Professional Development: Atomic Habits

Many of us rang in the New Year by making a resolution for 2021. Whether it’s to exercise more, avoid junk food, save money, or limit social media, a bad habit is hard to break and a good habit is hard to create. According to author James Clear, making a small behavior change can, over time, produce remarkable and lasting results. Clear offers a plan for behavior change in his book Atomic Habits.

Researchers estimate 40-50 percent of our actions on any given day are done out of habit. A ‘habit’ is a behavior performed regularly (perhaps even automatically) in response to a specific situation. Your phone beeps and you grab it to check your text messages. You get home from work and instantly reach for the remote control to browse Netflix.

Habits are not always bad. Repeating a behavior encodes it in the brain, which frees up mental capacity so we can concentrate on other things. Habits even create physical changes in the brain. For example, the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for motor coordination such as plucking a guitar string, is bigger in musicians than in non-musicians. Habits can literally change your mind.

The Habit Loop

Every habit consists of a four-step sequence: cue, craving, response, and reward. A cue triggers a craving which motivates our response which provides the reward. This is known as the “habit loop”.

A note about craving: it isn’t usually physical; rather, we crave a change in our internal state that the reward provides. For example, when a co-worker brings in a box of donuts (cue), I will want the Boston cream (craving), so I will grab it (response) and experience a satisfying sugar rush (reward). 

The 4 Laws of Behavior Change

Once you have identified a habit that you’d like to start or stop, Clear suggests following the “four laws of behavior change.”

To create a new habit:
1.  Make it obvious 
2.  Make it attractive
3.  Make it easy
4.  Make it satisfying

To break a bad habit:
1.  Make it invisible
2.  Make it unattractive
3.  Make it difficult
4.  Make it unsatisfying

Make It Obvious/Invisible
Visual cues are a strong catalyst for habits. A small change in what you can see can shift what you do. Make cues for good habits obvious and make cues for bad habits less visible. Place your gym bag by the front door so you’ll grab it when you leave for work. Put your phone in another room when you want to have family time. Clear calls this “being the architect of your environment”.

Make it Attractive/Unattractive
Our physical and social environments affect our habits. Clear says it helps to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. If your goal is to run a marathon (even a virtual one), join a running group. 

Another way to make a good habit more enjoyable or attractive is to shift your thinking from “I have to” to “I get to”. Instead of “I have to get up early for work”, think “I get to get up early for work because I have a job, and I have skills that help people.” Reframing a burden as an opportunity can help make the good habit less painful.

Make It Easy/Difficult
The brain is wired to conserve energy. When deciding between two similar options, we naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of effort. So, make your good habit convenient (choose a gym near your home or office). Make a bad habit more difficult (put your phone away during family time).

Clear suggests that when starting a new habit, limit the behavior to two minutes at first. If your goal is to run a marathon, begin with the habit of putting on your running shoes immediately upon waking. Don’t worry about the running part until the shoe part is a habit. Limiting the behavior to two minutes initially will increase the likelihood that you will repeat the behavior.

Habit stacking is another way to make a new habit easier: pair a current habit with a new habit. For example, if you want to start meditating, decide: “After I pour my cup of coffee in the morning, I will meditate for two minutes at the kitchen table.”

Once a good habit has been formed, continue looking for ways to challenge yourself to avoid getting bored and abandoning the habit. Clear points to the “Goldilocks Rule” which states that humans achieve peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the perimeter of their current abilities: tasks that are not too hard, not too easy, but just right. In other words, the habit has manageable difficulty. Once you have a solid habit of running, for example, you will need to challenge yourself to go farther or faster to avoid boredom.

Make it Satisfying/Unsatisfying
As any parent knows, what is rewarded is repeated. To create (and repeat) a new habit, it is important to feel satisfaction, otherwise known as the reward.

Humans are wired to prefer immediate reward. It is hard to ignore an immediate reward (donut) in favor of the delayed reward (better health). Clear suggests training yourself to delay gratification by attaching an immediate reward to a good habit, such as making myself a cup of tea when I decline a sugary treat. Another example would be taking a bubble bath after working out. 

Reward can come in other forms, such as tracking your progress in a journal, or by putting an X on the calendar for each day you do the good habit or avoid the bad habit. Even crossing an item off your to-do list is satisfying. Visually seeing our progress motivates us to keep going. This is why restaurants use loyalty punch cards and why the software downloading on our computer shows a progress bar. 


Eventually, an immediate reward won’t be needed because the habit will become part of your identity. According to Clear, incentives start a habit, but identity sustains the habit. 

In starting a new habit, focus on your identity— that is, what you wish to become, rather than on what you want to achieve. For example, when declining a cigarette, think “I’m not a smoker” rather than “I’m trying to quit smoking.” This shift in identify can help drive your habits. 

Exactly how long does it take for a new habit to form? Clear says there is no magic number. Habits form based on frequency, not on time. The number of times an act is performed matters more than the amount of time it is performed. Repetition is key. 

In conclusion, meaningful change does not require radical change. By adopting small behavior shifts and applying them consistently, we can create lasting habits to enrich our lives. 

By Lisa Buck
Ms. Buck practiced corporate law in Minneapolis and was an adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law. She contributes to the Hennepin Lawyer and servces on the board of the Hennepin County Law Library