how to build habits: for normal humans

highlights from Atomic Habits by James Clear

“When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, ‘disciplined’ people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroice willpower and self-control.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

The highest light, so to speak, from this book is the way it pulls down the fruit of self-control to an accessible level.

Why it’s hard to get past that one thing

Most of us have at least one “thing” that we can’t seem to get past. Lots of people try a thousand diets to lose weight, but keep returning to their old ways. Lots of other people try to start saving more money, but find their account more or less at the same spot year to year.

Us normies can take heart. The issue may have more to do with the giant leaps for mankind that we’ve been trying to make. James Clear suggests that teeny tiny atomic-level steps are the way to move forward.

Clear teaches that the brain has certain mechanisms that cannot be overridden long term, even by the most powerful motivations. So, rather than pumping out vague motivational maxims, he explains how to work with those natural mechanisms to successfully create or deconstruct habits.

The brain works in cycles, as does almost everything in nature. Clear builds on this concept developed by Charles Duhigg:


For most people, no amount of herculean willpower will be able to sustain a reversal of this process.

For example, while there is some benefit in remembering the good things we’re aiming for (ex: being a healthy weight or having a healthy bank account), telling ourselves those important messages will not, in the long run, turn the clock back to erase the response, craving, and cue.

Working at the atomic level

In order to build positive habits, we have to work at the atomic level, figuratively. I loved this story (I paraphrase):

A man wants to start working out every day, but he invariably ends up skipping the gym. So he decides to make the habit he’s forming something smaller and more manageable. For a while, his only goal was to get himself to the gym. As soon as he was there, he turned around and went home. What a crazy waste of time!

But maybe he needed to tackle one obstacle at a time. One difficulty was the hassle of getting ready and driving to the gym. Another obstacle still loomed ahead, which was more influential in keeping him at home. Maybe he was intimidated about working out near others who were already fit and strong.

He needed to break down the obstacles into smaller battles. After he’d made it a habit to get himself to the gym every day, he then told himself he might as well workout since he was there. He’d workout for five minutes and then leave. All he was asking for was five minutes.

It feels a lot easier to say to oneself, “I am going to endure humiliation for five minutes” than it does to say, “I am going to endure humiliation for 45 minutes.” After working out for five minutes, this guy realizes it’s not that humiliating, and he starts to add on time, and so forth.

The Two-Minute Rule

Clear explains the Two-Minute Rule: “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” [PS, this seems to contradict the previous example. Maybe the guy lived two minutes from the gym.]

To put this very briefly, when you want to move toward a goal, break it down till you can do it regularly in two minutes’ time with very little willpower.

A way I personally have implemented this is in serving dinner from the kitchen counter instead of the dining room table. I wanted to eat smaller portions at dinner, and it took too much willpower to avoid heaping up my plate with second helpings when the food was right in front of me.

So I started serving the food from the kitchen, and I have to leave the conversation at the table in order to get more food. I made the bad habit a little harder to carry out.

To make it even easier, I focused on changing the habit of where I put the plates before filling them up with food. Previously, I’d put them on the table in the dining room, naturally. Once I remembered to put the plates on the kitchen counter instead, I was already on my way toward shifting the tide away from second helpings. This is a small, necessary, and very easy step toward my harder goal of eating only one plate of food at dinner, which is another step toward maintaining a healthy weight.

There is so much more that could be shared, about habit stacking, habit tracking, and the Habits Scorecard, etc., etc. I recommend getting a copy for yourself and highlighting it all over the place.

How SMART goals can hurt

Informed by Atomic Habits, by James Clear

Goals can be SMART  

Many of us have been drilled on goal-setting as a motivator to propel us from where we are now to where we want to be.  

Want to lose weight?  Set a goal, break it down and stick with it till you reach it.  How many pounds do you want to lose? Create a calorie deficit of 3500 lbs each week and you’ll lose one pound per week (how many people does that actually work for??)  

