What I changed after reading Atomic Habits

I’m the kind of person who goes all-in whenever I do something. I’ve worked most of my life in projects, where I clean the slate of everything else and this one project takes over my life until it’s finished. 

That’s the nature of creating and producing something for the stage. At one point, all preparations come together and you have this intense sprint towards the finish line of the premiere.

This in turn has become an ingrained part of my character. I love working in longer, intense, coherent, and focused time-frames.

When I first tried the pomodoro technique (you know, the one that says to work for 25 minutes and take a break for 5) I got so annoyed because the timer interrupted me too soon! My ideal pomodoro interval would be something like 45 minutes to 1 hour. If I have a work day completely uninterrupted by meetings and all on my own schedule, I’d naturally take a break every 1-1,5 hours.

The frustration of bite-sized progress

This has a side effect of me feeling dissatisified if I don’t get to do my deep immersion. In July, I gave myself the challenge of reading for at least 20 minutes per day for 30 days. Some days those 20 minutes was all I was able to do. 

I succeeded in the challenge, but it also taught me something about myself. Because I found reading for only 20 minutes per day extremely frustrating.

I wanted to be able to sit down for a whole afternoon and completely immerse myself in the book. But I couldn’t do that every day. Instead I had to settle with the strategy of “little and often”. And that bugged me.

I felt like I never had time to get into it. I had to spend time to re-orient myself first, in order to pick things up from where I left them. And just when I started to get in the flow, I was interrupted and had to stop. 

It felt like I was making progress at a snail’s pace. To see any progress at all I’d have to count the pages of where I was compared to yesterday. I was only reading to tick a box that said I did it. The actual enjoyment of reading had completely disappeared.

I have the same issue when it comes to writing. I’ve seen advice to create a writing habit of writing for 30 minutes per day. That’s a horrible prospect for me.

It’s just long enough time to tickle your writing muscles a little bit so you think you’ll get somewhere. But it’s so short that you won’t have time to make any substantial progress, and you will get interrupted right in the middle of it. 

Like a child whose playtime is interrupted by the adult “That’s it, time to go to bed now”. It’s simply something that brings more frustration than reward for me.

If I don’t have enough time to dedicate, I’d rather skip it. I’m all or nothing.

Enter Atomic Habits.

Sometimes bite-sized is the best way to go

Atomic Habits by James Clear is a whole book dedicated to singing the virtues of “little and often”. This was one of the books I read during July.

It opened my eyes towards all the things that require this approach. It reminded me of having the long term patience to do a little of something, every day, until it reaches a tipping point where the results start to roll in.

Some things just take a longer timeframe before you see any effect. And you have to keep doing it for the whole time while you still feel like nothing is happening.

Now I knew all of this, but somehow shoved it to the back of my mind while focusing on more immediate and tangible results. It’s more fun to go in to the proverbial cave, work intensely for a while, and emerge with something afterwards. The reward is immediate.

And yet my whole training and schooling background has been nothing but the tiny incremental steady pace of repeating the same thing over and over again. I did 9 years of professional ballet school. I know all about the discipline and dedication over a long time frame that is required for reaching mastery. Perhaps that’s exactly why I appreciate the immediate rewards of short intense sprints so much today?

Atomic Habits makes the case for choosing – and making as automated as possible – small every day habits that will move you towards a better future. Inch by inch, every day.

Like the drop of water that hollows out the stone . In English, there’s the saying of “the last straw that broke the camel’s back” but it refers to negative circumstances. Here, we are talking about positive things that accumulate and compound, until suddenly there’s a breakthrough – or at least the results start to become visible.

Lessons for the hungry and impatient mind

What I got out of the book was a reminder for cultivating deliberateness, and patience.

I have been so impatient about results that I had neglected many opportunities to do small everyday actions that would generate a positive impact when done long term.

At the same time I was frustrated that I didn’t have enough three-hour blocks in my day to dedicate to all the things I found interesting and wanted to do deep dives on. My all or nothing attitude put me in a place where I repeatedly ended up with nothing at all. 

I didn’t have any longer stretches. But I did have a lot of inches here and there that I could use.

Since I’m already doing things habitually every day, why not make sure that these habits will be in line where I want to go? So every part of me is going in the same direction, instead of some habits actively working against things I have stated that I want?

I decided to do a habit overhaul. Like going all in on making tiny changes.

Creating an environment for long term support

Just like the physical environment are what supports and enables my habits, so are my habits the mental environment that supports and enables my focused project work and immersions.

My “going into the cave” projects will be better off when my inch by inch nudges also go in the same or at least a supportive direction.

The most obvious contender for the small and often approach is physical habits regarding the body. This was also something I knew in my head, but had not really incorporated in my life.

Since I’ve started to work at a desk and in front of a computer most of the time, my posture have deteriorated. I’ve gotten more and more towards what’s called Upper Crossed Syndrome. The hunchback of the modern office worker.

