Image: ©2019 Emelina Spinelli |

“Changes that seem small and unimportant at first, will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.”

— James Clear, in “Atomic Habits”

I heard this sentence clearly, listening to James Clears’ audiobook Atomic Habits. I paused the audio, took a deep breathe in, and sat for a moment.

I thought to myself— “small habits compound”.

The ah-ha moment sunk in, and I was able to piece together a semblance of newly acquired motivation to change how I act at different points during the day.

You may be thinking— who cares, what does this mean anyway?

For me, this phrase is important because I usually think of my daily actions as coming from a place of motivation. I take pride in being an overachiever, which comes with it’s host of self-driven motivation techniques.

I know how to get myself into a point of action, even if I’m bored, tired or destructive. I’m accustomed to drumming up all the willpower in the world. I do it through discipline, demanding that I perform, among other techniques.

Personally, I like rehearse all the good things that I can feel if I take action to be motivated to get _______ (enter specific goal) done.

If I’ve been slipping, and not acting immediately on what I desire I add another tactic to the list. I like to remind myself of all of the negative feelings and consequences I’ll feel if I don’t take action. This way my brain understands both the positive desire based motivation, and the negative fear-based motivation. From this place I’ll drum up the will power to strive forward. I’ve been able to use this method to accomplish so much in my life.

For example:

  • It’s how I motivated myself to change my circumstances when I was homeless, sleeping out of a Chevy sedan for months in NYC. I was able to move myself from a condition of temporary homelessness to receiving an ideal job, moving cross country, and elevating my life to a place that I never experienced.
  • I used this system again when I was working for a corporate giant that was sucking my energy dry every day. I knew I needed to leave my cushy corporate salary and make it on my own. I quit, started my own business and sprinted through the challenges for a year until making 6 figures on my own.

Now, obviously being internally motivated is extraordinarily helpful. Especially when you need to change your life— stat. Willpower is completely necessary to develop. If you’re not accustomed to “doing the hard stuff”, then you must actively develop your willpower muscle.

Willpower: Doing the “Hard Stuff”

The more you force yourself to engage in beneficial activities (regardless of your level of desire), the more willpower you create for yourself.

Simply, this can be seen as delayed gratification. You engage in an activity now, that will yield more benefit for you later. This type of behavior conditions a mind that does not look for immediate rewards, and will put in the necessary work to accomplish identified goals.

This mentality I’ve described is the difference between long term achievers, and temporary success. An individual’s success is frequently associated with how much they’re willing to work for what they desire. Subsequently, their long-term achievement is based in how much willpower they can muster to do things that aren’t fun— “the hard stuff” as Jesse Itzler calls it.

However, upon reading the first half of “Atomic Habits”, I’ve found another way to create sustainable successful behavior.

Another Way to Leverage Longterm Success

Rather than just drumming up willpower (which takes it’s toll on energy), one can rely on expertly planted good-habits.

After reading just half of James Clears’ book, I’ve come to comprehend a number of ways I can create additional longterm success without drawing on my well of willpower & self-motivated drive.

Although important, self-motivation is not the only action that dictates personal success.

Clear argues that success is not a question of “motivation” but inquires as to what habits you have running on autopilot throughout the day.

The Quality of Your Habits Dictates the Quality of Your Life

Clear presents the idea that your habits are the real indication of how much you accomplish, and how you feel while you’re doing it.

Habits are identified as being a regular practice that’s hard to give up. It’s an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.

Your habits therefore, are the actions you take every single day on autopilot—whether they help or hinder your progress towards your goals.

Thus it makes complete sense to me, that your unconscious behavior patterns would absolutely dictate the quality of your life, and your personal feelings of success.

For example, you could theoretically be internally motivated to do the hard stuff, but still lack results. We all have automatic behaviors that can conflict with our motivation and what we decide to do with our day.

Just last week, I had an experience of this myself.

I was completely 100% internally motivated to work out. I understood the desire for more health, and a toned body. I understood the negative consequences of not doing the work this week and every week moving forward (not being in shape). I was totally motivated. “I’m going to get into shape, and I’m committed!” I said to myself. Then, my day slipped away from me. And the next day, and the next. Four days lapsed without me lifting a single weight or going for a run.

I thought to myself— “how could I be so motivated, and not do what I’m motivated about?” It’s pretty simple. I have lots of daily habits, none of which involve working out involuntarily through force of habit. I walk to a coffee shop, and walk my dog. This is the extent of my normal daily “work out”. This isn’t exactly the type of behavior that will hep me get 6-pack abs, and that exercise skin glow.

But… I was motivated.

Motivation doesn’t equal success. Your daily habits do!

