Why changing habits suck and how Sheryl used “Atomic Habits” to fight and win it

Sheryl set her alarm at 6:00 am for March 16, 2020. She had to be at the office at 8 am for an important meeting. Right before leaving home, while sipping her coffee, she checked her office emails. Her 1,000-strong company had asked all its employees to work from home with immediate effect and until further notice. We all know the reason.

This was the first time she was working from home and the first few days just went off in settling down to the new rhythm such as trying to set up an easy work flow process, understanding how to conduct virtual meetings and ensuring a regular flow of communication between colleagues. However, she found himself distracted and disoriented and felt she was not able to be as productive as she normally would be. 

working from home

Sheryl’s friend suggested she read James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Her friend was sure this would help her be more productive and even make it easier to be so. She picked it up over the weekend and tried to apply it to her everyday life.

What are atomic habits?

“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement”

You do not need to do big actions to get big results. All you need to do is make small changes continuously. Clear says if you make improvements such that you are better by 1% every day, you’ll be 37 times better after a period of one year. This effect is the same for errors that compound to have negative effects on your life.

The effects of small habits compound over time. For example, if you can get just 1 percent better each day, you’ll end up with results that are nearly 37 times better after one year.

Since we do not notice any significant changes in a short frame of time, most people end up in the “valley of disappointment” where they do not see the expected results in a few days or weeks and end up giving up their habits.

When habits persist beyond a point (what the author terms as the “Plateau of Latent Potential”, you will notice striking results (which people would term as an overnight success).

This motivated Sheryl to keep going, despite feeling a sense of loneliness and a slow pace of progress. At the end of one week, she ended up finishing a lot more tasks than she expected to.

“If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you.”

The expert on habits makes a clear distinction between goals and systems: the former helps you set a direction in which you want to go, and the latter defines the processes that lead you to the results you want. 

Just the way atoms make molecules, atomic habits result in remarkable results. He emphasizes that you should not rely on your goals to achieve your desired results, but rather on the systems.

What are the problems with just having goals? Those who win and those who lose have the same goals, achieving a goal brings about just a temporary change, the assumption that once you achieve your goal, you’ll be happy is false and goals will not ensure long-term progress.

Though Sheryl set daily and weekly goals for her tasks, she focused on the systems or the processes that would help her achieve those goals.

“Your identity is your repeated beingness”

Clear says we could change our focus from what we want to achieve (outcome-based habits) to who we wish to become (identity-based habits).

He says changing your identity will help you stick to your long-term habits. The two-step process to change your identity is to decide the person you want to be and then by proving it to yourself by getting small wins.

Sheryl stopped thinking of herself as an unproductive person and started working on small actions that would prove to her that she is a productive person.

What are Clear’s four laws of behavior change?

“Habits are mental shortcuts learned from experience”

Any action done repeatedly becomes an automatic habit (think switching off lights before you leave the house) and the final goal of any habit is to solve problems without much thinking or efforts.

There are four steps that form the basis of every habit – cue, craving, response and reward. The cue is what triggers your brain to take an action and also, predicts a reward. The motivational force for every habit is craving – a desire for a change. Response is the thought or action you perform – the actual habit. This is followed by reward – the eventual goal of the habit.

Clear has used the four steps to create a practical framework that can be used to build good habits and get rid of bad ones.Let’s see how Sheryl proceeds to work on building good habits and eliminating bad ones using the above framework.

First Law of Behavior Change: Make it obvious

“We underestimate how much our brains and bodies can do without thinking”

Once habits become automatic, you don’t need to be aware to take an action – the reason why habits are useful as well as dangerous. The author says we must begin changing our habits with awareness and provides an exercise (The Habits Scorecard) for the same.


Simply make a list of your daily habits and identify and classify them as those would give positive net outcomes, negative net outcomes and neutral outcomes in the long-run. This is just to recognize your habits and accept the cues that trigger them.

