My practice of atomic habits

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. — Annie Dillard

Aristotle once proclaimed, “We are what we repeatedly do.” He knew our habits are highly revealing of who we are and what we value. Habits are the activities, mindsets, and surroundings we consistently engage in. Do you regularly put aside a part of your income for savings or investment? You’re a frugal person. Do you reach out to others, check in, or show up to their events to support them? You’re a good friend. At first glance, these repetitious tasks may appear insignificant, but in concert, they shape the entirety of our lives.

These repetitious tasks may appear insignificant, but in concert, they shape the entirety of our lives.

I believe most people have the intention of forming good habits and relinquishing bad ones, but the process for how we do that can often seem like a black box. Sure we want to be healthy, but how? It’s one thing to eat vegetables for a single meal, but what about for 50% of your meals? Consistently? For 3 months?

In an effort to better understand how to form good habits, I did what any rational, millennial would do: I Googled it.

Luckily for me, the Google gods saw my dilemma and offered a promising solution: Atomic Habits by James Clear. The premise is quite simple: small, tactical steps we can take for creating better, longterm habits. Throughout this book, Clear provides my favorite kind of advice: easy to grasp steps backed by antidotes and scientific research.

I’ll walk through a few of Clear’s tactics I’ve started to leverage, but if you want to see my newly revised schedule for my personal habits, you can skip ahead and view it here.

Implementation Intention:

The problem with many desires is that they often float above ground level, “I want to be healthy,” or “I want to be more organized,” or “I want to have influence.” These are noble pursuits, but they’re unlikely to happen without an implementation intention. An implementation intention is a personal schedule for when and where you will do something. It makes our desired outcomes more actionable.

One of my ongoing desires is to acquire new knowledge about my industry and different leadership principles. I find that my brain is clearest and most primed for new information about 15 minutes into the morning (just enough time for the caffeine to take effect). So every day, I leverage the “Pomodoro Technique,” and dedicate 25 minutes at 6:00 a.m. to reading a tech, design, or leadership focused book. Currently I’m reading Algorithms to live by by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths and Typographie by Otl Aicher.

Habit Stacking:

Remember the law of inertia? An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. As it turns out, our habits can benefit significantly from this forward momentum. And there’s even a name for it: Habit Stacking. Habit Stacking is a technique that bundles multiple habits together and allows you to carry them out sequentially, one after the other. Think of it like the domino effect.

One of my desired outcomes this year was to express more gratitude and maintain a cleaner house. I wondered if there were some places in my current schedule that I could integrate this without being too disruptive. I didn’t have to look far to realize my routine of making coffee provided some optimal habit stacking moments.

Every morning I like to make a ChemEx coffee pour over ( yes I’m that person ). The pour over is typically a 5 minute process, which turns out to be a perfect amount of time for some habit stacking:

  • Wake up at 5:45 am ( my implementation intention )
  • Go to kitchen and turn kettle on for hot water.
  • While hot water heats up, put dishes away.
  • After water finishes heating, start pour over.
  • While making coffee, express gratitude for 5 things and / or people.
  • While pour over finishes, clean my coffee station.
  • Pour a cup of coffee and begin reading session

This list may seem trivial. Indeed, it’s so simple that it would be easy to dismiss. But it works! Precisely because it has been simplified and can be easily integrated. As an aside, I suggest stacking habits that are related or accomplished in the same environment ( hence making coffee and putting dishes away ).

Environmental Preparation:

One of the fundamental questions for enforcing good habits is, “what do I need to accomplish this habit?” Do you want to workout regularly? Then you might need equipment, instructional videos, or access to a gym. Do you want to get better at playing an instrument? Then you need a time to practice and perhaps a few songs or scales to learn. But simply the recognition of what we need is not enough. We need to prepare.

Environmental preparation is the design of ones’ environment for performing specific tasks. It’s the reduction of friction and the increase of material visibility for the easiest route to habit completion. I imagine we all have habits we naturally gravitate towards, and others that we wish to implement, but are major points of friction. For me, that’s skin care. I’ve had on-going acne more or less since I was a teenager. I’ve had seasons of attempting to rid it once and for all, but my efforts were half-hearted. I hated the regiment. Recently, I picked my regiment back up, and here’s what I do now. The night before, I:

  • Set out my razor and charge it.
  • Set out all of my skin care products

Really? That’s it? I know, there should be more magic, and I apologize for the anticlimactic reveal. But honestly, environmental preparation is as easy as deciding what you need and then giving it visibility and organization.

Environmental preparation is as easy as deciding what you need and then giving it visibility and organization.

Now, I spend 10 to 15 minutes every evening preparing my environment for the following morning. It looks like this:

  • Clean and prepare ChemEx with coffee beans
  • Fill kettle with water
  • Set out specific vitamins and pills
  • Set out my razor and charge it
  • Set out all of my skin care products
  • Set out the book I’ll be reading
  • Narrow down browser tabs on computer
  • Clean my work desk

These are simple, simple adjustments. But they empower me to accomplish my habits with greater ease.

Start with Identity

One of the ideas James Clear drives in Atomic Habits is to start with what type of person you want to be. Time is a limited resource, and it should be devoted to fashioning you into the person you desire to be. For me, at this juncture in life, I want to be healthy, organized, knowledgable about my industry, a servant-leader, and a caring friend. My habits then radiate from who I want to be. In conclusion, I highly recommend Atomic Habits, as Clear offers a wealth of practical ways to implement habits, keep them consistent, and think about habit-shaping.