I have to admit, I had this book on my desk for a lot of months now. Everybody recommended it so much and I heard so much about it, that I literally didn’t want to read it because everybody was doing so.
The last 3 books that I read (“The code of the Extraordinary mind”, “The Buddha and the Badass”, both written by Vishen Lakhiani and “Limitless” by Jim Kwik) mentioned James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” and I thought “Ok. It’s time. This has to be my next read . ”
So after a long period of time in which I avoided it, the time finally came 2 days ago.
James Clear starts his book by telling his story, and as all good stories, it starts with a very difficult situation, which our hero turns it in to his stepping stone.
James was playing baseball, and at a practice he was hit in the face with a baseball bat. He had a really bad brain injury, almost all his face bones broken, and he was induced into a coma because he could not breathe on his own.
It took months for him to recover, and little by little he began feeling like himself again. But before that, he had to learn to do small things, like walking a straight line. And we are talking about a boy who wanted to play professional baseball, so you can imagine the pain of knowing how much you have to recover in order to be back in the game.
Two years after his injury, he went to college, where he discovered the power of small habits.
Because he could not count on his baseball skills, he decided to get his life in order. When his colleagues were partying all night long, he got his sleep in order. He was crushing his grades, he was playing in a baseball team, and he was doing things that a short time ago felt impossible.
Clear says that “changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you are willing to stick with them for years. We all deal with setbacks, but in the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. ”
Looking back to my own journey, I sometimes wondered what changed in my life that led me to be able to maintain good habits throughout the last year. Previously, I always said that “I don’t like to exercise”, “I love food and that’s just who I am”, “I always quit when things gets hard” and so on. But in the last year I became someone that changed radically and to be honest, I never understood the whole process.
So basically, “Atomic habits” was a great way to explain to myself and to others how exactly I managed to do all this things.
James Clear states that we set goals and we fail to follow through, because we don’t have the proper systems/habits to sustain our goals. “You don’t fail at the level of your goals, you fail at the level of your systems”. And right there, he got me.
The first mistake we make when we want to start a new habit, it’s the fact that we do not identify with the person who has this habit, we identify ourselves with the person that lacks that habit.
So for example, that’s the difference between two people that want to quit smoking. When you offer them a cigar, one says “no , thank you, I want to quit smoking”, and the other one says “no , thank you, I am not a smoker”.
In order to reach any goal, you need to find out WHO you want to become. When I coach my new clients, I always ask them WHO they need to become in order to reach their dreams. Who is that person? How does she/he thinks? Feels? Acts? What habits does she/have?
In the book you will find that the author paints the 4 Laws of the habits:
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
- Make it obvious
When we want to start a new habit, we are often way too vague. “I want to start exercising”. When? Somewhere in the near future. Where? I don’t know. Studies show that people who are specific about the way in which they will start a new habit, have a 90% rate of success of following through.
So for example, you want to start exercising on a daily basis. You can say: “I will exercise tomorrow, in the living room, after I make my bed”.
Now you know when and where. It’s obvious.
And the thing is, usually one habits leads to the next. If you have the habit of snoozing the alarm, then you go back to sleep, then you wake up again, then you snooze, then you wake up again, it’s too late, you run to the bathroom, you run to get dressed, to drink your coffee and to get off to work.
So the secret is habit stacking. Let’s take the exercising example. Wake up -> make bed -> put on sport clothes -> exercise for 5 minutes.
- Make it attractive
The next thing you want to do when you are building a new habit, is to make it attractive. And this is where the temptation comes around. Studies show that we want something, the dopamine levels spike when we are thinking of the reward we will get, not when we actually get the reward. So basically, you need to stack habits and make them irresistible
James Clear gives us a good example: “If you want to watch sports, but you need to make sales calls: After I get back from lunch I will make 3 sales calls. (need). After I make 3 calls calls, I will watch ESPN (want)”.
- Make it easy.
