One of my favorite books from 2019 was James’s Clear’s Atomic Habits, which provides easy to implement suggestions for long-lasting change. If you’d like to make this a year of consistent, incremental improvement in all areas of your life, here are some of my key takeaways:
IT’S NOT ABOUT SETTING GOALS, IT’S ABOUT CREATING BETTER SYSTEMS
It may be tempting to think that you just lack the willpower to change. However science shows that relentless drive is much less important than conscious lifestyle design. In other words, people with healthier habits are simply those that engineer better systems to ensure that they are inclined to focus their time more productively.
For instance, have you ever slogged through the day irritable and overtired because you stayed up too late staring at your phone in bed? Me too. That’s why I now keep all phone chargers on the main floor. I plug in my phone downstairs before heading to bed, which forces me to read a book before falling asleep.
Find yourself indulging in unhealthy snacks? Remove them from your immediate environment and replace them with something nourishing that you enjoy. That way, the next time you crave mid-afternoon candy bar you’ll be faced with the choice of driving to the store, or eating the baby carrots and hummus that are already right next to you in your lunch bag.
MAKE NEW HABITS APPEALING BY “STACKING” THEM
Overcome resistance to tedious activities by combining them with more pleasurable ones to create a new habit. This can be done either by coupling them back to back (i.e. rewarding yourself with something you like to do after completing something that’s hard) or combining them into a single activity.
For instance, on Sundays we prepare all of our lunches for the upcoming week. It takes up to an hour to prepare and pack 5 delicious, healthy meals – but that whole time we are also listening to inspiring podcasts or audiobooks that get us excited for the work week ahead.
Similarly, folding laundry is a cue to watch Netflix. Theses two activities are now one for me, so that folding laundry has actually become an appealing activity that I look forward to.
With repetition, these “stacked” activities will become positively fused in your neural pathways as one becomes a cue for the other. This insight provides infinite possibilities for lifestyle and habit design that are exciting and fun. Household chores and long drives become audiobook times, public transit rides are meditation time, and after morning exercises, I reward myself with a nice big cup of coffee while I check my news feeds. .
The best way to get started is to become conscious of your current patterns and habits. Write down the activities you perform unconsciously on a daily basis, such as “wake up, check my phone, brush my teeth, shower etc.” Then, design how you might insert new healthy habits into the flow (and weed out unhealthy ones!) by “stacking” them with things you’re already doing.
TINY GAINS CAN ADD UP TO HUGE RESULTS OVER THE LONG-TERM
If you try to implement a change that requires a great deal of effort up front, you are likely to give up as soon as your initial enthusiasm expires. That’s why it’s important to start small when implementing new habits.
At first, any new activity should take less than two minutes to complete. The advantage of this approach is that it allows you to more easily overcome the biggest obstacle to behavior change: getting started. Once you’re actually performing an activity, it’s much easier to continue with it, making it far more likely that you’ll overshoot your original goal.
Want to start brining healthy food to work? A week of meal planning and prep may be a little ambitious if you’ve never done it before. Start with some simple snacks. Pack a bunch of grapes and a bag of baby carrots to combat the urge for unhealthy snacks during the day. Then, work your way up to full meals over time.
If your goal is to exercise in the morning, don’t commit to doing an hour long circuit at the gym 3 times a week. Make your goal simply to put on your workout clothes. Once you’ve got your gear on, you’ll will find it’s much easier to proceed with some form of exercise, even if it just involves doing a few pushups and sit ups in your bedroom. You are much more likely to stick with the simple routine, and you can always expand it once you have some consistency.
Atomic Habits points out that incremental change can seem almost undetectable at first. However, by aiming for just a 1% improvement each day, you can achieve an incremental improvement of over 30X when compounded over the course of the year.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Anybody can change if you just start small, and use proven tricks to engineer better habits.