Over the last decade, I’ve spent thousands of hours coaching men to transform their bodies.
I’ve learned that studying human behavior and psychology has a massive impact on my ability to help these men achieve their goals while enjoying the journey.
One of the key components to help men (or women) make health improvements is understanding behavior change.
Why do people do what they do? How can I help people to achieve their health & fitness goals more seamlessly?
Atomic Habits is a step-by-step system for creating good habits and breaking bad habits. The purpose is to help you achieve remarkable results more efficiently and methodically.
While James covers a lot of information in his book, I cherry-picked 5 key lessons that I think can help you the most to achieve the results you desire.
Lesson #1 – Get 1% Better Every Day
Most people believe that you must swing for the fences in order to achieve your true potential in any given area.
James says the precise opposite is actually true; improving just 1% every day leads to dramatic results. In fact, he uses mathematics to prove his point.
Just a 1% increase every day yields a 37x improvement by the end of the year. He writes, “Habits are the compound interest of self improvement” and “You are what you repeat”.
You don’t have to be perfect every day to make progress. And James even thinks big goals can even be counter-productive. The focus should be on the process, not on the goals.1
At one point James writes, “Forget about goals, focus on systems instead”. I don’t want to take that line out of context, but from my perspective, how important having the right goals or a vision is to your results is ambiguous as laid out in the book. James uses the word “vision” on a few pages to mean what you see, not foresight.2
Either way, the entire concept of getting 1% better daily, or hitting singles and doubles consistently vs. grand slams occasionally is profound.
Lesson #2 – Change Your Identity To Change Your Habits
I chose this lesson because not only is this fundamental, but it directly relates to the company I started BuiltLean.
Many overweight guys say to me, “I want to be BuiltLean”. The entire reason why I chose the name is because you are BuiltLean. The “built” is past tense.
In other words, a simple identity shift from “I want to” to “I am” makes all the difference in the world. If you already have the potential built within you, you only need to apply habits that reveal your lean body. Simple, but not easy.
James proposes 3 layers of behavior change; (1) outcomes, (2) process, and (3) identity.
In order to have six pack abs (outcome), you need to workout consistently and eat well (process), to become a man who has a six pack (identity).
James flips this model on its head. He writes, “The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but who you want to become.”
He believes you first establish the identity, and then the process and outcomes will follow much easier.
Another way to think about this is the “Be => Do => Have” model.
Lesson #3 – The 4 Laws Of Behavior Change
There are many models and philosophies that attempt to understand human behavior that go back thousands of years. James took on this momentous challenge.
He offers a step-by-step framework for not only understanding human behavior, but also how to change it.
Here are the 4 steps, which he refers to as laws:
Here’s an example of a coffee drinking habit using this model:
- Cue – you wake up
- Craving – you want to feel alert
- Response – you drink a cup of coffee
- Reward – you satisfy your craving to feel alert. Drinking coffee becomes associated with waking up.
This completes a “habit loop” so that you continue this habit over and over again. In the book, he has a section dedicated to each law.
Without going too deep, there are many possible cues and cravings, which elicit the response of drinking a cup of coffee. Maybe the cue is seeing your coffee machine, or passing a coffee shop on your way to work. The craving could be the taste of coffee, or the smell.
The cue and the craving are the “problem” and the response and reward are the “solution”.
Lesson #4 – How To Workout Consistently
So we’ve seen the model in action to describe a coffee drinking habit, but how do you use the model to create a good habit?
Using his model, James offers some simple and powerful tips to create habits that stick.
How to Create Good Habits
- Cue – Make it obvious
- Craving – Make it attractive
- Response – Make it easy
- Reward – Make it satisfying
Let’s see how to apply these tips to workout consistently:
- Cue – Make it obvious => Put your gym clothes where they are clearly visible in your closet.
- Craving – Make it attractive => Follow a simple workout routine that’s fun and efficient that fits within your schedule (hint: BuiltLean® Transformation could be a good option).
- Response – Make it easy => Train at home, or choose a gym that is as close to the driving path from work to home as possible.
- Reward – Make it satisfying => Log the workout in your journal or calendar. Progress makes you feel good, it’s a reward.
Of course, there are more strategies that can be explored within each tip, but this is just an overview.
Lesson #5 – How To Avoid Snacking
You’ve seen how to create a good habit, so let’s see how to break a bad habit.
Using the same model, you just invert the tips to create a step-by-step system for avoiding bad habits.
How to Break Bad Habits
- Cue – Make it invisible
- Craving – Make it unattractive
- Response – Make it difficult
- Reward – Make it unsatisfying
Applying this to snacking, let’s see an example of how to snack less:
- Cue – Make it invisible => Get rid of all snacks in your house or apartment. Out of sight out of mind. This may not be possible, but that’s the idea.
- Craving – Make it unattractive => 99% of these snacks have little nutritional value and are made by food scientists in a lab to hook you to eat more than you need. They belong in the garbage, not your stomach.
- Response – Make it difficult => On your way to work, take a different route so you don’t pass the convenience store every time.
- Reward – Make it unsatisfying => Every time you eat an unhealthy snack, you must log it in a journal.3
As with the workout example, these are just ideas that can be explored.
While I really enjoyed the book and learned a lot, I had trouble learning and applying some of the information.
I think the main reason is that there many new definitions and concepts offered like habit stacking, habit shaping, temptation bundling, and automaticity to name just a few examples. Another reason is that applying 4 steps is more difficult than 3.
The book is like a reference on habit changing. You learn in depth how the 4-step model works and some of the insights and lessons that can be drawn from it.
It does not offer you a specific plan on let’s say how to become better at chess, but that was the point of the book. It is offering a system that can used to achieve results.
I want to thank James very much for sending me the book. I really appreciate it. I certainly learned many valuable insights and I hope you learned some with this article.
If you want to dive deeper, definitely read his book => Atomic Habits.
- This is the same concept to describe how the Alabama Football program has won championship after championship. Alabama Coach Nick Saban refers to his program’s success as “The Process”, which is doing the right thing at this moment, on this play. This mindset and approach extends through the entire season and into every aspect of the program. ↩
- This book is not a philosophical treatise on how to understand what you want, who you are, or change your belief or value systems. That could open up a large can of worms. While there are philosophical underpinnings to the model and book, it’s mostly focused on practical application and mechanics to getting remarkable results. ↩
- You can apply the 4 laws method that James introduces, or what I’ve done is simply a 3 questions framework – (1) what happened, (2) why did it happen, and (3) how to prevent it from happening again. The 4 laws framework can still enhance the question answering of course. ↩