This week I wanted to continue my deep drive into habits with Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Understanding how and what a habit is means we are more likely to change and improve it. Habits can be broken down into four stages. 

  1. Cue - this is what sets the habit in motion. Something that triggers the brain and is predicted by the reward. We are constantly scanning for cues from our environment as they mean we are close to a reward. Once the cue has been locked onto we then crave it.

  1. Craving - this is the motivation behind every habit. Without it there would be no reason to act. Craving is linked to changing your current internal state and is different for every person.

  1. Response - this is the habit itself. This could be a thought or action that is fulfilling the craving.  Interestingly enough a habit can only happen if you are capable of it. The response leads to the reward.

  1. Reward - Every habit has a goal. Fundamentally it should be satisfying the craving from stage 2 but they also teach us the habit is worth repeating again in the future. The reward completes the cycle.

The above four steps create a habit loop.

The more you repeat the ‘habit loop’ the more likely the habit will become automatic. If you miss any of the four stages of the loop then it is impossible for a habit to form. Remove the cue for example and the loop will never start. Take away the reward and why bother?

Clear refers to these four stages as the “Four Laws of Change”. When creating a good habit we want to do the following:

1st Law (Cue) - Make it obvious.

2nd Law (Craving) - Make it attractive.

3rd Law (Response) - Make it easy.

4th Law (Reward) - Make it satisfying.

To break a bad habit you need to reverse the laws.

Invert 1st Law (Cue) - Make it invisible.

Invert 2nd Law (Craving) - Make it unattractive.

Invert 3rd Law (Response) - Make it difficult.

Invert 4th Law (Reward) - Make it unsatisfying.

When you can objectively break your actions down into pieces like this it becomes easier to make changes. For example I want to play the guitar more so I moved it from the study to the lounge so it has become more obvious, thus making it more likely that I’ll pick it up and play. I decided that I was eating too much junk food during the week so I stopped keeping a supply of chips in the pantry - I removed the cue thus making it easier not to eat the junk food.

These are very basic examples but that's kind of the point. ‘Tiny changes, remarkable results’ is on the cover of his book because it really is the tiny changes that we make that cause big change later on.

Imagine if you wanted to run a marathon. The first change could be to take your gym shoes out and put them at the end of your bed so in the morning the first thing you see is the shoes. It might start with just putting them on and going for a walk around the house. That could slowly build to walking around the block - then to jogging around the block. The blocks get bigger and with each step you get closer to running that marathon.

Clear argues that the most important part of forming a habit in the above scenario is putting the shoes out the night before. We need to start with ‘gateway’ habits. He has a two-minute rule where a new habit shouldn’t take more than two minutes to complete. Say you wanted to start reading more. Picking up a book and reading one page is all you need to do. By making the start of a habit ‘easy’ we are more likely to keep doing it. All we need to do is start the ‘habit loop’. We can’t improve a habit if it doesn’t exist so starting small is the key.

Another way of starting a new habit is to tack it onto a positive habit that you already have. This is called ‘habit stacking’. For example you could read that one page of a book after you make your morning coffee. I appreciate that squeezing something new into an already ram jammed day can seem impossible but all you need is two minutes to start.

I tried somewhat successfully to get 15minutes headspace meditation into my morning before the kids got up. I started by setting my alarm 15 minutes earlier so I had time to do the exercise. This just meant the kids got up earlier. Long story short: I ended up having to buy $100 worth of fancy alarm clocks that you can set to have the ‘sun rise’ at 7am. I then bribed the kids with an ice cream on Sunday if they stayed in their rooms until the ‘sun’ came up at 7 during the week. Not quite as straightforward as I would’ve like but neither is life with a 3 and 5 year old! 

The point is you don’t have to start big. Small changes here and there will help foster good habits. Just being aware of the anatomy of a habit means you can start to see what your cues might be. Some are obvious and some are more subtle. Some have been with us our whole lives and some just seem to appear. Taking a moment to write down your habits is a great way to create awareness and see where improvements and changes can be made.

Today I’m putting my drink bottle right on my desk rather than leaving it in my bag so I drink more water. Tiny little hydrating changes! 

Video of the Week
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Emmanuelle Magnan, Founder & Creative Director, Pampa
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