Perhaps the last kind of book we all need during these long, pandemic days is one that tells us how we can establish better habits in order to reach our goals.
For me, over the last two years, my goals have been more along the lines of how to forge ahead with some measure of positivity rather than gradually succumb to the overwhelming dread that life will never be restored to normalcy.
So I did not pick up Atomic Habits to seek drastic self-improvement; instead, I was looking for some help to try to cling to my status quo - because almost two years into this pandemic, my self-control is seriously waning.
Back in March of 2020, I thought it seemed witty, in a kind of self-deprecatingly way, to repeatedly confess that my primary goal was to resist self-soothing with bakery goods so as not to emerge from quarantine ten pounds heavier (or more).
Although it seems much less funny now (if it ever was in the first place), the struggle is still real. This pandemic life already has my nerves stretched to their breaking point, and although eating might feel good in the moment, my ability to persevere will only weaken further if my pants don’t button, and my chin becomes outlined with an extra layer of skin.
So I looked to Atomic Habits to somehow help me stay on track, but in the process, I learned much, more.
Here are just a few of these lessons:
1. Focus on systems instead of goals.
According to Clear, we need to focus less on our goals and more on the recurring habits that make up our daily systems. Clear explains that no matter how lofty our goals may be, if we don’t have well-established habits that are in service of these goals, we have little chance of achieving them.
“You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems” (p. 27).
2. Habits need to be satisfying in and of themselves to be sustainable.
This was good news for me because I learned that maintaining good habits is not simply the result of colossal self-control or repeatedly crowbarring yourself into making “the right choice”. Instead, Clear explains that our habits themselves need to be somehow rewarding, because our aspiration to run a marathon or lose 20 pounds is not enough to motivate us to keep up with our daily runs and consistent healthy eating. To this end, Clear offers ideas designed to support and reinforce your desired habits in service of building the systems that will lead you towards achieving your goals.
“When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy” (p. 26).
3. Create an environment that supports your habits.
The obvious ideas here are not to keep junk food in the house if you’re dieting, and if you’re training for a marathon to keep your running attire easily accessible for when you’re ready to go for a run. Yet, Clear further explores how our environment impacts our choices in ways we might not even consider, and how intentionally designing our environment can eliminate the need for self-control as the only mechanism to help us stick to our habits.
Clear advances the idea that we actually have a relationship to the objects in our environment, and explains how we can leverage these relationships to support our habits. For example, if you work at home, designating an exclusive space for work creates an environment that will support your boundaries between your work and home life. If you want to avoid mindlessly scrolling through social media posts on your phone during breaks in your day, deleting the app from your phone will create an environment that supports this choice, thereby eliminating the need for self-control.
“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior” (p. 82).
4. Surround yourself with like-minded people
Another point that Clear makes about the impact of our environment on supporting our habits is about the influence of the people around us. It makes sense that joining a book club will support your habit of reading, and a family that shares your commitment to healthy eating will make it easier to sustain. But Clear digs deeper into how our basic human need for belonging and our desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves can help build habits that endure.
“One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior” (p. 117).
5. We build our identity through our habits.
This is, perhaps, the most transformative lesson I learned from Atomic Habits because it helped me think about “the why” of each of my habits, because as Clear writes, “the purpose of every habit is to solve a problem you face” (p. 51). As a result, I began to ask myself these questions:
What I am trying to accomplish?
How is this helping me become who I want to be?
Answering these questions gave me guidance and permission to ease up on occasion. For example, if my goal is to watch my weight but there is dessert at a celebration, prior to this new insight I likely would have denied myself the indulgence. However, if the person I want to be is someone who rewards herself on occasion, particularly in connection with other people, then the decision to whether or not to eat cake is an easy one. These occasional choices that may seem to deviate from my goals, but they actually reinforce my values and the person I want to be; it’s what we do everyday that matters the most.
“Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become” (p. 38).
Atomic Habits has been a balm for me during a time I’ve most needed it, which is likely why it became the best-selling book on Amazon.com in 2021. Atomic Habits can help you become more reflective, and live in a manner that both reinforces your identity and is in service of your goals.
These are the choices that will guide us all of the way home.