Atomic Habits: How Can They Be Tiny And Monumental?

by Tim Rinaldi
8 min read

Do you find yourself repeatedly trying to create new habits that will enable you to accomplish your goals? 

Do you wish you had better self-control and will power to maintain these new habits?

Do you see others who have achieved your goals and get envious and frustrated that it doesn’t come easy for you?

Do you ardently want to get better but just can’t figure out how to make it stick?

The topic of inspiring change in ourselves, our colleagues, families, and friends is incredibly important and complex. I’ve written several posts on it now: my major takeaways from Carol Dweck’s Mindset, Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s Switch, John Kotter’s Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, and Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s The Real Reason People Won’t Change. Even if we have the proper motivation to change, our mindset, emotion, environment, plan, and/or competing motivations may conspire to prevent the desired change from taking hold. 

This is why I enjoyed James Clear’s Atomic Habits, a number one New York Time bestseller, so much – he provided a clear action plan to determine the small steps (the “atomic habits”) needed to achieve our desired changes. He used his own story and many others’ to detail the pitfalls that prevent these changes and how, no matter the change we’re working to achieve, we, too, can adopt good habits and put an end to bad habits.

From his website: "I’ve been writing at JamesClear.com since 2012. I’m the author of the New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits, which has sold more than 4 million copies worldwide. I’m also known for my popular 3-2-1 newsletter, which is sent out each week. Click here to learn more and sign up. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Instagram."

Here are the major lessons I learned from Atomic Habits, so I hope they will have a great impact on your career and in your personal life: 

1- Prioritize our process over our goals 

I’ll admit – when Clear began to downplay the value of goals, I became uneasy. But when he explained that while goals are helpful, we should focus more on our process, I understood. Our goals should set our direction, but they shouldn’t be the end in and of itself. Once we know our direction, we should focus on our process to get there. Discerning and implementing the necessary process will lead to long-term progress and change, and we’ll enjoy each step along the way. On the other hand, a singular focus on our goal would only produce temporary change until we’ve accomplished that goal, on which our happiness would be entirely dependent. 

Clear used the example of sports coaches, and while I don’t typically sing Nick Saban’s praises as an LSU football fan, he may be the best example of the value in prioritizing the process over the results. Every coach wants to compete for the championship, but by endlessly stressing his team’s process, he ensures that his players buy into it and focus on getting better each day just for the sake of getting better. He knows the results will come, and with his team just about always being in the mix for the championship, they have. 

I experienced the negative effect of focusing solely on a goal when I took up running in college. I decided each year to run the Mardi Gras Half Marathon, and I dedicated myself to training for each race during the two to three months leading up to it. But as soon as I crossed the finish line, I had absolutely no desire to run, even though I had been experiencing the benefits of it. There were a couple years that I didn’t run a single time until I decided to train for the next half marathon. I loved having a goal and accomplishing it, but did I gain anything from it besides the shirt and medal for paying the registration fee?

When you set goals for yourself, how much do you focus on the goal itself vs. the process leading to that goal? Do you enjoy the practice and training along the way, or do you only experience happiness from achieving the goal? And once you do achieve the goal, are you inspired to continue your improvement, or do you lose your motivation? How would focusing more on the process impact your career?

2- To achieve lasting change, though, we must strive to change not just our processes but our identity 

As Clear explained, most people focus on changing their outcomes or even their processes, but we need to also shift the way we think about ourselves. With my half marathons in college, had I been focused on becoming a runner and not just completing a race, I would have created lasting exercise habits. He gave the example of a smoker trying to quit – if they just say they’re trying to quit, they aren’t likely to be successful. But if they turn down a cigarette and say they aren’t a smoker, then they’ve changed their identity. 

To change our identity, we must first decide what type of person we want to be, whether it’s with our work, hobbies, family, or friends. Then, we must constantly ask ourselves if our actions are in line with becoming that type of person. If I realize that I need to collaborate better with my colleagues, I don’t just make it my goal to accomplish that; instead, I work to become a person who excels at collaboration. Then, when I feel pressured to complete a task with my colleagues, I should ask myself, “What would a great collaborator do in this situation?” By consistently asking myself this question and following through, I will eventually become that great collaborator.

The major benefits of establishing an identity can be seen in company cultures. During the application process, potential new hires learn about the company’s culture and what it takes to be successful there. Then, after being hired, they want to achieve that success, so they work to adopt the culture as their own identity. With Raincatcher, I knew my colleagues were passionate about teamwork and impacting the small business owners with whom we partner. So when I joined, I didn’t just set a goal to work well with my colleagues and clients; I made it my identity at work, and it resulted in a lasting change rather than something that came and went depending on my level of motivation each day.

When you set a new goal, how much do you focus on changing your identity to achieve a lasting change? In your career, what type of person do you want to become? How can you put that into practice, starting tomorrow?

