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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte Wallwork


Updated: Dec 19, 2020

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, defines habits as ‘Habits are the small decisions you make and actions you perform every day.’ (

According to researchers at Duke University, habits account for about 40% of our behaviours on any given day.

Some habits are good, and some are not so good for us. This is subjective to each individual, but each of us knows what’s good for us and what isn’t!

James Clear has provided a sound strategy for forming new habits:

1. Take the habit you want to start and break it into such small chunks that it’s virtually impossible not to achieve it. He gives the example of instead of doing 50 push ups a day, do 5. Instead of meditating for 10 minutes a day, try 1 minute.

2. Start easy and watch those tiny daily gains grow.

3. Expect to have a few slip ups along the way; but focus on how quickly you can get back on track.

4. In order for a habit to stick, it must be sustainable, for it to be sustainable, it must be in small enough increments for it to be achievable. Make it so easy you can't say no. - Leo Babauta

When it comes to getting rid of bad habits, James Clear (official habit expert) says: ‘You don’t eliminate a bad habit, you replace it’.

This is because each habit adds something to your life that you want or need. E.g. checking your phone first thing in the morning makes you feel connected, prevents ‘FOMO’ and maybe even makes you think you’re popular if you wake up to a few missed messages. If you simply stop checking your phone, you’re now not addressing those things that you want or need. Those requirements need to be met, so how do you meet them without the habit?

‘In other words, bad habits address certain needs in your life. And for that reason, it's better to replace your bad habits with a healthier behaviour that addresses that same need. If you expect yourself to simply cut out bad habits without replacing them, then you'll have certain needs that will be unmet and it's going to be hard to stick to a routine of “just don't do it” for very long.’

Research suggests most habits form out of boredom and stress.

In order to break a habit, you need to look at the following things:

  • When – at what point in the day does your habit take place? Is it multiple times a day? If so, when?

  • Where does your habit take place? E.g. house, car, work.

  • Are you with anyone? Could they be a help or a hindrance?

  • What are the triggers? What kicks off the habit?

From this information you can then look at how to make some changes.

E.g if your habit is eating crisps at 11am on a Tuesday, while working from home with your partner, just as Time Team comes on the TV, you should try the following: Don’t buy crisps or hide the crisps. Putting boundaries in your way is surprisingly effective. A lot of people say that if it’s in the house it’ll be eaten, so don’t let it in the house. Get your partner on board. Your current environment makes it easy to stick to old habits and harder to create new ones. Change the environment. Replace Time Team today, go for a walk and watch it later while you’re eating a proper meal.

When we set goals we tend to focus on losing 20lbs, eating more vegetables, being a best selling author, writing more songs; James Clear argues that actually, we’re doing it all backwards.

These are simply the results of an identity shift we wish to make. Changing your identity sounds big and scary, but we’re always evolving, and this is the way to get to where you want to be. Choose your identity and back it up with small achievable actions.

Here are some examples from Clear’s Atomic Habits:

Want to lose weight?

Identity: Become the type of person who moves more every day.

Small win: Buy a pedometer. Walk 50 steps when you get home from work. Tomorrow, walk 100 steps. The day after that, 150 steps. If you do this 5 days per week and add 50 steps each day, then by the end of the year, you’ll be walking over 10,000 steps per day.

Want to become a better writer?

Identity: Become the type of person who writes 1,000 words every day.

Small win: Write one paragraph each day this week.

Want to become strong?

Identity: Become the type of person who never misses a workout.

Small win: Do pushups every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Want to be a better friend?

Identity: Become the type of person who always stays in touch.

Small win: Call one friend every Saturday. If you repeat the same people every 3 months, you’ll stay close with 12 old friends throughout the year.

The Brain Science

The Basal Ganglia is a fascinating part of the brain that Neuroscientists have connected with patterns, emotions and memories. It’s actually separate from the decision-making part of the brain which is the prefrontal cortex. When a behaviour e.g. brushing our teeth, making morning coffee etc. becomes something we do ‘without thinking’, this decision-making part of your brain takes a back seat.

It’s what we refer to as ‘auto-pilot’ when we’re simultaneously driving and listening to the radio or able to hold an in-depth conversation while running or parking. That’s all thanks to the Basal Ganglia that takes a behaviour and turns it into an auto-pilot motion.

Research has shown that people will do the same things e.g. brushing their teeth the same way every day as long as they’re in the same environment. If they go on holiday, this can change. Once the environment changes, the cues change, and this breaks the pattern. It’s likely the reason why holidays are relaxing because we’re taken out of some of our auto-pilot routines.

Habits clearly make up a big portion of our day so isn’t it right that we spend time assessing them and making sure they’re the right ones to keep?

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