19. The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and Work

the way to maintain motivation and achieve peak levels of desire is to work on tasks of “just manageable difficulty.

The human brain loves a challenge, but only if it is within an optimal zone of difficulty.

The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.


Once a habit has been established, however, it’s important to continue to advance in small ways. These little improvements and new challenges keep you engaged. And if you hit the Goldilocks Zone just right, you can achieve a flow state.

A flow state is the experience of being “in the zone” and fully immersed in an activity.
a task must be roughly 4 percent beyond your current ability.

Without variety, we get bored. And boredom is perhaps the greatest villain on the quest for self-improvement.


At some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.

we think that successful people have some bottomless reserve of passion.
But this coach was saying that really successful people feel the same lack of motivation as everyone else. The difference is that they still find a way to show up despite the feelings of boredom.

The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected.

“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.”

-- Machiavelli

Video games provide visual novelty. Porn provides sexual novelty. Junk foods provide culinary novelty. Each of these experiences offer continual elements of surprise.

The sweet spot of desire occurs at a 50/50 split between success and failure. Half of the time you get what you want. Half of the time you don’t.

Of course, not all habits have a variable reward component, and you wouldn’t want them to. If Google only delivered a useful search result some of the time, I would switch to a competitor pretty quickly.

if you only do the work when it’s convenient or exciting, then you’ll never be consistent enough to achieve remarkable results.

I can guarantee that if you manage to start a habit and keep sticking to it, there will be days when you feel like quitting.
But stepping up when it’s annoying or painful or draining to do so, that’s what makes the difference between a professional and an amateur.

Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.

The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.

Chapter Summary

20. The Downside of Creating Good Habits

When you can do it “good enough” on autopilot, you stop thinking about how to do it better.

The upside of habits is that we can do things without thinking. The downside of habits is that you get used to doing things a certain way and stop paying attention to little errors. You assume you’re getting better because you’re gaining experience. In reality, you are merely reinforcing your current habits—not improving them.
In fact, some research has shown that once a skill has been mastered there is usually a slight decline in performance over time.

Habits are necessary, but not sufficient for mastery. What you need is a combination of automatic habits and deliberate practice.

Mastery is the process of narrowing your focus to a tiny element of success, repeating it until you have internalized the skill, and then using this new habit as the foundation to advance to the next frontier of your development.

Old tasks become easier the second time around, but it doesn’t get easier overall because now you’re pouring your energy into the next challenge. Each habit unlocks the next level of performance. It’s an endless cycle.

Although habits are powerful, what you need is a way to remain conscious of your performance over time, so you can continue to refine and improve.


After determining a player’s baseline level of performance, Riley added a key step. He asked each player to “improve their output by at least 1 percent over the course of the season.

“Sustaining an effort is the most important thing for any enterprise. The way to be successful is to learn how to do things right, then do them the same way every time.”

As an example, let’s say that Magic Johnson—the Lakers star player at the time—had 11 points, 8 rebounds, 12 assists, 2 steals, and 5 turnovers in a game. Magic also got credit for an “unsung hero” deed by diving after a loose ball (+1). Finally, he played a total of 33 minutes in this imaginary game.
The positive numbers (11 + 8 + 12 + 2 + 1) add up to 34. Then, we subtract the 5 turnovers (34–5) to get 29. Finally, we divide 29 by 33 minutes played.
29/33 = 0.879

Magic’s CBE number here would be 879. This number was calculated for all of a player’s games, and it was the average CBE that a player was asked to improve by 1 percent over the season.

The CBE program is a prime example of the power of reflection and review. The Lakers were already talented. CBE helped them get the most out of what they had, and made sure their habits improved rather than declined.

Reflection and review enables the long-term improvement of all habits because it makes you aware of your mistakes and helps you consider possible paths for improvement. Without reflection, we can make excuses, create rationalizations, and lie to ourselves. We have no process for determining whether we are performing better or worse compared to yesterday.

Top performers in all fields engage in various types of reflection and review.

Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge is one of the greatest marathoners of all time and an Olympic gold medalist. He still takes notes after every practice in which he reviews his training for the day and searches for areas that can be improved.
Similarly, gold medal swimmer Katie Ledecky records her wellness on a scale of 1 to 10 and includes notes on her nutrition and how well she slept.

I know of executives and investors who keep a “decision journal” in which they record the major decisions they make each week, why they made them, and what they expect the outcome to be. They review their choices at the end of each month or year to see where they were correct and where they went wrong.

Improvement is not just about learning habits, it’s also about fine-tuning them. Reflection and review ensures that you spend your time on the right things and make course corrections whenever necessary.
You don’t want to keep practicing a habit if it becomes ineffective.

a time to revisit my core values and consider whether I have been living in accordance with them. This is when I reflect on my identity and how I can work toward being the type of person I wish to become.

These two reports don’t take very long—just a few hours per year—but they are crucial periods of refinement. They prevent the gradual slide that happens when I don’t pay close attention.
They provide an annual reminder to revisit my desired identity and consider how my habits are helping me become the type of person I wish to be. They indicate when I should upgrade my habits and take on new challenges and when I should dial my efforts back and focus on the fundamentals.

You can see every imperfection and lose sight of the bigger picture. There is too much feedback. Conversely, never reviewing your habits is like never looking in the mirror.

There is too little feedback. Periodic reflection and review is like viewing yourself in the mirror from a conversational distance. You can see the important changes you should make without losing sight of the bigger picture. You want to view the entire mountain range, not obsess over each peak and valley.

Finally, reflection and review offers an ideal time to revisit one of the most important aspects of behavior change: identity.


When working against you, your identity creates a kind of “pride” that encourages you to deny your weak spots and prevents you from truly growing. This is one of the greatest downsides of building habits.

The more sacred an idea is to us—that is, the more deeply it is tied to our identity—the more strongly we will defend it against criticism.
The tighter we cling to an identity, the harder it becomes to grow beyond it.

“keep your identity small.”

-- Paul Graham

The more you let a single belief define you, the less capable you are of adapting when life challenges 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.

For most of my young life, being an athlete was a major part of my identity. After my baseball career ended, I struggled to find myself. When you spend your whole life defining yourself in one way and that disappears, who are you now?

The key to mitigating these losses of identity is to redefine yourself such that you get to keep important aspects of your identity even if your particular role changes.

When chosen effectively, an identity can be flexible rather than brittle. Like water flowing around an obstacle, your identity works with the changing circumstances rather than against them.

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

-- Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching)

Everything is impermanent. Life is constantly changing, so you need to periodically check in to see if your old habits and beliefs are still serving you.

A lack of self-awareness is poison. Reflection and review is the antidote.

Chapter Summary

Conclusion: The Secret to Results That Last

Can one coin make a person rich? If you give a person a pile of ten coins, you wouldn’t claim that he or she is rich. But what if you add another? And another? And another? At some point, you will have to admit that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him or her so.

We can say the same about atomic habits. Can one tiny change transform your life? It’s unlikely you would say so. But what if you made another? And another? And another? At some point, you will have to admit that your life was transformed by one small change.

The holy grail of habit change is not a single 1 percent improvement, but a thousand of them. It’s a bunch of atomic habits stacking up, each one a fundamental unit of the overall system.

a commitment to tiny, sustainable, unrelenting improvements.

Success is not a goal to reach or a finish line to cross. It is a system to improve, an endless process to refine.

Good habits Bad habits
Obvious Invisible
Attractive Unattractive
Easy Hard
Satisfying Unstatisfying

You want to push your good habits toward the left side.
Meanwhile, you want to cluster your bad habits toward the right side.

Make it obvious. Make it attractive. Make it easy. Make it satisfying. Round and round. Always looking for the next way to get 1 percent better.

The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It’s remarkable what you can build if you just don’t stop. It’s remarkable the business you can build if you don’t stop working. It’s remarkable the body you can build if you don’t stop training. It’s remarkable the knowledge you can build if you don’t stop learning. It’s remarkable the fortune you can build if you don’t stop saving. It’s remarkable the friendships you can build if you don’t stop caring. Small habits don’t add up. They compound.

