to handle the situation and ordered a helicopter to fly
me to a larger hospital in Cincinnati.
I was rolled out of the emergency room doors and toward the
helipad across the street. The stretcher rattled on a bumpy sidewalk as
one nurse pushed me along while another pumped each breath into me
by hand. My mother, who had arrived at the hospital a few moments
before, climbed into the helicopter beside me. I remained unconscious
and unable to breathe on my own as she held my hand during the
While my mother rode with me in the helicopter, my father went
home to check on my brother and sister and break the news to them.
He choked back tears as he explained to my sister that he would miss
her eighth-grade graduation ceremony that night. After passing my
siblings off to family and friends, he drove to Cincinnati to meet my
When my mom and I landed on the roof of the hospital, a team of
nearly twenty doctors and nurses sprinted onto the helipad and
wheeled me into the trauma unit. By this time, the swelling in my brain
had become so severe that I was having repeated post-traumatic
seizures. My broken bones needed to be fixed, but I was in no
condition to undergo surgery. After yet another seizure—my third of
the day—I was put into a medically induced coma and placed on a
My parents were no strangers to this hospital. Ten years earlier,
they had entered the same building on the ground floor after my sister

was diagnosed with leukemia at age three. I was five at the time. My
brother was just six months old. After two and a half years of
chemotherapy treatments, spinal taps, and bone marrow biopsies, my
little sister finally walked out of the hospital happy, healthy, and
cancer free. And now, after ten years of normal life, my parents found
themselves back in the same place with a different child.
While I slipped into a coma, the hospital sent a priest and a social
worker to comfort my parents. It was the same priest who had met
with them a decade earlier on the evening they found out my sister had
As day faded into night, a series of machines kept me alive. My
parents slept restlessly on a hospital mattress—one moment they
would collapse from fatigue, the next they would be wide awake with
worry. My mother would tell me later, “It was one of the worst nights
I’ve ever had.”

Mercifully, by the next morning my breathing had rebounded to the
point where the doctors felt comfortable releasing me from the coma.
When I finally regained consciousness, I discovered that I had lost my
ability to smell. As a test, a nurse asked me to blow my nose and sniff
an apple juice box. My sense of smell returned, but—to everyone’s
surprise—the act of blowing my nose forced air through the fractures
in my eye socket and pushed my left eye outward. My eyeball bulged
out of the socket, held precariously in place by my eyelid and the optic
nerve attaching my eye to my brain.
The ophthalmologist said my eye would gradually slide back into
place as the air seeped out, but it was hard to tell how long this would
take. I was scheduled for surgery one week later, which would allow me
some additional time to heal. I looked like I had been on the wrong end
of a boxing match, but I was cleared to leave the hospital. I returned
home with a broken nose, half a dozen facial fractures, and a bulging
left eye.
The following months were hard. It felt like everything in my life
was on pause. I had double vision for weeks; I literally couldn’t see
straight. It took more than a month, but my eyeball did eventually
return to its normal location. Between the seizures and my vision

problems, it was eight months before I could drive a car again. At
physical therapy, I practiced basic motor patterns like walking in a
straight line. I was determined not to let my injury get me down, but
there were more than a few moments when I felt depressed and
I became painfully aware of how far I had to go when I returned to
the baseball field one year later. Baseball had always been a major part
of my life. My dad had played minor league baseball for the St. Louis
Cardinals, and I had a dream of playing professionally, too. After
months of rehabilitation, what I wanted more than anything was to get
back on the field.
But my return to baseball was not smooth. When the season rolled
around, I was the only junior to be cut from the varsity baseball team. I
was sent down to play with the sophomores on junior varsity. I had
been playing since age four, and for someone who had spent so much
time and effort on the sport, getting cut was humiliating. I vividly
remember the day it happened. I sat in my car and cried as I flipped
through the radio, desperately searching for a song that would make
me feel better.
After a year of self-doubt, I managed to make the varsity team as a
senior, but I rarely made it on the field. In total, I played eleven
innings of high school varsity baseball, barely more than a single game.
Despite my lackluster high school career, I still believed I could
become a great player. And I knew that if things were going to
improve, I was the one responsible for making it happen. The turning
point came two years after my injury, when I began college at Denison
University. It was a new beginning, and it was the place where I would
discover the surprising power of small habits for the first time.

Attending Denison was one of the best decisions of my life. I earned a
spot on the baseball team and, although I was at the bottom of the
roster as a freshman, I was thrilled. Despite the chaos of my high
school years, I had managed to become a college athlete.
I wasn’t going to be starting on the baseball team anytime soon, so I
focused on getting my life in order. While my peers stayed up late and

played video games, I built good sleep habits and went to bed early
each night. In the messy world of a college dorm, I made a point to
keep my room neat and tidy. These improvements were minor, but
they gave me a sense of control over my life. I started to feel confident
again. And this growing belief in myself rippled into the classroom as I
improved my study habits and managed to earn straight A’s during my
first year.
A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly—and, in
many cases, automatically. As each semester passed, I accumulated
small but consistent habits that ultimately led to results that were
unimaginable to me when I started. For example, for the first time in
my life, I made it a habit to lift weights multiple times per week, and in
the years that followed, my six-foot-four-inch frame bulked up from a
featherweight 170 to a lean 200 pounds.
When my sophomore season arrived, I earned a starting role on the
pitching staff. By my junior year, I was voted team captain and at the
end of the season, I was selected for the all-conference team. But it was
not until my senior season that my sleep habits, study habits, and
strength-training habits really began to pay off.
Six years after I had been hit in the face with a baseball bat, flown to
the hospital, and placed into a coma, I was selected as the top male
athlete at Denison University and named to the ESPN Academic AllAmerica Team—an honor given to just thirty-three players across the
country. By the time I graduated, I was listed in the school record
books in eight different categories. That same year, I was awarded the
university’s highest academic honor, the President’s Medal.
I hope you’ll forgive me if this sounds boastful. To be honest, there
was nothing legendary or historic about my athletic career. I never
ended up playing professionally. However, looking back on those
years, I believe I accomplished something just as rare: I fulfilled my
potential. And I believe the concepts in this book can help you fulfill
your potential as well.
We all face challenges in life. This injury was one of mine, and the
experience taught me a critical lesson: changes that seem small and
unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re
willing to stick with them for years. We all deal with setbacks but in the
long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our

habits. With the same habits, you’ll end up with the same results. But
with better habits, anything is possible.
Maybe there are people who can achieve incredible success
overnight. I don’t know any of them, and I’m certainly not one of them.
There wasn’t one defining moment on my journey from medically
induced coma to Academic All-American; there were many. It was a
gradual evolution, a long series of small wins and tiny breakthroughs.
The only way I made progress—the only choice I had—was to start
small. And I employed this same strategy a few years later when I
started my own business and began working on this book.

