Creating Effective Habits through Small Changes
*Originally published February 12, 2021*
My husband and I have been taking some time to re-read Atomic Habits by James Clear. The first time I read that book, I remembered my idea of habits being challenged for the first time. Even down to the fact that habits aren’t just about being good or bad, but being effective or ineffective.
Atomic Habits is filled with a lot of helpful philosophies when it comes to the creation of effective habits and I highly recommend it to just about anyone I meet. However, there are a few concepts, in particular, that stand out to me that I find very helpful and that I want to hone in on.
Small But Mighty
The thing about habits is that they can easily work with you or against you. A lot of the things we need to do to ensure success with our tasks are things that are easy for us to do, but also easy for us not to do. I’ll use myself as an example. I have a weight loss goal that I am working to accomplish by mid-May 2021. I’ve already created a system (we’ll talk more about that momentarily) to ensure I stay losing a steady amount of weight every week until I meet that goal.
I start by waking up early to get my first workout in for the day. But it’s very easy for me to push the snooze button on my alarm instead of getting up, getting dressed, and doing my 45-minute home workout. I have it in my schedule to do a 30-minute workout during my lunch break; however, it would be very easy for me to rationalize not doing that workout by telling myself to utilize that time for writing instead. I won’t go over the whole day’s routine but the point here is that habits are a result of conscious choices that we repeat over and over again.
Contrary to what we may tell ourselves, massive success does not require massive action. Clear discusses the idea of being `1% better every single day. This is to emphasize the value of making small improvements towards something daily, rather than expecting one massive event to lead to instant change.
If you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.
In other words, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They’re the small, seemingly insignificant choices that you make every day that don’t immediately seem like they’re making an impact. It’s only when you look back over time that you can see the value (or consequences) of certain habits.
However, it is for that reason that habits can be difficult for us to develop. We do these things a few times and are unsatisfied because the results aren’t instantaneous. If you’re studying a new language, the third day and first day look pretty identical. If you go to the gym for one day, you’re still going to be out of shape. The slow pace of the 1% rule makes it easy for us to slide back into habits that aren’t effective for what we want.
The reality is, a lot of us fail to realize what true progress looks like. Habits will not appear to make a difference until you’ve reached a certain threshold, just as a pot of water isn’t going to start boiling until it reaches over 212 degrees Fahrenheit. If you keep taking the pot off the heat, it’ll never get to the point where the water will boil. If you don’t keep executing a habit, you’ll never get to achieve the desired result.
Prioritize Systems (Not Goals)
We’ve heard for just about all of our life that in order to achieve anything, we have to set reasonable and actionable goals. However, what most of us do is set a goal and think that’s the end of our planning. In actuality, establishing the goal is only the first step.
Goals are the results that we want to achieve, but systems are the process that leads to those results. In other words, your goal is what you want and your system is how you will get to it. The goal is the ‘what’ and the system is the ‘how’. Clear uses a lot of comparisons, including a coach that wants his team to win the championship. The goal is winning the championship, but the system would include how he recruits players, how he manages coaching assistants, and how he facilitates practices.
Let’s take the phrase: “I want to lose 50 lbs”. This is a person’s goal. We’ll add a time stamp to it. “I want to lose 50 lbs by December 2021”. The system should be able to answer the more detailed questions of ‘how’ this person will lose 50 lbs. How often will I exercise? What time of day will I exercise? What types of exercises will I do and on which days? What is my grocery budget? What food and meals will I make to ensure this happens? What food and meals will I avoid to make this happen? What methods will I use to track what I eat (tracking app, excel sheet, pen and paper, etc)? How will I calendar plan to ensure my exercises get done?
Goals allow us to set a direction, so they aren’t necessarily “useless”, but we make progress when we have a good system to execute. The absence of a system is exactly why a lot of us fail to achieve certain goals or resolutions every year. It’s one thing to say: “I’m going to eat better”, “I’m going to exercise more”, or “I’m going to read more”. But it’s completely different when the goal is specific and there is a system in place to assure that the goal happens.
There are a lot of times in my past when I executed a goal-oriented mindset rather than a systems-oriented mindset. Sometimes, goals can definitely be at odds when it comes to long-term progress. People like the idea of losing weight fast, so much so that they will put themselves through a strenuous process to make sure it happens. A lot of times this may cause someone to enter a ‘yo-yo’ effect, in which their weight loss is achieved but then months after their weight continues to constantly fluctuate, and–just a month or so later–they’re right back to where they started. For a lot of us, a goal-oriented mindset equates to:
“Once this goal is achieved, I can stop doing this stuff”. That means that all the progress that you made was mainly superficial, a means to an end.