What GPA do you want to get this semester?  Identify what grade you need in each class to achieve that. What score do you need on each test?  How, when and where will you study?

Goals help us know where we want to go.  Using the SMART goal strategy or something like it can clarify what it will take to get there.  

Goals can be DEADLY  

But what if you never reach your goal?  What if you aimed to lose 20 lbs but only lost 12?  What if you aimed for straight A’s but got 2 B’s?

Goals can make success too black and white.

“Goals create an ‘either-or’ conflict: either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are a disappointment.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

If you were aiming to lose 20 lbs, but only lost 12, you may feel like a failure.  But you lost 12 lbs! When do you get to celebrate that?!

SMART goals push you to assign numbers to your success – measurable is the “M” in the acronym..  That way you know if you’ve accomplished your goal.  But such an emphasis on reaching a number can nullify the other types of progress you’ve made.  

Consider the silver-medal winning Olympian. She set her sights on becoming a gold-medal winning Olympian.  Is she a failure because she only reached the silver level? She’s still a world-class athlete and has a tremendous degree of discipline and talent.

She can still aim to become a gold-medal Olympian. But that goal must not be linked with her sense of happiness.  Another quote from Clear:

“The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: ‘Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.’”

Disconnect goals from happiness or feelings of success in order to keep them in their proper place.

Goals can lead to a dead end.  

Once you accomplish your goal, what now?

Best case scenario, you achieve your goal in the time you allotted.  Then what? Either you set a new goal and start working towards that, or you slide back into your old ways.  (Which has happened to me a whole bunch of times!)

Goals focus on the destination.  The journey to get there is utilitarian – it’s just a road to get you where you want to be.  So you can finally be happy when you get there. See how this is a dangerous mentality? It’s dangerous to your enjoyment along the way!

How to balance the dangers of goal-setting  

Use goals to set your course.  Use systems to propel yourself in the direction you want to go.  

The makeup of your everyday life is more influential than the shiny goal you see glimmering in the future.

Clear would have you ditch goals and focus only on systems. I think there’s a place for goals – to get inspired, to get a picture of where you want to be.  But define your ultimate success by your lifestyle, your integrity and your enjoyment of everyday life.

Imagine yourself on a road to a fabulous city.  You know you want to live in that city, you’ve always dreamed of it.  You’ve specified the penthouse overlooking the water and the sweet jazz club you’ll frequent.  Your goal is crystal clear.

Who will you be when you get there?  How will the person you’ve become affect your enjoyment of that illustrious goal?  

Think of your goals as that city.  The systems and habits of your everyday life shape the person you will be when you reach them.

Stay tuned for more on establishing long-lasting systems to become the person you want to be when you arrive.

Scanning=fast food for the brain

There’s a time and a place for fast food, at least in my family. The afternoons when church went long and I’m leading a rehearsal in forty-five minutes.  Picking up Dairy Queen means we have a few minutes to enjoy a meal as a family. But if you saw me IRL, you’d know I apply fast food logic far too often.

Anyway. That is not the point of this post.  Scanning articles online for quick info on our given problem or interest has its place.  When I wanted to know how seriously to take the weird spots on my son’s hand, I skimmed an article with nastily juicy pictures to help make a quick decision.  Reading the bold lines reminded me of an over-the-counter treatment I’m already familiar with, which I’ll try before taking him to a dermatologist.

But the lure of scanning can be a little addictive, just like fast food decidedly is.  Thirty seconds of scrolling and I walk away with a (probably inflated) sense of increased understanding about my world.  The addictive part is the high “reward” for low investment. And it has spoiled us somewhat for the slow-cooked, generations-old forms of reading that take time to read and longer to digest.

For example, I got to thinking on this topic after reading David Brooks’ introduction to The Best American Essays, 2012. Super random, I know.  I usually skip introductions because they can contain spoilers without announcing them.  But I thought it may be hard to spoil a collection of essays, so I gave it a shot.

