This week I was really struck by James Clear who was on the Coaching for Leaders podcast (episode 376).

He has just published the book Atomic Habits where he discusses simple yet effective strategies in how we can change our habits, how to break the bad ones and how to excel in good ones.

I loved the episode and his insights especially in visualising who we want to be and then building habits on that vision.


Imagining identity

One of the most useful insights for me was the idea around identity-based habits.

Instead of asking what we need to achieve, we should visualise the person who actually already does what we want to achieve.

So, ask yourself who is the kind of a person that for example exercises constantly?

Who do we admire who is achieving a lot at work?

Who has the kind of personality that we find ourselves wanting to be like him/her?

All of these questions are about re-creating an identity but also thinking more deeply about how to put in place actions in our own lives that make it easier to achieve such goals.

So it is about identifying ideal identities and then putting in place systems in our own lives where we can reach for same qualities.


First commit to a routine, then buy new clothes

What struck me also as very true is that most people start from the wrong end in habit creation.

James takes the example of exercise: if we want to get fit, the first thing most of us do is to go and buy new running shoes and exercise gear so that we are ready to exercise.

We buy protein powder, get the right foods to make delicious yet fitness-supporting meals, and what not.

While clearly this is important (who would want to look unremarkable when exercising, right?), it does not really get us thinking and doing what we should.

The first steps according to James are to create space for exercise routine, to identify when and how we are going to start making exercise an actual part of our lives.

If you do not have time to go to the gym every day, then how can you fit in at least the identity of a sport professional into your life?

This could mean doing push-ups when you have 5 minutes at home, stretching in the evening, doing a quick yoga routine when you are waiting for dinner to cook.

The point is that we build habits that support a particular identity.

So in a way, much of the starting point is the end point: deciding which values and which outcomes we wish to achieve, and then building our habits around these.


Forming habits  

While the discussion in the podcast focused on the book and its ideas, it has made me think more closely again my own life and routines.

I have to confess I fall off my exercise wagon regularly despite my best intentions.

I cringe reading all the well-meaning “how to be successful” advice where each morning starts with 20 minutes of deep thinking and journaling, followed by 20 minutes of yoga, and sitting quietly in meditation afterwards…

Most of my mornings do not start like that, unless I wake up 4 a.m. (and then there’s a high chance my son wakes up then too).

So how do I fit in exercise?

I do try walking to work, going to the gym there or participate in exercise classes.

But I still find that it’s hard to establish a routine around exercise.

Having listened to the podcast with James, I am however encouraged by this idea of building identity-based habits.

Now on my list is to actually do some deep thinking around who could be a role model for me, someone who is in a similar situation but still manages to get enough exercise done throughout the week.

I know this probably sounds like it’s just a question of re-arranging my priorities and just getting on with it, but I do find this a challenge.


Helping others to build habits

Putting these personal issues aside (which are clearly not major btw), I’ve also been thinking how to help others to build habits.

For example, at work, I am trying to get a PhD/Post-Doc group together; a group that could help individuals in doing some reflective thinking about their career plans and goals, but also how to brand their expertise effectively.

Universities nowadays offer much more support in developing a whole range of skills but I still find that really honing on personal branding for academics is somewhat of a gap.

Helping others to build habits will be even more challenging although it is often easier to offer advice how others could do things rather than having to do it ourselves.

And I suppose this is what leadership is really about: enabling others to succeed with the knowledge that you have, and when you do not have it, then finding someone who does and can help the individual to strengthen the skill in question.


Leadership and identity in climate adaptation 

All of this has of course made me think about how we should be doing this in climate change adaptation, mainly how do we build our own skills in adapting to particular climate change impacts and also how we can enable others to do so.

There are so many information and knowledge platforms nowadays, so many adaptation projects, policies and programs, that the information is really already out there what to do.

But I think we need to find a way to personalise the advice out there in enabling people to build their own habits around climate adaptation.

Perhaps the first step is to identify what such core habits would be, and then find those champions already amongst us who do this really well.

In many ways, we are in the midst of forming core adaptation habits; those skills and practices that can enable us to respond to changing environmental conditions.

We have an immense opportunity to collect and summarise those best practices, and develop robust rules of thumb what effective adaptation looks like.

Because those habits are going to be needed for a very long time…