If you’ve ever tried to change your habits, chances are you’ve attempted to draw on reserves of motivation. If you only wanted to change enough, you’d do it, right?
While this can work, it’s a lot easier to lower the barriers between you and change. Or, in other words, to reduce the friction that is slowing you down.
James Clear is the author of the excellent book, Atomic Habits. He is a firm advocate of building big success on small changes in habits. He believes that those who start with a habit that’s too ambitious will likely fail. Small, easy-to-accomplish steps are the path to success.
These habits can be as simple as not bringing home a bag of chips to remove the temptation of eating them or starting by flossing one tooth, to build an identity as someone who flosses regularly. Clear’s entire philosophy is based on reducing the friction associated with our good habits and increasing the friction associated with our bad habits.
Four Laws of Behavior Change
Clear recounts four straightforward laws of behavior change, for anyone who wants to create a habit. He then reverses those laws for anyone attempting to break a habit. They are:
Cue: Make it obvious
Craving: Make it attractive
Response: Make it easy
Reward: Make it satisfying.
To reduce a habit, the list looks like this:
Cue: Make it invisible
Craving: Make it unattractive
Response: Make it difficult
Reward: Make it unsatisfying.
Arguably, the first law is about visual friction—an easy-to-see cue is more likely to spark a behavior than one that is hard to see. The third law is a simple guide to adding and subtracting friction. The easier it is to perform a behavior, the more likely it is that we will do so, and vice versa.
How does this work in practice? Let’s use making pushups a part of your daily routine as an example. Most people start by saying that they want to do twenty or thirty pushups, which is relatively difficult and time-consuming. Clear would suggest starting with just one.
Why? Because making an action easy increases the likelihood of repetition. If you want to do twenty pushups, you may come up with reasons to skip them, such as “It will take too long,” or, “I don’t want to tire myself out, I’ve got important work to do.” If you’re only doing one, those reasons disappear.
Clear notes that repetition is an essential ingredient for habit formation, and cites Hebb’s Law, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” That long-established principle says that when we perform activities repeatedly, our brains undergo changes that make those activities easier to do.
Most habits won’t change the brain’s observable physical characteristics, but they will change it in small ways that make it easier to perform the action the habit involves. That’s why starting with a very easy action is important. It will be repeated over and over again, becoming automatic.
Friction Beats Motivation
Clear emphasizes that while motivation is important for behavior change, making things easier is better than trying to stay highly motivated. Motivation fluctuates. The easier something is to do, the less motivation it takes.
Clear recommends reducing even small elements of friction. If your gym isn’t on the route of your daily commute, even by a few blocks, it will seem like you are going out of your way. The smaller a new habit makes you deviate from your existing habits, the more likely it is you’ll make it permanent. So, go to a gym that is either on or close to your daily commute.
If you want to work out in the morning, lay out your exercise clothes, shoes, gym bag, and water bottle. If you want to eat healthy food, set out any necessary pans, dishes, utensils, cooking spray, and so on, before you go to bed. If you want to practice guitar more, put the instrument and stand in the middle of the living room. The habit you want to encourage should lie along the path of least resistance.
On the flip side, what should you do if you want to watch less television? Clear suggests unplugging the television and taking the batteries out of the remote control when you finish watching something. Even though reversing those steps adds only a few seconds, that might be enough friction to stop you from idly turning on the TV when you are bored.
Want to add more friction? Unplug the television and carry it to the closet. Even small increases in friction can help. Clear found that putting beer in the back of the refrigerator where he couldn’t see it and it took a little effort to reach was enough to cut his suds intake.
Whatever you want to do more of, or less of, you can design habits that reduce the need to rely on motivation and willpower, and instead reduce the friction between you and your desired habits, and increase the friction between you and the things you’d like to do less frequently.