How to Create an Atomic Chess Habit (with Examples)

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James Clear dissected habits in his best-selling book Atomic Habits. He explained how to form and sustain good habits as well as break bad habits.

Habit Loop

James Clear uses the habit loop framework to describe how habits work. It looks like this.

Atomic Habit Loop
The habit loop from jamesclear.com

We can see how these four factors build off one another to form long-lasting habits. James Clear’s Four Laws of Behavior Change take the feedback loop and break it down like so.

  1. Cue – Make it Obvious.
  2. Craving- Make it Attractive.
  3. Response – Make it Easy.
  4. Reward – Make it Satisfying.

Let’s use this framework to create a habit of chess study.

Cue

The cue is the trigger that kicks off the habit. An affective cue kicks off the whole habit to make everything automatic. A habit cue to turn off the light is leaving a room. A cue to unplug the toaster is your everything bagel popping up.

Remember, the cue only gets you started. The cue only reminds you of your habit. The purpose of the habit cue is to make it obvious. James Clear identifies 5 ways to trigger a habit.

Time

Time is an extremely powerful trigger. Maybe you simply set an alarm for 8:00 pm every night. When the alarm goes off it is time to get a chess board out, open a book or do tactics.

Location

desk study space

Instead of time, you can use a physical location to kick your habit into gear. If you want to study habits at night your trigger could be your couch or sofa. Once you sit down to relax after work or dinner, this physical location can act as a habit cue.

Location (i.e. environment) is the most powerful driver of mindless habits and also the least recognized. In many cases, our habits and behaviors are simply a response to the environment that surrounds us. 

James Clear

Preceding Event

A “preceding event” is simply an event that happened that could trigger a new habit. I have three kids and my main opportunity for studying chess is when they’re all in bed. A trigger I could use is the closing their door at night. They are in bed, the door closes, and it is time to study. Other nighttime examples of this may be starting the dishwasher, closing the fridge, or shutting down your computer for the night.

Emotional State

Emotions are positive triggers for negative events. You are tired from a long day and you are triggered to eat ice cream. You are are feeling bored so you habitually check social media. It’s hard to leverage emotional state for positive habit formation.

Other People

Surround yourself with people who have habits you want to emulate. If you want to improve and study chess join a chess club. If there are no chess clubs in your area, join an online club. I highly recommend joining ChessGoals :). Our discord keeps me motivated to learn and improve every day.

Craving

The purpose of the craving in the habit loop is to make your habit attractive. An idea in the book is to pair an activity you want to do with an activity you need to do. An example is only watching your favorite show (something you want to do) when you exercise (something you need to do).

This is more difficult with chess study, as it requires so much attention.

If you’re a tea drinker, only drink tea while you play chess. Maybe you enjoy a fine scotch — only drink this scotch while you study chess (though you may not get as much out of your chess study). Find something that works for you.

Response

The response is all about making the habit easy.

At this point we’ve cued the habit and made it desirable. Will we follow through?

What does it mean to be easy? We want to remove all barriers to make it as easy as possible to sit down and study chess. It is a hassle to dig out your chess set from the basement, find a chess book from your bookshelf, find the page you left off on and get to work. It’s much easier to simply sit down and begin.

Make It Easy

Have the board set up and ready to go. Have the book you’re studying open to the page you want to continue studying. Better yet- set up the next position in the book after your previous study session. This way, you can sit down and begin. There is no cognitive overhead, your decisions are already made and you can simply sit down and study.

Make Distractions Invisible

If you’re like me, I get distracted by my TV, computer, phone and books. To avoid being distracted, move these things far away from your chess study environment.

Unplug your TV. Leave your computer downstairs. Do not let little things get in the way of forming your chess study habit.

Reward

chocolate reward

Boom. You did it. You finished your study session. What next?

The reward is all about making it satisfying. You should reward yourself for a job well done. Have some chocolate, have a beer, or read a great book.

Giving yourself an immediate reward will further trigger your brain to continue wanting to do this habit. The reward closes the habit loop.

Example 1: Study from a physical chess board

Habit: Study chess from a book on a physical board for 1 hour every night.

Cues:
Time: When the dishes are put away for the night
Location: Sitting at the same table with your chess board and book
Preceding Event: You just started the dishwasher
Craving:
You’re drinking your favorite peppermint tea, which you’re only allowed to drink when you study chess.
Response:
Your board is already set up to the position you want to study. Your chess book is open to the correct page. Your notebook is open and a pen is nearby. All you have to do is sit down.
Reward:
When you’re finished you get a glass of wine.

Example 2: Review openings during lunch

Habit: Study openings on your phone during lunch

Cues:
Time: Lunch time every day.
Location: Cafeteria at work.
Preceding Event: You just locked your work computer
Emotional State: You’re happy because you’re on break from work.
Craving:
You only get to go on break from work when review openings on your phone.
Response:
Make sure your openings are ready to review. You shouldn’t have to log in or wait for anything to load. You should be able to pick up your phone and begin reviewing immediately.
Reward:
When you’re finished you go for a walk outside before returning to work.

Conclusion

Forming and sustaining a habit of studying chess will boost your rating better than any other habit. Use the framework described in James Clear’s bestseller Atomic Habits to learn the best way build this habit.

Focus on the system, not the result.

James Clear