2020 has been a difficult year, but it is also the year that I discovered James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, one of the most transformative books of my entire life. Importantly, you will learn about the problem with goals, or resolutions as we call them at the beginning of the year and why we so often fail at reaching our goals.
Ok, I might be a little hard on resolutions, which I define as a firm commitment to reach a goal. Goals serve one very important function. They providing our destination, but they tell us almost nothing on how to get there. On some level, we think we know how.
We want to get into shape so we know we need to exercise more. We need to set an exercise schedule.
We think that we know the action we need to take to meet the goal, exercise, but why do we fail continue those actions? Are we forgetting something?
Clear’s book explains clearly why we fail to reach our goals. We don’t recalibrate our habits.
Habits are those repetitive actions that we do at some regular interval on a subconscious level. They can either be good or bad. Good ones increase are spiritual, financial, or physical wellbeing. Bad ones subtract any one of those three.
After identifying the why problem of why we fail at our goals so often, Clear provides shows you how to fix the problem.
So many self improvement books fail because they just tell us why we need to change or offer a set of after the fact success anecdotes that may or may not even apply to us. Worse, they sometimes just offer a set of platitudes or soothing bromides, “leaning in,” “faking it until we make it,” or basically anything Tony Robbins says. They are nice, but how the heck does “leaning in” do anything? It’s just a feeling, not an action.
Clear’s book doesn’t suffer from these defects. He shows you how to adopt good habits in a simple. In short, Clear is “clear,” a case eponymous serendipity for a self help writer.
To adopt good habits, we need to make them small, easy, and visible. For bad ones, we need to make them hard, costly, and transparent when we fail.
He then channels Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do.” (This article tells me that may be a misattribution, but you get the point.). If you want to be a writer, you need to write. If you want to be a comedian, you need to write jokes. If you are a basketball player, you need to play. Actions not feelings form our identity. Each action, according to Clear, is a vote on who you will become.
Taking writing for example. To become a writer, you first need to say make a statement of identity. “I am a writer.”
You then need actions to strengthen that identity. Those actions must be small, doable, and easy to repeat or we will likely fail.
We humans are excuse making machines. I don’t have enough time is a big excuse we tell ourselves. I need at least three uninterrupted days at Walden to write anything.
Clear says that is bunk, especially if you make the unit of time small enough to begin your habit. You have 15 minutes free. C’mon you do. If you claim you don’t, are you really saying you don’t watch at least 3 hours of TV? Or social media? You have the time. You need to pick the smallest time frame that you think you can frequently do within your existing reality. You need to lower the barrier as much as possible to get started. After you do that, you need to break down that habit into the smallest possible unit. Writing one sentence each day. And then set physical cues like the running shoes near your bed or in my case, the laptop in my kitchen table (my writing space).
That’s the key. Make it small. Make is simple. Make it visible.
It’s amazing how easy it is once you get started. You might not have time to write a book, but I bet you you can write one sentence every day. Of course you can. One haiku. One sentence.
You have time for that.
And the other magical thing is that once you start, you write more than one sentence. You just do. Once you start making that unconscious choice to start small. It is amazing how eventually it becomes almost unconscious, and you then reach the next level, a routine, or a series of habits over time. Each positive set of routines then becomes a system.
It can suck too!! Even people that do great things, have a crappy start and even have crappy moments. One of my favorite anecdotes is how Chris Rock gets ready for a tour (I don’t remember which book I read this). He performs at a Comedy Club, and supposedly a lot of jokes bomb. Yep, even one of the best most talented comedians of our generation does crappy work, lots of it. He doesn’t know what works and what doesn’t. His audience lets him know what works, providing feedback through their laughs as to what’s resonating. It’s like a workshop. He does this over time and finds out what works, repeats it, and then distills down what works into his show, representing the product of countless failed iterations gradually improving over time.
99% of us won’t write for a living nor will we reach the level of Chris Rock, but that’s the wrong measure. Our goal in this life should not be to be Chris Rock, but to use the gifts that we have been given to the fullest. Malcolm Gladwell calls this “capitalization” or maximizing our abilities to the fullest. That certainly cannot be achieved without actions over time.
I have a writer friend of mine who discourages people from writing. He says don’t. He’s kind of joking, but really not. That’s really too bad that he says that. I think he says that because he’s trying to lower our expectations of success or because most of us will produce so much bad writing.
But that’s wrong on so many levels. We should write because we love writing. We should play music because we love music. We should exercise because we love the act of exercise. Every single person on this planet has been given gifts and has a story to tell. Setting aside whether those skills ever reach an audience, he is missing the point.
Writing or any good habit has its own reward, helping us map out our own thoughts and moving us forward as the human beings we were meant to be.
Conversely, if we write solely for the wrong reason, external validation, we surely will not be able to do it very long anyway because we will constantly be chasing the next thing, making us miserable. Charitably, maybe that’s what my friend meant, “Don’t write for external validation.” Our internal motivation is constantly within our control, external not so much.
Setting aside writing, which habit should you choose? That is up to you. A good habit leads to financial, emotional, or physical well being. You will decide that based upon your values. I encourage you to think about keystone habits. A “keystone habit” according to another great habit theorist, Charles Duhigg, is a habit that leads to many positive benefits at once or in sequence. It’s a “keystone” to all of the other habits.
Take something as basic as sleep. The experts tell us we need 8 to 9 hours. To get that proper deep sleep, we will need to reduce our alcohol intake because alcohol deprives us of deep rem sleep. When we stop drinking alcohol, we still start saving money because alcohol is so expensive. Instead, we invest the money instead to pay down debt. We have less debt so we are less stressed. We are less stressed so we feel more relaxed. We work better when relaxed and therefore do better at work because we are in a flow state. We are sleeping better, making us burn fat more efficiently. We also have more energy throughout the day to work or exercise. You could go on and on about this.
You get the point. One change leads to so many positive changes. Fasting has been one for me.
So this year, read James Clear and considering adopting his methods. 2021 should be the year of micro-keystone habits.
Tomorrow, I am going to write more on removing anti-keystone bad habits. See you all tomorrow!