First Law: Make it Obvious

Jan 22 2019

Reading through Atomic Habits

The rest of Atomic Habits is broken up by the four laws of behavior change that correspond to the stages of habit formation:

Cue : Make it Obvious Craving : Make it Attractive Response : Make it Easy Reward : Make it Satisfying

This section discusses the first law of behavior change, Make it Obvious, in greater detail over four chapters.

Chapters in this Section

Chapter 4: The Man Who Didn't Look Right

The chapter opens with a metaphor for visualizing habits.  Clear reminds you that the adage “You’ll know it when you see it” hints at how our brains are great at recognizing patterns and their symbolic meaning, even if we can’t quite articulate what it’s looking for at the time. To be able to change our habits, we need to know what we’re already doing as habits—to acknowledge and name those unconscious patterns that have built up into the habits we already maintain. Clear uses the pointing-and-calling system to help us understand our preexisting processes.  This is the origin of his habit scorecard; the first exercise asks the reader to list all of their habits, then score them as positive, neutral, or negative.

For the scorecard, Clear provides an example of habits you might list.  When I started listing mine, though, I found that I was only remembering to list the good habits.  If I go through a normal work day, I find that I do a lot of good things.  This is exciting! I’m more proud of myself than I thought I would be!  But I know there are things I want to improve, and I realize that these bad habits are really default actions.  For example, I don’t put things away very often.  This is a bad habit, but it’s hard to specify to the same degree as the good things I do.  A habit of omission, I guess? I think what will be more helpful, and I plan to do tomorrow, is to actually create the scorecard as I go about my day.  This will also help me capture more of my habits at work.

Clear believes that there are no good or bad habits, but only effective habits.  All of these habits were created to solve a problem of what to do in a given moment.  I think this is useful for thinking about automatic actions that don’t quite have the shape of a habit: what problem are they “solving” and how can a more specific habit be created to live in this space?  Clear offers a suggestion of a question you can ask yourself, similar to MariKondo’s spark joy:  “Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?”

I have become a fan of talking to myself to figure out issues, and Clear suggests the same here using the pointing and calling.  If you’re about to do something, say aloud the action and its outcome.

Ch. 5: The Best Way to Start a New Habit

This chapter is a little less visual and hints at the next behavior law, but is still an interesting look at using cues to structure a new habit.  Citing an earlier study on motivation to exercise, Clear argues that time and location are the strongest cues one can have for a new habit.  In the study, one group was asked to use an implementation intention to plan when and where to exercise.  Clear formulates it as “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”  Having a clear plan of action can remove a lot of the doubt or the tendency to reshuffle things when it comes to doing something new.  It also forces you to remove the vagueness involved in larger goals such as being healthier. What does that even mean?  Clear recommends filling out the following sentence for each goal: “I will [Behavior] at [Time] in [Location]. Following his examples, mine would be:

In establishing a time and location for each habit, a routine and order of operations is being built.  Clear refers to BJ Fogg (Finally!) and habit stacking. Clear formulates habit stacking as: “After [Current Habit], I will [New Habit].

When I was writing implementation intentions, I really wanted to write them in terms of other actions, which is exactly what habit stacking encourages.

Clear has a diagram of how habit stacking can work in light of the cue-craving-response-reward cycle, and it’s interesting to see how when you stack habits, the reward should sync up with the next cue.  I’ve never actually thought about it that way, and it both makes sense and poses an interesting challenge to really chain the habits together more than I did X and now I will do Y.

I don’t know that a general set of rules, such as his example of seeing stairs and having a rule to use them rather than an elevator, really functions in that same way of chaining habits.  Some of these things can appear out of order in your life.  Although I do like having some general rules for making decisions. However, he does advocate placing habits in the order that makes the most sense! And to see where something might go best, Clear recommends making two lists: habits you do each day, and things that happen to you every day.

Ch. 6: Motivation is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More

Yes! The design of a space influences how you use it. There is literature all over for this, with schools, libraries, homes, etc., even the advice to shop the outside aisles of the grocery store and not the interior aisles (where all the heavily processed food selections live). The grocery store example goes further into placing brand names front and center while generics are in hard to reach spaces. Clear even includes Kurt Lewin’s equation that behavior is a function of the person in their environment. We return to vision once again  as Clear encourages changing what we see to influence how we behave. The logical conclusion is to place cues in plain sight and in places that make it easy to complete the task associated with the cue.

Clear argues that the context serves as the cue, and is often made up of more than one specific stimulus.  As it’s more about the sensory input overall, Clear encourages thinking of the contents of an environment as having a specific relationship to you.  He uses the example from sleep training, wherein the bed is only to be used when sleeping.  If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something else until you get tired, then return to the bed.  That way it’s only associated with sleep and not wakefulness.  If an environment is so deeply entrenched in a habit you want to change, you may need to go to a new place to create a new routine, and then try to start shifting it to the other environment. Or remove certain elements so that the old routine is interrupted and a new one can take place.  Clear also encourages ‘one space, one use’ which is what I’m trying to do with my bedroom.  It’s helped a lot in terms of getting to sleep (which someone might argue I don’t need any help to do). I think having separate spaces is also useful, but it can isolate things to the point of non-use if you disconnect it entirely from a context in which you even want to engage in the activity. I’m thinking of how I use my computer more when I can also see the TV. Since I’ve had an office to put it in, I use it way less.  It’s also a colder room, which makes me less likely to stay there.

Ch. 7: The Secret to Self-Control

Clear continues the discussion on environment with a reference to a study I hadn’t heard of, looking at Vietnam War veterans and heroin addiction—only 5 percent of them remained addicts after returning home.  Although I wouldn’t consider this a cure-all, Clear uses this example to show how radically altering your environment can help; that superhuman discipline is not needed if you can structure your environment in way that it doesn’t require discipline to stray.  The trouble with bad habits is how they create loops, or what Clear cites as cue-induced wanting wherein the trigger causes a compulsive craving to repeat a bad habit.  This can even be a habit from long ago as the memory still persists.  I’m an emotional eater, and when eating causes more feelings, it spirals. Clear suggests reducing exposure to these cues that accelerate bad habits, and reshape the environment toward positive habits.  Clear invokes the inverse of the law, to make it invisible, when wanting to break negative habits:  “Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one.” Resisting in the moment is another step toward breaking it altogether.

In conclusion, Clear summarizes his tips for the first law as follows:

Atomic Habits Read-Through