Who wants a habit? That just sounds like work. We want outcomes. But the thing is: “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.”
So why not set goals? This book explains why goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress:

  1. Winners and losers have the same goals. 
    1. Only systems build the process for success
  2. Achieving a goal is only a momentary change. (This is duplicative of Clear’s later point that goals are at odds with long-term progress.)
    1. Happiness literature emphasizes this
  3. Goals restrict your happiness.
    1. Implicitly, there is no happiness as long as your goal is not met. And goals are binary; you either achieve them or fail.  
    2. But with a system-based approach, you learn to love the process itself. 

Ultimately, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” 

So where to the changes for habits even come from? Clear proposes three levels of analysis to evaluate the development of a habit:

Outcome – looking at results, like gaining muscle

Process – looking at habits, like going to the gym

Identity – looking at your beliefs, that you are a healthy person

For deep changes to our habits, we need change at all three levels. “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.” Because ultimately, “behind every system of actions are a system of beliefs.”

To run with Clear’s framework, we can say that habits are lagging indicators of our identities. “Your habits are how you embody your identity.” “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become” “Each habit not only gets results but also teaches you something far more important: to trust yourself.
So start out with the identity you want  – the qualities you want, and then build the habits around that. Clear gives one example: what makes for a successful author?  “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).” So ask yourself “what would an athletic person do?” (But maybe the deeper thought is “how does an athletic person think of himself?”)

We set out considering whether habits are more work. In reality, it’s the opposite. Habits are computationally inexpensive. And necessarily, they free up brainpower to take on the next challenge. Habits also create time assets.   

But aren’t habits boring? Habits sounds like routine – isn’t variety the spice of life? Clear explains: “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.”

Clear offers a framework for thinking about the elements of effective habits, which track the well-understood model of behavioral conditioning of cue->craving->response->reward. 

Good habits: 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.

Bad habits: 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.   

Make it Obvious 

This is perhaps the most important contribution from the book. Here, Clear provides two systems for building habits. 
A. Implementation Intention. The simple way to apply this strategy to your habits is to fill out this sentence: I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

I find this is effective for two of the most important weekly commitments I make, therapy and workouts. But the obvious drawback is when you travel or are otherwise unable to put yourself in the position to execute. 

B. Habit stacking:  “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].” 

  • My habit stacks (loosely): 
  • wake up->make the bed
  • make the bed->meditate
  • meditate->read about meditation
  • read about meditation -> 5 minute journal
  • 5 minute journal -> take supplements
  • workout->stretch
  • stretch->steam room
  • steam room-> cold shower

I don’t suppose health heuristics also fall into this, like “half your plate should be produce.” I like this one Clear suggests: “Social skills. When I walk into a party, I will introduce myself to someone I don’t know yet.”

The key part of this is building the right cues. I got some physical therapy for my rotator cuff, some basic exercises. But I hated those damn exercises – it was hard to stay compliant. Part of the problem is that my cue for the rotator cuff exercises was ambiguous – what time of day is best, is it best to do before or after a workout? But once my physical therapist framed it as a warmup, I was happy to add it in to my routine, and I made a ton of progress. Environmental cues are important. Working out is a solid habit of mine, I get anxious when I’m sick and have to wait it out. But as solid a habit as this is, I still leave my workout bag by the door. 

But on the other hand, habits are easy to change in a new environment. I find travel helps me find new perspectives on my lifestyle. After a trip to Italy, I added my morning meditation habit. After my holiday travel, I cut out caffeine and alcohol. But you don’t have to travel: “Go to a new place—a different coffee shop, a bench in the park, a corner of your room you seldom use—and create a new routine there. It is easier to associate a new habit with a new context than to build a new habit in the face of competing cues. ”

Another good tactic Clear proposes is to keep habits in separate homes. “Habits thrive under predictable circumstances like these. Focus comes automatically when you are sitting at your work desk. Relaxation is easier when you are in a space designed for that purpose. Sleep comes quickly when it is the only thing that happens in your bedroom. If you want behaviors that are stable and predictable, you need an environment that is stable and predictable.” [see Stephen King’s take on this]

One neat tactic Clear offers: “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.” 

Make it Attractive

Simply put, pair the work with the reward. One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior, and the support of your peers supplies the reward. For me, workout classes provide that environment – I compete to cooperate with my peers, and cooperate to compete. We get better. 

Before you had the support of groups, your identity was singular. “You are a reader. You are a musician. You are an athlete. When you join a book club or a band or a cycling group, your identity becomes linked to those around you. Growth and change is no longer an individual pursuit. We are readers. We are musicians. We are cyclists. The shared identity begins to reinforce your personal identity.” 

A key part of making habits more attractive is to reframe the challenge as the process itself. This way, you can say to yourself that “Distraction is a good thing because you need distractions to practice meditation.” 

Make it Easy/Make it Satisfying

I found this section and the Make it Satisfying section largely duplicative of Make it Obvious and Make it Attractive. But there are some good tips for making habits easier and more attractive. Clear says “Every day, there are a handful of moments that deliver an outsized impact. I refer to these little choices as decisive moments.” Ultimately, habits are defined by beginnings – the gym bag by the door, not the workout itself. 

One good rule Clear suggests is the Two-Minute Rule, which states, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” You’ll find that nearly any habit can be scaled down into a two-minute version: “Read before bed each night” becomes “Read one page.” “Do thirty minutes of yoga” becomes “Take out my yoga mat.” “Study for class” becomes “Open my notes.” “Fold the laundry” becomes “Fold one pair of socks.” “Run three miles” becomes “Tie my running shoes.” These habits make us producers, and break habits like procrastination

We should also make progress satisfying – track your progress. It Makes it Obvious (cues the next iteration), Makes it Attractive (evidence of how far you’ve come), and Makes it Satisfying (reminder of the kind of person you are). Also habit tracking *is itself* a free habit – you feel satisfied with being even more prodictive. But the compliance is important. “You don’t realize how valuable it is to just show up on your bad (or busy) days. Lost days hurt you more than successful days help you. If you start with $100, then a 50 percent gain will take you to $150. But you only need a 33 percent loss to take you back to $100. In other words, avoiding a 33 percent loss is just as valuable as achieving a 50 percent gain.”

Clear has written a thoughtful, actionable book on building habits. Get it here