James Clear’s Self-Aware Approach to Freedom and Progress in Atomic Habits
James Clear is all about habit. Using the smallest of actions to build a life that is successful. Where most see habits as rules that they have to follow and constraints on life, James Clear sees them as the way to access freedom in life.
Habits do not restrict freedom, they create it… If you’re always being forced to make decisions about simple tasks — when should I work out, where do I go to write, when do I pay the bills — then you have less time for freedom… Your mind is free to focus on new challenges and master the next set of problems.
Habits automate life, so we can go through the mundane on autopilot, without worrying about messing up. Once we have the day to day locked down, we free up mental space to focus on whatever we want. As we begin to make improvements and automate, new problems, ideas and challenges will present themselves to us. Allowing us to learn more about ourselves and make progress we never thought we could.
The first step to changing bad habits is to be on the lookout for them.
A crucial part of habit formation is self-awareness. First, self-awareness as to the type of person that we want to become. Secondly, self-awareness of what actions we are taking that are limiting our success.
It is important that we have a clear idea of the life we want to live, what are our goals and ambitions and how would we need to act to live that life. Once we have this clarity and understanding in place we can then take stock of our life. In which areas are we moving towards that life and in which areas are we holding ourselves back. By identifying problem areas we can become more conscious of them and in the future have a better chance of catching ourselves and stopping the habit.
The mere act of tracking a behaviour can spark the urge to change it.
Once the bad habits have been identified, the next step is to track them. We often don’t realise how much we are doing something as we have done it for so long that it operates below our level of consciousness. Tracking the action makes it more salient and also makes us aware of how bad it has become.
Most of us are great at making sure that our meals are healthy-ish and that we don’t overeat, but we are totally blind to the amount of snacking that we do. It’s so easy to take a little bit every time you pass the pack of chocolate or eat only because you are bored. While each action is small in isolation, it builds up. However, tracking this overtime will show how much of an impact it is having and can be motivation to rectify that behaviour.
Improvement is not just about learning habits, it’s also about fine-tuning them. Reflection and review ensures that you spend your time on the right things and make course corrections whenever necessary.
Self-awareness doesn’t end once we have identified and addressed the behaviour we want to change. We need to continue to monitor the habits that we are developing as time goes on. We should refer back to the ideal life that we had drawn up. Are these habits taking me to where I want to go? Has my ideal life changed? Being aware of how you are changing and progressing is very important and will make sure that you stay on the right track. Moving towards the life that you want to lead.
Maybe there are people who can achieve incredible success overnight. I don’t know any of them… The only way I made progress — the only choice I had — was to start small.
When we see the success of others we often think that there was one moment where everything clicked and suddenly they became successful. What we don’t see is all the hard work and preparation that went on behind the scenes. The preparation meant that when the opportunity presented itself, they were ready to succeed.
Success and failure are the product of small actions. It is the actions which we take everyday which will determine which path our lives will follow. Start with small steps, actions that will compound overtime. At the level of the day, it may not seem like you have achieved much. But, when you look back on a year of those days, you will be amazed at how much you have achieved. Writing less than 250 words a day will mean that you have written the first draft of a book in a year (average word count for a 300 page book at 90,000 words). When a task is broken down like that it won’t seem so daunting.
You don’t need to be perfect… Your goal is to simply win the majority of the time.
By focusing on the small actions, it also means that you don’t need to be perfect. You just need to make the right choices the majority of the time. Resting everything on this one mythical action that will change everything, makes no sense and creates unnecessary pressure. No one can be perfect 100% of the time and you don’t have to either. James Clear uses a rule of “never miss twice.” He may make mistakes sometimes, but he makes sure that he doesn’t make the same mistake twice in a row. If he misses a workout he makes sure he doesn’t miss the next one. Or, if he has an unhealthy meal, he makes sure the next one is healthy. It’s fine to slip up, but recognise when you do and make sure it doesn’t turn into a habit.
Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. You’ll rise together.
We’ve all heard about redesigning our environment so that it lends itself to our goals. Leaving your guitar in the middle of the room so it’s easy to start practising, for example. A crucial part of our environment that we often overlook is the people we surround ourselves with. Humans are social creatures and we need human interaction. We need people to discuss our ideas, to spend our time and to share our experiences with. It is the circle we move in who will determine what these ideas and experiences are. If all our friends do in their free time is go to a bar and get drunk, this is most likely what we will also fall into. We need to make sure that once we know who we want to be, we design our life around that. Find clubs that support our interests and there we’ll find a ready-made group of people to help achieve that goal. A community for anything can be found online, use it to improve yourself, not in a way that will hinder progress.
All quotes are from Atomic Habits, James Clear