This weekend I finished a book that I’ve been putting off reading for at least five years, Atomic Habits by James Clear (link). I put it off because I knew that after taking a thorough examination of the small but countless subconscious actions that deter me from becoming who I want to be, I would have no choice but to attack them. After all, the process of behavior change starts with awareness.
Being one of the most flawed people that I know, I have many bad habits. These range from not getting enough sleep, prioritizing spending over saving, drinking too much on occassion, and/or procrastinating (including reading this book). Other common bad habits include aimlessly scrolling the internet, nail biting, smoking, etc… The list goes on.
My Major Takeaway: Getting 1% better every day counts for a lot in the long-run. Small actions are significant because they are part of a compounding system. Small changes then, may seem unimportant initially or by themselves, but will compound into remarkable results over time – like the slightest change to the trajectory of a golf ball. Be more concerned with the trajectory than with the current results. Are your habits putting you on a trajectory for success?
We have to understand the motivation of our habits. The cues and cravings that lead to a response and reward. We do not crave a cigarette, but we crave the relief it provides. We do not crave brushing our teeth, but we crave having a clean feeling mouth. We do not crave turning on the TV, but we crave being entertained. Bad habits don’t exist because I want them to, but because my brain is wired to seek comfort and avoid displeasure.
You don’t tell your heart to beat or your lungs to breathe, and this is proof that our body operates beyond the conscious mind. We fall Into habits and patterns without even realizing it. The more we repeat these patterns, the less likely we are to question them.
“Habits are a double-edged sword. They can work for you or against you, which is why understanding the details is essential.”James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones
Problems that get measured get fixed. The importance of keeping a journal can’t be understated. Several studies have shown that people who keep food journals are more likely to be successful in losing weight. Journaling is my form of meditation. I use penzu and the 5 minute journal.
Forget about setting goals. Winners and losers have the same goals. A great analogy from the book – imagine playing in a competitive game but never taking your eyes off of the scoreboard. You would never score. You can’t win the game if you’re only focused on the results. Focus on the process instead.
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
- “Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measur eof your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits.”
- Goals are the results you want to achieve. Systems are the processes that lead to those results.”
Your habits shape your identity and vice versa. There are three layers of behavior change: a change in your outcomes, a change in your processes, or a change in your identity.
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single action will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones
John and Jane are both trying to quit smoking. Someone walks up and offers them each a cigarette. John replies, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.” Jane replies, “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.” Which one do you think has the better chance of succeeding? Jane has channelled her identity in order to change her process and then outcome; John is stuck focusing on the goal.
What is your identity? Not “what do you do?”, but “Who are you?”. I am smart. I am fit. I am successful. Embracing this as my identity makes me less likely to do those things that produce results counter to this identity. Keep your identity flexible, but decide what it is today.
One Easy Step to Start Breaking Bad Habits: Point and Call
Japan’s railway system has a reputation for being among the best in the world. It is an extensive network of tracks moving over 12 billion passengers per year with a precisely-on-time performance and near-perfect safety record. The Japanese developed a system called “Point and Call“, in which train operators point at indicators and yell their status out loud. While seemingly simple, pointing-and-calling is known to reduce workplace errors by up to 85%. The method has been adopted worldwide and is now used in the New York City subway system today.
In Atomic Habits, Clear argues that pointing and calling works well for habits too. Next time I reach for the jar of cookies, if I say out loud, “I am grabbing the jar of cookies and I don’t need those”, there’s a good chance that by bringing awareness from a nonconscious level to a more conscious level, I can break the cycle of an old habit.
How to Build Better Habits:
- Make it obvious.
- If I want to read before bed, place a book on my pillow before leaving for work that day.
- Make it attractive
- Engage the dopamine system. Link an action that you want to do with an action that you need to do. If you want to play video games but need to exercise, do 10 pushups before and after you play. Bundle fun stuff with new habits.
- Make it easy
- I pack my gym bag every night for the next day so that I have no excuse as to why I didn’t stop at the gym. If you’re forced to spend energy deciding when to workout, where to eat, etc., then you have less time for free thinking and creativity. The Mark Zuckerberg Hoodie.
- Make it satisfying
- Reward yourself after you finish. You deserve it.
“Motivation is overrated. Environment matters more.”
It’s easier to build new habits in a new environment because you are not fighting against old cues. Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. Breaking a bad habit is like uprooting an old tree, and creating a new habit is like cultivating a new flower.
If I want to create a new habit or rid myself of a bad one, it boils down to putting in the work, and that’s why I avoided this book for so long. If I want to be on the right trajectory for success, I need to become aware of my systems and hold myself accountable to them. This isn’t news, and it’s probably not what you want to hear, but its the truth. Run from it or stare it in the face and make it your bitch. This is the only way.
Go to Atomic Habits author James Clear’s website, where he provides media and other visual templates including habit trackers, cheat sheets, and you can download a free chapter of the book. Check it out and let me know what you think!