This article is based on an excerpt from James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits.

John Henry Patterson was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1844. He spent his childhood doing chores on the family farm and working shifts at his father’s sawmill. After attending college at Dartmouth, Patterson returned to Ohio and opened a small supply store for coal miners.

It seemed like a good opportunity. The store faced little competition and enjoyed a steady stream of customers, but—for some reason—Patterson’s shop still struggled to make money.

Eventually, he learned why: his employees were stealing from him.

In the mid-1800s, employee theft was a common problem. Receipts were kept in an open drawer and could easily be altered or discarded. There were no video cameras to review behavior and no software to track transactions. Unless you were willing to hover over your employees every minute of the day, or to manage all transactions yourself, it was difficult to prevent theft.

As Patterson mulled over his predicament, he came across an advertisement for a new invention called Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier. Designed by fellow Dayton resident James Ritty, it was the first cash register. The machine automatically locked the cash and receipts inside after each transaction. Patterson bought two for fifty dollars each.

Employee theft at his store vanished overnight. In the next six months, Patterson’s business went from losing money to making $5,000 in profit—the equivalent of more than $100,000 today. [1]

Patterson was so impressed with the machine that he changed businesses. He bought the rights to Ritty’s invention and opened the National Cash Register Company. Ten years later, National Cash Register had over one thousand employees and was on its way to becoming one of the most successful businesses in America.

The Best Way to Change a Habit

The brilliance of the cash register was that it automated ethical behavior by making stealing practically impossible. Rather than trying to change the motivations of his employees, Patterson used technology to make the preferred behavior automatic.

There is an important lesson within this story that we can apply to all habits and behaviors. The best way to break a bad habit is to make it impossible to do. And the best way to create a good habit is to automate it so you never have to think about it again.

Typically, when people think about automating something, they imagine technology or a piece of software. And, certainly, this is a great way to automate a habit. You can save for retirement with an automatic deduction from your paycheck. You can curtail social media browsing with a website blocker.

Technology can transform actions that were once hard, annoying, and complicated into behaviors that are easy, painless, and simple. It is the most reliable and effective way to guarantee the right behavior.

But there are also many ways to “automate” your future decisions that don’t necessarily involve a piece of software.

Fix your Gym days (& time if you can) ‘Lock It in’. Come hell or high water – have it as a ‘done thing’

Yes! There will be emergency days where it is impossible to stick with the ‘automated schedule’. But not that many! Miss one, next day get back on track.

The Same with your Nutrition. The automation comes down to the old essential: DISCIPLINE

The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

The Downside of Automation

Of course, the power of technology can work against us as well.

Binge watching becomes a habit because it takes more effort to stop looking at the screen than to continue doing so. Instead of pressing a button to advance to the next episode, Netflix or YouTube will autoplay it for you. All you have to do is keep your eyes open.

Personally, I often find myself gravitating toward social media during any downtime. If I feel bored for just a fraction of a second, I reach for my phone. It’s easy to write off these minor distractions as “just taking a break,” but over time they can accumulate into a serious issue.

During the year I was writing Atomic Habits, I experimented with a new time management strategy. Every Monday, my assistant would reset the passwords on all my social media accounts, which logged me out on each device. All week I worked without distraction. On Friday, she would send me the new passwords. I had the entire weekend to enjoy what social media had to offer until Monday morning when she would do it again. (If you don’t have an assistant, team up with a friend or family member and reset each other’s passwords each week.)

One of the biggest surprises was how quickly I adapted.

Within the first week of locking myself out of social media, I realized that I didn’t need to check it nearly as often as I had been, and I certainly didn’t need it each day. It had simply been so easy that it had become the default. Once my bad habit became impossible, I discovered that I did actually have the motivation to work on more meaningful tasks. After I removed the mental candy from my environment, it became much easier to eat the healthy stuff.

Where to Go From Here

When working in your favor, automation can make your good habits inevitable and your bad habits impossible. It is the ultimate way to lock in future behavior rather than relying on willpower in the moment.

By utilizing strategic onetime decisions and technology, you can create an environment of inevitability—a space where good habits are not just an outcome you hope for, but an outcome that is virtually guaranteed.

FOOTNOTES

  1. “John H. Patterson—Ringing Up Success with the Incorruptible Cashier,” Dayton Innovation Legacy, http://www.daytoninnovationlegacy.org/patterson.html, accessed June 8, 2016.
  2. James Clear (@james_clear), “What are one-time actions that pay off again and again in the future?” Twitter, February 11, 2018.
  3. “GWI Social,” GlobalWebIndex, 2017, Q3.