The most important part of changing a habit

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You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. The book Atomic Habits by James clear is an amazing book that gives some great tips and tricks on changing your habits. Listen in this week as we talk about some key takeaways from Atomic Habits but learn the most important step that’s missing. If you want to change your life, change your habits. If you want to change your habits, you need to change this. Listen in and learn.

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Hey, I’m Lindsay Lyman. I worked almost 12 years at Amazon and saw so many brilliant and successful overachievers burn themselves out and leave their jobs because they’re so stressed and anxious. But guess what? Having a successful career does not have to be at the expense of your mental sanity and personal time. There’s an easier way, and I can show you how. Let’s do this.


Hey y’all, how’s it going? I read somewhere the other day that we are 2% through 2024, and I don’t know about you, but that gave me a little bit of anxiety because I was like, “Oh my gosh, where are we? Already counting down the time, and it feels like we just started.” Yet, I feel like February is right around the corner. Time just keeps going faster and faster the older I get. And as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions. I don’t go in and make these big, huge goals and things I want to go after because what I realized is that just wasn’t my most helpful tool. I tend to create these big, massive, huge change goals that are hard and going to require me to shift a lot of things. And then I wouldn’t really set myself up for success, and it was just kind of another thing I was being rude to myself about. So I don’t do that anymore. Not to say there aren’t things I want to shift and change and grow and push myself to do hard things. I just personally don’t really do it through the typical New Year’s resolution lens. And that’s okay. If New Year’s resolutions work for you, amazing. I love it. Keep at it. Keep going.


I hope you’re doing well, and I hope that you’re 2% along because that’s about where we should be. So when we have a goal or something we really want to change, the thing that tends to be the topic of conversation is really looking at your habits. And you also can’t talk about habits without talking about a great book, which I read and I’m sure many of you have, and if you hadn’t, you should, called Atomic Habits by James Clear. He gives some really great insights and principles. Essentially, habits are formed by repetition. So, you are what you repeat. So, you really want to understand your habits if you want to create your best self, right? Makes sense. But what I want to dive into today is I want to talk a little bit about just very, very high-level some of the key concepts James Clear talks about in Atomic Habits, but I want to tell you the key part I think is actually missing in order for the tools and tactics he teaches to actually stick and work.


So, I love the concept he talks about is like 1% changes, like small shifts and changes consistently over time are ultimately what will have that massive impact on your life. So, if you change something 1% on a daily basis over the course of a year, you’re going to be 37 times better at it by the end of the year. And as we really just focus on goals, the challenge with goals is they’re so focused on the final outcome, they tend to ignore the process of getting there. So, there’s a famous phrase, “If you don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” So, understanding your habits, understanding what those systems are, it’s crucial and key if there is something you want to shift and change. And I don’t disagree with that. I love how James outlines kind of the four stages of a habit. He talks about, first, there’s the cue, what’s the thing that initiates or triggers something within you? Next, you move into the craving, what’s the thing you actually want? Usually, the cue and the craving are the opposite of each other. When you’re craving that, what’s your response? And when that’s how you’re responding, what’s the reward you’re getting?


So, I’ll give you an example of what this would look like. If you’re the kind of person that tends to have the habit of checking your email in the morning, kind of first thing when you wake up, so the cue may be that you wake up and your brain starts thinking about the day, what’s on your to-do list, what’s coming in, what meetings do you have, right? The cue is you wake up and your brain starts thinking about work. The craving, when that’s your cue, the craving you might have is to feel like you’re in the know and up to speed, that you’re not behind on things. Okay, so we wake up and we’re like, “Oh, I wonder what came in overnight. I’m just going to check my email,” because you’re craving feeling like you’re in the know. So, when that’s what we’re craving, we respond by we pull out our phone and we check our email, right? And it’s sometimes like 10, 15, 20 seconds in bed. It’s not a huge, massive thing. No one’s getting harmed. It’s not terrible. It’s not horrible. But that’s the response, okay? And the reward you get from doing that is you get these little bits of dopamine, you get these little bits of know and info so that you can be calm because you instantly receive that gratification of “I know what’s going on in my email.” So now checking your email becomes associated with that feeling of waking up and feeling behind and feeling uncertain of the day. And so it becomes this habit, this cycle we do over and over and over enough that’s why it almost just feels instinctual for some of us to just wake up, pick up our phone, check our email, boom, away we go. It’s that craving response reward system looping over and over and over again. So, if you want to form these healthy habit loops, if you don’t want work to be the first kind of intention in your mind and where your brain is going and what you’re spending those first moments in the morning doing, we got to look at changing that habit loop.


