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How to Create Sticky Habits: Make it Obvious

Updated: Nov 14, 2020

Bet you found him pretty quickly in this picture.

Now you must be wondering, "I know the problem and the solution feels pretty obvious, but for some reason I can't seem to stick to it, even once I've gone through the motions a few times." James Clear chalks any failure to change a behavior up to these four questions that underly what he calls the Four Laws of Human Behavior:

  1. How can I make it obvious?

  2. How can I make it attractive?

  3. How can I make it easy?

  4. How can I make it satisfying?

Let's start with the Obvious

The goal is for your brain to pick up on cues that lead to behaviors you want to implement without even thinking about it. Imagine if going to the gym was as simple as drinking water! You can start this by raising your awareness of your habits. a good tool for this is James Clear's Habits Scorecard, a straightforward exercise that allows you list out and evaluate what you do on a daily basis. Only once you've become conscious of your actions can you begin to change them.

You can make habits more obvious by taking advantage of your existing cues. Two of the most common cues that everyone experiences are time and place. For instance, when I walk into the kitchen on any given morning, I will almost unconsciously turn on the kettle to start boiling water for some pour over coffee (it does make a difference, argue with me on Twitter about it). My mind has begun to develop an automatic response when it encounters the cue combo of morning and kitchen at the same time. You can develop this automation intentionally by simply naming a time and place to implement a habit.

^simple formula for an implementation intention.

For instance I'm trying to post to this blog daily for at least a month, so I've developed the following implementation intention:

I will [write my blog post] between [7am-9am] at [my desk].

Another example of implementation intentions you might be more familiar with (especially this year) is voting plans. They call for voters to pick a time and place to vote for the same reason you'd choose a time to implement your new habit: it makes it far more likely that you'll follow through.

Another useful thing to realize about our behavior is that most of the time when we decide what to do next, it has a lot to do with what we just finished doing. For instance if you've just finished a workout, the next few actions you've likely lined up include taking a shower, drinking water, or eating some sort of recovery snack. Each action you take acts as a trigger for other behaviors, which is something you can use to your advantage with a practice called habit stacking.

Habit stacking is exactly what it sounds like, you take an existing habit, and attach a another habit to it. The formula looks like this:

A habit stack that's been working really well for me lately is using turning on my kettle to to trigger my meditation habit. I know it takes about 10 minutes for the water to boil, so the timeframe and trigger end up working as a perfect combo. Once you've filled out the habit scorecard, you can begin looking for existing habits that you can use as triggers for habits that you want to connect.

A combination of implementation intentions and habit stacking can get you a long way towards developing the type of day you want to have, where you're able to stack one good habit after another. However, there's no use in pretending that having a perfect day is as simple as writing these things down and then giving it your best shot. There's two more essential elements worth mentioning here, and that's environment and the illusion of self control.

Environment or the Illusion of Self Control

We all know the old adage, "If its not on the first page of google, it doesn't exist." This phrase actually gives us valuable insight into the way we evaluate our environment. This might sound obvious, but we're most likely to interact with things we can see. That means that even if our dream product is on the second page, we'll likely never buy it or even know it exists without actually seeing it. Businesses know this, and that's why they all strive so diligently to make it to the first page, if not the first result, because every inch scrolled means fewer customers.

Our actions will largely be a result of whatever is front and center. This can be used to our advantage when building good habits (and when breaking bad ones). If you can create obvious cues, especially visual cues, for habits you want to implement, then you'll be far more likely to follow through.

US society in particular is obsessed with the idea that discipline is the key to solving all our problems. While discipline is incredibly important and is a skill that can be trained (shout out Jocko Willink), it's also incredibly difficult to do so in an undisciplined environment. It's hard to eat well if your environment is full of junk food. It's challenging to go to bed on time if you sleep next to your phone. Not to say that any of this is impossible; You can resist temptations as they arise. However you'll probably find it more effective to remove these sorts of temptations from square one.

The reverse is also true, if you want to implement a good habit, design your environment in such a way that makes it as obvious as possible. For instance, if you want to work out more, putting your work out clothes somewhere you can see them the night before is the perfect visual cue. Next time you're thinking of starting a new habit, ask yourself: How can i make it obvious?

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