The First Law of Habit Formation: Make it Obvious

Let me just start by saying, our lessons in habit formation and any resources provided are all interpretations of or direct lessons from the Book Atomic Habits by James Clear. Incredible amounts of time and research has gone into the book, so please don't think the concepts are original ideas from me; Again they are my interpretations only.

The process of behaviour change always starts with awareness. You need to be aware of your habits before you can change them.

Once something has become a habit, it is an unconscious action that is performed without prior thought or oftentimes even awareness.

As stated before raising awareness of a habit; from an unconscious to a conscious level, is the first step to changing it. Habit or behaviour change is less about motivation and more about setting yourself up for success by optimising the way you think, the way you prepare and the environment you are in. Successful Habit change has been split into 4 ‘laws’, all of which will optimize your ability to make life long, positive changes.

The first law of habit formation is to make the desired habit obvious. It may sound silly but something that you are constantly aware of or reminded about is much harder to forget. Something that is obvious and therefore constantly repeated is a habit that will eventually become autonomous.

There are several very effective strategies to help you make a desired habit ‘more obvious’:

  • Implementation intentions
  • Habit Stacking
  • Optimizing your environment
  • Make bad habits Invisible - Inversion of the first law
Implementation Intentions

This is a strategy about how you intend to implement your habit. By associating a when and where with your desired habit you increase your chances of success. Many people believe they fail at forming new habits due to a lack of motivation, more times than not this is not the case. What they instead lack is clarity; it is not always obvious when and where to take action.

I will [Behaviour] at [Time] in [Location].

Eg. I will Exercise at 6:15 in the Zion fitness morning class.

By clearly associating a habit with a time and location you have provided yourself with clarity around the habit.

Habit Stacking

No behaviour happens in isolation. Each action becomes a trigger that forms the subsequent action. Eg. You go to the bathroom → You wash your hands → You remember the towels need to be washed → You add laundry detergent to the shopping list because you are out. This cycle will continue.

After [Current Habit] I will [Desired Habit].

Eg. After brushing my teeth in the evening I will floss.

A few things to take into account with habit stacking. The cue should have the same frequency as your desired habit, there is no point stacking a desired daily habit with a cue that is performed once per week. Consider when you will be most successful, don't stack a habit when you are likely to be busy or interrupted.

Optimize your Environment

The most powerful of all our human senses is Vision. The brain will prioritize what it see’s above all else, therefore the environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour. People often choose products based upon where they are not what they are. Psychologist Kurt Lewin wrote a simple equation: Behaviour is a function of the person in their environment or B = f (P,E).

Here are some simple real world examples that highlight how location/environment can trigger our behaviours.

When shopping, items at eye level tend to be purchased more regularly than any other, for this reason you will find the more expensive items at eye level. The same goes for end caps (the units at the end of the aisle), these are money making machines due to the foot traffic they encounter. Eg. In America 45% of all Coca Cola sales come specifically from end caps.

What are our takeaways from all of this? When establishing a habit, make the cue a big part of your life. The most persistent behaviours usually have multiple cues. By sprinkling cues throughout your surroundings, you increase the odds that you'll think about your habit throughout the day.

Make it Invisible (Inversion of 1st law):

One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it. The people who have the best self control are typically the ones who use it the least.

‘So yes perseverance, grit and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment” - James Clear

Recent research has shown that once the mental grooves of a habit have been ingrained into your brain they are unlikely to ever be completely removed. This means that simply resisting temptation is a short term strategy at best. For long term success in removing a bad habit we need to reduce our exposure to the cues which stimulate the habit - Make it Invisible.

To the best of my understanding that is an explanation and summary of the First law of habit building. As summary of a summary:

  • Fill out the habits score card. Write down your current habits to become aware of them.
  • Use implementation intentions
  • Use habit stacking
  • Design your environment. Make the cues of good habits obvious and visible.

Next week we will take a look at the second law of habit building: Make it Attractive

The staff here at Zion fitness have been extensively trained in guiding others along this habit formation process. If you or anyone you know needs help then please reach out and we will do all we can to assist.

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Lachlan Bisshop

M.C. ExPhys, G. CertWHS, Pn1

Accredited Exercise Physiologist ESSAM AEP

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