Seven Big Ideas on the Astounding Benefits of Tiny Habits

And how my autistic son has cultivated some great ones

Man at his desk
Diego at his desk

I was reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, and suddenly it hit me: the person I know with the best habits is autistic and intellectually disabled. He reads at a first-grade level and his myriad good habits have come from trial and error and everyday life experiences (plus a little help from his parents and amazing educators).

The person in question is my 27-year-old son Diego and it’s astonishing how he has managed to apply much of what Clear describes in his book.

Here, I will review attitudes and insights that could help you form and keep good habits in the same way they have helped Diego. I hope you find them helpful.

1. Stop complaining and get with the program

“Complaining about not achieving success despite working hard is like complaining about an ice cube not melting when you heat it from twenty-five to thirty-one degrees.”*

For starters, we’re all too focused on success, quick success even, so we either complain when it doesn’t materialize by our expected “due date” or give up altogether. You can’t know exactly when success will come. While you’re busy complaining instead of working hard you might be at thirty-one degrees.

Diego never complains about working hard.

2. Focus on systems

“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”

You can track your progress all you want and set all manner of goals — lifetime goals, short-term goals, personal and professional and fitness and financial and writing and spiritual goals. But your system is what you can control and a system, in a way, is nothing but a collection of tiny habits.

Take Diego and his room. Diego makes the bed as soon as he wakes up and places his PJs under the pillow. After showering and drying off, he takes the towel back to the bathroom and hangs it up. The cellphone and iPad always go on the small stool just in front of the outlet where he plugs in the chargers. Memorabilia he wants to keep (and this includes any Christmas, birthday, Valentine’s Day card, postcard or note he might get; so know, if you ever send those, they are cherished), he will place in his “memory box”. He’s on his third box.

Diego’s room is organized because he has a system comprised of a handful of habits. Organizing once a week when there are already clothes strewn all around, multiple cups and papers on the dresser and desktop, and a shapeless blob of sheets and towels on the bed doesn’t count as a system.

3. Decide, really decide, who you are and wish to be

“Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be.”

I call myself a runner because I run regularly, and I run regularly so I get to call myself a runner. Dumb as it feels to write it, it does go both ways. The one cannot be without the other.

Diego loves to say whenever the opportunity arises that he’s a swimmer and a runner. Maintaining those identities is one of the reasons he swims and runs twice weekly.

My son also takes great pride in telling people he has three jobs. He says he works at the soup kitchen, at the coffee shop and that he’s a realtor. He does the former two every week. As to being a realtor, he helps his dad with his huge mailings a few times a year.

Diego wants to be the sort of person who has a job. His solid work ethic is the result of a collection of habits, and these habits matter because they help him be the person he wants to be.

4. Surround yourself with people you identify with or want to identify with even more!

“It’s friendship and community that embed a new identity and help behaviors last over the long run.”

Habits, good and bad, rub off on you. Being around people who are habitually polite will make it more likely that you’ll pick up polite habits.

Indeed, we don’t always get to decide who we spend time with. Yes, I’m talking about family and that’s one of the fascinating aspects of family. Yet we do have some choice in terms of friendship and community.

As Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, wrote, “After friendship is formed you must trust, but before that you must judge.” (Letters from a Stoic) In general, it makes sense to pursue a new friendship with a person whose values align with yours, and habits are telling of values.

In terms of community, for many of us, there’s bound to be a community either in real life or online that can help establish our identity or support our pursuit of any given habit, especially at the early stage.

I have not gained any great insights on the writing craft from any Facebook groups for writers. When I was getting started, however, just joining gave me a boost because it made me feel more strongly that I was, in some way, already a writer. Silly example, I know, but you get the idea.

5. Learn to live with boredom

“At some point, everyone faces the same challenge on the journey of self-improvement: you have to fall in love with boredom.”

In a perfect world, the reward for a good habit is the habit itself. Sometimes it is and it’s awesome. I love running (pretty much) every time. Writing, not so much. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Either way, I sit my butt down.

For complex personal growth goals, you gotta do the work, stick to those habits even if you’re sick and tired of them, especially when the incremental growth is minimal.

I guess to be the best you must be in love with boredom. If you just want to get better at something or maintain a certain level then you must at least tolerate boredom well.

Boredom is a feeling foreign to Diego.

6. Expect setbacks

“When successful people fail, they rebound quickly. The breaking of a habit doesn’t matter if the reclaiming of it is fast.”

I’d change “successful people” to “people who have a growth mindset”. What does it even mean to be a “successful” person anyway? That you earned a college degree, can have a regular conversation, and make money? Diego and many people I know can’t do any of that and still they are successful.

Anyhow, end of digression.

I want to be the type of person who journals. That’s one of my two specific New Year’s resolutions and so far so good, seeing as we’re on day 4 of the New Year as I write these lines. Note to self, then: I will not give up if I skip a day or two or three like I’ve done in the past. I must reclaim journaling until it becomes a true solid habit, as it is for a few people I know who can definitely say they journal, just like I say I run.

7. There is no one good version for any habit

“There is a version of every habit that can bring you joy and satisfaction.”

Having a reading habit does not mean you love Shakespeare or Cervantes and read literature for an hour every day. Your satisfying version might be reading “light” romance novels or thrillers for fifteen minutes before bed.

Diego’s version of neatness is to have a place for everything and to always put things where they belong. Whenever he walks into his room, it brings him great pleasure to see things arranged just so. My friend Fabi told me her sister is so neatness obsessed the cups in her cabinet are evenly spaced. She needs this extreme version to be satisfied.

What’s your version?

Final Thoughts

The list above addresses a few Big Ideas in Clear’s book, not the nuts and bolts of how exactly to develop a good habit from scratch and how to get rid of a bad one. I’m a person who believes that Big Ideas are what remain long after you’ve read any book, and it has been at least two months since I read Atomic Habits.

If you want to learn about the specific techniques (for example, the Habit Scorecard, habit stacking, temptation bundling, to name just three), you can always go to James Clear’s website where you can sign up for a free email course. Or you can follow him on social media. Or you can get the book; the full title is Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. (I get no commission or points for putting this in by the way!)

I have one final Big Idea to throw at you: How is it possible that Diego has much better habits than many (even most!) intellectually bright people I know? How is it possible for James Clear to have built a whole career out of his writing and insights on habit formation? How come he gets paid thousands of dollars to do workshops at Fortune 500 Companies? Why has his book sold more than 5 million copies in 20 languages?

Because everyone on the planet has room for growth when it comes to habits.

Then too, I’ve concluded that forming good habits is independent of intelligence, at least as measured by IQ — which means anyone can do it and isn’t that great news.

*All quotes in the article, unless otherwise noted, are from the book Atomic Habits.

My short reflection related to item #4: Friendship Advice from Seneca

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