That’s the power of atomic habits. Tiny changes. Remarkable results.


Little Lessons from the Four Laws

Awareness comes before desire

A craving is created when you assign meaning to a cue. Your brain constructs an emotion or feeling to describe your current situation, and that means a craving can only occur after you have noticed an opportunity.

Happiness is simply the absence of desire

When you observe a cue, but do not desire to change your state, you are content with the current situation. Happiness is not about the achievement of pleasure (which is joy or satisfaction), but about the lack of desire. It arrives when you have no urge to feel differently. Happiness is the state you enter when you no longer want to change your state.

However, happiness is fleeting because a new desire always comes along.

“Happiness is the space between one desire being fulfilled and a new desire forming.”

-- Caed Budris

Likewise, suffering is the space between craving a change in state and getting it.

It is the idea of pleasure that we chase

We seek the image of pleasure that we generate in our minds. At the time of action, we do not know what it will be like to attain that image.
The feeling of satisfaction only comes afterward.

happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. Desire is pursued. Pleasure ensues from action.

Peace occurs when you don’t turn your observations into problems

The first step in any behavior is observation. You notice a cue, a bit of information, an event. If you do not desire to act on what you observe, then you are at peace.

Craving is about wanting to fix everything. Observation without craving is the realization that you do not need to fix anything. Your desires are not running rampant. You do not crave a change in state. Your mind does not generate a problem for you to solve. You’re simply observing and existing.

With a big enough why you can overcome any how

If your motivation and desire are great enough (that is, why are you are acting), you’ll take action even when it is quite difficult. Great craving can power great action—even when friction is high.

Being curious is better than being smart

Being motivated and curious counts for more than being smart because it leads to action. Being smart will never deliver results on its own because it doesn’t get you to act. It is desire, not intelligence, that prompts behavior.

“The trick to doing anything is first cultivating a desire for it.”

-- Naval Ravikant

Emotions drive behavior

Every decision is an emotional decision at some level. Whatever your logical reasons are for taking action, you only feel compelled to act on them because of emotion. In fact, people with damage to emotional centers of the brain can list many reasons for taking action but still will not act because they do not have emotions to drive them. This is why craving comes before response. The feeling comes first, and then the behavior.

We can only be rational and logical after we have been emotional

The primary mode of the brain is to feel; the secondary mode is to think. Our first response—the fast, nonconscious portion of the brain—is optimized for feeling and anticipating. Our second response—the slow, conscious portion of the brain—is the part that does the “thinking.”

Psychologists refer to this as System 1 (feelings and rapid judgments) versus System 2 (rational analysis). The feeling comes first (System 1); the rationality only intervenes later (System 2). This works great when the two are aligned, but it results in illogical and emotional thinking when they are not.

Your response tends to follow your emotions

Our thoughts and actions are rooted in what we find attractive, not necessarily in what is logical. Two people can notice the same set of facts and respond very differently because they run those facts through their unique emotional filter. This is one reason why appealing to emotion is typically more powerful than appealing to reason. If a topic makes someone feel emotional, they will rarely be interested in the data. This is why emotions can be such a threat to wise decision making.

Put another way: most people believe that the reasonable response is the one that benefits them: the one that satisfies their desires. To approach a situation from a more neutral emotional position allows you to base your response on the data rather than the emotion.

Suffering drives progress

The source of all suffering is the desire for a change in state. This is also the source of all progress. The desire to change your state is what powers you to take action. It is wanting more that pushes humanity to seek improvements, develop new technologies, and reach for a higher level. With craving, we are dissatisfied but driven. Without craving, we are satisfied but lack ambition.

Your actions reveal how badly you want something

If you keep saying something is a priority but you never act on it, then you don’t really want it. It’s time to have an honest conversation with yourself. Your actions reveal your true motivations.

Reward is on the other side of sacrifice

Response (sacrifice of energy) always precedes reward (the collection of resources). The “runner’s high” only comes after the hard run. The reward only comes after the energy is spent.

