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Change your life, one habit at a time

“Success is the product of daily habits"


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Sheryl Garratt

4 months ago | 8 min read
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Tiny tweaks make a big difference, compounded over time. And Atomic Habits will help.

Success is the product of daily habits.

You are your habits.

“Success is the product of daily habits,” writes James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, “not once in-a-lifetime transformations.” It’s a message that has resonated: this was Amazon’s best-selling book last year, globally.

I’ve explained before why goals don’t always work, and why it’s more effective to focus on your daily and weekly behaviour than the desired result. And if you want to change some of your habits or add new ones, this book is the manual you need.

James is Clear by name and by nature, offering sound scientific research and examples for all of his points, but also a concise, practical book free of padding and waffle.

He’s created a manual for your operating system, showing you how to reprogram the code that’s running your daily life. And he convincingly shows how making small changes to your daily habits can change your long-term results dramatically.

“Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits,” he explains. “Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits.

Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.”

Clear suggests making tiny, incremental 1% improvements. The effects of this are not immediate. Habits are compounded over time. At first, the lack of progress might even seem frustrating.

But repeated regularly, small changes like drinking more water, reading, drawing or learning to play an instrument for 30 minutes, making small savings or doing ten push-ups every day will pay huge dividends.

So how do we change?

It starts with identity. Instead of focussing on outcomes, on what you want, think about who you want to become.

You’re not trying to run a marathon, you’re trying to become a runner. You’re not aiming to read 30 books a year, you’re aiming to become a reader. You’re less focussed on passing your grade 6 piano, more on becoming a musician.

Change your identity, and it’s easier to change your behaviour.

Keep telling yourself that you’re not sporty/that you’re a slow reader/you have sausage fingers that will never be fluid on a keyboard, and you’ll resist doing the thing you want to do, because deep down you believe that’s not who you are.

So start by deciding who you want to be. Then take small regular actions towards that. Each time you sit and write, you are a writer.

When you pick up a pencil and draw, you’re an artist. Every time you put on your running shoes and move, you’re closer to becoming a runner. Do your verbs, and the nouns take care of themselves.

Change what you do every day, and you’ll eventually reach your big goals and milestones. Because it’s who you are, now. And you prove that to yourself every day with your actions, your habits and routines.

My dog-eared copy of Atomic Habits, with bookmarks: a sure sign of a useful book

Four steps to build better habits

1. Make it obvious

Change starts with awareness. So start by becoming aware of your current habits.

Write down everything you do, every day: morning routines, bedtime routines, all those little habitual things that you’ve been doing an autopilot for so long that you’ve long since noticed you even do them.

Grade each one as positive, negative or neutral, without judgement or blame. Just get curious about how you live your daily life.

Plan it. Now think of a new habit you want to introduce, and write it down using the following formula:

“During the next week, I will [BEHAVIOUR] on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”

Being specific takes away the energy of decision-making, and makes it much easier to do.

For years, I had a goal of meditating regularly, for instance. But it only became a habit after I decided to do it first thing in the morning, immediately after brushing my teeth.

Before using my iPad for anything else, I chose to turn on the meditation app and sit for at least six minutes, observing my breath. It took a few weeks to really cement this into my routine. But now the whole morning feels wrong if I don’t do it.

Stack it. This also uses the idea of habit-stacking: introducing a new behaviour (meditation) after one I already do habitually (brushing my teeth).

Slowly, habit by habit, I’ve stacked lots of new behaviours into my morning routine over the past two years: reading, meditation, stretching, push-ups, a gratitude practice, two large glasses of water and an hour of writing all between my first and second coffee of the day, and before breakfast.

Set your surroundings. The final step is setting your environment up to encourage success. Have your gym bag packed by the door in the morning if that will help you work out; keep water bottles and drinking glasses in strategic spots if you want to drink more.

Writing at 8am was made so much easier by my husband offering to bring a coffee for me to drink at my desk, for instance.

Meditation got easier when I start leaving my iPad in my meditation spot the night before, so I couldn’t start scrolling in bed as soon as I woke.

The opposite is also true. To discourage a bad habit, make it invisible or put barriers in the way, however small.

Don’t sleep with your phone in the room if the first thing you do on waking is check emails and social media (buy an alarm clock if needs be).

Empty your cupboards of junk food if you want to stop snacking. Unplug your TV or games console when you’ve finished using it, and put the remote/controller in a drawer.

2. Make it attractive

We’re more likely to do something if we enjoy it. So we’re more likely to do something we need to do if we start connecting it with something we want to do.

Again, Clear offers a simple formula:

  1. After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED].
  2. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].

As an example, I go for a walk with my husband after dinner almost every night in the summer. We enjoy the exercise, the air, and the chance to reconnect after our working day.