The rest of his book really dives into how do you change that habit, right? How do you have that cue, have that craving, but not respond by picking up your phone? And he has some great tips and tricks on how to shift those habit loops. And I’ll tell you about a few of them that I really like, but then I’m going to tell you the piece that I think is missing that makes implementing it so, so much easier when you apply this. So, one of the things he talks about is if you’re wanting to shift a habit, make the cue for that thing you want to do or to stop doing obvious. And he talks about this like habit stacking. So, if there’s a habit you want to start doing, attach it to something you already do. So, if you want to start being more grateful throughout the day and notice things that are going well, attach it to something you already do, like maybe every time you go to the bathroom, remind yourself of one thing that’s going well, right? Do you see how that’s like a thing you already do multiple times throughout the day, even kind of subconsciously? You don’t have to think about it. It’s something you automatically do. Attach a habit to that. Attach a habit to brushing your teeth. Attach a habit to every time you open up an email. There’s things we do all day, every day. So, this is where he talks about make your cue obvious.


Another thing he talks about is he calls it the temptation bundle. So, it’s kind of “I can enjoy X after I’ve done Y.” So, if you have a health goal, maybe it’s “I can watch my favorite show while I’m on the treadmill,” right? So, it’s once I’ve done X, then I can have Y.


He also talks a lot about removing barriers. So, these are things of like how do you say no? How do you stop taking on more projects? How do you decline certain meetings? How do you make it easier? How do you stop over-complicating it? Stop creating more status reports and doing the document in a different way when we already have it in five forms? How do you remove the barriers if you have a health goal to get up and to move your body, get your clothes out the night before, right? Like remove the barrier of having to find your clothes in the morning when you’re tired.


Another thing he talks about is make your goal super easy. Remember, we’re trying to give our brain these little hits of dopamine. So, if you’ve got a health goal and you want to start running again, maybe don’t tell yourself you’re going to go run 20 minutes. Tell yourself you’re going to run for two. The goal is to start engaging in the behavior or stop engaging in the behavior. There’s a lot to be said about momentum and once you’ve already started.


And he also talks about using reinforcements. So, tracking it, charting it, giving yourself a sticker, some sort of visual representation to show the progress you’ve made. Remember, we’re going for small, consistent 1% changes over the course of a year. We’re not ripping the Band-Aid and changing huge significant things at once. Because when we think about why we want these things, why we want to get promoted or reach a health goal or change our relationship status or improve a skill or stop a habit, the goal really isn’t to have the thing. It’s not really to stop or start something. Really what we want is the transformation in who we become along the way.


So, I love that he helps make shifting some of our habits approachable and gives some really great tactics. Where I think we can amplify this even more is to add in another step where it doesn’t require little bits of willpower to change the habit. So, yes, we can attach it to a cue, but we’ve still got to use some willpower to shift our behavior. Yes, we can reward ourselves at the end once we’ve done the thing. Yes, we can make it simple and easy. Amazing, love it. But there’s still a little bit of this like, “I’ve got to use willpower. I’m fighting and resisting against myself a little bit.” And I think there’s a way we can make that even easier as well.


There’s the phrase of if you want to change your life, change your habits. And if you want to change your habits, change your heart, change your feelings. And as I have 170 odd episodes talking about, you know, from listening to this how you feel comes from what you’re thinking. If not, we all would feel the same thing about different experiences in life. We all would agree on politics. We all would agree what looks good and what doesn’t. We all would agree on medical protocol. We all would agree on what is and isn’t appropriate for children. But we don’t. We all feel differently because we all have these different beautiful brains.


