In a recent post, I quoted from a book by James Clear. Since then, I bought the book and finished it in a week, adding numerous fluorescent green highlights throughout. The title, Atomic Habits, refers to the remarkable results that occur from tiny changes, not unlike the splitting of an atom.
Face it, the quality of our lives depends largely on our habits. But with better habits, anything is possible. We recognize this every January, and we try to make changes. But too often we see little result and by the end of the month we’ve given up. This author offers a framework for getting 1% better every day by making these tiny changes and sticking to them over a long period of time. If you think in financial terms, habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
“Willpower,” he says, “is not the best way to approach habits.” That’s good news, because few of us possess any. What I love about this book is not that it teaches us a bunch of stuff we don’t already know, but that it helps us understand WHY those things are true. It explains how our brains work, how channels of habit are created, and how they can be redirected. It focuses on your system, not your goal.
We tend to focus on our end goal and use that as a motivator. But think about it. Goals are not what differentiate winners from losers. Both may have the same goal. It’s their process, their system of continuous small improvements, that achieves a different outcome. But the outcome itself should not be our focus.
Outcome-based habits tend to be our default. For example, we set a goal to lose forty pounds or to earn so much money, then figure out a plan to reach it and think, “then I’ll be the person I want to be.”
Instead, Clear suggests we flip the script by using Identity-based habits. Start identifying as the person you want to be. For example, “I am the kind of person who is fit and healthy. Fit and healthy people take the stairs. They choose salad over fries, and water over cola. Since I am the type of person who is fit and healthy, I will make these choices.”
Or, “I am the type of person who walks with God. People who walk with God read a portion of the Bible every day.”
Or, “I am the type of person who cares for the environment. People who care for the environment take the time to recycle.”
You begin to realize every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to be.
This is different than “fake it ‘til you make it,” because when you practice these small habits, you’re providing evidence to reinforce a different identity. No single instance will change anything, but doing small things gives you a glimpse and you begin to see yourself in a new light. That’s why saying things like “I have a sweet tooth” or “I’m lousy at math” or “I am a smoker” is self-sabotage. What you declare, you will act on to build your case.
Although this is not a faith-based book, much of Clear’s advice was suggested in various ways long ago by writers of the scriptures. This month I’ve been going through the Psalms and discovering how often the words “I will…” appear. More than a hundred! David and the other psalmists seemed to inherently understand the significance of making these declarations and the power of repetition.
What kind of person do you want to be? What one little habit does that kind of person practice every day?
More hints on this next week.