The true path to success comes not from reaching big goals but by developing systems that allow you to progress day to day, one step at a time. It’s these little habits that will compound and eventually determine the trajectory of your future.
That’s the idea behind James Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits.” Just like atoms stack up to create the elaborate universe around us, atomic habits stack up to help us reach our goals — but our ability to reach those goals depends on the quality of those habits. With a busy lifestyle and so much on the to-do list, it can be hard to aim for big goals and success when it feels like there is just so much to get done.
Clear’s ideas can not only help you reach your goals but also help you feel more productive and successful everyday. In the book, Clear offers some ideas on how to get started:
Building systems vs setting goals
Goals are great. They give you something measurable to look forward to. Butetting big goals is not an easy way to reach success. Though goals show you where you are heading, they offer little to no guidance on how to get there. In order to reach the bigger goals, Clear says, you need to focus on building small systems.
Clear explains that goals make us think about “winning the game.” If you reach your goal, suddenly you’ll be happy and all is well. But that’s not how the real world actually works. You don’t just reach a goal and then sit back and enjoy endless “success.” Success is an on-going, complicated process. You reach a goal, enjoy the moment, and then aim higher.
So, it’s not about winning; it’s about continuing to play and enjoy the process.
That’s where systems come in. A system sets you up to reach goals by giving a clear path to get there. More importantly, it keeps you motivated even after you’ve hit a goal. You learn to fall in love with the process of reaching goals instead of seeking happiness upon hitting the goal itself.
A system also cuts down on the stress of reaching “success.” You are not reaching for this big goal far into the future. Instead, success is found every day as you continue to improve and grow. You can mark the day a “success” just by achieving the small incremental steps that lead you in the direction you want to go.
The power of ‘atomic habits’ and small change
Now that we have covered the power of a good system, let's talk about what comprises one.
A system is built on tiny, consistent habits, according to Clear. These small “atomic habits” build upon each other to help you reach not only a one-time goal but ongoing success.
Habits are about “compound results.” What you do every day sets the trajectory for the direction of your life or your organization. Bad habits lead to bad results; good habits lead to great results. The problem for most people is small changes seemingly don’t make much of a difference. Even if you have a 1 percent improvement today, your end goal can still seem really far off.
The key is to be patient.
If your focus is just on getting 1 percent better every day, imagine where you could be in a year. The 1 percent changes can stack up to make substantial change. A small improvement every day still leads to huge growth over a lifetime. And small changes require a small amount of effort. Add in the power of a habit, and reaching high achieving goals suddenly seems easy.
All you have to do are a few small habits each day and, eventually, you can reach almost any goal imaginable.
How to create a good habit: The 4 laws of behavior change
Hopefully you can now see the value in building a system of small, daily habits. The system gives you the path to follow and the atomic habits give you the small incremental growth you need to reach “success,” regardless of how you define that.
The idea is great,but whether or not it works boils down to those daily habits you actually complete.
This is where most people struggle. As anyone who’s tried to break a bad habit knows, changing habits can be difficult. That’s why Clear breaks down habit building into what he calls the “Four laws of behavior change:”
The four laws are the “feedback loop” your brain goes through when deciding to act or not act on a habit. If you want to build a new habit, work through the four laws and set up a loop your brain will enjoy.
Let’s use the example of reading more.
As an association professional, there are probably lots of educational books on your reading list. Here’s how you could decide to build a small reading habit using the Four Laws:
Cue: Put the book you are currently reading next to your coffee maker. When you make your coffee, that’s the cue to pick it up.
Craving: Pick a good book and have a comfortable location to read. This comfort makes it easy to want to sit down and read while the content of the book keeps you engaged.
Response: Make it easy. Your new habit doesn’t need to be “read for an hour.” Just aim for a page. Somedays a page is all you’ll have time for, and that’s OK.
Reward: To make the habit stick, follow up with an immediate reward. Reward yourself for reading a page by grabbing another sip of coffee. Didn’t read a full page yet? No coffee for you!
Small Habits = Small Growth = Big Success
We all want to be more productive. The more productive you are, the more success you’ll find in life. At least, that’s what we’re told.
As a busy professional though, it can be easy to fill our days with pointless tasks and to-do items in order to feel more productive. But success isn’t about getting stuff done. It’s about getting the right stuff done.
That’s where a good system comes in. A system makes sure you are making progress towards your goals. It’s the path to follow.
Every day, along that path, your system sets you up for success with small atomic habits. Reading one page of a short article on your industry, spending 10 minutes every morning prioritizing your to-do list, working out and getting active — even if just for a few minutes.
Build upon your daily habits and you can be sure success is on the horizon.
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