Atomic Habits – tiny changes, remarkable results

Last week, I finished my third audiobook. Thanks to Audible, I am finally back to ‘reading’ and on my target of 1 book per month. Nothing like setting a target to make you find a way to achieve it! At first, I was really not convinced audio books would work for me. I was an early adopter of Kindle, and have no problems using it vs paper, especially given the amount of paper and space it saves. But as I grew increasingly tired, I really struggled to focus my eyes on moving letters. I was getting frustrated that I could no longer keep a habit that I valued so much. Until I found Audible, and more recently, Atomic Habits by James Clear. It is now up to me to incorporate this habit in my life.

I could tell from the first moment that I was going to like Atomic Habits.

As I pulled through tears listening through the author’s sad story (unexpectedly), I wondered what was it that James did that allowed him to dig himself out of such a traumatic event and be where he is today.  My first moment nodding and smiling in agreement, walking out of the tube, came right by Chapter 1. The author makes the first controversial claim that would put many self-help books back on a shelf.

“It is not about the goals but about the systems –  the process that leads to the results you want to achieve”

Would you still get to results with systems and no goals? I would not necessarily agree as goals motivate you to stick to the systems. But the system allows you to break goals in incremental steps, which lead to long-term success. His example of the changes in the British cycling team (which I obviously was not familiar with) really goes to show how the pursuit of 1% incremental gains is worth it. In a way, I guess I always believed this, otherwise how else would I operate the charity in Mozambique? But at the heart of it, there is a long-term goal that provides the North so people can adjust their systems to ‘perfection’.

Many successful people have ambitious goals but in fact how many people have the same goals and are not successful?  What distinguishes them is the system. Many people had these goals and did not make them. There are multiple benefits from focusing on systems to achieve goals:

  • More often than not, people establish goals for themselves which look like a synonym of happiness. And then, one day, they achieve them. And what does it all mean? What did it all mean? Goals have the danger of restricting happiness – what next after ‘mission accomplished’? What if you don’t feel accomplished?
  • At the top of a mountain hike, the best view is that of the valleys below and the journey just made. Achieving goals is temporary – systems are permanent and can continue to move us along- it is about fixing the inputs. Life is a journey, not a destination, someone wise has said.

But why am I talking so much about goals, isn’t the book about habits? True. If you are having a problem changing your habits, it is about the systems.

One of my favourite “findings” from the book was that habits follow your identity. And if you are trying to do something that does not relate to your identity, that is a hard habit to implement. Let’s pick up on my reading habit example. I was an avid reader in my youth. As work, charity and family took over, the majority of the books I read are children books. And I was not happy about it (as much as I love Julia Donaldson). In my head, I was keen to read because I “should” read; I was keen to read because it represents ‘me time’, I was keen to read because reading “should” relax you. Through my first years in banking, I read fiction and used it as the way to disconnect my brain. I reserved it mostly from my holiday and that was it. But was this really being ‘a reader’? Or was I doing it because I thought I should?

Recently, I have been focusing a LOT on self-development (you may have noticed). And I value it as a key priority in my life. I listen to podcasts that bring me something new, and that habit quickly got embedded in my routine because of how aligned it was with my identity.  From here to audio books the step was much smaller. And now, knowing the importance of reading in my values, I know it will happen. I believe in it.

So far you’re thinking – right all great concepts and stories, but really, how do you create new good habits? Or get rid of bad ones? Just help me out!

Well, I am recommending you READ the book. But I will give you a short summary of the 4 laws to follow. They may not do justice to the full world of example and tips, but I can illustrate how I relate to them.

1. Make it Obvious

When you practice something repeatedly, your brain learns it subconsciously. There is no decision to be had if you are going to do something or not. As good as this sounds, it can also cause errors, as sometimes may lack awareness. This is particularly important for bad habits. How many of you claim you do not snack at all but then get up from the sofa 4 times after dinner to pick up something from the kitchen cupboard? It is just automatic, perhaps while you are watching a series, on your computer or reading. It is almost like you walk there blindly and your hands reach to whatever your subconscious mind is indicating. A lot of times I stop Hubby B on his way to the kitchen and ask “what are you getting”. It immediately makes him more conscious and half the times may lead to fruit. Track your snacking habits and why you do them, start by being aware and saying them out loud and most likely the “error” will reduce significantly.

