Atomic Habits for Writers
Let me paint you a familiar picture. It could be a self-portrait. Or the reflection in a mirror. There is an aspiring writer at the center of it.
This writer envisions great things. They have many bold plans for the future and many ideas of what personal success might look like. When the writer sets a plan for how to achieve their long-term goals by adopting certain habits, they begin with high energy and momentum. They know what they’re capable of, and they’re ready to meet the challenges of reaching their full potential.
But, momentum tends to slow down, even peter out. When it does, other things tend to set in. Overwhelm … anxiety … fear … self-doubt. The writer’s work comes to a stand-still while the writer blames themselves for the inability to act. Then, even when they do execute the good habit, they feel relief, but it’s temporary. Before long, the self-criticism sets back in. The writer thinks, “This isn’t enough — I should be doing more!”
Then, a habit that once inspired pleasure and excitement becomes associated with feelings of resentment and inadequacy.
This is a cycle many people fall into, and it’s simply and brilliantly addressed in James Clear’s recent book Atomic Habits. Clear leans on brain science and human psychology to present his tidy arguments about how to set habits without relying on the conventional wisdom of using motivation or discipline to achieve our goals.
The cycle I described above is a familiar one to many of us — not because of our own moral failings, laziness, inability, or incompetence — but because we’re simply asking too much of ourselves. We blame ourselves for not rising to our inner expectations, even while we ignore the fact we’re demanding more than is reasonable.
Clear’s research illustrates why we should be a little kinder toward ourselves.
Energy is a precious resource, and human beings are hardwired to conserve it. Our real motivation as living beings, Clear points out, is to be lazy and do what’s convenient. This isn’t stupid at all — it’s incredibly smart, when resources are limited and the future is uncertain.
When presented with two options, it’s natural to gravitate toward the one that requires less energy. And, because the brain has a slight bias toward instant gratification (it values certain rewards in the present more than uncertain ones in the future), we have a very human tendency to prioritize short-term gains, even at the risk of long-term benefits.
So, if you ever feel like you’re literally fighting with your inner self to get things done, the truth is … you are!
The good news is you don’t need to fight your human nature in order to accomplish your goals. You just need to learn why we do what we do, and how to structure a system that will work with you, not against you. You have to lean into the aspects of human psychology that look like weaknesses until you can tap into their inherent strengths.
This system will require you to abandon certain misconceptions about human behavior. It will ask you to lower your standards and disentangle your self-worth from your productivity. At times, it might make you feel foolish. And — most importantly — it urges you to unlearn the idea that hard work and good habits go hand-in-hand with suffering, discipline, and teeth-gritting. Instead, it asks you to embrace the radical idea that doing stuff — even “work” — must feel good for you to get it done consistently.
Don’t Fight Your Nature
The most disciplined people in the world aren’t truly that disciplined. Rather, they’ve made it easy to do the things they want to accomplish. Very few people want to commit themselves to suffering and discomfort for extended periods of time, which is why those who accomplish their goals create a system that makes the experience more enjoyable and achievable.
Clear writes that every habit is comprised of four distinct parts: an initial cue, an associated craving, a response (whether action or inaction), and — usually — a reward. Each of these steps can be subtly influenced at any stage in the process to give you more control over your own behavior.
In practice, habits, whether we call them “good” or “bad,” are mental shortcuts to help us solve specific problems in our environment. The problems we prioritize are the typical concerns of living creatures. The things we seek like food, money, fame, love, friendship, and approval are all potential “rewards” in the habit system. We constantly scan our environment, even subconsciously, seeking signs for how to meet needs and receive rewards.
These signs are cues: indications of opportunity and of imminent pleasure. A bag of potato chips is a potent visual cue when it’s left on the counter. But, a bowl of fruit will inspire better eating habits if unhealthy options are out of sight. People are likely to reach for what’s easier, and visual cues make decisions easy.