In November 2012, I began publishing articles at For
years, I had been keeping notes about my personal experiments with
habits and I was finally ready to share some of them publicly. I began
by publishing a new article every Monday and Thursday. Within a few
months, this simple writing habit led to my first one thousand email
subscribers, and by the end of 2013 that number had grown to more
than thirty thousand people.
In 2014, my email list expanded to over one hundred thousand
subscribers, which made it one of the fastest-growing newsletters on
the internet. I had felt like an impostor when I began writing two years
earlier, but now I was becoming known as an expert on habits—a new
label that excited me but also felt uncomfortable. I had never
considered myself a master of the topic, but rather someone who was
experimenting alongside my readers.
In 2015, I reached two hundred thousand email subscribers and
signed a book deal with Penguin Random House to begin writing the
book you are reading now. As my audience grew, so did my business
opportunities. I was increasingly asked to speak at top companies
about the science of habit formation, behavior change, and continuous
improvement. I found myself delivering keynote speeches at
conferences in the United States and Europe.
In 2016, my articles began to appear regularly in major publications
like Time, Entrepreneur, and Forbes. Incredibly, my writing was read
by over eight million people that year. Coaches in the NFL, NBA, and
MLB began reading my work and sharing it with their teams.

At the start of 2017, I launched the Habits Academy, which became
the premier training platform for organizations and individuals
interested in building better habits in life and work.* Fortune 500
companies and growing start-ups began to enroll their leaders and
train their staff. In total, over ten thousand leaders, managers,
coaches, and teachers have graduated from the Habits Academy, and
my work with them has taught me an incredible amount about what it
takes to make habits work in the real world.
As I put the finishing touches on this book in 2018,
is receiving millions of visitors per month and nearly five hundred
thousand people subscribe to my weekly email newsletter—a number
that is so far beyond my expectations when I began that I’m not even
sure what to think of it.

The entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant has said, “To write a
great book, you must first become the book.” I originally learned about
the ideas mentioned here because I had to live them. I had to rely on
small habits to rebound from my injury, to get stronger in the gym, to
perform at a high level on the field, to become a writer, to build a
successful business, and simply to develop into a responsible adult.
Small habits helped me fulfill my potential, and since you picked up
this book, I’m guessing you’d like to fulfill yours as well.
In the pages that follow, I will share a step-by-step plan for building
better habits—not for days or weeks, but for a lifetime. While science
supports everything I’ve written, this book is not an academic research
paper; it’s an operating manual. You’ll find wisdom and practical
advice front and center as I explain the science of how to create and
change your habits in a way that is easy to understand and apply.
The fields I draw on—biology, neuroscience, philosophy,
psychology, and more—have been around for many years. What I offer
you is a synthesis of the best ideas smart people figured out a long time
ago as well as the most compelling discoveries scientists have made
recently. My contribution, I hope, is to find the ideas that matter most
and connect them in a way that is highly actionable. Anything wise in
these pages you should credit to the many experts who preceded me.
Anything foolish, assume it is my error.

The backbone of this book is my four-step model of habits—cue,
craving, response, and reward—and the four laws of behavior change
that evolve out of these steps. Readers with a psychology background
may recognize some of these terms from operant conditioning, which
was first proposed as “stimulus, response, reward” by B. F. Skinner in
the 1930s and has been popularized more recently as “cue, routine,
reward” in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
Behavioral scientists like Skinner realized that if you offered the
right reward or punishment, you could get people to act in a certain
way. But while Skinner’s model did an excellent job of explaining how
external stimuli influenced our habits, it lacked a good explanation for
how our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs impact our behavior. Internal
states—our moods and emotions—matter, too. In recent decades,
scientists have begun to determine the connection between our
thoughts, feelings, and behavior. This research will also be covered in
these pages.
In total, the framework I offer is an integrated model of the
cognitive and behavioral sciences. I believe it is one of the first models
of human behavior to accurately account for both the influence of
external stimuli and internal emotions on our habits. While some of
the language may be familiar, I am confident that the details—and the
applications of the Four Laws of Behavior Change—will offer a new
way to think about your habits.
Human behavior is always changing: situation to situation, moment
to moment, second to second. But this book is about what doesn’t
change. It’s about the fundamentals of human behavior. The lasting
principles you can rely on year after year. The ideas you can build a
business around, build a family around, build a life around.
There is no one right way to create better habits, but this book
describes the best way I know—an approach that will be effective
regardless of where you start or what you’re trying to change. The
strategies I cover will be relevant to anyone looking for a step-by-step
system for improvement, whether your goals center on health, money,
productivity, relationships, or all of the above. As long as human
behavior is involved, this book will be your guide.


Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference

The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits


HE FATE OF British

Cycling changed one day in 2003. The
organization, which was the governing body for professional
cycling in Great Britain, had recently hired Dave Brailsford as its new
performance director. At the time, professional cyclists in Great Britain
had endured nearly one hundred years of mediocrity. Since 1908,
British riders had won just a single gold medal at the Olympic Games,
and they had fared even worse in cycling’s biggest race, the Tour de
France. In 110 years, no British cyclist had ever won the event.
In fact, the performance of British riders had been so
underwhelming that one of the top bike manufacturers in Europe
refused to sell bikes to the team because they were afraid that it would
hurt sales if other professionals saw the Brits using their gear.
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
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.*
How does this happen? How does a team of previously ordinary
athletes transform into world champions with tiny changes that, at
first glance, would seem to make a modest difference at best? Why do
small improvements accumulate into such remarkable results, and
how can you replicate this approach in your own life?


