Atomizing Atomic Habits: The Third Law of Behavior Change

In our previous post in this series, we reviewed Clear’s second law of behavior change: Make It Attractive, and all of the chapters that go over its characteristics. In this post we have now reached the 3rd law of behavior change: Make It Easy. This section of the book begins with Chapter 11, titled Walk Slowly, but Never Backward.

Walk Slowly, but Never Backward

There’s a big focus on repetition in this chapter. Or rather, the right kind of repetition. Clear opens the chapter with an interesting (…and sort of hilarious) experiment put together by Jerry Uelsmann, a film photography professor at the University of Florida. He divided his class into two groups and told one group that they would be the “quantity group,” who’s grade would solely be judged on the amount of photos they took. He told the other group that they were the “quality group,” and would be judged solely on their best quality photo, i.e. to get the highest grade, they essentially only need one photo, but it had to be perfect.

  • Ironically, the best quality photos came from the quantity group, since they tried all sorts of different methods and tweaked all kinds of settings throughout the course of piling up as many photos as they could. The quality group, on the other hand, spent so much time theorizing on what makes the “best photo,” that what they presented at the end of the class was quite mediocre compared to the quantity group.
  • The point Clear goes on to make is that repeated action is what makes us better at things, rather than what he calls repeated motion. The difference between action and motion is one leads to an outcome, while the other is involved with planning and strategizing, respectively.
  • Motion is more involved with convincing yourself that you’re making progress, like reading an article about eating better, while action is involved with a concrete outcome or instance of something that can be in motion, like actually eating that healthy meal. Clear puts it best when he says “Motion makes you feel like you’re getting things done. But really, you’re just preparing to get something done.” We all do this because, well, we want to delay the future and avoid any sort of criticism from an unideal action.
  • Clear goes on to talk about how scientists have studied repetition’s physical effect on the body; most notably, that it causes real, physical changes between the connections of neurons and regions of the brain. He brings up a group of scientists that analyzed the brains of London taxi drivers to find they had significantly enlarged hippocampi (the part of the brain involved with spatial memory) compared to non-taxi drivers, since they utilize this part of the brain for frequent navigation through the city.
  • He also brings up the term automacity, which is the degree to which a person can perform an action without thinking about each step. Basically, a behavior that has been repeated enough for the nonconscious mind to take over and perform. Clear presents a few charts showing how automacity increases with repetition of behaviors. There are also plenty of relatable examples to this phenomenon, like how difficult learning an instrument feels at first, but eventually becomes easier with practice/repetition over time.
  • The overall point here is, good habits not only become easier with repetition of actions, but the quantity of times you perform a habit is much more important and supportive than the time spent performing one.

I’m always a fan of a chapter that (reasonably) calls us out. I think Clear is correct on all points here; actually doing a habit more often means so much more than planning how to go about it, thinking about it, procrastinating it, etc. Repetition can be boring, but is nonetheless essential for building good habits, and needs to be performed rather than brainstormed about. This reminds me of my drumming days, where even after I considered myself a good player, all drummers understood how important it was to practice and repeat the rudiments if you wanted to keep your playing sharp. Also, the only way to play a fast part “hit-perfect” is by playing it slowly, over and over and over again, until you can perform it repeatedly, hit-for-hit, without error. Only then do you work on increasing the speed. If you try playing full speed out the gate, you will make so many mistakes, and it will take so much longer to get perfect than if you just slowed things down and played the part repetitively.

My only criticism of this chapter is I wish he gave what scientists are measuring automacity by on the charts. It’s pretty easy to record repetitions and time, but how does one measure the “level of automation” of a behavior?

The Law of Least Effort

Chapter 12, titled The Law of Least Effort, opens with one of the more interesting ideas in the book (at least, in my opinion). Clear refers to research conducted by Jared Diamond, an anthropologist and biologist, who studied how agriculture spread throughout the continents. What Diamond found is agriculture spread 2-3 times faster through continents like Asia and Europe, all because the majority of their landmass is oriented in a more East-West fashion rather than continents like the Americas or Africa, which are more North-South in their orientation (there is a little sketch of the map that shows this a little more obviously in the book). The reason this happened is because climates change much more quickly when traveling North and South, while climates don’t change much when traveling laterally, or East-West. Essentially, ancient farmers expanded East-West across biomes because they were most convenient to what they already knew, rather than trying to learn how to plant something like Florida oranges in Canada.

  • Clear segues into the topic of motivation and how we are wired to conserve energy, i.e. to do what is, frankly, laziest at many given moments. This is not necessarily a bad thing; Clear rightfully mentions “this is a smart strategy, not a dumb one.”
  • He uses another example of a twisted up garden hose that isn’t letting water flow through. You can either: 1. Get rid of the knot to let the water flow more freely, or 2. Crank up the valve to try and force more water through the knot. This is a metaphor for keeping your habits simple instead of trying to muster up a ton of motivation to perform one, respectively.
  • Clear refers back to Chapter 6 and setting up your environment to both remind yourself of habits you need to perform and make them more convenient. Creating habits that don’t feel like friction with the flow of your life is a great way to stick to them, e.g. picking up a membership at a gym that’s along your commute back from work rather than having to drive to one that’s out of the way.
  • This idea of friction is a great way to view what makes habits difficult to stick to, and a great way of making them easier. Clear reference another example, where Japanese firms overhauled their workplaces to reduce all kinds of wasted motion or time from various manufacturing and production processes. The result was, Japanese products were far more reliable than American ones; in 1974, American-made color televisions were five times more likely to get service calls than those that were Japanese-made. It also took Americans three times as long to assemble their sets in another study conducted in 1979.
  • Ease the friction for habits you want to maintain by reducing the steps needed to perform them (where possible). For example, setting out your workout clothes and water bottle ahead of time will mean you are more likely to exercise, because it will feel that much easier when it comes time to do so. Clear refers to similar adjustments as “addition by subtraction.”
  • Conversely, you should add friction to habits you want to drop. Set your phone in a different room if it is a significant distraction and you want to focus. When you feel the urge to check it, the act of having to get up and grab it should act as a deterrent, and you can add more steps to increase the friction if just placing it in another room isn’t enough (e.g. in a cabinet, in a high up spot, etc.). Adding or subtracting the friction around habits has an unexpectedly profound effect on your desire to skip them or perform them, respectively.


I feel like Clear has tread this territory earlier in the book, but personally, I still really like this chapter. I feel like he’s turning up the focus on the microscope, as these already-atomic habits have little elements around and within them that you can manipulate to make you more likely to perform them or not. There are also a lot of great examples throughout this chapter which makes for easy reading.

One of the more obvious personal examples that comes to mind is, when I was younger, I had a strong aversion to washing the dishes if they had been sitting a bit too long in the sink, because it was so much harder to scrub them clean after they’ve dried (taking friction a bit too literally here with this example eh?). At some point someone (probably my parents) pointed out that, if I didn’t want to wash a bowl or tray in the moment, that I should at least fill them up with water as they sit, since this will make the grime and grit much easier to clean off since they wouldn’t dry to the surface.

How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the Two-Minute Rule

The rather specific title of Chapter 13 is How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the Two-Minute Rule. Clear opens this chapter with a morning ritual performed by Twyla Tharp, one of the greatest dancers/choreographers of the “modern era.” She details her routine as follows: “I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweat shirt, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours.”

She then clarifies by saying “the ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.” Clear points out that hailing the cab is a very simple action, but is a prime example of the 3rd Law of Behavior Change: Make It Easy.

  • He says that these small habits are like the “entrance ramp to a highway.” He points out other examples like watching a bad movie for two hours, continuing to snack on something when you’re full, and wanting to check your phone for a “moment” that turns into a half hour. The starting points of these habits are often simple, yet commit you to carrying them out as a more extensive version.
  • Clear refers to these little choices before a habit develops into something larger as decisive moments. The “moment” you decide between ordering takeout or cooking dinner, the “moment” you decide to drive your car or riding your bike, etc. He views these “moments” as little forks in the road that will take you down different paths, some leading into healthy habits and some leading into not-so-healthy habits, and they all contribute to how accomplished you feel at the end of the day.
  • The Two-Minute Rule is a method of starting habits created by Clear, which states that “when you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” This is essentially shining the spotlight on the decisive moment phase of habit formation, where, if you want to start a healthy habit and initially find it daunting, you can at least perform the decisive moment version of the habit to get things rolling. Clear gives examples like “reading before bed” each night becomes “reading one page,” or “do thirty minutes of yoga” becoming “Take out my yoga mat,” and so on.
  • Clear says if the Two-Minute Rule feels forced, you should attempt to perform the healthy habit and time it for exactly two minutes and no more. If you’re trying to read more before bed, read for exactly two minutes then stop. If you’re trying to meditate more, set a timer for two minutes and stop when time’s up. He gives an example of one of his overweight readers utilizing this strategy to lose weight at the gym; he would force himself to “show up” at the gym everyday, and be in there for no longer than 5 minutes, then would leave. After a few weeks he eventually felt naturally motivated to stay longer, and ended up losing over 100 pounds.
  • After mastering the “small version” of any habit, you will find it infinitely easier to “scale up” to the larger, more goal-oriented versions of them.