Self-control is difficult because it is not satisfying

A reward is an outcome that satisfies your craving. This makes self-control ineffective because inhibiting our desires does not usually resolve them. Resisting temptation does not satisfy your craving; it just ignores it. It creates space for the craving to pass. Self-control requires you to release a desire rather than satisfy it.

Our expectations determine our satisfaction

The gap between our cravings and our rewards determines how satisfied we feel after taking action. If the mismatch between expectations and outcomes is positive (surprise and delight), then we are more likely to repeat a behavior in the future. If the mismatch is negative (disappointment and frustration), then we are less likely to do so.

For example, if you expect to get $10 and get $100, you feel great. If you expect to get $100 and get $10, you feel disappointed. Your expectation changes your satisfaction.

Satisfaction = Liking – Wanting

“Being poor is not having too little, it is wanting more.”

-- Seneca

When I first began sharing my writing publicly it took me three months to get one thousand subscribers. When I hit that milestone, I told my parents and my girlfriend. We celebrated. I felt excited and motivated. A few years later, I realized that one thousand people were signing up each day. And yet I didn’t even think to tell anyone. It felt normal.
I was getting results ninety times faster than before but experiencing little pleasure over it.

The pain of failure correlates to the height of expectation

When desire is high, it hurts to not like the outcome. Failing to attain something you want hurts more than failing to attain something you didn’t think much about in the first place.

Feelings come both before and after the behavior

Before acting, there is a feeling that motivates you to act—the craving. After acting, there is a feeling that teaches you to repeat the action in the future—the reward.

Cue > Craving (Feeling) > Response > Reward (Feeling)

How we feel influences how we act, and how we act influences how we feel.

Desire initiates. Pleasure sustains

Wanting and liking are the two drivers of behavior.

if it’s not enjoyable, you have no reason to repeat it. Pleasure and satisfaction are what sustain a behavior. Feeling motivated gets you to act. Feeling successful gets you to repeat.

Hope declines with experience and is replaced by acceptance

The first time an opportunity arises, there is hope of what could be.
The second time around, your expectation is grounded in reality.

This is one reason why we continually grasp for the latest get-rich-quick or weight-loss scheme.
New plans offer hope because we don’t have any experiences to ground our expectations.
New strategies seem more appealing than old ones because they can have unbounded hope.

“Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope.”

-- Aristotle

Youth is easily deceived because it only hopes.

How to Apply These Ideas to Business

  1. Cue: Make it obvious.
  2. Craving: Make it attractive.
  3. Response: Make it easy.
  4. Reward: Make it satisfying.

In business, these same principles can be used to create more effective products and to help employees establish more effective habits.


The 1st Law of Behavior Change is to make it obvious.

This is one reason why advertising often feels intrusive. Many ads are loud, bright, glaring, and eye-catching—even if they are gaudy—because they are trying to be as obvious as possible.

companies often appear to be in a race to the bottom to grab your attention and the app who interrupts you the most wins.

At the casino there are no windows, very few distractions, and nothing but slot machines surrounding each player.
It’s very easy to get into “the zone” and continue playing because distractions are invisible and the desired behavior is obvious.

Businesses can utilize the 1st Law of Behavior Change in many ways. Put your most profitable product in the front of the store or in the most visible locations.

The most obvious cue is often the one that captures your attention. And the cue that gets your attention is the one that can initiate a habit.


The 2nd Law of Behavior Change is to make it attractive.

Once it's in an obvious location, you need the image it creates in the customer’s mind to be attractive.

The customer does not buy your product; they buy the prediction it creates in their mind.

It becomes very attractive to spend money on Amazon because customers are always seeing what is relevant to them.

“60% of millionaires read one book every day. With our new product, you can too.”
“75% of people in your neighborhood are paying less than you on their energy bill. Click here and learn how to not
miss out on these savings.”


The 3rd Law of Behavior Change is to make it easy.

Imagine the first ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft. When they were launching, they could have mapped out the chain of behaviors a customer had to perform to get a ride across town: walk outside, wait for a taxi to pass on the street, get in, ride across town, arrive at destination, pull out a credit card or cash, pay for the ride, put the credit card (or any change) back in their purse or wallet, get out of the car, etc.

