The British Cycling team used to be the laughing stock of the world.
Since 1908, British Cycling experienced failure after failure. The list of accomplishments was surprisingly thin: only one gold medal in the Olympics and no wins in the Tour de France. That’s it. While other countries racked up victories and accolades, the UK was left feeling embarrassed.
That all changed when Dave Brailsford became British Cycling’s new performance director in 2003. Brailsford had a nearly impossible task before him: helping the team overcome past failures and leading them to the top of the mountain.
To achieve his goals, he introduced a strategy he called the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He broke down every element of bike riding and found ways to improve things by 1 percent (training routines, equipment, diet, and more). In theory, all of these short gains would improve the team’s overall outcome.
But could so many tiny gains really amount to anything?
The results were as incredible as they were rapid. A mere five years after hiring Brailsford, British Cycling won 60 percent of the gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. At the 2012 Olympics, they set seven world records. From 2012 to 2017, a British cyclist won the Tour de France five times. World championships and records piled up.
The strategy of making small daily changes to experience a big overall impact is something author James Clear outlines in Atomic Habits. The book has become a number one New York Times bestseller, with many people becoming familiar with its concepts.
This article isn’t meant to act as an Atomic Habits summary or an Atomic Habits review, but rather, it will show you how to turn the book’s principles and key takeaways into actions you can use in your life starting today.
Atomic Habits Summary: The Top 4 Takeaways
1. Habits Are Key to Reaching Goals
Everyone has goals they want to achieve. Over the years, focusing on those goals can be all-consuming, with many hours spent trying to reach them. But while people may take giant steps in their progress, real results come when making small changes.
Most people are aware of compound interest when it comes to finances. You save some money in a savings account, and interest adds up over time. At first, the interest looks minimal, and it would be easy to doubt that it makes a difference at all. Patience is the key here. As the years go on, the increases become greater, until a moderate sum of money becomes something far more substantial.
If you want lasting change, remain consistent with your habits. Don’t focus so much on the size of the change but instead on where it can lead you.
In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear points out that your habits play a crucial role in achieving your goals. You can’t afford to ignore them.
To reach your goals, you need to build the right systems. These are made from simple processes. As you follow through on those processes, they turn into good habits. And by using those habits like a paddle with a canoe, you can reach your goals.
Habits are the key to this equation. If you build good habits, good results will eventually follow. Think of your habits as the compound interest of self-improvement. They are the things you do every day—both good and bad—which lead to consequences. Just like with compound interest, the small changes you make in your habits will create change. This is why it’s so important to break bad habits and form good ones.
Even if it’s just a 1 percent change, think of what a difference just 1 percent makes. Over a year, it can lead to noticeable results. Now expand that over a lifetime. Best of all, these small changes are well within your ability to do. Every single day you can make a slight change that will pay dividends in the future. Even for goals that seem impossible to achieve, a little progress every day leads to loads of progress over longer periods.
Understand you have the power to shape your future every single day.
2. Your Habits Determine Your Identity
Even when knowing what good they can do, new habits can sometimes be difficult to form. Have you ever taken a step back and wondered why that is the case? It might be because people focus too much on the action itself and not on who they are as a person. To truly adopt new habits or break old ones, you need to know your identity.
Let’s look at a familiar habit people try to break: smoking. The lengths many people go to eliminate this habit can be extensive, but much of their thinking emphasizes what they’re trying not to do. They constantly think to themselves, “I’m trying to stop smoking.” Yes, stopping smoking can be a goal, but it doesn’t take an identity-based approach. Instead of thinking, “I’m trying to cut out smoking,” a person should think, “I’m not a smoker.”
When you identify who you are, you can then adopt the habits consistent with that identity. If you say, “I’m not a smoker,” you do those things that a non-smoker would do, chief among them being avoiding cigarettes. The key is in the habits you have. If you want to change your identity, that means adopting the habits that go with that identity.
This philosophy applies to more than just quitting smoking. You can use it in any area of life. Your goal shouldn’t be an action or event. Your goal should be a new identity. Do you want to eat healthier? The goal shouldn’t be to eat healthier but to be a healthier person. Do you want to pursue photography? Then identify yourself as a photographer. Every time you write, you’re a writer. Whenever you work out, you’re an athlete.
3. Don’t Let Negativity Rule You
Too often, people attach negative behaviors to who they are. They think things like, “I always turn in projects past the deadline” or “I’m terrible at remembering appointments.” With such a negative outlook, they’ve identified themselves only by their weaknesses. Don’t view yourself by what you’re not but rather by what you want to become. Think “I’m a punctual person” or “I always remember important things” to correct bad behavior. Habit formation in this way can lead to positive behavior change.
Of course, it can be challenging to pinpoint what kind of identity you want to adopt. In such cases, do things where the odds are in your favor. Think of the success Michael Phelps had in swimming. As James Clear describes in the Atomic Habits book, he had certain advantages from a genetic standpoint, such as his long torso, long arms, and short legs, which helped him excel at his swimming pursuits. If Phelps had tried to become a sprinter, he likely wouldn’t have excelled nearly as much. His genes just didn’t give him the same advantage.
