26. Forming habits that stick

January 25, 2019

I wrote this post for my newsletter, sign up here to get emails like these every week.

At the end of my end-of-year review post, I ended the post with:

To meet my goals, I will need some structure and habits to get me there. But that’s a post for another day.

This is that post.

I’m halfway through Atomic Habits by James Clear, but I’ve learned so much already. I’m excited to share that with you.

I am the type of person that learns by doing. Instead of waiting till I finish the entire book, I started to apply the advice to form productive habits. As I read more chapters, I keep improving my system. (progressive enhancement?)

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Lesson 1: Build your habits around identity not goals

Here’s a scenario for you - Imagine you are trying to quit smoking and I offered you a cigarette - Which one of these is more convincing?

A. No thanks, I’m trying to quit.

B. No thanks, I don’t smoke.

By choosing option B, you not only skip this one time but also eliminate future triggers by establishing that smoking is not part of your life (anymore). Next time when I see you, I wouldn’t even offer you a cigarette because I know you don’t smoke. (not that I have cigarettes to offer but you get the point)

Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity.

To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself. The key to building lasting habits is focusing on creating a new identity first.

— James Clear in Atomic Habits

Consider these 3 layers of behavior change from the book:


Outcomes are about what you want. Processes are about what you do. Identity is what you believe about yourself.

Imagine how we typically set goals - we might start by saying “I’m going to get fit this year”. We start at the outcome and wait until it becomes part of our identity.

Instead, start with identity. Become the type of person who is fit.

When you go into work tomorrow, instead of just walking into the lift, ask yourself - would a fit person take the lift or the stairs?

Start by taking the stairs once a day and let it slowly grow on you. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.

Today, walk 50 steps when you get home from work. Tomorrow, walk 100 steps. The day after that, 150 steps. If you do this 5 days per week and add 50 steps each day, then by the end of the year, you’ll be walking over 10,000 steps per day

If you’re a non-smoker, you don’t have to remind yourself about the negative health effects of smoking to avoid the temptation. You simply ignore it because “you are not a smoker”. That’s the power of identity.

Outcome: Want to stop being late to meetings?

Identity: Become the type of person who is always on time.

Habit: Schedule meetings with an additional 15–minute gap between them so that you can go from meeting to meeting and always show up early.

I wrote down the kind of person I want to be (identify as) and wrote down the habits this person would have.

There are 3 major themes for me and their related habits:

1. I want to be a person that is constantly learning

Read (real books, not just tweets)

I don’t have a goal of reading 24 books in a year or something similar, I just want to read for a few minutes everyday (which will automatically result in a lot of books)


2. A healthy active person.

I’ve lived an unhealthy lifestyle for all of my early 20s and now it’s catching up with me 😅

Go for a run

Play football


3. A person that takes their personal projects as seriously as their day job

This is a big one for me, I’ve always had side projects, but this year, I want to take them more seriously and give them the time and energy they deserve.

Wake up early

Make progress on a side project

Write this newsletter


Lesson 2: Make it obvious and easy.

Our brains default to comfort, if doing the right thing is too hard, your brain will convince you not to do it. You have to learn to set your self up for success.

First, make it obvious. If you don’t attach a time and place on a habit, it will keep slipping through.

Meh: Run 2km at least 3 times a week

Good: Run 2km at 8 AM on Monday, Tuesday and Friday.

Next make it easy. I used to go a to beautiful lake nearby to run. Now I just run in the park in front of my house. It’s not as cinematic, but it’s easier to achieve.

Putting my shorts and shoes near my bed the night before also helps by putting me in the right mindset even before I wake up.

If I want to make progress on a side project tomorrow morning, I’ll take some this evening and write down the next set of tasks I need to tackle.


Here is how I make my habits obvious:

Wake up early 6 AM on all weekdays except thursdays

Make progress on a side project right after waking up (except weekends)

Go for a run 8 AM on all weekdays except thursdays

Read every night for 30 mins before sleeping

Play football 8.30 PM on wednesdays

Write this newsletter right after waking up on thursdays


You see a weird pattern with Thursdays above, that’s because I play football on Wednesday night. Waking up early and going for a run the next day is way too difficult, so I just take the morning off - sticking to habits is already hard, don’t set yourself up for failure/disappointment.


Lesson 3: Habit stacking

The best way to form a new habit is to stack it next to an already existing habit.

Everyday after dinner, I get into bed - that’s a habit I already have. Attaching a new habit with this existing habit makes adopting the new habit easier.

So before sleeping, I spend at least half an hour reading a book. I keep a book next to my bed to make it easier and remind me. Over time, that half hour has become a full hour on it’s own.


Lesson 4: Track / Maintain that streak

I haven’t reached the part of the book that talks about tracking your habits. But, I like measuring things and get motivated by seeing visual progress, so I starting tracking them anyways.

Everyday, after performing a habit, I immediately check it off. If I see a tick for Reading yesterday, I’m more inclined to read today. Maintaining a streak is an incredibly simple but compelling tool.

A streak doesn’t have to mean everyday. As long as you stick to your decided schedule, it counts. (I’m trying to be mindful about not setting an overly obsessive schedule like I usually tend to.

I looked around for apps that can track my habits with the schedule I want, but I didn’t find any that also gives me a streak to chase.

You already know what happens next, I built one!


I’ve been using it every day and it’s working out pretty well! It understands my schedule and keeps the streak going even for things that happen just once a week.


Lesson 5: Never miss twice in a row

Things happen, life comes in the way.

If I don’t wake up early on a day, I don’t make enough progress on my side projects. And that’s okay, you’re allowed to make mistakes. I go to bed extra early to make sure I don’t miss the next day.

Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.

You have to learn not to judge yourself or feel guilty when you make a mistake, and instead focus on getting back on track as quickly as possible.

Just because you ate a tub of ice cream today doesn’t mean your diet is screwed. You can eat a salad tomorrow and get right back on track.


I’ve baked this behavior into the app as well - if you miss a day but get back on track the next day, you get to keep your streak going. But if you miss twice in a row, the streak resets to zero. That motivation for me really works.

If you would like to hop on an super early alpha of the app, let me know by replying to this email and I’ll hook you up.

That’s all I have for now, I’ll share more when I finish the book.

Hope that was helpful on your journey!


Want articles like this in your inbox every Friday?
Javascript and personal growth. No spam, I promise!