Trying to get a slippery habit to stick? A few lessons in human psychology can act like superglue in helping you create a new routine, behavior, or even identity.
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, calls the following tips the “Four Laws of Behavior Change” that turn regular cues into cravings, rewards, and ultimately reliable responses (habits!). Keep reading to learn how to apply each to any habit you’d like to create.
Tip 1: Make It Obvious
The first law of sticky habits involves obvious cues: a way to nudge your brain to perform the behavior or action you want to become a habit.
For example, if you want to learn the guitar, you’ll need to make a habit of regular practice. And the best way to persuade your busy brain to put in the time? It’s definitely not keeping that guitar tucked away in a closet. Instead, place the guitar in a high-traffic location like the living room or kitchen, where you’ll see it several times during the day.
Each time you lay eyes on that guitar, you’ll reinforce the idea that your daily routine includes fifteen minutes of practice time.
One way to make your new habit extra sticky (and obvious!) is to “stack” the new habit with an established one. For instance, if you already have a routine of feeding the cat, you might want to place the guitar next to the food dish (as a reminder to practice first).
Tip 2: Make It Attractive
The second tip for an ultra-sticky habit is to make it attractive. Consider this: Research shows that your brain releases dopamine not just when you do something enjoyable but when you anticipate doing something enjoyable.
This anticipation is a powerful tool for giving a new habit staying power. In Atomic Habits, Clear encourages readers to link a developing habit with an activity they already find pleasurable. This trick helps the brain connect the anticipation (and associated dopamine rush) with the new habit.
Clear calls this strategy “temptation bundling.” Let’s say you want to create a habit of exercising three times per week. Bundle that habit with an audiobook or podcast series you’re dying to finish (along with a rule that you can only listen while working out).
Tip 3: Make It Easy, Not Perfect
Sticky habits require repetition. After all, the very definition of the word habit is “a regular tendency or practice.” And the best way to encourage that repetition, according to Clear, is to prioritize ease over perfection.
Clear reminds readers of Voltaire’s quote: “The best is the enemy of the good.” There’s no need to get hung up on perfect execution. Instead, focus on taking action, even if that action is imperfect. Fifteen minutes of lazy guitar practice is preferable to zero minutes of perfect, rigorous guitar practice.
Tip 4: Make It Satisfying
Clear calls this tip the “cardinal rule of behavior change.” He explains, “What gets rewarded, gets repeated. What gets punished gets avoided.”
It’s helpful to understand that the brain craves immediate rewards rather than delayed gratification. This fact underscores the importance of celebrating little victories and progress along the way. So, give yourself a mental pat on the back each time you repeat your desired behavior instead of “saving up” for a big “perfection” celebration or, worse, berating yourself along the way for not doing enough.
Your goal is to associate positive feelings of accomplishment with the target behavior. Not guilt or anxiety. This attitude increases the odds that you will repeat the behavior.