In his bestselling book Atomic Habits, author James Clear describes habits as the atoms of our life.
What do habits have to do with atoms?
According to Clear, habits are the smallest building blocks of our lives. They help us to navigate successfully through everyday life. In the end, all actions are built on habits.
That makes sense because habits are mental shortcuts that we acquire through experience. They’re simple solutions for recurring problems we face in our lives.
Due to this automation effect, we have to use less mental effort in everyday life and thus have more mental bandwidth left to take care of the really important things in our life.
What does that mean specifically for you?
Habits are the key to living a productive life and achieving your goals. Why? Because you achieve goals thanks to your daily actions and not by doing a one-time sprint.
See this process more as a pilgrimage:
You would start your journey with a destination in mind. This is your goal.
However, there is no point in blindly running towards this goal. It’s way too far away for that, and you’d just be wasting your energy. Instead, you must daily try to move closer to the destination of your pilgrimage.
If you were to run instead, after just a few days you would no longer have the strength to pursue the destination of your journey.
Just working on the right things once is unlikely to give you lasting results. However, working on the right things every day for several years will surely transform your life.
Positive and negative habits
Incidentally, the power of habit applies to both positive and negative actions.
In the book, James Clear compares the cumulative effect of habit to interest. A handful of positive actions you take each day can make a gigantic difference over a long period of time. Likewise, a few negative actions can also send you into the abyss in the long term. Depending on the direction in which an action has an effect, it can be a vicious cycle or a virtuous cycle.
“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 kinds of people everywhere.” James Clear
So not only is it important to build positive habits, but it also plays a big part in identifying and breaking negative habits.
How long does it take us to build habits?
In order to build habits, we must first establish a routine. It is often said that we have to do things for 21 days before they become a habit.
This myth stems from an often misquoted study by Dr. Maxwell Maltz:
Dr. Maltz was a cosmetic surgeon in the 1950s. He found that it took his patients an average of 21 days after rhinoplasty to adjust to their new look. The situation was similar with arm or leg amputations: most patients experienced phantom pain for the first 21 days until they got used to the new situation. These experiences caused him to reflect on how long it took him to get used to new actions or situations.
He noted that it also took him more or less 21 days to form a new habit and wrote about this finding in his book Psycho-Cybernetics:
“These and many other frequently observed phenomena seem to indicate that it takes a minimum of 21 days to discard an old mental image of oneself and embrace a new one.” Dr. Maxwell Maltz:
This is how the myth was born that we can build new habits in 21 days. In truth, Dr. However, Maltz only says that 21 days is the minimum time we need to build a new self-image or new habits.
A study by University College London even showed in 2009 that we need an average of 66 days for this.
The length of the period is probably also related to how much we enjoy performing an action, how closely it is linked to our identity, and how much willpower it takes to perform it.
The Habit Loop
The habit loop is one of the core themes of the book Atomic Habits. According to Clear, every action needs a stimulus to start. This draws our attention to a desire that we have because we expect a reward from our reaction.
For a gambling addict, the lure is the ringing of the slot machine. This noise triggers the player’s desire because he expects a reward from the reaction (playing on the machine).
So the habit loop looks like this:
- Cure – Craving – Response – Reward
Of course, this also applies to all other areas of our lives. The smell of coffee, for example, can be a stimulus that triggers our desire for a coffee break at work.
Important: As a rule, we are not concerned with the substance, but with the feeling that the respective substance gives us. If we consume coffee regularly during our work breaks, we associate coffee with relaxation, even if it raises our blood pressure.
Without a stimulus, our habit loop would not start. But the stimulus alone is not enough: if our desire for the promised reward is too low, we would lack the motivation to carry out an action.
James Clear now recommends that you specifically look for cues that create cravings for a habit to encourage positive action. So we specifically link habits that we want to build up with actions that we already carry out in everyday life.
In the beginning, the cue will be very weak. Just like the ringing of a slot machine is just annoying background noise for people who have never set foot in a casino. But over time, the body will increasingly associate the cue with the desired result, so that our craving is awakened.
Observe your habits in everyday life and consider which stimuli lead you to perform certain habits.
With our knowledge of the habit loop, we can now concretely begin to incorporate actions into our everyday lives.
How do we build habits into our lives?
We now know how actions are triggered by stimuli and that we have to carry out actions over several weeks and months in order to store them as habits.