It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment
and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily
basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires
massive action. Whether it is losing weight, building a business,
writing a book, winning a championship, or achieving any other goal,
we put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering
improvement that everyone will talk about.
Meanwhile, improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable—
sometimes it isn’t even noticeable—but it can be far more meaningful,
especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make
over time is astounding. Here’s how the math works out: if you can get
1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times
better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse
each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts
as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much

1% worse every day for one year. 0.99365 = 00.03
1% better every day for one year. 1.01365 = 37.78

FIGURE 1: The effects of small habits compound over time. For example, if
you can get just 1 percent better each day, you’ll end up with results that are
nearly 37 times better after one year.

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.
This can be a difficult concept to appreciate in daily life. We often
dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in
the moment. If you save a little money now, you’re still not a
millionaire. If you go to the gym three days in a row, you’re still out of
shape. If you study Mandarin for an hour tonight, you still haven’t
learned the language. We make a few changes, but the results never
seem to come quickly and so we slide back into our previous routines.
Unfortunately, the slow pace of transformation also makes it easy to
let a bad habit slide. If you eat an unhealthy meal today, the scale
doesn’t move much. If you work late tonight and ignore your family,

they will forgive you. If you procrastinate and put your project off until
tomorrow, there will usually be time to finish it later. A single decision
is easy to dismiss.
But when we repeat 1 percent errors, day after day, by replicating
poor decisions, duplicating tiny mistakes, and rationalizing little
excuses, our small choices compound into toxic results. It’s the
accumulation of many missteps—a 1 percent decline here and there—
that eventually leads to a problem.
The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect
of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you
are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from
LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in
Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely
noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—
but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up
hundreds of miles apart.*
Similarly, a slight change in your daily habits can guide your life to a
very different destination. Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1
percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of
moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the
difference between who you are and who you could be. Success is the
product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.
That said, it doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are
right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the
path toward success. You should be far more concerned with your
current trajectory than with your current results. If you’re a millionaire
but you spend more than you earn each month, then you’re on a bad
trajectory. If your spending habits don’t change, it’s not going to end
well. Conversely, if you’re broke, but you save a little bit every month,
then you’re on the path toward financial freedom—even if you’re
moving slower than you’d like.
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 are a double-edged sword. Bad habits can cut you down just
as easily as good habits can build you up, which is why understanding
the details is crucial. You need to know how habits work and how to
design them to your liking, so you can avoid the dangerous half of the
Positive Compounding
Productivity compounds. Accomplishing one extra task is a small feat on any given day,
but it counts for a lot over an entire career. The effect of automating an old task or mastering
a new skill can be even greater. The more tasks you can handle without thinking, the more
your brain is free to focus on other areas.
Knowledge compounds. Learning one new idea won’t make you a genius, but a
commitment to lifelong learning can be transformative. Furthermore, each book you read not
only teaches you something new but also opens up different ways of thinking about old
ideas. As Warren Buffett says, “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound
Relationships compound. People reflect your behavior back to you. The more you help
others, the more others want to help you. Being a little bit nicer in each interaction can result
in a network of broad and strong connections over time.
Negative Compounding
Stress compounds. The frustration of a traffic jam. The weight of parenting responsibilities.
The worry of making ends meet. The strain of slightly high blood pressure. By themselves,
these common causes of stress are manageable. But when they persist for years, little
stresses compound into serious health issues.
Negative thoughts compound. The more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid, or ugly,
the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. You get trapped in a thought loop.
The same is true for how you think about others. Once you fall into the habit of seeing people
as angry, unjust, or selfish, you see those kind of people everywhere.
Outrage compounds. Riots, protests, and mass movements are rarely the result of a single
event. Instead, a long series of microaggressions and daily aggravations slowly multiply until
one event tips the scales and outrage spreads like wildfire.

Imagine that you have an ice cube sitting on the table in front of you.
The room is cold and you can see your breath. It is currently twentyfive degrees. Ever so slowly, the room begins to heat up.
Twenty-six degrees.
The ice cube is still sitting on the table in front of you.
Twenty-nine degrees.
Still, nothing has happened.
Then, thirty-two degrees. The ice begins to melt. A one-degree shift,
seemingly no different from the temperature increases before it, has
unlocked a huge change.
Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous
actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major
change. This pattern shows up everywhere. Cancer spends 80 percent
of its life undetectable, then takes over the body in months. Bamboo
can barely be seen for the first five years as it builds extensive root
systems underground before exploding ninety feet into the air within
six weeks.
Similarly, 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.
If you find yourself struggling to build a good habit or break a bad
one, it is not because you have lost your ability to improve. It is often
because you have not yet crossed the Plateau of Latent Potential.
Complaining about not achieving success despite working hard is like
complaining about an ice cube not melting when you heated it from
twenty-five to thirty-one degrees. Your work was not wasted; it is just
being stored. All the action happens at thirty-two degrees.
When you finally break through the Plateau of Latent Potential,
people will call it an overnight success. The outside world only sees the
most dramatic event rather than all that preceded it. But you know that
it’s the work you did long ago—when it seemed that you weren’t
making any progress—that makes the jump today possible.
It is the human equivalent of geological pressure. Two tectonic
plates can grind against one another for millions of years, the tension
slowly building all the while. Then, one day, they rub each other once
again, in the same fashion they have for ages, but this time the tension
is too great. An earthquake erupts. Change can take years—before it
happens all at once.
Mastery requires patience. The San Antonio Spurs, one of the most
successful teams in NBA history, have a quote from social reformer
Jacob Riis hanging in their locker room: “When nothing seems to help,
I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a
hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the
hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that
last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.”


FIGURE 2: We often expect progress to be linear. At the very least, we hope
it will come quickly. In reality, the results of our efforts are often delayed. It is
not until months or years later that we realize the true value of the previous
work we have done. This can result in a “valley of disappointment” where
people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work
without experiencing any results. However, this work was not wasted. It was
simply being stored. It is not until much later that the full value of previous
efforts is revealed.

All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit
is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit
sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches
grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak
within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a
delicate flower one day at a time.
But what determines whether we stick with a habit long enough to
survive the Plateau of Latent Potential and break through to the other
side? What is it that causes some people to slide into unwanted habits
and enables others to enjoy the compounding effects of good ones?

Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in
life—getting into better shape, building a successful business, relaxing
more and worrying less, spending more time with friends and family—
is to set specific, actionable goals.

