I did not expect Atomic Habits to open with a baseball bat to the face. Brutal.
But little did I know a wealth of practical and useful life-advice would lie ahead after such a graphic beginning. I tend to find these “self help” books to be a little cheesy, but the author James Clear begins almost every chapter with an evidence-based story or study that proves the point he wants to make in each. Not only does opening each chapter in this way give a clear mental image of the chapter’s theme, but it also gives a lot of legitimacy to what Clear is talking about; none of it feels like “fluff” or pandering.
The Four Laws of Behavior Change
In this series of posts, I’m going to break down the chapters that make up the Four Laws of Behavior Change in Atomic Habits. According to Clear, the first law of behavior change is: Make It Obvious, and we begin this breakdown with a closer look at Chapter 4: The Man Who Didn’t Look Right.
The Man Who Didn’t Look Right
Clear opens this chapter with a story he heard from a psychologist named Gary Klein. Apparently, a woman who had spent years working as a paramedic was at a family gathering, and noticed that her father-in-law had a familiar look about his face.
He said he felt fine, but she insisted that he needed to go to a hospital immediately. It turns out that he had a major artery blockage and could have suffered a heart attack at any moment, and her years working as a paramedic helped her recognize a specific pattern in the way blood is distributed throughout the face before someone experiences one.
Clear then goes over how the brain is a “prediction machine” which constantly analyzes information in our surroundings and logs information for reference in similar contexts. Over time and with repeated exposure, our brains identify cues for habits and action without you even being aware of the cue itself. This unawareness is great for sticking with good habits “nonconsciously” (as Clear puts it), but is also what makes dropping bad habits somewhat difficult.
- He gives a few great examples to demonstrate how habits can become “nonconscious,” my favorite being a retail clerk who was instructed to cut up old, exhausted gift cards and mindlessly did this task for a time. When the clerk was asked to ring up a few customers, they ended up swiping a customer’s credit card, then cut it up, completely on autopilot.
- We’re surrounded by all sorts of cues that spark habits we’re not aware of; snacks sitting on a table, a video game controller on the couch, etc. To change a deeply rooted bad habit, one of the first things you must do is build awareness of the cue, since they are so automatic.
- Pointing-and-Calling is a safety system used by Japanese train operators in which they call out and communicate to each other every detail they can of a train’s operation, such as pointing and calling out the color of signals as they travel or pointing along the edge of the platform and calling out “All clear!” before they depart. By bringing awareness to every detail in each step of the process, no matter how granular, they were able to reduce errors by 85% and accidents by 30% after this system’s implementation.
- Clear suggests we utilize a version of this system to “Point-and-Call” our own habits, step-by-step, to easily identify habits you are performing, whether good, bad, or neutral, and the cues that spur them. He introduces the idea of a Habits Scorecard (printable/downloadable version here: https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits/scorecard), which you use to list out the habits you are able to identify through Pointing-and-Calling, then label them as good, bad, or neutral. You can gauge the “good” and “bad” based on how they will benefit you in the long-run (e.g. smoking may make you feel “good” in the moment, but in the long run is “bad” for your health, so obviously this is a “bad” habit).
- Towards the end of the chapter, he mentions that speaking these habits out loud as you do them is beneficial for some people, embodying the Point-and-Call system even further. An example he gives is saying “Tomorrow, I need to go to the post office after lunch” to increase your odds of actually doing it, or speaking out loud “I’m about to eat this cookie, but I don’t need it. Eating it will cause me to gain weight and hurt my health.” Additionally, when you can identify the cues that trigger bad habits, you might be able to manipulate them to make the bad habit more difficult or less obvious to perform.
Personally, I think his ideas are pretty accurate to how habits feel like they form in reality. Even before reading this book, I found that “speaking aloud” the habits you want to maintain or habits you want to drop not only brings awareness to them, but also makes you feel accountable to them. If my partner is telling me about certain chores or things she needs to do, I always use that as an opportunity to mention good habits I want to maintain or chores I need to perform, to reinforce my “sticking to them.” An example of this is mentioning “yeah I’m gonna exercise around 5:30 today, and tomorrow I’m going to finally pile together and drop off that donation stuff in the early afternoon” during such a conversation.
I was thinking about these chores plenty enough, but speaking them out loud makes you much more likely to actually perform them, and if you think it’s a little too weird to just speak these things out loud to yourself (…it kind of is) then I invite you to mention them out loud in similar conversations with someone else when you have the opportunity.
