If I had to recommend one book on taking small steps consistently, my current choice would be James Clear’s Atomic Habits. It’s accessible, well-written, and provides practical tools tailored for average, struggling people. In this post, I want to share some of my takeaways from the book.
But before that, let’s first establish a connection between habits and taking small steps. A habit is “a behavior that occurs regularly — and, in many cases, automatically” (14). We often conceive of our days as consisting of many conscious, willful choices. In reality, however, researchers estimate that 40-50 percent of our actions are done from habit. There is a real sense in which our daily habits are the small steps we take. They play an enormous role in determining our long-term direction.
If that’s true, then we need strategies to build good habits and break bad ones. Clear’s thesis is that effective habit change comes from tiny but consistent changes at each of the 4 stages of habit formation — Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward. Clear organizes his book around 4 Laws of Habit Change, each associated with a stage of habit formation.
|Stages||Building Good Habits||Breaking Bad Habits|
|#1: Cue||Make it Obvious||Make it Invisible|
|#2: Craving||Make it Attractive||Make it Unattractive|
|#3: Response||Make it Easy||Make it Difficult|
|#4: Reward||Make it Satisfying||Make it Unsatisfying|
Rather than rehashing the entire book, I want to share 3 insights I found helpful.
#1: Implementation Intentions and Habit Stacking
“Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. It is not always obvious when and where to take action. Some people spend their entire lives waiting for the time to be right to make an improvement.” (101)
Tell me if this sounds familiar: when you’re busy, you daydream about everything you’d do if you had the time, but when you have the time, your brain suddenly goes blank. You can’t remember your previous plans, or what you had planned seem too tedious or difficult, so you default to time-wasters instead. Without thoughtful planning, we lack clarity on how to take action when opportunities arise.
Clear offers two strategies for bringing clarity to our habits. The first is what he calls an Implementation Intention, which follows this simple formula:
I will [Behavior] at [Time] and [Place]
Many pastors will give this advice for establishing a consistent devotional life and for good reason! Time and place are two of the most common cues that remind us to take action. By predetermining these two factors, we clarify to ourselves how we will follow through.
As an aside, this is also the idea behind time-blocking. Time blocking your day in advance provides clarity about what you want to do at what time, so you don’t have to rely on your memory or willpower in the moment.
The second strategy is Habit Stacking, in which you identify a current habit you already have and then stack a new habit on top. Habit stacking follows this formula:
After [Current Habit], I will [New Habit]
Here’s a video of how one Christian brother uses habit stacking to build a consistent morning routine.
A few simple examples of habit stacking:
- Drink Morning Tea => Clean Workspace
- Walk Dog => Listen to Audiobook
#2: Design Your Environment
The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often. So, yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but creating a more disciplined environment.” (129)
We usually think of self-control as mustering up our strength to face temptation and laziness head-on, but the humbling truth is our willpower is fickle and wavering. It may buoy us when motivation runs high, but it is not a strategy for long term success. We need habits and systems that will keep us afloat when motivation abandons us.
One way to do this is by designing your environment to reduce friction for good habits and increase it for bad ones. Friction is the “force of resistance in the gap between intention and action”. It may seem trivial, but even small amounts of friction can deter us from an action. We should harness friction and design our environments to make good habits easy and obvious, and bad ones difficult and invisible.
To reuse the example of morning devotions, this might mean:
- Charging my phone in a different room and putting my laptop away the night before to mitigate my impulses to check these devices when I wake up.
- Laying out my Bible, journal, and pen on my desk before I sleep so they’re immediately accessible for my groggy morning brain.
#3: Decisive Moments and the Two-Minute Rule
“Habits are like the entrance ramp to a highway. They lead you down a path and, before you know it, you’re speeding toward the next behavior. It seems easier to continue what you are already doing that to start something different…In this way, the habits you follow without thinking often determine the choices you make when you are thinking.” (210)
Clear argues that there are decisive moments in each day, where one small choice can set in motion a chain of other good or poor choices. We’re all aware of how bad habits can quickly create a downward spiral. And once we’re caught in familiar cycles of procrastination, sin, or self-sabotage, it’s difficult to dig ourselves out.
We need to be aware of and attentive to these fork-in-the-road moments, which can set the course of entire days. From what I can tell, my decisive moments are usually:
- When I first wake up
- After dinner
- After an evening meeting or phone call
How I spend these transitional moments — from sleep to starting my day, work to after work, evening to sleep — dictates the hours that follow. The choice usually boils down to this: do I mindlessly turn to technology (YouTube, social media, etc.) or do I lean on simple habits and routines to propel me towards what I need to do — spending time with God, intentionally planning my evenings, or going to sleep.
Clear advises that our habits for these decisive moments should be as easy as possible. He proposes the Two Minute Rule — “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” Overly ambitious goals psych us out in the moment. But if the habit is easy — a single step — we can get started.
More on Atomic Habits
- Christian reflections on Atomic Habits from Theology Professor, David Murray.
- For a more thorough overview of Atomic Habits.
- James Clear’s newsletters — short, punchy, and thought-provoking
Until next time!
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