Chapter 5 focuses on how to start a new habit. You know what to do and you know why it matters. But that isn’t enough to make a new habit stick.
Idea 1: implementation intentions
Studies show that implementation intention can drastically increase your success rate when starting a new habit.
Atomic Habits uses a study on exercise habits as an example. In it, the group who used implementation intentions had a success rate of more than double the other groups.
Idea 2: you need to be specific
How many people start their year with squishy goals using terms like “more”, “better”, or any of the “-ier” words? And how many of them fail?
They can’t help but fail. They haven’t actually defined success.
A well-thought-out habit is specific. The habit from the study in the book was “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise….” They knew exactly what they were going to do.
And they were actually even more specific than that.
Idea 3: you need to have a trigger
Do you remember the 1st step of the habit loop? It was in chapter 3.
The 1st step of the loop is a cue.
Lights. Camera Action.
Ready. Set. Go.
A habit needs a trigger to get it going. Since you’re defining the habit, you also define the cue.
Trigger 1: time
The workout study in the book used time as their trigger.
During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].
This is great for a new habit because it forces you to schedule it. You aren’t conditioned for the habit yet. You have to jump-start it.
Trigger 2: situation
Another trigger is the situation.
You can’t always put your habit on the calendar. In this case, external stimuli will have to be your trigger.
When this happens, I’ll do that.
This isn’t as good as scheduling it. It’s easy to forget your new habit in the heat of the moment. I’m sure many new “when I crave a cigarette” habits get forgotten. But you have to work with what you’ve got.
Trigger 3: another habit
The last type of trigger discussed is habit stacking – trigger a habit with the completion of another habit.
After I do X, I will do Y.
For me, getting started is often the hardest part. And the upside of a single good habit isn’t always enough to get me out of bed.
But what about the benefits of 2 habits? 3 habits? 6 habits?
By creating a system of linked habits, you’re focusing all of the motivation from all of the habits on a single action.
Do this next step or none of these habits will get done.
That’s a lot more motivating for me.
I just had to stop writing and skim the chapter. You could use habit stacks to combine unrelated tasks. But if you combine habits that are related – and you chain them in a sensible order – you can make habit stacks a tool for increasing your efficiency.
“When I finish dinner, I will take my plate to the kitchen. When I take my plate to the kitchen, I will put it in the dishwasher.”
“When I finish dinner, I will lay out my clothes for tomorrow. When I lay out my clothes for tomorrow, I will check the mail.”
The 1st example flows a lot better than the 2nd. Not only will you execute more habits, but you’ll also be able to complete that stack faster than if you completed them as individual habits.
Key takeaways and implementation
Here’s what I’m going to do:
- Look at my list of existing habits
- Find habits that can be combined into habit stacks
- Identify activities I can use as triggers for habits that aren’t being executed well
- Find squishy, unclear habits, and redefine them with more specifics
- Look for bad stacks, and reorder or reorganize them to improve efficiency
Implementation intention creates clarity
Clarity is also a cure for some forms of procrastination. I’m not going to go into all that here. But suffice to say, if you don’t clearly understand what you’re supposed to do next, it’s very easy to do nothing or something else.
Habits trump goals
Habits are the processes you use to reach your goals. Habits are within your control. Habits are what you do.
Goals are lagging indicators that may or may not be reached – regardless of how well you do.
Habit stacks: a ritual
What happens when a habit stack is more than the sum of its parts? Can a habit trigger more than just another habit?
What if a habit could trigger a mental state?
That’s basically the idea in The Alter Ego Effect by Todd Herman. The premise is that you aren’t always you. You’re different versions of you in different situations.
Maybe a start-of-the-workday habit stack is just the thing you need to put on your game face and swtich into work mode.