Self improvement is something we all crave to some degree. As small business owners and entrepreneurs—perhaps even a little bit more than others. And it all begins with starting small. But not just any small habit. In this article, we’re talking about building successful atomic habits that eventually turn into impactful, long-lasting ones.
Not sure what we mean?
- I can’t seem to make time for strategy or growth-related tasks. I’m too bogged down in the day-to-day
- My business is sucking the life out of me. The burnout is catching up and I feel my physical health and mental health declining…
- Other entrepreneurs make this “business” thing look so easy. I can barely carve time out to enjoy time with my family, let alone enjoy a movie on weeknights or start a hobby!
Does this sound vaguely familiar to you?
The goal is very clear. It’s just difficult to change your habits to get there. If you’ve already read Atomic Habits by James Clear, then you’ll know what we’re talking about. But if you haven’t, read on ahead to learn how to build atomic habits today to avoid the pitfalls of running a business (like the scenarios described above).
“Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.” — James Clear, Atomic Habits.
Focus on Systems Over Goals
As a small business owner, there’s only one metric we care about besides revenue. It’s results. Think of it as the output (work and personal life) of the sum of all of your efforts.
Do you take advantage of each hour your day? Importantly, do you have the tools in place to get to your end-goal? And equally as important, do you have have the discipline to do it day-in and day-out?
Think of it this way: goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. And at the day-to-day level, progress is what matters.
Not to say goals aren’t important, but systems is the engine of the business train—it’s what keeps your business from moving forward.
Here’s the difference between goals and systems:
Building a Better System
Let’s say you struggle with making time for high-level strategic planning. You’re bogged down with the day-to-day and can’t seem to find time for long-range planning for your business.
Where do you want your business to be in 3 months? 6 months? A year? What do you want to have achieved by the end of the quarter?
According to James Clear, building a “better system” comes down to the “Four Laws of Behaviour Change”. By following these laws of behaviour, you’re much more likely to turn your “bad system” into a good one—one that can change your bad habits (e.g. working day-to-day execution only) into positive ones (making time for strategy).
- Make it Obvious
- Make it Attractive
- Make it Easy
- Make it Satisfying
By doing so, you’re carving time for what really matters. Remember, systems enable real change.
3 Tips to Building Atomic Habits
Here’s how to build atomic habits in your life today:
Tip #1: Start small
How do you make time for finding new clients? Or invoicing? Habits are all about building consistency into your routine. The reason why so many people fail to build habits is because they’re not starting small enough. It’s simply just not realistic enough.
By starting small, James Clear coined the term habit shaping to work your way to bigger goals. Simply take a goal and break it down into a series of smaller habits that will get you there.
For instance, once you can meditate for 2 minutes every day and find that easy to do — which may happen after the first week, but it may take longer — you can then move on the next phase of your plan (say 4 minutes daily).
The table below shows examples of habit shaping with goals that are typical of entrepreneurs and small business owners.
Tip #2: Stack your habits
Habit stacking is all about making habits easy to remember. And what better way to do it than to piggyback on an existing habit? According to James Clear, habit stacking is all about tricking your mind into thinking: After [current habit], I will [new habit].
Some typical habit stacks you could do as a business owner are:
- After I pour my morning coffee, I will read something non-work related for 10 minutes
- After I take off my work shoes, I will change into workout clothes
- After I read my morning news, I will spend 10 minutes reconciling my business books
- After I hop off a call with a prospect, I will send a brief estimate within the next 30 minutes (so that I don’t forget)
The reason habit stacking is so effective is that you already do the existing habit. And once your brain learns this small added step, your new habit inherits the consistency power of your existing habit.
As soon as you get really good at habit stacking—and yes, that is possible—you get to the point where you can tackle advanced habit stacking.
Take it one step further by building powerful multi-level stacks.
- After I pour my morning coffee, I will read something non-work related for 10 minutes… Then I will meditate for one minute. After I meditate, I will write my 3 focus areas for the day. After I write them, I will begin my first task.
- After I take off my work shoes, I will change into workout clothes… Then I will run for 30 minutes. After I run, I will shower. After I shower, I will journal.
- After I read my morning news, I will spend 10 minutes reconciling my business books… Then I will spend 30 minutes doing high-level business planning. After planning, I will begin my first work task for the day.
- After I hop off a call with a prospect, I will send a brief estimate within the next 30 minutes (so that I don’t forget). Then I will review all confirmed and outstanding invoices. After I review my invoices, I will review industry news.
As you can see, habit stacking can be scaled up and down to meet the goals that you’re trying to accomplish! Everyone, including business owners, are different. So make habit stacking work in your favor.
So here’s some homework for you. Pick an existing habit that you already do (like make your morning tea or coffee). Then stack your new habit on starting today! It could be personal or work related. Remember: make it obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.
Tip #3: Make habits attractive & satisfying
Whether we like it or not, new habits have delayed rewards. You can push yourself as much as you’d like to read industry news in the morning and still not notice the benefits. You can also run every day but not notice immediate changes.
The key to building atomic habits that actually stick is to motivate yourself, even when you feel demotivated.
For example, try the following:
- After I read for 10+ minutes in the morning, I get to scroll through Pinterest
- After I call 3 prospects, I will decompress on my couch
- While I am working out, I get to indulge in my favourite YouTube video
But remember, stay clear from rewards that contradict or cancel out the results of your new habit. It wouldn’t make sense to eat a burrito and two ice creams when you’re trying to lose weight, now would it? It goes the same for building new habits that grow your business—like making time for bookkeeping.
Tip #4: Obey the Law of Least Effort
Atomic Habits says that humans obey the Law of Least Effort. That’s because we don’t want to waste our time and efforts on things that don’t matter. Things that don’t provide value.
This goes the same for work as it does for personal life. It’s better to save the extra energy and choose a low-hanging fruit than one that’s higher up the tree and harder to get to.
By recognizing that laziness is 1) not a bug, but rather a feature and 2) hardwired in us and not going away, we can use it to create big power.
This means thoughtfully designing atomic habits that follow the Law of Least Effort!
Here are a few simple ways that every day businesses “remove friction” to make a new habit easy to do.
- Meal delivery services (like Grubhub, UberEats, or DoorDash) reduce the friction of picking up takeout
- Ride-sharing services (like Lyft and Uber) reduce the friction of getting to Point B
- Cord-less vacuums (like Dyson) reduce the friction of vacuuming (because it’s just so intuitive and easy to use)
- Instagram reduces the friction of online shopping (albeit for some, there was never that much friction in the first place)
- Facebook, TikTok and Instagram reduces the friction of staying in contact with people
All of these products and services have a common thread: they’re all habit-forming products that make changing habits easy. And if an easier product hits the market in the future, people will most likely change and start using that. “Easy” and “change” goes well together!
Not sure how exactly how to remove friction in every day habits? Try out one (or all) of these changes:
Conclusion: Start building atomic habits today
Building atomic habits is all about getting 1% better every single day. James Clear made it clear that astronomical changes don’t happen overnight. But every day that you put the right work in to solidifying atomic habits, you and your business will see exponential growth.
Good luck out there breaking bad habits and building good ones!