For many years, this was how I approached my habits, too. Each one
was a goal to be reached. I set goals for the grades I wanted to get in
school, for the weights I wanted to lift in the gym, for the profits I
wanted to earn in business. I succeeded at a few, but I failed at a lot of
them. Eventually, I began to realize that my results had very little to do
with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I
What’s the difference between systems and goals? It’s a distinction I
first learned from Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind the Dilbert
comic. 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 milliondollar 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.
Now for the interesting question: If you completely ignored your
goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed? For
example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to
win a championship and focused only on what your team does at
practice each day, would you still get results?
I think you would.
The goal in any sport is to finish with the best score, but it would be
ridiculous to spend the whole game staring at the scoreboard. The only
way to actually win is to get better each day. In the words of three-time
Super Bowl winner Bill Walsh, “The score takes care of itself.” The
same is true for other areas of life. If you want better results, then
forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.
What do I mean by this? Are goals completely useless? Of course
not. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for

making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too
much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing
your systems.

Problem #1: Winners and losers have the same goals.
Goal setting suffers from a serious case of survivorship bias. We
concentrate on the people who end up winning—the survivors—and
mistakenly assume that ambitious goals led to their success while
overlooking all of the people who had the same objective but didn’t
Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. Every candidate wants
to get the job. And if successful and unsuccessful people share the
same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners
from the losers. It wasn’t the goal of winning the Tour de France that
propelled the British cyclists to the top of the sport. Presumably, they
had wanted to win the race every year before—just like every other
professional team. The goal had always been there. It was only when
they implemented a system of continuous small improvements that
they achieved a different outcome.

Problem #2: Achieving a goal is only a momentary change.
Imagine you have a messy room and you set a goal to clean it. If you
summon the energy to tidy up, then you will have a clean room—for
now. But if you maintain the same sloppy, pack-rat habits that led to a
messy room in the first place, soon you’ll be looking at a new pile of
clutter and hoping for another burst of motivation. You’re left chasing
the same outcome because you never changed the system behind it.
You treated a symptom without addressing the cause.
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.

Problem #3: Goals restrict your happiness.
The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: “Once I reach my goal,
then I’ll be happy.” The problem with a goals-first mentality is that
you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone. I’ve
slipped into this trap so many times I’ve lost count. For years,
happiness was always something for my future self to enjoy. I
promised myself that once I gained twenty pounds of muscle or after
my business was featured in the New York Times, then I could finally
Furthermore, goals create an “either-or” conflict: either you achieve
your goal and are successful or you fail and you are a disappointment.
You mentally box yourself into a narrow version of happiness. This is
misguided. It is unlikely that your actual path through life will match
the exact journey you had in mind when you set out. It makes no sense
to restrict your satisfaction to one scenario when there are many paths
to success.
A systems-first mentality provides the antidote. When you fall in
love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to
give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime
your system is running. And a system can be successful in many
different forms, not just the one you first envision.

Problem #4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress.
Finally, a goal-oriented mind-set can create a “yo-yo” effect. Many
runners work hard for months, but as soon as they cross the finish line,
they stop training. The race is no longer there to motivate them. When
all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to
push you forward after you achieve it? This is why many people find
themselves reverting to their old habits after accomplishing a goal.
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
Focusing on the overall system, rather than a single goal, is one of
the core themes of this book. It is also one of the deeper meanings
behind the word atomic. By now, you’ve probably realized that an
atomic habit refers to a tiny change, a marginal gain, a 1 percent
improvement. But atomic habits are not just any old habits, however
small. They are little habits that are part of a larger system. Just as
atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the
building blocks of remarkable results.
Habits are like the atoms of our lives. Each one is a fundamental
unit that contributes to your overall improvement. At first, these tiny
routines seem insignificant, but soon they build on each other and fuel
bigger wins that multiply to a degree that far outweighs the cost of
their initial investment. They are both small and mighty. This is the
meaning of the phrase atomic habits—a regular practice or routine
that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible
power; a component of the system of compound growth.

Chapter Summary
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Getting 1
percent better every day counts for a lot in the long-run.
Habits are a double-edged sword. They can work for you or
against you, which is why understanding the details is essential.
Small changes often appear to make no difference until you cross
a critical threshold. The most powerful outcomes of any
compounding process are delayed. You need to be patient.
An atomic habit is a little habit that is part of a larger system. Just
as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are
the building blocks of remarkable results.

If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus
on your system instead.
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of
your systems.

How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (and
Vice Versa)



easy to repeat bad habits and so hard to form good
ones? Few things can have a more powerful impact on your life
than improving your daily habits. And yet it is likely that this time next
year you’ll be doing the same thing rather than something better.
It often feels difficult to keep good habits going for more than a few
days, even with sincere effort and the occasional burst of motivation.
Habits like exercise, meditation, journaling, and cooking are
reasonable for a day or two and then become a hassle.
However, once your habits are established, they seem to stick
around forever—especially the unwanted ones. Despite our best
intentions, unhealthy habits like eating junk food, watching too much
television, procrastinating, and smoking can feel impossible to break.
Changing our habits is challenging for two reasons: (1) we try to
change the wrong thing and (2) we try to change our habits in the
wrong way. In this chapter, I’ll address the first point. In the chapters
that follow, I’ll answer the second.
Our first mistake is that we try to change the wrong thing. To
understand what I mean, consider that there are three levels at which
change can occur. You can imagine them like the layers of an onion.


FIGURE 3: 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.