It’s helpful for things that you know you should do, but end up sitting on because you perceive them as optional for whatever reason. Call yourself out on bad habits by taking inventory and bringing awareness to them, and you’re much more likely to hold yourself accountable in dropping them and reinforcing/maintaining the good ones.
The Best Way to Start a New Habit
The next chapter that discusses Make it Obvious is easily one of my favorites in the book, if not my overall personal favorite. It is called: The Best Way to Start a New Habit.
Similar to the “calling out” of bad habits we ended the last section with, this chapter opens with a “calling out” on starting good habits. Clear walks us through an interesting study conducted in Great Britain, which involves people who were separated into three different groups. Group one was asked to track how often they exercised, group two was asked to track their exercise in addition to reading about the various benefits of exercise, as well as watching a presentation about heart health presented by the researchers. The third group received all of the previous, but was also asked to formulate a plan with specific times, dates, and places that they’d exercise.
Only 35% to 38% of the first two groups exercised at least once per week (the presentation and extra reading apparently had zero effect on the second group), while 91% percent of the third group exercised at least once per week. Goes to show that, you can talk all you want, but you’re only likely to do something if you have a clear picture of when and where you will take the action:
- The term implementation intention is used early in this chapter, and is essentially what group three made in this experiment when they formulated their plans to exercise. Specifically, I respect the passage where Clear mentions how all of us tell ourselves that we’re “going to” eat healthier, or “going to” write more, or “going to” exercise more. But of course, we rarely stick to these vague resemblances of habits because there’s nothing specific about them, and Clear says most people will think that they’ll “just remember to do it” or hopefully “feel motivated at the right time.” I’ve been there; guilty as charged.
- One of the most insightful things is when Clear simply mentions “many people think they lack motivation, when what they really lack is clarity.” That hits the nail on the head. Creating an implementation intention gives clarity, the motivation will come naturally once it is in place.
- Clear also mentions the tactic of habit stacking, where you connect a habit you want to start to another one. He gives several examples, such as: “After I pour my cup of coffee each morning, I will meditate for one minute” for someone trying to get into a meditation habit, or “after I take off my work shoes, I will immediately change into my workout clothes” for someone starting an exercise habit.
- Habit stacking can create a momentum that makes it easier for people to maintain and add on new, healthy habits. The secret is selecting the right cue to associate with the habit you want to start. It should have the same frequency as the habit you are trying to start, and you should take the context that this cue normally happens into account (Clear gives an example of adding a habit to your morning routine, but if they tend to be chaotic with your kids running into the room all the time, it may not be the best place to add it).
- Again, the specificity is important. Clear mentions a push-up habit he tried to start by stacking the habit with the start of his lunch break, telling himself: “When I take a break for lunch, I will do ten push-ups.” However, this was still not specific enough; before lunch? After eating? Where? He changed this exercise habit to: “When I close my laptop for lunch, I will do ten push-ups next to my desk,” which is what worked and what he stuck with.
I think, ultimately, this chapter is the most important because it calls us out on our BS. Almost everyone knows what they should be doing, what habits they should get into, but unless you actually set a time and a date to start them, the chances are slim that you’ll actually hold yourself to it. Sure sometimes the stars may align and you may remember about a habit you wanted to start and you may have the motivation to perform it one time, but the habit will likely not be repeated until you come up with something more specific you can hold yourself to; it’s easy to brush something under the rug to be forgotten when it is so vaguely established.
Motivation is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More
Next up is Chapter 6, which is titled: Motivation is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More.
Clear focuses on an idea he’s touched upon previously; your environment, and the cues present within it. He opens the chapter with a six-month study conducted by Anne Thorndike and colleagues at the Massachusetts General Hospital. The idea was to see how drink sales were affected if they made water more readily available around the cafeteria. They placed water in the refrigerators filled with soda next to the cash registers, maintaining soda as the primary option but having water as an extra choice in them. Baskets with water bottles were placed next to food stations throughout the room, and over the course of the study, soda sales dropped 11.4% while water sales increased 25.8%.
This shouldn’t be all that surprising; we are definitely prone to acting on impulse. The author mentions other relatable situations, such as seeing a box of donuts in the workplace or a plate of cookies at a gathering; you’ll end up eating them purely through a visual cue and no foresight at all. We can utilize this “programming” to redesign our environments to support good habits:
- Clear gives some great real-life examples for someone trying to maintain or start good habits by rearranging their environment, e.g. for someone who wants to practice their guitar more, they should put it in the center of the living room. If someone wants to drink more water, fill up a few bottles and place them in common locations around the living space, and so on.
