The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Habits

Book Review: Atomic Habits

I mentioned in a previous post that I have done a lot of reading during this season of quarantine. Some of that has been just for entertainment or increasing my knowledge in a certain area, but some has been more of the “self-help” variety. Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear definitely falls into the self-help category.

Before I go any further, I want to make two points very clear:

  1. Generally speaking, I really don’t like self-help books.
  2. I really, really liked Atomic Habits.

This review will be a little different from usual, because I “read” Atomic Habits as an audiobook. I took some notes on my phone while listening, so I will have some summary points to share, but I won’t have page numbers for any of the specific quotations.

Summary

Atoms are very small things. They are the building blocks of the world around us, but they are invisible to the naked eye. They are also very powerful—the power of the atom can provide electricity to an entire region in the form of a power plant, or untold devastation in the form of a nuclear bomb. This is the premise of Atomic Habits: habits are little, sometimes nearly invisible things that can bring about powerful change—for good or ill—in our lives.

James Clear offers four laws (I think he used the “laws” terminology; I am not certain) for successfully building good habits, and also an inversion to each law to help break bad habits:

  1. Make it Obvious: If you want to successfully implement a new habit, it needs to be something that is in your face and can be easily remembered. If you want to read more before bed, set a nightly alarm to remind you to do so. Have a specific time and location where you plan to implement your habit (“I will go for a 2-mile run at 7 AM in the morning.”). Stack your new habit onto another habit that you already do (“While showering in the morning, I will pray about my day.”).  The inversion of this law: Make it Invisible. If you always crave junk food at the end of the day while watching TV, then do something other than watch TV. Take a walk or read a book—remove the cue that encourages the bad habit you are trying to avoid.
  2. Make it Attractive: If you want to successfully implement a new habit, it needs to be something that is desirable to you. Which habits are attractive to us are significantly determined by the culture in which we live, so you should join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. In other words, hang out with people who are already doing the thing you want to do. If you want to eat healthily, go out to eat with friends who are healthy eaters. If you want to get in better shape, spend time with friends who work out regularly. If you want to become a better Bible student, join a Bible study group. You can also make a new habit attractive by connecting something you need to do (the new habit) with something you want to do (“I will get to spend ten minutes on social media after I complete my morning run.”). The inversion of this law: Make it Unattractive. Reframe your mindset by highlighting the benefits of avoiding the bad habit. If you want to quit smoking, focus on how cutting cigarettes out of your life will improve your health, put money back into your bank account, and make your car smell better.
  3. Make it Easy: If you want to successfully implement a new habit, you have to do it…a lot. You have to get your reps in: the amount of time you have spent performing a habit is not as important as the number of times you have performed it. To begin with, focus on just doing the thing even if your initial efforts are easier than your ultimate goals. So, say for example that you want to start a habit of working out regularly at the gym. To start, it is not as important that every workout be an hour long at high intensity (or whatever the ultimate goal is); what is important is that you go to the gym without missing if at all possible. Pack your workout clothes in your gym bag and set your alarm the night before. If you have a busy day or aren’t feeling well, don’t skip your workout; just abbreviate it. Go run for ten minutes instead of an hour; do five push-ups instead of thirty. Make it as easy as you need to, but get your reps in. By doing this, you are using a commitment device, which is a choice you are making in the present that locks in better behavior in the future. The inversion of this law: Make it Hard. Make it difficult to continue to do the things you don’t want to do. If you want to stop eating junk food, get it out of your house. Now, whenever you have a craving, you’ll have to drive somewhere to get it. If you want to stop watching so much TV, put your television in another room where you don’t spend as much time, or unplug it after each use. Now, a habit that you may have indulged when you were feeling tired or lazy requires extra energy to do.
  4. Make it Satisfying: If you want to successfully implement a new habit, you have to feel good about it. Identity is what sustains a habit. Ultimately, you want to think of yourself as the kind of person who [does whatever the habit is that you are trying to implement]. Track your habits to see your improvement over time. Try to keep your habit streak alive. You are not perfect and will have a lapse, but when you do, try to avoid a second lapse. The inversion of this law: Make it Unsatisfying. We are less likely to repeat a bad habit if it is painful or unsatisfying. Enlist an accountability partner who will ask you how you are doing in avoiding your bad habit.

Quotations

Here were some of my favorite quotations from the book (again, sorry that I don’t have page numbers for these):

“Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally; bad habits make time your enemy. Your habits can compound for you or against you.”

“You do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems.”

“Every action you take is a vote for the kind of person you will become.”

“This is the secret of self-control: make the cues of your good habits obvious; make the cues of your bad habits invisible.”

“The most effective form of learning is practice, not planning.”

“Create an environment where doing the right this is as easy as possible.”