FIGURE 4: With outcome-based habits, the focus is on what you want to
achieve. With identity-based habits, the focus is on who you wish to

Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke, the
first person says, “No thanks. I’m trying to quit.” It sounds like a
reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker
who is trying to be something else. They are hoping their behavior will
change while carrying around the same beliefs.
The second person declines by saying, “No thanks. I’m not a
smoker.” It’s a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in
identity. Smoking was part of their former life, not their current one.
They no longer identify as someone who smokes.
Most people don’t even consider identity change when they set out
to improve. They just think, “I want to be skinny (outcome) and if I
stick to this diet, then I’ll be skinny (process).” They set goals and
determine the actions they should take to achieve those goals without
considering the beliefs that drive their actions. They never shift the

way they look at themselves, and they don’t realize that their old
identity can sabotage their new plans for change.
Behind every system of actions are a system of beliefs. The system of
a democracy is founded on beliefs like freedom, majority rule, and
social equality. The system of a dictatorship has a very different set of
beliefs like absolute authority and strict obedience. You can imagine
many ways to try to get more people to vote in a democracy, but such
behavior change would never get off the ground in a dictatorship.
That’s not the identity of the system. Voting is a behavior that is
impossible under a certain set of beliefs.
A similar pattern exists whether we are discussing individuals,
organizations, or societies. There are a set of beliefs and assumptions
that shape the system, an identity behind the habits.
Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. You may
want more money, but if your identity is someone who consumes
rather than creates, then you’ll continue to be pulled toward spending
rather than earning. You may want better health, but if you continue to
prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you’ll be drawn to relaxing
rather than training. It’s hard to change your habits if you never
change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have
a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.
The story of Brian Clark, an entrepreneur from Boulder, Colorado,
provides a good example. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve chewed
my fingernails,” Clark told me. “It started as a nervous habit when I
was young, and then morphed into an undesirable grooming ritual.
One day, I resolved to stop chewing my nails until they grew out a bit.
Through mindful willpower alone, I managed to do it.”
Then, Clark did something surprising.
“I asked my wife to schedule my first-ever manicure,” he said. “My
thought was that if I started paying to maintain my nails, I wouldn’t
chew them. And it worked, but not for the monetary reason. What
happened was the manicure made my fingers look really nice for the
first time. The manicurist even said that—other than the chewing—I
had really healthy, attractive nails. Suddenly, I was proud of my
fingernails. And even though that’s something I had never aspired to, it
made all the difference. I’ve never chewed my nails since; not even a

single close call. And it’s because I now take pride in properly caring
for them.”
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
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.
Like all aspects of habit formation, this, too, is a double-edged
sword. When working for you, identity change can be a powerful force
for self-improvement. When working against you, though, identity
change can be a curse. Once you have adopted an identity, it can be
easy to let your allegiance to it impact your ability to change. 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.
The more deeply a thought or action is tied to your identity, the
more difficult it is to change it. It can feel comfortable to believe what
your culture believes (group identity) or to do what upholds your selfimage (personal identity), even if it’s wrong. The biggest barrier to
positive change at any level—individual, team, society—is identity
conflict. Good habits can make rational sense, but if they conflict with
your identity, you will fail to put them into action.
On any given day, you may struggle with your habits because you’re
too busy or too tired or too overwhelmed or hundreds of other reasons.
Over the long run, however, the real reason you fail to stick with habits
is that your self-image gets in the way. This is why you can’t get too
attached to one version of your identity. Progress requires unlearning.

Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit
your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.
This brings us to an important question: If your beliefs and
worldview play such an important role in your behavior, where do they
come from in the first place? How, exactly, is your identity formed?
And how can you emphasize new aspects of your identity that serve
you and gradually erase the pieces that hinder you?

Your identity emerges out of your habits. You are not born with preset
beliefs. Every belief, including those about yourself, is learned and
conditioned through experience.*
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.”
Whatever your identity is right now, you only believe it because you
have proof of it. If you go to church every Sunday for twenty years, you
have evidence that you are religious. If you study biology for one hour
every night, you have evidence that you are studious. If you go to the
gym even when it’s snowing, you have evidence that you are committed
to fitness. The more evidence you have for a belief, the more strongly
you will believe it.
For most of my early life, I didn’t consider myself a writer. If you
were to ask any of my high school teachers or college professors, they
would tell you I was an average writer at best: certainly not a standout.
When I began my writing career, I published a new article every
Monday and Thursday for the first few years. As the evidence grew, so
did my identity as a writer. I didn’t start out as a writer. I became one
through my habits.

Of course, your habits are not the only actions that influence your
identity, but by virtue of their frequency they are usually the most
important ones. Each experience in life modifies your self-image, but
it’s unlikely you would consider yourself a soccer player because you
kicked a ball once or an artist because you scribbled a picture. As you
repeat these actions, however, the evidence accumulates and your selfimage begins to change. The effect of one-off experiences tends to fade
away while the effect of habits gets reinforced with time, which means
your habits contribute most of the evidence that shapes your identity.
In this way, the process of building habits is actually the process of
becoming yourself.
This is a gradual evolution. 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.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to
become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes
build up, so does the evidence of your new identity. This is one reason
why meaningful change does not require radical change. Small habits
can make a meaningful difference by providing evidence of a new
identity. And if a change is meaningful, it actually is big. That’s the
paradox of making small improvements.
Putting this all together, you can see that habits are the path to
changing your identity. The most practical way to change who you are
is to change what you do.
Each time you write a page, you are a writer.
Each time you practice the violin, you are a musician.
Each time you start a workout, you are an athlete.
Each time you encourage your employees, you are a leader.

Each habit not only gets results but also teaches you something far
more important: to trust yourself. You start to believe you can actually
accomplish these things. When the votes mount up and the evidence
begins to change, the story you tell yourself begins to change as well.
Of course, it works the opposite way, too. Every time you choose to
perform a bad habit, it’s a vote for that identity. The good news is that
you don’t need to be perfect. In any election, there are going to be votes
for both sides. You don’t need a unanimous vote to win an election;
you just need a majority. It doesn’t matter if you cast a few votes for a
bad behavior or an unproductive habit. Your goal is simply to win the
majority of the time.
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:
1. Decide the type of person you want to be.
2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.
First, decide who you want to be. This holds at any level—as an
individual, as a team, as a community, as a nation. What do you want
to stand for? What are your principles and values? Who do you wish to
These are big questions, and many people aren’t sure where to begin
—but they do know what kind of results they want: to get six-pack abs
or to feel less anxious or to double their salary. That’s fine. Start there
and work backward from the results you want to the type of person
who could get those results. Ask yourself, “Who is the type of person
that could get the outcome I want?” Who is the type of person that
could lose forty pounds? Who is the type of person that could learn a
new language? Who is the type of person that could run a successful
For example, “Who is the type of person who could write a book?”
It’s probably someone who is consistent and reliable. Now your focus
shifts from writing a book (outcome-based) to being the type of person
who is consistent and reliable (identity-based).
This process can lead to beliefs like:

“I’m the kind of teacher who stands up for her students.”
“I’m the kind of doctor who gives each patient the time and
empathy they need.”
“I’m the kind of manager who advocates for her employees.”
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.
The concept of identity-based habits is our first introduction to
another key theme in this book: feedback loops. Your habits shape
your identity, and your identity shapes your habits. It’s a two-way
street. The formation of all habits is a feedback loop (a concept we will
explore in depth in the next chapter), but it’s important to let your
values, principles, and identity drive the loop rather than your results.
The focus should always be on becoming that type of person, not
getting a particular outcome.