Clear explains our genes tell us where we should work harder in a specific area. That’s why knowing your identity is so important. Some people are proficient at writing. Others find painting comes naturally. Some people love public speaking and interacting with people in person. Others prefer to sit behind a desk and crunch numbers. You can’t be good at everything. Once you know who you are, you can work towards being the best in that area.
Shift your thinking away from someone who is chasing something and into a person who is something.
Questions to ask yourself as you find your identity:
- Who do you want to be?
- What do you stand for?
- What are your core values?
- How do you want people to see you?
- What type of people do you admire?
- What habits do you have that contradict who you want to be?
4. Place Systems Over Goals
At the beginning of the NFL season, every football team has the same goal in mind: win the Super Bowl. Through 17 games plus the playoffs, each team faces adversity, triumphs, and failures before one team ultimately stands above them all. But that’s just the thing—only one team can win the championship. Every team had the same goal, so why did everyone fail except the last team standing?
The difference isn’t the goal of each team but rather the systems in place to reach that goal.
The reality is that both winners and losers share the same goals. This is true in the sports world as well as the business world. One of the best James Clear quotes in Atomic Habits is: “[I]f successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers.” Looking back to the British Cycling example, the goal for the team didn’t change. They still wanted to be the best in the world. What changed was the system they used. It was the system that elevated their performance so they could win gold medals and Tour de France competitions.
Clear puts it best: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” You could have the loftiest goals imaginable that, if achieved, could make you incredibly successful. If you don’t have the right systems in place, you have no chance of reaching that goal.
The blunt truth is that goals alone don’t produce success. Everyone aspires to be a gold medalist. Every team wants to be the champion. Every person desires to have a successful career. Not everyone achieves what they set out to do. Having a goal, then, doesn’t get the job done. The system is the thing that moves the needle. As the British Cycling team found out, their new systems were what made a difference.
That’s not to say that goals serve no purpose at all. Goals can help you determine where you want to get to. They provide a clear direction for you. Problems arise when people spend all of their time setting goals instead of designing the systems that will get them there.
Think of your systems as the process, while your goal is the end product. If the only thing you like is the end product, the journey to get there will feel like a chore, and the odds will be against you succeeding. However, if you like the process as well, then you’ll find satisfaction during the journey. Your chances of success will then become that much greater.
Don’t spend so much time goal setting. Spend the bulk of your time creating the system that will help you reach your goal.
Atomic Habits Shows How to Make New Habits Easy
As referenced above, the key to reaching goals is to develop new habits. For many people, this is easier said than done. They view developing habits as hard work taking intense dedication with little guarantee of success. As such, they seem to lack motivation.
While motivation might be an issue, deep down, the problem stems from a lack of clarity. When you achieve clarity in how to proceed, you can move forward and build new habits that make a difference.
A successful way to create good habits is through habit stacking. This technique works by stacking a new habit on top of another good habit you already have. In this way, you connect one good behavior to another in a seamless fashion. The more you can make it part of your daily routine, the better.
One example of habit stacking James Clear gives in the Atomic Habits book is taking one minute to meditate after pouring a cup of coffee in the morning. This connects an action you already do with a new habit you want to adopt. Other examples could include checking your business email when you first arrive at work or texting your spouse that you’re on your way home after starting the car. One action flows into the next, creating connections between your habits. Yes, this might seem like simple stuff, but the more you build on them, the more improvements you’ll experience. Keep thinking of the difference just 1 percent can make.
You also want to create situations that increase your chances of success. For example, if you’re trying to develop a habit of exercising more often, lay out your gym clothes the night before.
This strategy holds true when trying to break bad habits as well. If you’re trying to lose weight, remove junk food from your house so it’s easier to stay on the path you’ve chosen. If you can’t do that, at the very least, keep the temptation out of sight. In this way, you create friction that allows breaking bad habits possible.
Atomic Habits Provides an Easy Path to Change
As the Atomic Habits book shows, the key to changing behavior is to make it as easy as possible. Why take the bumpy road when there’s a smoother path that leads to the same destination? Don’t make things harder than they need to be. With a bit of planning and foresight, you can eliminate obstacles before they become a problem.
You can also make building new habits easier by coupling them with rewards. This gives you something more immediate to work toward as you adopt habits that reinforce your identity. In Atomic Habits, James Clear shares a story of a couple who set a goal of cooking together more often instead of eating out. When they didn’t go out to eat, they saved 50 dollars in an account called “Trip to Europe.” After a year, they were able to go to Europe using the money they saved. While the reward was nice, the couple had also developed a new, healthier habit that they’ll enjoy for much longer than a vacation lasts.
While any Atomic Habits summary can emphasize the need to make things easier on yourself, it’s important to try it out instead of only reading about it. With some practice, you’ll begin to develop habits that help you succeed in your personal and professional life.
To make building new atomic changes easier:
- Practice habit stacking.
- Have a clear view of your identity.
- Connect a reward with the habit.
- Create situations that increase chances for success.
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