I recently finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. I occasionally read books on how other people go about maximizing their potential, for inspiration and ideas. Here, I am attempting to summarize the main ideas that I gathered from this book.
What we recognize as self today is an identity that we’ve created over a long period through experience, actions and thoughts. Thus, we are a result of what we do daily, aka our habits. Small changes that we make to our habits today can result in compound effects in the long term. If we read ten pages daily, we can finish a book in a month. A few pushups a day can take us a long way in terms of building strength. Taking a short walk everyday can eliminate a long walk to the hospital in the future. Clear points out the story of the professional British bike riders, who had a serious lack of success for nearly 110 years. When they hired Dave Brailsford as the new performance director, he started focusing on making 1 percent improvements in all areas including diet, training, gears and even the coloring of the storage so that dust would be more visible. Although nothing significant had changed in one area, the accumulation of these marginal changes led them to an overwhelming success including 5 Tour de France victories and numerous Olympic and Paralympic medals. It’s easy to overlook the importance of tiny changes, but compounded together, they can be the game changer.
It’s not difficult to see that we are slave to our habits. A smoker cannot stop smoking despite knowing its impact on his/her health. We all are well aware of eating healthy and doing exercise, yet we fail to do so and end up rather spending our valuable time and money visiting doctors and getting medicines for the ensuing health consequences. Although most of us acknowledge the importance of developing habits that takes us closer to becoming the kind of person we want to be, we fail miserably to various degrees. Only a few seem to break the chain of unwanted habits and create the ones that help them achieve their goals.
There are roughly two approaches to breaking undesirable habits and establishing the desirable ones. The first approach is to change the process by winning over our urges. The second approach is based on changing our beliefs, hence our identity, to align with our goals so that the desirable habits become natural to us. I always see a lot of people in the gym at the beginning of the year, but a few weeks into the new year, the number of people goes back to being the same as before. What’s happening is that all these people are pushing themselves to establish a habit by sheer motivation without changing their beliefs. Since motivation is not a perpetual state, after some time, it takes too much mental effort to continue the new habit. This is a classic shortcoming of the first approach. In the second approach, we are not just going to the gym, but we are also making an effort to change our identity into an active, healthy person. Such a person would exercise regularly, so we start going to the gym as a result of the identity. One’s identity can be changed by reflecting and making changes to our beliefs/logic first. The new identity can thus be strengthened by making small changes in that direction. Clear mentions that every time we go to the gym, we become more of an active, healthy person; every time we write a paragraph, we become more of a writer. Once we have enough instances of beating the urge to lie in the couch and consume Netflix to hit the gym, we become more convinced of the new identity. Consequently, we face less resistance to working out because this activity comes out naturally from our newly created identity.
One of the common problems that we encounter while trying to change our habits is the lack of clarity of plans. Clear cites a study done on 248 people in Britain in 2001 to build better exercise habits over two weeks. They were divided into three groups and asked to track their exercise activities- the first group was the control group, the second group was given some motivational material, and the third group were asked to develop a clear plan on how they were going to achieve their goal. 91% of the third group exercised at least once a week whereas only 35-38% did so in the first and second groups. Even though we might be incredibly motivated to achieving a specific goal, if we do not structure how we are going to achieve it, it’s easy to give in to laziness, comfort, or another easy way out.
The author suggests that such structure can be achieved by associating the new habit we want to establish with something that we already do. For example, telling oneself to fill the planner after the breakfast rather than saying “I’ll fill out my planner in the morning” is easier to execute because we already eat breakfast daily. I have been doing my meditation practice like this for years now. As soon as I come out of the bathroom, I immediately go the corner of the room, where I do my meditation and sit down and get a few minutes in, without trying to think of it as an hour-long activity. Once I settle down and start the process, it gets done without much effort as opposed to previously when I would struggle to make myself sit down, despising the upcoming hour. By having this kind of associative structure, we free our minds of a significant cognitive load also. He suggests making the first two minutes of an activity pleasurable. Once we enter an activity, it’s more likely to end up coming out victorious although it’s not so important when we’ve firmly established a new self-identity that is more in line with our goals.
Our surroundings can provide a lot of cues to our behaviors, so Clear also focuses on the importance of carefully designing the environment, conducive to the lifestyle we want to adopt. If we want to eat more fruits, having them placed visibly in a basket on the counter might increase the chances. I remind myself to drink water by always having a bottle of water beside me while I am working. Similarly, the presence of a phone nearby can be of significant distraction to me, so I just put it away in a drawer where I cannot reach when I have to do very focused work. People can also be a tremendous source of influence, so importance of having people around who already follow the lifestyle we want to build cannot be overstated and vice versa. If you want to stop smoking, hanging out with people who frequently do definitely doesn’t help.
There are many more ideas in the book, but these are the ones that I can recall right now. The gist is to start with “atomic” changes and let these accumulate over years to reap a huge benefit. It seems like a very good book if you are struggling to change your habits and looking for pointers on how to do it. It’s an easy read, so if you are looking to building a reading habit, this might be a very good start.
Link to James Clear’s website.