“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Carl Jung
Atomic Habits by James Clear pulled back the curtain on my unconscious mind and revealed the old man who pulls levers and pushes my buttons and tells me not to mind him at all. That old man just wants another Mitchell’s ice cream sundae and will do just about anything to get one. Barring that, he wants to check email, or Facebook, or WordPress views. He certainly doesn’t feel like sitting in the chair and cranking out words.
I usually take weeks to read a book, often having it swept from my Kindle (grrrrr) when my loan is up and I accidentally hit the home button or my battery dies. Amazon is kind enough to allow me to purchase said book that I’m three-fourths of the way through, and I consider it for a half a second because I know Jeff Bezos needs more money.
Right. So I’ve almost finished a hundred e-books.
Atomic Habits wasn’t one of them. I blazed through it faster than a California wildfire. Total honesty: I got it in hardback because no one shows up at my house and swipes the half-read sucker off my bedside table. When I can get hardback, I do. Call me old school. Call me a control freak. I like to take the book back when I’m finished reading it.
Synonyms for atomic are tiny, microscopic, diminutive. It’s the small, often overlooked habits that matter, not the great, brag-worthy sacrifices. James Clear set down an easy-to-understand process for changing things I want to change. And more importantly: he exposed the wizard behind the curtain: how our brains are wired.
Atomic Habits tells me to be a fan of the process (he calls them systems), not goals. Why? Because “…you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Oh. my. gosh. I fall to the level of my daily habits. It’s that simple.
Clear introduced me to the concept of critical threshold. This is the way I see all the early-morning work or workouts, the unsung moments of excellence when no one’s looking, the kept appointment when you feel like dirt, the pile of rejections. These are necessary steps. Clear’s example: It’s exactly 0° right now. Your goal is to melt ice. Each day you manage to raise the temperature by one degree. There is no change, no change, no change for many days. Someone might come along and ask why you’re wasting your time on this pipe dream of melting ice. They may ask if you’ve considered getting a job teaching English. Or in retail…
Until one day. BAM! 32°. You’re melting ice. It had to rise all those previous degrees with no outward or obvious change. Our systems can be like that. Our nothing-special days where we just showed up and put in the time. Butt-in-chair, if you’re a writer.
Today was such a day for me. I have a writing ritual, thanks to this book. I don’t check my email until I’ve written a thousand words. Sound easy enough? Well, what do you do the instant you wake up, friend? Chances are, you reach for that glowing slab right next to your bed.
Today Gabe didn’t feel good, so in an abundance of caution, we kept him home from school. It threw a wee wrench in my morning ritual. I didn’t sleep well last night, either—another wrench. Had to call the school, had to listen to Gabe talk because I love him, and I didn’t want to tell him I have this ritual, see? And it doesn’t include talking about the election. And I can’t do a single pleasant thing till I eke out a thousand words.
Which isn’t entirely true. There are lots of things I can do. I can eat or read a physical book. I just can’t touch my phone or check my email or Facebook. THE THINGS I WANT TO DO VERY BADLY. This self-imposed, delayed gratification motivates me to write. It also keeps my brain from getting cluttered with junk, like feelings and thoughts and grocery lists. My productivity has skyrocketed because I changed this one thing.
Rather than making a list of goals, Clear’s advice is to build identity-based habits. Who do I wish to become? As opposed to: What do I wish to achieve. See the difference? It’s subtle, but powerful. My behavior is a reflection of my identity, or, how I see myself. My identity = my repeated actions. I am what I do each day, not what I wish were true of myself.
Cue – craving – response – reward. This is called a feedback loop. Every day I go through scores of these without even realizing it. Upon waking (cue), I (crave) my phone, reach for it (response) and get my emails (reward). To break this chain, I must first acknowledge its existence.
According to Clear, many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. Writing down my intentions helps me to follow through. Setting out my workout clothes. Or better yet, putting them on underneath my clothes, makes it easier to take the next step toward the workout. A way this works out for me is I’ve begun a new habit of writing a daily journal before actually writing my novel. Journaling is easier, and it gets my butt in the chair.
A craving is a sense that something is missing; it’s a desire to change an internal state. Desire is the difference between where I am now and where I want to be in the future. When I eat dessert, I don’t want dessert. What I really want is to feel differently. I want a “hit.”
This played out recently. I made plans to meet a friend while my son was at swim practice. At the last minute, she canceled. I had no book with me and to go home would have been a waste of time and gas. So I had an hour to kill and I was wanting to feel differently. Ever experience the prickly sensation of time-wasting?
I needed a pick-me-up. Just a few hundred feet from the rec center happens to be Mitchell’s Ice Cream. I could eat myself dead on their caramel sea salt ice cream. It occurred to me, I could feel differently if I put some of that heavenly stuff down my throat. But another goal is to be a fit, healthy person. Ice cream alone, because I have time on my hands (as opposed to a social moment or a celebratory sundae), doesn’t fit into that plan. It’s practically drinking alone. Look, I don’t judge anybody for eating ice cream on a Tuesday afternoon. But for me, I knew I’d feel guilty the moment the last bite was down. My present self wanted ice cream, but my future self did not. What to do?
I phoned a friend. Okay, I video-texted her. Diane and I have this little dance where we keep one another accountable via an app called Marco Polo. Or we brag to each other. It’s a healthy, loving sort of bragging. I was sure Diane would understand, that she’d agree this situation called for some Mitchell’s. I was so sure she’d be on my side, I started off. I was almost at Mitchell’s when I got her response.
Re-watch your own video, Kelly, what you said about your future self vs. your present self. Then go get you some hiking boots, girl.
I’d told her I was vacillating, that I might go to the store to find hiking boots, as mine are old enough to be interesting to archaeologists. The hiking boot purchase would be in line with both my present and future self. But they don’t taste good.
After yelling at her when she couldn’t hear, I turned around and went to the store. Where I was, yet again, disappointed. Apparently, Kohl’s doesn’t think women hike. Neither does TJ Maxx, Champs, or Target.
My present self:
The moral is, I staved off the craving. I didn’t eat Mitchell’s because I ran out of time going from store to store and getting more and more frustrated. Gabe got in the car and asked why we didn’t just go to Mitchell’s now? Because your mother isn’t fifteen and didn’t just workout for an hour, kid, that’s why. And it’s dinner time.
Each iteration reinforces habit. Practicing a habit is more important than planning it or even how well it’s executed. The workout I slog through is better than the one I don’t show up for. The awful words I put down are better than the blank page. What does showing up look like for you? I love this statement: I have a big ass, so when I half-ass something, you’re still getting a whole lot outta me. No matter the size of your, er, butt, make that your mantra. Half-assed is better than no ass at all. Some will disagree with me. I’m not suggesting mediocrity, butt sustainability. (ba-dum-dum) Do what you will do every day. Clear suggests performing a new habit for only two minutes, initially. Can you imagine working out for only two minutes?
But you would have no excuse not to begin, would you? It’s doable to make small changes. Each time you do it, Clear says you cast a vote for the self you want to be. Take baby steps. The easiest one I can think of is ordering the book Atomic Habits (and no, I don’t make money if you do). It helped me, is all, and I hope it helps you, too. Let me know if you read it.