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When I reached early retirement at the end of 2018, I gained the one big gift I was looking for in life… more time and freedom.
That’s a true blessing, my friends, and I try not to squander it. I strive to use some of that “super power” to push myself to become a better person – both physically and mentally.
Change is hard, but I like it. It’s easy just to continue rolling forward while doing the same old thing because, well, frankly, it’s usually just much easier. But I like the challenge and the potential benefits that you can get from change… it can be life-altering.
Although I’ve made some huge strides over the past few years, I have some bad habits that I’ve been struggling to change.
Fortunately, I just finished reading a book that’s been on my list to read for a while… James Clear’s Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. More often than not, I hear a lot of hype on a book and then feel let down once I’ve read it… not this one.
Atomic Habits is the real deal.
I don’t want to oversell this book, but I was quite impressed with it all around. It put a lot of things in perspective that I think will help me fix some of my problematic habits.
The problem isn’t you… it’s your system
One of the facets of Atomic Habits that I like is that Clear doesn’t simply say, “Hey, just make it a habit and do it!” This is a book that dives into a lot of the psychological side of things. If you understand why you do or don’t do something, it makes it easier to fix the problem.
A message that Clear focuses on in Atomic Habits is that one of the problems we have is that we tend to focus on goals instead of systems. For instance, you might make it a goal to lose 20 pounds. The issue is that you should be focusing on the changes needed rather than the end result.
“The goal in any sport is to finish with the best score, but it would be ridiculous to spend the whole game staring at the scoreboard. The only way to actually win is to get better each day. In the words of three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Walsh, ‘The score takes care of itself.’ The same is true for other areas of life. If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.”— James Clear – Atomic Habits
Among other things, goals inherently have the problem of being only momentary changes without fixing the underlying issue. They can also create an “either-or” scenario that defines you as a success or a failure in your mind. And once you do reach the goal, the motivation can wane because the goal is no longer there to push you.
One example he gives is training for months to prepare for a big race. But then after you reach the finish line, you stop training because the race is no longer there to motivate you.
Another simple example is having a messy room and setting a goal to clean it. Maybe you tidy it up and have a clean room for now. However, if you keep your same sloppy habits, you’ll soon be in the same boat again because you treated the symptom and not the cause.
“If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change.”— James Clear – Atomic Habits
Building good habits and breaking bad habits through atomic habits
I’ve already instilled some good habits and quit some bad ones over the past few years that I’m proud of:
- I’ve consistently worked out 5 days a week for several years now
- I’ve practiced learning Spanish daily since 2019
- I recently officially quit drinking (my last drink was on 9/19/22)
- Reading is now a regular habit before I go to sleep at night
These are just a few habits I’ve been working on as I continue to try to mold myself into a better person. I’ve also had habits that I’ve failed to keep up with as well over the years.
What’s interesting is that the ongoing habits I’ve been successful with unknowingly seemed to follow what I’ve now learned to be Clear’s methods in Atomic Habits.
“Whenever you want to change your behavior, you can simply ask yourself: How can I make it obvious? How can I make it attractive? How can I make it easy? How can I make it satisfying?”— James Clear – Atomic Habits
For me, I need to fully commit to something to make it happen and then I need to make it a part of my regular schedule. For instance, every morning, I do my Spanish practice through Duolingo on my phone before I even get out of bed. I used to do other apps and classes, but I’ve completed all of those. So now all I need to do is this one app from my phone in the morning for about 20 minutes to start my day… every day.
Then I work out shortly after that every day except for Tuesdays and Saturdays… it’s got to be consistent for it to work for me.
At night, I do another 10-15 minutes of Spanish before bedtime. And then once in bed, I try to read at least a chapter every night on my Kindle Paperwhite (I love my Paperwhite!) before going to sleep.
Other than taking that first step in making something actually happen, I seem to follow a lot of Clear’s Atomic Habits advice without even realizing it… easy and rewarding being the biggest keys.
Having the time allotted for each task is a surefire way to encourage good behavior. But I also try to make it easy to happen. I keep my Kindle Paperwhite on my nightstand ready to read. I do my Spanish practice on my phone before I get out of bed before there are any distractions. And currently, my awesome Bowflex adjustable dumbbells, weight bench, and pull-up bar are essentially right in my way and ready to go each morning.
Because it’s easy to get started on these things, there’s no hurdle to do them and they’ve become a regular part of my routine.
Bad habits, on the other hand, are usually a little bit more of a struggle for me.
“Unfortunately, the slow pace of transformation also makes it easy to let a bad habit slide. If you eat an unhealthy meal today, the scale doesn’t move much. If you work late tonight and ignore your family, they will forgive you. If you procrastinate and put your project off until tomorrow, there will usually be time to finish it later. A single decision is easy to dismiss.— James Clear – Atomic Habits
But when we repeat 1 percent errors, day after day, by replicating poor decisions, duplicating tiny mistakes, and rationalizing little excuses, our small choices compound into toxic results. It’s the accumulation of many missteps—a 1 percent decline here and there—that eventually leads to a problem.”
I was never a huge drinker. Outside of my fair share of fun in college and some exceptions to the rule now and again, I would generally drink maybe 4-5 beers a week. But there always seemed to be a reason to sometimes have more (vacations, holiday events, get together with friends, etc.). When those happened, the number would slide up and there will never be an end to those exceptions.