As I’ve written about before, one trait of the fascia (the connective tissue in the body) is that it has a replacement rate of about three to six months. It changes slowly.

So if I want to make lasting physical changes, I will need to do those movements consistently for months before seeing any progress.

When it comes to my posture, there are simple stretches do be done. But they need to be done little and often. Thus it’s a great fit for turning into a habit.

Making a habit overhaul

This is how I made my complete habit overhaul

  • I wrote down all the small things I’d like to do on a daily and weekly basis.
  • I wrote down my current routines that I do today (this is also part of an exercise in the book).
  • I looked for all the places where I could insert stuff or replace my old routines with new ones.
  • I wrote my new routines down like a checklist and decided keep them front and centre while establishing my new habits.

For the posture, I used the habit stacking principle of adding it to something I already do. When I’ve gone to the bathroom -> Stretch out the chest muscles.

This means I automatically will do it several times per day. It doesn’t have to be intense stretching either. Just go to my maximum range of motion and gently try to increase it in small, slow and soft pulses. It takes 15 seconds, max.

The mere act of doing this over and over again, for months on end, will have a permanent result on the physical structure of the body. Or, well, as permanent as it gets. If I want to keep it, I have to keep doing it. Nothing is permanent with the body.

Establishing and maintaining my new routines as a habit

Now habits don’t just become habitual because I tell myself I want them to. Turning new things into a habit means repetition, and during that process I have to remind myself to do them. Over and over again.

I created a habit tracker to support me, a paper with little boxes for the new things I want to establish as habits. I then have checkpoints during the day where I check things off – or get reminded to do them if I haven’t yet. That’s when I sit down to work in the morning, get back after lunch, and as part of my evening routine before bed.

This is also something I have resisted in the past. To track things I did with little check marks and tick boxes. I haven’t found it rewarding enough to keep doing it.

But now I have a deeper motivation for it, a more long term vision and purpose. It’s more meaningful to me this time around. And, I guess, part of it is exactly because I did decide to go all-in on this project.

Making it rewarding

In order to keep my motivation up while I inch my way towards my goals I have set up rewards for me along the way. I have decided to keep tracking my habits for the full 20 weeks until Christmas, and for each 4 weeks that I’ve tracked and successfully completed the habits of I will give myself a reward.

Successful completion in this case does not mean perfection. I missed a few things already in my first week and I realised the futility of going for a perfect streak for 20 weeks in a row. 

(Did I really think I could pull of being perfect? Well apparently I did, subconsciously. I only realised I had that expectation because I failed it – and pretty soon too. I wonder if I’ll ever recover from my perfectionism, haha)

But my goal is to build my habits, not to have a spotless record. If I check off at least 97% of my targets, I count that as a success. That’s an A+ by American standards. Even anything above 90% is the equivalent of an A, so by going for the A grade I still have some wiggle room while trying to remember everything and getting it into the system.

The rewards this time involve buying something that is just for me and that I want to get but I don’t really need. I usually don’t give myself things unless I can motivate them by necessity. So allowing myself to purchase something, just on the grounds of it making me happy, feels very much like a treat and reward.

This is also a lesson taken from the book. The brain wants an immediate reward. Since I don’t find it intrinsically rewarding to move in tiny itsy bitsy increments, I need to create something that makes me keep it up anyway.

At least for a long enough while to give everything a chance to become an ingrained habit. Because true success is when I no longer need my checklists and tracker sheets to prompt me, and I automatically will do stuff that benefit me in the long run.

So what are these tiny habits you might wonder? As I said, every thing is in itself not too big, special, or amazing. Here are some samples:

  • I want to drink enough water so I added habits of keeping a water bottle by my desk and refilling it throughout the day.
  • After I use the bathroom, I will hang in a pull-up bar and stretch my chest muscles. That’s 15+15 seconds of extra time.
  • I have added short de-stressing wind-downs/meditations to my morning and afternoon.
  • Before my weekday lunch break, I will change to workout clothes and roll out my yoga mat. I will then do some movement, stretching or exercise for 30 minutes before having lunch.
  • I signed up for Freedom to block basically everything during my morning time so I’m sure to dedicate it to writing and not get distracted by other tasks that I can do later in the day.

Each thing is a small improvement in an area of my day. Combined, it feels like I’m making a huge upgrade of my way of living.

Going all-in on habits makes even the small steps enjoyable

My new day is filled with small inches that I move forward in different areas of my life. Somehow it does feel satisfying. Much more than it would doing just a single one of my habits. 

Taken together, I get to experience the feeling of improvement that I usually miss from taking the tiny steps in isolation. I’m taking a big stride that is comprised of many tiny sub-steps within it. 

For all the things that I cannot dedicate a huge block of time to, I can at least nudge them forward just a tiny bit every day. It’s no longer all or nothing, it’s all or a little bit.

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