What about good habits? The best tip is to manage the environment around you. If you believe you want to do something, make it obvious for your brain to see it. I want to focus my phone usage on podcasts, one note (for writing) and reading. So my iPhone front screen has these apps. Constant reminder.

2. Make it Attractive

Some habits are hard to do. So if they are important, do them first thing in the morning. Personally, I rarely make the decision to go do sports or anything similar after work. I am tired, I want to see the kids and more often than not I have 10 other things I would rather do. But I know it is important. So for the last 8 weeks (with some notable exceptions), I do my yoga routine first thing in the morning, literally as I stumble out of bed and many times half asleep. I know, it is still not attractive, but by doing it early I give myself no chance to procrastinate, and also I am adding it to a habit that I value – time to take care of myself.

There is another good way to keep motivated to do a habit. Join a culture that has that habit already. If you want to run more, it is easier if you are able to be part of a running group of people that you actually relate to.

3. Make it Easy

My favourite quote must have been in the chapter when the author explained this law. It read something like “Everyone is lazy, it is human nature”. I felt relieved. Sometimes, we know we should do something, but we just can’t get started. Feels like me and the piano. I still seem to struggle to make a habit out of playing again, even though I have the piano in the middle of the living room. Arguably that would make it easier? Most likely, if it wasn’t for the fact both my children would immediately jump on it to play along. Moreover, I lack a lot of piano performance so it feels like a steep recovery is needed, which also does not make this habit attractive. I blame it on the fact that it is not a “real” piano.

So how can you make it easy?

  • Example 1: I leave my yoga mat rolled out next to my bed. If I ever have any second thoughts, I am already walking on it and my brain knows it is time, there is no excuse.
  • Example 2: I have added a writing app synchronized across my computer, phone and iPad, in a way that I don’t have to email here and there to get my writing in one place. It is seamless and it has made the habit of writing so much easier.
  • Example 3: I convinced Hubby B to prepare his running clothes the night before he wants to go for a run so that everything is easier in that moment of getting ready. I might get him to sleep with his running clothes one of these days!

I like the reverse of this law. Say you watch too much TV and want to cut down. Each time you finish, remove the batteries from the remote. Better still, take the remote to another room in the house. Or unplug the tv. It will make it all the more difficult when you want to engage in this “bad” habit next time around. Don’t want the kids playing PlayStation all the time? Well, have it in a closet so that it requires setup all the time they want to play!

4. Make it Satisfying

It is hard to have time to implement all the amazing habits we would like to have. We would probably be like machines going from one thing to the other. And believe me, I have a lot of them, and my life has been described as a domino before. But I pick my battles, even though many people think I just try to do it all. If you dreamt how many more things my brain conceives doing at any point of the week you would know how I do pick my battles! The newsletter I launched last week was one I have been pushing back on, precisely as it needs to be consistent and it is not yet clear to me how I can insert this habit into my life, where I am still re-juggling some of my evening schedules to make my charity work more productive.

Anyway, law #4 recommends that you pick habits that are able to give you satisfaction. And sometimes that means immediate satisfaction. The easiest one is progress, so pick small incremental habits that help you see small changes in your life, but that can over time lead to notable results. Find the satisfaction in each individual habit that you create, and don’t put too many at the same time, or you may always be failing one.  For me, getting up early was incredibly painful, but I had the immediate satisfaction that i) I did not feel rushed out of bed, ii) I had ticked the yoga box early in the morning, iii) I had less back pain and iv) I was more keen to go to bed “on time” which is another habit I am working on. It was a habit I very quickly was proud of.

What habit will you pick? 

These are only a few tips. I believe habits are necessary for success, but I am not convinced they are sufficient. It takes practice, it takes goals. A distinguished professional endures the boring moments of building habits and keeps on going to get to the famous “ten thousand hours”. A habit helps you embed the practice in your life, takes it to your subconscious, therefore, making it much easier to achieve. The other part of it is – you can’t get complacent, because “I have really good habits”. Ensure that every so often you have a system for reviewing and reflecting on your habits.

I really enjoyed the book, let me know if you give it a chance. Tiny changes, remarkable results!

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