It’s not as complicated as you think.
Imagine it’s January 1. You’re excited to get the New Year started. You’ve set some big goals for yourself and can’t wait to hit them. You feel motivation practically coursing through your veins. You feel unstoppable. You feel destined for greatness.
Then, one day, one week, or one month later, you’re back to doing exactly what you were doing before — not accomplishing the things that matter to you.
We’ve all been there. There’s no shame in that.
But, what if this doesn’t have to be our fate?
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, thinks that we aren’t the problem. Our problem, he says, is that our approach to change lacks structure.
Our standard approach to change is to form a vague idea in our mind about what we want our future to look like, and then expect it to miraculously emerge from the fog. This, James says, is the cause of our continual disappointment.
What if there are simple things we can do to make change more likely? What if, by thinking about change a little more strategically, we can set ourselves up for success? What if we can finally achieve the goals we’ve been dreaming about for years?
The following four techniques, Clear says, will improve your chances of building new habits and the life you’ve always wanted.
#1 Make it obvious: design your environment
We are driven by our environments more than we realize.
When we sit down on our couch we reach for the TV remote. When we get into the car we put on our seatbelt. When we wake up in the morning we brush our teeth.
The physical spaces in our lives carry with them a behavioral bias. They prompt us to do certain activities without thinking. We can use this to our advantage when creating new habits.
According to Clear, you should make it obvious where you’re going to perform the desired behavior. For example, if your goal is to read a book a month, put a chair in the corner of your living room and designate it as your “reading chair.” That way, every time you see the chair it will prompt you to read.
Something to remember is that it’s easier to start a new habit in a new environment. Since you haven’t yet developed a behavioral bias toward a new space, take advantage of this opportunity by starting your new habit there. Each time you enter that space your brain will then be reminded to do the desired behavior.
Clear also recommends creating an implementation intention, which is a statement of your intention to initiate a behavior. You can do this by writing down when, where, and how you will do the desired activity. For example, I will exercise in the spare bedroom every Monday and Thursday. The more specific you can be about your goal, the more clear it will be in your mind, which will help you accomplish it.
We often blame failed goals on a lack of motivation. But, more often than not, we fail to achieve our goals simply because they lack clarity. Bring some clarity to your goals by creating an implementation intention.
#2 Make it appealing and attractive
When we’re trying to create new habits, we often overlook two very important components. First, how we feel toward the behavior and, second, the type of behavior we’re starting with.
How you feel toward the behavior matters. If you want to get more exercise yet you’re constantly dreading any form of activity, it’s going to be very difficult to initiate this behavior change. To combat this, intentionally think of the positive outcomes of exercise: you’ll have more energy, you’ll have fewer aches and pains, you’ll feel strong and healthy. Thinking more positively about the activity will make it more meaningful to you, which will make you feel more motivated to do it.
The type of activity we choose to begin with also matters. If you want to start meditating, start with the type of meditation that is most appealing to you. For example, if silently counting your breaths doesn’t sound very interesting, try a guided meditation, instead. Once your habit has become more stable and enjoyable, then start branching out to other forms of the activity.
#3 Make it easy
Starting anything new is difficult, so don’t make it even more difficult by beginning at a break-neck pace.
Don’t set the goal of running 5 miles on your first run.
Don’t set the goal of reading your first book in one week.
Don’t set the goal of meditating for an hour a day.
Instead, scale back the activity to something small and attainable. You can’t improve something that doesn’t exist yet. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Master the habit of showing up, first.
Clear recommends tying your new habit to another activity that occurs each day. For example, you could create the rule, each time I sit down at my desk to work, I will meditate for 30 seconds.
The more easy, simple, and frictionless it is for you to perform the desired behavior the more likely you’ll repeat it.
#4 Make it satisfying
Feeling a sense of satisfaction while building a new habit is important for sustaining your effort and motivation.
One way to get that sense of satisfaction is to measure your progress. For example, put an ‘X’ on the calendar each day you perform the desired activity. This will give you a quick visual of your progress and make you feel a sense of accomplishment. This type of positive feedback will help you to continue to build your habit.
But, don’t be too hard on yourself! If you miss a day (and you will miss a day!) remind yourself that in the grand scheme of things one day is irrelevant. You can’t always control the circumstances of your life, not even your emotional state, as much as you might want to. So, if you do miss a day, simply take it as an opportunity to practice jumping back on the wagon. This will come in handy in all aspects of your life.
Clear also recommends pairing your new habit with something you want to do. For example, if you want to read the Harry Potter series, create a rule that you can only read those books while you’re on the treadmill. By pairing the new habit with an activity that makes you feel good, you’re hacking your system and making it easier to build that habit.
Changing your life
Creating new habits is hard. This is something we all need to be reminded of frequently.
Thankfully, people have figured out ways to make habit-building a little bit easier. If you follow these four simple steps, you might find that they give you the advantage you need to make a change:
#1 Make it obvious how, where, and when you perform the activity.
#2 Choose a type of activity that is appealing to you and purposefully associate positive meaning with it.
#3 Make it easy to perform the action by taking small steps in the direction of change.
#4 Measure your progress and pair the habit with an activity you enjoy.
I hope you find these steps useful. There are few things more difficult than making a change in our lives. But, making a change can also be one of the most profound things we ever do.
If you’ve been struggling to make a change, give these steps a try!
Thanks for reading!