3- Then, we can follow the four laws of behavior change to create good habits and stop bad habits 

Clear analyzed the four-step pattern that leads to repeated behaviors: first, a cue catches our attention; then, we experience a craving; next, we provide a response; finally, we experience a reward. Because the reward is tied to the cue, he referred to this as a “habit loop” that will be repeated and become an automatic habit. Based on this, he proposed his four laws for creating good habits: make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying. These laws will ensure the desired habit follows the four-step pattern and becomes a consistent, repeated behavior. On the other hand, we should do the opposite to stop bad habits: make it invisible, make it unattractive, make it difficult, and make it unsatisfying. 

With my work, I used to use handwritten to-do lists each day, but I found it difficult to organize from one week to the next. I started using Google Tasks instead and found it much easier to prioritize my tasks – I see it alongside my email, can easily move items around and track their status, and get the satisfaction of seeing the task disappear when it’s completed. Meanwhile, our phones are a great example of bad habits, as we can easily waste significant time on random apps and lose productivity. To counteract this, I’ve started using my phone’s screen time settings to prevent certain apps from being used too much depending on the time of day – I can still use them more than I should, but it is now more difficult and I’m reminded that there are likely better things that I can be doing with that time. 

Whether your desired habit is with work, family, health-related, or a hobby, how can you make it impossible to avoid, more appealing, easier to accomplish, and more rewarding? If it’s a bad habit that you’re trying to quit, how can you make it nearly impossible to initiate, unappealing, as difficult as possible to complete, and less rewarding?

4- To optimize our consistent behaviors, we need to optimize our environment 

As Clear explained, it is often easier to pick up a new habit by associating it with a new environment. Think of how packed college libraries are shortly before finals – the students know they’re more likely to stick to the habit of studying harder by going somewhere solely for that purpose, rather than just hoping they will become more productive in their dorm rooms surrounded by other distractions. Too often, we strive to improve our self-control and will power, but that can lead to us just spinning our wheels. Instead, we should put ourselves in the ideal environment so that we don’t need to exercise self-control. 

But, as Clear demonstrated, it’s not just where we are that dictates how likely we are to pick up the new habit – we should optimize our environment by adopting these practices: 

  1. Focus on the people with whom we surround ourselves – because the reward of being accepted by our groups is so powerful, we should ensure that we join groups that value and reinforce the habits we’re working to adopt. 
  2. Cut habits off at the source – when we’re trying to quit a bad habit, we should optimize our environment by completely removing the cue if at all possible – for example, if my cell phone is preventing my productivity with work, then I should remove it from the room altogether. 
  3. Leverage implementation triggers – Clear’s “implementation triggers” are very similar to Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s “action triggers”; we need a concrete plan of action, including a specific time and place, that predetermines our response to an expected scenario. 
  4. Create commitment devices – a commitment device is a decision we make now that locks in our future behavior and makes it more difficult to get out of the good habit. Clear gave a great example of Victor Hugo locking away all of his clothes but one shawl to force himself to stay in and finish writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame to meet his deadline. 

When I think back to my greatest successes in my career and leading mission work, it has always been a direct result of my environment, specifically the people who have made up my teams. When I’m inspired by my colleagues, I strive to be at my best for our team. And then when I succeed and they not only appreciate it but celebrate it, it enhances my motivation and puts into place a feedback loop of more and more success. 

For any habits that you’re struggling to adopt or quit, how can you optimize your environment to ensure a greater chance of success? Are you surrounding yourself with the right type of people and cues? What actions can you take now to promote or even ensure your best behaviors in the future?

I loved Atomic Habits because James Clear demonstrated how repeatedly making small changes can lead to an incredible impact in our lives. Rather than pressuring ourselves to take massive action to accomplish incredible goals, we should first determine what type of person we want to become. Then, we should be on a mission to become a little more like that type of person each and every day and take immediate action. As Clear suggested, when we find ourselves thinking this action is something we “have” to do, we should change our mindset – this action is something we “get” to do. 

Finally, we’ll certainly make mistakes time and time again as we work to become the best versions of ourselves, but when we do, we should always strive to follow Clear’s rule to ensure it doesn’t become a relapse: “Never miss twice.” One mistake won’t determine who we are, as long as we don’t let it become more than one mistake.

These are just a few of my takeaways from Atomic Habits, so I highly recommend reading it and determining how it will impact your career! Here is a referral link to Amazon. Note- I used the Audiobooks app to listen to this book and highly recommend it! 

To learn more from James Clear and his wealth of resources and newsletter, please visit his website: https://jamesclear.com/ 

How can I get better?

My mission is to impact as many people as I can from what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown in my career. If you have any feedback on how I can do that better (about my writing style, other books/articles/videos I should check out, etc.), I’d love to hear it!

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