All of that is true in winter, too, but it’s cold and dark outside and it’s much harder to get motivated. Especially if the TV is on, or we’ve settled on the sofa. So we’ve stopped doing any of that until after we’ve been outside.

  1. After dinner, we will go for a walk.
  2. After the walk, we will turn on the TV or music and settle on the sofa.

I still don’t look forward to walking on a cold, wet evening. But I enjoy the energy it gives me, and the joy of pulling on a blanket afterwards, getting cosy and knowing I’m in for the night. I’ve learned to associate the walk with those positive feelings.

Find your tribe. There’s a second factor here, too: social pressure. We imitate the people around us. The walking is easier because we do it together.

We are tribal animals, and we follow the people who are closest to us, the behaviours of the majority — and the actions of the powerful (the famous, the influential).

So surround yourself with people who already do the thing you want to do. If you want to make more art, hang out with other artists, and study the lives, habits and routines great artists.

The majority might still believe that artists can’t make money, that they’re doomed to a life of suffering. But you’ll have knowledge and support to help you resist that belief.

3. Make it easy

All actions get easier, the more you do them. And when it comes to creative work, it’s better to focus on quantity, not quality. We often spend far too long planning, preparing, researching when we’d learn more and improve far faster by actually doing.

“If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection,” says Clear. “You don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it. You need to get your reps in.”

So remove as much friction as possible with habits and behaviours you want to do more of, and add obstacles to the ones you want to do less of. Creative work is rarely easy, but it gets easier the more you do it. So let go of judgement, and perfectionism. Start before you’re ready.

Start small. Meditating for an hour is daunting. Two minutes, less so. Reading War And Peace feels overwhelming.

Reading a page a night feels much more do-able. If speaking fluent French feels too difficult, how about learning one new word a day?

Clear suggests starting a new habit with something you can do in just two minutes, then working up gradually to higher levels of difficulty. The important thing is to begin, to give yourself some easy wins and start cementing it into your routine.

But also think big. He also suggests looking for one-time actions that solve problems and help make good habits easier.

Buying a better mattress or blackout blinds might help your sleep habits, for instance. Turning off alerts, deleting games and making your phone screen black-and-white instead of colour makes it a lot less enticing.

Automate as much as possible. Automating certain tasks can also eliminate friction. It’s easier to save if a set amount automatically goes into a pension or savings account on payday. You’ll eat more vegetables if you get a weekly organic box delivery. And when it comes to repetitive work tasks on my computer, Zapier has changed my life.

4. Make it satisfying

Practicing good habits is all about rewarding your future self. Your body is a 3D printout of decisions you made six months ago.

Your body of work is a result of small actions we decided to take daily: making art, practicing our craft or our instrument, sitting down to write, design, create.

And we know this. Yet in the moment, we’ll always opt for immediate gratification over long-term reward. So build in rewards immediately for your new habits.

Save it. Years ago, my mum gave up smoking by planning a big family holiday and each week transferring the money she’d saved on cigarettes into a separate account to pay for it. Could you do the same with an unhealthy habit?

Track it. Using a habit tracker can be surprisingly effective, too. There’s something ridiculously satisfying about ticking a box on an app, putting an X on a wall calendar, keeping a daily word count of your writing or a workout journal for your gym visits.

Seeing your uninterrupted streak grow can be addictive, but it can also be discouraging when you do miss a day.

Clear suggests a simple rule for recovery: never miss twice. Rather than give up, you simply accept that you’re human and life gets in the way for all of us sometimes. Then you pick up again the day after.

Get accountability. It really helps to have someone who cares that you’ve done what you’ve committed to do. Someone who gets it, who’s in your corner and cheering you along. This can be a friend, a workmate, a trainer, a coach.

It can also be painful to have to admit that you haven’t done the thing you wanted to do. I’m in a monthly mastermind group, and a coach of my own. Sometimes, I’ll finish commitments I’d made the night before our meetings: just checking in is enough motivation to get the thing done.

Now what will you change?

So that’s the basics of Atomic Habits, and of creating habits and routines that serve you. There’s more useful detail in the book, and it’s well worth reading.

We are made up of the millions of tiny actions we take in our daily lives — often without even consciously knowing we’re doing them.

Change your habits, change your life.

Sheryl Garratt is a writer, and a coach helping experienced creatives of all kinds get the success they want, making work they truly love. If you’re ready to grow your creative business, I have a FREE 10-day course giving you 10 steps to success — with less stress. Sign up for it here.

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Sheryl Garratt

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The Creative Life: Coaching for creatives

Sheryl Garratt is a coach helping experienced creatives get the success they want, making work they love. Find her at www.thecreativelife.net


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