Trying To Start A New Habit Or Break An Old One? Here’s How To Do It

On the podcast a week or so ago, Megan and I both mentioned reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear and how much it changed our lives. Since we didn’t really get an opportunity to deep dive into it, I thought it deserved it’s own full article and podcast episode.

I am someone who loves routine; I like doing the same things at the same time nearly everyday. That can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it. I have the stability and consistency I crave (**waves to my childhood trauma**) but I’m also extremely set in my ways. It can be hard for me to add something to or remove something from my routine. But I do have some goals I’d like to incorporate into my life — strength training, for example — and this amazing book will be the key to me doing that successfully.

Atomic Habits James Clear

Obviously, we are super simplifying the strategies from the book here. I highly encourage you to read it for yourself because James goes into the science of habits in a very interesting way. It’s really helpful to understand, especially if you have a self-blaming inner monologue (“I’m so lazy, why couldn’t I stick to my gym routine? I always procrastinate, it’s my own fault I’m going to miss a deadline”).

Basically, James tells us that bad habits exist not because we don’t want to change them, but simply because we don’t have a system in place for change. He encourages those who want to build new habits and break old ones to stop focusing on your goal and, instead, focus on your systems.

In his words, “Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.” And instead of focusing on a specific goal you want to achieve, focus on WHO you want to become. Keep the image in your mind of your personal ideal version of yourself — your daily choices will compound over time and eventually transform you. He encourages us to look at all of our daily systems and routines and ask ourselves, “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?” 

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How Do We Build A New Habit?

James breaks it down into four steps: 

  1. Make it obvious

  2. Make it attractive

  3. Make it easy

  4. Make it satisfying

One tip he gives is something called “habit stacking” where rather than changing an existing part of our routine, we simply pair it with a new step. So, for instance, in my quest to begin strength training, I could pair my morning walk with my dogs with changing into my gym clothes. By adding that step, I will have a harder time making excuses not to hit the gym after since I would already be dressed for it. This would cover step #1 above by making it obvious and easy. I should also make sure the gym I intend to go to is very close to home because any extra inconvenience will be a deterrent.

So, how can I also make my gym trip attractive and satisfying? I could hire a super hunky personal trainer…kidding (kind of). But working out with someone else would give me what James refers to as an “accountability partner.” I could reward myself with a yummy smoothie from the gym cafe after my workout. I could tell myself after ten straight sessions with no canceling, I’ll buy myself new workout clothes. Something like that. I would need to use a habit tracker of some kind to record my progress with a visual reward at the end.

How Long Does It Take To Break A Habit?

What about bad habits we want to break? Pretty simple — we invert the rules above, like this:

  1. Make it invisible

  2. Make it unattractive

  3. Make it difficult

  4. Make it unsatisfying

For me, moving temptations out of my sightline helps a lot with #1 — literally making it invisible. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Something as simple as putting the snack shelf in my pantry at the top, above my sightline, might make me more likely to snack on healthy options that I put more front and center.

Another tip from James: make a habit contract with yourself or with your accountability partner with specified consequences for bad habit behavior. Such as, if you don’t meet your sales call quota, having to buy the team lunch.

How To Stay Motivated With Atomic Habits

So what’s the key to staying motivated while you build new habits and break old ones? James mentions a concept in the book called The Goldilocks Rule, saying, “The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities.” So the idea is to keep moving the goal post to a level that is challenging but not impossible. This will help prevent boredom and monotony. 

So, my homework to start my strength training routine is to:

  1. Change into my workout clothes right before I walk the dogs in the morning.

  2. Find an accountability partner who will go to the gym with me.

  3. Set up a reward system for sticking to my planned schedule and a cost system for flaking.


What are your habits you’d like to develop or change? Do you think The Goldilocks Rule will work for you? Let me know in the comments below!

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