Habits are a funny thing. Some of us love following routines, others hate them. And have you ever felt that it’s almost impossible to break a bad habit? The reality is that it’s really not easy to break old habits and create new, better ones.
Which is why ‘Atomic habits’ by James Clear really resonated with us. A lot of our work is about changing habits. Whether that’s the workforce of a 10,000 + organisation or getting consumers to choose a new or different product. We all know the proverbial old dog that can’t be taught new tricks… or can it?
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. I’m just going to leave this sentence hanging there a bit and let you google ‘compound’. The main reason to pay attention to habits (whether you like them or not) is that well, first of all, we all have habits. Some of them are so deeply ingrained in us that we aren’t even aware they exist. Having to change and move, is probably one of our habits. But many of us aren’t even aware of the habits we’ve acquired over time. They are automated. We probably brush our teeth a certain way, make coffee and have some toast every morning. But the reason why it’s so crucial to understanding habits is that they set us on a trajectory. And that trajectory is either one of success or failure. Having too much to drink every day or taking the stairs every day might not seem like a big deal at the time but habits accumulate over time. Habits define us.
In fact research suggests that if you improve by just 1 percent each day, you’ll end up with results nearly 37 times better after one year. Atomic Habits, James Clear, p. 16
Habits define who we are, how we are perceived by our friends and family and whether we ultimately succeed at what is important to us. What was particularly interesting is that habits are intrinsically linked to your identity. They can define us in either a positive or negative way, for instance, if you believe you’re rubbish at maths or you think of yourself as a smoker it can be very difficult to change your behaviour. It’s only once we embrace who we want to be (rather than who think we are) that we are primed to make some serious changes when it comes to habits.
The personal aspect of habits aside, habits are incredibly important in marketing and communication. Richard Shotton has a lot to say on the topic of habits, because every time you’re trying to introduce a new product or trying to get someone to buy your product instead of a competitor, or if you’re trying to teach your colleagues new tricks you are essentially trying to change their behaviour (or their habits). Now, this can be much more difficult than you think. There are a number of conditions or occasions when this is easier: when you undergo significant changes in your life (move house, have your first baby, change jobs, turn something with a 9) you are much more receptive to form a new habit. Interestingly, the second time round it’s very difficult to change your mind. So all the advice you were open to when you were having your first child… when number two comes along you probably think you know better and will ignore much of any new advice given.
The reason why it’s easier to change habits in a new environment is that you are disrupted already so you are more open to something new (or you want change because you’re entering a new decade, some very interesting stats on that topic if you do some research).
This might seem like an odd question to ask half way through this article, but to change habits it’s important to really understand how they work.
Habits are essentially shortcuts based on experience.
Once you have found a good solution to a problem, the next time you encounter the same or very similar problem you will most likely attempt to solve the same problem in the same way, thus starting to form a habit. Repeat this a number a times and voilà… The longer and more often you repeat that action the more engrained and automated it will become. There are however a number of key stages or pattern that are important to understand.
James Clear identifies a simple four-step pattern as the backbone of every habit (it’s a variation of the more commonly known three step process of ‘cue, routine, reward’ defined by Charles Duhigg in ‘The Power of Habit’):
The addition of craving might seem like a subtle change but is a crucial one. One of the reasons why habits have such a force over us is, is because ‘desire’ in our brains has a lot more weight than ‘liking’ something. A gambler gets a dopamine hit before placing the bet, not after winning. You can see why it can be so difficult to break bad habits then. Understanding these four stages also leads us to the four laws of behaviour change which can help you to ditch old habits and create new better ones.
So, now that we discussed the backbone of each habit the four laws of behaviour change as suggested by James Clear make a lot of sense.
If you’re trying to create a new habit you have to:
If you’re trying to get rid of a bad habit you need to do… you’ve guessed do the opposite:
So what does that mean though? Each of those four steps is discussed in length in James Clear’s book, but in case you don’t have time to read 200+ pages on the topic here’s a short summary of each step.
Making it obvious (or invisible) is all about your environment. Research shows over and over again that the where and when matters. If water bottles are on display everywhere in your canteen you’re more likely to buy water rather than a can of coke. If your guitar is in the middle of your lounge room, you’re more likely to play it… you get the drift. This is where environmental design becomes crucial. If you want to start something then make it very easy for yourself to do. Put out your gym clothes the night before, put your pen and paper on your desk if you’re trying to write more, and so on. Timing is also important. Something that gets recommended by James over and over again is called habit stacking. That means stacking a new habit onto an existing one. Ie: Floss after you brush your teeth – the more specific and obvious you are with the ‘when and where’ of your new habit the more likely the new habit is going to stick.