A crucial component of the habit system is that we respond to a cue with an associated craving. (“Mmm, that looks good!”) Nobody will eat the fruit in the bowl if it’s gone bad, or if they have an allergy, or they hate the taste. We have to want and anticipate the reward in order for the craving to kick in.
Craving is one of the most powerful steps in a habit. If we approach an apple with disgust — no matter how many apples we think we should eat — we can’t force ourselves to eat it, and we might hate it if we try. (But, a genuine desire for a crisp, fresh apple will steer us toward it effortlessly!) Similarly, if we’re surrounded by unmanageable, negative emotions every time we engage with a difficult habit, we will avoid it as much as possible.
The response is whether or not the habit is performed. Do you eat the apple or choose not to eat the apple? Whether or not you pursue the habit depends on how attractive it looks and how easy it is to accomplish. How many steps stand between you and the apple? Is it within reach, or somewhere difficult to access?
And the reward is what closes the loop and, hopefully, gives us some satisfaction. Maybe it’s the taste of apple and the feeling of satiety. If the reward was good, then you’ll associate that satisfaction with the initial cue (the sight of apples in the bowl) and continue to perform the habit. But, if the reward was not satisfying — if the apple was mealy, or brown, or bitter — then you’re likely to choose alternative snacks in the future.
Take Control of Your Environment
It may be alarming to realize your environment has a greater effect on you than your own goals and motivations. The brain loves to grab onto what’s easy and visible. It won’t remind itself of secondary goals when it sees competing cues.
Think about how hard it is to work when everyone around you is slacking off. It’s hard to cut back on certain vices if everyone around you is indulging. It’s hard to pursue your goals if you’re surrounded by easier alternatives that distract you from achieving them.
But, if you can construct an environment where engaging with your goals is EASY — the easiest possible option — then you’re more likely to succeed.
Along with the four steps of any habit, James Clear points out how we can influence the habit at any stage to make it more doable.
- Cue: Make it obvious.
- Craving: Make it attractive.
- Response: Make it easy.
- Reward: Make it satisfying.
Make It Obvious
If you see a reminder for something, you’re more likely to take action on it. It’s that simple. So, if you want to start a new habit, create a cue for it.
First, ask yourself: when will the habit take place and where?
Research has indicated that the simple act of declaring where and when you intend to perform a habit will increase your odds of following through.
Next, determine what kind of cue will prompt the habit. This could be a visual reminder left in a particular place. It could be time-based if you set a reminder alert in your phone. You could chain it to an existing habit, so it will occur at a specific point in your morning or evening routine. It could occur during predictable and pre-planned periods: during commercial breaks or children’s nap times. Or, it could be tied to something that happens to you, like when you receive a text message. You can also capitalize on the “fresh start” cue to perform something on the first day of the week, month, or year — or even at the “top of the hour.” Our brains like that.
Try to be as specific as possible, but also make this work for your needs. Don’t shove the habit into an illogical space, if you can already sense you won’t follow through. Ask yourself what makes the most sense for you and how you can make it as easy as possible to carry out.
Make It Attractive
If you don’t want to do something, chances are high you won’t do it (unless you’re motivated by some other urge, like the desire to avoid failure or public humiliation). Even if you know you have to. Even if it’s important. Even if you usually like doing it.
If you aren’t craving it at the time, you’re unlikely to do it. But, when you get hooked by something, there’s nothing that can hold you back, right?
A craving is a shallow representation of a deep, often primal, desire. Some examples of these deeper desires include conserving energy, obtaining food and water, bonding with others, reducing uncertainty, winning praise and approval, and more.
Habits are methods of responding to these deep desires. Our brains learn to associate certain desires with certain behaviors (habits). There are many ways to shape your habits based on your own experiences, trial and error, and personal successes. There are many different choices you can take for how to respond to your own cravings. Different people will respond to the same cue, or craving, in different ways.
We know our brains are wired to seek pleasure, but did you know we have more neural circuitry devoted to seeking (and anticipating) pleasure than we do for enjoying it when we’re rewarded? You may have noticed this tendency in yourself or others. It feels better to dwell on how much we want something than to actually get it.
