In September I finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. I had been reading his blog posts for some time and find it laudable that he includes weight training into his annual assessment. Part of the title of the book (the supra-title?) is “Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results” which sums up the chapters nicely. The point of the book is to focus on your process, rather than your outcomes. What follows is (mostly) my own words summarizing the book and its ideas.
The end of chapter 1 is summarized by two points worth repeating: “If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.” And, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. Your fall to the level of your systems.” This systems-approach is key to real change as it addresses several problems: winners and losers have the same goals; a goal is a momentary change; goals restrict happiness; and goals are at odds with long-term progress. Systems allow you to keep playing the game (this can be defined as your work, your personal life, whatever) rather than achieving something and then not knowing what you to do. With a system, you know what to do next.
Clear goes on to describe how we should change habits that affect our identity, rather than outcomes and that the most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do. For instance, I rarely eat dessert, so when a coworker brings in cake for someone’s birthday, I’ll give my piece to someone else, not because “I can’t have cake” but rather because “I am the type of person who values long term health choices over a sugar-induced 3pm coma.”
In case you were wondering (and you probably are since you are reading this far) how habits work, Clear gives the four step process: cue, craving, response, and reward. Realize that, “All behavior is driven by the desire to solve a problem.” You probably do things without realizing it because years ago you found some action to solve something for you. The purpose of habits is to get things done in your life with the minimal amount of energy needed.
The first step in changing your behavior is to recognize these steps in your own life and you have to be aware of your own habits before you can change them. Sometimes this means verbalizing what you are doing in the moment: “I am checking social media now because I am bored.” Recognize your cues and create a strategy to build better habits. One way to do this is to link (habit stack) a new habit to an existing habit, such as “After I drink my coffee in the morning I will exercise.” Make habits even easier by crafting your environment for success, maybe by putting your workout shoes next to the coffee machine (but not too close). This speaks to self control: it’s a lot easier to have high self-control when your environment does not have temptations present.
Check this out: the anticipation of the reward is often more exciting or gratifying than getting that reward, leading to a dopamine spike before that thing. We have this thing called the nucleus accumbens which is activated when we anticipate something cool.
To make habit change even easier, change your culture. Join a club where your desired new behavior is the norm and (hopefully) you already have something in common with the people in the club. This will enable your new habit to be reinforced by those seeking to change or do the same thing you want to do.
Whether on your own or in a group, you’ll need to reprogram your brain to see your new habits in a positive light. Instead of seeing lifting weights as a burden (hah), it is a path to strength. Instead of seeing saving money as a hardship, it is a path to financial freedom. Create a ritual for yourself by doing something you like before or after doing something that is hard. Maybe along the lines of, “After I drink my morning coffee, I will put on my lifting shoes, do my barbell training, and then read my curated news feeds.”
Again, your habits and routines are a long road to self improvement. Focus on taking action that counts. The number of times you have performed a habit is more important than the days, weeks, or months you have been doing it. Remove little bits of friction in your environment (kaizen your life) to create a space where doing the right thing is easy for you. An example of this is resetting the room for the future, by preparing it for the next thing you are doing. Put your tools away when you are done…or maybe leave out the one thing you need to use for the next step in the project. Give yourself small prompts that set you down the path to success and give you decisive small wins. So rather than seeking to “read a new book tonight before bed,” your goal can be “read one page.” Rather than “blog more” tell yourself to “write one sentence.” Instead of “make a 12 week workout plan, ” you can “squat one set of 5” or “put the bar on the rack.” Standardize before your optimize.
In the chapter titled, “How to Make Good Habits Inevitable and Bad Habits Impossible,” Clear states, that the “best way to break a bad habit is to make it impractical to do.” We installed a home water filter in our utility closet two months ago: BOOM, constant filtered water. I turn off my phone at night, which means no random browsing into the wee hours. Setup automatic deposits for your savings and investing, so you have to choose to stop doing the right thing.
The Cardinal Rule of Behavior change: What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.
Make progress visible through a workout log, food journal, or jar on your desk. Jerry Seinfeld wrote jokes every day and put an X on his calendar. His two goals: Don’t break the chain and Never miss twice. What tracker can you use to show your progress?
Clear also mentions having an accountability partner or agreements if you break a habit, such as I will donate $50 to a charity I don’t like if I don’t do X. I’m not a fan of these tactics, but they may work for you.
In case you are thinking, “I’m not born to be a runner, weightlifter, public speaker, entrepreneur, or competitive leaf raker, and that’s ok. Clear reminds us that “genes do not determine your destiny. They determine your areas of opportunity.” Build habits that work for your personality. Ask yourself these questions: 1) What feels like fun to me, but work to others? 2) What makes me lose track of time? 3) Where do I get greater returns than the average person? and 4) What comes naturally to me? (Sarcasm in public probably doesn’t count)
Long term progress: “humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current capabilities.” If something is too hard or too easy, you probably won’t continue. This goes back to strength training: you’ll hardly notice adding 2.5 or 5 pounds each workout and soon realize how strong you are. Personal finance: increase how much you are saving every few months by 1% and you won’t notice it.
You have to fall in love with boredom. Successful people get bored with the quotidian tasks, but they still show up. They still write when it is time to write, they lift when it is time to get under the bar, and real artists ship. The more you practice something the more routine it becomes, so your system, your processes are more important than your short term outcomes. Professionals take action even when the mood isn’t right.
Each habit you achieve gets you to a new level, an endless cycle. Create a system for reflection and review. This could be daily, weekly, or annually (probably all three). Avoid making any one thing an overwhelming aspect of who you are, as these may change. Continue to make habits obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.