Building Good Habits and Breaking Bad Ones
If you’ve already started to struggle with keeping your New Year’s resolutions, author James Clear is here to help. His new book, Atomic Habits, provides a proven framework for making progress by taking small steps toward your ultimate objective every day.
Below he shares his strategies for building better habits. He also explains why peer pressure is an important contributor to success.
What, exactly, are “atomic habits?”
I used the word “atomic” in the title for three reasons. First, my core philosophy is that habit forming should be done in small, easy-to-do steps, like atoms. Second, habits are like the atoms of our lives. They are little routines you repeat each day that when put together end up in the system of our daily routine, just like atoms build into molecules and become part of something bigger. And, finally, “atomic” means something that is a source of immense energy or power. When you combine all three of these reasons, you understand the narrative arc of the book, which is that if you make small changes and layer them on top of each other like units in a larger system, you can end up with some really powerful results.
You recommend a four-step process for forming new habits: cue, craving, response and reward. Please explain.
“Cue” refers to the fact that you must first find something that attracts your attention. Often this is something visual, like spotting a plate of cookies that prompts a certain behavior. “Craving” is about how you interpret that cue. For instance, two people could walk into a room of people smoking and interpret that very differently depending on whether they like cigarettes. “Response” refers to the action you take. The simpler the required action, the more likely you are to act. And “reward” is basically the payoff for the behavior. It could also be the consequence on the other end. In fact, this is a cardinal rule of behavioral change. Behaviors that get rewarded get repeated.
What’s the best way to keep a New Year’s resolution, be it to eat better or exercise more?
The first thing is to use what I call the two-minute rule. Basically, you take whatever habit you’re trying to build and scale it down to just two minutes or less, at least in the beginning. So if your habit is to read one book a month, start by reading one page. If it’s to do yoga four days a week, begin by taking out the yoga mat. I like to say you should standardize before you optimize. If you want to start running for 15 minutes a day, you could initially just lace up your shoes and walk out the door. The idea is to scale your habits down so they take two minutes or less.
How do you get from taking out the mat to actually doing the yoga, though?
I call the two-minute habit an entrance ramp to the highway. If you just get started, it tends to then flow on its own. For instance, I have a friend who is a writer. His daily habit is to write one sentence. But most days, one sentence leads to two and then to a couple of pages. But even on bad days, he at least gets that single sentence out. Just as important, you need to prime your environment to make good habits easier and bad habits harder. When I wanted to build the habit of flossing, I realized I wasn’t doing it because the floss was tucked away in the bathroom drawer. Once I put it next to the toothbrush, I picked it up all the time. Or let’s flip it around and say you want to spend less time watching TV. Start by redesigning your room so that all the chairs face away from the television. Perhaps you can put a coffee table with books in front of the sofa instead of the remote control. Or unplug the TV altogether, which makes it even harder to get it back on.
Most people set goals for forming new habits. But you recommend focusing on systems rather than goals.
I’m a big believer that the system, not the goal, should lead the way. Goals are the outcomes you want to achieve. Systems lead the way. For instance, if you’re a basketball coach, your goal might be to win the championship. Your system is the way you recruit players and assistant coaches, the drills you do at practice, the way you review game film and so forth. Every sports team wants to win, but those that focus on the best process and system first and foremost usually accomplish
What’s the role of family and friends in helping one to build new habits?
I found through my research that the social environment is even more influential than I first thought. All humans are wired to want to belong. Our ancestors lived in tribes, and if you were abandoned by the tribe, that was a death sentence. We still have this primal urge, which also translates into forming habits. If you move to a new area and see all of your neighbors recycling, you’re far more likely to start recycling yourself. Or when you walk onto an elevator and everyone is facing front, you’ll start to do the same. The core lesson is that when habits go along with the expectations of the tribe they are seen as more attractive. The practical application is that one way to keep on a habit is to join a tribe where it is seen as normal behavior.
While your two-minute rule seems pretty reasonable, procrastination may make it hard for some to even do that. Any suggestions for getting over this?
We procrastinate for as long as the pain of not doing something is less than the pain of doing it. I recommend trying to recalibrate by using what psychologists call a commitment device. For instance, let’s say you want to start running every morning. But you know you’ll wake up, it will be cold outside and you’ll want to stay tucked in your warm bed. You can implement a commitment device by texting a friend and telling them to meet you in the park at 6 a.m. Suddenly, you’ve changed the equation because even though it’s still cold out and you don’t want to get up, you know you’ll be in trouble if you strand your friend at the park, and that will motivate you to go.
The above article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine.