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Why you need to work on habits instead of goals

Bryan Liu
Bryan Liu
5 min read
Why you need to work on habits instead of goals
Photo by Tine Ivanič / Unsplash

Table of Contents

Have you ever set an ambitious goal for yourself, then failed to hit it? Maybe you’ve hit it, but soon after doing so you’re wondering what’s coming next? Or you've looked at your company’s lofty targets, but don’t see what’s beyond the end of the fiscal year?

Goals like these are one-off. They are short-sighted and can lead to unhappiness because celebration is put at the end, making the journey rather unenjoyable. Worse, the highs from achieve the goals usually fade quicker than you’d wish.

Habits are what makes goals attainable. They are systems or routines that run on autopilot, reduce reliance on willpower, optimize energy exertion, and withstand any turbulence. Most importantly, habits forge a new identity, which ultimately defines the standard that goals measure by.

As the author would famously say:

You don't rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. — James Clear

The goal isn’t to make 1 million dollars, the goal is to become the person who can make 1 million dollars.

Runners run. Writers write. Entrepreneurs take risks to generate value

Identity change, then, is what we are really after. You habits beget the deserved results, and thus reinforces your identity. By changing your habits, you can get different results, and thus redefine your identity.

Luckily, this book “Atomic Habits” shows us how.

How to “Atomic” Habit — a few golden nuggets:

Before jumping into the sea of nuggets, here is a core tenant of human nature worth remembering:

We humans (and animals) operating on 2 primal drives — move closer to pleasure and run away from pain

Things that give us pleasure — from eating a sweet berry, to receiving adulation, to spending the night with loved ones — all make us want to get more of it. Things that cause us pain — from a tiger clawing its nails into our flesh, to a bully taunting us at school, to a parent scolding us — all makes us want to run as far away from it as possible. These primal drives are strong emotions and are the secrets ingredients that form our habits.

Nugget 1 — The Habit Loop Formula

The habit loop goes something like this:

 Cue → Craving → Response → Reward

Reward is the feeling we get after the end of the habit loop. Eating food satisfies our hunger (a feeling), but eating a delicious meal satisfies our taste and magnifies our pleasure.

So when we notice that we are hungry (a cue), we desire for a tasty meal (a craving), we go to the near by thai restaurant and chow down a plate of drunken noodles (a response/action), and we feel satisfied (a reward). Then next time when we are hungry, we repeat the loop to get the reward.

In other words:

  1. Cue — make us notice the reward
  2. Craving — make us desire the reward
  3. Response (I call this Action, to make it more direct) — make us chase after the reward
  4. Reward — got the reward, and make us want it again

Building good habits or breaking bad habits all relying on this formula. The million dollar question is how to apply it.

Nugget 2 — Make Good Habits Obvious, Attractive, Easy, and Satisfying

Tweak the above formula into the following:

Cue (Make it Obvious) → Craving (Make it Attractive) → Response (Make it Easy) → Reward (Make it Satisfying)

For example, let’s apply it to a good habit that I want to build — write for 10 min a day

  1. Make the Cue Obvious. Set on my calendar at 3pm that says “Right now at 3pm, write for 10 min”
  2. Make the Craving Attractive. When 3pm hits and I see the calendar notification, I envision the reward of becoming 1 step closer to a handsome writer whose writings inspire thousands and are admired by his fans
  3. Make the Response Easy. I start writing for 10 min. I am just moving my fingers, I don’t care about grammar, I don’t care about how smart I sound. I keep the word vomit going
  4. Make the Reward Satisfying. When the word vomiting stops, I celebrate my accomplishment and treasure the satisfaction of becoming a writer, 1 word vomit at a time.
  5. At 3pm the next day, I will repeat the same process and ensure each small victory i get.

This is how a small habit gets build, 1 small step at a time.

Here are some pro tips on building good habits:

  • Write out routine commands like “At 7am at the door, I will grab my gym bag and walk out to the gym”. Writing out commands like this makes it routine to execute. And when you add in time, location, and the intended action, you increase the chance of noticing the cue (the gym bag) and execute.
  • Curate your spaces and environment for 1 habit. “Bed == sleep”, “Desk == work”, “Couch == relaxing”. Environment can have multiple cues that bombard your eyes so you’ll trigger strong cravings.
  • You want the Craving and the Reward to reinforce your desired identity.
  • Make the Response (Action) as frictionless as possible. Prepare the gym bag the night before so you can just grab it and go in the morning. If you had to pack your bag in the morning, its too much friction.
  • Maintain the momentum but don’t skip. 1 rep is better than 0 rep. When you skip 2 times in a row, a new habit develops, just one you don’t want. It is always easier to keep a ball rolling than to move a ball that’s dead in the ground
  • The formula: (Energy you want to exert) - (Energy required to do the action) = Do/Skip. If positive, Do. If negative, skip. So make the energy requirement as small as possible to just do 1 rep.
  • Make it easy with the 2 minute rule — every response should only take 2 min to do. Just showing up is half the battle.
  • Boredom do arise from doing routine things. Resolve it by keeping your eyes on the ultimate prize — your identity changes or the experiences you’d get from it.

Nugget 3 — Break the Bad Habit by Inversion

To break a bad habit, do the inverse of a good habit:

Cue (Make it Invisible) → Craving (Make it Disgusting) → Response (Make it Hard) → Reward (Make it Painful)

Let’s apply it to a bad habit that I wanted to break for the longest time — no phone before sleep

  1. Make the Cue Invisible. At 9pm, I will put my phone in the living room under the couch
  2. Make the Craving Disgusting. I will visualize the pains of a sleepless night AND the idiot I’d become the next day due to lack of sleep
  3. Make the Response Hard. I tell my roommate that if I pick up the phone from the couch before 6am in the morning, I’ll be his personal butler for a week
  4. Make the Reward Painful. Insomnia, incapacitated the next day, public humiliation, hurt pride, and most importantly, hours wasted on the phone.

Just writing about this and thinking about the consequences makes me not want to enact this habit at any cost.

Here’s the pro tips on breaking bad habit:

  • It’s important not just to stop the bad habit, but to replace it with something better. Reading at night instead of using phone is a good replacement.
  • Resisting temptations doesn’t work — it just ignores it and not release the desire. Thats why preventing the temptation (by making it invisible) is crucial. Out of sight out of mind.
  • Prioritize the benefits of your Future self instead of the benefits of the Present self. You will never regret having done the work today, but you will regret it in the future if you skip.
  • The road to the top eventually becomes less crowded because most people quit (or made the wrong decision) along the way.

Final Thoughts on Atomic Habits

I really enjoyed this book. It is filled with meat and wisdom and the formula is clear and implementable by mere mortals. And I realized the importance of not skipping and just do 1 rep, because the energy required to restart again is way too high.

Simply do build more good habits, cut down on bad habits, and eventually you’ll be on the road to the top.

Cheers 🏃🏻‍♂️🏋️‍♀️👨‍🏫✍🏻.



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