This article explains 4 laws of behavior change that help make good habits and leave bad ones. These laws are taken from the Atomic habits book.
A habit is any behavior you have repeated so many times that it becomes automated in your daily life. Further, the ultimate purpose of habits is to make your life easy and use as little energy or effort as possible while doing things.
The Atomic Habit book is all about understanding the science and logic behind our habits. Further, it also provides a framework for our behavior change.
Any habit follows through the structural feedback of human behavior. This loop includes the problem phase (cue and craving) and the solution phase (response and reward).
Understanding the 4 laws of behavior change will help you cultivate good habits and break bad ones. Once you know the framework, you will see examples of the same everywhere.
4 laws of behavior change
1st law: Make it obvious
Once you make a habit, you work on autopilot. You pay little to no attention to what you are doing. Any change in the behavior process starts with awareness.
Carl Jung once said until you make what is unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.
What to do to make your action obvious?
Pointing and calling
Japanese railway conductors have a unique habit of pointing at an object and calling out commands or actions.
They would point at the speedometer and call out the train’s speed or point at the green signal and say go. This simple act of pointing out every single object and saying it loud helped reduce errors by 85% and accidents by 30%.
Pointing and calling help raise the awareness of any action or habit from the unconscious to a conscious level.
One of the most challenging tasks of any behavior change is maintaining awareness. Pointing and calling help you become aware of your own actions by verbalizing them in your speech.
- While going out, point and call all the objects such as keys, phones, wallets, etc., decreases the chances of forgetting things.
A habit scorecard is another simple exercise to bring awareness to your habits. It involves making a list of all the actions or habits you do every day. Next, you segregate the activities into 3 categories.
- Positive: +
- Negative: –
This segregation depends from person to person. It focuses on the outcome you want to achieve or the identity you desire to become.
Ask yourself whether this habit will help me become the identity I desire to become. Habits that reinforce the desired identity are good, while habits that cause conflict with the desired identity are bad.
The 1st law of behavior change is making the habit obvious. To implement your intention and make your habit obvious, leverage the 2 most essential cues: time and location.
Some people think they lack motivation and cannot form good habits. But the reality is they lack clarity.
People who make specific plans about when and where the habit is to be performed are more likely to do it. So make your habit clear and obvious.
I will (behavior/habit) at (time) in (location)
- I will read a book at 7 am in the kitchen.
- I will exercise at 6 pm in the gym.
Habit stacking is a practical way to change your behavior by layering your current habit with new ones. It uses your current habit or connectedness of behavior to your advantage while building new habits.
While implementation intention pairs a new habit with time and location, habit stacking pairs it with your current habit. Habit stacking, also known as a tiny habit recipe, was coined by BJ Fogg to make obvious cues for any habit.
After (current habit), I will (new habit)
- After drinking the coffee, I will meditate for 60 seconds.
- Following meditation, I will write the to-do task for the day.
- After writing the to-do list, I will start the 1st task.
Use the habit scorecards to understand your current habit and then stack them with habits you want to make.
Environment and behavior change
James Clear stresses that motivation is overrated, and the environment has a more influential role in shaping our behavior changes or habits.
To change the eating habits of hospital staff in Massachusetts general hospital in Boston, Anne Thorndike, a primary physician, had a plan.
Anne decided to change the architectural placement of the cafeteria and components within the cafeteria.
Water bottles were added to refrigerators that were previously filled with soda. Water bottles were made available at all drink locations and food stations.
Over the next 3 months, the sale of soda dropped by 11.4%, while sales of water bottles soared to 25.8%. With no motivation or willpower, people changed their habits.
The environment is an invisible hand that helps shape our habits without realizing it. Redesign your environment to make cues more obvious.
- If you want to read a book at night, place it near the light switch near your bed.
- Want to play the guitar? Place it in the center of your living room.
Inversion of the 1st law: Make it invisible
Once you form a habit, it is unlikely you will forget it. Patty Olwell, an Austin therapist, started smoking. She would light up cigarettes when riding a horse. Eventually, Patty quit smoking and riding. Years later, she craved a cigarette when she hopped on a ride.
