Ways Nonprofit Leaders Can Benefit from Atomic Habits

Orange honeycomb matrix with points of light.

Out of the 1.3 million US-based nonprofits, most are small and community-based which means they may be low on resources. One tool I’ve found that can help productivity for individuals and small teams is using the principles of Atomic Habits, a book that teaches how small changes can make a big impact. 

According to author James Clear, when it comes to changing habits, there are Four Laws of Behavior Change: 

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Law 1: Make It Obvious

The two most common habit cues are time and location. Take a moment to consider when and where you will be the most successful in changing your behavior. Then, set an Implementation Intention and build onto it with Habit Stacking.

An Implementation Intention exercise looks like this: 

Formula: I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

Example: I will check email at 9 am in my office for 30 minutes.

Once you’ve outlined your new habit, build it onto an old habit into what’s called a “Habit Stack.” The Habit Stack formula looks like this:

Formula: After I [CURRENT HABIT] I will [NEW HABIT].

Example: After I check email, I will follow up with one donor.

Success with this first Law comes by following this pattern:

  • Select a cue that is specific and actionable (i.e. starting work day)
  • Consider when you are most likely to be successful (don’t choose chaotic times)
  • Design an environment that supports your cue

Law 2: Make It Attractive

The next Law of Behavior Change is to make it attractive. The more attractive it is, the easier it is to form a habit. Design your environment to encourage good habits. And pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do—this is called Temptation Bundling. Here’s the formula and an example:

Formula: After I [CURRENT HABIT] I will [HABIT I NEED]. After I [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT]. 

Example: After I check email, I will follow up with donors. After I follow up with donors, I can check social media.

Law 3: Make It Easy

The third Law of Behavior Change is to make it easy. The Law of Least Effort states that we naturally gravitate toward what requires the least amount of work. Therefore, you’ll want to create an environment that makes it easy to have good habits. Also, reduce friction between good habits and increase friction with bad ones.

For example, if you’re working in the dining room, you’ll be too easily distracted by Netflix, dirty dishes, or the laundry. For a more focused time, go to a coworking space or a cafe. And be sure to silence your phone or remove distracting apps.

To make your habits as easy as possible, build a “gateway habit” to larger behaviors and ambitions by scaling a habit to two minutes using the Two-Minute Rule.

Example: “I will update my donor database” becomes “I will follow up with 20 donor prospects.” 

4. Make It Satisfying

The fourth Law is to make it satisfying. This increases the odds the habit will be repeated. As the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change says, “What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.” Giving yourself immediate gratification, even if it’s small, helps a habit stick.

Example: When you finish preparing your annual report content, treat yourself to a coffee 

Habit Tracking is a physical and/or visual way to measure your daily habits in a satisfying way. It’s tangible proof of progress and can be an energy boost on low days. 

Habit tracking aligns with the Four Laws of Behavior Change in these ways:

  • Makes a behavior obvious and keeps you honest (1st Law)
  • Seeing progress is attractive and motivates us (2nd Law)
  • Tracking can be simple and easy to do (3rd Law)
  • It’s satisfying—a type of reward (4th Law) 

Don’t Go It Alone with Atomic Habits

One way to motivate yourself is to get a habit accountability partner. This helps to create an “immediate cost to inaction” and can motivate both of you to stay on track with good habits. James Clear suggests drafting a Habit Contract and sharing it with each other.

If you make your habit-building obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying, you’ll find that you’re more productive in your work (and personal) life—and on your way to lasting change.

Catch up on my other blogs about Atomic Habits: 

Fundamentals of Atomic Habits

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