Personal Finance

Hit pause button and reflect on atomic habits



  • We are our habits.
  • For better or worse, all those good or bad decisions made in the difficult year of 2021 define us — both as individuals, and at the companies and organisations we work for.
  • Flip side of excellence is the habit of [usually hidden] mediocrity.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” are words often attributed to the Greek philosopher: Aristotle.

We are our habits. For better or worse, all those good or bad decisions made in the difficult year of 2021 define us — both as individuals, and at the companies and organisations we work for.

Flip side of excellence is the habit of [usually hidden] mediocrity. Researchers estimate that 40 to 50 pecent of our daily actions are habits that define what we do in the next minute, hour, or set a pattern for our lives. Though we are hesitant to admit it — We are on automatic pilot for much of the time. Problem might be that we don’t take time to pause and reflect, to see what is working, and what is not.

A good book should make you think differently, not tell you what you already know. Atomic Habits written by James Clear published in 2018 does exactly that, filled with insights about habits, those automatic patterns of behaviour that set out our success, or upsetting failure, wind surfing in rough waters on the ocean of Kenyan business. The Use of the word, atomic in the title refers to “an extremely small amount of a thing, the single irreducible unit of a larger system”.


Conventional wisdom in management is to focus on goals, and make them measurable, challenging, yet achievable. Yes, goals are important, but when you think about it, winners and losers can both have the same goals. But what really determines whether those targets are achieved are the underlying systems, ways of doing and thinking, that define our habits, that ultimately determine whether goals are achieved.

“If you are having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change” writes James Clear.

Building on the insights of Charles Duhigg's book The Power of Habit, Clear sets out four laws for behaviour change. Make it obvious. Make it attractive. Make it easy. Make it satisfying.

Clear suggests that if one can improve just one percent in a number of areas, like compounding interest, the impact can add up to be remarkable.

This counter intuitive idea on one percent improvements, that one would not even notice, but can be very noticeable in the long run is well supported by the fascinating examples he gives.

Towards the end of the book is an interesting chapter: ‘The Downside of Creating Good Habits’ where he points out that while habits can create the foundation of mastery and success, there is also a flip side.

Valuable thing about habits is that we can do things without thinking, we just run our home made programme on what has worked for us, and our companies.

Downside of keeping doing things a certain way, is that we stop paying attention to all the little errors, and forget to notice that perhaps what we are doing isn’t working, as well as it once did.

So you are reinforcing your current habit, not necessarily improving it. If there is one thing that defines being human, our survival instinct, our key operating principle it that — We always believe we are right. Takes real courage to admit we were wrong.


As the year ends, in what The Economist magazine calls our present and future of the ‘predicable unpredictable’ it’s worth taking some time for quiet reflection. This reflection is the vaccine booster shot to the ‘keep doing what you have always been doing badly’ sickening variant, that in the long run can be fatal, leading to a subtle downward spiral of mediocrity.

Clear suggests asking three simple questions:

• What went well this year ?

• What didn’t go well this year ?

• What did I learn?

Business is in a state of constant flux, changing on a daily basis, so its critical to periodically check in and see whether the old habits and beliefs are still serving you.


Clear’s model of behaviours change is based on three layers, each more deeper. First is changing outcomes like, for instance, meeting a sales target, or making a successful acquisition.

Second is changing the process, which is more digging down below the surface and examining the underlying systems of how things are done.

Third and deepest, more profound layer revolves around identity. Here one has to look at an ability to change beliefs, your worldview, the way you see things. Questioning fundamental assumptions and biases you hold — that define identity.

“Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe. When it comes to building habits that last — when it comes to building a system of one percent improvements — the problem is not that one level is better or worse than another. All levels of change are useful in their own way. The problem is the direction of change” writes the habits expert.

While it’s always good to be an optimist, if we are honest, for most, this has been a lousy year for business.

In reading Atomic Habits one realises that change for the better, is not necessarily about thinking big. Real change can come from almost minuscule one percent shifts of in a number of areas that all add up.