3 Ideas from Atomic Habits by James Clear
Every day people somewhere in the world try to get used to new habits. Be it to exercise more, or to start learning an instrument, or to read more.
Some of these people will succeed, others will not. But all of them will not learn the same lesson: "It is difficult to get used to new habits.
Why is it so difficult to acquire new habits?
There are various reasons for this. Be it laziness, the stress we have every day, or because our smartphones and gadgets steal all our time. It's just that if you want to make a new habit, you have to be prepared for a tough fight.
However, there is one thing you can rely on for sure. If there is a problem somewhere, there is somebody somewhere who is working on a solution for it. The publishing industry is not an exception. And there are certainly thousands of books that aim to teach readers how to create better habits. But one book clearly stands out from the crowd for me:
James Clear’s “Atomic Habits”.
I think that this book is unlike any other, it gives you the mindset you need to maintain new habits over a long period of time. So I would definitely recommend reading it in its entirety if you have the time.
But in this article I would like to introduce you to the 3 main ideas in the book.
1% better every day
The idea originates from the compound interest effect. Most people are familiar with this term from the world of finance. Albert Einstein called the compound interest effect times the eighth world miracle - and also for good reason.
The interest of your interest can, if the period is large enough, yield enormous returns. Thanks to compound interest, for example, if you invest $100 a month at 7% interest, you can earn $122,000 in 30 years. Even though you have only invested $36,000 in that time.
Exactly this effect also plays a huge role in the formation of abilities and habits. If you choose any skill and try to get even one percent better every day, you will learn faster and faster and get better over time. This is like a snowball rolling down a slope. In the beginning it only has to be hand-sized, but the further and faster it rolls, the more momentum it gets and the bigger it gets.
Atomic Habits illustrates this with a graph (just like in the financial industry). This graph shows the effects of small positive and negative habits. At first, the effects are tiny - but they get bigger and bigger over time.
Even if it sounds good in theory, I think we all know how hard it is to start a new habit and stick with it.
Big, dramatic changes, yet overwhelming and unsustainable they may be, are exciting because they seem to move us forward very quickly. And our brains love really short-term, exciting rewards. And in the meantime, the much more sensible 1% change just doesn't get us much (at least in the short term).
For example, say you want to learn to play the piano and start on January 1st. Then, according to Clears model, you will be exactly 37% better on January 31.
Of course this is progress but it's not a huge progress and for the outsider listener it probably still doesn't sound like music.
However, after six months you are six times better than when you started. This is a huge progress, but: We are not finished yet. Because of the compound interest effect you are 37 times better at playing the piano at the end of the year than you were at the beginning.
So in the first 6 months you will be 6 times better than when you started. But in the next 6 months you will hit it another 31 times. How crazy is that?!
Of course, we can't measure the daily one percent improvement, but the concept still works.
Clear writes in his book:
"These small improvements or declines compound and suddenly you find a very big gap between the people who make slighly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don’t.”
As I mentioned before, consistency is easier to plan than to implement in the long run. And most New Years Resolutions don't even make it to February.
Just like that, most people don't have the discipline to invest for 30 years, so they never get to enjoy these insane returns.
Partly it is simply because of the difficulty, the living conditions or simply because in the meantime one does not manage to stick to simple changes or habits. But it also has a lot to do with how we see ourselves.
Identity Habit Harmony
So if we want to change in the long run, this has to become our identity. We have to get a feeling for our Habit Harmony.
If you imagine that you're on your run and it's extremely hot, or extremely cold, or it's raining cats and dogs and you still have half a mile to run. Then the thought just comes to you to stop. At that exact moment you have to ask yourself: Who am I? If you see yourself as a runner, then it's no big deal. It's just what you do. Hard last miles are just part of running, period.
But as someone who likes to sit at home and watch TV instead of running around outside, and only does it to get in shape a little bit, you might think: "Why am I doing this? I am not a runner". And one day you'll just give up.
This is one of the most common reasons why people give up new habits. They simply do not create this harmony between themselves and their habits. And that is one of the bigger ideas in this book. You have to link your identity to the habit. If you want to do more sports - see yourself as an SPortler. If you want to learn to play piano or guitar - see yourself as a musician.
People do a lot to not destroy their own image of themselves. This is part of the consistency principle. Just try to discuss with someone about something that is very important to that person. Then you will realize what we do to keep our self-image - even if it is to our disadvantage.
Therefore Clear suggests that we should become aware of who we really are when we try to change our lives. In his book he says:
“Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity. What you do is an indication of the type of person you believe that you are - either consciously or nonconsciously.”
But there is also a kind of feedback loop. Because as he writes a little later:
“Whatever your identity is right now, you only believe it because you have proof of it.”
In short: Long-term habitual changes are easier if you change - or at least adapt - your identity.
For example, if you ever want to run a 5K - take some time to think about who would do that. Namely runners or athletes, people who do it automatically. And if you then ask yourself what a runner would do in such a situation - then you become one.
If you like this new identity, you will do everything to defend it. The longer you fight to defend your new identity - the stronger it becomes. At the same time, the harder it becomes to return to your old identity.
Let's assume you want to learn or deepen your knowledge of writing articles or short stories. Then you should write something as often as possible. But if you see it as a hobby, you will always put it aside when something important in your daily routine comes up. And that's exactly right: hobbies have to give way for the important things.
But if you see yourself as a writer, or if being a writer is simply part of your personality, then writing also takes on a much more important role in your life. This means that you are less likely to put it aside when something important pops up in yours. So you take your time for writing because that's what a writer would do.
Of course, the process of taking on a new identity is anything but easy. In the beginning you can still feel the energy and motivation because it is just something new. But these two things disappear just as fast as they came. When that happens you have to deal with your failure.
And let's not kid ourselves: This is exactly what will happen. The path of change is never easy. Learning to deal with this failure is the third big idea of the book:
Democracy of the self
In an election it never happens that one of the candidates gets 100% of the votes (let's take North Korea out of the equation). There will always be votes for both sides. If the number of people who vote is big enough, it doesn't matter if one side is much better than the other. There will always be the one who wants to see the world burn.
But that is also the wonderful thing about democracy and therefore not bad at all. Here in his book he writes that every action you take means a vote for the person you are trying to become. A single vote doesn't matter much in this case, but the more it becomes the more evidence you have of your new identity.
Maybe you voted for your lazy identity today because you didn't go running or didn't practice writing. But the good thing is that tomorrow is a new day and you have a new voice to vote for your new identity.
If you keep this concept in mind you just have to make sure that you give more positive votes than negative votes. It's not bad to fail once, but failure must never become a habit in itself.
Clear also calls this "the second mistake". So never try to make the same mistake twice. Not going to the gym once is not so bad. But don't allow yourself to get used to postponing your workout.
What is important to say here is that there is a certain correlation between Identity Habit Harmony and Democracy of the self. If an identity doesn't get enough votes, then you may not even know that this identity is for you.
I was never particularly good at math. But actually I like numbers because I am a pretty rational guy. The problem at school was that I didn't feel like putting work into learning. I was a classic C student and was happy with it because it gave me more time for other things.
That's why I always assumed that math is just not for me or that I'm just not the math type. And exactly this consideration is wrong. If I would have invested more time in math, I would have been able to achieve more there. The hard work was just missing. So please never assume that you can't do something or that you are not the type of person for it.
Just work on it and collect votes for your mathematician identity.
I hope this little glimpse into the book "Atomic Habits" by James Clear helped you to rethink your habits a bit. I am sure you will get it right the next time you want to learn a new positive habit.