Navigating Health and Success through Habitual Change

Exploring ‘Atomic Habits’ insights for positive change: identity, context, the brain’s role, and some practical steps.

Published: January 6th, 2024 | By: Tom Newby | Read Time: 4 mins


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*Note: this is actually a previous post from New Year 2023, but it’s so relevant that I decided to republish it!

The below is a download of some key ideas from a book I read last year – Atomic Habits, by James Clear

If you ever come to see me at the clinic, you’ll know that a significant part of the journey to physical improvement involves forming new, positive habits – strength and mobility exercises, better posture, regular stretching, etc. Having a clear understanding of how to manipulate our habits to enhance them is crucial for better health outcomes.

To be completely honest, this is a fairly lengthy article. If you’d rather not hear me harp on and want to get to the juicy, practical part about habits, skip to the sections on ‘Getting Habits to Stick’ and ‘The 4 Laws of Behavioural Change.’ However, if, like me, you enjoy the more detailed, “geeky” background, then please grab a coffee and settle in!

The “geeky” in-depth background: You’re constantly creating new habits, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Your brain is always attempting to automate and streamline behaviour to conserve energy, an evolutionary model that worked well for our ancestors. This renders many day-to-day actions either automated or semi-automated. Quite interesting, isn’t it? It also makes sense; recall those times you found yourself doing something out of habit, only to realise it wasn’t appropriate. My typical (but accidental!) trick is to switch the bathroom light off on someone when I leave the room. Not a cruel and malicious joke at someone’s expense, just a subconscious, automatic behaviour gone awry…promise!

Studies indicate that at least 40-50% of our behaviours are automatic or habitual, though some scientists argue the figure is much higher. The beauty here is that we’re not merely passive creatures, locked into repetitive cycles. We can sculpt our habits through our actions, intentions, and predictions, understanding this allows us to become architects rather than victims of them. The challenge for us all is that we’re not the only ones sculpting our habits, we receive them from our family, friends, schooling, culture, TV/film, social media, etc. So, the first real tool is awareness, the ability to tune in when we’re on autopilot. This is the first step to making habitual change and it is absolutely essential.

The book makes an assumption: many of us want to improve (getting stronger, feeling fitter, performing better at work, living longer, etc), our ability to do so stems, ultimately, from our habits. We also aim to shed our ‘bad’ habits – drinking excessively, overworking, smoking, etc.

Evolutionarily, you’re predisposed to seek more immediate feedback from your actions, less from delayed feedback or gratification. The issue here is that many ‘bad’ habits offer immediate gratification; think of eating a doughnut or smoking versus the delayed satisfaction of a ‘good’ habit like exercising, stretching, or maintaining a healthy diet. The former quickly provide positive feedback, often followed by negative consequences, while the latter’s rewards are mostly delayed.

Getting Habits to Stick

So, here’s the cardinal rule of habit formation: Behaviours that are instantly rewarded get repeated, while those instantly punished get avoided. The sooner you receive meaningful feedback, the more likely you are to retain the habit.

Identity change – Rather than solely focusing on goals like ‘losing weight’ or being healthier, it’s more effective to concentrate on the identity of the type of person you want to be and the habits they might possess. For instance, instead of meticulously planning meals to become healthier, you might ask what a healthy person would do in a similar situation, like choosing to walk instead of taking a taxi or picking a salad over a pizza. It’s akin to responding to an offered cigarette with “No, I’m not a smoker” versus “No, I’m trying to quit.” The former aligns with a specific identity, potentially making the attempt more successful. It’s the internal story or narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves that holds the power for lasting change.

The point is, the habits we cultivate are absorbed from the narrative integrated into our lifestyles; excluding them from our routine can feel disingenuous.

Context and environment – Substantial environmental or life changes significantly influence habit formation – having a child, getting married, relocating, acquiring a dog. These changes are often irreversible or challenging to modify, leading to enduring behavioural change. If you aim to start walking regularly, getting a dog can prompt this change.

Social environment – External judgement can significantly drive change. Often, habits that stick have a strong social component. We’re all part of various groups or tribes in life (sports teams, running groups, yoga classes, social circles, political affiliations, etc). Joining groups or tribes where the behaviour you’re aiming for is standard can be instrumental. Most individuals choose belonging over isolation, harnessing the potent force of needing to belong but selecting the group aligning with our goals.

Our brains are predictive machines – dopamine, a neurotransmitter, holds sway here. The initial exposure to something (like biting into a tasty pastry for the first time) triggers an immediate dopamine surge, creating a sense of pleasure. Subsequently, a dopamine surge occurs mainly in anticipation of the experience, and far less during it or afterwards. Dopamine acts as a learning molecule, allowing us to mark experiences as favourable for the future.

The 4 Laws of Behavioural Change

  1. Make it obvious – available, visible, easy to see – to grab your attention: Structure your house, control your environment, home gym, or exercise space to mentally prepare you for exercise. Keep your exercise equipment and clothes in an obvious place where you can see them. Keep your equipment somewhere obvious (and safe!) as much as possible, so that you’re frequently reminded of it.
  2. Make it attractive, appealing, or exciting – for more motivation: To boost exercise, connecting it to a broader goal is effective. Engage with relevant reading materials, literature, or podcasts to excite yourself about the context of exercise and its potential benefits. Listening to engaging discussions by experts can inspire. Various apps like Strava provide detailed feedback on your exercise routine. Engage socially with a team or group to garner social energy about your performance and encourage future engagement.
  3. Make it easy – convenient, frictionless, simple – to make it easier to start: Prepare your exercise space the night before. If your exercise space or equipment is not set up, is dirty, or in disrepair, it becomes challenging to engage in exercise. Ensure your exercise kit is washed and ready to use!
  4. Make it satisfying – more likely to be repeated in the future: Learning to relish exercise is a true gift; although it can be painful and challenging, persisting with it reaps health rewards. Recognising this in the moment, reframing it as a positive albeit challenging experience—midway through a set of weights, during a run, or catching your breath after a squash match—can make all the difference.

These principles apply when forming ‘good’ habits. Flip them for discarding ‘bad’ habits. A desire to change is the initial step toward lasting transformation.

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