What would this look like on a daily basis? This person says “I’m going to work out tomorrow”. But they can flesh that out further by saying “Tomorrow at [time] I am going to do [workout type] for [amount of time].” Fleshed out, this would read “Tomorrow at 6:15 am I am going to do strength training exercises for 35 minutes”. To take it further, know what exercise you will do or what exercise videos you will follow along to.
Identity vs. Outcome
It is for that reason that Clear emphasizes the importance of habits that are Identity-Based, rather than Outcome-Based. Identity-Based habits are ones that start from the “inside out”; they focus on who we wish to become, rather than what we want to achieve.
Pointing towards myself again, my desire to lose weight has to come from a system of habits that help me identify as a healthy person. I want my identity to be someone who cares about my health and well-being, And what does a healthy person do? They exercise regularly, they practice mindful eating, they drink plenty of water every day, and refrain from eating heaps of greasy, unhealthy food. Knowing all of this, my system has to reflect this newfound belief in myself. Let’s say I’m at a friend’s place and they get up to get a soda out of their fridge. They turn to me and ask me: “I’m getting a soda, do you want one?”
I could easily just say “No, thank you”. But to take a step further and reinforce this identity, this person that I want to be I could say. “No thanks, I don’t drink soda”. Such a statement signals a shift in my identity. It goes from “I’m a person refraining from drinking a soda” to “I’m a person who doesn’t drink soda”.
Clear explains that underneath every system of action is a system of belief. If you cannot change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior, it’ll be much more difficult to change your habits. Starting a new habit is usually because of motivation, but it sticks when it becomes part of your identity. Please note that this highlights the importance of positive self-talk that we’ve discussed previously in another post.
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity”.
In other words, we start this process by deciding the type of person we want to be and then we prove it to ourselves with small wins. Every time I choose to get up early (much earlier than I need to for work) in order to exercise, I’m a healthy person. Every time I choose to drink water instead of soda/juice, I’m a healthy person. Every time I track what I eat instead of mindlessly snacking, I’m a healthy person.
Clear also wants us to remember that we don’t have to have a “unanimous vote” for this new identity for ourselves. There will be times when we may not follow the system. The goal is to win the majority of the time.
The Feedback Loop
It’s best to think of a habit as a behavior that has been repeated enough times that it becomes ‘automatic’. When we were young, we got in the habit of covering our mouths when we cough or sneeze. When we accidentally bump into someone, almost automatically we blurt “excuse me” or “sorry” to the other person.
Clear describes ‘The feedback loop’ as being behind all patterns of human behavior in which we: try, fail, learn, and then try differently. They say that doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results is the definition of insanity. But habits are essentially “mental shortcuts” that allow us to live our daily lives. My nephew is only two years old, but it only took him experiencing hot food once for him to realize that he can’t simply just shove fresh-off-the-stove food into his mouth. He tried to eat something but failed to because it was too hot, he learned that food has to cool before he can eat it, so he tries eating again after waiting a moment and blowing on his food before consuming it.
Without recognizing the feedback loop, it’s possible that we either wouldn’t learn vital needs at all or just at a very painful pace. It also denounces the false narrative that habits will “make your life dull” or “restrict your freedom”. Honestly, I feel the most free when I’m doing things by my systems and keeping myself on track with my habits. I feel the most fulfilled when I choose my habits instead of letting my feelings dictate my every move.
“Habits do not restrict freedom. They create it.”
Arguably, it is the people who don’t have a good handle on their habits that have the least amount of freedom. The point of learning and executing good financial, health, or learning habits is to make our lives easier in the long run. My plans to lose weight became a lot easier once I had an answer to my daily questions: When will I work out? For how long? What will I do? How many times a week will I do this? What will I eat for breakfast? For lunch? For dinner? If I was left to answer these questions as they came, I would be making the journey twice more difficult as it needs to be.
Clear goes on to explain the process of building a habit being broken down into four stages: Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward. The cue is about noticing the reward, our craving is when we want the reward, and the response is about obtaining the reward. This further opens the door to a concept that Clear goes into more detail about for the remainder of the book: The Four Laws of Behavioral Change.
The small amount I shared is essentially a summary of the first three chapters of twenty (excluding the Conclusion and Appendix). But even the first few chapters alone were eye-opening for me upon my first reading (and have definitely given me some reminders of what I’ve been doing wrong).
What I hope is that more of you can be exposed to this book through this post. I know in the wake of all that is going on with the pandemic, a lot of people have been wondering how they can still accomplish certain goals or find the motivation to do what they need to do each day. I can’t speak for everyone else, but being able to add structure to my life has been so freeing. Of course, I don’t always stick to my system every single day. In fact, there are times when I’ll have my calendar full and then, for one reason or another, the day just doesn’t go as planned. But that’s okay. As stated before, I’m not looking to win a unanimous vote for the person I am becoming, I just need a majority.
Atomic Habits can be found online on Amazon and other major bookseller websites.