I (finally) read Atomic Habits. These are my 4 takeaways.

I finally read Atomic Habits, by James Clear. I know, I know. It’s been out there for more than five years now and sooooooo many people have already read it. There are hundreds of articles about it, different sized summaries and way too many reviews. And almost the same amount of productivity posts or videos that refer to it. Everyone knows it and it has changed so many people’s lives. That’s fantastic. It took me a bit longer to jump into it, but I finally did it. And as so many others have done before me, I am writing my thoughts on it.

First things first: I think the book is, overall, a good read. I understand why it is so famous. The structure is clear, with short, action-oriented chapters. James style is also pretty direct and easy to understand, having a good mix between personal anecdotes and references to other people’s stories to serve as example of what the author wants to dig in deeper later. I’ve read some books where the author focuses too much on the “I did this and that”, leading you to kind of hate how perfectly he or she solved his or her problems. That does not happen with Atomic Habits, but quite the opposite, and I liked that a lot.

As for what I learned from this book… let me put it this way: nothing here was a life-changing discovery for me, and there was nothing where I was feeling like “wow, that I could not imagine at all”. However, the book is very good at stating the obvious and it will probably make you think about how you’re dealing with certain situations in your day to day. Being very action-oriented, it also makes you reconsider or change some stuff around you. Or at least it did that for me, and I am thankful that I am already seeing some of the benefits.

That said, and to make this post my own and not just another review or summary, I wanted to share my four biggest takeaways from the book, the four things that resonated the most for me or had the biggest impact.

1. Shifting from building a habit to building yourself is key.

I believe this is one of the things that made the book so popular. It is actually part of the first chapter and you might have seen this small drawing before:

Picture by James Clear, from his book Atomic Habits

The concept is easy to understand, yet super powerful: don’t try to change your habits just because you want to start doing something. Instead, focus on the kind of person that you want to be and the process to get there. Try to identify and build habits that align with this desired kind of person and will push you further in that direction. Don’t simply define some metrics for habits that you want to adopt and try to reach them, as that is more likely to fail.

That might sound a bit theoretical, so I will write an example of this. Year’s end is around the corner and, with it, new-year’s resolutions will come. And I know a classic one: “I want to exercise three times per week next year”.

If you do this, you’re defining an outcome (actually, an output and not even an outcome) to build your habit. You want to do more exercise, that’s it… but why? What makes you want to exercise three times a week? What happens if you don’t? What happens if you can’t exercise for a week because you got sick? Did you fail already?

Instead of saying that you want to exercise three times a week, think about the kind of person you want to become. It is possible that your goal in this specific case is becoming a healthier and more fit person, not just someone that exercises three times a week. Try to focus on your desired identity and tell to yourself: I am a healthy and fit person. And as a healthy and fit person, I will exercise at least three times per week.

By shaping your identity you have a much more powerful reason for building habits. You can also adapt on the long run and be more resilient to changes: if you can’t exercise during a week because you’re a bit sick, you’re travelling or the gym is closed, you still are a healthy and fit person and you’ll get back to training as soon as you can. You didn’t fail just because you missed a week of exercising. On top of that, you can probably compensate in some other ways during that period, like by eating a lower amount of calories or taking some minutes to stretch at home instead of exercising.

The exact same thing applies to the bad habits that you want to break: instead of “I will not buy a snack on my way home from work, or I will do it only on Fridays”, tell yourself “I am the kind of person that eats healthy”. If you start doing this more and more, when walking by the snacks kiosk, you will ask yourself: “Would a person that eats healthy get a snack now, or rather a small piece of fruit?”. That mindset change has a much bigger impact than setting yourself a couple of goals like “Snack less” and “Eat more fruit” would ever have.

Long story short here: try to switch your perspective from actions or habits to your identity. If you focus on the latter, building good, long-living habits and breaking bad ones becomes a much easier job.

2. Location and environment matter more than I thought.

One of the things that the author talks about in different parts of the book is the concept of “Implementation Intentions”. Quoting Wikipedia here, an implementation intention is a self regulatory strategy in the form of if-then-plans that can lead to better goal attainment, as well as create useful habits and modify problematic behaviors.

To make it easier to understand at a first glance, James has a very small and precise formula to define implementation intentions. It goes like this:

Implementation Intention = I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]

If we are talking about habits, he says that these are easier to establish if we have a defined time and a clear location to do them. If works even better if we name them out loud or if we write them down. And he gives the same weight to both location and time, none is more important than the other one.