So, if you want to change your life, you’ve got to change your habits. If you want to change your habits, you need to change how you’re feeling. If you want to change how you’re feeling, you need to change what you’re thinking. The root cause of how you got into this habit is because of feelings. They’re ones you’re avoiding, or they’re ones you’re chasing. So, for example, if you’re the kind of person that wants to change the habit of checking your email in the morning, most likely you’re trying to avoid stress and overwhelm and feeling behind. You’re trying to avoid those emotions and those feelings, and you’re chasing calm and peace. But here’s the thing, calm and peace don’t come from what we do. They don’t come from emails. They don’t come from to-dos. They don’t come from meetings. They don’t come from delaying tasks. It comes from how we’re choosing to think about it.


So, again, I love James’s approach, but let’s add a step. Okay, so you can’t just change your habits. You have to change how you’re thinking about it. So, if you want to stop checking your email first thing in the morning, you’re going to need to manage your brain. Okay, so you’re still going to have that same cue. You’re still going to wake up, and you’re still going to feel a little uneasy and a little out of it and a little worried about what’s going on and perhaps some stress about the things that need to go on. I believe that cue will still happen for quite a while until your nervous system gets on board and realizes we’re safe and it’s okay. Another conversation for another day.


What we want to do is now, instead of craving peace and calm and just going in to do whatever we need to to feel that calm and peace, we want to interrupt the thoughts that that cue has triggered. So, the thoughts of “I have so much to do,” “I need to be in the know,” “What happened while I was sleeping,” “I wonder what the escalation is,” those are the thoughts creating that stress and overwhelm and uncertainty. We want to acknowledge the cue, but we want to interrupt the craving. We want to choose how we want to think about it on purpose.


Here’s some other ways you could choose to think about it: Okay, we’re going to wake up and feel a little bit of that stress and anxiety, and then I just like to remind myself, you know, if there really is an emergency, my company knows how to get a hold of me. I have a plan to catch up on things. I have time on my calendar to go in and check my email. I want to have a calm morning. I want to connect with my family first thing in the morning. It’s okay to not know what’s in my inbox. Work starts at 8. I will check my email then.


So now we’ve already created that calm for ourselves, and we’re going to respond from that place, not because we’re craving it and trying to get it, but we’re responding because we already have arrived at a more calm, peaceful place.


So now that we’ve managed our thoughts and we’re already feeling calm, you know what? We’re not going to check our email. We’re going to go make coffee. We’re going to talk to our family. We’re going to get in the shower. We’re going to go move our body. We’re going to meditate, like whatever it is you want to do. And the reward you get from that is hits of connection, hits of refreshment, which enables you to be more focused at work because you started off your morning calm and collected and how you wanted it.


Let’s look at another example. Let’s say you have the goal of speaking up more in meetings. Your cue might be walking into a meeting where key senior leaders are there, and you’re telling yourself and thinking things like, “This is my chance for some good face time. Don’t look stupid. Don’t blow it. What smart things are you going to say?” And if that’s what you’re thinking because you feel queued, you feel triggered, you’re going to feel worried and anxious, and chances are a lot greater that you are going to kind of look stupid when you’re worried and anxious because if you’re letting that cue of their senior leaders, “This is my chance. This is a big deal,” drive your actions, and you’re craving calm and confidence and acceptance, you’re maybe still going to go and speak up and say things, but you’re going to do it in a way that’s weird and creepy and not actually helpful. And everyone in the room is going to be able to tell you’re doing it because you’re just trying to get FaceTime. And you may get a little hit of that, “I spoke up. I did it,” but you’re still not getting that goal of, “I am a strategic leader. I am adding strategic value in my meetings,” because yes, you’re actually speaking up, but you’re doing it from this place of worry and fear and anxiety, and what you say and how you say it and the ideas your brain offers you is all coming from that.


