Habits: Real ways to make them stick

Two books to read on the subject
Food for habitual thought

“We are what we repeatedly do.”


Aristotle’s famous quote argues that we are our habits. Now we’re in exam season, it’s the perfect time to boost our studying habits or the habits that help us unwind to help us get better exam results and improve our wellbeing. In this blog post, I am sharing key lessons learned from the book “Atomic Habits” written by James Clear.

Eliminating the myth of total self-discipline

When it comes to starting a new habit or keeping a good one, we often try to use ‘self-discipline’ to achieve what we want. We tend to beat ourselves up or drown ourselves in guilt when we don’t stick to these habits.

If you’re overweight, a smoker, or an addict, you’ve been told your entire life that it is because you lack self-control—maybe even that you’re a bad person. The idea that a little bit of discipline would solve all our problems is deeply embedded in our culture.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

Well, here’s a paradigm shift for you; it’s not your fault, it’s your “system”. 
Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change. So if you’re watching too much Netflix instead of revising or falling down the rabbit hole of YouTube instead of getting a good night’s sleep, it’s time to get rid of your shame and guilt. It’s time to change the environment which allows you to fall into these bad habits in the first place. 

Changing the system through cues

We leave it up to chance and hope that we will “just remember to do it” or feel motivated at the right time.” 

Atomic Habits by James Clear

All of our habits, good and bad, come from a specific cue. For example, my bad habit was watching Jane the Virgin each night before I went to sleep cued from the simple act of going to bed.

The most common cues are time and/or location. The opposite works too, find a cue to attach to a good habit and you’re more likely to do it. For example, the act of waking up can be your cue to drink a glass of water from your bedside table before doing anything else.

No behaviour happens in isolation. This means you need to PLAN your habit and implement it in a time or location. 

One habit can also be your cue for the next, also known as “habit stacking”. For example, you brush your teeth in the morning which is your cue to meditate, which in turn is your cue to go for a walk, and so on.

Habit stacking and temptation bundling

Want to make a new habit stick? Try attaching or “stacking” it to an existing one. Tie a certain behaviour to something you already do every day. For example, if you want to go through your flashcards every day, do it after you eat dinner each night. Your dinner becomes the cue to reading through your flashcards. Even better yet, link the habit you want to achieve to a “temptation” (something you like doing), like eating cake. While going through your flashcards, you eat some cake. This way the habit will become more attractive to you which makes it more likely to stick. 

Our real motivation: laziness!

Of course, we have certain drives and purposes for our goals – such as becoming smarter; fitter; better. But “laziness” is embedded in our DNA, since using the least amount of energy to achieve goals is part of our survival instinct, innate in all living creatures. This is why we are drawn to activities requiring the least effort for the most reward, whether it’s scrolling through social media instead of working or taking the bus instead of walking. The less energy a habit requires, the more likely it is to occur.

Redesign your life so the actions that matter most are also the actions that are easier to do.”

Atomic Habits by James Clear

Here you can apply the two-minute rule. When starting any new habit, it should always be done in under two minutes. This makes the task seem so easy that it doesn’t even feel like a task. This can be applied in all sorts of directions: “Read before bed each night” becomes “Read one page.” “Do thirty minutes of yoga” becomes “Take out my yoga mat.” “Study for class” becomes “Open my notes.” “Fold the laundry” becomes “Fold one pair of socks.” “Run three miles” becomes “Tie my running shoes.” 

Sometimes it’s best to strictly stick to the two-minute rule at first e.g. read ONLY a page of your notes. This should be easy enough for the habit to actually stick on a consistent basis. Once the habit has been formed you can move on to doing more. The key is to lay the foundations for the habit first before overachieving or getting lost by the end goal. Easy does it.

The simple act of showing up

When it comes to habits, quantity is better than quality. Whether it’s good or bad, or through rain or shine, simply show up. A personal example for me is writing poetry. To get my creative juices flowing I am currently trying to get into the habit of writing a poem each day (under a 5-minute rule). With the 5-minute time limit, I stop my perfectionism from kicking in. 

We often tend to fall into the unhealthy cycle of all-or-nothing. The key to forming a habit is not for it to be perfect, but to just keep doing it no matter what. My poem for today could be the worst one yet but the act of writing it is the most important thing. As long as I’m writing, I’m improving. The most important moments are doing the action on the days you really don’t feel like it. This is why making it easy in the first place really helps. 

Implementing a time and place for a habit, making it easy, and showing up are some of the fundamentals for not only habit change but changing your life. And these are just a few tips and tricks, for more read  “Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results” by James Clear, the book which inspired this blog.  


Four tips to making habits stick

  1. Habit stacking: attach the habit you want to an already existing action
  2. Temptation bundling: attach the habit to an action you like doing
  3. The two-minute rule: it has to be achievable in under two minutes
  4. Show up: it doesn’t have to be good or bad, just show up!