This post reviews a highly effective framework for building more effective habits and extends it beyond just the individual level. You can use it to improve results on projects and programs as well as to introduce organizational change.
The key is to recognize it as a process, and be willing to start small and gain momentum.
Making It Happen: Change, Habits, and Behavior
In his ground-breaking – and habit changing – book, “Atomic Habits”, James Clear outlines a simple yet elegant framework for thinking about habits.
The application of Clear’s framework is very personal…but the framework also applies directly to implementing change on projects, programs, and across the organization.
Illustrated in the above diagram, Clear’s framework illustrates how to simplify the desirable and complicate the undesirable. He breaks it down into four approaches:
- Obvious vs Invisible – People respond to and do things based on “what is in front of them”. This is fundamental in advertising, communications, politics, and more. If you want more of something from yourself or others, make it more obvious, or more visible. If you want less of it, hide it! As the saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind!”
- Attractive vs Unattractive – We are attracted to certain things…and repelled by others. We can use that basic truth to our advantage when it comes to change. If you want more of something, make it more attractive. If you want less of it, make it less attractive.
- Easy vs Hard – Effort can be a spoiler. If something is easy, we are more likely to do it. If it is hard, we are less likely to do it. It is a simple, basic truth and fact of life. So, if you want more of something, ask yourself what you can do to make it easier to get. If you want less of something, what can you do to make it harder?
- Satisfying vs Unsatisfying – We thrive on feedback – and the ultimate feedback is our own personal feeling of satisfaction. We do something, and we either feel satisfied or unsatisfied – and sometimes even a combination of both. If we want more of something, it is helpful to find ways to make it more satisfying. If we want less, how can we make it less satisfying?
These dichotomies are not absolute. The idea is to push things we want to eliminate, or want less of, to the right, and to push things we do want more to the left.
In the following sections, let’s look at each of these four elements of the framework and think about how to apply it in three ways: personally, on projects and programs, and across organizations.
Make It Obvious…or Make It Invisible
What can we influence or change in some small way to make desirable behaviors more obvious, and less desirable behavior invisible? Let’s consider in the context of personal, projects or programs, and organization-wide.
- Personal – If you desire better organization of personal space, you could place things such that it is obvious that something is out of place and needs to be better organized. If you want to snack less during the day, you can take snacks out of site – making them invisible.
- Projects and Programs – If you want mare communication among team members, you set up systems such as shared folders, regular meeting schedules, and facilitation of communication across personal boundaries. If you want less attention to superfluous activities and topics, you can ensure they are excluded from agendas of any form – making them invisible.
- Organization-wide – Now things require more deliberate structure. In organization-wide communications, you can provide high visibility and emphasis to certain topics or behaviors. You can also de-emphasize or completely ignore behaviors or topics that are not desired.
Make things more obvious – or more visible – when you want more. Make them less obvious – or invisible – when you want less.
Make It Attractive…or Unattractive
What can we influence or change in a small way to make desirable behaviors more attractive, and less desirable behavior unattractive?
- Personal – For better organization of your personal space, you could position things such that it is attractive if you have them organized – and highly unattractive if it is disorganized. You can also use others’ impressions to measure this. If you want to snack less during the day, you can visualize how you want to look – and think how you will look with or without these snacks – unattractive or attractive.
- Projects and Programs – Meetings can be attractive – or unattractive. You can make the meetings more attractive by thinking about what participants want – and give them more of that. Things like a good meeting room with a view, adequate space, a feeling of time well spent, or even remote – can make the meeting more attractive. If you want fewer unproductive meetings, you can make certain types of meetings less desirable and attractive in a number of ways.
- Organization-wide – Change itself has a natural unattractiveness to people. Knowing that it is necessary, and recognizing that it requires buy-in, break down activities related to a change into smaller, more “atomic” pieces. What can you do to make these pieces more attractive, and not changing more unattractive?
Make things more attractive when you want more. Make them less attractive when you want less.
Make It Easy…or Make It Hard
What can we influence to make desirable behaviors easier, and less desirable behavior harder?
- Personal – To better organize your personal space, can you get some products which will make it easier for you to organize. Alternatively, can you eliminate some things in the environment to make it harder to be disorganized? Maybe you actually would benefit by getting rid of that table or chair where you are dumping everything! If you want to snack less during the day, make it inconvenient – such as a longer walk, or even a drive, to get the snack.
- Projects and Programs – This is where some “culture” can come into play. One approach is to make it easier to get work done by streamlining reporting requirements. Limit required meeting attendance. Make it harder to meet so frequently by ensuring a culture of delivering early and often.
- Organization-wide – One big function of management is to remove obstacles. That satisfies the idea of making things easier. But what about flipping it around and actually creating obstacles to undesirable behavior and actions. Make it easy to do the desired, and hard to do the undesired.
Make things easier when you want more. Make them harder when you want less.
Make It Satisfying…or Unsatisfying
What can we influence to make desirable behaviors more satisfying, and undesirable behavior and actions unsatisfying?
- Personal – To better organize your personal space, maybe you recognize the benefits, but maybe you still feel some benefits in being disorganized! What small, “atomic” change can you make that would feel satisfying that could take you even slightly in the direction or better organization? And what else could you do to make disorganization slightly more unsatisfying? You could ask the same questions for snacks!
- Projects and Programs – Project teams, and individuals on them, experience those same levels of satisfaction related to activities on the projects. What can you do to “nudge” the level of satisfaction up on something that you want the team to do or accomplish? And what can you do that might increase dissatisfaction with an unacceptable, unproductive approach that is currently in place?
- Organization-wide – It can get more challenging to achieve and measure organization satisfaction or dissatisfaction. But it comes back to the individual level. What behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes will produce the desired results? Break things down into “atomic” pieces. What can you do to shape those pieces to make them more satisfying – or dissatisfying for unproductive activities – to the people across the organization?
Break things down – disaggregate them – and make desirable things more satisfying. Make undesirable things less satisfying.
Conclusion and Further Resources
This post has looked at a framework for building more effective habits – and explained how it works for you as an individual, how you can use it to improve results on projects and programs, and how it can be leveraged to introduce organizational change. The key is to recognize it as a process, and be willing to start small and gain momentum.
To stretch your thing a little further, here is an 8 minute video entitled “Atomic Habits: How to Get 1% Better Every Day” – delivered by James Clear himself: