Atomic Habits

[Apr 11, 2021]

Diderot’s behavior is not uncommon. In fact, the tendency for one purchase to lead to another one has a name: the Diderot Effect. The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption that leads to additional purchases.

You can spot this pattern everywhere. You buy a dress and have to get new shoes and earrings to match. You buy a couch and suddenly question the layout of your entire living room. You buy a toy for your child and soon find yourself purchasing all of the accessories that go with it. It’s a chain reaction of purchases.

It is easier to associate a new habit with a new context than to build a new habit in the face of competing cues. It can be difficult to go to bed early if you watch television in your bedroom each night. It can be hard to study in the living room without getting distracted if that’s where you always play video games. But when you step outside your normal

When you can’t manage to get to an entirely new environment, redefine or rearrange your current one. Create a separate space for work, study, exercise, entertainment, and cooking. The mantra I find useful is “One space, one use.”

You can use your phone for all sorts of tasks, which makes it a powerful device. But when you can use your phone to do nearly anything, it becomes hard to associate it with one task. You want to be productive, but you’re also conditioned to browse social media, check email, and play video games whenever you open your phone. It’s a mishmash of cues.

It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change: the fastest way to lose weight, the best program to build muscle, the perfect idea for a side hustle. We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action. As Voltaire once wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.”

If motion doesn’t lead to results, why do we do it? Sometimes we do it because we actually need to plan or learn more. But more often than not, we do it because motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure.

In a sense, every habit is just an obstacle to getting what you really want. Dieting is an obstacle to getting fit. Meditation is an obstacle to feeling calm. Journaling is an obstacle to thinking clearly. You don’t actually want the habit itself. What you really want is the outcome the habit delivers. The greater the obstacle—that is, the more difficult the habit—the more friction there is between you and your desired end state. This is why it is crucial to make your habits so easy that you’ll do them even when you don’t feel like it. If you can make your good habits more convenient, you’ll be more likely to follow through on them.

Whenever you organize a space for its intended purpose, you are priming it to make the next action easy. For instance, my wife keeps a box of greeting cards that are presorted by occasion—birthday, sympathy, wedding, graduation, and more. Whenever necessary, she grabs an appropriate card and sends it off. She is incredibly good at remembering to send cards because she has reduced the friction of doing so. For years, I was the opposite. Someone would have a baby and I would think, “I should send a card.” But then weeks would pass and by the time I remembered to pick one up at the store, it was too late. The habit wasn’t easy.

As mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

Making progress is satisfying, and visual measures—like moving paper clips or hairpins or marbles—provide clear evidence of your progress. As a result, they reinforce your behavior and add a little bit of immediate satisfaction to any activity. Visual measurement comes in many forms: food journals, workout logs, loyalty punch cards, the progress bar on a software download, even the page numbers in a book.

This is sometimes referred to as Goodhart’s Law. Named after the economist Charles Goodhart, the principle states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Measurement is only useful when it guides you and adds context to a larger picture, not when it consumes you.

In the beginning of a new activity, there should be a period of exploration. In relationships, it’s called dating. In college, it’s called the liberal arts. In business, it’s called split testing. The goal is to try out many possibilities, research a broad range of ideas, and cast a wide net. After this initial period of exploration, shift your focus to the best solution you’ve found—but keep experimenting occasionally. The proper balance depends on whether you’re winning or losing. If you are currently winning, you exploit, exploit, exploit. If you are currently losing, you continue to explore, explore, explore.

The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. And as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty.... As Machiavelli noted, “Men desire novelty to such an extent that those who are doing well wish for a change as much as those who are doing badly.”

The more you let a single belief define you, the less capable you are of adapting when life challenges you. If you tie everything up in being the point guard or the partner at the firm or whatever else, then the loss of that facet of your life will wreck you. If you’re a vegan and then develop a health condition that forces you to change your diet, you’ll have an identity crisis on your hands. When you cling too tightly to one identity, you become brittle. Lose that one thing and you lose yourself.

Find a copy near you.
Back to top