So I needed to just say, “Enough is enough.” If I would try to cut back, I know that social pressure would erode any progress I would make. However, by becoming a non-drinker, a lot of that peer pressure should fade away a lot easier.
“Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke, the first person says, ‘No thanks. I’m trying to quit.’ It sounds like a reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker who is trying to be something else. They are hoping their behavior will change while carrying around the same beliefs.— James Clear – Atomic Habits
The second person declines by saying, ‘No thanks. I’m not a smoker.’ It’s a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes.”
A bad habit I need to break
We’re pretty good about the health side of how we eat here… a lot of fruits, veggies, nuts, chicken, and fish. We rarely eat red meat, blah, blah, blah. We’re far from perfect in what we eat on a daily basis, but we don’t do too shabby.
But there is one big problem here and it’s me and my snacking… particularly on the bad stuff. I love my junk food and definitely have a sweet tooth. Almost daily during lunch or before dinner, I snack on one of those small bags of chips. It’s a story for another day, but we probably have more than a hundred of these bags of chips right now.
Then, immediately after dinner, I need something sweet – be it some chocolate, ice cream, cookies, or whatever. That sounds delicious just thinking about it!
Now again, overall I’m doing pretty well, and I still snack on some healthy stuff, too, like apples or carrots. However, this bad habit of snacking on junk food and sugar is a problem and one that I’d like to tame. I’m not going to eliminate chips and sweets as I did with alcohol (I love my chocolate!) but I do want to cut back overall.
One of the problems that Clear talks about is that some bad habits can be hard to break because you don’t see an immediate reward for not doing it. For instance, when I eat a piece of chocolate after dinner, I get the reward of chocolate (and oh what a wonderful reward it is!).
But what do I get for not eating it? Yes, it’s better for my health in the long run, but there’s no reward to gain right then and there like there is for eating it.
That makes perfect sense. So after reading Atomic Habits, I decided to finally work on this bad habit. I’m making changes by applying a few of the principles of the book:
- Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference
- Make It Invisible / Make It Difficult
- Make It Obvious / Make It Easy
Here’s what I started with…
1) I’m going to keep the change small right now by starting with the chips problem. I’m going to allow myself to have a bag of chips on Tuesdays and Saturdays to start with and I’ll likely cut back on that over time, too. Call them cheat days if you want, but I just call it a step in the right direction.
I’ll leave the chocolate alone for right now (because it’s so delicious!). Plus, I could always look at shifting to eating mostly dark chocolate at some point. It’s not as delightful as milk chocolate but it does have more health benefits.
2) We had all the chips on a shelf that was at eye level. So every time I’d look for something to snack on, they were the first thing I’d see. I’ve since gathered all those bags of chips and put them in a couple of Rubbermaid totes we had laying around. That takes care of the visibility factor.
And for those who say to just throw ’em out… not gonna happen. I still enjoy ’em and just want to eat them less frequently rather than eliminate them completely. Once this “truckload” is gone though, I’ll make sure we don’t end up having this much around anymore.
3) The totes are no longer even in the kitchen, so if I want a bag, I have to put in a little more effort. I need to go to the totes, unstack them, open the tote I want, and then get a bag. It’s not the most difficult to do, but it does present a slight hurdle – it’s the best I could come up with in our small apartment.
4) We’re starting to put healthier alternatives on the shelf where the chips were. Outside of the apple a day that I usually eat anyway (nothing beats a Honeycrisp apple!!), I wanted something similar to chips with that saltiness and possibly some crunch.
I’ve always loved the Fooducate app because you can scan the barcodes of food products to see what they grade them (and why). It’ll suggest healthier alternatives, too, which is really cool. I haven’t dug into some other suggestions from it yet but you can bet I’ll be doing that the next time we’re in the grocery store.
Faith and I are going to start popping popcorn on the stove and bagging it a few times a week for another healthier option.
[I]f you can get just 1 percent better each day, you’ll end up with results that are nearly 37 times better after one year.”— James Clear – Atomic Habits
The plan isn’t to completely eliminate junk food, but I don’t want it to be a necessity for each day either.
Becoming a better person (physically, mentally, and spiritually) is something I continue to strive for in life. It’s not something that ever ends, but it’s a good thing to continue working on.
So books like Atomic Habits are interesting to me. The problem is that most books just flat-out suck and are filled with a lot of fluff. That’s not the case here – there are so many legitimate actionable steps you can take away from this book.
On top of that, it’s just a fascinating read. It’s not just a book with a lot of technical word vomit. Clear has a lot of interesting stories and a great flow to the book.
You end up with a book that’s interesting to read with a lot of useful advice. Atomic Habits is a book that can help you make worthwhile changes in your life.
Besides that, the book is 320 pages. It’s not some lousy pamphlet-size book and it’s not crazy long either – it seemed to me to be the perfect length for the content.
You can get a copy of Atomic Habits on Amazon or pick up a copy at your local library.
What’s a good or bad habit you’d like to build or break or have struggled with in the past? Have you read Atomic Habits yet?
Plan well, take action, and live your best life!
Thanks for reading!!