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How to Master the Tiny Habits That Will Help You Reach Your Potential

one step at a time

When he was a teenager, James Clear got hit in the face with a bat during a baseball game. It took surgery and nearly nine months for him to be able to work on regaining basic functions, like walking in a straight line. And even then, he could only focus on developing one tiny new habit a time. But together, these tiny habits turned out to make a difference—big enough that, in college, he was named an Academic all-American.

Luckily for us, Clear also went on to be an expert in how tiny habits can help us reach our potential—insights he compiled in 2018 New York Times best-selling book, Atomic Habits and is sharing with the Conferences for Women.*

“Excellence is not really about making radical changes,” he says. “It’s about accruing small improvements over time and committing to this philosophy of continuous improvement.”

Put another way, it’s about establishing a system of habits that will help us reach our goals. And this, according to Clear, happens in these four stages: cue, craving, response, reward, which he explains as follows:

  • “The cue is a trigger that tells your brain to initiate a habit. It’s a prompt. You walk into the kitchen. You see the plate of cookies. That’s a visual cue that signals the habit of eating cookies.”
  • “The craving is the prediction that compels you to act. It’s the way that you interpret the cue. You could imagine someone walks into a kitchen and sees a pack of cigarettes on the counter. If they’re a smoker, they interpret that as, oh, I have a smoking craving. I should pick up a cigarette and smoke it. Someone who’s not a smoker interprets that cue in a totally different way, and so that craving, the prediction that you make about what something means, is what drives you to act or not.”
  • “Finally, there’s the habit that you perform, the actual response, and then there’s some kind of outcome, some kind of result. Usually, if a habit sticks, it’s a reward.”

So, what do you do if you want to start a good new habit or stop a bad one? Clear recommends four steps:

1.    Make it obvious.

“Behaviors often lead from one to another,” Clear says. You go to the bathroom, which reminds you, I need to wash my hands. You wash your hands, and that reminds you, I need to dry them off. You pick up the towel, and you’re like, oh, the laundry’s dirty. We’re out of laundry detergent. I need to go to the store and get some.”

Clear recommends using this fact about human behavior to implement new behaviors through intentional “habit stacking.” For example, if you want to meditate, decide that you will do so for a brief, set amount of time directly after you make your morning cup of coffee—so one familiar thing triggers a new one.

“Most people think that they lack motivation, when what they really lack is clarity. What they really lack is understanding when and where they’re going to do something. Habit stacking and implementation intentions can help you get over that,” Clear says.

2.    Make it attractive.

“In the 1930s, there was a psychologist named Kurt Lewin who came up with what he calls Lewin’s Equation, which simply means behavior is a function of the person in their environment,” says Clear. “The way that I would describe this for habits is that I’ve never seen a person consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.”

The upshot: Design your environment to work for you instead of relying on willpower, which has been found to be far less effective. For example, if you spend too much time scrolling through your phone before getting out of bed in the morning, put your phone in another room and use a clock instead, says Clear.

3.    Make it easy.

“Habits often serve as an entry point to our behavior,” says Clear. “They’re like the entrance ramp to a highway. If you can master that entrance ramp, then you often find yourself speeding in the right direction, without having to put a whole lot of more work in.”

Specifically, Clear recommends using what he calls the two-minute rule. “The basic idea is you take whatever habit you’re trying to build and scale it down until it’s just two minutes or less. ‘Read 40 books a year’ becomes ‘read one page.’ ‘Do yoga four days a week’ becomes ‘take out my yoga mat.’ The point is simply focus on what will get you started and build from there.

4.    Make it satisfying.

To make a habit satisfying, Clear recommends tracking it on a calendar or through some other visual device to give you a sense of immediate satisfaction from doing it—and then, recognizing that we all will miss out on a new habit from time to time, simply commit to never miss twice.

“It’s almost never the first mistake that ruins you,” he says. “It’s the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. If you can cut that off at the source, then you find that it doesn’t matter too much in the long run.”

* James Clear spoke at the 2019 Pennsylvania Conference for Women and at the 2018 Massachusetts Conference for Women. This article is based on his 2018 talk.

To hear more from James Clear, check out our interview with him for Women Amplified: A Podcast from the Conferences for Women.