This is Part 3 of an exploration of Atomic Habits, by James Clear, and how habits change the way we think and perceive ourselves to be. How they can make or break our ability to succeed. And, in particular, how we can apply these principles to our writing life.
In the first two articles, I talked about why building habit systems is so crucial, not only to succeed in accomplishing our goals but, more importantly, to become the kind of people we want to be. I wrote about Clear’s four laws for successfully creating new habits and gave an example of how to use your journal to brainstorm ways to incorporate your desired habits into your life.
As a refresher, here are the 4 laws to creating a new habit and making it stick:
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
Today, I’m going tackle how to get rid of habits that make it difficult for you to be the writer you want to be.
For example, though I’ve established a habit of sitting down to write at the same time each day (yay!) I have an undesirable habit of procrastinating by checking my email or taking care of small marketing tasks instead of focusing on the writing I sat down to do. I want to break this habit.To break a habit, you must do the opposite of creating one. Click To Tweet
Breaking undesirable habits is harder than creating a brand new habit. Why is that? Because habits, by definition, are behaviors we do without conscious thought. The actions we take have already become part of our conditioning and procedural memory.
MIT researchers found that when a behavior has become habitual, neurons fire at the start and end of the behavior. Over time, the repeated behavior literally etches neural pathways into our brains, like having an itch that demands to be scratched.
That’s why stopping habits that no longer serve us is so difficult. You have to maintain a conscious awareness of your behavior and set an intention to behave differently — and as we all know, awareness and conscious presence is not easy to maintain for any length of time. It’s so much easier to simply relax and slip back into our old behaviors, like comfortable slippers.
This is where James Clear’s laws come to the rescue. To support breaking a habit, we must do the opposite of creating one:
- Make it invisible. This is about removing the cues that trigger the behavior. For example, if you want to stop eating chips and other junk food, removing them from your kitchen or putting them in a different and non-visible location reduces your exposure to the food. I have found that changing where I write has a positive effect, because it removes the visual and experiential cues that trigger my undesirable behavior at the start of my writing session.
- Make it unattractive. To make something unattractive, you have to reframe how you think about it by highlighting the benefits of avoiding the behavior. Again, in my personal example, I find it helpful to spend a few moments before I begin my writing session by imagining how good I will feel when I have added a certain number of words to my chapter in progress or finished that scene, and how awful I’ll feel if I allow myself to get distracted and don’t get any real writing done. Then, any time I’m temped to jump over to check my email, I can remind myself of how great I’ll feel if I don’t. Every time I avoid repeating an undesirable behavior, I’m breaking the neural chains that habit has formed.
- Make it difficult. Change your environment so that you have to consciously take more steps to take your undesirable action. In my case, I have just installed a web/app blocker called “Focus” that actually restricts my access to distracting websites, social media, and applications (such as email or games). Years ago, I used a similar app (can’t remember the name of it now), but I know it works. I’ve scheduled it to block access to distraction during my scheduled writing time. And if I want to use those apps or go to those websites, I have to actively unblock myself. And I can even set levels, from simply selecting a menu item to entering a password to a hard block that forces me to wait out the time. That means, if I really want to distract myself, I’m going to have to consciously work at it.
- Make it unsatisfying. How do you make an undesirable habit less satisfying? After all, we probably wouldn’t keep doing it if it was unsatisfying to begin with. Clear suggests getting an accountability partner or making a public habit contract. Embarrassment and shame are powerful tools to help you avoid a particular behavior. That’s one of the reasons I’m sharing my own habit struggle with you — to keep myself accountable to change.
Now it’s your turn.
- What is one habit you’d like to stop doing that negatively affects your ability to advance as a writer?
- List 3 ways you could make that habit less visible or remove the cues that trigger it. Choose one method and circle it.
- How will you reframe the way you view your behavior? What are the benefits of NOT continuing your habit? Write a one-sentenced mantra you will use when you’re tempted to indulge in your habit. The mantra should be positive, focused on the benefits of change. Mine is, “Being a focused and productive writer makes me happy.” What’s yours?
- Brainstorm 5 ways you can you change your environment to make your habit more difficult to engage in. Which way is the most extreme (i.e. will make your habit most difficult)? Choose one to begin.
- How can you make your habit less satisfying? In order to help understand how to make it less satisfying, identify the ways your habit is somehow satisfying. What would create the opposite feeling? Would an accountability partner help? Explore this idea in writing.
Success or failure in any of your endeavors is built on your underlying systems of behavior. You will succeed if you engage in habitual behaviors that support your success and fail if you do not. It’s that simple.
Changing your habit systems — whether you want to add or remove them from your life — may not be easy, but it can be done by employing techniques based on Clear’s four laws of habit building, and their opposite for habit breaking.
But first, you have to choose. What system will you put in place to become a better or more successful writer?