How Small Actions Can Build into an Automatic Routine

James Clear recently published a great book called Atomic Habits. He writes about how small actions that you take every day can build into automatic routines that really shape who you are.

I got sucked into his ideas while listening to him on Jay Ferruggia's podcast (#264, if you're interested).

For the last 32 days, I have been putting James Clear's Atomic Habits book to the test...  

I was hopping on a plane to Montreal to take an army course that was taking me away from reality in exchange for my green uniform and 2 weeks of leadership training with 100 of my peers.  I was warned that the days would be long and that my nights would consist of homework and mandatory "networking".

So the goal that I set for myself was that I would run every day.  Maybe for a minute, maybe for an hour, and I could skip one day per week.  Running isn't brand new to me.  But over the last few years, it's turned into a more occasional, social activity.  

I got a LOT out of this book, but the two points I want to touch on with you are the ones that still sit with me a month after getting through this book and putting in an honest effort to create a new habit AND regularly evaluate it against James' ideas.
You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems
In my case, the system that I put in place was that every day when I got back from the school, I would immediately change from my uniform into my running gear.  I didn't stop at the bathroom, I didn't stick around to make dinner plans with my colleagues, I put my shoes on.  School started at 7am.  SEVEN!  My brain was melted by noon, and when we got out of class at 5, the idea of going to dinner and bed was super appealing.  My goal was simple.  Get off the campus.  Every night. If that meant putting on my gear and walking the 300m from my dorm to the gate and back, I would consider that a win. 
By the time I came back to Toronto just 2 weeks later, I had found enough value in my newly developed habit, that it made all sorts of sense to keep it up. The time has stayed the same, just the location is different.  I do plan to cut back the running days at some point, but continue to reserve a chunk of my afternoon for exercise.
How can I create an environment where doing the right thing is easy? 

You'd think that adopting a new fitness habit when working in a gym everyday would be easy, but being removed from my normal routine actually made it MUCH easier to adhere to.  I used every trick that I know of to make sure that I was setting myself up for success.

  • I didn't feel the need to broadcast my goal when all of my colleagues, but living in a dorm (with shared washrooms), it was obvious that pretty quickly that I had a routine.  Within days, my colleagues (who probably think that I am this disciplined all the time!) wished me well on my workout, or asked how it went when I saw them in the meal hall or the pub later on.  

  • It's so easy to let other commitments get in the way.  Because I knew that I would have several commitments after dinner throughout the initial weeks, I found a time frame where I was guaranteed to be available.  Sometimes we finished at 4, sometimes we finished at 6, but that time immediately after school was a time where there was no way in hell that anyone was going to be functional enough to want to start our homework.

  • I found things to look forward to on my run.  Beautiful scenery, great music or an audio book, a chance to chat on the phone without my voice echoing down the hall.  I really set it up so that missing a run would be missing an opportunity.

This habit has definitely evolved from just "put on your shoes" to a gateway for a couple of more specific goals with measurable outcomes, but the takeaways from this book also really helped to shape where I'd like to take it next. (basically, all of chapter 19).

So what about you? What simple systems can you create to make your life healthier? And then how can you change your environment so those systems are easy to implement and repeat?

Let me hear about them!


P.S. As a disclaimer, I have a decent amount of experience with running and exercise in general.  A daily running habit without a solid base is probably not an awesome idea!