Atomic Habits at Work: A Practical Guide

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James Clear wrote his internationally bestselling book, Atomic Habits back in 2018. It remains a popular read because it brings together research on how habits are built and broken with practical tips to establish good habits for work. Whether you’re trying to achieve inbox zero, stay on top of administration or become the highest performer in your team, implementing atomic habits at work can help you build habits for future success. The 4 Laws of Atomic Habits is an accessible and simple structure to build and break habits. 

How you approach your job today shapes how successful you’ll be in the future. Everyone can improve productivity at work by focusing on habits. Even top performers can improve by tweaking habits. That’s how they stay on top — by iterating habits over time to achieve many 1% improvements. Over the long-term, these habits add up and keep them ahead of the pack. 

There’s even a handy atomic habits cheat sheet online. Ready to get started?

Building atomic habits at work

There are three levels of change you can achieve by focusing on build atomic habits at work:

  • outcome change
  • process change and
  • identity change.

“The real reason habits matter is not because they can get you better results (although they can do that), but because they can change your beliefs about yourself.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits

The habit loop

Habits can form intentionally or unintentionally. Habits form (and are reinforced) in four steps: 

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Reward 
  4. Response

The problem phase is steps one and two, when there’s a cue that causes a craving, for example your mobile phone vibrates, and you crave picking it up. The solution phase is when you respond and there’s a reward. Your response might be to pick up your phone and the reward is finding out what the phone notification was about. Soon enough you’ve picked up your phone before it’s finished vibrating, without even thinking. 

Follow these steps to build atomic habits at work

The Habit Loop presented by James Clear in Atomic Habits brings together his thinking influenced by Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit and Nir Eyal’s book, Hooked. 

Understand your habits

Building atomic habits at work? Put down the phone.

Are you aware of your habits at work? Think about the habits which increase productivity at work or impede productivity at work. Write down as many as you can think of. It might help to think about certain times of day or situations, for example:

  • What do you do when you first get to work?
  • What do you do when you get back from lunch
  • What do you do when you feel overwhelmed? 

Write a list of all of your habits and add symbols next to each indicating whether you think each habit is:

  • positive (add a + sign next to these)
  • negative (add a – sign next to these) or
  • neutral (add an = sign next to these)

This gives you a good idea of the habits you already have. Add to the list any new atomic habits at work you’d like to have.

The 4 Laws of Atomic Habits at Work

Now we know how habits work, we can use that knowledge to build new atomic habits at work.

The 1st Law – Make it obvious

We know that habits start out with cues, so if you want to form new ones, planting cues makes sense. 

Make a habit stick by making it obvious

Implementation intentions
Be specific about what you’ll do, when and where. Use implementation intentions: “I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]”.

Example: I’ll pack my lunch at 7am in the kitchen.

Swag Tip: Set and track your implementation intentions in the Swag app. There, you can set goals and OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and track your incremental progress each step of the way.

Track your atomic habits at work by using the Swag app.

Habit stacking
Consider your current positive and neutral habits, and how your new habits could fit in with them. Articulate: “After [CURRENT HABIT] I will [NEW HABIT]”. This is called habit stacking and it’s a great way to remember to practise new habits and make them automatic.

Example: After I turn my computer on, I’ll tidy my desk.

Environmental cues
Consider how you can change your environment to create obvious cues for good habits.

Example: Each morning, I’ll put my running shoes by my desk so they’re ready for my walk at lunchtime.

Break a habit by making it invisible

Reduce exposure

Are there certain resources or accomplices you need for your bad habits? Find ways to reduce how often you come across them.

Example: Is your 40 minute Masterchef debrief with your work friends getting on your boss’ nerves? Avoid walking past their desk, or better yet set up a social time to chat.

Remove cues
How many apps have you set to notify you each time you receive an email, Slack notification, like, view or message? Take a look at your notification settings on your computer and phone and narrow them down to what’s essential.

Example: Tempted to scroll every time you get a mobile notification? Turn off notifications or remove distracting apps from your home screen.

Swag Tip: Using multiple systems to submit leave requests, timesheets and rosters can be a real time-drain (and a major distraction). Swag consolidates all your important work admin and documents into one easy app, so you can streamline your workday and find your focus.