But how do we manage to carry out actions continuously every day over such a long period of time?
1. Make the action visible
James Clear recommends building a “Habit Scorecard” as a first step. This is basically a list of actions you complete throughout the day. For example, it could look like this:
- Waking up
- Turn on the phone
- Check messages on the phone
- Brush teeth
- Take a shower
We often do these things unconsciously, which means that we are not even aware of the positive and negative things we do in the course of a day.
Clear therefore recommends labeling the actions as positive, neutral, or negative. This will make you more aware of what you want to (or don’t want to) do throughout the day, allowing you to be more proactive about your actions.
2. Make the actions attractive
The higher our dopamine reward for an action, the more likely we are to perform it. Funnily enough, however, it’s the anticipation of a reward that leads to a dopamine release, not the reward itself. James Clear, therefore, recommends linking actions you should do to actions you will do anyway.
For example, you could make it a point not to check Facebook, Tiktok, or Instagram until after you’ve called 3 potential clients. Or you don’t drink your morning coffee until you’ve done 10 push-ups.
Clear calls this principle “Habit Stacking”. Done right, you could tie a routine of dozens of habits together. The reward of one action is set as a stimulus for the next action. For example, you can establish a morning routine that keeps you on your toes from the time the alarm clock rings until you leave the house.
3. Don’t be a perfectionist, take it easy on yourself
Try not to perfect new habits. According to Clear, it is much more important that you implement them in some form. Better to do a single push-up every day than aim for 10 but only do them every few days. This is the reason why you should aim for habit streaks.
As already discussed: The more often you implement an action, the easier it will be for you. And then, over time, you can increase the volume as well. But don’t strive for perfection, just care about completing the minimum!
Perhaps you know about the following experiment at the University of Florida: Professor Jerry Uelsmann divided his photography students into 2 groups.
Uelsmann told the first group that he would be evaluating them by quantity this semester. So 100 photos would be an A (One), 90 a B (Two) and so on.
He told the second group that he would rate them solely on quality. The participants in the group only had to take one photo over the course of the semester, but to get an A grade, that one photo had to be perfect.
At the end of the semester, Uelsmann was surprised that the best photos of the semester were taken exclusively by the first group.
Because while the quality group was busy thinking about the perfect photo, the quantity group was busy creating photos: They experimented with different lighting situations, subjects or camera positions and learned from their mistakes so that they made great progress within one semester.
4. Make the actions satisfying
We are more likely to repeat actions when the experience was satisfying. However, it is important that we experience the reward immediately so that our brain learns that the action was responsible for the pleasant feeling.
This is also the problem with many bad habits such as smoking. We experience the reward – the relaxing feeling – immediately, while we only feel the negative consequences like lung cancer decades later.
Our brain strives for “instant gratification”: A reward that we feel immediately is worth a lot more than a reward that we (possibly) won’t get until the distant future.
That’s why it’s so attractive to sit on the sofa and watch YouTube videos instead of going jogging or being otherwise active. Because we feel the positive reward of one action in the moment, while the reward for jogging and sport only becomes visible after weeks.
With this knowledge, however, the brain can be “hacked”. Try to reward yourself immediately for positive actions: For example, by rewarding yourself with a relaxing bath for going jogging.
Conclusion: Good things take time
Good things take time. Even small things – small habits – can create great things. It just takes time. Habits often don’t change until we cross a threshold and suddenly – overnight – experience explosive growth.
How can my new Notion Habit Streak Template help?
In order to implement the teachings of James Clear into practice, I have created a Habit Streak Template for Notion: It helps you to visualize your habit streak inside your Notion dashboard. This way, it supports you to do or not do a certain action for a certain time period.
Just start tracking a habit, the streak continues until you stop checking a day.
The template also comes with gamification: You can unlock achievements like 30-Days-Streak or 1-Year-Streak.
Thus, it will help you to remove negative habits like
- 🛑 Smoking Weed (No-Weed)
- 🛑 Drinking Alcohol (No-Booze)
- 🛑 Consuming Nicotine (No-Smoke)
- 🛑 Watching Porn (No-Fap)
And to implement positive habits like
- ✅ Journaling
- ✅ Meditating
- ✅ Working out
When creating this template, I aimed for building a single-page template that makes it beginner friendly and easy to set up. Plus, it remains highly customizable, so that you can easily implement it into your unique workspace.