Many people wish they were the type of person who wakes up early to workout each day, takes time to meditate, enjoys a healthy diet, follows a cleaning schedule–but the truth is, we all have the capability to be that person. The type of people you admire don’t have any special abilities other than that they’ve found a way to establish and sustain good habits. Although work, kids, and obligations can get in the way, you have the ability to hack your way into the habits you’ve always wanted to maintain.
With more than 4 million copies sold, James Clear’s New York Times bestseller “Atomic Habits” outlines “an easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones.” Similar to how atoms are the building blocks of molecules, Clear defines an atomic habit as a small habit that makes up a larger system. With this line of thinking, atomic habits are the way to build your way to bigger, better results. By establishing atomic habits, Clear believes these smaller gains will count for more in the long-run.
You Get What You Repeat
We’re taught to dream big and believe anything is possible, but many people become frustrated when those dreams don’t come true overnight or when nightmares wreak havoc on our journey to get there. Clear claims it’s really a two-step process. First, decide the type of person you want to be and second, prove that you can be that person with small, consistent wins.
While many of us thrive on instant gratification, Clear reinforces the idea that success is the product of daily habits overtime. Many people get stuck on where they are at in the present whereas Clear implores you to be more concerned with your trajectory.
For example, most outcomes are a lagging measure of your daily habits.
- Financial habits influence your net worth
- Eating habits influence the ability to manage your weight
- Learning habits influence your knowledge and scholastic accomplishments
Overcoming the Plateau of Latent Potential
Struggling to overcome a bad habit or maintain a good one doesn’t mean you can’t, it just signifies that you haven’t crossed what Clear calls the “Plateau of Latent Potential.”
Clear defines the Plateau of Latent Potential as “the lag time between what you think should happen and what actually happens.” When people don’t see the results they want in a timeframe they deem acceptable, they can find themselves in what Clear calls the “Valley of Disappointment.” It’s understandable to be frustrated when you put in hard work and don’t feel like it’s making an impact.
The way to overcome this plateau is to change your way of thinking. Traditionally, we think the purpose of setting a goal is to win, whereas Clear thinks of it as a way to continue playing the game. There is no single accomplishment, rather, a continuous cycle of refinement and improvement on a journey with no destination.
How to Effectively Change Your Behavior
Now, with that thinking, our habits aren’t an achievement; instead, they are part of the person you want to become.
The Four Stages of Habit
Clear claims all behavior is driven by the desire to solve a problem. For that reason, all habits go through four stages: cue, craving, response, and reward. For all the coffee lovers, the cue occurs when you wake up, the craving is that you want to feel more alert, the response is to get a cup of coffee, and the reward is that coffee becomes connected to waking up.
Clear takes these stages and turns them into a framework to build better habits called the Four Laws of Behavior Change.
1. Make it Obvious:
If you feel like you’re lacking motivation, you might need clarity on the cues that your brain uses to trigger your habits. Clear suggests using habit stacking to identify one of your current habits in order to stack a new behavior on top. For example, “After I drink coffee, I will [insert a new habit].”
2. Make it Attractive
Your new habit needs to be something you look forward to doing otherwise it will never work. For example, many coffee lovers would probably say that even the scent of coffee can make it easier to get out of bed! Habits are driven by dopamine; when dopamine influences the motivation to continue the loop that becomes a habit. In fact, Clear believes the anticipation of a reward is actually more motivating than reaching its fulfillment.
3. Make it Easy
There is a reason “work smarter, not harder” is such a popular phrase. Very few people want to do something the hard way if there’s an easier option they can choose instead. Making your habit easy reduces the friction around it and creates an environment for you to do the right thing in the future.
4. Make it Satisfying
A satisfying meal will make you crave it again and again. Using this process, the brain is able to evolve into being satisfied by immediate rewards over delayed rewards. Clear states the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change as, “What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.” Immediate success–no matter how small–is essential to sticking to a habit. While the first 3 laws of behavior change increase the odds you will perform a behavior in the present, this 4th and final law increases the odds it will be repeated in the future.
How to Fix Bad Habits
Each Law of Behavior Change can be inverted to fix bad habits: make it invisible, unattractive, difficult, and unsatisfying.
- Reduce your exposure to the cues that trigger bad habits.
- Focus on the benefits of avoiding a bad habit to make it unattractive.
- Make bad habits by making them difficult to accomplish. Commitment devices allow you to take advantage of good intentions before being confronted with temptation.
- Accountability partners can help make behaviors satisfying. Humans naturally care about what their peers think of them and don’t want to be viewed negatively.
Stay Motivated Long-Term
While many people believe their worst fear is failure, Clear believes boredom is much scarier. Think back to a time where you started a good habit, and actually kept up with it for a while…until one day you didn’t. When habits become part of your routine, they can lose their shine and intrigue and feel less satisfying. Clear reveals the harsh truth that, “professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way.” To become what Clear considers a “professional,” you must make your habit part of your identity, it’s only then that you will receive deep-rooted, natural motivation long-term.
Clear, James. “Atomic Habits.” 2018.
Van der Poel, Mike. “Why Crossing the Plateau of Latent Potential Is Essential for Success.”