That sounds pretty logical and straightforward, right? Well, at least it was to me. However, I never paid that much attention to the location, and this was my biggest learning in this area.

I used to plan the things I wanted to do during the day or the week, and set a time to do it. Just opened the calendar or made some list with times in a piece of paper, and that was it. For example, I would say: “I am going to meditate tomorrow at 7:00, after breakfast”, or “I am going to do some exercise at home when I come back from work at 18:00”. I’d also block my calendar if needed and shift things around to accommodate everything from the time perspective.

However, I rarely thought about thought about where I was going to do something. And that led to not getting started at all sometimes. I wanted to do some exercise, but didn’t think whether I’d do it outside, in the living room or in the office. And this is in one of the cases where going to the gym is out of the equation. What I realized is that, when the time to exercise came, I started to think too much about it. Is the weather good enough to go outside? Or the opposite thing: with this nice weather, do I really want to exercise at home instead of going outside? Or maybe my partner would be doing some yoga in the living room as I didn’t tell her I would be needing the space to exercise.

This extra set of thoughts causes an initial moment of doubt that can lead to not exercising in the end. Remember: you just need an excuse to avoid doing something. And almost anything can serve as an excuse when we are tired. Thinking about the location and not only about the time for a habit will help you avoiding these excuses.

That was, however, not the biggest learning related to the location component. I had a much stronger realization some pages later, when the influence of the environment on the habits is mentioned. Having a good environment is crucial to both building new good habits and breaking old, bad ones. You need to prepare your environment and make it as favorable as possible, because a small change in it can lead to a huge change in behavior.

Let me explain you my personal case. At home, I spend a lot of time in our office/guestroom. I used to do so many things here: it is the place where I am when I am working from home. It is the place where I sit when I need to do what I usually call “productive things”: keeping an eye at our finances, taking a look at contracts, planning some activities for later or investigating something. It is the place where I sit to study and learn new things as well. Lots of (good) things happening around this desk.

But… It is also the place where I would sit to “do nothing” and kill some time: it is where I would watch Youtube, surf the internet without any kind of purpose or scroll through my LinkedIn feed. It is okay to do all of these: my brain needs to disconnect from time to time. There is one thing about these activities though: they require way less concentration (or none at all) and are way easier to do than focusing on something that requires some mental effort, like studying for an hour.

With everything happening on the same place, it happened often that I was trying to be productive and I got distracted by some Youtube video or clickbait article. My brain was taking the nice road and jumping to the effortless path from the options available in the environment. It did not matter how hard I would tell myself “It is time to study now, don’t get distracted!”, my brain always beat my willpower.

What did I do then? I forced myself into changing the environment. I decided that, if I wanted to watch some videos or just chill browsing the internet for a while, I’d do it with my iPad instead of with my computer, and I’d do it in the living room instead of in the office. The computer in the office stays for work, learning and some other productive stuff, but not as a time-killing-machine anymore.

After around a month of doing this, I noticed a big change in my behavior. It was hard on the beginning, as I often had the impulse of opening a new tab and jumping into some sports news website or Youtube. I installed some browser extensions to prevent me from doing that. This, combined with having in mind that this was not the place to do it and I should switch to the sofa instead helped me closing this new tab immediately and keep working. Shutting down the computer, picking up the iPad and moving to the sofa seemed like a huge effort, I might as well keep studying instead…

After a couple of weeks, this impulse of opening new tabs would happen less and less often. After a month, it is almost not an impulse but more of a conscious decision. I don’t even need the browser extensions to block the distracting pages. I am way more focused when I am sitting around the computer now than I was before.

3. A simple mindset change can have a huge impact.

The third lesson looks more like a cheap trick, but it actually works. In my opinion, it is also not so related to building habits but to being happy and having a positive mindset in life. What is mentioned in the book, somewhere in the 10th chapter, is that a simple change in perspective can help us building good habits and breaking the bad ones. We should aim to switch from “I have to do something that I don’t want to do right now” to “I have the opportunity to do something good here” so that our chores don’t feel so much like that and we can start enjoying them more. This way we also have higher chances of breaking bad habits related to them. But that’s a bit abstract, let me give you an example.

