Leadership Development: How Small Steps Become Big Leaps (Book Summary: Atomic Habits)

Before, during and after training sessions, in coaching conversations, and while observing others and taking stock of my own work (and personal) life, a prevailing theme is that finding the time for improvement of any kind is nearly impossible.

Consider one recent conversation where a group of leaders expressed, in exasperation, that they “barely had time to think” from within the torrent of requests coming via ‘productivity’ platforms, email, text, meeting invites, and in-person visits to their workspaces.

We all would like to improve but can’t find the time to do so.

Sidestepping the bigger issues of workplace demands outstripping resources (temporal and otherwise) for the moment, many of us wonder how to grow and develop ourselves and others amid the demands of the modern world.

A few possible answers to this conundrum exist in James Clear’s NY Times-bestselling-book Atomic Habits, which I have summarized here for you.

James’ Thesis:

Small (Atomic) behaviour changes (Habits) compound to produce big results.

Two ideas from the book I’ve found most beneficial (and am hoping you might too):

Idea 1: Adopt a continuous improvement practice (i.e., reflect on how you do things and make changes for the better).

How I’ve used this idea:

Each time I complete something, like a proposal, I ask myself “What could I do to improve?” This results in a short list, which I then work on in very small time blocks.

For example, I need to track mileage. The spreadsheet I use to do this lives on our SharePoint site. Until recently I would photograph the odometer in my car before and after a client visit, log into SharePoint, and update the sheet.

After a recent trip, I asked myself the improvement question, which led to updating the spreadsheet directly using my mobile device before and after driving to and from a client site.

As trite as this may seem, repeating this improvement exercise each day has given me back some precious time, and has yielded improvements in the quality of my work.

In addition to this, I am feeling more efficacious in that I’m continuously achieving important goals. This in turn has increased my motivation to ‘work on the business’ as they say – a virtuous cycle.

Idea 2: Break goals into achievable increments, then set a challenging number of repetitions of the behaviour per day.

How I’ve used this idea:

Prior to reading this book I began each day asking: “What do I need to accomplish today?” and then set out to plan according to what was most important. Like many of us, I was finding it more challenging to work on the important and non-urgent (strategic) work.

Since reading the book I have added the practice of doing the longer-term work according to the number of ‘repetitions’ I believe I can manage.

For instance, I want to write more, but wasn’t finding the time to do so. Since reading the book, I’ve set a goal of writing at least five sentences per day on a new topic.

I use a tracking spreadsheet to keep tabs on how I’m doing. Feel free to use a whiteboard, jar of paper clips, or whatever works for you to monitor progress.

I’ll let you know closer to the end of the year how this has gone, but for now it is making improvement easier and more satisfying as I’m concentrating on something relatively easy that leads to something more substantial (this blog post is a product of this new practice).

The Book Overall

There are many practical ideas, stories, examples, templates, diagrams, and much more in Clear’s book, and I would recommend it to anyone who would like a casual and enjoyable read that provides easy-to-implement tweaks.

This book might not be for you if you are looking for a coherent program. No doubt all of the ideas could add up to one, but my experience of reading it and trying to implement as such is that there’s not a logical starting and ending point. This is supported by the fact that there isn’t a single case study-type example showing how it all fits together.

If you’re curious about other ideas in the book, here’s a summary of James’ big ideas:

To begin or end a habit:

Make it obvious (or invisible):

  • Inventory all your habits (beneficial and harmful).
  • Use ‘implementation intentions’ (i.e., “I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]).” to ‘pair’ a new habit with a specific time and location.
  • Use habit stacking (i.e., “After [HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].” To incorporate a new behaviour into an existing routine (this one has helped me take my vitamins consistently by putting them next to my kids’ vitamins)
  • Assign a purpose to each area in your life/apartment/house. Desk is for working, bed is for sleeping, table is for eating, etc. This makes your life more stable and predictable.
  • Reduce the number of cues for you bad habits (e.g., put your phone in another room)

Make it attractive (or unattractive):

  • Join a club/culture where your desired behaviour is normal.
  • Understand that behaviours satisfy underlying motives (e.g., social media to find love and connection). There are many ways to satisfy underlying needs (other better habits). Figure out what they are.
  • Do something beneficial that you enjoy before a more difficult (beneficial) task.

Make it easy (or difficult):

  • Completing things is much more beneficial than planning how to do them.
  • Number of reps is more important than quality. Learning is in the repeating.
  • Do prep work to make new behaviours easier. Put healthy snacks out where you can see them later.
  • Ritualize the beginning of a behaviour to remove effort and enable continuation.
  • Start a new behaviour by only doing it for two minutes. It gets easier and more automatic.
  • Standardize behaviours first, then optimize them.
  • Use automation/technology to help you build habits (e.g., automatic savings plan)

Make it satisfying (or unsatisfying):

  • Find a way to make not doing something you want to painful, embarrassing, etc. (e.g., wearing a Boston Bruins hockey sweater as punishment, etc.).
  • ‘Explore’, then ‘exploit’ (i.e., try a variety of things until what works is known, then do what works).
  • Challenge yourself optimally by doing things just on the edge of your ability. Too hard or too easy isn’t motivating.
  • Fall in love with boredom (i.e., people who achieve high performance are able to adapt to routine and ‘boring’ activities in pursuit of a greater ambition).
  • Record-keeping is important to reduce complacency and track progress. People at the top of their game keep records of their performance (e.g., comedians, like Chris Rock, who take notes on stage).

What’s one small step you can take today?

Tyler Wier, (former) Senior Consultant