As anyone who has tried to create a new habit knows, it takes unwavering motivation to turn your idea into a real habit. Or does it?
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear provides a proven way to build good habits—one that doesn’t require Olympic levels of motivation. As I’ve started to use his simple formula in my own life, I realize how invaluable the approach could be for organizational leaders.
What Kind of Leader Do You Want to Be?
For many years, I have coached leaders to start with the outcomes they want to achieve. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear challenges this way of thinking and suggests an alternative: focus first on who you wish to become.
Clear explains the power of identity-based habits: “Behind every system of actions is a system of beliefs. The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.”
Starting with identity first means knowing who you want to become. This includes answering the tough questions: As a leader, what do I stand for? What are my principles and values? How do I want to support and enable my team?
Once you know who you want to be, then you can begin taking the small steps to reinforce the behaviors that will support your desired identity.
This approach meshes well with one of the key tenets of agile leadership: leaders need to transform themselves before they can catalyze change at their organization.
Get 1% Better Every Day
Change doesn’t have to be huge, dramatic, or instantaneous. Clear explains that if you “get just 1% better each day, you’ll end up with results that are nearly 37x better after one year.” He calls these small changes atomic habits.
“An atomic habit is a little habit that is part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.”
Clear gives us this formula to use: I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
- I will meditate on my window seat for five minutes after my alarm rings in the morning.
- When I see a set of stairs, I will walk up them instead of using the elevator.
- I will write down my three most important work tasks for the day when I sit down at my desk in the morning.
How can we translate this into something leaders can use? Here’s how this might look in practice.
Moving from Micromanaging Leader to Agile Leader
I’ve coached many leaders who are struggling to move out of the space of doing the work and into the space of guiding a team. Sometimes, this manifests as micromanaging.
A leader who is wondering, “Where is the space for me? What’s left for me?” might try to retain control by constantly checking in on the team, scrutinizing every task—no matter how small or low-priority, or hoarding knowledge in order to feel indispensable.
Applying Clear’s advice, I would coach this person to adopt the identity of an agile leader and build habits that support that identity.
An agile leader helps a team clarify goals and priorities, and supports and guides the team by being a bridge between the team and the organization as a whole.
Using Clear’s formula, here are some of the habits that can support the identity of an agile leader:
- I will ask powerful questions rather than give answers when a team member comes to me for guidance.
This habit helps the leader demonstrate confidence in team members and delegate decisions where appropriate.
- I will wait until 3 people have responded before sharing my thoughts during team meetings.
This habit helps the leader let go of control and support the team in their growth.
- I will engage the team to understand impact before changing quarterly priorities.
This habit helps the leader gain clarity by giving a voice to the team on the impact of any changes to priorities. It also helps the leader act as a team champion and fosters transparency.
Over time these small habits reinforce the behaviors that will support your desired identity.
Never Stop Improving
If you want to master a habit, choose habits that are easy to do. Human beings are naturally motivated to do something that is easy versus something difficult. Each day is made up of many moments, but it is really a few habitual choices that determine the path you take.
As always, regular reflection of your behaviors and whether they help you shift towards the identity you want is critical to success. You have a choice in every moment, in every day, to make improvements in your habits. As Clear writes, “We can choose the identity we want to reinforce today with the habits we choose today. The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements.”