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5 easy, proven ways to break bad habits (and create better ones)

Best- selling author James Clear notes most of your actions are influenced by your surroundings. He says you can manipulate those surroundings to make your desired habits obvious, attractive, easy to do, and satisfying.

5 easy, proven ways to break bad habits (and create better ones)
[Source photo: WestLight/iStock]

James Clear first experienced the power of habits when he was seriously injured during a high school baseball game. Struck in the face with a baseball bat, he fell into a coma. He was determined to play baseball again one day and went through painstaking physical therapy. When he was able to walk again, he made a habit of hitting the gym and going to sleep early. In college, he continued working out and going to sleep early—and eventually, these habits paid off. Clear joined the college baseball team, and he was named to the ESPN Academic All-America Team at the end of his college career.

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Having taken painstaking notes, Clear saw the true power of minute habits. And in his bestseller, Atomic Habits, Clear synthesizes everything he’s learned about habits—from keeping good ones to losing bad ones—and illuminates the transformative power of tiny, everyday behaviors.

1. Habits are compound-interest gains.

On its own, an action like flossing your teeth or buying a cup of coffee seems pretty insignificant. After all, one missed night of flossing won’t immediately give you a cavity. And one cup of coffee, even a fancy $5 latte, won’t break your budget.

But what if you got a $5 coffee every day for a month? What if you got one every day for a year? That adds up to more than $1,800 a year to feed your coffee addiction! When actions become habits, they gain exponential power.

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Say you wanted to improve yourself in some area of your life, and you were able to get 1% better at that activity every day. After a year, you would be 37 times better at it. On the other hand, if you got worse at that thing by 1% a day, you would pretty quickly hit zero.

“Say you wanted to improve yourself in some area of your life, and you were able to get 1% better at that activity every day. After a year, you would be 37 times better at it.”

In isolation, small actions may seem pointless. But when they become regular habits, their power compounds over time, and their impact on your life (for better or worse) becomes enormous.

2. True behavior change is identity change.

Adopting a habit is one thing; sticking to it, of course, is a whole other problem. Imagine you want to lose weight, and to achieve that goal, you decide to go to the gym three times a week. We all know what usually happens: You make it to the gym three times the first week, and maybe even for a second or third week, but pretty soon you end up missing a few sessions, and then the whole plan falls apart.

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Why does this happen? James Clear argues that it’s because “losing weight” is an outcome-based habit, and habits built around outcomes are inherently unstable. A stronger foundation for your new habit, he argues, is to build it around your identity.

Rather than saying, “I want to lose weight,” try saying, “I want to be a person who exercises consistently.” It may seem like a subtle difference, but by focusing on your self-image and steering it toward who you want to become, you’re more likely to build habits that last.

Of course, you can’t change your identity overnight, either. But Clear recommends starting by deciding on the type of person you want to be, and then reinforcing that identity with small wins. Maybe three full-length gym workouts a week is too ambitious to start off with. Even scheduling a regular walk around the block, along with a shift in thinking toward “I’m a person who moves his body daily,” will start you on the path toward a new self-image and a reliable habit.

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3. To make good habits stick, make them obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.

Identity alone can’t change your habits. You don’t miraculously become an everyday flosser just by viewing yourself as one—you need to actually floss to be a flosser. But fortunately, whether you perform a habit or not isn’t entirely dependent on your willpower; most of your actions are influenced by your surroundings. And you can manipulate those surroundings to make your desired habits obvious, attractive, easy to do, and satisfying, vastly increasing the chances you’ll stick with them.

Make doing your habit obvious. For example, when researchers placed water bottles in every corner of a hospital cafeteria and by the cashiers, they found that water sales increased by 25.8%, and soft drink sales dropped by 11.4%. Water, which had previously only been available in one corner of the cafeteria, became a more obvious choice.

Make your habit attractive. One easy way to achieve this is to bundle the habit with something you enjoy. You could make a rule that you can only watch Netflix while on the treadmill. By bundling something you enjoy (watching Netflix) with a habit you want (running), you make the habit more appealing.

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Make it easy. Remove the obstacles that prevent you from performing your habit. Want to head to the gym? Set aside your gym bag ahead of time, and choose the gym closest to you. Make the good habit the path of least resistance.

While making it obvious, attractive, and easy ensures that you perform the habit this time, making it satisfying increases the odds that your behavior will be repeated next time. Satisfaction teaches your brain that the behavior is worth repeating, which is especially important if you’re trying to quit something. You need to replace the deprivation with another satisfaction. Trying to quit coffee? You’ll want to find something you love to replace it with—maybe a strong mint tea. Trying to eat out less? Each time you eat in, transfer $50 into a savings account that you can use on a trip to Europe next year.

4. Make bad habits invisible, unattractive, difficult, and unsatisfying.

On the flip side of Big Idea #3, if you’re trying to quit a bad habit, you need to make it invisible, unattractive, difficult, and unsatisfying. To drink less alcohol, make it invisible by not keeping any at home. To smoke less, put up pictures of yellow teeth, tarred lungs, and destroyed gums all over your apartment.

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We keep repeating our bad habits because they bring us some kind of reward, even if it’s an unhealthy one. So identify what that reward is, and see if you can associate it with a healthier habit. Meanwhile, do everything you can to highlight the downside of the bad habit. Accentuate the pain it causes so that the behavior just doesn’t seem worth it.

5. Reflect on your progress to master your skill.

Over time, your habits can grow stale, and may no longer bring you the rewards they once did. The antidote to this is reflection—making time to review your progress and reset your goals as needed. Maybe three workouts a week have become easy for you and have started to get a little boring. It could be time to add a fourth session or to challenge yourself to a higher weightlifting goal than the one you’ve previously reached.

Some people make tracking their habits a habit of its own, which can be a great way to pat yourself on the back for consistency or spot any issues causing you to fall short. Whether or not you choose to formally track your habits, building in time for review and reflection ensures that you’ll capture the exponential gains of your small, daily behaviors—and live a life that matches your aspirations.

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This article originally appeared in Next Big Idea Club magazine and is reprinted with permission.


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