Swag app makes it easy to adopt atomic habits at work

The 2nd Law – Make it attractive

For a habit to stick, you need to crave it. And to crave it, it needs to be attractive to you. 

Make a habit stick by making it attractive

If the habit you’re trying to set isn’t immediately attractive to you on its own, there are a couple of tactics you can use to make it attractive.

Temptation bundling

Pair the action you want to do with an action that you already need to do.

Example: You already review your calendar at the start of each week. Whilst you’re doing this, build the habit of adding any preparation you need to do for meetings to your to-do list or board.

The norm

Join a team or group within your organisation where the habit you’re trying to build is part of the culture.

Example: You’re trying to build a habit of reading a book a month, so you join your organisation’s book club, or start one with a few friends.

A motivation ritual

Do something you enjoy immediately before a habit you’re finding difficult to embed.

Example: You need to tackle the filing – be it physical paper, your desktop or some documents on your desktop that should really be on a shared drive. Grab your favourite beverage or go for a walk and then get stuck in. Repeat this ritual so the two habits become associated and you look forward to the ritual.

Read more: 5 methods for better productivity

Break a habit by making it unattractive

There’s a reason there are plenty of songs with the general gist of: breaking habits is hard to do. It’s hard to do. The second step in breaking a habit is making it unattractive to you. You need a new perspective that makes the habit unattractive to you (not just your boss, colleagues, friends, partner or parents).

Reframe your mindset

Redefine your identity as it relates to the habit.

Example: I’m not going to come into work late, because that’s not something I do.

Bring the Benefits

Highlight the benefits of avoiding your bad habits.

Example: If your bad habit is leaving things to the last minute. You might frame the benefits of changing your habit as: “When I focus on my most urgent tasks early in the week, I won’t miss deadlines and my team and I will be on-time with deliverables. I’ll feel less stressed and more positive about my contribution. 

In Atomic Habits James Clear gives an extreme example of making an action unattractive by burying the nuclear codes beside a volunteer’s heart. The person making a decision to start a nuclear war would have to dig the codes out with a knife, killing the volunteer. The idea is that this brings the consequence of nuclear war – many deaths – closer to the decision maker. Extreme, but certainly makes the action unattractive!

The 3rd Law – Make it easy

The third stage in the habit loop is response. You’re more likely to adopt a habit if it’s easy for you to respond. 

Make a habit stick by making it easy

Sure, if the habit you’re trying to adopt was that easy, you probably wouldn’t need our tips on adopting it. The good news is that even the most unwieldy habit can be made easier. Here are five ways you can encourage atomic habits at work:

Reduce friction: Simplify the number of steps you need to take to do your target habit.

Example: Do you need to go into multiple systems to build a report in another program, like Powerpoint? Think about whether all of the metrics you’re presenting are still required, see if there are any steps you can eliminate or simplify. 

Prime the environment: Make any adjustments you need to to your environment to make doing your habit easy.

Example: If you need a quiet spot to concentrate, or to declutter your workspace, arrange that in advance.

Master the decisive moment: Identify small choices that can have a big impact.

Example: When you schedule time to do a task, don’t be tempted to procrastinate or put off the task. Practice making the decision to forge ahead.

Use the two-minute rule: Simplify and time-box your atomic habits at work so you can do them in two minutes or less.

Example: If getting started is overwhelming, tell yourself you can only do the required task for two minutes. Set a timer and try to stop when it goes off. Chances are, you’ll want to continue.

Automate your habits: Find technology or one-time purchases that can help you embed habits.

Example: Use technology to pull inputs for a report you need to do regularly into one platform and export them from there. 

Break a habit by making it difficult

The harder it is to complete a habit, the more likely you are to drop it. Try these ideas to make your bad habit challenging. 

Increase friction: Increase the number of steps between you and your bad habits.

Example: Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling? Lock your phone in a drawer or install an app to lock you out of your social media accounts during certain hours.

Use a commitment device: Set up a reward or a punishment to help keep you on track. 

Example: Write a cheque to an organisation you don’t like and send it if you return to your bad habit, or let a friend decide what you’ll need to do if you break your streak. They might choose a silly dare —or make you wear your rival sports team’s jersey for a week.

