Make Small but Impactful Changes

Book Cover of Atomic Habits
Book Cover of Atomic Habits

Have you made any new year’s resolutions on January 1, promising yourself that you would turn in before midnight so you could get up earlier or you would eat healthier so you could have more energy, only to find yourself fall back to the old routines a few weeks later? Or, have you–just like the old me–already stopped making this kind of promises because you have given up the idea that we can change our habits?

Right, our old habits are very difficult to break, especially the bad ones! But only Ed Sheeran can make good use of his Bad Habits, and most of us don’t, lol. Over the past year, my view on habits has completely changed because my chronic pain condition had flared up uncontrollably and taken away my ability to work and live freely for an extended period of time. The western medicine and therapies that had helped before weren’t able to put my condition under control this time. I was desperate to find ways to cope. I began to look into things that I had been automatically doing for years and eventually realized some of them were so wrong – from the way I held my mouse and the way I breathed when I exercised to the food I ate and the medication I took … Had I not finally looked for changes, I would have still been stuck.

Because of this experience, I started reading about topics that I have been taking for granted, and one of them is the impact of tiny habits. For example, drinking coffee—do I really need the second cup after lunch? Does that contribute to my poor sleep quality? Perhaps you have heard of the bestselling title Atomic Habits? Its author James Clear states, “Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits … What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray.” This claim is not exaggerated at all. After my experience, I now realize good habits can help us with almost everything, from staying in shape to finding happiness.

But how? How can we recognize bad habits and break them? How do we cultivate good habits and make them stick?

According to James Clear, there are four steps in the process of building a habit: cue, craving, response, and reward—the cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue. For example, your phone buzzes with a new text (cue); you want to learn the content of the message (craving); you grab your phone and read the text (response); and you satisfy your craving to read the message (reward). These four steps–cue, craving, response, reward–form a neurological feedback loop; eventually, you develop the habit of grabbing your phone whenever your phone buzzes.

We can split these four steps into two phases: the problem phase and the solution phase. “The problem phase includes the cue and the craving, and it is when you realize that something needs to change. The solution phase includes the response and the reward, and it is when you take action and achieve the change you desire. All behavior is driven by the desire to solve a problem. Sometimes the problem is that you notice something good and you want to obtain it. Sometimes the problem is that you are experiencing pain and you want to relieve it. Either way, the purpose of every habit is to solve the problems you face.” With his explanation, I now understand why a lot of us don’t recognize some of our habits are that bad until they get us into big trouble!

And knowing what’s involved in developing a habit, we can apply James Clear’s framework which he refers to as the Four Laws of Behavior Change to create good habits: make the cue obvious, make the craving attractive, make the response easy, and make the reward satisfying. You can invert this to break bad habits: make the cue invisible, make the craving unattractive, make the response difficult, and make the reward.

Now this is interesting—how do I make my second cup of coffee unattractive? I obviously have work to do! But if I want to take charge of my life, I need to have a change mindset and make continuous improvement.

In a brand-new year, I invite you to join this journey. Check out the booklist below and see how you can make small but impactful changes:

About Heather

Heather is the Librarian II, Literacy and Readers' Advisory, with the Vaughan Public Libraries. Her job is to connect leisure readers and aspiring writers with the endless space of imagination and creation through words in all forms.  |  Meet the team