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Conquer Your Weight

Episode #25: Book Club: "Atomic Habits" by James Clear

Show Notes

September 7, 2022

This week we're going to talk about the book, "Atomic Habits," by James Clear. We'll discuss both the WHY of setting habits and the HOW.

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Dr. Sarah Stombaugh: This is Dr. Sarah Stombaugh and you are listening to the Conquer Your Weight Podcast, episode number 25. Announcer: Welcome to the Conquer Your Weight podcast, where you will learn to understand your mind and body so you can achieve long-term weight loss. Here's your host, obesity medicine physician and life coach, Dr. Sarah Stombaugh. Dr. Sarah Stombaugh: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining me today. I feel like I have been talking about my pregnancy forever, and now I am quickly approaching my due date. So this will be the very last episode before we move to alternating week episodes. And we are going to try out something new. We are going to have a book club this week. I wanna give you a bit of background information about why I decided to do this. So I'll share with you all over the last month or so, I've been working on my sleep hygiene at the time I'm recording. Like I said, I'm at the very end of my pregnancy and I am exhausted. I'm sleeping like eight to nine hours every night, but when I wake up in the morning, I wish I could just go back to sleep for a few more hours, but I have a two year old and a four year old, and now the school year is back in full swing and so I get my butt out of bed, but it's not easy and it's so easy to look at a situation like this and think, well, of course I'm tired. I'm nine months pregnant. I'm doing everything right. It's just the pregnancy making me feel this way. But this is a perfect example of making assumptions or excuses and not really stopping to get curious about the situation. So often we say things like, I'm doing everything right. Why am I getting this undesirable result in my life? We talked about this a bit last week, thoughts like these sound pretty innocent, but they actually end up blocking us from having curiosity and exploring another solution to the problem. So in this situation, is it possible that because I'm nine months pregnant, I'm feeling exhausted all the time? Yes, , totally. That is possible and I think that's probably a big part of it. I'm literally growing another human being, which takes a lot of physical energy. But also have I stopped to really analyze a situation? No. Well, now I have, but for a while, no, I hadn't. And in this situation, I decided to get rid of the unhelpful thought. I'm nine months pregnant, of course I'm exhausted and replace it with a thought. I'm nine months pregnant and I wonder if there's anything else that could be contributing to my exhaustion. When I think a thought like this, it opens me up to a curious mindset really. Is there anything else that we could that could be contributing to my exhaustion? And from that mindset, I was able to get pretty honest with myself about what my bedtime routine and my sleep hygiene looked like. And the reality of the situation was I was using my phone or my laptop into the evening hours, sometimes often right up until bedtime. And so even though I had a pretty early bedtime of 9:30 or 10:00 PM I was using screens until right before I would turn my lights off to go to bed. And we know that blue light from screens contributes to the decrease in melatonin hormone and the lower melatonin level can contribute to poor sleep. So even if I was getting eight to nine hours of sleep per night, was it actually good quality sleep? Was that screen time right before bed contributing to my exhaustion? And so the only way to answer that question was to try it out. And so for the last few weeks, I've been working really hard to minimize my screen time before bed. And I'm certainly not always perfect, but it's been a drastic change from the habit I had gotten into of reading through articles or scrolling social media or texting my friends in that hour leading up to go to bed. And as a result, I've ramped up my nighttime reading habit. I have always loved reading, especially at nighttime. I'm a huge bookworm. And now I am the bookworm iest version of my usual bookworm self. And so in addition to a lot of great fiction, I've definitely been reading a lot. Honestly, I'm getting through a book every couple of days at this point. I've read a lot of great nonfiction recently too, which is how we came to be here at our first ever book club. And so I wanted to share with you all some cliff notes and my thoughts from a couple of the books I've read recently. We're going to start with Atomic Habits, which is written by James Clear. This book came out about four years ago, and I've had so many different people recommend it to me where people are always talking about it in the life coaching circles I'm in. And I've been meaning to read it for a while. And I finally did. Ironically, this was the first book I read as I was trying to overcome that, uh, screen time habit before bed. So it probably helped or it continues to help with that habit that I'm working on. So the author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, is a habits expert. He's been working in this field for years now, and he's learned a thing or two about how we develop habits. And becoming a habit expert was the result of an experience in his own life. He went from being a star baseball player in high school to having a severe injury that set him back significantly. And it was only through developing good habits that he was able to become both an excellent athlete and an excellent student. And over the years, he has cultivated that work and has shared it now with thousands of people at corporate events or conferences and of course in this book as well. And some of what he shares is brand new information. But honestly, a lot of it is information we've understood for a long time. But he took it and was able to put it together in a way that people can understand and use. So let's get started. It's important to understand first and foremost, what is a