This past summer, I drove across the country with my boyfriend from Florida to Omaha. As we were taking turns driving, he connected to the speaker and started playing an audiobook version of James Clear’s famous novel, Atomic Habits. I got instantly dragged into the easy flow of the sentences, ones that seemed to call you out on your bad habits every 10 seconds, whilst offering constructive ways to make small changes in your everyday routine in order to create better long-lasting habits that improve your life.
As busy, ambitious women in the 21st century, we are all aware of the habits we practice and maintain every day. Or are we?
Every person is significantly shaped by the habits they develop and maintain throughout their life. Habits make up a crucial part of who we are because of how they influence our day-to-day decisions. However, not many of us are aware that some of our habits are actually bad, and hold us back from achieving better goals or versions of ourselves.
According to Clear, an atomic habit is a “regular practice or routine that is small and easy to do, but is also the source of incredible power”. It is a clever reference to the tiny size of an atom. His interpretation of habits comes down to the systems that we use every day to form those habits, not the habits themselves. Kind of like the engineering behind why we do the things we do every day.
“Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change.”
It’s 2021. Life is busy. Messy. There is a pandemic still looming over our heads and as the winter months close in, we tend to fall into worse habits because we feel burned out, tired, cold, or cooped up. Maybe the approaching holiday season makes us want to forget about our responsibilities for a little while.
While skimming through this book and conducting some research, I found five important lessons that we can learn about our own habits in order to remain dedicated to our personal journeys in life.
1. Success is the product of daily habits
It’s no surprise to hear that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
However, in today’s world, comparison to others’ successes is only a click away. We see our family, friends, and co-workers seemingly achieve everything they want, and post all about it on Instagram, Facebook, or LinkedIn. From the new job, the new internship, the new house, or the newest piece of clothing we’ve been saving up for, it’s difficult to see all the positivity on social media and internalize it as negativity on our ends.
People focus on results, but they do not focus on their current trajectories. What is it specifically that you do today (what is your “system”) that holds you back from the goals of tomorrow?
My favorite quote from the book that best exemplifies what Clear means is, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your system”. He gets it spot on.
Instead of expecting a 50% better you tomorrow, strive for a 1% better habit every day. You need to focus on small adjustments every day. These will make the difference.
Make the fix in your habit obvious. Set a reminder on your phone or in your calendar as a starting point.
2. Changing Habits is Hard Because They Can Change Your Identity.
If you ever wonder why it seems so hard to achieve your dreams and goals, it’s not because you’re not capable or don’t have the means to achieve them, it’s because your mindset works in a way that justifies your shortcomings.
You are what you repeatedly choose to do. So change who you are by addressing those patterns.
I will insert the direct words of James Clear; “Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.”
“Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
Choose to vote for yourself.
Stay driven and determined. Stay open-minded. Continue growing your identity and educate yourself on your own beliefs. Prove yourself wrong.
Being wrong is great. Life is full of wrongs. No one is ever right. If you’re always right, you don’t learn anything and life becomes boring very quickly. Instead of trying to get things right, try to get them a little less wrong.
3. Feedback Loops Can Break Bad Habits.
As human beings, we all seek the ways in which our lives can be made easier and more comfortable. While that feeling is totally natural and innocent in itself, it can sometimes land us in more trouble than anticipated. We crave the dopamine and validation that some of our habits offer us because they are simple and require minimum energy.
“I feel so stressed out, so I will smoke my vape tonight because I know the nicotine will give me a quick rush to feel more relaxed.”
While smoking a vape once in a while is probably not going to kill you, having a mindset that it eases your stress definitely places you in dangerous waters—and can form a bad habit. You may even validate this habit as good because it suppresses your stress.
James Clear offers a 4-step guide to breaking a bad habit:
Step 1: cue (“I feel stressed”)
Step 2: craving (“I want nicotine to help me”)
Step 3: response (“I will smoke my vape”)
Step 4: reward (“Now I have a rush that relaxes me”)
Being aware of this feedback loop can really start to bring your bad habits to attention. Correct yourself and be aware.
Writing them down can also be helpful. It will take time and dedication but with the right reprogramming of this system in your mind, you can start creating feedback loops that serve your purpose more than your immediate dopamine cravings.
4. You’re Not Lacking Motivation, You’re Lacking Clarity.
“I don’t have the motivation” is probably the sentence I have said out loud the most this semester.
Little did I know that this sentence was faulty in its construct, not because I was lazy and hopeless in my work, but because I did not have the clarity to stack my habits in a way that made me want to get my work done.
Habit stacking is a great point made throughout the book.
Good habits are created by good cues—and good cues often come from the environment that surrounds you, not motivation.
The easiest example of this is trying to get your work done in your room versus getting yourself up, dressed, walking all the way to the library, finding a table, sitting down, and dedicating the next four hours to your work. Your cue is to leave your room. Your outcome is work done within a more studious environment. Your identity then translates to “I feel so good about myself because I got all my work done” instead of remaining at “I feel unmotivated”.
“Creating an implementation intention is a strategy you can use to pair a new habit with a specific time and location.”
Use reinforcements if needed, and make your habits enjoyable. Have friends join you, make the habit a craving and yearn for the benefits it will provide you.
For example, for every 1 assignment you get done, you will reward yourself by having a donut.
5. Yes, Family and Friends Do Play A Role.
The people we surround ourselves with help determine what behaviors are attractive to us, just as much as our environment. It matters what kind of culture we foster for ourselves.
The author describes the 3 groups that people tend to follow and imitate habits with:
1. The close (family)
2. The many (the tribe)
3. The powerful (those with status and prestige)
Your family may help you determine your earliest values and offer you love and support, but they will not be responsible for shaping your identity for most of your adult life.
Your tribe, or social circle, will have a set of behaviors that will be the norm, and often trump your individual desired behaviors.
Say all your friends like to party at a specific bar every Friday night, but you prefer to spend your Fridays staying home and relaxing in a bath. You will choose to go out with them most of the time in order to preserve that tribe.
These groups determine your culture, and can often go unnoticed.
“One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where (1) your desired behavior is the normal behavior and (2) you already have something in common with the group.”
Once we find ourselves in a position where we feel all three groups combined make up a new group we’ve found, we will find their habits and behavior more attractive and irresistible. They will help us carve a new identity, a new environment, and new cues.
It may sound like a saying as old as time, but who you choose as your friends does matter. Choosing how close we want to be with friends and family we feel we’ve outgrown is a crucial part of forming better habits. Some people don’t deserve our 100% anymore. They do not deserve every Friday night.
Maybe they deserve one Friday night a month. Choose who you give your social time to, and how much of yourself you give.
6. Satisfy Your New Self By Making Progress.
Changing bad habits can be extremely hard. It is time-consuming, requires self-reflection, and often involves environmental or social changes that we are comfortable in because it has formed our current identities.
“The tighter we cling to an identity, the harder it becomes to grow beyond it.”
Don’t shoot for a big step out of nothing. It takes small atomic steps every day to get your habits fixed. It actually took Rome centuries, wars, political instability, and economic mishaps to be remembered as the Roman Empire.
Learn your own feedback loops. They will give you the clarity that motivation won’t.
And lastly, reflect on your surroundings and how you can reprogram your world according to the life you want to achieve.