Adversely if you want to stop doing something, your environment matters just as much. It’s one of the key reasons why drug addicts often fail when they return from rehab. If they come home and are exposed to the same cues and cravings triggered by the same company… they are more likely to get back to the same old habits.
This is where ‘cravings’ come into their own. According to James Clear it is anticipation of a reward – not the fulfilment of it – that gets us to take action. This sounds a bit scary the more you reflect on it, but essentially if you really really want something, you’re going to work for it to get that dopamine hit. There are some anecdotal examples how you can use this to your advantage: need to work out more? One electrical engineering student for instance hooked up his TV to his bike, so he can only watch Netflix when he was cycling at a certain speed. This might be an extreme example and if you’re anything like me you’re not going to be hooking up your TV to an exercise bike any time soon, but one way to make it work for you is to do something called temptation bundling. Temptation bundling means that you only do an action that you want to do with an action that you have to do. Don’t like making that call? Do it before you get that cup of coffee you really love to have at 11am. Or watch your favourite show whilst at the gym. Think about the things you really like to do – your very own guilty pleasures and think about how you could turn them to your advantage by bundling them with something that you have to do but don’t like to do.
There’s another interesting aspect to this and that’s the people around you. We are social animals, so if the people around us like or dislike something we’re most likely to follow suit. Here’s a funny video that shows you how far this can go.
So part of making something attractive or unattractive is to surround us with the right crowd that reinforces the behaviour we want to display. Reversely, being around people who bring out the worst in us… well, you’re grown up enough to know how to handle it.
Are you one of those people that like to overthink, procrastinate and make sure everything is perfect? Well, then this one is for you. Turns out a good habit is not about quality, it’s about quantity. Or as Nike has put it so eloquently: Just do it. Research shows that it’s the frequency that matters, so if you’re wondering how long does it take to form a habit? The more you do it, the sooner it will work. One of the keys here is to not fall of the horse. Doing little often is better than taking gaps. James Clear emphasises the importance of never missing twice. Didn’t go to the gym yesterday, make sure you go today. And it doesn’t matter if it’s just for two minutes. In fact James Clear swears by the Two Minute rule. Whenever you’re starting something new it shouldn’t take you more than two minutes to do it. It’s better to turn up and do little than making it a habit to miss it entirely. Do it for less time than you think you should. If it’s too hard, you’re likely going to give up sooner rather than later. It’s the choice to just do it which will set you on the right path to success.
If you’re having a really hard time giving a bad habit, putting some serious blockers can go a long way. Get a friend you trust to approve big purchases, or lock your device away for a certain amount of time or use blocking apps and devices to prevent you from doing what you want to but shouldn’t do. I particularly liked the extreme example of Victor Hugo who got rid of all his nice clothes which prevented him from leaving the house which made him finish The Hunchback of Notre Dame against a tight deadline of six months. He published it two weeks early. This one is probably one of the hardest laws to do, since it requires a healthy dose of honest self assessment and initiative.
This one focusses on the actual experience and reward factor and ensures the habit is repeated. Making something fun makes it more pleasant and you are more likely to do it again. So if you’re going to write, get yourself a nice pen and paper. Examples James uses are chewing gum and toothpaste. Only after making the flavours pleasant did both pick up as a serious trend. So this one is particularly important for organisational change and marketing. Make the experience memorable and count. And if budget is an issue then make sure you create one amazing memorable moment rather than trying to make everything perfect. Closely related to this is that to make it satisfying give yourself an instant reward. The long pay off in the end is simply too long to wait for. So give yourself (or your customers and employees) small rewards along the way. And it doesn’t have to be anything big or expensive. Did a tough workout? Have a nice bubble bath. Did a difficult call? Go have a coffee…
What is rewarded is repeated.
What is immediately punished is avoided.
So here we are. We’ve covered how habits are formed, how to create new ones and stop bad ones. We strongly recommend reading James Clear’s book Atomic Habits in its entirety. He provides many tips and tricks and additional evidence and research to support his arguments. But for those who are time-poor and prefer the bottom line, here’s the cheat sheet to get you started faster:
That’s it. We hope this article has been helpful in inspiring you to start some new habits and ditching some bad ones. Let’s sprint to that!