“Atomic Habits” – Why habit tracking matters
James Clear is a very influential speaker and entrepreneur. He works on the topic of efficiency and how to develop positive habits, with hundreds of thousands of subscribers to his newsletter. His recent book, “Atomic Habits” has quickly reached the bestseller status. Although many other books have been written about the relationship between positive habits and success, this one stands out because of the depth of the related evidence, from neurosciences to personal experience.
This short post is a list of selected lecture notes, not a book review. Because the topic of “habit tracking” is crucially important to our team at Knomee, this will be the main center of our interest. However, the next section will start by pointing out some of this great book’s key ideas, to give you some reasons to grab your copy. The next section will zoom on habit tracking. Habit tracking is a powerful practice, it is just too hard for many, and they drop their tracking too soon, before reaching the benefits. The last section will highlight some consequences on Knomee's design.
Picking up new habits
Here are a few insights taken from the book, about habits.
- One should set goals on outcomes, because they are what matters, but measure systems, that are the processes that will deliver the outcome. The relationship between efforts and outcome is not linear. The more complex the task, the more you need to measure your system, since measuring the outcome will not tell you what is happening. Here is one of James Clear’s famous quote: “ I believe that you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems”. This is close to the army motto : you do not raise to the level of your expectation, you fall to the level of your practice.
- If we look for the root causes of change, one should look our our identity : our values and our self-image, because the identity drives the behavior, that drives the process results that yield the outcome. There is a dual relationship between habits and identity, as noticed by Aristotle (“we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is a habit”). Working on your habits is a way to model your identity. This is quite a sophisticated idea, you should read the book, a summary will not do justice to the depth of the thinking.
- There are four steps in the core of the habit forming process : cue, craving, response, reward. Although this is not unique (other work such as Nir Eyal in “Hooked” make similar references to this 4 steps process), this is obviously very relevant to understanding habit formation.
- Desire is the fuel of learning, “It is the anticipation of rewards that drives to action”. This is a critical lesson from biology. There is another 4 steps cycle that any change management plan should understand and leverage : desire => plan => action => reward/reflect. You can find a similar argument develop in a previous post of from one of our team members.
- Repetition is at the core of habit forming, towards mastery. We definitely need practice (to do things) and repetition (lots of doing) to set up habits.
- Our brains are poorly equipped to handle delayed gratification (time inconsistency: the way our brain evaluates rewards in inconsistent over time) - it is a skill one has to learn
- Mastery is one of the key components of intrinsic motivation, as brilliantly explained by Daniel Pink (purpose, autonomy, mastery). James Clear adds this key equation : “Mastery = habits + deliberate practice”. We need both, deliberate practice is necessary for reflection, reflection is needed for the mastery’s self-awareness.
- James Clear emphasizes the importance of consistency : “it’s not the first mistake/lapse that kills habit forming, it is the spiral of repeated mistakes”. Therefore, “doing it poorly”, when you feel that this is not the day or the moment to practice, is very important.
James Clear writes a truly great chapter about “habit tracking” : “A habit tracker is a simple way to measure whether you did a habit - like marking an X in a calendar”. Here are some of the more salient insights :
- “Habit tracking is a great tool towards setting up new habits or getting rid of bad ones, as exemplified by Benjamin Franklin”. See “The Happiness Project” from Gretchen Rubin.
- "Habit tracking is powerful because it leverages multiples Laws of Behavior Change. It simultaneously makes a behavior obvious, attractive and satisfying". This is the short summary of the chapter : why habit self-tracking is a great tool to set up a new habit. Tracking make the habit “obvious”: the mere act of tracking a behavior can spark the urge to change it. As noted by James Clear, “Habit Tracking keeps us honest. Most of us have a distorted view of our own behavior”. Second, self-tracking bring some form of attraction because the most effective form of motivation is progress. “Each small win feeds your desire”. Last self-tracking is satisfying in the sense that tracking can become its form of own reward. “It provides a visual proof that you are casting votes for the type of person you wish to become”.
- However, this is not the complete story, otherwise everyone would be using self-tracking apps: “Tracking is hard, it is not for everyone” : tracking your habits requires discipline, and provides with delayed gratification”. When possible, automated tracking (without conscious effort) is preferred. When manual tracking is required (usually one needs both to get a better context), “Manual tracking should be limited to your most important habits”.
- “There is no need to measure your entire life. But anyone can benefit from tracking in some form - even if it’s only temporary”. Habit tracking is not binary : either you do or you don’t. It can be a temporary action, as a help to set up or to recover a positive habit.
Why this matters to Knomee
The insights that are contained in this book are very important for the Knomee team and for our mobile application. Here are the four most important quotes that directly relate to our design decisions:
- “Habit trackers and other visual forms of measurement can make your habit satisfying by providing clear evidence of your progress”. This is the heart of Knomee main user interface,to see your data for 21 days and to get instant recognition of how well/poorly you are doing with “mountain” icons (because your data looks like mountains, too).
- “Despite all the benefits, many people resist the idea of tracking and measuring”. Our key design objective with Knomee is to make it fast. Our second goal is to make it fun. Hence forecasting is built-in to make tracking both faster and more fun.
- “Tracking is hard, not for everyone” : true, but we believe that many more people could benefit from habit tracking if we could make it easier, faster and more fun. We are not there yet !
- “Manual tracking should be limited to your most important habits … even if it’s only temporary”. Knomee is designed toward temporary quest tracking. A quest is a small (less than 4) things that you want to track together to see if you are picking a new habit.
We strongly urge you to read the book to harness the power of positive habits, and the benefits of the “meta-habit” of habit tracking.
However, Knomee is not a simple habit tracker. Knomee is a self-tracking app for people with a “quest” (with a question and a goal). There are better and simpler apps to just track your habits, such as Streaks and Strides. Knomee is a more complex app designed for “self-tracking with sense”, that is, when you have a “why”, a clear reason for self-tracking (which is what the quest represents, not simply “do I succeed to develop this habit ?” but “why should I pick this habit ?”).