Creating Habits in an Age of Distraction

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There’s no doubt that we are more distracted than ever in our age of screens. Everything from the latest news on social media to our favorite movie to online shopping is only a few clicks away. The cost, though, is not a light one: The productive and meaningful habits in our life are taking a back seat, and forming new, good habits is harder than ever.

Enter James Clear. In 2018, Clear published his No. 1 best-selling Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. In this over-250-page book, Clear details four scientifically verified steps to, as his title suggests, build good habits and break bad ones.

Underlying Clear’s methods is the idea that, for all our actions, we undergo four steps: the cue, the craving, the response, and the reward. The cue is what incites the action; the craving is our desire to do the action; the response is the action itself; and the reward is the pleasurable effect of our action.

Everything we do—great or small—involves these steps. For example, getting out of bed in the morning involves our alarm clock (cue), our desire to keep our job (craving), our response (actually getting out of bed), and our reward (getting to work on time). Likewise, even small things (like grabbing a glass of water) hold a cue, craving, response, and reward: We get thirsty (cue), want water (craving), get a cup out of the cabinet and fill it with water (response), and have our thirst quenched (reward).

For Clear, then, building good habits can be simplified by optimizing each of these steps. As each individual step of our habit runs more smoothly, the habit as a whole is far more likely to become routine. With this in view, he presents his four laws of habit formation:

1. Make It Obvious

This first law focuses on an action’s cue: the thing that first prompts us to do an action.

Since any action begins with some sort of cue (eating chocolate begins by seeing chocolate, studying begins with an open textbook, etc.), Clear suggests that we make the cues of desired actions obvious. If we want to, say, run more, he says, we should set our running shoes out where we can see them. If we want to drink more water, we should put a water bottle at key places in our house or workspace. If we want to read before bed, we should put a book on our nightstand.

Beyond this, Clear suggests “habit stacking”—that is, mentally attaching a desired habit to an established habit. For example, if we want to read more before bed, and we have a habit of brushing our teeth before bed, we can mentally attach our current habit to our desired habit by saying aloud, “After I brush my teeth, I will read a chapter of my book.” Brushing our teeth thus becomes the cue for reading, and—since the cue is obvious—the likelihood of completing the action and creating the habit increases.

2. Make It Attractive

The second step of any action is craving—our desire to do the action. Acquiring a habit will become easier when we increase our desire to acquire it.

Increasing desire can at times be done intellectually—for example, we can take a few minutes to consciously contemplate and note the benefits of acquiring the desired habit. At other times, it can be increased in more tangible ways; for instance, joining a related “culture” (e.g., an exercise group) can increase our desire to acquire the habit (in this case, exercising). This increases the desirability of our habit, making it more likely that we will consistently do it until it becomes a personal habit.

Beyond this, Clear suggests what he calls “temptation bundling,” or pairing wanted actions with needed actions. For example, we could listen to our favorite podcast as we run a mile, or we could start our book-reading habit by rereading a book we remember enjoying in the past.

3. Make It Easy

The third rule corresponds to the third step of actions: the response, or the visible reaction to the cue and craving.

To make the response easy, Clear advises that we seek to reduce “friction”—that is, the number of steps between us and our good habit. In some ways, this strategy reflects the first step of making the cue obvious. We can make it easy to start studying at 9 a.m., for example, by setting up our laptop and supplies the night before—even opening our textbook to the exact page we’ll need when we begin work the next morning. In this way, Clear says, we “make the good habit the path of least resistance.”

In addition to this, Clear suggests using the “two-minute rule” when we begin a new habit. Under this rule, the first few days of our habit should require just two minutes or less; for example, the goal of “I will journal a page every day” can start out as, “I will open to an empty page in my journal,” or the goal of “I will exercise on the treadmill for half an hour” can be begun with “I will step onto my treadmill.” While these small actions might not seem useful or may seem even silly, they will reinforce the steps of our actions by making it easier for us to do them habitually later on.

4. Make It Satisfying

The last rule deals with the last step of any action: the reward. Because rewards (perceived or actual) motivate what we do, increasing the reward will increase the likelihood that we do the action and acquire the habit.

Most simply, we can reward ourselves immediately after doing a difficult action. For example, getting up on time could be rewarded with a special breakfast treat, or studying for an hour could be rewarded with 15 minutes of playing video games.

In addition, Clear suggests using “habit trackers” as a way to give ourselves a sense of accomplishment. Keeping track of and watching our progress can be both rewarding and motivating!

While the nature of the rewards will depend on the person (we’re all motivated by different things), having them waiting can motivate us to successfully acquire our habit.

Of course, these four rules alone will not build good habits for us—Clear clarifies that forming good habits still takes work and determination; however, these principles can help us form habits more naturally: Instead of pushing through our desired actions with pure willpower, we can use tangible methods to make the habits more desirable, easier, and more rewarding.

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