“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
— Atomic Habits, by James Clear
This is at the heart of TFQ. And this is the core of ‘Atomic Habits’.
What is Atomic Habits?
It’s a book.
I read it for the first time, as a young Masters candidate, in 2019. I had coursework, two assistant positions, research to conduct, and networks to build. I knew I needed my full focus, which meant building a structure.
I can’t remember who recommended it to me or where I saw it first, but I got myself an e-book copy, and my life changed.
Why did I like it so much?
One: I didn’t have to “jump to recipe”.
Let me explain.
Books that recommend behaviour change tend to tell rather than show. There’s a lot of personal stories and context to get through before you reach the vital nugget of information. It’s like wading through a cookie recipe that talks about how much this recipe means to their family, or how often they make it in a year, and and and *rolls eyes*. I’ve made it a habit to skip those stories and go straight to the recipe, because that’s why I’m here.
Atomic Habits didn't make me skip a single word. The writing style was accessible, and the motivational stories and examples celebrated people putting in the effort.
Take a look if you're interested: James Clear's writing.
Two: No wishful suggestions
Let’s take healthy eating, for example. When dietary recommendations hit us with fruits, vegetables, nuts, and vitamin supplements, it’s aimed at the aspirational. Photos of that Delicious Avo and Quinoa Salad For Lunch don’t look like what you regularly make at home. Everyday people don’t describe their food like magazines do. And forget about considerations like time, affordability, and physical effort.
Similarly, Atomic Habits talks to ordinary people with moderate to severe constraints on time, effort, and money. It wasn’t just motivational; it was respectful of the human condition. I was a student at the time, and I didn't have the bandwidth for drastic change (*laughs in pandemic conditions*).
The concepts I learned in that book took very little time to learn and even less time to implement. The book is grounded in reality, and I could begin making pivotal changes immediately.
Three: holistic > minute
Atomic Habits, despite the name, is about presenting the entire system and then I get to choose how to implement that in my life. I’ve noticed that when I’m given advice on which aspect of my daily routine I should change, I’m less inclined to adopt it. But when a system is presented, I have the agency to decide and implement wherever and however I choose to change.
Sustained practice was never my forte, and I had to work hard to stay motivated. And it’s still true, but now, it’s more about how well I practice than how long I practice a behaviour.
How did it help me?
The book is very clear (hehe, see what I did there?) about which kind of change really works. Habits become natural, and progress is seen only when your actions align with who you are.
Change that is incongruent with the self cannot be sustained. Let’s break that down.
Clear writes that visible change is only possible when you focus on who you “wish to be” rather than what “you want to achieve”. Identity is all about who you believe yourself to be. And if you don’t believe your self to be a reader, a writer, an engineer, or an athlete, then you won’t be one. No matter how hard you try. But if you build you practice with deliberate action that you fully believe in, you’ll see such remarkable change it will literally make you cry with joy (definitely talking about a friend here, wasn’t me at all).
Look at the circles below.
Outcomes are what you get from the processes you follow.
Processes are created and sustained based on who you believe your self to be.
Identity is your belief in yourself; it fuels everything you do and see.
This system helped me progress in ways I didn't think were possible. I did the work for myself, and everything became easier and improved in quality.
I began my MA journey with confidence. I managed my student jobs with a grace I didn't think I had. I conducted my MA research with resourcefulness as I went through the Covid-19 pandemic with the rest of the world. I earned my degree and kickstarted this agency. And all the while, I didn't lose sight of myself and what I believed in: gentle, deliberate progress.
Reading Atomic Habits was delightful. And implementing what I learned was rewarding beyond belief!
Where have I used it this year?
I decided that 2023 is the year I write one blog a week. It was small enough for me to build a deliberate practice around, and it was challenging enough that I was bound to learn new skills.
Here’s how I broke it down:
My goal: 52 blogs in one year.
My processes: on Mondays, I write. Whether 150 words or 1500, I will write and publish my work. I plan ahead, list out the key points I want to make in every blog post, and make it easy for myself. I reminded myself that consistency is key and quality will improve over time.
My reason: I am a writer, and I want to be better at it.
This system works well despite crazy fun weekends and the influx of new clients at TFQ. I do it because I believe in it.
Some additional habits I’ve picked up in the past seven weeks of this deliberate writing practice:
Using Meta Business Suite to make scheduling social media posts easier
Reading about health and digital media for fun
Being brave and sharing my work with the world
Interacting with new people who are from entirely different professional fields
Actively promoting myself and my agency (something I struggled with last year)
Now that you know what identity-based change is and how easy it is to implement, will you try it?
Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!