This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Atomic Habits" by James Clear. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What is a habit scorecard? How can keeping a score of your habits help you realize what’s driving them?
A habit scorecard is an account of all your current habits—both positive and negative. The purpose of creating a habit scorecard is to create awareness of your current habits and understand the cues that trigger them.
Here is how to create a habit scorecard and start building awareness of your habits.
What Is a Habit Scorecard?
Habits can form from cues you aren’t even aware of. You are taking in information even when you don’t realize it. In the world of habits, this means you are reacting to cues and forming habits often without your knowledge. To be able to form a good habit or break a bad one, you must start with awareness of the habit and the cues that create them. Therefore, you need to find ways to make your cues and habits obvious.
Making a list of your daily activities helps bring your habits out of the unconscious to the surface. A habit scorecard is one way to keep track of the things you do regularly. Create a list of all the actions you make on a daily basis so your habits are brought into view.
- Your scorecard might include the following list: 1. Wake up. 2. Get out of bed. 3. Use the bathroom. 4. Brush teeth. 5. Make coffee. 6. Etc.
Once you’ve filled out your habit scorecard, determine which habits serve you, hurt you, or neither in the long run. All habits are formed to address some issue or problem in your life, and only you can be the judge of which ones cast votes for the person you want to be. There should be no judgments or criticisms about any particular habit. You are simply mapping the ones that serve you and the ones that don’t. One way to determine which habits serve you is to think of their net outcomes.
- If a habit will compound into a behavior that fits your identity, it is effective.
- If a habit will compound into a behavior that betrays your identity, it is ineffective.
- Place a “+” next to effective habits, a “-” next to ineffective habits, and a “=” next to neutral habits.
These steps not only expose your current habits but also see the cues that trigger them.
Forming New Habits
There are two effective methods that can help you implement better habits into your life using the habit scorecard: implementation intention and habit stacking.
Implementation intention simply means making an advanced plan for what you will do and when you will do it. Research shows that scheduling an action or activity increases the likelihood that it will get done. Therefore, the two most common cues are time and place. Implementation intention harnesses the power of both for your benefit.
- The formula is simple: “When X occurs, I will do Y” or “At X time, I will do Y.”
Trying to create a new behavior arbitrarily requires too much effort. You have to remember what you want to do and become motivated to do it. For instance, you may say, “I will exercise more each day,” and leave it at that. But what sort of exercise will you do? When will it happen? For how long will you do it? When faced with these questions, it is easy to become overwhelmed or indecisive. When you experience these feelings, you are more likely to lose motivation.
Be as specific as possible to help you stay on track. Rather than saying, “I will exercise more each day,” describe in detail what that means. Even stating, “I will walk each day,” is too vague. Keep narrowing the action down until it’s clear.
- Change the statement to, “I will walk for 20 minutes around my block/office building/park at 2 pm.”
- When 2 pm arrives, your brain will be triggered for the action.
Specificity removes the need for inspiration or motivation to kick in. All the decisions have already been made. You just need to perform the intended action.
The point of implementation intention is to address the first law of behavior change. When you make time and place obvious, you are training your brain to create an association with those cues. After enough time, the actions will become automatic, thereby forming a new habit.
Some habits are not meant to be daily habits. For desired behavior changes that occur infrequently, try setting the first day of each week, month, or year as your cue. The first day of these time markers tend to feel like a blank slate and inspire optimism, which may help motivate you to act.
Habit stacking exploits the phenomenon of accumulating behaviors, known as the Diderot Effect, to help create new habits. This effect describes the tendency for one major purchase to lead to another and another. Behaviors follow a similar tendency because no behavior exists in a vacuum. One action triggers another and so on. Understanding this fact helps you use current habits to build new ones.
Rather than planning a new time and location for a new habit, habit stacking links a new behavior to a current one. The reward of the current habit becomes the cue for the new behavior.
- The formula is, “After I do X, I will do Y.”
- Using the walking example, rather than using 2 pm as the cue, you might use lunch as the cue. “After I finish lunch, I will walk around the block for 20 minutes.”
- You’re still creating a plan for future action, but this time, you’re linking the new behavior with an obvious behavior.
Habit stacking can also work with routines. Say you have a nightly routine as follows: You finish dinner, wash the dishes, wipe down the counters, and set the coffeemaker for the morning. If your desired identity is someone who eats healthier foods, you might implement a habit that supports that identity. Your routine might become: You finish dinner, wash the dishes, wipe down the counters, place a bowl, spoon, and box of cereal next to the coffeemaker, and set the coffeemaker for the morning.
The example of laying out the bowl, spoon, and cereal highlights an important aspect of habit stacking. The cues you wish to create must make sense for the habit to be triggered and the follow-through to be successful. You must take into account which habits fit into which routines and when.
- If you lay out your bowl and spoon before you wipe down the counters, you will be forced to move them, which may become an annoyance and hinder the action.
- If you decide to walk for 20 minutes after you finish lunch but only have a 30-minute lunch break, you’ll never successfully perform the behavior, and the habit will not form.
- If you want to start a daily habit but pair it with an infrequent habit, you will not create a proper cue for the behavior.
As with implementation intention, make the behavior you will stack and the behavior upon which it will be stacked as specific as possible to create the highest level of success.
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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of James Clear's "Atomic Habits" at Shortform .
Here's what you'll find in our full Atomic Habits summary :
- The 4 Stages of Habit Formation you can use to transform your life
- How more than half of your daily actions are automatic
- Why some habits stick and why others won't