For the first time in my life, I kept a New Year’s resolution.
Not only did the resolution itself add value to my life, but the act of keeping a promise to myself restored some confidence and faith in myself. My goal for 2020 was to establish a habit of reading and to vary the type of books I read. I am now seeing the fruits of this — as of October 1st, 2020, I had read 29 books, including theology, memoir, history, fiction, and self-help books.
I have always had a love for reading, but it wasn’t a habit to pick up a book on vacation or when my favorite author had a new release. It was an occasional pastime. I had a desire to cultivate knowledge in a variety of areas and I also wanted to grow my writing skills, both of which are largely developed by reading.
A lifestyle that includes daily reading has been one of the most transformational things of my life, and a few people have asked me how I have managed it, especially as a mom with two toddlers. The secret was James Clear’s brilliant, life-changing book, Atomic Habits.
This book established the framework for my year of reading and it can easily be applied to any type of goal. Clear not only gives insight into how to achieve a goal, but also how not to. He says, “Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.” This has always been my outlook, and it has rarely proven successful. He continues: “Meanwhile, improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable — sometimes even noticeable — but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run.”
Basically, habits aren’t that sexy.
This was a true revelation for me. What would happen if I rejected goal-oriented, massive effort followed by a crash behavior and instead adopted slow and steady, sometimes boring, habit-oriented behavior? This was what I asked myself right before I decided to give my reading goal a shot. The largest takeaway from Clear’s book for me was to begin any new habit with extremely low-threshold daily routines.
I gave myself a very doable minimum of reading for every day: one page or three minutes, whichever came first. This kept reading from feeling overwhelming. Instead of aiming at a deadline of reading a book a week, which was easy not to meet and therefore easy to give up on, this task didn’t have that kind of pressure. I also found that most days, if I started with one page, I just kept going. There were exhausting days with the kids where I did use my one-page rule, but these slow days didn’t affect my progress because I was still cultivating the ultimate goal: a habit.
James Clear offers another tip that helped me: fit a new habit into an existing habit. Fitting reading into my bedtime routine was a natural connection. It was easy to lay down in bed, turn my bedside lamp on, kiss my husband goodnight, and open a book for a few minutes. Ten months later, this three-minute habit has turned into an hour-long habit (assuming we are in bed by 9:30 like usual). I look forward to this routine every day now, and this time to unwind has helped me fall asleep more easily.
Another key aspect of establishing this habit, especially because I have kids, was letting go of perfection. I used to think there was no point in sitting down to read if I couldn’t finish a chapter. Now, after seeing the progress of this little bedtime habit, I realize that pages add up. A stolen page here and there while the kids are playing or napping counts. I also trained myself to place my phone on the book I am reading so that when I am tempted to mindlessly scroll, I am reminded I could be reading instead. This is what Clear calls a “cue.”
Another source of motivation was to record my successes. I began to keep a running list of titles of every book I read on a piece of paper. Seeing the list grow added to my confidence. Writing a title down after closing a book was a reward in and of itself.
Applying this slow and steady logic to other aspects of my reading helped as well. I have long had a desire to read more classics, but I was often intimidated by them. Knowing I could break them up into little chunks meant I could work away at them without feeling pressure to finish them on a certain time frame. For instance, I read my first Jane Austen book this year by reading three pages every night before switching to something easier. Not long into the book, however, this classic became less intimidating and I began to enjoy it — I finished the rest of it within a week.
Reading is just one of the possible habits that could be established using the methods described in Atomic Habits. There are millions of habits and variations of ways to form them. Perhaps that is one of the aspects of Clear’s book that will prove to be timeless. It offers hope to everyone, no matter their season of life — from college student to stay-at-home-mom to CEO, everyone has something to gain in realizing their capabilities by forming habits for this gift of a new year.