Sheryl created a list of her daily habits and classified them into positive, negative and neutral categories.

“Many people think they lack motivation when what they actually lack is clarity”

Though there are different kinds of cues, the most common are time and location, the basis of Clear’s Implementation Intentions. All you need to do is tell yourself “I will do (this action/behavior) at (this time) in (this location). With such a plan, you are more likely to follow through your actions than not. Sheryl wrote: “I will do floor exercises for 10 minutes at 7 am in my bedroom.”

Another way is to suffix your new habit to a current one, which is termed as Habit Stacking. “After x action, I will do y.” 

Sheryl thought for a moment and wrote: “After I wake up, I will make my bed. After I make breakfast, I will meditate for two minutes.”

“You can train yourself to link a particular habit with a particular context”

The author argues that motivation is overrated and that what matters more is the environment. He says you can design your environment to ensure the cues for your good habits are made obvious and those for your bad habits invisible. He makes an important point about self-control and says that it is only a short-term strategy and that the easier way is to avoid temptations rather than resisting them.

What did Sheryl do? She stopped working from bed, set up a desk for work in one corner of her living room and started using her bedroom only for relaxing and sleeping. She also uninstalled Facebook from her phone and only used her tablet to connect with her friends on her FB network in the evenings.

Second Law of Behavior Change: Make it attractive

“As an adult, daydreaming about an upcoming vacation can be more enjoyable than actually being on vacation”

Clear makes an interesting point about dopamine (a hormone and a neurotransmitter). Not only is it released when you experience pleasure but also, when you expect it. If you learn to make your habits attractive, they are likely to stick around for a long time enough to become automatic. The fulfillment of an action does not drive us to take actions but only the expectation of a reward does. 

How do we make our habits attractive? By using a method called temptation bundling. You are more likely to keep up a habit if it is done along with something you want to do. You can use temptation bundling in conjunction with habit stacking. 

A couple of examples from Sheryl’s list:

“After I have my breakfast, I will create a to-do list for the day (habit that is needed). After I create the day’s to-do list, I will have a cup of coffee (habit that is desired).

“After I come home from work, I will do 10 push-ups. After I do 10 push-ups, I will watch 30 minutes of ‘Breaking Bad’ on Netflix.

“We want to fit in, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of our peers”

The author argues that we find those behaviors attractive that help us belong and fit in. Clear says we tend to emulate the habits of three sets of people: those who we are close to, those that are done by many and those done by the powerful.

Sheryl formed a group with some friends who were highly motivated and productive. The members kept tabs on each other to ensure that all of them stuck to their schedules and completed their tasks. This covered the first two points – of imitating the habits of those she was close to, as well as those done by many (or the tribe). Next, she looked up to the habits of the powerful people she admired and respected and tried to make a list to model her behavior on those.

“You can make hard habits more attractive if you can learn to associate them with a positive experience”

Habits are attractive if they are associated with positive feelings. For example, you feel a sense of belonging when you check Facebook and chat with a couple of people online. Similarly, the author says that if we associate difficult habits with positive feelings, they become attractive. He says you need to change your mind-set for this. Instead of saying, “I have to wake up early and make breakfast”, you should say: “I get to wake up early and make breakfast”.

Sheryl wrote down several such instances such as: “I get to achieve 2% of my target in a week if I stick to my schedule” and “I get to motivate my team to complete their work on time and ensure a productive week”.

Third Law of Behavior Change: Make it easy

“Habit formation is the process by which a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through repetition”

We should clearly distinguish between motion (where you are preparing, learning and planning) and taking action (where you do something that produces a desired result). For example, when we find out the different ways to reach a destination, it is motion and we take the bus to go there, it is taking action.

Clear says we should repeat an action multiple times to master it and it doesn’t really depend on perfecting it. It doesn’t matter how many days or weeks or months or years you keep up a practice. What matters is the frequency or how often or how many times you repeat a particular action. There is no particular time frame for mastering a habit.

