I overengineered habits - and fixed it

March 27, 2021

Reading a book changed my life.

It didn't only change mine, but also those of many other people - I'm talking about Atomic Habits by James Clear.

I started reading it a few weeks ago, but it had an immediate impact on my mindset.

It's lessons touched me in many ways and I felt like a different person after reading all those things that I already knew somewhere deep down inside of me, but never really believed. Never internalized.

The way James Clear explained it was different. It not only made me think, it made me believe. I believed the words he wrote. And that's why they changed me.

The most important thing I've learned from Atomic Habits is to focus on systems instead of goals. Progress instead of results. The journey instead of the destination.

I've been preaching the quote "It's not about the destination, it's about the journey" for months, maybe even years, but never truly applied its message on the way I think. I loved this quote ever since I came across it, yet I never made it my own.

But Atomic Habits taught me how.

I started creating plans on how I would change my life on the day I first picked up the book. I scribbled down notes, made lists, prepared structures and developed systems.

I focused on the way I want to feel, the kind of person I want to be, instead of measurable results I want to get.

While it felt daunting at first, I already knew who I want to be. I knew what I like to do, what I don't like, which traits in people I admire and which I don't. For what I envy others and for what I don't. I had it all in me, I just had to listen to myself.

I developed systems in form of traits and values, parts of my identity.

I want to be healthy and strong, so one of those systems focuses on how I'm going to be an athlete.

I want to be helpful to others and have a positive impact on them, so another is about being a helper and inspiration.

I want to grow and improve myself, as well as help and inspire others by reading and writing, I want to be a reader and writer.

Those are a few of the things I call my identity. They define the person I am, I want to be and I'm becoming.

In order to live according to my values, I created systems in form of habits.

As I'm a perfectionist and a person who rather takes on more load than less, I established a lot of them.

I wrote down every single thing that I could think of that could make me the kind of person I want to be.

I felt good. I had built a system to be who I want to be. To be happy and satisfied with life.

It went well for the first few days. I hustled to fulfill every habit I set for myself every single day. I would tell myself "That's it - this time you're doing it. You're going to be happy at last."

I was wrong.

It didn't take me long until I figured I had taken it too far - not the first time in my life. I seem to tend to take things too seriously, to overthink and overengineer.

And I indeed had overengineered my habits.

Habits in their essence should be systems that simplify life. That happen automatically without having to think about them. That take the burden of decisions away because things were already decided based on the type of person I am.

My habits didn't simplify life. In fact, they made it a little more stressful if I'm honest.

While I felt good at the beginning because I was improving, I was building the type of person and life I always wanted to, I set myself too strict rules.

For me, if I tell myself I will do something every day, it means I have to. If I don't, I'll feel worthless.

And having so many things I need to do every single day simply was too much.

So I simplified my life. I set a new focus.

I removed all habits that are too strict from my list. Then I decided on the most important ones I want to learn, but haven't yet. Instead of displaying all habits on my dashboard I look at multiple times a day, including the many I wasn't able to do because of too strict planning, I changed the view to show only the focused ones. I carefully made sure that this are only a handful.

Simplicity and focus. Two values I discovered to be of significant value for myself and my life, yet I struggle to apply them to every aspect. With these steps, I took another approach to do so.

It seems like I need to remember myself of those values on a regular basis. I tend to forget about them.

What I've learned by overengineering such a simple and beneficial thing as a habit, is that simplicity and focus are crucial for a happy life. At least for me.

Habits exist to aid with this by simplifying life, by helping to set focus on how you want to be.

When used correctly.

So what I'm taking away from this is that I don't need to do it all at once.

I don't need to be the perfect version of myself in an instant.

I need to take on this path step by step.

Focusing on the journey instead of the destination. Finding joy in the process of becoming my best self.

I know I'll never arrive at any destination. I'll never become the perfect human. I'll never be completely happy without anything I want to change or feel bad about. It's just not possible.

But you know what?

Life isn't about being perfect.

It's about being happy.

Focusing on our paths through life, applying systems so we can be who we want to be, so we can be happy with who we are, is key.

Habits can help with that. Just keep in mind that they exist to make life easier - not to be a burden.

ジャーニー (Jānī) is Japanese for journey.