Tell me I’m not the only one: I’m over the whole “new year resolutions” game.
Maybe you wake up on January 1st each year brimming with optimism, but I find myself wrestling with some weird feelings at the start of the year. It’s far too easy to fall into the comparison trap while scrolling through social media posts filled with ambitious goals and powerful intentions. Of course, I too want to commit myself to new goals in all areas of my life; health, fitness, career, personal development, spirituality, relationships, and so on. I make a promise to myself that this is going to be THE year to crush every single one of those goals… until February hits and my motivation is replaced with pizza and Netflix binge sessions.
Goal setting itself is not a bad thing (same goes for pizza and Netflix), but it can paralyze and even set us up for failure if we don’t carefully consider HOW to get to where we want to go.
When we set goals, what we are actually looking for is transformation. Losing weight, achieving success, and becoming more mindful are just a few examples.
Transformation happens at our core and we want this kind of “self-improvement” to last.
However, many of us don’t feel confident in the strategies we’ve tried (and often abandoned) in the past.
If that sounds familiar, I recommend checking out the NY Times bestseller ‘Atomic Habits’ by Cincinnati-native James Clear. To start, Clear addresses that it’s not actually #goals that we should be focused on.
A goal is about the result while a system is the process that will determine our movement towards the goal. These “systems” are built from our habits; even the easy, small ones.
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement,” Clear writes. These little “building blocks” are what shape our identity; both old and new. I really like how he explains, “every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become.” It’s not about having something at the end, but about becoming who you want to be.
So, where to start? Well, it’s all about human behavior change. Habits can be broken down into a feedback loop with four steps: cue, craving, response and reward. In order to make sense of this in a practical and applicable way, Clear proposes a simple set of four rules to build good, effective habits. His “Four Laws of Behavior Change” are:
1) Make it obvious
2) Make it attractive
3) Make it easy
4) Make it satisfying
For each of these laws there is also an “inversion” that can be used to break bad, ineffective habits. For example, the “making it obvious” law can build a good habit while the inversion “making it invisible” can break a bad habit. So, if you want to break the habit of mindlessly checking your phone at work instead of staying focused on tasks, consider locking it in a drawer or putting it on a colleague’s desk for a few hours. By “making it invisible,” the phone is not there to distract you. It’s almost a guarantee that you won’t miss it and you’ll get valuable, productive time back. Pretty simple when you think about it!
Clear goes into detail with each law, pairing science with inspiring stories and specific examples throughout the book. The four laws build on each other as well, which helped me to make sense of how I can practice them in everyday life. A few of my favorite takeaways – as denoted by intense highlighting, comments, and exclamation points in the margins of my book copy – are below.
“Habits ScoScorecard” – use this to assess your current habit situation (a.k.a. the moment I realized my morning routine needs a facelift)
“Habit stacking” – practice a new habit immediately after an old, easy habit (every time I put hot water on for tea, I’ll do at least 1 minute of prayer or meditation)
“Temptation bundling” – pair an action that you “want” to do with one you “need” to do (after I clean the dishes in the sink, I will check Instagram)
“Reduce the friction” – prime and organize your environment so that the next action is easy (I schedule at least one hour of meal prep on Sunday morning so that I don’t have to chop veggies for the next few dinners)
“Two minute rule” – make the first two minutes of a new habit super easy; almost effortless (I wear workout clothes to bed the night before a morning workout so I’m already dressed when that early alarm goes off)
“Never miss twice” – getting back on track immediately after a misstep is crucial because it’s not the one that hurts, it’s the spiral that’s detrimental (well, let’s just say I’m working on this one)
This kind of terminology will make more sense when you read ‘Atomic Habits.’ You’ll also find interesting and surprising stories about psychologists, art students, astronauts, voters, entrepreneurs, museum curators, comedians, Twitter, the Olympics, the Tour de France, the NBA, Grey’s Anatomy, chewing gum, and even Bud Light. While these narratives are inspirational, they also help drive home the power of a practical, simple framework. There’s no shame in starting small. In fact, that’s exactly where Clear directs us to start. The trick is overcoming the feeling that tiny improvements are meaningless. I know that’s when I tend to give up and slide back into my old ways; when I don’t feel or see a big shift.
‘Atomic Habits’ provides the tools to make even a 1% improvement each day. “As you continue to layer small changes on top of one another, the scales of life start to move,” Clear writes. Transformation is a slow process, but I’d rather be building good habits slowly over time than letting my bad habits “compound” at a faster speed.
I’d recommend checking out ‘Atomic Habits’ on Amazon or major bookstores. If you’re looking for some immediate tools, take a look at this massive archive of articles or subscribe to Clear’s free weekly email newsletter. You’ll also find the author appearing on podcasts like Lewis Howe’s School of Greatness and television with CBS This Morning.
Time for me to go cast some identity votes for 2019 Maggie. This is the year of habits! Let’s go.