“Conventional wisdom holds that motivation is the key to habit change”

The author says that the real motivation of human beings is to be lazy and get things done as easily as possible. In other words, the more energy a task requires, the higher the chances that it will not be done and vice-versa. Instead of forcing yourself to stick to a particular habit (which is unlikely to last anyway), you should make it easy and effortless to execute it.

You should reduce the friction that is associated with desired habits and increase that linked to your unwanted habits. Designing your environment is one of the best ways to do so. 

Sheryl gets distracted easily by notifications on Whatsapp. She uninstalled it from her phone every morning (before her workday began) and re-installed it only after she finished all her office tasks for each day to catch up on all the missed conversations. (increasing friction to eliminate unwanted habits). Besides, she kept a notepad and a pen on her desk to note down the minutes of all meetings she attended in addition to jotting down random ideas she got while working (decreasing friction to build a desired habit).

“Habits are like the entrance ramp to a highway”

One habit leads to another and before we know, it has set us on a path of different activities. For instance, you may want to check Instagram for two minutes to “take a break”. However, you realize that you ended up commenting on posts, which led to elaborate conversations with your friend. The author describes these little choices as decisive moments.

Whenever you take up a new habit, you should start small, what the author describes as “The Two-Minute Rule”. If you want to read everyday before going to bed, you just say: I will read one page everyday. Whenever you pick up a new habit, the main thing to remember is that you must stay below the point where it starts to feel like work. 

For ensuring that the desired habits are sustainable on a long-term basis, you should automate your habits and one of the ways to do that is by the use of technology.

Sheryl became more aware of the decisive moments and began to choose the path that would lead her to her desired identity of being productive. For all the habits she had listed to become more productive, she did not push herself too much but just ensured that she did it for at least two minutes. As for automation, Sheryl unsubscribed from all the emails that did not help her in her goals and turned off notifications for all group conversations in her office chat application.

Fourth Law of Behavior Change: Make it satisfying

“We are looking for immediate satisfaction”

You should make your habits such that you keep repeating them, which means they should be satisfying. However, most of the habits we pick provide delayed outcomes (if you follow a diet plan, the desired weight loss might happen only next year) and the bad ones provide immediate pleasure (though the outcome is bad). So, the trick is to add some immediate pleasure to your good habits and some immediate pain to your bad ones.

Each time Sheryl felt tempted to watch the television or check her social media accounts during work hours, she added an extra work task to be completed in her to-do schedule.

“Tracking isn’t for everyone, and there is no need to measure your entire life”

One of the best ways to measure the progress you are making is to use a habit tracker because visual cues such as ticking off the days in a calendar provide great reinforcement to your behavior and also, provide satisfaction. You should automate your habit tracking, if possible and limit manual tracking to your most important habits. You should record the metrics soon after the desired behavior is performed.

Sometimes, due to certain special situations, you are unable to be consistent. The author’s advice for such cases is that you can miss a habit once but not twice. However, he also warns against giving too much importance to things that can be measured as there are also things that can’t be measured but may be taking you in the right direction.

What did Sheryl do? Each time she finished a task, she moved a marble from a red jar to a green one.

“You are less likely to procrastinate or give up because there is an immediate cost”

Another way to keep up with your habits is to draw up a habit contract and having an accountability partner. We are more likely to stick to our habits if we have the negative consequences written down (and signed by others) for not doing the desired actions. Similarly, you are more likely to follow through your habits if you have made promises to others.

Sheryl mapped out all the tasks required to become more productive at work and broke it down to the smallest details. She also wrote down the consequences of not keeping up with the listed tasks. She signed the contract and made her mentor put her signature to it as well. In addition, she asked her best friend to act as her accountability partner to keep up a particular set of habits she was trying to build as part of her weekend routine.

So, do you think the four laws of behavior change will help you? Which habits are you trying to build and which ones are you struggling to break? Let us know by commenting below!