Once a habit has been encoded, the urge to act will follow the triggers or cues associated with it. You can break a habit, but you can never forget it.
You can never stick to good habits in a triggering or hostile environment. A more practical approach to break the bad habits is to reduce the exposure to cues that cause the bad habit.
- If you watch too much social media while working, put your phone in the other room while working.
- If you spend too much money on online shopping, quit reading reviews or scrolling through shopping apps.
You can control yourself once or twice, but it is unlikely to override your desire every time. The secret to mastering willpower and self-control is optimizing the environment without the triggering cues.
2nd law: Make it attractive
The 2nd law of behavior change says to make the habit attractive. The more attractive the opportunity is, the more likely you will form a habit.
Habits are dopamine-driven feedback loops. The neurological process behind desire and cravings states that we take action not only for the motivation of reward but in anticipation of rewards as well.
How to make habits attractive?
Temptation bundling is a process of linking an action that you want to perform with an activity you need to do. You are more likely to find a behavior attractive if, in exchange, you get something you desire.
The principle of Premack also suggests using the more probable behavior to reinforce the less probable ones using the temptation bundles.
Link your habit stacking with temptation bundling to enhance your behavior change.
Habit stacking: After (current habit), I will ( habit I need)
Temptation bundling: After (a habit I need), I will (a habit I want)
- After my morning coffee, I will read for 10 minutes (need)
- After I read for 10 minutes, I will check social media (want)
Habits and culture
To ensure the 2nd law of behavior change and make the habit attractive, our culture (friends, family, associates, society) must accept these habits. Adopting habits that are praised or approved by the culture helps us fit in and belong to the tribe.
Charles Darwin says that in humankind, collaboration and improvisation have prevailed. Behavior becomes attractive when they help you fit into the group. We tend to imitate 3 groups of people.
We pick up habits and behavior from people surrounding us like parents, peers, friends, colleagues, etc. When you surround yourself with friends who smoke, you are likely to give it a try.
Use this behavior to install habits. Join a culture or group where your desired behavior is considered normal.
Want to become fit? Join a gym. Want to read more? Join a readers club.
Being a reader is a singular identity. It becomes linked to others around you when you join a readers club. This motivated your desired behavior. A genius is not born but is trained and educated to be so.
When we are unsure of our actions, we look up to the group to guide us in our behavior. We tend to imitate the behavior that everyone is doing. The reward of being accepted in the tribe is more important than winning an argument.
We would rather be wrong with the crowd than right alone. Change is unattractive when changing habits are associated with challenging the tribe. Similarly, change is attractive if they help you fit in the crowd.
Once we fit into the crowd, we want to stand out. Humans want to acknowledge, praise, respect, status, and power. We want to be the runner who can run the longest and fastest.
This is why we look at highly effective people and copy their success mantra. Any behavior that gets us approval, praise, and respect become attractive.
Inversion of 2nd law: Make it unattractive
Every behavior has a craving on the surface and motivation in its depth. However modern your cravings may be, it satisfies your ancient desire.
Using social media – Connect and bond
Smoke cigarettes – reduce uncertainty
Eat at McDonald’s – Obtain food and water
Read more – Achieve status and approval
Any habit is a prediction that precedes the behavior which leads to feelings. Once the feelings associated with bad habits are changed, a bad habit can be easily replaced.
Reframe mindset is all about associating a bad habit with a negative experience. Similarly, leverage your positive experience to make good habits.
Change your mindset from I have to I get to. You don’t have to get up early; you get to wake up early.
Create a motivational ritual and practice associating it with something you enjoy. If your concentration level boosts after listening to music, practice it for a few minutes before your work.
Highlight the downside of negative habits to make them unattractive. Like if you are quitting smoking, say things like:
- You think smoking is about relieving stress. But all smoking does is destroy your insides.
- You are smoking to socialize. But you can socialize without smoking too.
Associating positive or negative emotions can help you make or break any habit.
Check out this article to know the 3rd and 4th laws of behavior change.