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How 'Atomic Habits' Made Me Fitter, Healthier, and Happier

Atomic Habits by James Clear is a comprehensive and practical guide on how to create good habits, break bad ones and get at least 1 percent better every day. Essentially, an atomic habit is a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do but also a source of incredible power – a component of the system of compound growth.

Clear derived the title “Atomic Habits” from atoms, which are small yet fundamental particles that define the structure of an element, and make up everything around us, including ourselves. He believes that rather than optimizing your life for the finish line, we should instead optimize our life for the beginning of our journey.

This struck a chord with me. Throughout my whole life, I always looked up to those who had accomplished astonishing feats and wondered: “How in the world will I ever get to achieve anything close to that?” But as Canadian author Robin Sharma once said, “Every pro was once an amateur. Every expert was once a beginner.” This mindset is compatible with the Kaizen theory of continuous improvement, which focuses on small but consistent, every day improvements in one’s life instead of radical changes. With this in mind, I set out to apply Clear’s tips into transforming my life.

Start with an incredibly small habit

Clear underlines how we dismiss small changes because they do not seem to matter very much in the moment. For example, he states that by going to the gym three days in a row, you may still be out of shape, at least for a while, and as a result of the lack of immediate results, we slip back into our previous routines.

On the flip side, he describes the slow pace of transformation to be the very reason for the tendency for people to let a bad habit slide.

(Clear, n.d.)

As illustrated by the graph above, the impacts of both improving 1% and worsening 1% everyday are resounding. I decided to try for that 37.78.

After leaving Junior College, I was liberated from the compulsory Physical Education (PE) classes that were held twice a week. Coupled with the fact that I did not join a sports CCA in SMU, fitness and exercising were like foreign languages to me – daunting, unfamiliar, difficult, time consuming… and I had no idea how to start.

The incredibly small habit that I began with was running about 15-30 minutes every morning. I didn’t use a tracker to measure the distance or to time myself – I simply focused on running. Soon, from extremely difficult it became tolerable, and from tolerable it became normal. As I started getting used to exercising again, I begin to do more High Intensity Interval Trainings (HIITs). As if my efforts were contagious, for my diet, I started consuming only whole grain bread, including more vegetable into my meals, and stopped drinking bubble tea. Yes, I am no longer a bubble tea fan and no, you wouldn’t be able to tempt me… 😉

Making Identity-Based Habits

Clear defines two types of habits – outcome-based habits and identity-based habits. With the former, the focus is on what you want to achieve. With the latter, the focus is on who you wish to become. He argues that the ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity.

Instead of saying “I want to be healthier and fitter”, saying the only slightly different “I am healthy and fit” makes a whole lot of difference. It allows you to believe that you already have the potential to achieve whatever is needed to identify yourself as someone “healthy and fit”, rather than seeing it as a goal that you have yet to attain.

The 4 Laws of Behaviour Change

Clear offers a step-by-step framework on how to change human behaviour.

  1. Cue – make it obvious

  2. Craving – make it attractive

  3. Response – make it easy

  4. Reward – make it satisfying

Applying it to making working out and exercising more attractive, I came up with the following:

  1. Cue – make it obvious: Purchasing activewears, follow Instagram accounts that promote fitness and wellness, subscribe to fitness YouTube channels

  2. Craving – make it attractive: Follow a fun workout routine (there are so many effective and fun ones on YouTube, I promise) or join a community run club

  3. Response – make it easy: workout at home (again, there are so many home workout videos on YouTube), head to the school gym after class or do HIITs (some are only 10-15 minutes long but are so effective in burning calories)

  4. Reward – make it satisfying: Share your achievements with your friends, treat yourself to something nice

To break bad habits, for example, my- I mean my friend’s bad habit of wolfing down potato chips by the packet, simply invert the laws:

  1. Cue – make it invisible: Don’t even buy them in the first place. This worked incredibly well for me as it removed the problem from its source – I knew that as long as I bought titbits or sweets, I could end up in an uncontrollable binge.

  2. Craving – make it unattractive: Before snacking, I would consider all the consequences and what I’d have to do in order to burn the calories, which would almost always stop me from entering my snacking frenzies.

  3. Response – make it difficult: I tend to snack at night after dinner when I don’t feel satisfied enough. To make this difficult, I would brush my teeth about half an hour (as recommended by dentists) after dinner, which indeed prevented the lazy me from snacking and needing to brush my teeth again.

  4. Reward – make it unsatisfying: After some deliberation, I decided I would forgo this step of the framework! After all, tailoring these frameworks to fit you is important. To me, it was still important not to beat myself up for the occasional cheat meals – Moderation is key 😊

Family and friends are important in shaping your habits

Clear states that we tend to adopt habits praised and approved by our culture because of our desire to fit in, where the three social groups that we thus imitate are the close (family/friends), the many (tribe), and the powerful (status/prestige). He believes that if you want to change your habits, you should join a culture where your desired behaviour is normal and in common with those around you.

For example, if you want to become more environmentally conscious, joining Verts in SMU would be a great idea. Thankfully, my family is supportive of my healthier lifestyle and have recently been made the shift with me towards consuming more complex carbohydrates, such as red or brown rice, instead of white rice. I also have friends that I am able to go to the gym with in school and attend external fitness classes with as well.

Whether you want to be a more confident, fit, environmentally conscious, kind or likeable person, small habits really do help. Before you know it, you’ll be looking back and realising all how these small habits do indeed accumulate to result in atomic changes in the future, as long as you do not give up. I hope that somewhere in the near future, you surprise yourself, as I surprised myself! 😊


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