Behavioral Design: Atomic Habits by James Clear

The Habit Problem

There are two types of people in the world:

  1. Those who read instruction manuals.

  2. Those who don’t.

You know who you are. Some of you sit down and read every page before beginning a project. The rest of us just rely on some combination of prayer, cursing, and ritualistic sacrifice (okay, I exaggerate…not all of us pray).

In real life, humans don’t come with instruction manuals, so all of us are forced to use trial & error to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Trial & error is fine for simple situations, but when dealing with complex, multi-variable systems, it is often inadequate.

Sometimes, whether through genetics, brute force, or sheer luck, some people manage to figure out the habit equation. These people appear to be propelled by the invisible hand of Fate herself, which each success inexorably leading them to even more success.

But for the majority of us, we are left with the nagging feeling that we are leaving most of our potential on the table. “If only I could consistently get myself to do the things I say I want to do”, we think, “then, I would be successful.

The good news is that behavioral science has been working on this problem for nearly 80 years. Today, we have a decent understanding of what enables people to build habits that actually work.

I’m going to discuss two inter-related models for understanding human behavior: the C2R2 Model and the B=MAP Model. These two models were synthesized by authors James Clear and Stanford researcher/author BJ Fogg, respectively. In this article, I will discuss the C2R2 Model, and in my next article, I will cover the B=MAP Model.

I cannot recommend highly enough that you pick up James Clear’s book Atomic Habits and BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits. Much of what we are going to cover comes directly from those two sources.

Bending Reality

The first step in understanding why we do the things we do is understanding the architecture of habit formation.

By analogy, do you remember the scene from the movie The Matrix when Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, sees the Matrix for the first time?

Spoiler alert:

Once Neo is able to see the Matrix, he suddenly gains superhuman strength, speed, and even flight. Neo’s newfound ability to see the source code of his reality enabled him to manipulate the environment at will.

In a similar fashion, there is an underlying “source code” when it comes to human behavior. Understanding this “source code” does not grant the user superhuman strength, but it does enable you to reliably change your reality.

The Model

So, what’s the “source code” of human behavior? According to James Clear, every behavior follows a four-step pattern:

  1. Cue

  2. Craving

  3. Response

  4. Reward

**I will use C2R2 as a shorthand moving forward. Note also that I tend to use the words “behavior” and “habit” interchangeably. Technically, they mean slightly different things, but the differences are not germane to the following discussion.**

Let me briefly define each stage:

The Cue – This is something in the environment that initiates a behavior. A Cue is like a trigger or a tripwire - once it is activated, it starts a cascade of events. Cues are meaningless until they are interpreted by the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the observer. For example, the sound of a slot machine might be a powerful Cue to a gambling addict but could mean nothing to someone who doesn’t like casinos. (For the computer science-minded among you, this is like the difference between “data” and “information”)

The Craving – The Craving (also called the Desire) isn’t for the habit itself, but for the anticipated change in your emotional state. If you open your email inbox and feel overwhelmed at the number of messages requiring your attention, then the Craving might be to alleviate your feelings of anxiety.

The Response – The Response is the habit itself, whether a thought or action. As we’ll learn soon, the Response only happens if you are able to perform the habit.

The Reward – The Reward satisfies your Craving and teaches you which actions are worth remembering in the future. The Reward is the goal of every habit.

What this looks like in action is that a Cue triggers a Craving, which motivates a Response, which provides a Reward, which satisfies the Craving and ultimately becomes associated with the Cue. Thus, the Habit Loop is born.

You can also visualize the Habit Formation process through the lens of “Reward-attainment”:

  • The Cue is about noticing the Reward.

  • The Craving is about desiring the Reward.

  • The Response is about obtaining the Reward.

  • The Reward ensures the behavior (habit) will be repeated in the future.

Here is an example from Atomic Habits:

Cue: You hit a stumbling block on a project at work.

Craving: You feel stuck and want to relieve your frustration.

Response: You pull out your phone and check social media.

Reward: You satisfy your craving to feel relieved. Checking social media becomes associated with feeling stalled at work.

Now you know what the architecture of a habit looks like. But what do we do with that knowledge? How can we use that to our advantage as Neo did with the Matrix?

The answer is hidden inside of the four stages. James Clear lays out a framework he calls The Four Laws of Behavior Change:

  1. The 1st Law: Make it Obvious

  2. The 2nd Law: Make it Attractive

  3. The 3rd Law: Make it Easy

  4. The 4th Law: Make it Satisfying

Notice how each of the laws proceeds from the stages of habit formation. We could re-write the laws to look like this:

  1. The 1st Law: Make (the Cue) Obvious

  2. The 2nd Law: Make (the Craving) Attractive

  3. The 3rd Law: Make (the Response) Easy

  4. The 4th Law: Make (the Reward) Satisfying

Conversely, what if we want to stop a behavior? Just use the inverse of the original laws:

  1. Inverse Law #1: Make (the Cue) Invisible

  2. Inverse Law #2: Make (the Craving) Unattractive

  3. Inverse Law #3: Make (the Response) Hard

  4. Inverse Law #4: Make (the Reward) Unsatisfying

In my own life, I reference the Four Laws (and their Inverse correlations) every day. No exaggeration.

  • If I’m finding that a habit is hard to remember, then I know I need to find a way to make the Cue more Obvious.

  • If I don’t feel like even starting a habit, then I know I need to find a way to make the Craving more Attractive.

  • If I go to do a habit and find that it’s too difficult, then I know I need to find a way to make the Response as Easy as possible.

  • And if I find myself not wanting to stick with a habit, then I know I need to change the Reward to be more Satisfying.

Find the bottleneck, cycle through the Four Laws, rinse and repeat.

If a habit follows the Four Lawsit’s Obvious, Attractive, Easy, and Satisfying – then we’ll do more of it.

If a habit follows the Four Inverse Lawsit’s Invisible, Unattractive, Hard, and Unsatisfying – then we’ll do less of it.

Simple as that.

Remembering the Framework

I've taught this model many times, and a question I often get is, "How do I remember the framework?"

I have a silly way of remembering the steps that I borrowed from the field of learning theory: use a mnemonic.

A mnemonic is any kind of tool that helps us to remember information. For example, recite the ABCs for me. Did you just start singing the song in your head? That's a mnemonic. Another type of mnemonic is an acronym (e.g. SCUBA).

Since I live in California and the ocean is one of my favorite places, I remember the Four Laws of Behavior Change with the phrase: "Oceans Are Extra Salty". The first letter of each word reminds me of the steps.

O - Obvious

A - Attractive

E - Easy

S - Satisfying

If you find yourself struggling to remember the steps, try using a mnemonic device.

Here’s a tip:

Human brains are wired to remember images. When using mnemonics, use things that are rich in imagery. Research has shown certain concepts are more memorable than others, including: humor, novelty, violence, sex, and personal meaning.

In a future article, I’ll show you a specific example of how I set up my iPhone using the Four Laws of Behavior Change. In the meantime, James Clear has a great cheat sheet that you can download to help you remember the steps.

At the outset of this article, I said there were two models I use to change habits at will. In the next article, we’ll look at how the B=MAP Model by BJ Fogg addresses the same underlying architecture (Cue --> Craving --> Response --> Reward) but incorporates additional strategies for behavior modification.

I’ll see you in part 2.