Lessons from Atomic Habits by James Clear

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I’ve thought and written a lot about habits over the past few years. However, after reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, I realized that I was still lacking awareness when it came to understanding how habits formed and stuck around. While many of the ideas, examples, and concepts in the book were very familiar to me (e.g. cognitive biases, small wins / reinforcing feedback loops, tracking, etc.), it was really nice to see everything come together in an organized manner in an easy-to-digest framework.

Book Overview

These two highlights from the opening chapter of Atomic Habits paints the picture on how Clear positions the framework:

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.

Habits are like the atoms of our lives. Each one is a fundamental unit that contributes to your overall improvement. At first, these tiny routines seem insignificant, but soon they build on each other and fuel bigger wins that multiply to a degree that far outweighs the cost of their initial investment. They are both small and mighty. This is the meaning of the phrase atomic habits—a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth.

Clear is a big proponent of systems and believes that it is a much more effective way to achieve the results you want versus focusing on setting goals (“winners and losers have the same goals”). The framework he provides for building a “system of compound growth” follows four laws regarding habits that make up the bulk of the book. The laws are:

  • The 1st Law: Make It Obvious
    • e.g. Becoming aware of your current habits; designing your environment to make good habits obvious and visible.
  • The 2nd Law: Make It Attractive
    • e.g. Bundling habits so that you’re rewarded with a “temptation” habit whenever you do a good habit.
  • The 3rd Law: Make It Easy
    • e.g. Downscaling habits so they can be done in two minutes or less, increasing the likelihood they’ll be done again.
  • The 4th Law: Make It Satisfying
    • e.g. Create a habit tracker a start a streak that you won’t want to break.

Clear goes into each of the laws and how they can be used to not only create good habits but also to break bad ones. As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but think of all the bad habits I still adhered to no matter how aware I may have been, and likewise, I thought about all the good habits that failed to stick because I hadn’t created the right environment or framed it in a way that would let it succeed. I also thought hard about all the potential applications of the lessons in this book on the work I do at Barrel, not only from a personal performance perspective but also as an organization and how easily we as a team can fall into bad habits or find it hard to embrace good ones.

The following are some of my favorite highlights and some thoughts on how they’ve either challenged my thinking or spurred me into action.

Fighting Negativity

Negative thoughts compound. The more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid, or ugly, the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. You get trapped in a thought loop. The same is true for how you think about others. Once you fall into the habit of seeing people as angry, unjust, or selfish, you see those kind of people everywhere.

Every now and then, I catch myself falling into a spiral of negativity. It may stem from a string of unfavorable results at work along with a feeling of fatigue or pressure. This is the classic “glass half empty” perspective where it’s so easy to be critical of myself and others and view everything and everyone as unworthy and incompetent. This is where a system of good habits–sleep, exercise, nutrition, time for gratitude, etc.–can be a deterrent against negativity. I’ve found that a combination of good sleep (6+ hours after being well-digested, no caffeine since morning, and minimal to no alcohol) and 5-10 minutes writing in my journal sets me in a fairly positive mood to start the day.

Behavior Change Starts with Identity

Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. You may want more money, but if your identity is someone who consumes rather than creates, then you’ll continue to be pulled toward spending rather than earning. You may want better health, but if you continue to prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you’ll be drawn to relaxing rather than training. It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.

True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.

Many people walk through life in a cognitive slumber, blindly following the norms attached to their identity.

I’ve thought long and hard about this section. It’s fascinating how identity is so tightly tied to behavior. In business, I think about the identity we’ve always embraced–that of scrappy, hustling underdogs who’ll do what it takes to win new business and keep the company alive. This has served us well in many respects, but when it comes to exploring new approaches to business, like say, positioning ourselves as industry leaders or as a more premium, higher-priced option, I sometimes see my defenses going up automatically, overly skeptical of any new approach or making a case for the status quo because it’s what has worked for us before.

I like to think of myself as someone who’s open to trying new things, but when I reflect on certain conversations I’ve had, it’s really surprising how unaware I am of the defense mechanisms that kick in whenever someone suggests that I change my behavior, something that my subconscious must perceive as incongruent or even a threat to my identity.