The 4th Law – Make it satisfying

The fourth stage of the habit loop is reward, so to embed a habit, it’s important that doing it (or at least completing it) is satisfying. All of the habits are outlined in the atomic habits cheat sheet

Make a habit stick by making it satisfying 

The more you can make completing a new habit feel good, the easier it will be to keep up your habit streak. Here are some tips.

Use reinforcement: As soon as you complete a habit, give yourself a reward.

Example: Put a coin in a jar every time you do the habit, saving up for something you want. Or, you could take a 5 minute break to play with your dog —whatever gives you a little dopamine spike.

Swag Tip: Want to reward yourself for sticking to your atomic habits at work? The Swag app offers employees a world-class benefits program to help you get more out of work and life. It’s a thanks from your employer for doing great work every day. Head to the Swag Store where you can find discounts on electronics, movie tickets, gift cards and more.

Want to reward yourself for atomic habits at work? Swag Benefits makes it easy.

Use a habit tracker: Visualise your success.

Example: Tick off days or add stickers to a calendar each time you complete the habit

Never miss twice: If you don’t do your habit for any reason, don’t dwell on it, just get back on top of it straight away.

Example: Have a phrase you’ll use, like: I’ve forgotten to do my habit today, but soon it will be an everyday ritual and I won’t have to think about it. I’ll start again tomorrow. Take a look at steps 1 – 3 and see if there are any tweaks you can make to your process to make doing your habit easier.

Break a habit – make it unsatisfying

When doing a habit doesn’t make you feel good, it’s easier to give up the habit. Try these tips:

Get an accountability partner: ask a friend or colleague to check you’re meeting your goals.

Example: Agree that you’ll text them each day to confirm you’re bad habit free, or that you’ve lapsed.

Create a habit contract: Agree on consequences if you return to a bad habit.

Example: Create and sign a contract with a friend outlining the actions you’ll take if you return to a bad habit. These could include things you’ll have to do (posting an update on social media for example). You could include milestones over time if you’re not going cold turkey.  

Productivity at work

Mastering productivity at work doesn’t just benefit the people you work for. People who are productive at work often have a positive view of themselves. Being known as someone who optimises processes, nurtures good habits and eliminates bad ones positions you well to be considered for development opportunities. 

Habit building at work has tangible outcomes. High-performing people constantly look for ways to improve. Even small improvements have a significant impact over time. Set a goal to get 1% better each day, and you can have results that are 37 x better a year later. 

Read more: What does self care in the workplace look like?

Good habits for work

Building good habits for work is always worthwhile. Not sure where to start? New habits don’t need to be in service of lofty goals: in fact a good habit is one that’s easy to adopt. You can always stack habits over time to get to your ultimate destination.

Here are some prompts for thinking about habits that could make you more successful at work. Brainstorm answers to these prompts, then think about what habits might support you in achieving your outcomes.

  • Something that always frustrates me is ________.
  • One thing I need to get done this week is ________.
  • Someone I admire is ________.
  • A goal I’d like to achieve is ________.
  • I’d like to be better at ________.
  • I’d like to understand more about ________.
  • I want to be known for ________.
  • I’d like people to describe me as ________ to work with.
  • My professional legacy will be ________.
  • If I had better habits, I’d be able to ________.

[pull quote] “Every action you take is a vote for the person you wish to become.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits

Help yourself embed good atomic habits for work

Even habits which improve outcomes by a small amount can have a huge impact. Now, you’ve got the steps you need to start brainstorming, making and breaking habits. You can refer back to the atomic habits cheat sheet if you need a prompt. Get started today —you never know where it will take you. 



The information in this article is current as at July 2023, and has been prepared by Employment Hero Pty Ltd (ABN 11 160 047 709) and its related bodies corporate (Employment Hero) for its Swag brand. The views expressed in this article are general information provided in good faith to assist job seekers in the current market, and should not be relied on as professional advice. Some Information is based on data supplied by third parties and whilst such data is believed to be accurate, it has not been independently verified and no warranties are given that it is complete, accurate, up to date or fit for the purpose for which it is required. Employment Hero does not accept responsibility for any inaccuracy in such data and is not liable for any loss or damages arising directly or indirectly as a result of reliance on, use of or inability to use any information provided in this article. You should undertake your own research and seek professional advice before making any important career decisions or solely relying on the information in this article.