Habits are funny, aren't they? The good ones never seem to stick and yet the bad ones ... well, they can be really tough to shake. That's because we're more likely to fall into behaviors that are obvious and attractive, easy or satisfying, according to James Clear, one of the world's leading experts on habit formation and author of the best-selling book Atomic Habits.
Think of it this way, your smartphone is always just a reach away and maybe even beeping or buzzing for your attention—therefore obvious and easy. It requires just a swipe or a tap of your thumb for an attractive and satisfying dopamine hit from social media or an app. Well-meaning good intentions meanwhile often fail for precisely the opposite reasons: Behaviors that are invisible, difficult or unsatisfying are unlikely to stick.
So how does Clear suggest sticking with good habits? One proven method involves a common item you likely have stashed in your desk: the trusty paper clip. He tells the story of a successful salesman who had two jars on his desk. One was filled with 120 paper clips; the other was empty. For every sales call he made, he'd move a paper clip to the other jar. He wouldn't stop dialing the phone until he'd moved them all to the second jar. Clear says that this is evidence of a simple truth: Success is often a result of committing to the fundamentals over and over again.
"I believe the Paper Clip Strategy works particularly well because it creates a visual trigger that can help motivate you to perform a habit with more consistency," he writes. "I've heard from readers who have employed it in a variety of ways. One woman shifted a hairpin from one container to another whenever she wrote a page of her book. Another man moved a marble from one bin to the next after each set of push-ups."
Making progress is satisfying, and visual cues are helpful reminders to stay on track. And by using physical cues (paper clips or marbles), it allows you to display your progress. This can actually help you develop a healthy addiction-like motivation. "As the visual evidence of your progress mounts, it is natural to become more motivated to continue the habit," he says. "The more paperclips you place in the bin, the more motivated you will become to finish the task."
Ready to start your own
Paper Clip Strategy?
Outline your goal, pick up some paper clips and figure out how many you'll need to hit your objective. Clear offers these examples:
⋆ Hoping to do 100 pushups each day? Start with 10 paper clips and move one over each time you drop down and do a set of 10 throughout the day.
⋆ Need to send 25 sales emails every day? Start with 25 paper clips and toss one to the other side each time you press "send."
⋆ Want to drink eight glasses of water daily? Start with eight paper clips and slide one over each time you finish a glass.
But remember to go easy on yourself, all habits will slip every now and then. Clear says don't worry about it, but never miss twice. So if you over indulge at dinner, make sure your next meal is healthy; and if you skip a morning workout, make sure you hit the gym hard tomorrow without fail. "It's never the first mistake that ruins you," he says. "It's the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows."