Welcome back to our series on habits based on James Clear’s bestselling book ‘Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones’. Habits are the building blocks of our lives and have the power to determine whether we struggle or succeed.
Humans do some strange things. You only need to scroll through a few videos on YouTube before starting to wonder at the world. What motivates us? What causes us to act in the first place?
One of the best explanations is that our brains are wired to seek reward. Whether affirmation of our peer group or the meeting of a physical need (such a food, shelter, comfort), it turns out that our ways of behaving are entirely predictable.
First of all, we receive a cue. Something about our environment promises a reward. Our brains take notice and we begin to feel a sense of craving. We respond to that craving with an action that will allow us to access what we were after all along – the reward.
Before long, our brains begin to automate this process, and we soon find ourselves doing things without even consciously thinking about it. Perhaps it is reaching for that glass of wine at a particular time of day, or scouring the cupboards for a block of chocolate before bedtime. What we are looking for, is not so much the substance itself, but the promise of what it offers.
Habits can seem almost impossible to break, but the good news is that all we have to do is remove one of those four options. ‘Reduce the craving and you won’t experience enough motivation to act. Make the behavior difficult and you won’t be able to do it. And if the reward fails to satisfy your desire, then you’ll have no reason to do it again in the future.’
In order to build better habits (so that we can begin to step into the life we wish we had and show our children an increasingly positive way of engaging with the world), there are four laws of behavioural change that we can leverage to our advantage.
We’re going to focus on the first one today: make it obvious.
The Art of Noticing
The good news is that this part isn’t too hard. So often we move through life on auto-pilot – not really stopping to examine our behaviour or ask the question ‘why on earth did I just do that?’.
If you want to improve your life, start by noticing the little things you do. No judgement, just write it down. Buy a little notebook just for this purpose and carry a pencil with you. Start up a ‘note’ in your phone. Whatever method works for you, just start to take a step back and really look.
Making a Plan
Once you have begun to get a handle on your actions and you know what you want to do, it’s time to make a plan. When are you going to go to the gym? Write it down, put it in your calendar. Make it for the first day of the week or month so that you can capitalise on that fresh surge of motivation. Be specific. ‘Being specific about what you want and how you will achieve it helps you say no to things that derail progress, distract your attention, and pull you off course.’
Find a habit you already do (such as brushing your teeth) and link the new habit to that.
Arrange Your Environment
Have you ever noticed how you behave differently in different places? It might be that when you go down to your holiday house you feel as if you can go for a swim in the ocean every day or eat healthily, but when you get back home, that pull to go back to ‘normal’ is relentless.
The good news is you have more power than you think. Look back to those cues you wrote down earlier. What prompted your behaviours in the first place? Was it opening the cupboard and seeing that chocolate? Was it having the remote resting on the couch where you flopped down with exhaustion after the kids went to bed?
The littlest actions can reap great results when we stop to think about our lives on this level and embrace the role of architect instead of victim. Removing cues that lead to bad habits (unplugging the TV, taking the batteries out of the remote) and stacking your house with cues that lead to good ones (a book on your pillow, a yoga mat, a filled fruit bowl) can make such a difference. Make a cue for a bad habit invisible, make a cue for a good one obvious.
Self-control & Success
It might look like the people who succeed in life are just the ones who have the most will-power but this isn’t true.
‘When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, “disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.’
Life doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it. By understanding these key concepts about how our brains are wired and taking the time to notice our behaviour, make a plan and stack our environment for success, we really can move forward into the life we wish we were living. And, by knowing these principles, we can help our kids better arrange their own lives – preventing bad habits from starting and showing them research-based ways to get back on track.
Next week we will delve into The Second Law: Make it Attractive.