Automatic Old Habits can Conflict with Your New Desires

The thing is, your daily habits can often over run your motivation. Your daily habits make you who you are, and account for the results, and quality of your life. Want a different quality of life? Then you must change your habits. You may be able to exercise will power for a moment, but without the backing ritualistic habits, you won’t have the momentum to see every day through until you’ve achieved your desired state.

In the case I outlined above, my habit of sedentary behavior, shadowed my desire for movement & to work out. Without creating a new habit of daily exercise, I would never achieve the results I desire.

Align Your New Desires with the Right Habits for their Followthrough

If your new desires, your motivation, and your daily habits are all aligned— you are an unstoppable vessel for success. Nothing will get in your way—it’s a guaranteed win.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”


Your personal success and achievement is built on each habit you have running on autopilot—today.

James Clear suggests auditing the habits that you conduct knowingly or unknowingly during your day.

The exercise:

  • Create a column of habits you do every single day. For example: wake up, make coffee, stretch, drink water, go for a walk, check my phone, make a daily priority list, meditate, go to work.
  • Then, you place a plus sign (+) next to good habits that make you happy and that help you move forward. Place a minus sign (-) next to habits that are not positive & that you’d like to change. Place an equal sign (=) next to neutral habits.
  • Identify the habits that you’d like to change & begin developing a routine to change the habits into ones you prefer

A good measure of whether or not the habit in question is good for you…

  • Identify if the habit is one that will help you become the new identity you desire to be.

For example, if I desire to work out, and be strong, then I’m also creating a new future identity of myself. My new identity, is that of a person that works out, enjoys taking physical care of their body, and is highly conscious of the quality of food that goes into my body. This is my new “desired identity”. This is the person I would have to become in order to have the body I want.

James Clear identifies “habits that conflict with your desired identity are usually bad.”

Two Actionable Ways to Create New Habits Aligned With Your Future Identity

1. Create a decided plan of action for the new habit’s achievement.

James Clear refers to this as creating an “Implementation Intention”. In this scenario, you provide specificity on when exactly you intend to perform your new action & habit.

For this method to succeed, you’ll need the following…

  • Make it obvious.

A clear cue will help you move into this action when the cue happens. Ambiguity will leave you not sure when to do it, so you won’t do it.

  • Identify the time and location that you will perform the task/habit.

This is where you create a plan of what you intend to do, and speak it out loud. The act of planning what, where, and when you will perform this new action will anchor it’s achievement.

“I will ____________ (new desired action), at __________ (location) at ____________ (exact time of day).

Time and location are the two biggest cues for new habit completion. It’s kind of a fail-safe. Once you state the intention and the time and location arrive, it’s easy to know what to do next (your new desired action) because you’ve planned it all ahead.

The location, time and commitment are so obvious that the decision is already made for you.

Then, You move right into action.

2. Stack the new habit, onto a convenient existing habit.

James Clear refers to this method as “habit stacking”.

This idea builds on the concept that no behavior is done in isolation. Every habit you do, leads to another usually related habit.

For example, when I wake up and drink water, I get hungry and make breakfast. Then after breakfast I clean the dishes. Existing related habits stack on each other.

Clear argues that you can use this connectedness to your advantage when building new habits into your daily routine.

One of the best ways to create a new habit is to identity a current relateed habit you already do each day, and stack your new behavior after it.

I wanted to put this tactic to the test, so I’ve been trying it the last few days. As I stated earlier—I’m looking to become more fit, strong, and change my body to be healthier.

I found an existing a related habit—in the afternoon after lunch, I walk to a coffee shop. I do this pretty much everyday without fail. I figued that since I’m already walking, I could add a behavior that would increase my activity and remind me to add low impact cardio into my day—twice (I walk to the coffee shop and back).

Now, when I walk to the coffee shop in the afternoon, I set the timer on my phone for 30 minutes, and I power walk to the point where I’m breathing hard and breaking a light sweat. What was once just a normal daily habit, I was able to turn into a cardio movement that helps progress me to accomplish my new body goals.

Now, I do this twice a day.

This simple habit stacking, has earned me 60 minutes a day of power walking that didn’t exist before. Now when I do this every day for months, and even years— we’re likely talking about some serious progress.

Habit Stacking Formula:

  • After I ________ (do existing habit), I will ___________ (do new habit).

Once upon a time (just last week!) I thought internal motivation accounted for drive to accomplish tasks daily. Now, I understand that not only do we need daily motivation to accomplish what we desire, but we must be aware of our habits as well.

With this lens, I intend to increase my own awareness around my daily rituals. I’ll be creating new habits to build my daily life into one that has the quality of life I desire.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

What habits do you do every day that you love? How about those that you’d like to change? Let me know in the comments!