Atomic Habits

And just like that we are two weeks into 2022! The two-week mark is usually where I check in with myself to see if my habits that are supporting my New Year goals are sticking. With all the excitement and transition that come with starting a new job, I’ve de-prioritized the need to set any new goals. While this was certainly the right decision for me this year, it has left me feeling like something is missing. Typically, my goals are quantifiable and oriented towards my mental or physical health habits. So, I wondered – if I don’t set a specific goal for the year, am I selling my mental or physical health short?

Enter my pal, Brené (Brown), who recently introduced me to James Clear via her Dare to Lead podcast Clear is the author of Atomic Habits which presents a really exciting answer to my question. According to Clear, we can build a good habit by following four straightforward directives: to make it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. Simple enough, right? It always is on paper!

In addition, what really struck me between listening to Brene’s interview with Clear and reading his book was the idea that habits shape our identity. Clear says, “The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity.”

I related to this so quickly. I have been a runner since I started cross country in middle school, but since aging out of school sports I’ve maintained my runner status by signing up for one or two half marathons each year.

But if I follow Clear’s guidance my goal should not be to run a half marathon; I should just be a runner. This shift in thinking means that I don’t need to sign up for a certain number of marathons each year. Instead, I need to live each day with a runner’s mindset and make small decisions that form my runner identity. Where I would normally set a specific goal for miles for the week, I am instead waking up each day and choosing to just go run something. Be a runner.

Then, I wondered, can this framework apply in a nonprofit organization? Absolutely! There is an excellent lesson here for nonprofit management.

You may be familiar with SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based) goals. This tool has served nonprofit and for-profit organizations alike. Now let’s throw in Clear’s rules of obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. While we certainly can’t use all four in every scenario I really like the idea of layering these with SMART goals to retain and motivate high performing, engaged team members. If a team member identifies as a top performer, help them create goals and habits that support that identity.

One of Clear’s many highlight-worthy statements is, “Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.” Whether you are setting your annual performance goals or embarking on the development of a new strategic plan, there is great potential in asking the question: Does this goal/process/work plan support the identity that we hope to maintain or become? What small habits will you choose for your organization that will compound over time for significant results?

I only scratched the surface of Clear’s teachings and would absolutely recommend reading his book. And if my questions got you thinking more about your organization but you aren’t sure how to approach next steps, our team would love help!

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