Imagine having to do some meal preparation for the week, or just for a couple of days. You write down what you will cook and get at it for a couple of hours on Sunday, before the new work week starts. It is easy to see this Sunday duty as a burden. It is annoying, it prevents you from doing something else… but it has to be done. It isn’t really motivating or enjoyable unless cooking is one of your hobbies (and even so!) and it is easy to avoid by saying: well, this week I will just order some food or go out for lunch. An there is nothing wrong with doing that from time to time… but it is not very sustainable.

But… what if we try to think “I have an opportunity to cook some healthy and delicious meals for this week” instead of “I must cook some stuff for the week”? Yeah, yeah, cheap trick. However, this small change in the formulation makes it more appealing already. Somehow, now it does not seem so bad. And if one of your identity-based goals is “I want to be a healthy person”, this is a perfect match. Think about it: what would a healthy person choose: grabbing some fast food every day or taking a couple of hours each week to do some healthy meal preparation?

My personal case here is very tiny but has had a great impact in my mood. For me, it is about making my bed every morning, which I had never done before. Growing up, I found it boring and didn’t want to do it at all. My parents would always tell me to make my bed and I’d simply turn a blind eye to it. After some time, I believe they recognized a lost battle and didn’t really insist anymore. And, of course, my bed would stay unmade. When I moved out, and as expected, nothing changed. Luckily, my girlfriend does not care much about it and it was always fine to have some wrinkled up ball of sheets on top of the bed for the whole day.

However, and this is something that might have changed when becoming an adult, I enjoy going to bed at night and jumping into a made bed. The feeling is somehow better than when it is not made. Funny. It was interesting to notice something so obvious after all these years of ignoring it. After reading Atomic Habits and going through this part of the book, I thought: hey, what if I try to make my bed every day before leaving for work? It just takes 3 minutes and then I can enjoy this nice feeling at night, finishing the day with something that I like. And I have been making my bed almost every day since then. This simple mindset change and seeing it as an opportunity to enjoy the situation later has made it very easy to build the habit. I just wish I had done it earlier.

Long story short: every time time you have to do some kind of chore, try to think about the positive side of things and the benefits you will get from doing it. Take these situations as opportunities instead of obligations and make them as enjoyable as possible. That will definitely make them easier to complete and most probably make you happier.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

4. Commit to two minutes, achieve way more.

The last takeaway I want to talk about is what the author names as the “Two minute rule”. It is mentioned as a way to beat or stop procrastination and it is very easy to understand and apply on a daily basis.

In a nutshell, the two minute rule states that you should try to find an entering queue that takes a maximum of two minutes for the new and good habits that you want to build. This way, it is much easier to actually start doing something than if you observe the activity as a whole. Thinking about using one full hour of your time is a big commitment, while using just two minutes to do something should always be possible.

One of the examples that is mentioned in the book is exercising more. Imagine that you want to build the habit of going for a twenty-minute run every day. However, you end up not doing it regularly because, even if you have thought about the time and the location, you might get distracted, or you might not be on the mood for it when the time comes or you might have some things to do afterwards. And because you didn’t do it, you feel bad later. You want to be healthier and you wanted to go for a run but you didn’t even get started.

What would be the strategy to overcome this? Well, think about an action that takes a maximum of two minutes and is the first step into the habit that you want to build, and do it. For the example about going for a run, it could be changing into your running clothes. That’s it, no more. Just do that, it will only take you two minutes. Chances that after getting into your running clothes you end up going for a run increase quite a lot. You’re already dressed up, so you might as well go out.

This applies to many situations in your daily life. If you want to build the habit of going for a 30 minute walk every day, start by committing to a two minute walk and see what happens later. If you want to read more, commit to picking up a book, putting the smartphone and TV remote away and sitting in the sofa. If you want to write more, start by writing a couple of sentences in this two minutes. If you want to meditate daily, commit to sitting somewhere quiet and taking five deep breaths. All of these just take two minutes, which everyone has every day.

Quick summary: just get started. Think about what you to do and build a two minute entry point to it or reduce the activity itself to two minutes. The chances that you continue after this two minutes are much higher.

Those were my four lessons from Atomic Habits. As I mentioned in the beginning of the article: this book did not fundamentally change my life, but I learned some things from it and it helped me improve in some areas. It was easy and enjoyable to read and I understand now why it is so famous. I would recommend it to anyone with those same words.

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Post featured image by Hester Qiang on Unsplash