Identity change is the North Star of habit change. The remainder of
this book will provide you with step-by-step instructions on how to
build better habits in yourself, your family, your team, your company,
and anywhere else you wish. But the true question is: “Are you
becoming the type of person you want to become?” The first step is not
what or how, but who. You need to know who you want to be.
Otherwise, your quest for change is like a boat without a rudder. And
that’s why we are starting here.
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. And this brings us to the deeper purpose of this book
and the real reason habits matter.

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.
Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the
type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you
develop your deepest beliefs about yourself. Quite literally, you become
your habits.

Chapter Summary
There are three levels of change: outcome change, process change,
and identity change.
The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on
what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become.
Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for
the type of person you wish to become.
Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to
continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your
The real reason habits matter is not because they can get you
better results (although they can do that), but because they can
change your beliefs about yourself.

How to Build Better Habits in 4 Simple


N 1898, A psychologist

named Edward Thorndike conducted an
experiment that would lay the foundation for our understanding of
how habits form and the rules that guide our behavior. Thorndike was
interested in studying the behavior of animals, and he started by
working with cats.
He would place each cat inside a device known as a puzzle box. The
box was designed so that the cat could escape through a door “by some
simple act, such as pulling at a loop of cord, pressing a lever, or
stepping on a platform.” For example, one box contained a lever that,
when pressed, would open a door on the side of the box. Once the door
had been opened, the cat could dart out and run over to a bowl of food.
Most cats wanted to escape as soon as they were placed inside the
box. They would poke their nose into the corners, stick their paws
through openings, and claw at loose objects. After a few minutes of
exploration, the cats would happen to press the magical lever, the door
would open, and they would escape.
Thorndike tracked the behavior of each cat across many trials. In
the beginning, the animals moved around the box at random. But as
soon as the lever had been pressed and the door opened, the process of
learning began. Gradually, each cat learned to associate the action of
pressing the lever with the reward of escaping the box and getting to
the food.
After twenty to thirty trials, this behavior became so automatic and
habitual that the cat could escape within a few seconds. For example,

Thorndike noted, “Cat 12 took the following times to perform the act.
160 seconds, 30 seconds, 90 seconds, 60, 15, 28, 20, 30, 22, 11, 15, 20,
12, 10, 14, 10, 8, 8, 5, 10, 8, 6, 6, 7.”
During the first three trials, the cat escaped in an average of 1.5
minutes. During the last three trials, it escaped in an average of 6.3
seconds. With practice, each cat made fewer errors and their actions
became quicker and more automatic. Rather than repeat the same
mistakes, the cat began to cut straight to the solution.
From his studies, Thorndike described the learning process by
stating, “behaviors followed by satisfying consequences tend to be
repeated and those that produce unpleasant consequences are less
likely to be repeated.” His work provides the perfect starting point for
discussing how habits form in our own lives. It also provides answers
to some fundamental questions like: What are habits? And why does
the brain bother building them at all?

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.
Whenever you face a problem repeatedly, your brain begins to
automate the process of solving it. Your habits are just a series of
automatic solutions that solve the problems and stresses you face
regularly. As behavioral scientist Jason Hreha writes, “Habits are,
simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.”
As habits are created, the level of activity in the brain decreases.
You learn to lock in on the cues that predict success and tune out
everything else. When a similar situation arises in the future, you know
exactly what to look for. There is no longer a need to analyze every
angle of a situation. Your brain skips the process of trial and error and
creates a mental rule: if this, then that. These cognitive scripts can be
followed automatically whenever the situation is appropriate. Now,
whenever you feel stressed, you get the itch to run. As soon as you walk
in the door from work, you grab the video game controller. A choice
that once required effort is now automatic. A habit has been created.
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.
Habit formation is incredibly useful because the conscious mind is
the bottleneck of the brain. It can only pay attention to one problem at
a time. As a result, your brain is always working to preserve your
conscious attention for whatever task is most essential. Whenever
possible, the conscious mind likes to pawn off tasks to the
nonconscious mind to do automatically. This is precisely what happens
when a habit is formed. Habits reduce cognitive load and free up
mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks.
Despite their efficiency, some people still wonder about the benefits
of habits. The argument goes like this: “Will habits make my life dull? I
don’t want to pigeonhole myself into a lifestyle I don’t enjoy. Doesn’t

so much routine take away the vibrancy and spontaneity of life?”
Hardly. Such questions set up a false dichotomy. They make you think
that you have to choose between building habits and attaining
freedom. In reality, the two complement each other.
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
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.* Breaking it down into these
fundamental parts can help us understand what a habit is, how it
works, and how to improve it.

FIGURE 5: All habits proceed through four stages in the same order: cue,
craving, response, and reward.

This four-step pattern is the backbone of every habit, and your brain
runs through these steps in the same order each time.

First, there is the cue. 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. (Of course, these
pursuits also indirectly improve our odds of survival and reproduction,
which is the deeper motive behind everything we do.)
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
Cravings are the second step, and they are the motivational force
behind every habit. 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. This is an important point that we will discuss in detail later.
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 third step is the response. 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.
Finally, the response delivers a reward. 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.


FIGURE 6: The four stages of habit are best described as a feedback loop.
They form an endless cycle that is running every moment you are alive. This
“habit loop” is continually scanning the environment, predicting what will
happen next, trying out different responses, and learning from the results.*

In summary, 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
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.