Desire is what drives behavior, motivation, and decision-making. It’s more important for us to act on our cravings than to actually meet them, because wanting things is what causes us to … well, live.
Without something to want, we lose interest and engagement with the world. Apathy, boredom, and depression set in. But, with desire comes clarity and, sometimes, single-minded focus on achieving the reward.
So, how do we turn a cue into a true craving?
We have to make it attractive and train our brains to associate the two.
An important component of making a habit attractive is to actually perform the habit and yield a positive result. Your brain needs proof that this is possible, or else it will imagine the worst and fill in the blanks itself.
All habits inherently have mildly addictive qualities, but only if your brain anticipates that pleasure will result. The only way to believe this is by doing it. So, there are a few things you can do now to make a habit more initially attractive. Keep in mind you’ll grow to appreciate the habit the more you do it, but there may be a small amount of initial resistance to overcome.
The best way to create positive associations for something unattractive is to pair it with something else that’s very attractive. Is there something you’re craving that you can pair with the habit? Bribing yourself with caffeine, or music, or some other little treat is a perfect way to show up more consistently at your writing desk. I know someone who’s passionate about weight-lifting, but her habit only took off when she pledged to spoil herself with a smoothie at each gym visit. Now she drinks fewer smoothies, but still shows up for exercise!
Truthfully, it’s hard to manufacture desire for something. But, you can redirect the desires you already have and channel them into habits that satisfy them, even in new and unfamiliar ways.
Imagine three different people who get jittery before a public speaking event. All three have developed different ways of dealing with anxiety. One may try deep breathing and meditation. One may distract themselves with a book. Another may smoke a cigarette. Although all three methods may have different rates of success, most people will settle into one habit without deviating from it, as long as it works adequately for them. Soon, a nervous feeling — the cue — will become associated with a craving: to be soothed. The brain will immediately offer up a suggestion for what might yield a soothing reward, encouraging them to reach for the same thing that worked in the past.
Whether or not the person engages in the habit — reading, deep breathing, or smoking — depends on how accessible it is. Did they bring a book? Do they have the time or the space to sit quietly? Is there a cigarette in their pocket, or does it require an errand to obtain? If the reader forgot their book at home, they may get a new visual cue (seeing the meditator or the smoker engage in their self-soothing habits) that could prompt them to try a new method.
That brings us to the next step in the habit system. If you’re reminded to do the habit, and you’re interested in doing the habit, are you going to do the habit? Your response entirely depends on how easy it is.
Make It Easy
James Clear points out that even when you know you should start small, you’re likely to start too big.
“I have to get back into exercise, so I’m going to go to the gym three times a week, for 30 minutes.”
“I need to start a daily writing habit, so I’ll plan to write for one hour every night after the kids go to bed.”
“I want to learn a new language, so I’ll schedule a 50-word vocabulary drill into my morning and evening routine.”
All of these goals seem moderate and reasonable, but they’re way too big to start with. There’s too much initial resistance to overcome. These people have not set habits … they’re setting goals. A goal is something like “exercise for 30 minutes,” “write for one hour,” “drill 100 vocabulary words.” But a habit only asks you to show up, and keep showing up, day after day. You’re never going to show up for day 2 or 3 if you feel overwhelmed on day 1.
Clear’s guideline is that a new habit should be something you can complete in two minutes or less. It shouldn’t feel like a challenge at all. It should be so laughably easy that you have no resistance to it at all.
This rhetoric overlaps perfectly with the sentiment of Robert Maurer, author of One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. I strongly recommend his book for anyone interested in learning more about the small and incremental productivity method Kaizen, which is the essence of Clear’s “Two-Minute Rule.”
To figure out your own “two-minute habit,” write down possible actions on a scale of very easy to very hard. Consider your long-term goal to be very hard, and your desired habit, like the examples above, as moderate.