habit? So a habit is a routine or a behavior that is performed regularly and in many cases automatically. The reason that habits are such a big deal is that the changes seem small and unimportant at first, but they can compound into remarkable results if you stick with them for years. And it's so easy to overestimate the importance of one big defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. However, most of our successes come as the result of small and long-term changes. I love the example he shares of improving by 1%. It's astounding what a difference 1% can make. If you imagine being 1% and then you get 1% better every single day for a year, at the end of the year, you'll end up 37 times better than when you started. However, if you take that same 1% and get 1% worse every day for a year, you'll decline nearly down to zero. And then if you think about not just one habit, but multiple habits, you can imagine how multiple small habits related to one another over time, they start to add up whether that's for the good or whether that's for the bad. And in the day-to-day, we don't always notice how our habits are impacting us. Saving a little money today does not make you a millionaire tomorrow. If you go to the gym three days in a row, you're still out of shape. And this is the case for weight gain. Often the slow pace of transformation makes it really easy to let a bad habit slide. If you eat one unhealthy meal today, you're unlikely to see any meaningful difference on the scale. But eventually our small choices make huge results for us. Whether that's good or that's bad. I saw a video on TikTok a couple of months ago demonstrating how habits add up, and I wish I could credit the creator of it because I didn't bookmark it. It just really stood out to me. And this nutritionist demonstrated lining up 365 Oreos onto her countertop and then talked about eating one Oreo. No big deal, just one Oreo. But if you imagine that you beat yourself up over that one Oreo or you fall off your food plan or that kicks off a habit of having one Oreo every day, imagine eating one Oreo every single day for a year, 365 Oreos. And I wish I could show you like I wish this was a video podcast. I could show you what 365 Oreos looks like when it's stacked on a countertop. It's really impressive. You have to buy 10 packages of Oreos to get that many. I Googled that, don't worry, . And even if it's not every day, these small things add up over time. And so all of the outcomes that we get in our life are lagging measures of our habits. So for example, our net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging financial or lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits and your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits you get in your life. What you repeat over and over again. And one of the most challenging things, or honestly the most challenging thing, is that we don't always see our outcomes right away. In fact, usually we don't. It's only once we've stuck to that habit for a long enough time that we're able to see the change occur. And sometimes we feel like we're not getting feedback quickly enough and we quit. In the book, James Clear describes an example of warming up an ice cube. And so if you imagine that you're sitting in a room that's 25 degrees and you've got an ice cube sitting on the table, and then you slowly begin to warm the room, every hour the room gets one degree warmer. So it's 25 degrees and it's 26 degrees and it's 27 degrees and nothing happens. The ice cube stays a frozen ice cube. It's not going to melt until the room reaches 32 degrees. And so it's easy to look at all of the work that went into warming up the room from 25 degrees to 31 degrees and think that nothing was happening there. But then all of a sudden you hit 32 and it starts to melt. And so all of that work, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, all of that mattered. These breakthrough moments are the result of many previous actions which build up the potential to unleash a major change. And so one of the major reasons it's hard to build habits that last is we make a few small changes, we don't see a result and we decide to stop. One of the other big things that James Clear talks about and that stood out to me was this idea of not just thinking about our goals, but thinking on systems instead. And he poses a question, if you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your systems, would you still be successful? And he speculates probably yes. And I agree. I'm not saying don't have goals, but it's important to focus on the steps that happen along the way. Because if you think about it, every sports team wants to win the game. Every aspiring author wants to write a book. Everyone who wants to lose weight has a target number in mind. And so while it's important to have a goal hitting the goal is not always the final measure of success. We talked about this before in weight loss. Our body is a fluctuating physiological system. You don't just get to lose weight and go back to all of your previous habits. When you do that, you'll regain the weight and you'll enter into that yo-yo pattern. And so what's the difference between someone who successfully loses weight and maintains their weight loss and someone who does not? Is it possibly the process by which they tried to get there or did get there? So if you imagine a person who does a crash diet, they lose a bunch of weight just to quit the diet after a few weeks because it was totally unsustainable. That's completely different than the person who took an honest look at their life and started making small changes that they can implement forever. Those small changes are realistic and they feel doable. And as the result, the person can implement them again and again and again. James Clear also describes three layers of behavioral change, and I think this is the one of the most important things he talks about. If you imagine an onion with three layers, the outermost layer is outcomes. The next layer moving inward is the process and the innermost layer or the core is one's identity. Outcomes are our goals. They are things like losing weight, publishing a