Personally, I think Clear is accurate in once again taking a microscopic perspective on the small decisions that contribute to the overall course of a habit. It’s important to be aware of these micro-choices that can be manipulated to our favor, and will overall increase a healthy self-awareness in life.

However, I do think the Two-Minute Rule is not as applicable as it seems, or maybe should be called the Five-Minute or Ten-Minute rule. I think the idea is heading in the right direction, but performing an action like pulling out a yoga mat, and then calling that “good enough” for the day seems a little silly to me. Perhaps it’s just my perspective, but I feel like most people would be able to commit to a longer time period or slightly larger version of the examples he points out here, like the reader who went to the gym for five minutes everyday. Setting up a yoga mat and then putting it away, putting on your running shoes then taking them off, etc. are all examples he gives in this section, which I guess may be useful for some people, but I know personally I’d find the action of “getting ready” and then calling it “done” too small-scale for me.

How to Make Good Habits Inevitable and Bad Habits Impossible

The title of Chapter 14 sounds like all anyone needs from this book: How to Make Good Habits Inevitable and Bad Habits Impossible. This chapter is a bit shorter in length, but also chock full of examples like some of the better previous ones.

Clear references Victor Hugo, an established French author, who had promised his publisher to write another book by a certain deadline. Instead of writing however, he was (perhaps taking a page out of GRRM’s book) delaying this project greatly by working on other projects, entertaining guests, etc. The now-annoyed publisher set a new deadline after recognizing this procrastination, and it was less than six months away.

Hugo, acknowledging his tendency to delay his work, asked for an assistant to lock away all of his clothes so that he was only left with a shawl to wear. By doing this, Hugo had no desire to have guests over or to even go out in public, since he would look significantly… less-than-presentable. He ended up staying indoors, writing day and night, and ended up finishing this book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, two weeks before the publisher’s deadline.

  • Clear points out that this is an inversion of the 3rd Law of Behavior Change. Instead of “making a good habit easy,” Hugo made a “bad habit difficult.” Hugo used what psychologists call a commitment device, which is “a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future.” 
  • Commitment devices are useful, and pretty easy to create in various forms, it just takes “being okay” with committing to a healthy habit by taking a small action beforehand. This is similar to the whole idea of “taking out your workout clothes” to commit yourself to exercising, but in the examples given in this chapter, commitment devices lock-you-in a little more strictly. In one instance, Clear references a friend who used to spend too much time online at night, so he eventually bought an outlet-timer that cut off power to his Internet router at 10 p.m. every night, to remind him that it was time to get ready for sleep.
  • Setting up meetings and putting them on a calendar, or paying for a class you want to take ahead of time, are both good examples of commitment devices. It’s a very direct way to hold yourself accountable, and to make you okay with the idea of committing to something that you know is good for you, but you may not necessarily desire to do when the time comes around. 
  • Clear then goes back to the idea of making bad habits impractical by giving an example of John Patterson, who opened a supply store for coal miners in Ohio in the mid-1800s. The store struggled to make money despite being successful, and Patterson eventually discovered his employees were stealing a large amount of money from his business. Eventually he bought two devices from James Ritty to combat the problem, known as… cash registers. This solved the problem overnight, and he went from losing money to making $5000 in profit (which is over $100,000 in those times).
  • During the last part of the chapter, Clear goes over how technology can be a double-edged sword when it comes to automating good habits and creating temptations for bad ones. He gives examples of technology being useful when setting reminders for somewhat infrequent good habits, like prescription refills and grocery shopping, but can create bad habits when something like social media is so easily accessible. Essentially, you’ll have to create your own set of commitment devices within the realm of technology to get a handle on your time spent, if you have some bad habits here.

Once again, I think this is a good chapter because of the direct, no-playing-around approach. Instead of dancing around a good habit, you have to commit to it, which is something that feels more actionable rather than theoretical. You can think about all the good habits you should get into as long as you want, but until you take action to commit to them, there’s a good chance they’ll remain as thoughts.

Next time we’ll be back with the chapters that make up the fourth and final law of behavior change: Make It Satisfying.