Designing the Environment for Success

Most people live in a world others have created for them. But you can alter the spaces where you live and work to increase your exposure to positive cues and reduce your exposure to negative ones. Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your life. Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it.

The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often. So, yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment.

I’ve taken this lesson to heart and began noticing how powerful it could be to make even the smallest changes to my environment. One example is to just hide something so that it doesn’t come to mind. I noticed one week that I kept consuming Irish whiskey after work to wind down, more so than the usual number of times in a week. I realized it was because my liquor cabinet was full and as a result, I left the bottle on the kitchen counter, making it plainly visible and serving as a cue whenever it was time for me to relax after a long day. Once I became aware, I threw out some stuff I would never use again and made room in the liquor cabinet. My frequency of consumption immediately went down.

I find that the same is the case for things like sweets or unnecessary snacks. Having things out of sight is often the best way to break a bad habit. Likewise, making something very visible and attractive can help. For example, I’ve been wanting to read more fiction every night. I found that the ideal place to read is on one side of my couch under a lamp, where it’s comfortable and bright. It’s also where I can sit while our dog Sidney rests on my lap, a nice touch especially during colder months. I began to put my book on the coffee table right in front of that spot, serving as a visual reminder of what awaits when I take time out each evening to read for leisure.

The Two-Minute Rule

Even when you know you should start small, it’s easy to start too big. When you dream about making a change, excitement inevitably takes over and you end up trying to do too much too soon. The most effective way I know to counteract this tendency is to use the Two-Minute Rule, which states, ‘When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.’

Nearly any larger life goal can be transformed into a two-minute behavior. I want to live a healthy and long life > I need to stay in shape > I need to exercise > I need to change into my workout clothes. I want to have a happy marriage > I need to be a good partner > I should do something each day to make my partner’s life easier > I should meal plan for next week.

I found this approach of breaking down habits into a two-minute activity very useful. It’s one way I’ve been able to do my Couch Stretches every single day. I found myself having difficulty adhering to a lengthier 20-minute stretching routine in the mornings, so I just promised myself to do the Couch Stretch, which I time for 2 minutes on each leg. While it ends up being a 4-minute activity, the principle still applies–it’s short enough that I can easily commit to the 4 minutes on a daily basis without much trouble and the excuses that might come with a 20-minute activity are hard to justify when it takes only 4 minutes.

I know it’s probably not exactly what Clear had in mind with his two-minute rule, but one takeaway for me was to actually leverage a minimum threshold of time as a way to build a new habit. So rather than breaking an activity down until it takes less than 2 minutes to do, I’ve taken two habits I want to build–writing and reading–and assigned them a mandatory daily serving of 10 and 15 minutes each, respectively. I use a timer to count up for each of these activities. Oftentimes, I easily surpass and end up writing or reading for 20 or 40 minutes. Other times, especially when I’m tired or distracted, I’m relieved when I get to the minimum thresholds. But these are small enough numbers that I haven’t had much trouble completing them, and if I know I’m going to be out late or busy with social activities, I’ll plan ahead and try to get these things in earlier in the day.

Consistency & Being a Pro

Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.

I’ve noticed that as I’ve improved at managing my schedule and habits both at home and at work, a predictable consistency has set into my weeks. There may be a few variables and wild cards from week to week, but on the whole, they don’t affect the overall cadence and rhythm of my life. I find a way to get my to do’s done, I find time to work out, I find time to get enough sleep, and I find time to hang out and spend time with family and friends. And these things all add up to better performance at work and a better feeling about life in general.

While I can’t make a blanket statement about everyone at our company, I’ve noticed, in my capacity as employer, that those who proactively manage their schedules both at home and at work (understanding how to prioritize what’s important and putting in intense efforts with minimal distraction) are more likely to handle stressors like last-minute deadlines or family emergencies with calm and finesse. They also exhibit remarkable consistency and a focus that’s very apparent. I’ve also observed those who lack this quality and how the slightest of variability in conditions can precipitate in anxiety, a sense of being overwhelmed, and heroic one-time efforts that inevitably lead to burnout. It’s always easier to find success in a team that’s full of professionals. This is why talent or natural gifts get you only so far–it lacks the power of compounding that consistency in good habits can unlock.

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