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Tiny changes, Big Results: Book review of Atomic Habits

In his book Atomic Habits, author James clear makes the argument that systems, not goals, are what we should all focus upon.  After all, he writes, winners and losers usually share the same goal (to win!) but it is mostly the systems that make the difference between success and failure.

And regarding the system, Clear’s strategy is to break systems down into the smallest possible parts as a way to form small habits that can then grow into substantial, good habits.

For example, you want to get fit, but hate going to the gym?  Then only commit to going to the gym for 10 minutes each day.   Want to commit to becoming a blogger? Then promise yourself to write one paragraph each day.  Want to read more books? Then only commit to reading one page each day.  By committing to small habits on a daily basis, and by never missing a day, we put ourselves on a path to changing the way we identify ourselves.   

Clear’s point of view is that these tiny habits are so much more achievable than big lofty goals – and this gives tiny habits the power to stick, and then grow.  Scaling down whatever we want to accomplish into the smallest possible units (i.e. atomic), makes a big impact.  Clear uses an airplane as an example, writing that if you are flying, and the pilot shifts just a few degrees in the wrong direction at takeoff, the flight ends up hundreds of kilometers away from its intended destination.  In other words, development of a good habit today puts us on the right trajectory. We should all think much, much more about the trajectory than our current results.

Following are a few more takeaways from the book:

  • A cool quote about consistent effort:  “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at the stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it.  Yet at the hundred and first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it – but all that had gone before” – Jacob Riis, Social Reformer.
  • An interesting idea about working at home: If your space is limited, divide your room into activity zones:  a chair for reading, a desk for working, a table for eating. 
  • One way to manage our devices: The book uses the example of a writer who only uses his computer only for writing, his tablet only for reading, and his phone only for social media and texting.  The point is that every habit should have a home.
  • Burning calories while binging:  Ronan Byrne, an engineering student, enjoyed watching Netflix, but he also knew that he should exercise more often.  Putting his engineering skills to use, Byrne hacked his stationary bike and connected it to his television.  Then he wrote a computer program that would allow Netflix to run only if he cycled at high speed.
  • Changing our identity:  Clear writes that “it’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.  New identities require new evidence. If you keep casting the same votes you’ve always cast, you’re going to get the same results you’ve always had. If nothing changes, nothing is going to change. It is a simple two-step process: Decide the type of person you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins.”
  • The normal behavior of the tribe often overpowers the desired behavior of the individual. For example, one study found that when a chimpanzee learns an effective way to crack nuts open as a member of one group and then switches to a new group that uses a less effective strategy, it will avoid using the superior nut cracking method just to blend in with the rest of the chimps.
  • If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. You don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it because you just need to get your reps in.
  • One of the most effective ways to reduce the friction associated with your habits is to practice environment design.  When deciding where to practice a new habit, it is best to choose a place that is already along the path of your daily routine. Habits are easier to build when they fit into the flow of your life.
  • Create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.  If you want to drink less, put the beer at the back of the refrigerator.  If you want to eat better, place fresh fruit and vegetables at the front.  If you want to reduce social media use, delete social media apps from your phone, and it could be weeks before downloading again and logging in.
  • Never miss a daily habit two days in a row The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows.  If you miss a habit one day, no problem.  But make sure to never miss two days in a row is crucial.

James Clear became an expert on habits because a childhood accident forced him to adapt and learn how to place himself on a path to recovery.  But for most of us, knowing how to master the formation of even just one or two good habits, can help us all live better and gain more satisfaction from mastering those things we wish to control.

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