5 Easy Breakthrough Ways to Build New Habits and Break Old Ones

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You’d like to read more regularly. You want to write a novel. You’d like to start running. You’d like to build a new business. You’d like to learn a new language, or play the piano, or paint, or start a journaling practice. You’d like to stop smoking. You’d like to stop using your phone every 5 minutes.

Maybe you’ve been wanting to do these things for a long time now. But you haven’t. Maybe you feel like a failure. Maybe you feel really lazy. Maybe you think you’re incapable or not smart enough or not brave enough. Maybe you start to doubt your desires: If I really wanted to write, wouldn’t I have done it by now? Maybe you think you lack willpower, or discipline, or grit. 

You don’t. And you’re not a failure or some incredibly lazy person. You’re none of those things.

Maybe you’ve simply been thinking about change all wrong.

According to James Clear in his insight-filled, practical book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, “If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change.”

In other words, instead of setting a single goal, and trying to accomplish that goal, and hyper-focusing on the potential results and outcomes, focus on the system.

Clear also stressed the importance of small. As he writes in Atomic Habits, “all big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow.”

Clear defines atomic habits as “both small and mighty.” Atomic habits are a “regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth.”

Below, you’ll find five easy breakthrough ways for creating your atomic habits—and breaking an old habit or two from Clear’s excellent, empowering, well-written book.

Focus on your identity. According to Clear, the most effective way to change our habits isn’t to focus on the goals we want to achieve. In contrast, it’s to focus on “who you wish to become.” Because the goal isn’t to read a book, Clear notes, it’s to become a reader. It’s not to learn an instrument, it’s to become a musician.

All of us cling to certain stories about who we are, and who we aren’t, which makes making changes really hard, especially when they supposedly interfere with who we really are. You might think, I’m not a morning person, I’m terrible at math, I’m not creative, I’m not a writer, I’m not good with languages.

For most of his life, Clear didn’t consider himself a writer, and his teachers probably would’ve said he was an average writer at best. However, for a few years, he started publishing an article two days a week. “As the evidence grew, so did my identity as a writer. I didn’t start out as a writer. I became one through my habits.”

So, he writes, every time you write a page, you’re a writer; every time you encourage your employees, you’re a leader. He suggests a two-step process for cultivating new habits: decide who you’d like to be, and then start taking small actions that are consistent with that type of person.

Make your environment work for you. That is, let your environment foster the actions that you’d like to take. This is important because we tend to complicate things, which quickly derails our habits. As Clear writes, “we try to write a book in a chaotic household,” or “we try to concentrate while using a smartphone filled with distractions.” The key is to eliminate any friction that siphons our time and energy, so “we can achieve more with less effort.” 

This can look like the following: If you’d like to draw more, Clear writes, “put your pencils, pens, notebooks, and drawing tools on top of your desk, within easy reach.” If you’d like to read before bed, place a book you’re excited about reading on your nightstand or on your pillow, or install the kindle app on your phone.

This sounds super simple, but that’s the point.

We also can make it more difficult to practice old habits we’re trying to break. For instance, while you’re working, Clear says you might leave your phone in a different room, or ask a friend to hide it from you for a few hours, or ask a colleague to hold onto it until lunch (versus keeping it right by your side, or inside a desk drawer for all-too easy access). This way you don’t need to exhaust yourself by relying on willpower or discipline. You’ve made things easy for yourself.

Use the Two-Minute Rule. Clear notes that “a new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first 2 minutes should be easy. What you want is a ‘gateway habit’ that naturally leads you down a more productive path.” In other words, give yourself 2 minutes to start any habit. 

Clear gives these examples in the book: Instead of reading before bed every night, read one page; instead of studying for class, open your notes; and instead of running 3 miles, tie your running shoes. 

This might seem counterintuitive because most of us care about the end result, and doing something for 2 minutes just feels so small, maybe even pointless. So often we adopt an all-or-nothing mindset. We want to be big! bold! We want to go all out, all in! And anything less just doesn’t seem worth it.

But as Clear points out, “it’s better to do less than you hoped than to do nothing at all,” and with this rule, what you’re really doing is practicing and mastering “the art of showing up.”

Take advantage of automation. According to Clear, “automation can make your good habits inevitable and your bad habits impossible.” For instance, during the year he was writing this book, Clear asked his assistant to reset the passwords on his social media accounts every Monday. On Friday, she’d send him the new passwords, so he could check his social media during the weekend—until Monday morning. This way he could focus on writing—without the temptation to check social media for just 1 minute (which always turns into 5 minutes, and 10 minutes, and then an hour).

What can you automate? Maybe you can have a set amount of money go into your savings account every month or every 2 weeks. Maybe you can have your groceries delivered. Maybe you can have your prescriptions automatically refilled. Maybe you can set up automatic bill pay.

Practice habit-stacking. This simply involves adding your new habit to an existing habit you do every day, which is a method created by BJ Fogg. Here’s the formula: “After [current habit], I will [new habit].”

That is, after you pour your cup of coffee, you’ll meditate for 1 minute. After you sit down to begin dinner, you’ll say one thing you’re grateful for. After you get into bed, you’ll kiss your partner.

Over time, you can create a larger stack of small habits. After pouring your cup of coffee, you’ll meditate for 1 minute. After meditating for 1 minute, you’ll write your to-do list. After writing your to-do list, you’ll immediately start your first task.

When coming up with the cue for your new habit, make sure to be super specific. Saying you’ll do something when you take a break for  lunch is vague. Saying you’ll do it after you close your laptop is specific, clear, and actionable.

Building new habits and breaking old ones can seem overwhelming, so we put it off. Or we start, and then very quickly lose steam and stop. Which is why the above tips and insights are so important: If you’re unable to make a change, it’s not because you’re somehow inherently incapable, or a loser who lacks willpower. It’s because you simply need to change directions: You need a strategic, specific, easy, clear-cut system.

And that’s something you can absolutely do.

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