My favorite Christmas gift this year was a book from my wife called "Atomic Habits" by James Clear. Call me a nerd, but I like nothing better than curling up with a good personal development book to read while on vacation. (I'm not kidding! I really do!) My wife knows me well, and stuck a copy of this book in my stocking.
I cracked this book open on New Year's Day and halfway through the first chapter I knew I had found the perfect book to kick off the 2019 self-improvement season.
My interest in the book stems from 2 related, but different motivations.
First of all I'm obsessed with the power of habits. I've always been curious about the motivations behind why we do what we do. Especially the little things we do without even thinking about the action. Those are especially powerful. I love the classic quote "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
Secondly, I am the co-founder of a health technology company that helps people build new habits around the concept of H.E.A.L., which is an acronym for Healthy Eating + Active Living. I've designed behavior change technology platforms that have helped thousands of individuals successfully implement new health behaviors, resulting in sustained weight loss for multiple years.
As a result, I read most of the books on habit that I can find. James Clear hooked me with his fundamental premise that we don't rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems. That just resonates with me and my experience. The problem isn't the lack of goals (we all have a lot of them!), it's that we fall back to our default patterns.
Below are some of the sections of the book that made me pause and underline something. (Yes, I like to write in my books when they really move me. The more stars and underlines, the better the book in my opinion!)
- Lasting behavior change is identity change. In Atomic Habits, James Clear writes "You might start a habit because of motivation, but you'll only stick with it if the habit becomes part of your identity. If you go to the gym when it's snowing, you have evidence that you are committed to fitness.
- The goal isn't to read a book, the goal is to become a reader.
- The goal isn't to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner."
Your habits become your identity. And then your identity drives your habits. James Clear writes "If you go to the gym when it's snowing, you have evidence that you are committed to fitness." As you accumulate evidence that you are the type of person that you identify with, guess what? You are becoming that person! The person who incorporates daily exercise into their identity doesn't have to convince themselves to exercise. Doing the right thing is automatic. You're no longer pursuing behavior change, you're simply acting like the person you believe yourself to be. In Atomic Habits James Clear highlights it perfectly when showing two people resisting a cigarette:
"No thanks, I'm trying to quit." vs. "No thanks, I'm not a smoker." It was a lightbulb moment for me years ago when I stopped negotiating with myself every morning when trying to decide if I was going to exercise that day. It was so liberating (and actually much less work!) when my identity evolved to "I'm an athlete who moves his body every day." Look at the difference between these two mindsets:
Should I workout today? I know I should because it will help me get in shape.
- What's today's workout? Is today a cardio day or a strength day?
Small 1% adjustments in your routine compound over time and become a new trajectory for your life. Tiny evolutions of your identity instead of dramatic change. James Clear writes "We do not change by snapping our fingers and deciding to be someone entirely new. We change bit by bit, day by day, habit by habit. Every action you take is a vote for the person you wish to become." I love this thought. This concept of your identity = habits is deep if you pause and let it sink in. Put on your workout gear first thing in the morning and you're casting a vote for the type of person who exercises daily. It's liberating because change can be won in tiny, small decisions you can make in an instant. But it can change the course of your life and who you are. I didn't start my life as a software designer, I became one through my habits.
- Every time I make a healthy breakfast, I'm a healthy eater.
- Every time I lace up my running shoes, I'm an athlete.
- Every time I open my journal, I'm a writer.
- Don't miss twice. It's inevitable that you will fall off the wagon. You'll will miss a workout. You will choose a bad meal. That's ok. Just don't make that mistake two times in a row. If you miss twice, you're starting to accumulate evidence that you're the kind of person who doesn't workout. You're casting a vote for someone who eats junk food all the time. It's okay to fall, but make sure your next action is casting a vote in the right direction.
- "The most effective form of motivation is progress." I really like this one! I've built a system that shows people how their bodies change when they learn to eat better and exercise more. This "Healthy Selfie" is an amazing motivator. I've watched people commit to a new way of life because they love the results of those new behaviors. Take a look at the faces of these people and you can see the motivation in their eyes.
- Don't confuse motion with action. Motion feels like you're accomplishing your goals, but you're really just preparing. It's the action that leads to results. In Atomic Habits, James Clear says it perfectly: "If I search for a better diet plan and read a few books on the topic, that's motion. If I actually eat a healthy meal, that's action." If you're procrastinating, start with repetition, not perfection.
Habit stacking links a new habit with an old one. When I read this section I immediately recognized this tactic from my own experience. Every morning I do the same 8 things as part of my morning ritual. I am a huge believer is building dramatic new habits on top of mundane, easy to do habits. Take a look at my morning routine:
I deliberately start small with things that are easy and automatic. They're almost too easy, but that's the point. I always do them. And as I progress through the sequence each morning the steps in the ritual become more demanding. If I just tried to jump into step 7 every morning I'd probably talk myself out of it on many mornings. Instead I link the harder things to easier things I always do and then I have momentum. James Clear (referencing BJ Fogg's work on Tiny Habits) call this habit stacking. Tie your desired NEW habit to something you ALREADY DO each day. This lets you string together large stacks of powerful habits. I like to combine the habit stacking concept with delayed gratification. Notice in step 5 Coffee is intentionally after step 4 Meditation. It's easy to blow off something like meditating because you think you don't have time. But when it always leads me to coffee, I'm way more likely to do it.
- Be inspired by your heroes. Study the top performers in any industry. They show up even when they don't want to. James Clear writes: "Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. When a habit is truly important to you, you have to be willing to stick to it in any mood." I think of this a lot when I'm lacing up my shoes on a cold winter morning and I don't feel like going outside. I try to think about all the other people going through the same discomfort because they want to be something better.
This interview James Clear did on CBS gives a great 6 minute summary of the book. But read the actual book if you're really committed to installing some new habits. Once I started, I looked forward to going further into this book each day. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!