Real-World Examples of How to Use Tactics from James Clear’s Atomic Habits to Declutter your Space
Piggybacking to my last article about Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is a synopsis of Atomic Habits and examples of using his strategies to declutter. Hopefully, by presenting them back-to-back, it will leave you with a very robust way to instill new organizing habits and get rid of old ones that work against the goals and dreams you have.
James Clear bases his book on B.F Skinner’s “stimulus, response, reward” system that he developed in the 1930s and on Charles Duhigg’s “cue, routine, reward” system in The Power of Habit. Clear’s four-step model of “cue, cravings, response, and reward” and his “four laws of behavior change” add additional information to the conversation.
Why do I seem so infatuated with habit formation? It’s a large part of my organizing process for those whose clutter has decreased their quality of life. Clients not only want to get organized quickly but want to keep it that way. I could have a blast helping a client declutter, but if we don’t spend some time setting up systems and working on new habits, they can easily land right back where they started in a few months or years.
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” Clutter and disorganization can sometimes be an outward manifestation of internal challenges like ADHD, hoarding disorder, depression, anxiety, etc. In many cases, though, it can result from bad habits compounding on themselves over long periods of time. If someone goes shopping each time they feel badly, only a small pile will accumulate in a week’s time. As the habit continues, though, the piles continue to grow and impede the ability to use one’s space as intended.
Sometimes we quit a new habit because we don’t see progress quickly enough. James Clear calls this the “Valley of Disappointment,” where you’re working but don’t yet see progress. A big win might be right around the corner, and we miss it because we’re disappointed and stop too soon.
He also argues that we need to “fall in love” with the process that helps us reach that goal because otherwise, we’re never happy until we reach that goal. It also means that we won’t fall off the habit wagon as soon as we reach that goal. New clients often tell me that they were successfully able to declutter right before company came over but weren’t able to sustain it after the guests left. In chapter 1, he states, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Adding onto this argument, he says that the best motivator is your beliefs about your identity. He mentions a 2011 study by Christopher Bryan, Gregory Walton, Todd Rogers, and Carol Dweck. They found that the more you identify with a belief, the more you’ll act in a way that doesn’t contradict that belief. So, saying something like, “I’m disorganized. I don’t like it, but it’s just who I am” will make it harder to act in a way that doesn’t fit with that statement. If instead you say, “I’m an organized person,” and start to believe it, you’ll begin decluttering and organizing under that new identity. I love his quotation in chapter 2: “In this way, the process of building habits is actually the process of becoming yourself.”
Habits exist to help us solve problems. In trying not to become overtaxed, our brains always look for shortcuts to save energy. It looks for cues that will help you quickly move away from pain or move closer to a tempting reward.
He makes a great point of addressing those who think that habits (cue decluttering habits) will turn us into dull robots who never have spontaneity in life. He argues that those who have great routines free up more energy and time than those who don’t.
There are four essential parts to habits: cue, craving, response, and reward.
Your brain searches for cues of incoming rewards. When it finds a reward, it will create a craving so that we’re willing to do the hard work of getting that reward. If the reward was worth repeating, the habit starts to form.
His model states that there are “4 Laws of Behavior Change” that make a habit more likely blossom. When you want to start a habit, ask these four questions:
“How can I make it obvious?”
“How can I make it attractive?”
“How can I make it easy?”
“How can I make it satisfying?”
To break a bad habit, do this:
“Make it invisible.”
“Make it unattractive.”
“Make it difficult.”
“Make it unsatisfying.”
Just like we learned in my article on The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Clear notes that we have to notice the cues to change the habit. Without noticing, we continue to repeat the same patterns over and over without even noticing.
How can we start to notice something that we don’t see, though? It sounds like quite the conundrum. You can use his “Habits Scorecard” tactic. Write down every single habit you have from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep. Then rate each one as positive, negative, or neutral. If you’re not sure whether it’s good or bad, he suggests asking, “Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?”
As you’ve probably noticed, one habit can lead to another one. You can take advantage of this effect by stacking routines on top of each other. Charles Duhigg spoke about this concept as well.
Let’s say you enjoy a cup of coffee each morning, and you know that it takes four minutes to brew. You could take those four minutes to walk through your home and find one book you will donate. In 30 days, you could free up a large portion of a bookshelf, thus making space for books currently resting on the floor. Once you’re used to the habit of making coffee and decluttering while it brews, you could create the third habit. Perhaps every Friday morning, directly after you’ve washed your coffee cup, you put on your shoes and drop off your donated books.
