I recently stumbled upon James Clear through the Dare to Lead podcast with Brené Brown. The episode was immediately inspirational, and led me to pick up the audiobook of his New York Times Bestseller Atomic Habits.
I’ll start by saying that I’m a bit strange; I listen to audiobooks about self help and self improvement while I go on daily walks or bike rides. If I find something inspirational, I’ll pause and type it out in a note for later. I’ve been doing this since moving to Texas in 2020.
That said, two chapters in, and I already have a dozen quotes from Atomic Habits jotted down for future reference!
What better way to cover a book, then, than to recount some of these for you.
But first, I recommend snagging a physical or digital copy of this book, as it provides endless wisdom. You can find it on Amazon via the link below (I earn from qualifying purchases).
“Habits are the compound interest of self improvement.”
As a personal finance fanatic, I love this one. In Atomic Habits (paid link), Clear goes on to state the following:
The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They may seem to make little difference on any given day, yet the impact they deliver over months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back… that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones become strikingly apparent.James Clear in “Atomic Habits”
This is one I relate to. In 2018, I looked at the habits of close family members and the prevalence of diabetes. I decided to make a change, and that meant shifting my mindset on food and exercise. Making small changes by eliminating one or two “bad” foods or reducing portion size slightly and adding a few cardio routines at the gym each week had a resounding impact.
In eight months, I dropped 40 pounds.
Three years later, after a bike crash that left me with a torn AC joint in my left shoulder, I topped what I viewed as the danger zone–a weight that meant I needed to once again change what I was doing.
“We don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.”
Truly one of the most quoted and most profound statements in the book, James Clear is essentially stating that it’s the habits we form that determine our level of success. If we are falling short of a goal, shifting our gaze to the systems we have in place and making adjustments to them is what we should do.
I can point to personal and professional goals where this has been true, where I got stuck in my ways and tried harder and harder doing the same thing for the needle to barely move. It was only when the pain of my lack of achievement was great enough that I formed a new habit or changed the one(s) I was currently employing. And that’s when things began to change.
In my health journey, my bike crash forced me to change my habits. I kept eating the way I had been, but my shoulder kept me from my regular routines. And while it healed quickly, it was another month before I re-formed my cycling habits and found a new routine. Other life changes got in the way: a new job, a new schedule, the changing of the seasons.
These were added barriers in helping me re-form my habits. But that leads me to the next one…
“Success is the product of daily habits not once in a lifetime transformations.”
James Clear immediately follows that with this important reminder:
You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than your current results.
It took six-to-eight weeks to reach what I hoped would take two. During that time, I struggled internally with the lack of speed the changes were taking place. I looked to form new habits, like daily lunchtime walks around the neighborhood to increase my step count, and occasional strolls through nearby parks.
These new habits are ones I plan to keep.
“Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.”
I love this one, as I’m a proponent of continual improvement. How we view ourselves and the language we use is important. I can say “I’m forming these habits because I am trying to lose weight” or I can say “I am forming these habits because I am an athletic person.” The first is goal based, the second is identity based. Both can be true, but the more I view myself as an athlete or cyclist, the more it becomes cemented in my mind as part of my identity.
This goes with incremental changes as well.
Example: I recently set goals around creating content. I wanted to write again. I wanted to become a writer again, something that’s been relatively dormant since letting go of my habit to write and post a new article on FensePost each weekday back in 2012.
I am in the process of expanding, upgrading, and editing my identity. I am a writer.
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become.”
Clear states that “if you keep casting the same votes you’ve always cast, you are going to keep getting the results you’ve had.”
This is something I’ve heard before, and recently at that. In Dr. Robert Glover’s book No More Mr. Nice Guy, he states that nice guys will dig in and try harder, but they don’t change the actions they are trying. They, essentially, continue to cast the same votes–just more of them–with the belief that if they just try harder, they’ll get the results they want.
“Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential to unleash a big change.”
James’ story about the British cycling team coming under the new management of Sir Dave Brailsford, in which they employed a strategy called the aggregation of marginal gains, is not entirely unlike that of the Oakland Athletics in Moneyball.
Overall the concepts used by Billy Beane and Brailsford are different, but using statistics is where the commonalities are. In the aggregation of marginal gains, the team looked for 1% improvements in countless areas with the believe that all these minute improvements would add up to a transformational result. And they did.
“Time magnifies the the margin between success and failure.”
I love this, as it directly relates to the compound interest quote. Clear goes on to state, “It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.”
So many of these quotes are interrelated. You can tie this quote about time to the compound interest one. You can tie it to the breakthrough quote directly above.
“Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”
On my bike ride yesterday, I listened to the Dare to Lead episode with James Clear for the second time and it got me thinking about goals vs. systems. Before I jump into that, here’s the episode if you wish to listen:
At work, we are launching a new online course and I’m falling short of my desired results. I am missing something within the system I have set up, be it internal to the system itself (my email sequences could be improved or expanded) or external being something out of my control (chain of approval for big expenditures).
What can I change within the system that will produce a positive, incremental change and drive me closer to my goal?
In analyzing how I originally set up the campaign, I see a few things I could have done differently within the funnel and have taken note for future launches. But that doesn’t change where we are, and what I can do right now to change the game and become the rockstar digital marketer I know I am.
“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems are to continue playing the game. True long term thinking is goalless thinking.”
F#ck yes! This is one of my favorite quotes from Atomic Habits. Talking to my mom the other day about cycling, she noted that my dad would often stop cycling after the Seattle to Portland bike ride each July when he and I rode it. His focus was on the goal, not on the system. Whereas, I attached cycling to part of my identity, and after taking a week or two to recoup from a two-day, 210 mile bike ride, I’d hop back on and continue my journey.
The same goes for goals at work.
In the previous section, I noted that I’m falling short in the online course launch I’m working on at the moment. The system I have in place isn’t yielding the results I want, but I’m also taking note of what is working and what isn’t. This won’t be the first online course I’ll launch in the coming year, and the more I can glean from this first one, the better system I can put in place for the next one.
The exciting thing about these projects is that they inherently put the system ahead of the goal. This quote has me thinking, connecting dots, relating to real world examples I’ve seen play out time and time again. I’ll likely have to circle around for another blog post specifically covering this quote in more detail.
“Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are. Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity.”
I love this discussion on identity. In Atomic Habits, Clear describes a story about two, who used to smoke, being asked if they’d like a cigarette. One states “No, I’m trying to quit,” whereas the other states “No, I’m not a smoker.” The first one used goal-based language, whereas the second used identity-based language.
Let’s take my goal of writing a new blog post each week. In writing and publishing this post, I am not just casting a vote for the person I want to become… in this moment, I am a writer. In having an apple for breakfast, I am not just casting my vote for being a healthy person, I am a healthy person.
The more I cast these votes, the more improvements I make, and the more they become a part of who I am.
Developing Atomic Habits
I’m sure I’ll need a second or even third listen of this audiobook for all of this to truly sink in. There are so many great nuggets of wisdom within these pages that apply to life in general–our personal journeys, our careers, our relationships–that only giving it a once-through would be a bit of a travesty.
In fact, just as Brené Brown did with her podcast, there may need to be a part 2 to my list of top James Clear quotes from Atomic Habits.