Help For Habits
I’m always up for a little self-improvement. I’m always ready to at least read about what other people are doing to live a little better, even if I find myself unable to apply those strategies in my own life. But the effort is noted. Which is what led me to read Atomic Habits by James Clear. This is not a new book (published in 2018) and I am happy to report that I am always a bit late to the party but when I finally arrive I am fabulous. Same thing here. It took me a while to find this gem but now that I have it in my grubby little hands amazing things are happening! There are quite a few ideas I want to share with you that I found helpful from this text. I’m like your own personal Cliff Notes for building better habits. Take notes.
The quality of our lives depends on the quality of our habits.
James Clear retells his personal story of a life-changing injury that nearly took away his ability to ever play sports again and how his renewed understanding of habit-building made the difference. Effective habits are all about small changes that compound to create big results. And how “you get what you repeat” should be everyone’s mantra as they do little things each day to create long-term change and powerful outcomes. Atomic habits are the regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power. Just like atoms in science, they are very small but oh so mighty.
The habit loop he discusses consists of a cue that leads to a craving that generates a response and offers reward. Building new habits or breaking old ones depends on understanding how these work together to drive our action. For good habits, we want the cue to be obvious, the craving to be attractive, the response to be easy and the reward to be satisfying. And for bad habits, we want just the opposite: an invisible cue, an unattractive craving, a difficult response and a totally unsatisfying reward. Sounds super-simple, right? And he really wants us to stop discussing habits in terms of “good” and “bad”. Habits are simply effective or not. Effective habits serve us in some way, which is why they are repeated. Effective habits are not always the ones we want to keep around because their service to us may be creating something negative in our lives. One of my favorite habits is snacking before dinner. Is it a “bad” habit? No - but it must be a really effective one at satisfying my craving because it is repeated without question on a regular basis. An earlier post of mine touched on this idea that things we do follow a well-worn, reliable path to getting us what we want. Thank you, brain?
One of the problems with evaluating our habits is believing that our goals need to be changed in order to be successful. The reality is that both successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals - think about Olympic athletes who all have the gold medal as their goal. But not everyone wins one. We could say it was luck, or we could say the systems that were in place for the medal winners is what made the difference. It isn’t that gold medal winners have a stronger goal - they have a different and more effective system for achieving it. In other words, it comes down to HOW.
And we become so focused on a singular goal that we tend to overlook the other layers of behavior at work. Traditional models have us set a goal that is outcome-based (lose weight). We are less focused on the routines that help us get there (a daily gym regimen), and never focused on our belief system or worldview that creates the judgments we have about who we are and what we can do (I am not fit. Atomic Habits plants the idea that we should do this in reverse: work to change our identity, which will then help us select appropriate processes, which will then more easily lead us to achieving not just a singular goal but many new outcomes for our lives. Instead of focusing on what we want to achieve, we should focus on who we wish to become.
Now let’s talk about actual strategies that are suggested for building better habits. This book is full of them so I’m only highlighting a few that I found the most interesting. There is no singular path to building better habits. As with everything else in life, you have to find what works for you. Check a few of these out and see what sticks:
Habit stacking - pair a new habit with a current behavior that you already do with regularity. I work out every morning. I wanted to start a meditation practice. As soon as I finish working out I stay on my yoga mat and start my meditation. Habits stacked.
Find your tribe - we soak up the qualities and practices of those around us so it is important to be around people who practice and do what you want to do. Following the group is easy when it means fitting in, but difficult when it means going against the grain. If you surround yourself with people who read regularly in their free time, then practicing your habit of reading will become very attractive.
The two-minute rule - just do it for two minutes. If you want to stop, you can. If you have created some momentum, you can continue. But at a minimum, do your two minutes. Big changes do not happen overnight or because of big action. They happen one step at a time, two minutes at a time.
Habit tracking - write down what you are planning on doing. Keep track of your progress. Delight in not breaking the chain of continuous days and don’t miss more than 2 days in a row.
The Goldilocks Rule - get to the edge of your current abilities and fight there where it is not too hard and not too easy. We experience peak motivation when tasks are in this challenging zone.
Get comfortable with boredom - “The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.” Create a system and stick to it. Being bored is part of the process. One day at a time will show results over the long run. It is the only thing that will.
Commit to action - we talk about planning, learning, strategizing, thinking. None of these things are actually the most important components of change - DOING. Even if the action is very small, it is progress. We get nowhere if we don’t do anything. And saying “i’m trying” is a very good way of saying I’m not quite ready to actually do it. So don’t just try - do.