I now have a room in my house dedicated to tracking my habits. I’ve got two calendars on the wall, and three large post-it easel sheets on the other wall. One of the calendars contains Xs and Os … Xs for every day I executed my morning routine, and Os for every day I failed. My house is tidy and clean, my bed is made, and I come home in the evenings with no lingering tasks to take care of. I feel less depressed, less stress, and more focus throughout the day. I quit drinking coffee three months ago, have not missed a single day on my prescription medication, and every week I send a funny meme to a friend in another state. None of these would have happened if I hadn’t read Atomic Habits by James Clear. Here’s a couple game-changing lessons that stuck with me:
Think systems, not goals. For a long time I would struggle changing my habits because I would think “I want to get in shape,” but if “getting in shape” is your goal, then your system must involve exercising, changing your diet, and avoiding situations and places where you’re bound to eat things you don’t want to eat. The reason you don’t get the change you’ve been striving for is not because your goals are wrong: its because you have the wrong system in place. Bad habits repeat themselves because the wrong system is in place. “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems,” Clear writes. Winners and losers have the exact same goals, and you should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.
Identity is the greatest motivator for habit change. It is not enough to say “I want to do this.” Psychologists have discovered that the most powerful motivator for legitimate transformation in a person’s life is “identity-based” motivation. To have an identity-based trigger for a certain action is to say “I want to be the kind of person that always does (desired action).” Its the difference between saying “I’m trying to quit smoking” and “I don’t smoke.” One of my favorite quotes in the book is: “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
Bad habits are often the result of environments conducive to them. I had a bad habit of not taking my medicine in the morning that I need to take. So, listening to James Clear’s advice, I added a “cue” to help me remember to do it: I put my medicine bottle right next to the bathroom sink, and alongside a water bottle. Now, every morning while I’m brushing my teeth, I see the bottle and take my medicine. It was adding a simple cue to my environment that helps me to remember. Clear recommends looking at your entire environment in terms of relationships. I noticed that the bathroom sink was where I spent 2-3 minutes brushing my teeth, and where I would most likely see the medicine bottle. It could be something as simple as laying out your gym clothes, shoes, etc., the night before, so that when you wake up, everything about your environment is already conducive to you going to the gym.
The four rules of Habit forming: make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, make it satisfying. To make something obvious, it has to be something you see every time, like my medicine bottle in an obvious place. Having a habit tracker also clearly tells you what you’re doing and what you’re not doing each day. Making a habit attractive involves pair habits you NEED to do with habits you WANT to do. Our brains are constantly in a stimulation-reward loop, and so if we can design ways of ‘rewarding’ our brains in connection with needed lifestyle changes, habits will form. Similarly, joining a culture where the habit you want to do is accepted and celebrated (like Crossfit for exercising) makes it attractive. To make a habit easy, reduce the friction surrounding the good habits, priming your environments so that the good habits will more likely than not happen. Increase the friction surrounding bad habits. The example given is unplugging your TV after each use. If you know you have to get up off the couch to plug in the TV, you will more likely than not watch less TV. Finally, making a habit satisfying means giving yourself immediate rewards after you do a habit, use a habit-tracker to “not break the chain,” making a game out of it, and never miss twice. None of us will be perfect, and we’re going to mess up, but focus on getting right back on track after breaking a chain.
Habits can change your life, but only the Gospel can change your heart. Now, I’m not much of a ‘self-help’ guy, and I would be remiss as a pastor if I did not bring a snippet of biblical wisdom to the ‘habits’ conversation. While you can make a lot of changes to your life through diligence, discipline, and practical wisdom, no amount of effort can change the heart. Only the grace of God can do that, given to us in Jesus who laid down his life for us, conferring upon us a brand new identity to those who trust in him. That new identity can be one of the most powerful motivators for putting off the old way of life, and putting on a new way of life characterized by love, joy, peace, and self-control. But in the meantime, thank you James Clear for giving us some wisdom on our brains and our behavior. Powerful read.