- Sometimes, the contexts in which a habit takes place becomes the cue itself, e.g. you are more likely to drink in social situations. Clear suggests that we can train ourselves into a particular habit by linking it with the relevant context. He references a study that helped insomniacs get some sleep: they were told to use a different room if they weren’t sleepy, and to only go back to their beds if they were tired. Eventually, their brains were able to associate sleep with their bedroom and the act of getting in bed, rather than using the bedroom for laying there and browsing their phones, staring at the clock, etc. when they were trying to sleep.
- The mantra Clear wants to… well, make clear, is “One space, one use.” If you mix up different habits in the same contexts, it is hard to set clear boundaries for when a habit should start or end. This is relevant to us working-from-home; it is likely beneficial to designate one room as your “office” for work things, rather than doing work and a bunch of other things in the same space, like eating or relaxing. This may lead you to work all day, or extend your work days if your easier habits bleed through into the work routine.
Organizing my environment is something I am working on, but have already noticed some of the positive effects. Personally, I resonated with every mention of “water” in this chapter because I drink a criminally low amount. Ever since being gifted a Yeti canteen, I keep it on my desk as a constant reminder to drink more throughout the day, and have felt a lot better because of it.
The Secret to Self-Control
Chapter 7 is titled The Secret to Self-Control, and is the capstone chapter for the Make it Obvious section of this book. In this chapter, Clear focuses on environments once again, but this time he seemingly acknowledges some harsh truths about bad habits that can continually foster within them. Ultimately, once a bad habit is started and reinforced, they’re with us in some form for the rest of our lives, but we can use our environments to control and quell these unwanted cravings.
Like the other chapters, he opens this one with a real-life study of soldiers from Vietnam who had become addicted to heroin. At the time, it was widely thought that heroin addiction was irreversible once started. However, a researcher named Lee Robins was tasked with tracking addicted service members as they returned home. What he found was only 5% of the 20% of service members classified as “addicted to heroin” became re-addicted within a year, and only 12% relapsed over the course of three years. To put this in simpler numbers, around 9 out of every 10 soldiers were able to eliminate their heroin addiction cold turkey.
- What is gathered from Robins’ work is that addictions and bad habits will likely disappear with a drastic change in environment. A soldier shifts from an environment where they are completely surrounded by cues to shoot up heroin, to an environment without any of them when they return home. As Clear states “when the context changed, so did the habit.”
- When this situation is compared to a typical drug user, who becomes addicted at home or with friends, they quickly become re-addicted after returning from rehab. The environmental change of rehab gets them clean, but after rehab they return to an environment where they are once again surrounded by all the triggers of this bad habit, so it is much easier for them to relapse. Apparently, around 90% of heroin users are using heroin again after returning from rehab.
- Clear then refers to scientists who have studied people who appear to have tremendous “self-control,” and what they discovered is that these people aren’t exercising some superhuman amount of willpower to overcome their temptations, they are simply “spending less time in tempting situations.” Instead of wishing you were a “disciplined person,” you simply need to create a “disciplined environment.”
- He uses another example which involves Patty Orwell, a therapist who would smoke when riding horses in Texas. She was eventually able to stop smoking, which happened instantly after she stopped riding horses. Despite this, she found herself craving a cigarette once again after she hopped on a horse for the first time in decades.
- The term for this phenomenon is cue-induced wanting, and involves your brain noticing something, and beginning to want it without realizing this process is happening. Clear acknowledges the hard truth here by saying “you can break a habit, but you’re unlikely to forget it . . . to put it bluntly, I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.”
This is a shorter chapter so I’ll leave it there, and it covers familiar territory with the manipulation of one’s environment. I believe in previous chapters Clear focused on setting up your environment to maintain good habits, but here he focuses on how you can change your environment to be devoid of cues for bad habits. He gives a few more examples towards the end of the chapter here, such as leaving your phone in another room if it is distracting you from work, or if you experience feelings of worthlessness to perhaps stop following social media accounts that make you feel this way.
Have you Made it Obvious, Yet?
Well? Have you?
This first portion of Atomic Habits already has some incredibly useful information and advice on how you can form good habits and get rid of bad ones. I admire the direct, no-nonsense approach Clear takes in describing a lot of these strategies and how he personally incorporates them into his own life. We’ll be back soon with the Second Law of Behavior Change: Make It Attractive.