This article is an excerpt from my 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.
Onetime Actions That Lock In Good Habits
One of the most practical ways to automate good habits is to look for onetime choices that require a little bit of effort up front but create increasing value over time.
I’m fascinated by these single choices that can deliver returns again and again. Not long ago, I surveyed my readers on their favorite onetime actions that lead to better long-term habits.2
Here are a few of the popular answers…
- Nutrition: Use smaller plates to reduce caloric intake.
- Sleep: Remove your television from your bedroom.
- Productivity: Delete games and social media apps from your phone.
- Focus: Permanently set your phone in Do Not Disturb mode.
- Happiness: Get a dog.
- Health: Buy better shoes to avoid back pain.
- Finance: Call your service providers (cable, electric, etc.) and ask for a lower rate.
These onetime actions only require effort once and make it easier to get better sleep, eat healthy, be productive, save money, and generally live better.
The Upside of Automation
The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”
Today, technology and automation can handle an increasing number of daily tasks. Meal-delivery services can go grocery shopping for you. Healthcare services can automatically refill your prescriptions and ship them to you. IUDs can manage birth control on autopilot.
Each habit that we hand over to the authority of technology frees up time and energy to pour into the next stage of growth. When you automate as much of your life as you possibly can, you can spend your mental energy on the tasks machines cannot yet do.
Automation is particularly useful for behaviors that happen too infrequently to become habitual. Things you have to do monthly or yearly—like rebalancing your investment portfolio—are never repeated frequently enough to become a habit, so they benefit in particular from technology “remembering” to do them for you.
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.
Technology often creates a level of convenience that enables you to act on your smallest whims and desires. At the mere suggestion of hunger, you can have food delivered to your door. At the slightest hint of boredom, you can get lost in the vast expanse of social media.
When the effort required to act on your desires becomes effectively zero, you can find yourself slipping into whatever impulse arises at the moment. The downside of automation is that we can find ourselves jumping from easy task to easy task without making time for more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding, work.
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. The constant tug of “just one more minute” can prevent me from doing anything of consequence. (I’m not the only one. The average person spends over two hours per day on social media.3 What could you do with an extra six hundred hours per year?)
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.
This article is an excerpt from Chapter 14 of my book, Atomic Habits.
“John H. Patterson—Ringing Up Success with the Incorruptible Cashier,” Dayton Innovation Legacy, http://www.daytoninnovationlegacy.org/patterson.html, accessed June 8, 2016.
James Clear (@james_clear), “What are one-time actions that pay off again and again in the future?” Twitter, February 11, 2018.
“GWI Social,” GlobalWebIndex, 2017, Q3.