Have you wondered why you can’t seem to create strong, consistent habits? I think about that a lot. I see patients struggle when trying to implement something as small as adding in two minutes of core strengthening. “I didn’t have time,” they say sheepishly. The reality is, they had time, but just didn’t do it… and I have done the same thing on many occasions.
I don’t judge this, I just try to figure out how I can help. Helping patients solve their problems nearly always helps me either solve a problem of my own or I am able to use the solution to help another patient with a similar problem. That’s when Atomic Habits hit my recommended reading list. When you see a book get recommended from several sources, you can’t help but check it out.
Why Make Small Changes?
The entire book will help you understand the impact of making small, consistent changes and how to be successful doing it. This book was filled with examples, but simple truths that made me want to make lots of small changes. “Atomic” refers to how small you can make a change. For example, “…changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.”
So true! What would your body look like if you drank an extra glass of water each day? Did some extra stretching? How small could you make a habit and still have it make an impact over time? How can you stick with it and make a lasting change?
“…if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.” However, by contrast “…if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero.”
This is what I think about when someone has a problem, gets serious about making changes until they feel better… and then abandon all of the good work until they are right back where they started. I also see the patients that do a ton of work to get back to good health and then do some manageable habits that let them keep their momentum. That could be as simple as getting adjusted once a month or stretching after they work out.
This also explains why your posture can get worse year after year. If you’re not actively striving to make a positive change, you are actively going in the wrong direction. You have to consciously make an effort on things you want to improve upon.
So what’s the problem? Why do patients drop off after they’ve done so much work to get better?
Your Goals May Keep You From Your Ultimate Potential
“Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.” This part of the book was huge for me. Let’s say you want to lose weight (an easy example of the power of the habits you’re building). You really get aggressive. You’re running every day and eating so perfectly that the weight just flies off. In just a few months, you hit your goal. Now what?
If you created a good system for yourself, it’s no problem at all. If you’ve created a way to hit your goal that you can’t be consistent about, your bad habits slowly kick back in and you end up back where you started or worse. It’s the system (or lack thereof) that pulls you back.
“This is why many people find themselves reverting to their old habits after accomplishing a goal.” You didn’t change the system, you only changed a few activities for a short period of time.
What if, instead, you concentrated on building habits. The results may take longer, but they will be lasting. You’ll make a change you can live with and keep yourself moving in the right direction. “The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building system is to continue playing the game.” In the example of losing weight, what is a good habit you can build upon? Eating vegetables with every meal? No more sodas? What would make a change that you would barely feel but would make a lasting change when done consistently over time?
Your Identity Can Hold You Back
“Decide the type of person you you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins.” Instead, we very often hear “I’m just not an exercise person.” or “I’ve just never been flexible.” Whether you’ve intended it to happen or not, whether it’s helping you or not, you have made these a part of your identity.
“Should I stretch?” you ask yourself, followed by “I’m not a flexible person.” Try a different approach. Tell yourself you want to be a flexible person and then do what a flexible person would do. From the book: “…I have a friend that lost over 100 pounds by asking herself, ‘What would a healthy person do?’ All day long, she would use this question as a guide.”
What a great example of how to change your identity. When you’re at a restaurant, are you ordering by price? By quantity of food? By what tastes the best? What if you ordered by healthiest item on the menu? How would making that small change affect your health?
Making A Lasting Change
“A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.” I think that’s what we’re really looking for. We want to change. We want to improve. We just don’t want to put in the amount of energy it takes to make that change. If the habit is automatic, if it’s just “what you do,” then it’s no effort at all. All habits begin with this process (from the book):
1. Cue: You hit a stumbling block on a project at work.
2. Craving: You feel stuck and want to relieve frustration
3. Response: You pull out your phone and check social media
4. Reward: You satisfy your craving and feel relieved. Checking social media becomes associated with feeling stalled at work.
This exact sequence has happened to me and has slowed down my progress from writing new blog posts and making new videos. I get distracted. I start working on a list or brainstorming and I get stuck. I grab my phone and my time is wasted. I hadn’t even realized how much I do this until I got to this part of the book.
To create a habit:
1st Law (Cue) Make it Obvious – my phone is within arm’s reach
2nd Law (Craving) – Make it attractive – my phone has tons of cool apps I can look at
3rd Law (Response) Make it easy – so easy!
4th Law (Reward) – make it satisfying – social media works to create dopamine spikes to help you enjoy being on it
Or to reverse a bad habit:
1st Law (Cue) Make it Invisible – put my phone in the other room
2nd Law (Craving) – Make it unattractive – hide social media apps or delete them off my phone entirely
3rd Law (Response) Make it difficult – change all the passwords to my accounts to make it a hassle
4th Law (Reward) – make it unsatisfying – unsubscribe or unfollow my favorite feeds
It won’t take long before these irritants and hassles make it less fun and less enjoyable for me to get on my phone. Habit changed!
Where Should You Start? Which Habits Need To Be Addressed?
“The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy, just right.’
Every habit is neither good nor bad. It’s just a habit. Does it match your goals? That’s when you have to decide to make a change. Eating more food is a great habit if you’re trying to get bigger and build more muscle. Eating more is not a good habit if your goal is to weight less. Same habit, different goal.
Figure out a habit that will help you meet your goal. Make it small enough that it can be done daily in less than a few minutes and be consistent about it. It does matter. It will make a change. The book asks the question, “Does one coin make a person rich?” The simple answer is, “Of course not.”
However, if you started with 1,000 coins and then kept adding to your total each day… there is a point when that one coin tips the scales from not rich to rich. Which coin is it? It’s that last one that finally helps you break through. Does lifting ten pounds make you strong? At some point one more ten-pound lift will make all the difference.
We are our habits. Our health is an accumulation of our habits. You can change your habits and it does matter. I hope you’ll check out this book and see if it can help you wrap your brain around how small that habit can be to make a big difference in your health and your life.