“It’s better to do less than you hoped for than nothing at all.”

“Incentives can start a habit; identity sustains a habit.”

“The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It’s the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident; missing twice is the start of a new habit.”

“We optimize for what we measure, and when we choose the wrong measurement, we get the wrong behavior.”

“Until you work as hard as those you admire, don’t explain away their success as luck.”

“It doesn’t matter what you are trying to become better at; if you only do the work when it is convenient or exciting, then you will never be consistent enough to achieve remarkable results.”

It is hard for me to overstate how much I appreciated this book. Clear does not write from a Christian perspective, but this book is really all about discipline and character formation, and I found that much of what he wrote applied to me as a disciple of Jesus.

I give this book a strong recommendation. I have implemented some of his advice in my own life as I seek to grow during this season of quarantine, and have found it to be helpful and practical. It’s a book that I plan on buying a physical copy of so I can keep coming back to it.

Perspective: Reframing Quarantine as a Season of Growth

Making the Most of our Trials

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

(James 1.2-4)

When James wrote these words nearly 2,000 years ago, he certainly didn’t have the worldwide effects of COVID-19 in mind, but once we realize that these aren’t directly about us, we can still see that they teach principles that do apply to us today.

First, in various ways, people all over the world (whether they are believers or not) find themselves facing trials. Some are grieving the loss of loved ones who have perished because of coronavirus. Others are worried about their health or the health of others they care about. Some people have lost jobs or are dealing with diminished income. Others are reeling from the negative mental and emotional effects of social distancing directives. So, it’s a trying time. That seems clear enough.

But I also think there is a significant point of connection in the way we view this current season of quarantine. At the heart of James 1.2-4 is James imploring his audience to reframe their situations. Rather than spend their time lamenting over the trials they face, he encourages them to reframe their trying experiences by viewing them as opportunities for growth, specifically in the sense that they can bring about perseverance and maturity.

It is only natural to respond to this current season with complaining, fear, laziness, selfishness, isolation, and mindless consumption. But here’s the thing: as a disciple of Jesus, I believed that I am frequently—no, constantly—called to rise above my natural inclinations and live a redeemed life, reflecting the reality that I am a new creation in Christ Jesus.

So, in this post, I want to share some practices that I have been working on (habits that I am trying to form) to help me rise above my natural inclinations and view this season as an opportunity for growth in various aspects of my life. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I am doing this flawlessly; indeed, it is a constant struggle for me to reframe the COVID-19 quarantine as an opportunity for growth. But, that is the goal. Also, some of these practices may not be possible for everyone. However, my hope is that you will find some ideas in this post that will be helpful for you as you seek to grow in this season.

Changes in Perspective

I mentioned above several of the “natural” responses that I think a lot of us are currently experiencing. Although each of these could likely merit individual posts, briefly, here is how I am trying to reframe these responses:

  • From Complaining to Thanksgiving: Maybe you have felt the urge to complain at times during this current season of quarantine. I certainly have. Many of my plans have been altered or canceled. My routine has been changed. I am limited in the places I can go to and the things I can do. As a disciple of Jesus, I am not called to complain, however, but to give thanks. And really, I don’t have much to complain about, but have much to be thankful for: my family and I are healthy, we have a nice home in which to “shelter in place”, and we have plenty of food. In a time when millions of people have been laid off of work, my wife and I both have jobs where we can continue to work from home.
  • From Fear to Trust: The uncertainty in our world right now makes it easy to be fearful. We have to stay away from other people to limit the spread of disease. Economic forecasts are concerning. Future plans are up in the air. Even as we begin discussions of “opening America back up,” no one knows how long we will live in this limbo period before things are back to “normal”. As a disciple of Jesus, my life should not be characterized by fear or anxiety, but an unrelenting trust in the protection and provision of my heavenly Father.
  • From Laziness to Activity: Especially for those who are not working, or whose workload has diminished significantly, this can easily be a time of boredom and laziness. It can be hard to find the motivation to get up and do productive tasks. As a disciple of Jesus, I do not want to be lazy; I want to be healthy and productive. I want everything I do to be done as if I were doing it for the Lord (Colossians 3.23).
  • From Selfishness to Generosity: This is somewhat related to fear, but in times when it seems that there is not enough to go around, it can be very easy to hoard as much as we can, and keep what we have to ourselves. As a disciple of Jesus, though, I am not to place my confidence in material possessions, and I am to share what I have with others who need it.
  • From Isolation to Community: By necessity, we are physically isolated from one another right now, but that doesn’t mean that all of our relationships and interaction with people should be suspended. As a disciple of Jesus, I know that we were created for relationship, and it is important that I continue to cultivate and maintain relationships with others.
  • From Mindless Consumption to Thoughtful Consumption: Like many others, I am spending virtually all of my time at home right now, and much of it is spent on the computer or in front of a screen. There is an endless supply of content to be consumed. Some of it is actively harmful; some is perhaps less sinister but is still mindless and thus, not helpful. As a disciple of Jesus, I want to be more thoughtful in what I consume—I want to focus on that which is true, honorable, lovely, excellent, etc. (Philippians 4.8).