Writing a full-length book is very hard. Writing an essay is hard. Writing 500 words is a moderate challenge. Writing a page is easy. And writing a single sentence is VERY easy.
Can I write a single sentence in two minutes? I sure can. Do I have any reason not to? Only that I feel a little sheepish about it. Writing a single sentence isn’t a big deal.
But, when I tried this experiment myself, I managed to sit down and write a sentence for many days in a row: so many that I surprised myself with my own consistency. There were days when I felt silly and stupid about how small it was, and days when it came as a relief that I was only accountable for something that small. Because it was achievable, I kept doing it. Slowly my confidence grew.
While I worked on it every day, the project stayed fresh in my mind. I continued thinking about it, and developing it, even when I didn’t have to. Soon I felt a genuine yearning to keep going. A single sentence began to feel like a limitation — I wanted to write more — so I wrote more.
Now I’m consistently writing a page a day (today, four pages!) on the same project, and it still feels as effortless as one sentence. I’ve settled into the habit I wanted all along, and I didn’t fight myself along the way.
You can always make your habits bigger once you develop a true craving for them. You can graduate from “very easy” to “easy” or “moderate” goals — and reach occasionally for the hard wins.
Dr. Robert Maurer writes in his book that humans fear change, but small steps melt away the fear. Most people know what should be done, but paralyzing forces prevent them from taking action on it. If you want to take action on something, but don’t know how, just ask yourself, “What’s the smallest possible step I can take toward this goal right now?”
If you want to prove to yourself that you can show up, and keep showing up, keep your habits as simple and achievable as possible. Collect the small wins first. You always have room to grow.
Make It Satisfying
Certain habits become rewarding in their own right. Our brain rewards us for repeating behavior by releasing dopamine in anticipation of our expected reward.
This means that many things will become more satisfying over time, but in the early stages of habit-setting you may want to give yourself surrogate rewards. These can be bribes, as discussed earlier, or they can be progress markers for mental encouragement.
Progress markers are more like mental rewards than tangible rewards. They remind us that we’re on the right track, give us a feeling of control, and promote satisfaction by providing a visual indication of our growth and achievement even when a bigger reward is still pending.
Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain!” advice is a perfect example of how you can combine small steps (making it easy) with a calendar (making it obvious) to create a progress marker of your habit (making it satisfying).
James Clear also explains the “120 Paper Clips” method (which you can read excerpted here). This is a practice where you track small-scale success by physically moving a small object, like a marble or paper clip, from a full jar into an empty jar. As the empty jar fills throughout the day, it provides enough short-term satisfaction to keep you focused on your long-term goal. And breaking it down into many steps makes the whole project seem easier!
We’re also more likely to find habits satisfying if they align with our own sense of identity and interest. Many of us carry conceptions of ourselves and the people we want to be. We will feel anxiety and self-doubt if the decisions we make contradict with that inner self. Clear points out, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” So, if you feel unsatisfied or unhappy with yourself, it’s probably because your brain sees the disconnect between what you want and what you do.
We’re more likely to engage with good habits and behaviors that make us feel proud and express our identity. So, consider the kind of habits that express you and the person you want to become. You’ll feel great satisfaction from taking actions that prove what kind of person you are.
Make a Difference in How You Approach Your Work … or Anything Else
Since I started applying James Clear’s recommendations to my own writing life, it’s made a huge difference in how I approach my own work. I know so many writers who struggle with ever-present feelings of anxiety and doubt. It’s essential to factor in enjoyment, rather than viewing each day as another long list of dreaded things to get through.
Clear's suggestions in Atomic Habits prove that humans thrive when we enjoy what we're doing, and he offers many useful examples of how to structure a situation in order to crave and enjoy a habit rather than dreading and avoiding it. The fact is, many of us assume we ought to be living with our nose to the grindstone, proving our worth through suffering, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Desire and satisfaction are not human weaknesses, but incredibly powerful tools that can be harnessed. We need to embrace pleasure and ease, especially in our own work and writing, if we want to cultivate a balanced and successful life.
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