Building Good Habits & Breaking Bad Ones

After a foray into fiction, I’m back reading my favourite genres, including the psychology of well-being and personal growth.

A fun, easy recent read is Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear.

Clear sets out 4 habit laws for forming good habits and breaking bad ones:

  1. Make it obvious / invisible
  2. Make it attractive / unattractive
  3. Make it easy / difficult
  4. Make it satisfying / unsatisfying

Here is a summary of Clear’s laws and some of my own experience building and breaking habits over the years.

1st Law: Make it obvious / invisible.

We can make changes to our environment that either encourage or discourage certain habits.

Make it obvious: Desired habit = eating healthy

Late afternoon or early evening is my most sluggish time and annoyingly coincides with dinner time. When my kids were quite young, I often found myself standing in front of the fridge with no idea of what to make and a quickly sinking motivation to cook. As a natural list-maker and planner, I decided to write a list of meals for each week. Then I bought all the groceries needed for those meals. The list was kept on our fridge. At the end of the day, I looked at the list and chose whatever appealed the most, knowing we had the ingredients needed. That was enough to make dinner prep a breeze. The hard work of getting motivated to think of something to make was already done.

Make it invisible: Bad habit = eating junk food

Another trick I learned for healthy eating was to keep junk food out of the house. It is easier for me to have willpower while I am shopping than at 7 pm when a bag of chips comes to mind.

Both these systems still work for me today.

2nd Law: Make it attractive / unattractive

The idea here is to pair a behaviour you must do with one you want to do or pairing a habit you want to break with something undesirable.

Make it attractive: Desired habit = running

During my first psychology course, our instructor had us do an experiment to help develop a desired habit. It was right up my alley! We were to use a behaviour that we always did as a reward for one that we wanted to do. I was struggling to start a running routine, but I always enjoyed a morning coffee. So, my morning coffee became my reward for running. The experiment lasted three weeks and resulted in a morning running routine that lasted years.

Make it unattractive: Bad habit = a cinnamon bun a day

I once developed a bad habit of stopping for a cinnamon bun on my way to work every morning. That habit not only put on some pounds, but it aggravated my digestive issues. To break the habit, I practiced looking at cinnamon buns and recalling the feeling of a stomach-ache. It didn’t take long for the association to work. Even years later, when I look at a cinnamon bun, my stomach starts to churn.

3rd Law: Make is easy / difficult

Habits are made through repetition of action. We can use “gateway habits” to make forming a more substantial habit easier. Conversely, by making an action inconvenient, you can break it.

Make it easy: Desired habit = going to the gym

We say ‘going to the gym’ as a desired habit, but what we really mean is that we want to workout. I used merely going to the gym as a gateway habit for working out once I was there. I wanted to workout 5 days a week but wasn’t getting to the gym nearly as often. So, I told myself I just need to get myself there. That was the habit I focused on. It was incredibly easy. I did it first thing in the morning, before my brain could tell me it was a bad idea. There was no pressure to have a long workout, or a good workout. I just had to get there. Once I was there, I usually did have a good long workout. And the habit stuck. 

Make it difficult: Bad habit = watching TV

This is still a behaviour that can become a bad habit for me. But, when my kids were growing up, I didn’t want them glued to the set. When we did have a TV at all, it was usually stored in a closet. If we wanted to watch TV we had to roll the TV and stand out, plug it in, and arrange the bunny ears or connect the cable. And it always got stored again after each use. We didn’t watch a lot of TV when it was that inconvenient.

4th Law: Make it satisfying / unsatisfying

It helps to make a habit immediately satisfying or unsatisfying.

Make it satisfying: Desired habit = writing

One way to get immediate satisfaction when forming a habit is to keep a log. It’s like the gold stars kindergarten students get when they hang up their coats or brush their teeth after lunch. I want to write more purposefully. You’d think something that you love to do wouldn’t require encouragement, but alas, I can always find a host of other things to do instead of sitting in front of a daunting empty laptop screen! So, each time I sit down and write I get an ‘x’ for the day in my writing habit tracker. In the end, I often end up staying to write a lot (like today).

Make it unsatisfying: Bad habit = smoking

I battled with smoking for years, quitting once for 5 years only to start again. When I started back that time, I hid my smoking from most people, especially my family. I would sneak away to a hilltop or beach to have a cigarette. One day my daughter smelled smoke on me; my bad habit and inauthenticity was uncovered. I was embarrassed and felt I’d let everyone down. When I decided to quit again, that embarrassment became an advantage. I made a commitment out loud to my friends and family. The accountability helped; I didn’t want the displeasure of their disappointment.

If you have habits you want to create or break, I recommend this book. It’s an easy fun read, with many useful concepts and different types of examples. It may remind you of your successes and inspire more.

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