Episode 342 – A Must Read Episode – Atomic Habits

Written by Jonathan

Today is a must read episode, Atomic Habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones. As soon as I listened to an interview with the author James Clear I knew I was going to read this book, agree with almost everything inside of it and make it a must read episode. The premise of the book is that changing small habits or small portions of your life produce very little change, but consistently making small habit changes compound over time and the incremental benefits achieved through these small changes add up leading to massive changes in your life, but and I’m sorry Mrs. Goodfellow this sentence absolutley requires two ‘buts’, but, what’s even more important, by grooving these new habits into your brain you begin to take on the identity of a new person, a new person who embodies these new habits and once you consistently start living this new way, you become your habits in a sense. This means your new identity makes it easier for you to continue with the change you made and can motivate you to try and change even more.

Let’s backtrack a little bit first so that we’re all on the same page, What is a habit?
A habit is something that you do, subconsciously or automatically without giving it much thought. Some simple examples of good habits might be, waking up and immediately brushing your teeth or taking a walking break the same time everyday at work, some bad habits might be turning the t.v on as soon as you get home from work or walking over to your pantry whenever you start to feel even just a little bit hungry. If you take a couple of seconds to think about it, you can probably come up with a couple of habits that are both positive and negative in your life.

Recognizing and describing your habits is all well and good, but if we want to change them you have to understand the mechanism or stages of a habit. I’ve never heard a habit described in the way that Clear does, but it makes a lot of sense to me. It goes like this,

Cue → Craving → Response → Reward

In past definitions I’ve come across, the craving portion of this cycle hasn’t been taken into consideration, but if we think about it, it’s required. I can’t remember if this is example is in this book, but it illustrates the point, when toothpaste was first invented no one used it, it was bland and tasted, kind of gross like soap for your mouth. Then someone thought what if we made it taste good? Well that helped a bit, but not really enough, then someone thought, what if we made it minty and foamy? Then boom, toothpaste sales went through the roof, because people started craving the minty, fresh, tingly sensation inside their mouths.
The habit would look something like this.

Cue – Wake up in the morning
Craving – My mouth feels kind of gross, but I want it to feel sensationally clean
Response – I will brush my teeth with minty, foamy toothpaste
Reward – My mouth feels tingly and clean

By creating something that could be ‘craved’ in the toothpaste, people started using a lot more of it. Which means something to consider when looking at your habits, if you’re trying to create a new good habit, try to make the reward so desirable that you crave it. Which segues nicely into this next part.

Now that we understand what a habit is and the mechanisms that make it, we can look at the meat of how you actually change a habit, where do you start? Most people have an idea of where they want to go, but they don’t fully understand where they’re at, which means creating a new habit needs to start with reflection and questioning why you do things the way you do. What things do you do that are moving you towards the person you want to be and what could you add to that to continue your growth into that person and what are you doing that’s taking away from the person you want to be and deciding that you want to stop doing that. In other words, what do you need to start doing and what do you need to stop doing, to be the person you want to become.

For example, maybe you feel a bit lethargic when you get home from work and you want some more energy, you know enough energy that you don’t feel like you need to lay down when you get home from work. I mean you don’t want to be one of those annoying people that are always talking about their goals, telling everyone how good they are and being overly bubbly, I hate those people too. No you want to be someone that can make it through a day of work and not be exhausted when you get home, which seems pretty reasonable if you ask me.

Where do you start? With reflection. Take a step back and look at how your day goes, What time do you go to bed, wake-up, what do you eat in the afternoon when you get hungry at 3 o’clock, a handful of nuts or a chocolate bar, do you turn your t.v on as soon as you get home, what are all the things you do that could be contributing to you feeling tired, when you get home from work? Let’s say in this example after reflecting on what you do in a day you notice that as soon as you get home from work you sit down on your couch and start perusing through your instagram feed, and you realize that once you sit down you have a lot of trouble getting up off the couch, but you notice on some days you don’t sit down because you have some other things that need to get done right away and that you’re actually not as tired on those days and you decide, if you can avoid sitting on the couch as soon as you get home that, that in itself will give you more energy, so you decide to start the habit of going for a walk as soon as you get home, so that it’s late enough you have to go right to making dinner when you finish your walk. Now as soon as you get home you immediately go for a walk, the habit loop could look like this.

Cue – Walk through the door of your house and put on running shoes
Craving – You want to feel energized
Response – You walk out the door to do your loop
Reward – You come home feeling energized and ready to tackle dinner

This is an example of a really good habit to try and form because it does a couple of things:

1. It means you start exercising and you get all the benefits that go with that.
2. You will get more energy because of the hormones and neurotransmitters that get released in your body, I know it sounds counterintuitive, but spending energy exercising actually gives you more energy to do other things.
3. It means you stop sitting on the couch for an extended period of time.
4. You spend less time on social media, which is probably better for your mental health.
5. You take on the identity of someone who walks every day after work, once you’ve taken on this identity you will start looking for other things you can change, I mean someone who walks every day after work, probably makes something like a healthy stir fry for dinner.

This is a 5 birds with one stone example of how changing one small thing can make a really big difference in the overall effect it has on your life and imagine what your life would look like one year from now if you made just 3 changes like this over the course of the next year. It’s why I recommend this method for behaviour change and why this book is really good for laying the science and practical strategies that you can use when it comes to changing your habits and building your new identity.

Now, if I could be a bit critical of the book for a minute. Something I wish he’d spent a bit more time on is the necessity of the ‘Growth’ or ‘Be Better Mindset.’ Clear touches on it briefly a couple times throughout the book, but he really could have devoted a whole chapter to it, because the reality is you’re going to fail when you try to implement some of your changes. When this happens most people go into this spiral of negative self-talk, I’m a bad person, why can’t I be more like this other person, I’m never going to be able to change and on and on, of course this is not only negative for your frame of mind, but it almost always perpetuates the negative behaviours or activities you’re trying to stop doing or change. When you try something and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it doesn’t mean you’re incompetent, it means you tried a strategy that didn’t or doesn’t work for you and you need to try a new strategy until you find the ones that do work for you and it’s what I’m going to talk about next episode, self-talk and how to build strategies that can work for you without getting too down on yourself.

Before I take off today, if we could go back to the book for a minute, I realize I ragged on it a bit here at the end, but it really is a good book and I would recommend you read it, Atomic Habits by James Clear, because it lays out the structure of a habit, it gives you many strategies for changing habits with examples of how to start and stop doing things and it’s laid out in a really practical and manageable way, from start to finish, so you can start applying your changes as you go through it or at least reflect on the changes you think will be most beneficial to you.



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