Then, the company could look at each stage and ask themselves how they could reduce the friction associated with the task (or eliminate that step entirely):
How can we make it easier to walk outside? What if users could download an app that would summon a car from their phone and didn’t have to walk outside at all?
How can we make it easier to wait for the ride? What if we told users how long it would be until a ride arrived?
How can we make it easier to get in the car? No change.
How can we make it easier to ride across town? Rather than leave it up to the driver’s memory, we could display the route on the users phone and the driver’s phone. Now the user can make suggestions if they want to go a different way and the driver can rely on the GPS for up-to-date information and routing.
How can we make it easier to pay for the ride? We already have an app on the user’s phone. What if we asked users to upload their credit card information? Then, they could pay automatically and just exit the car once they arrive.

“Business is a never-ending quest to deliver the same result in an easier fashion.”

Amazon is continually looking to give customers what they want in an easier, faster, and more convenient fashion: Get it shipped. Get it shipped free. Get it shipped free in two days. Get it shipped free in two hours. Get it right now while you wait for us to ship it to you free in two days.


The 4th Law of Behavior Change is to make it satisfying.

if it feels good and has a satisfying ending—then we have a reason to repeat it in the future.

“The first three laws of behavior change—make it obvious, make it attractive, and make it easy—increase the odds that a behavior will be performed this time. The fourth law of behavior change—make it satisfying—increases the odds that a behavior will be repeated next time. It completes the habit loop.”

The danger of making too big a promise is that you’ll get people to buy once, but they won’t have a reason to buy again. Think: massive discounts that aren’t followed with great experiences or the sales team making a promise that the product team can’t deliver on. Huge expectations might trigger a single sale, but you’ll never create a buying habit.

car manufacturers have begun to add fake engine noise to their cars and trucks to create a satisfying growl when the owner punches the accelerator.

Behaviors that make you feel good—that is, behaviors that are followed by an immediate sense of satisfaction or praise or encouragement or pleasure—are exactly the kind of behaviors you want to repeat in the future.


Casino example:

Make It Obvious:

Slot machines are extremely profitable and casinos know it. That’s why the first thing they do is make them obvious: slot machines outnumber table games 100-to-1 in nearly every casino.

Make It Attractive:

Many electronic slot machines strategically employ the near-miss effect to create a false sense of reward. A near-miss occurs when the winning symbol appears just above or below the payline. Imagine tapping the spin button, watching the wheels rotate, and seeing two cherries line up—but the third cherry narrowly misses. You almost won the jackpot.

That “almost” feeling tricks your brain into predicting the reward is now closer than before. With a little more work, you might be able to get it. After a near-miss, the reward system in your brain will light up with anticipation. Many machines are intentionally programmed to deliver near-misses more frequently than would arise by pure chance. By teasing a jackpot, the designers make the game more engaging, but they are also deceiving users by making them feel like a win is closer even though the odds of winning are no better than before.

Make It Easy:

The entire experience of playing slots is designed to be easy. The chairs are comfortable enough to sit in for hours. Most machines don’t even require you to pull a lever anymore. Playing another round is as simple as pressing the SPIN button. When you run out of money, casinos make it as easy as possible to get more. Many slot machines allow you to pay directly from your seat. ATMs are always easy to access, and cash advance and debit withdrawal options are available when your account is empty.

Make It Satisfying:

The only unsatisfying part of the experience is losing money, and slot machines are designed to hide this as best as possible. They make it difficult to tell how much money you are spending.

The traditional slot machine is just a lever and one wheel, but electronic slot machines allow users to play multiple wheels at the same time. Imagine a screen with one hundred tiny slot machine wheels spinning at once. Each time you press the spin button, you bet one hundred pennies—one per wheel. Say you win on thirty wheels during this particular turn. The machine will highlight your thirty wins. Flashing lights go off in celebration and the machine plays the sound of coins clinking into the dish. It feels as if you won thirty cents, but you really lost seventy cents. The machine frames a loss as a win.


