How to Change Your Habits Through Small Changes


“Change is hard” is said incredibly often, perhaps because it’s a truism. “Change management” is a lucrative discipline, because organizations and individuals alike need help bridging the gap between where we are and where we want to be.

But transformation doesn’t have to be daunting. Change is all about creating new habits and breaking old ones, bringing about incremental change—one habit at a time.

James Clear evangelizes that change starts from within: If you want to change the world, “you have to start with yourself and work your way out from there,” he told me. James, an author and speaker who shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research, distills his work down as “one-part storytelling, one-part academic research, and one-part personal experiment.”

I invited James to Marketing Smarts to share tips for building the habits you want, and to discuss his book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

Habits don’t just happen, you create them (04:40): “Habits are a double-edged sword. They can either build you up or cut you down. It’s one of the reasons why it’s important to understand what a habit is and how it works and how to design it to your liking…. A lot of people feel like their habits happen to them, like they’re a victim of their habits. They’re like, ‘Ugh, I wish I didn’t have this habit.’ But if you understand how they work, then you can be the architect of your habits.”

“I break a habit into four stages: cue, craving, response, and reward. ‘Craving’ is the second part of that, the part that we often feel, like ‘I have a craving for a donut’ or a cigarette or something like that. Or, on a positive standpoint, like ‘I have a desire to write my book chapter or launch a new product.’

“We feel that motivation. It’s an emotional or a feeling stage, but there are all kinds of other things happening before or after that that also influence your habits. ‘Cue,’ for example, is the first stage. That’s about the stuff that gets your attention. So it could be your phone buzzes in your pocket. That’s a physical or tactile cue that starts the habit of pulling out your phone. Or an ambulance comes up from behind you on the street and you hear the siren. That’s an auditory cue that gets you to pull to the side of the road. Or you see a plate of cookies on the counter. That’s a visual cue that gets you to pick up a cookie.

“Thinking about that, how do I structure my environment so that I’m more exposed to the positive cues and less exposed to the negative ones? That’s just one example of those four stages, but it shows you how many different levers you have to pull for reshaping your habits. Often, we’re only focused on how it feels, that craving part, when there’s a whole lot more that we could be adjusting or improving: in many cases, many easier things to do than just trying to resist the craving.”

To change your habits at work, you have to think about both the physical environment and the digital environment (09:50): “Sometimes change at work has to do with environment design, so restructuring your office or the things that are on your desk. But it’s not just the physical environment. Many of us spend a lot of time each day staring at screens. What about restructuring the digital environment? For example, when I wanted to build a reading habit, I took my phone and took all the apps off my home screen, so the home screen was blank. The only thing I had on the home screen was the home bar at the bottom, with four different icons.

“So I put phone and text there. And the other two I put were Pocket—which allows you to save articles online to read later—and Audible, which is audiobooks. So I made the most visible, most obvious icons, the things I would see right when I opened up my phone, icons that were related to reading. That increased the odds that I would perform that reading habit.

“Ask yourself: ‘what habit am I trying to build for my business or for my work?’ For a period of time, when I was working on the book, I put Evernote in that spot, because that’s where I did all my writing. So whenever I was talking to somebody or reading a book or working on a project, or even just sitting in the car, if I had a thought that came to me that was related to the book, I could pull up Evernote right away, type it in, and get a sentence down.

“Whether [you choose] a project management tool to track your sales calls or some other app that’s central to the habits that you want to build at work, making that obvious in your digital environment is a good start.”

To learn more, visit JamesClear.com or follow James on Twitter: @JamesClear. And be sure to get your copy of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. There’s also a “Clear Habit Journal” you can check out at JamesClear.com/books.

James and I talked about much more, including how to incorporate some “instant gratification” into your work in order to cement those good habits, and the best frequency to measure your progress, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

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Music credit: Noam Weinstein.


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