Problem phase
1. Cue
2. Craving
Solution phase
3. Response
4. Reward

All behavior is driven by the desire to solve a problem. Sometimes
the problem is that you notice something good and you want to obtain
it. Sometimes the problem is that you are experiencing pain and you
want to relieve it. Either way, the purpose of every habit is to solve the
problems you face.
In the table on the following page, you can see a few examples of
what this looks like in real life.
Imagine walking into a dark room and flipping on the light switch.
You have performed this simple habit so many times that it occurs
without thinking. You proceed through all four stages in the fraction of
a second. The urge to act strikes you without thinking.
Problem phase
1. 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.
Problem phase
1. Cue: You hit a stumbling block on a project at work.
2. Craving: You feel stuck and want to relieve your frustration.
Solution phase
3. Response: You pull out your phone and check social media.
4. Reward: You satisfy your craving to feel relieved. Checking social media becomes
associated with feeling stalled at work.
Problem phase
1. Cue: You walk into a dark room.
2. Craving: You want to be able to see.
Solution phase
3. Response: You flip the light switch.
4. Reward: You satisfy your craving to see. Turning on the light switch becomes associated
with being in a dark room.

By the time we become adults, we rarely notice the habits that are
running our lives. Most of us never give a second thought to the fact
that we tie the same shoe first each morning, or unplug the toaster
after each use, or always change into comfortable clothes after getting
home from work. After decades of mental programming, we
automatically slip into these patterns of thinking and acting.

In the following chapters, we will see time and again how the four
stages of cue, craving, response, and reward influence nearly
everything we do each day. But before we do that, we need to

transform these four steps into a practical framework that we can use
to design good habits and eliminate bad ones.
I refer to this framework as the Four Laws of Behavior Change, and
it provides a simple set of rules for creating good habits and breaking
bad ones. You can think of each law as a lever that influences human
behavior. When the levers are in the right positions, creating good
habits is effortless. When they are in the wrong positions, it is nearly
How to Create a Good Habit
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.

It would be irresponsible for me to claim that these four laws are an
exhaustive framework for changing any human behavior, but I think
they’re close. As you will soon see, the Four Laws of Behavior Change
apply to nearly every field, from sports to politics, art to medicine,
comedy to management. These laws can be used no matter what
challenge you are facing. There is no need for completely different
strategies for each habit.
Whenever you want to change your behavior, you can simply ask
1. How can I make it obvious?
2. How can I make it attractive?
3. How can I make it easy?
4. How can I make it satisfying?

If you have ever wondered, “Why don’t I do what I say I’m going to
do? Why don’t I lose the weight or stop smoking or save for retirement
or start that side business? Why do I say something is important but
never seem to make time for it?” The answers to those questions can be
found somewhere in these four laws. The key to creating good habits
and breaking bad ones is to understand these fundamental laws and
how to alter them to your specifications. Every goal is doomed to fail if
it goes against the grain of human nature.
Your habits are shaped by the systems in your life. In the chapters
that follow, we will discuss these laws one by one and show how you
can use them to create a system in which good habits emerge naturally
and bad habits wither away.

Chapter Summary
A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to
become automatic.
The ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with
as little energy and effort as possible.
Any habit can be broken down into a feedback loop that involves
four steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.
The Four Laws of Behavior Change are a simple set of rules we
can use to build better habits. They are (1) make it obvious, (2)
make it attractive, (3) make it easy, and (4) make it satisfying.

Make It Obvious

The Man Who Didn’t Look Right
THE PSYCHOLOGIST GARY Klein once told me a story about a woman who
attended a family gathering. She had spent years working as a
paramedic and, upon arriving at the event, took one look at her fatherin-law and got very concerned.
“I don’t like the way you look,” she said.
Her father-in-law, who was feeling perfectly fine, jokingly replied,
“Well, I don’t like your looks, either.”
“No,” she insisted. “You need to go to the hospital now.”
A few hours later, the man was undergoing lifesaving surgery after
an examination had revealed that he had a blockage to a major artery
and was at immediate risk of a heart attack. Without his daughter-inlaw’s intuition, he could have died.
What did the paramedic see? How did she predict his impending
heart attack?
When major arteries are obstructed, the body focuses on sending
blood to critical organs and away from peripheral locations near the
surface of the skin. The result is a change in the pattern of distribution
of blood in the face. After many years of working with people with
heart failure, the woman had unknowingly developed the ability to
recognize this pattern on sight. She couldn’t explain what it was that
she noticed in her father-in-law’s face, but she knew something was
Similar stories exist in other fields. For example, military analysts
can identify which blip on a radar screen is an enemy missile and

which one is a plane from their own fleet even though they are
traveling at the same speed, flying at the same altitude, and look
identical on radar in nearly every respect. During the Gulf War,
Lieutenant Commander Michael Riley saved an entire battleship when
he ordered a missile shot down—despite the fact that it looked exactly
like the battleship’s own planes on radar. He made the right call, but
even his superior officers couldn’t explain how he did it.
Museum curators have been known to discern the difference
between an authentic piece of art and an expertly produced counterfeit
even though they can’t tell you precisely which details tipped them off.
Experienced radiologists can look at a brain scan and predict the area
where a stroke will develop before any obvious signs are visible to the
untrained eye. I’ve even heard of hairdressers noticing whether a client
is pregnant based only on the feel of her hair.
The human brain is a prediction machine. It is continuously taking
in your surroundings and analyzing the information it comes across.
Whenever you experience something repeatedly—like a paramedic
seeing the face of a heart attack patient or a military analyst seeing a
missile on a radar screen—your brain begins noticing what is
important, sorting through the details and highlighting the relevant
cues, and cataloging that information for future use.
With enough practice, you can pick up on the cues that predict
certain outcomes without consciously thinking about it. Automatically,
your brain encodes the lessons learned through experience. We can’t
always explain what it is we are learning, but learning is happening all
along the way, and your ability to notice the relevant cues in a given
situation is the foundation for every habit you have.
We underestimate how much our brains and bodies can do without
thinking. You do not tell your hair to grow, your heart to pump, your
lungs to breathe, or your stomach to digest. And yet your body handles
all this and more on autopilot. You are much more than your conscious
Consider hunger. How do you know when you’re hungry? You don’t
necessarily have to see a cookie on the counter to realize that it is time
to eat. Appetite and hunger are governed nonconsciously. Your body
has a variety of feedback loops that gradually alert you when it is time
to eat again and that track what is going on around you and within you.
Cravings can arise thanks to hormones and chemicals circulating

