Vote for the Person You Want to Be
How to take actions that bring you closer to the best possible version of yourself and other lessons from Atomic Habits by James Clear.
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When asked for book recommendations, Atomic Habits is, without fail, one of the top three on my list. Even if you aren’t asking for a book about habits and discipline, I’ll recommend it anyway. Why? Because habits aren’t just for people who want to say they have good habits. Habits are for people who want to do something meaningful with their life. Read on to understand why.
Lesson #1: Discipline creates freedom
It’s easy to hear the word “discipline” and shy away; “discipline” doesn’t sound very fun. And sometimes, it’s not. Here’s the key: when you have a reason to exercise discipline (not living an aimless life is a pretty good reason), it becomes more appealing. Even more appealing is the freedom it creates. Habits are integral to discipline, and that brings us to this quote:
“Habits do not restrict freedom. They create it.” - James Clear
When we build a good habit, we reduce the amount of friction in the decision. Instead of making the decision every time, we choose once to always do that thing. We also reduce the amount of time required to do the thing, because it’s as natural as opening the door when you get home or turning off the light when you go to bed. If you have a habit every night of putting your clothes out for the next day, you’re not wasting time in the morning figuring out what to wear. If you have a habit of planning your week and blocking time for important tasks, you won’t be scrambling to get everything done on Friday afternoon. You’ve created more time to do the more fun things in your life, and the less fun things will likely become more fun because you’ve got the process figured out.
Lesson #2: It’s less about manufacturing discipline and more about setting up a system where you need less discipline.
In essence, make it easier to stick to your habits. Do you struggle to hit the gym in the morning? Lay out your clothes, shoes, and gym bag right next to your bed. Make the decision in the morning as easy as possible, and you’ll need less internal discipline to do it. In a bad habit of checking your phone too often at work? Put it on a focus mode, or, even better, put it in the bottom of a drawer for an hour at a time. Don’t make it easy to check. Want to eat less sugary snacks? Don’t have them in your house.
Sometimes, we can’t control the environment we’re in. That’s part of why controlling it when we do matters so much: it builds the habit so we no longer think about skipping the gym as an option, have the desire to check our phones compulsively, or crave the snack we know isn’t good for our health. The cool thing (and dangerous thing) about habits is that, once built, they are difficult to break. Make the good ones more appealing.
Lesson #3: Every action you take is a vote. Make it a vote for who you want to be.
“When your behavior and identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behavior change. You are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be.” - James Clear
Building good habits can be harder if we only think of habits as something we do. When we think more broadly about the type of person we want to be, we can then envision the habits that type of person would have. If we want to be more of an intellectual, what do we do with fifteen minutes of spare time: scroll on Instagram, or read a few more pages of a book? If we want to be a leader of people, what do we do when we have an opportunity (and the time) to step up: take the chance, or remain complacent where we already are? Similar to the “will it make the boat go faster?” question from December, this is about looking at every decision, every action, through the lens of the type of person we want to be. James also emphasizes that we don’t have to win every vote. We won’t, because we’re human, and we will inevitably fail to live up to our best intentions. The critical thing is that we win the majority. We cannot let one failure justify another. Two failures do not justify a third. Take each next action as a clean slate, and your trendline will be on the way up.
Of the many valuable books I’ve read, this one has resulted in the most tangible changes in my life. If I plan to go to the gym or go for a run tomorrow, my clothes are laid out before I go to bed. I map out my week and prioritize what needs to happen first, and if my calendar says to do it, I do my very best to sit down and do it. When I decide what to eat, how to spend my time, or what tasks to do first, I do my best to ask myself, “does this bring me closer to the person I want to be?” Don’t get me wrong, I still skip the gym sometimes. I still waste time on my phone sometimes. I still fall short of my expectations for myself, often. Yet, the trendline is moving up. It will for you, too, if you choose to build habits and vote for who you want to be.
Journal Prompt of the Week
Who do you want to be? What is a vote you can take this week for that future version of you?