Developing & Deconstructing Habits

“Pretty much any of the results in your life are a lagging measure of your habits.” This phrase is one of James Clear’s favorites as he shares ways in which to develop or deconstruct habits enabling people to achieve results. Last week, I wrote about the relationship between our identities and habits in the blog, Identity & Habit Alignment. In that post and here, I reference the work of James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, whom I have learned a great deal regarding my habits and their alignment or lack of alignment with the identities I desire.

Here I will share how James’ four stages of any habit goes through and I’ll illustrate each through examples of my own. The four steps to build better habits include:

  1. Make it obvious (queue)
  2. Make it attractive (craving)
  3. Make it easy (response)
  4. Make it satisfying (reward)

Invert each of the four to break a bad habit…make it invisible, unattractive, difficult, and unsatisfying.

Make it obvious

Do this by environment design…restructure your physical environment to make the queue of your good habits obvious and bad habits invisible.

Alan example – this is one James shared and I tried it myself. I wasn’t consistent with flossing my teeth. My dental floss was in a drawer tucked away while my tooth brush sat on top of the counter. I grabbed a coffee cup and threw the dental floss picks in and placed my tooth brush inside as well. With the floss in front of me every time I would reach for the tooth brush it made it easy for me to see and grab. I started this habit January 1 and have not missed a day this year…now over four months simply by changing the physical environment.

A bad habit of mine I will now make invisible is eating chips. When I’m within two months of a big race I really focus on eating as clean as I can including not having a chip or processed dessert. Oh how chips have resurfaced since I’ve been injured and my next big race not on the calendar for another four months… To do this, I will not purchase them, thus making them invisible in my home. For whatever reason if I eat out I don’t find it difficult to pass on chips so I don’t have to worry about restaurants making them invisible for me. I don’t think they would like that request of me as well…

Make it attractive

When you interpret a behavior as attractive then you have a reason to perform the action and are motivated to do it. James goes on to share how the behaviors that are attractive to us are dependent on the people we are around. If we are part of a group there are also shared expectations to be a part of the group. Habits that align with the shared expectations of the group are attractive to our brains and we will act accordingly.

Alan example – while injured and not being able to run I was unable to participate in a Tuesday morning track group so I did not go. Each Tuesday morning I was doing my own thing. I then decided even though I couldn’t go and run to show up anyway. I would go, mix with the group before and after their run and go for a walk. It was exercise for me and as close as I could get to running and felt a part of the group again. Powerful for my head…

On the flip side, over the last couple of years, I’ve stepped out of some groups and relationships that didn’t charge me. I simply have to be aligned with the people and groups I interact with on a regular basis.

Make it easy

Many of our behaviors are simply about convenience. Tip – reduce the number of steps between you and the good habits and increase the number of steps between you and the bad habits.

Alan example – even though I’m the ultimate morning person I prefer not to have to think or put a lot of thought into my morning training when I wake up. To make this easy, I write my training plan on a weekly basis and lay out my clothes and equipment the night before so when I wake up I focus on the effort and not on what I have to get ready to get out the door. As you see in the featured blog photo above, when I have a morning ride, I will place my clothes, headband, glasses, helmet and shoes together and attach my lights to the bike ensuring they are charged. It makes the experience so much more efficient and less stressful.

To make something difficult, I’ve eliminated some unimportant applications off my phone so I can’t check them throughout the day. I need to go on my lap top to check and that is much more of an effort for me than grabbing my phone which is next to me all the time.

Make it satisfying

The key is to make the habit immediately satisfying. Behaviors that are immediately rewarded get repeated. Behaviors that are immediately punished get avoided. It’s all about the speed of how quickly you feel satisfied or good.

Alan example – I absolutely love race day! One of my identities is being an athlete and who loves to compete. As James states here the key is to make habits immediately satisfying. If all that made me happy was racing I would be in trouble as I race at most every three weeks. What I do daily is train. When I train even though I love it, many times the routines are extremely difficult, grueling and painful. It’s after completing a really hard interval and/or routine that I feel fantastic. I feel I have made progress and it supports the identity of being an athlete who showed up to attack a workout and got better. When I have these first thing in the morning it propels me into the day with a great attitude.

On the behavior that is immediately punished and you want to avoid side of the equation – I’ll never forget about 20 years ago at work I walked into a manager’s office, sat down and began walking through an update without setting the stage for our meeting. I was stopped in my tracks and given feedback on how I missed setting the agenda. That meeting stuck in my head to this day and since that tough encounter, I have set the stage for a meeting and in the few cases where I simply could not prepare prior, I offered to set the agenda in the moment and many times ask the other person(s) to set it with me.

One last effective tip James shares I think is powerful:

2 minute rule

Whatever habit you are trying to build, scale it down to the first two minutes. It’s the mastery of showing up. Oh my, “showing up” referenced again?!?! If you know me or read my blogs, one of my favorite phrases is from Boston Marathon winner, Des Linden, who anchors to this often. She states that even on days when you feel you just don’t have it to “keep showing up.” If you just show up and start, it’s a win. This manifests in the focus being on the start line, not the finish line. If it’s only the result you are chasing you will never get there and be dissatisfied much of the time.

Alan example – at work as we have been challenged with the COVID-19 environment. One important aspect of our lives is to maintain our own wellness. This can help in so many ways and in a work environment it can certainly help with stress management. I suggested to my team we do a daily exercise with the guideline being simple – it would last for 1-3 minutes. Up to three minutes will not make us wellness warriors but it does support the muscle for the team to exercise daily and who can’t afford 1-3 minutes in a day. The focus being on showing up, not winning a contest. This builds momentum and our brains then expect to perform the task on a regular basis.

I hope these techniques from James and my examples help you in some way. Let me know how you have developed new behaviors or stopped bad ones.

– Add Health to Your Life

Additional reference – James Clear on The Rich Roll PodcastEpisode 401 Atomic Habits


2 thoughts on “Developing & Deconstructing Habits

Add yours

  1. Unbelievably good article. You just keep getting better and more articulate at conveying each and every message succinctly.


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