He argues in his little essay-to-introduce-essays that,

“the job of an essayist is to seem like a friend.”  

David Brooks

Reading a full, well-written article could be a chance to listen to a wise, probably old, friend.  But many of us would glance over an article without any bold headlines and label it as TLDR. (Bolding this sentence is very meta, isn’t it?) 

We long for a guru-like Yoda figure in our lives to guide us. But we’re not willing to listen to his pace of speech.  

Brooks also points out that we best remember and process the things that come along with enjoyment.  A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down and whatnot. Could it be that our distaste for reading stems from too many experiences with ill-suited or downright boring assignments in school?  

Two facts:

  • I was assigned Great Expectations in high school.  
  • I understood nothing and only enjoyed the spectacle of carrying around such a thick book.

More facts:

  • I re-read Great Expectations in my late twenties
  • I loved it and followed it by reading 5-6 more Dickens novels
  • I still feel a little overly proud about reading thick books like this

Brooks quotes somebody named Bagehot, whoever that is.

“As far as communicating and establishing your creed are concerned – try a little pleasure.”  

Watler Bagehot (thank you Wikipedia)

The Foodie revolution has brought into style the appreciation of great cooking and new culinary experiences.  I think we need a Readie revolution, or something more catchy, to revel in the glories of great writing. Actually there are plenty of people engaging in such revelry, but it’s not yet quite as hipster as being a Foodie.  So, dear Hipsters, please make reading (full-length, well-written articles) cool again.

For the rest of us, who aim to be a little hipster without seeming like we’re trying:

  • start a ten-minute timer
  • read something by David Brooks or someone he recommends
  • commence thinking about what was said for a while

Ya might walk away feeling like Luke Skywalker.

How to Silence Your Inner Critic

Recap of: “Silence Your Inner Critic” by Jena Pincott, Psychology Today, April 2019

We all hear voices in our heads – or at least one.

How do you talk to yourself when you’ve made a mistake? What goes through your mind when you’re trying something new or risky?

Your Inner Critic…

  • tells you you’re not good enough, insincere, stupid.
  • rises up when you feel insecure or you’ve made a mistake.

“Your Inner Critic attacks and undermines you to protect you from the shame of failure.”  

Jena Pincott
Example - You're interviewing for a new job.  

You idiot!  You totally botched that answer.
They're going to see how unprofessional you really are.  

Your inner critic is designed to protect you, but all too often it keeps you from trying new things or doing your best.

Solution: respond with a Growth-Oriented Voice

“A Growth-Oriented Voice could respond with self-compassion and forgiveness for a mistake, followed by encouragement: ‘What can you learn from this?’”

Jena Pincott

The Growth-Oriented Voice

  • must be cultivated on purpose
  • responds to inner critic with balancing comments
  • sounds like a supportive friend or comforting parent
Back to the job interview -  
You idiot!  You totally botched that answer.
Okay that wasn't so smooth, but it's the content
of your answers that matters the most.  Stay focused and you'll do fine. 

How to cultivate a Growth-Oriented Voice: (the article gave a whole bunch of suggestions, but this was my favorite)

  1. Recognize a time when your inner critic is beating you up inside
  2. Imagine yourself as a compassionate observer of you in this situation – maybe a (good) parent who sees their child suffering
  3. What would you – the good parent – say to yourself – the suffering child?
After the job interview, you're still beating yourself up - 
I totally screwed that up!  I'll never get a job if I can't make it through
an interview without stumbling all over my words.  I looked so stupid.  
The important thing is that you did your best.  Even if you don't get this job,
the experience will help you next time.  But who knows?  Maybe the interviewer
could see past your mistakes and heard the smart answers you gave.  

What does your Inner Critic say to you when you’re feeling insecure or when you’ve made a mistake? How can you respond with a Growth-Oriented Voice?

I’d love to hear your own examples in the comments!