So we may still have the same cue, right? We’re going to walk into this meeting, and senior leaders are going to be there, and we’re going to feel that anxiety and that nervousness, but we want to interrupt that craving and create that emotion right now before we go and take the action. So if you’re wanting to feel present, open, strategic, calm, connected, confident, competent, valued, appreciated, those things are going to come from the thoughts you have about that cue. It’s going to come from thoughts like, “This is what I do. I can help move this along. I know how to look around corners. I can push on assumptions.” So when that’s what you’re thinking and you’re feeling present and focused and like you’re adding value, and you respond from that place, you’re going to speak up, and you’re going to add value, and you’re going to ask questions, and you’re not going to worry what the other leaders think about you because you’re not doing it for the show; you’re doing it to help. And the reward you get is you get to feel that pride, that confidence, that appreciation because you know you’re doing your job. That’s ultimately what we’re going for.


Let’s look at one more example. Let’s say you struggle a little bit with procrastination, hypothetically speaking here. Oh, okay. So if your cue is that you have a meeting at 3:00, and you’re feeling tired and distracted and kind of bugged because you don’t really want to have that meeting or do that thing that’s on your calendar, and if you keep thinking thoughts like, “I have plenty of time. There’s other things that feel more important right now. It’s okay. I’ll just do it tomorrow,” and you’re craving to feel good and at ease and for the path of least resistance, and you respond from that space, you’re probably not going to do the thing. You’re going to work on other stuff. You’re still going to be productive, but you’re going to keep putting off that thing you need to get done. And the reward you’re giving yourself is to feel good right now, but to feel worse in the long run because you’re not getting it done, and you’re probably going to have to feel more stress and pressure to actually do it when it is due.


If we throw in this, we’re going to interrupt our thought process after the cue. The cue is still the same. It’s still 3:00. We’re still tired, distracted, bugged. We still don’t want to do what’s on our calendar. Okay. But now, instead of thinking, “I have plenty of time. This other thing feels more important right now. It’s okay. I’ll just do it tomorrow,” now we’re going to think thoughts like, “I don’t have to want to do this, but I’m going to,” or something like, “I love that feeling once it’s done. I don’t want to keep thinking about this. I just want to get it done. I’d rather feel annoyed now than later.” Or sometimes, for me, it’s a thought as simple as, like, “I just want this out of my brain. I just want to be done.” So now when that’s what we’re thinking and we’re feeling focused and productive and driven, our response is we go and get it done. Yeah, I may, like, roll my eyes and have a heavy sigh and feel a little bugged, but I go do the thing. I start the work. I feel annoyed, and it gets done. And the reward I get is that it feels good right now, now to have it done, and it feels good later because I’m not thinking about it later. I don’t have to feel stressed and anxious, and I’m not trying to force myself to do it later.


So, I love these stages of thinking about our habits of the cue, the craving, the response, the reward. What I’d offer to you is once you notice the cue, we don ‘t want to go crave feeling and take action to get that feeling. We want to learn to get ourselves into the feeling right now, which comes from our thinking. Then respond and reap the reward from managing our brain already. That’s what’s going to make changing some of these habits so much easier and not require willpower and not have to drag yourself through this when you know how to create those emotions for you today. We’re not craving anything; we just are. We’ve already shifted; we’re already changing who we are, which makes changing our behavior so much easier.


So I’d offer you to think about your habits. Next week’s podcast, I’m going to do a part two of this because I want to dive into what are some of the thought habits that we have that are keeping us stuck and what are some ways we can get out of those thought loops as well. Okay, so go acknowledge those habits you have, make those shifts and changes you want to create the habits you want, but make sure you’re managing your brain while you’re doing it. All right, you got this; we’ll talk soon.


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Hey, I’m Lindsay Lyman

I spent the last ~12 years growing my career at Amazon. I’ve built teams, launched new products, and created my own jobs. As a certified coach, I teach people how to manage the noise in their head to feel motivated and valued at work again.

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