I just finished reading a book titled Atomic Habits by James Clear. I loved it. It was a ‘self-help’ type book, but it wasn’t dry and hard to get through and it wasn’t filled with fluffy platitudes that don’t actually help you create real change in your life either. It was interesting, and I actually took a lot of helpful information out of it.
The premise behind Clear’s thinking on habits is that small changes compound into big results. Changing small habits that you do each day can lead to massive change in the future.
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement” – James Clear
Typically when I decide I have a goal I want to achieve, I focus almost exclusively on the goal itself. I just fixate on the end result. For instance, if my long term goal is to be a published author, I just think about the book that I’m going to write.
Clear thinks that instead of focusing on goals, I should focus on the system I need to create to reach that goal. The system is the habits that I need to master that will eventually lead to the outcome that I want.
Goals are the results that you want to achieve, but systems are the processes that lead to those results. Success will come when you ignore the goal and focus on your system.
So, say my goal is to be a published author. Instead of focusing on the end goal of having a published book, I should instead focus on creating habits that will help me get there. So my focus will shift to writing 20 minutes a day or posting one blog every week instead of writing an entire book. Eventually, the small habits will add up to my end goal.
Whether your goal is to save money, or buy a house, or lose weight, or be a better friend, or write a book, or finish school, or whatever else it may be, this logic works.
If your goal is to save an $1,000 emergency fund, don’t focus on the end amount and stress about how you’re going to make it there. Look at your daily spending and find $10 a day that you can cut out somewhere. Put $70 a week in your savings account. In roughly 3 months you’ll have your emergency fund saved and it won’t have even been that painful. Plus, you’ll have realize you can cut your spending.
If your goal is to be a better friend, set aside 10 minutes a day to reach out to a friend and let them know you’re thinking about them. Set aside one night or day a week to have dinner with a friend.
If my goal is to write a book (which it is), I need to start by setting aside 15 minutes a day to write. Once I get that down, my next habit will be to post at least one blog per week. After that, my next habit will be to post two blogs per week. And so on until these little habits add up and I accomplish my goal through the system I’ve created.
If your goal is to lose 50 lbs, don’t focus on the end goal of being 50 lbs lighter than you are right now. How are you going to do it? 30 minutes of exercise each day? Cutting out soda? Eating your recommended serving of fruits and vegetables every day? Whatever it is, pick a small habit to start with. Master that habit, and move on to the next one. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, these small habits will add up to a healthier lifestyle and the weight will come off without you even focusing on the scale. Zoom in to the details and quit focusing on the end result.
Clear’s advice is that the first habit should take no more than 2 minutes. He gives an example of the book of someone who wants to start running. The first habit to master is to put on your running shoes. That’s it. Don’t even go for a run. Once you have that down, then run for 5 minutes. No more. Once you have that down, run for 10. You get the point.
Another example he gives is someone who wants to start working out. The first habit for this person was to go to the gym, stay 5 minutes and then leave. Don’t even work out. Once you have getting to the gym down, then you can start working out while you’re there.
Mastery requires patience. We are conditioned in our society to want quick results. We enjoy instant gratification in a lot of areas. Delayed gratification is more rewarding in the long run, but that’s harder to keep in mind when forced with a choice between the two.
Often success that is achieved quickly is not success that will last.
I can’t think of one ‘lose weight fast’ program that actually helps you lead a healthy life and keep weight off. A diet that is not sustainable long term is not a diet that you should be following.
If I somehow wrote a book now and got it published, I wouldn’t actually see long term success because I still wouldn’t have the habit of writing every day and getting the practice I need to improve.
The most powerful outcomes are delayed. Whenever someone has a “breakthrough moment” – a hit song on the radio, a viral blog post, a published book, winning a competition – you don’t see all the work they put in to get to that point. Writing a new song every week that doesn’t get any attention, posting countless blogs that gets less than 50 views, countless hours spent at a computer writing drafts and editing, endless training sessions and early mornings and late nights and sacrifices and hard work. Breakthrough moments are the result of small habits that compounded.
Reward is on the other side of sacrifice. You have to be able to release your desires instead of satisfying them. For me, I need to be able to release the desire to watch TV or scroll on my phone rather than sit down and write. I need to be able to release the desire to order pizza instead of cooking healthy at home. I really need to release the desire to binge eat chips and salsa when I’m not actually hungry. Self-control is difficult because it isn’t satisfying.
If you want results that last, you have to never stop making improvements.
Decide what your process is going to be. Put in the work. Let the small habits compound. Achieve your goal. Reflect, review, and do it again for the next goal.
Atomic Habits by James Clear is a great read and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in leveling up their life. This article is inspired by the book, my thoughts after reading the book, and the notes I took while reading the book. If you want to see more from James Clear, he has a website with valuable resources.