Social norms are one of the most powerful forces influencing human behavior. The more you can use social proof to show potential customers that “people like you use our product,” the greater likelihood you have in altering someone’s behavior.

This is not a one-time process. Achieving worldwide distribution makes Coca-Cola obvious. Adding sugar without calories makes the product more attractive to dieters. And so on. Round and round, always looking for areas of improvement.

How to Apply These Ideas to Parenting

When applied to parenting, these same principles can be used to help children and families establish more effective habits.

Most people read Atomic Habits with the intention of working on their own habits. But when you’re considering how to apply the ideas to your children, you’re now shaping someone else’s habits


Kindergarten classrooms are designed to make it very obvious where things go and what to do with them. According to Morgenstern, there are five primary features:

  1. Room is divided into activity zones.
  2. It’s easy to focus on one activity at a time.
  3. Items are stored at their point of use.
  4. It’s fun to put things away—everything has a home.
  5. Visual menu of everything that’s important.

For example, if a child is assigned to the Blue Reading Group, then their books go in the blue bin, they sit at the blue table, and so on. In other words, this method makes it very obvious what to do and where to do it.

After I walk in the door from school, I will take my homework out of my backpack and place it on the table.


The 2nd Law of Behavior Change is to make it attractive. This law is connected to the craving.

Interestingly, one of the best ways to motivate your children to act a certain way is to act that way yourself. Humans are master imitators

we imitate three groups: (1) the close, (2) the many, and (3) the powerful. In children’s eyes, parents are both close and powerful (authority figures), so they often mimic the habits and routines of their parents

As children grow up, the social influence of their parents tends to decrease, and the social influence of their peers tends to increase.

Two of the biggest influences parents have on their children over time are (1) the genes they pass along to their kids and (2) the social environments they select for their kids.

You can choose which neighborhood you live in, which school you send them to, which extracurricular activities you expose them to, and more… and these environments are where they meet their peers.

To put it in a simple sentence: If you want your kids to find certain habits attractive, put them in environments and groups where their peers will also be doing those habits. Join a group where the desired behavior is the normal behavior.

So, when he says, “No, I don’t want to put my PJ’s on,” stay calm. “Oh, I hear you. You don’t want to put on your PJ’s. What would you like to wear to bed?” Or maybe, “Which of these (2) PJ’s will you wear?” Or “I hear you don’t want to put on your PJ’s. Perfectly understandable. But we won’t have time for a book if you can’t get them on in the next five minutes.” Or “Would you like to put these on now, or in five minutes?” The key is to continue to encourage his autonomy and give him options so that he doesn’t feel bossed around. Be effortlessly in charge. Totally unthreatened.

It’s similar to being told to read a book for English class versus choosing to read the book yourself. The same habit can go from unattractive to attractive depending on who is in control.


“The idea behind make it easy is not to only do easy things. The idea is to make it as easy as possible in the moment to do things that payoff in the long run.”

Many parents commit an error by making life too easy on their kids: they write papers for them, have tough conversations with coaches and teachers for them, and otherwise intervene whenever a problem or challenge arises. This might “make it easy” in the moment, but it violates the message I just shared above. Such hand-holding does not make it easy for your child to the things that payoff in the long-run.

Rather than doing the work for your child, you can make it easy for them to do the work themselves. For example, you can set up your child’s homework environment for success. Make sure they have a quiet place with pens, pencils, and paper and a room that is relatively free from distractions.

While I was in high school, a family of four brothers was attending at the same time. I remember the day I found out they didn’t have a single television in their home. I was stunned. When I think back on that memory today, it is very unsurprising to me that all four brothers were extremely intelligent, very well-read, and attended wonderful colleges. From a very early age, they learned to love books. While the rest of us were playing video games and watching ESPN, they were reading.


praise is naturally satisfying, and parents are in a perfect position to offer it. Every child enjoys being praised by their parents for a job well done. Of course, this is opposite of what many parents do. So often, parents criticize the very behavior they are hoping their children will exhibit

Praise the good, ignore the bad.