Atomic Habits For More Active Travel

By Alison Holland

Published: May 17, 2019

Alison and James.
4 minute read: 

There are lots of great books you can read that give an insight into how to change behaviour… either your own or those you are trying to influence.

 My very favourite is Atomic Habits by US author James Clear so I was really excited to have a chance to meet him recently at the Business Excellence Forum here in the UK.

His ideas can be applied to any desire to change any habits… including walking, cycling or scooting more for regular journeys. The talk he gave covered some of the key concepts from his book (recommended reading). I have applied these here to show how they can help change daily travel habits for yourself or those you work with or are close to.


1  The Cue – Make it Obvious 

What prompts your travel habit? There is always a trigger that prompts your brain to initiate a habit, good or bad. This can lead to a whole chain of habits or ‘habit stacking’. You need a cue to start you off doing the right thing and this needs to be obvious.

An effective way to create a good, obvious cue is to write a pledge beforehand which states the situation or time and place you will carry out your new habit or break an old bad habit, for example ‘I pledge we will walk to school every day, even when it’s raining’. So when you look out of the window in the morning and see it’s raining you’ll no longer decide to the kids to school in the car. Instead you will tell the kids to put their raincoats on so you can all still walk to school.

Your pledge is your cue to grab raincoats rather than car keys and will lead you to establish a ‘walk even when it rains’ habit.

Another good, obvious cue is having your school (or workplace) scooter or cycle storage eye-catching and prominent right at the front of the building rather than hidden around the back. It can prompt people to decide ‘I will scoot or cycle next time’.


2. The Craving – Make it Attractive 

So how do you respond to those cues? This needs to be something that makes you want to act or makes you not want to do your bad habit. It has to be attractive.

James Clear told us a story about French author Victor Hugo. Hugo was basically a bit of a party animal which tempted him away from what he needed to do – write. So he asked his servants to lock up all his nice clothes. This made it unappealing for him to go out on the town or receive guests. So he was able to get on with his writing. A ‘commitment device’ like this makes it attractive to have good habits or hard to have bad habits.

Try this yourself – lock in your own future behaviour e.g. by arranging to meet a friend to walk to school. It’s much more attractive to stick to this arrangement than let your friend down by cancelling at the last minute and going by car instead.

With our ‘walk even if it rains’ example above the result is attractive: Instead of a drive to the more-congested-than-usual school gates with a less-visibility-than-usual parking challenge, you will have a healthy, fun ‘splash-in-the-puddles’ outing for your kids. And with your new image of someone with true grit (which actually wasn’t so tough after all) you can tell anyone who disagrees that ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’.


3 The Response – Make it Easy

We form routines because it requires less brain effort – once you have your routine set up each connected action is one less thing to think about. So if you can change the habit at the beginning of your routine you will be sorted. You will have a good habit which is the entry point to that whole routine… change that and you can change it all.

This could even be about setting up the right habit the previous day… checking the right clothes for cycling or walking are ready for your morning journey.

Help parents of new starters at school to plan how they will get to school by giving them information about good options, e.g. local maps showing ‘park and stride’ drop offs, the walking bus route, relevant (vehicle) bus times etc. This is called personal travel planning and if every parent had help with this before their child joined any school I believe this would have a massive effect on helping them form good travel habits for their children for life.


4 The Reward – Make it Satisfying 

Oooh I love having a piece of chocolate cheesecake with squirty cream on top. The problem with things that are bad for us is they tend to give us instantaneous gratification. Whereas with things that are good for us it can take a while to feel the benefits. Going for the ‘no cheesecake’ option will help my waistline and health but it won’t be apparent for a while.

I know going everywhere by car is comfortable and a bit like that piece of cheesecake. Personally I think walking and cycling do also give you a good reward pretty quickly. I mean, doesn’t cycling make every one feel happy and free (subject to a safe route)?

Most adults can probably ride a bike but many haven’t done so since they were children. So they have forgotten the buzz it gives.

Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves and others of the satisfaction of walking, cycling or scooting.

Our recent Scootfit session we organised with a local school saw children and teachers experiencing the sheer fun of scooting.

Another way to make active travel habits more satisfying is to use a habit tracker – build up a streak and you won’t want to break it. Enforce on yourself the ‘never miss twice’ rule so if you do go off track you don’t give up for good but will get right back.


Extra Tips

So some extra tips from James Clear:

1 The more you perform your new habits the more you change how you see yourself – getting a walk to school habit established makes you eventually see yourself as ‘someone who walks to school’… it’s who you are, not just what you do.

2 By surrounding yourself with those who have the same good habits, it will be easier to stick to them. A good reason to start a walking bus!

3 Finally, if you manage to influence others around you to change their habits too – your family, friends, colleagues or pupils – you will have created a change in culture… what a success story!


For discussion:

There are lots of great initiatives which help create good travel habits by applying these principles of making them obvious, attractive, easy or satisfying. For example the Living Streets ‘WOW’ scheme makes walking more satisfying as pupils can earn a monthly badge. Can you think of others?