Making tiny, “atomic” changes can help build good habits: James Clear

March 9, 2023

We often hear about the benefits of breaking big projects into more achievable, tiny steps.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear applies that same sort of thinking to the age-old challenge of changing our bad habits for good ones.

“Too often,” he writes, “we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. Whether it is losing weight, building a business, writing a book, winning a championship or achieving any other goal, we put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.”

Instead, he writes, we should focus on making small improvements. “Improving by one per cent isn’t particularly notable — sometimes it isn’t even noticeable — but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run,” he notes. “The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding.”

But, he says, you have to stick with your one per cent change plan. “In order to make a meaningful difference, habits need to persist long enough to break through” what he calls the Plateau of Latent Potential. Then, the hard work you’ve put in will begin to be noticed by others as an overnight success, he adds.

He also says our focus should be less on goals, but on the system we need to reach them. A good way to do this is to change our thinking. “The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader,” or a musician, or a runner, Clear notes. “The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become,” he explains.

He breaks down what he calls “the habit loop” by noting that every habit consists of a cue, a craving, a response, and a reward. An example would be walking into a dark room and flipping of the light switch, he explains. We aren’t even aware of such habits, and becoming aware is key to changing them, he notes.

The book shows how to develop a Habits Scorecard — an outline of all the things you do each day, your habitual behaviour. Rate all your habits as good, bad, or neutral, and you will have “begun to notice what is going on” with them, he suggests.

To develop a good habit, Clear explains, you need to make it obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying. To lose a bad habit, make it invisible, unattractive, difficult and unsatisfying.

A later chapter talks about “stacking” good habits — “when I see a set of stairs, I will take them instead of using the elevator,” or “when I serve myself a meal, I will always put veggies on my plate first.” Making a habit more obvious can be achieved by placing your guitar in the middle of the living room if you want to play more often, or keeping a stack of stationery on your desk so you remember to send more thank-yous, the book notes.

On the bad habit side, “if you’re watching too much TV, move the TV out of the bedroom,” or to cut back on video games, “unplug the console and put it in a closet after use.”

Reframing hard-to-do habits helps you want to do them more, Clear writes.

“Many people associate exercise with being a challenging task that drains energy and wears you down. You can just as easily view it as a way to develop skills and build you up. Instead of telling yourself `I need to go run in the morning,’ say `it’s time to build endurance and get fast.’”

Later chapters show how to shape your habits in easier stages, taking five specific phases if you want to become an early riser, or a vegan, or to start exercising.

This entertaining book concludes with a recap of the principles for changing habits or setting new goals — “the secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It’s remarkable what you can build if you just don’t stop…. Small habits don’t add up. They compound. That’s the power of atomic habits. Tiny changes. Remarkable results.”

This is a great read, very inspiring, and highly recommended.

If you haven’t started saving for retirement, starting with a small first step may be a good way to get rolling. The Saskatchewan Pension Plan is open to any Canadian with registered retirement savings plan room, and you can contribute any amount you want up to $7,200 per year. So you could start small, say $25 a month, and then ramp it up over time. This automatic approach will make retirement saving an easy habit to adopt. Check out SPP today!

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Written by Martin Biefer

Martin Biefer is Senior Pension Writer at Avery & Kerr Communications in Nepean, Ontario. A veteran reporter, editor and pension communicator, he’s now a freelancer. Interests include golf, line dancing and classic rock, and playing guitar. Got a story idea? Let Martin know via LinkedIn.

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