Trade Guilt and Resolutions For One Atomic Habit
While many have caught on that New Year’s Resolutions are typically abandoned in the warm glow of Valentine’s Day, and have ditched them, many of us still have a lingering guilt for not improving something: ourselves, the world, our bodies—our kids, our homes, our careers. We’re not sure, and we don’t know what the goals should be. If we do have goals, we’re not sure how they should be prioritized. Add in any amount of PTSD or trauma (which affects a lot of us), and many of us can be paralyzed when it comes to goals, self-improvement, or any sort of positive change.
Those of us with religious backgrounds might instantly self-sabotage any goals we have, because, obviously, they’re not the right ones. Or maybe we had a parent who fed us the same lies about ourselves and our desires.
Other times, we buy a planner or read a book and try a new system, only to become exhausted, dillusioned, or convinced that there’s something intrinsically wrong with goals or, even worse, ourselves.
But I have a strong suspicion that systems only work as training wheels. The first structured planner I bought was helpful, but I quickly outgrew it. (More here). My journaling journey has evolved as I’ve realized more and more that planning, goals, systems, and planners are all about self-awareness more than anything.
No system in the world is designed for you to accomplish what you and you alone need to accomplish. A system is either designed by one person for one person, and therefore won’t work for you, or it was designed for the masses, which means it will be the lowest common denominator of success for thousands or millions of people.
The best system is the one you’re going to create for yourself.
Three books anyone who wants to dig a level of self-awareness that will help you create a life map that will weather the storms are:
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss
- The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll
- bonus: Dot Journaling: A Practical Guide by Rachel Wilkerson Miller
- bonus: Soundtracks by Jon Acuff
These books wove together beautifully in my mind. They made so much sense together. Negotiating want you want out of life is more important than a hostage negotiation (maybe you and I are the hostages). Atomic Habits are like steel armor against giving up on goals. And bullet journaling (which is not a performance art), is the very best way to reflect, plan, do, and repeat until you get where you’ve negotiated to go. Soundtracks is a readable book about affirmations and their importance in shaping your character, and Dot Journaling creates a highlight reel of easy to remember tips, a really good flow of pages and a way to get up and running quickly. (For another way to get up and running quickly, check out my NightOwl Journal—it makes bullet journaling more accessible).
Negotiating for the life you want requires discipline and vision. This requires tiny changes that lead to remarkable results. Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results: This is the subheading on James Clear best seller Atomic Habits. This book rescued me. It rescued me from giving up on goals I cared about.
It rescued me from giving up on myself.
“I’m convinced everybody should experience their life falling apart to discover who they truly are.” I searched for the owner of this quote, but I’m wondering now if it was just something someone posted on social media without realizing how profound it is.
I think the problem with goals is that once you achieve one, it’s possible to lose ground in that same area of our lives as we move on to another goal. This is why professional athletes often can struggle with healthy habits after they win big.
Another problematic philosophy that permeates goal-seeking cultures is that you can only go for one goal at a time. Ask any mother, primary caregiver, or involved partner whether this is unrealistic.
There is never just one goal. Dinner needs to be on the table in the same week that we need to stop spending more than we make. We need to take care of our bodies while also caring for our dwelling places.
We all need to be able to feel peace about making progress in multiple goals at once.
I do, however, believe in starting with just one goal. For me, accomplishing one small goal was a boost of self-confidence and hope, and I think focusing on one goal (alleviating the spine pain I felt by going to yoga four times a week) taught me that I could change things, that I was more powerful than I realized, that I was capable of prioritizing and choosing what I wanted in life.
However, once I accomplished that goal, what then? As I moved on to writing my book, was I supposed to view the spine health goal as accomplished? Wouldn’t that just mean I stopped going to yoga?
As it turned out, even though I checked off a goal, I did need to balance multiple areas of focus in my life, because as soon as I shifted to writing, I started slacking in yoga, and the pain started coming back.
Here is where things began to get overwhelming. An hour of yoga four times a week was what I thought I needed to stay healthy. Then I started blocking off half an hour of writing a day. As I looked at my life map, my desire for a more organized space, better planned-out meals, and the needs of my family members, I started running faster and faster. I worked full time, so that was a factor, too. I felt overwhelmed, sometimes making big jumps towards my goals, sometimes wallowing in self-sabotage and anxiety.
And I was suffering from a chronic illness. I tried to ignore it, because I didn’t know a cure, and because my family and job needed me so badly. But in a series of events I don’t want to think about right now, I ran into a brick wall and realized that goals are nothing if you don’t know yourself. I came to the profound realization that life is all about prioritizing, and right then, I needed to prioritize my healing.