Another part of the habit puzzle is to set up your environment to support your habit goals. So many might see a friend and say, “well that person is just naturally good at keeping their home organized, they run marathons, they never eat junk food, they just have a ton of willpower. It’s just in their genes. That’s not me.” Clear argues that it’s not their willpower or their genes, it’s just that they have set up their environment so that they’re less frequently tempted to fall off the positive habit wagon.
Here’s an example: imagine someone who stops by his favorite store on the way home from work each day. He knows that he will feel guilty later because he overspent and doesn’t have space for new purchases. He can start taking a different route home to avoid seeing that store in the first place. He didn’t need any willpower; he simply changed his environment. Just like Charles Duhigg, Clear explains that it’s nearly impossible to eliminate an old poor habit because “the mental grooves of habit have been carved into your brain.” Instead, work to remove the cue entirely so that the temptation shows up less frequently.
Many of you are familiar with the brain chemical dopamine. Clear remarks that dopamine is released when we anticipate a reward. That dopamine hit helps us take that action to achieve the reward. He suggests “temptation bundling”: link something you have to do with something you already want to do. Perhaps you want to listen to the next episode of your favorite podcast, but you’re feeling frustrated about the pile of clean laundry that always seems to accumulate on that bedroom chair you meant to use for reading. You could create a routine of putting laundry away each week while simultaneously listening to that new podcast episode.
Clear makes an essential distinction between motion and action. Motion is preparing to take action. We can fall into the trap of continuing to prepare so that we can avoid action altogether. Many clients realize that their efforts to declutter have not worked. Sometimes we determine that they moved objects around quite frequently, but they never made actual progress. That is an example of being in motion instead of taking action. As soon as clients start working with me, they move from motion to action. The more we repeat an action, the more durable the new neural pathways become, and thus the stronger the habit becomes, which is called “long-term potentiation.”
Another way to make habits more likely to stick is to make them as easy as possible. (Make bad habits difficult.) Clear references researchers who estimate that habits drive 40 to 50% of our daily activities. So by changing our habits, we can truly change our lives in significant ways. We need to make the barrier of entry very low. Clear talks about the “Two-Minute Rule”. The premise is to do the desired activity for two minutes to get accustomed to the action, and then we’re more likely to repeat it.
Finally, he talks about the need to reward new habits directly after the action. It helps feed into motivation, and you’ll be more likely to do the routine again. Habit tracking can be a helpful visual reward because you see your progress immediately after the action takes place. Clients and I brainstorm lots of ways they can immediately reward themselves after a decluttering session. It can do wonders.
On the flip side, you’re also more likely to continue a bad habit if there’s no immediate punishment, so keep that in mind and his “make it unattractive” mantra in mind as you try to break bad habits.
Eventually, the long-term rewards resulting from new habit formation will appear, and you won’t need to rely on the immediate rewards as much.
Once you’ve established your habit, you’ll keep it going by making sure that it doesn’t become too easy or hard to maintain. You can experiment with moving the reward timing around, but you will get bored at some points, so you will have to “fall in love with boredom.” Boredom sounds like a turn-off, but if you think about all the free time and energy that your good organizing habits are freeing up, you’ll have more time in your daily life for fun and relaxation; and spend less time decluttering!
The key is to continue to show up for your daily habit, even when you feel like it’s the last thing you want to do. You’ll master the practice if you show up, even on the hard days, and you can then focus on leveling up to your next goal or activity that interests you.
Reflection also helps. If you can spend some time multiple times a year reflecting on what goals you established and what hasn’t gone so well, you can then course-correct and move forward. That will help you stay on track.
I was happy to note that I already implement many of these practices with clients. Since adding others listed here, I’ve seen clients succeed in new ways. So with this new knowledge, what will you now do as you work towards your decluttering goals? If you’re feeling overwhelmed or you’ve lost track of how many times you have fallen off the decluttering wagon, it might be time to give me a call so you can get support. Forming organizing habits isn’t always easy, but you can get incredible returns on your investment. Those returns might look like having family and friends over, having a relaxing home environment, having space and time to devote to hobbies, or having more energy for your valued goals. I would say that’s a huge win.
4/28/2021 04:06:20 pm
Judith, I just loved this and am inspired to read the book, so I ordered it today! I have one particular client who could potentially benefit from reading this blog entry. Is it OK to share it with her?
4/28/2021 06:44:26 pm
Hi Anne. I'm glad that the post inspired you to further investigate topics in the book; it contains many great ideas. Please feel free to share the link to this article with your client and hopefully it will be useful for them as well.
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Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.