through your body. Suddenly, you’re hungry even though you’re not
quite sure what tipped you off.
This is one of the most surprising insights about our habits: you
don’t need to be aware of the cue for a habit to begin. You can notice an
opportunity and take action without dedicating conscious attention to
it. This is what makes habits useful.
It’s also what makes them dangerous. As habits form, your actions
come under the direction of your automatic and nonconscious mind.
You fall into old patterns before you realize what’s happening. Unless
someone points it out, you may not notice that you cover your mouth
with your hand whenever you laugh, that you apologize before asking a
question, or that you have a habit of finishing other people’s sentences.
And the more you repeat these patterns, the less likely you become to
question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
I once heard of a retail clerk who was instructed to cut up empty gift
cards after customers had used up the balance on the card. One day,
the clerk cashed out a few customers in a row who purchased with gift
cards. When the next person walked up, the clerk swiped the
customer’s actual credit card, picked up the scissors, and then cut it in
half—entirely on autopilot—before looking up at the stunned customer
and realizing what had just happened.
Another woman I came across in my research was a former
preschool teacher who had switched to a corporate job. Even though
she was now working with adults, her old habits would kick in and she
kept asking coworkers if they had washed their hands after going to the
bathroom. I also found the story of a man who had spent years
working as a lifeguard and would occasionally yell “Walk!” whenever
he saw a child running.
Over time, the cues that spark our habits become so common that
they are essentially invisible: the treats on the kitchen counter, the
remote control next to the couch, the phone in our pocket. Our
responses to these cues are so deeply encoded that it may feel like the
urge to act comes from nowhere. For this reason, we must begin the
process of behavior change with awareness.
Before we can effectively build new habits, we need to get a handle
on our current ones. This can be more challenging than it sounds
because once a habit is firmly rooted in your life, it is mostly

nonconscious and automatic. If a habit remains mindless, you can’t
expect to improve it. As the psychologist Carl Jung said, “Until you
make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will
call it fate.”

The Japanese railway system is regarded as one of the best in the
world. If you ever find yourself riding a train in Tokyo, you’ll notice
that the conductors have a peculiar habit.
As each operator runs the train, they proceed through a ritual of
pointing at different objects and calling out commands. When the train
approaches a signal, the operator will point at it and say, “Signal is
green.” As the train pulls into and out of each station, the operator will
point at the speedometer and call out the exact speed. When it’s time
to leave, the operator will point at the timetable and state the time. Out
on the platform, other employees are performing similar actions.
Before each train departs, staff members will point along the edge of
the platform and declare, “All clear!” Every detail is identified, pointed
at, and named aloud.*
This process, known as Pointing-and-Calling, is a safety system
designed to reduce mistakes. It seems silly, but it works incredibly
well. Pointing-and-Calling reduces errors by up to 85 percent and cuts
accidents by 30 percent. The MTA subway system in New York City
adopted a modified version that is “point-only,” and “within two years
of implementation, incidents of incorrectly berthed subways fell 57
Pointing-and-Calling is so effective because it raises the level of
awareness from a nonconscious habit to a more conscious level.
Because the train operators must use their eyes, hands, mouth, and
ears, they are more likely to notice problems before something goes
My wife does something similar. Whenever we are preparing to
walk out the door for a trip, she verbally calls out the most essential
items in her packing list. “I’ve got my keys. I’ve got my wallet. I’ve got
my glasses. I’ve got my husband.”

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-andcall” 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
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
Scoring your habits can be a bit more complex for another reason as
well. The labels “good habit” and “bad habit” are slightly inaccurate.
There are no good habits or bad habits. There are only effective habits.
That is, effective at solving problems. All habits serve you in some way
—even the bad ones—which is why you repeat them. For this exercise,
categorize your habits by how they will benefit you in the long run.
Generally speaking, good habits will have net positive outcomes. Bad
habits have net negative outcomes. Smoking a cigarette may reduce
stress right now (that’s how it’s serving you), but it’s not a healthy
long-term behavior.
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 Pointingand-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 process of behavior change always starts with awareness.
Strategies like Pointing-and-Calling and the Habits Scorecard are
focused on getting you to recognize your habits and acknowledge the
cues that trigger them, which makes it possible to respond in a way
that benefits you.

Chapter Summary
With enough practice, your brain will pick up on the cues that
predict certain outcomes without consciously thinking about it.

Once our habits become automatic, we stop paying attention to
what we are doing.
The process of behavior change always starts with awareness. You
need to be aware of your habits before you can change them.
Pointing-and-Calling raises your level of awareness from a
nonconscious habit to a more conscious level by verbalizing your
The Habits Scorecard is a simple exercise you can use to become
more aware of your behavior.

The Best Way to Start a New Habit



Great Britain began working with 248 people
to build better exercise habits over the course of two weeks. The
subjects were divided into three groups.
The first group was the control group. They were simply asked to
track how often they exercised.
The second group was the “motivation” group. They were asked not
only to track their workouts but also to read some material on the
benefits of exercise. The researchers also explained to the group how
exercise could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and improve
heart health.
Finally, there was the third group. These subjects received the same
presentation as the second group, which ensured that they had equal
levels of motivation. However, they were also asked to formulate a plan
for when and where they would exercise over the following week.
Specifically, each member of the third group completed the following
sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes
of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”
In the first and second groups, 35 to 38 percent of people exercised
at least once per week. (Interestingly, the motivational presentation
given to the second group seemed to have no meaningful impact on
behavior.) But 91 percent of the third group exercised at least once per
week—more than double the normal rate.
The sentence they filled out is what researchers refer to as an
implementation intention, which is a plan you make beforehand about

when and where to act. That is, how you intend to implement a
particular habit.
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.
Researchers have even found that voter turnout increases when
people are forced to create implementation intentions by answering
questions like: “What route are you taking to the polling station? At
what time are you planning to go? What bus will get you there?” Other
successful government programs have prompted citizens to make a
clear plan to send taxes in on time or provided directions on when and
where to pay late traffic bills.
The punch line is clear: people who make a specific plan for when
and where they will perform a new habit are more likely to follow
through. Too many people try to change their habits without these
basic details figured out. We tell ourselves, “I’m going to eat healthier”
or “I’m going to write more,” but we never say when and where these
habits are going to happen. We leave it up to chance and hope that we
will “just remember to do it” or feel motivated at the right time. An
implementation intention sweeps away foggy notions like “I want to
work out more” or “I want to be more productive” or “I should vote”
and transforms them into a concrete plan of action.
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 t