Cultivating a personal knowledge garden — an organized note-taking system to capture and nurture your thinking — is a powerful way to extend your mind. But it’s hard work. And despite what you may read online, no app will do it for you. Ultimately, you must do lots of work and change some behaviors. Fortunately, there is help.
In his bestselling book, Atomic Habits, James Clear proposes four laws for effective behavior change. You can use them to either adopt positive behaviors or get rid of behaviors that hold you back. I’ve found these laws helpful, so I’ll explain them by telling you about a behavior I’m trying to change.
In 2023, I pared down my possessions. Among them, I decided I didn’t need both a Kindle and an iPad. I used the Kindle only in a few situations, so I gave it to my wife. Alas, I’m now reading less. The problem is that I primarily read in bed before going to sleep. But when I do it on the iPad, I often end up watching YouTube or (worse!) scrolling through social media.
So that’s the behavior I want to change: I want to return to reading before sleep, but I want to do it on the iPad. What I need are new habits around my bedtime routine. This is where the laws of behavior change come in handy. They are:
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
Let’s see how these laws might help me implement this behavior change.
Law 1: Make It Obvious
Many habits are non-conscious: you don’t realize that you’re doing the thing. You want to change this. Become aware of what you’re doing and why, and what you need to do differently.
In my case, I switched from one behavior (reading in bed with the Kindle) to another (reading in bed with the iPad.) In theory, this sounds like a minimal change, so I missed it. But one factor — the device used — made a significant difference.
We associate certain behaviors with particular cues. For me, getting into bed at night — a specific time and place — was a cue to start reading. (This is why habits often fall apart when you go on vacation: time-and-place-based cues go away.)
I assumed my bedtime habits were strong enough to carry me through the device change. Because all the other cues were so strong, I slipped unconsciously into undesired behaviors enabled by a more capable device. I had to step back and acknowledge that even though I was still going through the motions, I wasn’t getting the desired results.
Knowing that behaviors are tied to cues will make you more intentional about what you do, and where and when you do it. I must now work to re-associate my bedtime cues with reading rather than consuming videos or social media. Acknowledging my negative behavior change — and why it was happening — was the first step in correcting course.
Law 2: Make It Attractive
This one’s obvious: you’re drawn to some experiences more than others. You’re likelier to do things you find appealing than those you don’t.
One way to take advantage of this is by doing things you enjoy when implementing a new behavior. For example, it’ll be easier for me to read in bed if I choose a book I’m really into rather than one that’s a chore. If I get more pleasure from the book than from YouTube, I’ll be more likely to read it.
Clear also recommends an approach that he calls “temptation bundling.” The idea is to pair something you want to do with something you need to do. In my case, if there’s something I must read (e.g., for work) as opposed to something I want to read (e.g., for pleasure,) I could listen to music while reading.
By bundling something I love doing (listening to music) with something I must do (reading a book,) the experience becomes more attractive and likely to stick. Here, the iPad has an advantage over the Kindle since the iPad can easily play music, whereas the Kindle can’t. (This also validates my decision to switch devices, which makes me feel good about myself. More on this in Law 4.)
Law 3: Make It Easy
It’s easy to do things that take little effort. Conversely, you can keep yourself from doing certain things by making them harder. For example, you can reduce your junk food intake by not keeping any junk food in your home.
The same applies in my case. I’ve uninstalled social apps from my iPad. Now, if I want to see what’s happening in Mastodon or X, I must open Safari and log into those websites. I can still do it if I need to, but it’s considerably harder, which removes the automaticity that led me into trouble.
On the positive side, I’ve configured a home screen on the iPad with a widget that allows me to quickly get back to whatever book I was reading. I also set up a “Reading” focus mode that defaults to this home screen. Turning this focus mode on is now part of my bedtime routine: it’s a way for me to say to myself, “Now it’s time to read.” These tweaks make it easier for me to read without as many distractions.
Law 4: Make It Satisfying
The last law is about how you feel as a result of doing the behavior. You’re likelier to repeat actions that make you feel good about yourself. The challenge is that your brain is wired to reward near-term benefits over those that benefit you in the long term.
Habit trackers and other gamified apps are one way to exploit this quirk. For example, the iPad Kindle app tells me how many days I’ve read in a row. Seeing this number go up makes me feel good about myself. I’ve made long-lasting changes in other areas of my life with similar means. (E.g., I’m almost on a two-year streak of walking at least 10,000 steps every day thanks to the Pedometer++ app.)
You can also use social pressure to enforce new behaviors. For example, it helps to start a new workout routine with a buddy who’ll nudge you to come along. In my case, I’m likelier to stick with my intention to read every night now that I’ve announced it publicly. Although you won’t be there to scold me if I skip a night, I don’t want to be the kind of person who doesn’t follow through.
Don’t Dream It, Be It
That last point is key: successful behavior change is not just about what you want to do differently but also about who you want to be. Are you the type of person who reads every night before bed? Declare it to yourself and others — and then work to live up to the expectations you’ve created.
Cultivating a new identity is a powerful way to change behaviors. As the song says, “Don’t dream it, be it.” The key is doing it intentionally. We tend to imitate what we see in others. But what if you took time to think about what you really want to do and then take concrete steps in that direction?
One helpful identity to adopt is that of a “work in progress.” It’s freeing to declare yourself imperfect. Open yourself to change. Become a person in perpetual state of becoming, always looking to improve — for your benefit and for others.
Change can be hard. It requires work, thought, and giving up on things that feel more fun in the short term. But when done intentionally, it’s energizing. And change doesn’t need to be difficult. Keeping these four laws in mind will help you make changes that stick without struggle.
A version of this post first appeared in my newsletter. Subscribe to receive posts like this in your inbox every other Sunday.