Another problem that occurs when we want to start new habits it’s the fact that we are excited about it, and we want to do REALLTY BIG things. Like “I will go to the gym 4 days/week for at least 1 hour and a half”. Well, that may work in the beginning, but soon you will start to become tired of it. You don’t really like it (let’s be honest, who really WANTS to work out, to feel pain, to stretch out of the comfort zone?), and it takes A LOT of time.
When I wanted to change my lifestyle and my perspective towards exercising, I set a simple goal: exercise for 5 minutes each morning.
I didn’t feel like it takes me a lot of time (I could find those 5 minutes even with a needy 1 year old in the house) and my mantra was: 5 minutes it’s better than zero minutes.
We often don’t see the immediate value of these small things.
But what happened was that soon I started to see myself as a person who exercises 5 minutes in the morning. Someone who never misses her yoga practice, even if it’s for 5 minutes. It was not much, but it was better than nothing.
And soon, I started to add up. I went to 10 minutes daily. Than 15 minutes. Than 20 minutes. And for the last 7 months, I almost always exercise for 30 minutes.
Looking back in these 7 months, I don’t think I skip 5 days per month when I don’t show up to my yoga mat in the morning.
I don’t feel like showing up and do yoga everyday at 5.30 in the morning (yes, the toddler), but somehow I do it anyway.
Another thing that makes things easier, it’s designing your environment. Clear says that motivation is overrated and environmental design is very often overlooked.
For example, you want to eat more apples. If you place them at the bottom of your refrigerator, you will most probably forget about them. But if you place them in a large bowl in the living room, you will dramatically increase your chances of eating more apples.
When I want to stop eating junk food, I stop buying it. Even if I crave for junk food, I can’t eat it, because I don’t have it nowhere near me. So I end up snacking vegetables. The advantage is that here in Germany, we don’t have small shops at every corner of the street. And if you want to buy something, you have to go to the hypermarket. And I don’t really bother to do that, because guess what, IT’S NOT EASY.
The first 3 laws of the habits increase the odds of performing a habit right now.
The 4th one increases the odds of the habit to be repeated.
The 4th law of the habits is to make them satisfying. And one of the most effective ways in which you can do that, is habit tracking. Why? Because progress is the biggest motivation.
You can strike an X in the calendar whenever you do a workout, or eat a healthy meal, and you will have proof of your progress.
The big thing here is not to expect perfection. There will be days in which you won’t exercise, or when you won’t eat a healthy meal. It’s normal. We are only humans. One junk food meal won’t destroy all of the work you put in the gym all these months. But spiraling into to the habit of eating junk food very often will.
Accept the fact that you cannot be perfect, but recover as soon as you can. If you skip one day of yoga practice, try to show up the next day to your yoga mat. If you have a cheat meal, make the next one a healthy one.
You created a new habit. But how do you keep it? The Goldilocks Rule. “The Goldilocks rule states that the human experience peaks motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right”.
When something is too easy, we get bored. When something is too hard, we lose motivation. But when we have enough victories to feel good, and enough mistakes that keep us working hard, it’s the perfect balance.
When you get in the Goldilocks zone, you can achieve flow. The flow state is the experience of being “in the zone” when you are fully lost in an activity. When you lose track of time and the creativity is at its peak. Scientists found out that to achieve a flow state, a task must be 4% above your current ability.
What I realise after reading “Atomic habits” and looking back to my own story, is the fact that little things can really change your life. Stacking one good habit after the other, and next thing you know the quality of your life is massively improved.
I started as a person who was suffering from severe anxiety, depression, didn’t exercised like never, ate all the possible crap, didn’t have a meaning in her life, and one year later, I am somewhere I never imagined.
I work out daily, I eat mostly healthy (I could do better though), I have my own business, I started to be self confident. And all of these because step by step I have started to see myself as a person who does things.
Remember, we don’t fail at the level of our goals, we fail at the level of our systems.
Set your direction (goal). Identify WHO you need to be in order to reach that goal.
Start acting like that person, and stop acting like the person who doesn’t do those things yet. What would that person choose to do?
Make your habits obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying. You cannot fail.