Helpful Practices

Here are some specific actions I have begun to do which reflect one or more of the changes in perspective mentioned above:

  • Morning Walks: Most days, I wake up and take a long (usually 60-90 minutes) morning walk, and while walking, I pray and also listen to audiobooks and/or podcasts. This accomplishes several objectives. The walks themselves help me stay active and healthy. The time in prayer helps produce an attitude of thankfulness within me, and moves me in the direction of trusting in God and thinking about the needs of others. Listening to books and podcasts is an example of thoughtful consumption, which I will mention more below.
  • Reading: Instead of binge-watching Netflix, I have tried to spend a lot of time reading and listening to books. I listened to Atomic Habits as an audiobook, which was outstanding, and provided me with the motivation to implement some of the habits I am attempting during quarantine. I am four books into The Chronicles of Narnia, which provides imaginative distraction from current reality, and also helps re-orient me from fear to trust. Listening to the After Class podcast and Seth Godin’s Akimbo have been helpful as well.
  • Careful Reading of COVID-19 News: It is an extremely unfortunate sign of the times in which we live that the COVID-19 crisis has become so politicized. There are a ton of people out there offering viewpoints on what is going on, and some of it is extremely dishearting, riddled with doomsday predictions, conspiracy theory rantings, or political ax-grinding. I try to limit how much of this I consume, period, and what I do read, I try to limit credible sources. Usually, I am looking for factual information; when I read analysis of the situation, I try to expose myself to well-written, if slanted, pieces from both sides of the political spectrum (like The Atlantic and National Review).
  • Workout Alarms: Monday-Friday, my cell phone alarm goes off 4-5 times per day on the hour as a reminder to get up from my chair and exercise. I have a routine of pullups, burpees, squats, and pushups that I have followed successfully (an evening routine of stair-walking, curls, and dips has been less successful). This helps me stay active during the day, and along with walks, has helped this to not be a season of sedentary weight gain. I’ve actually lost some weight over the last month, and I have gotten noticeably stronger—when I moved to Searcy last summer, I could barely do a pullup; I am now doing sets of 7-10 at a time.
  • Doxology Hand-washing: I confess that I am one of those for whom COVID-19 has completely altered my hand-washing habits. Unless my hands were coated in mud or paint or something like that, I never spend 20 seconds washing my hands, so that has been a massive adjustment. To help me wash for the appropriate amount of time, I sing Doxology while washing. In addition to helping me develop a healthy habit, this also means that every time I wash my hands for 20 seconds, my heart is inclined in grateful praise to God who provides all that I have.
  • Zoom Bible Study: I don’t really like Zoom; I look forward to the time when I do not use it regularly. But it has been a blessing in that it has enabled me to continue to teach Bible classes and participate in Bible studies. This is not only a crucial opportunity for connecting with other isolated people; it is also a constant re-ordering of my mind away from myself and my immediate circumstances and toward God.
  • Family Walks: Paired with my usual habit of morning walks, we usually take family walks in the evenings. This is another instance of exercise, but also helps our moods and attitudes (it is so nice to get out of the house), provides the opportunity for conversation, and also seeing and visiting with neighbors.
  • Driveway Church: Like many churches, our congregation has started sharing a lot of content online, including weekly worship services. We appreciate that and tune in each week, but there’s no denying that virtual worship misses the key component of fellowship that you get from being there in person. For the last few weeks, we have had Driveway Church, where we met with other members of our church who live in our neighborhood in our driveway, observing social distancing protocols. We sing, pray, read Scripture, and partake of the Lord’s Supper together. In one sense, it’s nothing profound or special; in another sense, it is incredibly profound and special.
  • Generosity: Caroline and I have both been blessed to keep our jobs and work from home, which means that we are not suffering financially as many are. We have looked for opportunities to give money to others, and also to support local businesses by getting more takeout and food delivered than normal (and, who am I kidding, I like Mexican food a lot!).

I am not going to pretend that I am enjoying everything about this current season of life; I certainly do not. But trying to change my perspective and reframe this as an opportunity for growth has been helpful for me. Whenever this ends and I am able to return to a more “normal” version of life, I hope to do so better than I was before: stronger, healthier, more generous, more thoughtful, and more dependent on God.

It is my hope that this season can be similarly beneficial for you.

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