book, winning a championship process is how we do things, making changes to our habits and our systems, and our identity is who we are. These are our deep beliefs about ourselves. And honestly, as I was saying, this is one of the most important points of the whole book. James Clear says, many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become. This is incredibly powerful. Think about the difference between a person who says, I want to lose weight compared to the person who says, I'm going on a diet compared to the person who says, I am a healthy person. One of the things that Brooke Castillo, she's the founder of the Life Coach School, says so often is to look to your future self. Can you believe that you are your future self? Can you see steps in learning to believe that future self? Can you seek advice and consultation from your future self? Imagine that you had a belief that you are a healthy person and not just some hypothetical, oh, wouldn't it be nice to think that? But could it be possible that one day you'd have a belief about yourself that you are a healthy person? If you don't have that belief or you can't believe that you could have that belief one day, why not? If you could imagine yourself as a healthy person, start asking yourself, what does healthy me do? How does healthy me show up in the world? Really get honest and picture yourself. Why would it be important to be that version of you? What are the things that would have to change in order to become that version of you? James Clear then contrasts that to remind us of our negative beliefs and how those impact us as well. So when we have beliefs like, I'm terrible with directions, or I'm not a morning person, I'm bad at remembering people's names. Those are just beliefs. There is no reason that those have to be permanent parts of your identity. And we've talked about these belief systems before. It's important to stop and question what your belief systems are and how they are or are not serving you. And when you come up with multiple negative belief systems, which I'm sorry to say, you probably will, you don't have to tackle them all at once, but think about if and how you'd like to prioritize or work through those from there and all that background information, James Clear then goes on to describe the how, what he calls the four laws of behavior change. And those four laws are, one, make it obvious. Two, make it attractive. Three, make it easy. Four, make it satisfying. And then in order to break a bad habit, we take those exact same laws and we invert them. One, make it invisible. Two, make it unattractive. Three, make it difficult. And four, make it unsatisfying. In order to follow the first law, to make it obvious, you first need to be aware of what your current habits are, and then you can start to use inflammation. Intentions, thinking about, I will do this behavior at this time in this location, you can also stack your new habits onto a current habit. For example, after I brush my teeth, which is an old habit, I will take my vitamins. This is your new habit. You can also set up your environment to make your good habits obvious and visible to you. The second law is to make it attractive. You can use temptation bundling where you pair an action you want to do with an action that you need to do. You can join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. You can create a motivational ritual by doing something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit. The third law is to make it easy. You should reduce any friction by decreasing the number of steps between you and your good habits. You should prepare your environment to make those future actions easier. You should optimize the small choices that deliver a big impact. You should start practicing new habits for a short time. James Clear recommends doing a new behavior or a new habit for just two minutes at a time. You should also automate your habits as much as you can. Are there any investments that you can make in technology or a one-time purchase that will help you lock in your future behaviors? The fourth law is to make it satisfying. You can use reinforcement to give yourself an immediate reward. When you complete your habit. I'll say, just make sure that does not contradict your habit. If your habit is to start exercising, don't reward yourself with food afterwards. If your overall goal is to lose weight, when you avoid doing a bad habit, design a way to see the benefit, the benefits of that. Take time to celebrate, keep track of your habits and develop a habit streak. When we think, oh my gosh, I've done this every day this week. We wanna stick to that streak. Never miss twice. When you forget a habit, or if you can't do a habit one day, make sure you get back on track immediately. Missing once. Not a big deal. Once you no longer do it, it's no longer your habit. And as I was outlining this book for you, I found myself wanting to quote just paragraph after paragraph at a time. I love James clear's really pragmatic approach to behavior change, but I don't wanna minimize the importance of the first half of the book. It's not just background information. He gives us some great guidance and insight into why some people succeed with our habits and why others do not. And you'll notice that I spent most of my time today talking about that background information. And the reason why is that we have to understand the why, not just about other people, but about ourselves. Before we can start focusing on the how. Get really clear about the why. Why do you want to develop this habit and the how will fall into place if you are working on your weight loss habits. Let me know how I can best support you along your journey. You can visit my website at That's S-A-R-A-H-S-T-O-M-B-A-U-G-H-M-D dot com to learn about me or enroll in my medical practice if you live in Illinois or Virginia. If you'd like help getting connected with an obesity medicine physician or a life coach who might be a good fit for you, let me know as well. I'd love to help you out any way I can. Thanks so much for joining me today. I'll see you all in two weeks. Bye-bye.
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