I needed to prioritize myself, because it was me that was going to accomplish all these wonderful things.
James Clear covers four laws of behavior change in his book Atomic Habits.
- Make them obvious.
- Make them easy.
- Make them attractive.
- Make them satisfying.
Habits That Beat Resolutions Law 1—Make Them Obvious
I draw the same habit tracker each week. In the same book as where I track my habits, I carry some of them out, turning to a blank page to list my gratitude.
This is why the book Atomic Habits was so life-changing. I needed weekly or daily habits that kept me on track in each important area of my life. I needed to solidify a habit of healthiness while I chased my book finishing goal. And the habits, I learned from Atomic Habits, needed to be small enough that I stuck to them.
And after a lot of trial and error and balancing, I did.
Habits That Beat Resolutions Law 2—Make Them Easy
One of the recurring themes in James Clear’s book is that if your habits are overwheling, then make them easier.
If you don’t go to the gym each day, instead of giving up on fitness, start with doing one yoga pose by your bed each morning. It can take 10-30 seconds.
“When someone displays a passion for what we’ve always wanted and conveys a purposeful plan of how to get there, we allow our perceptions of what’s possible to change. We’re all hungry for a map to joy, and when someone is courageous enough to draw it for us, we naturally follow.—Chris Voss—Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference
After I had a healing crisis a few years ago, and finally finding the right medical attention, I realized the reason I couldn’t make progress on my book was that I was losing myself. I wasn’t as in touch with that inner writing voice I used to have.
So I changed my goal.
Every morning, I played a meditation app and wrote down 3 things I was grateful for. That’s writing, so ta-da! I was writing every day. I stacked these two habits with my keto coffee, because that’s something I loved doing. (Cue Law 2 of James Clear’s Laws of Behavior Change: make it attractive). And these habits are easy, because each morning when the thought of my keto coffee gets me out of bed, I grab my phone and journal (Cue Law 3: Make it easy).
Habits That Beat Resolutions Law 3—Make Them Attractive
Those quiet moments in the morning, very different from the legalistically-driven quiet time I used to have, were healing.
So was writing without focusing on the one overwhelming project I kept failing at.
I did these things for myself.
Not to satisfy someone or something else.
Not to complete a project or reach a goal.
Not to feel worthy or acceptable.
And I saw the little glimpses of me again from time to time in notes I would make below the gratitude tracker—notes that sprang out of the thoughts I had when or just after I was meditating.
Only recently have I added daily pilates to my habit tracker, because I’m happy with my consistency in the other 3 habits, and because I finally found an app that connects with me as far as at-home workouts. The workouts are short, challenging but relaxing, nobody’s shouting at me, and they’re customizable to my problem areas.
My habits and my bullet journal’s habit tracker do so much do ease anxiety. Whenever I freak out that I’m not making progress in my life map, I can go back to my tracker and remember that I am. Was there progress? Even a little progress? That’s all I need.
Everything else will fall into place.
So this new year, instead of making a resolution, pick one, just one atomic habit, and track it in your bullet journal or planner. Make it small. If you fall down, instead of quitting, make it even smaller, and try again. Each week is a new beginning. Each day is a new blank page.
Habits That Beat Resolutions Law 4: Make Them Satisfying
As you track your habit, reflect at least once a week in your bullet or dot journal how it makes you feel. Is it working towards your own personal dreams or goals, towards your peace or happiness? The right habits motivate us to keep going, and the wrong ones either drain us or deplete our will power, and they align with who we truly are. Habits can be challenging, but they shouldn’t leave you feeling empty or frustrated.
This reflection step is one of the most important parts of habit tracking, one of of the most important parts of planning, and definitely one of the most important part of journaling.
What is the point of planning unless you’re planning the right things for you?
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”—Lao Tzu
Note: 2023 was a challenging, amazing, scary, faith-filled year. That 15 minutes in the morning (which sometimes turned into more) was a space I started to really hear my inner heart. Deeper connections in my relationships, almost finalizing our adoption, finding greater work-life balance, and beginning Owl Paper all flowed out of those little, atomic habits. My shift from goal-chasing to reflective habit-tracking is one I’m sticking with, because I like where it got me. (And I love how Owl Paper, not something that was on my original life map in 2019, is so right for me and my family, and flowed out of the reflective habit-tracking part of planning).
I bargained with life for a penny,
And life would pay no more.
However I begged at evening
When I counted my scanty store.
For life is just an employee,
He gives you what you ask,
But once you set the wages,
Why, you must bear the task.
I worked for a menial’s hire,
Only to learn, dismayed,
That any wage I had asked of life,
Life would have willingly paid.—Jessie B. Rittenhouse