Why you should read Atomic Habits
You don’t have to read James Clear’s Atomic Habits simply in order to support your child struggling with executive function. You can read it for your own benefit.
That would be enough.
Besides, Clear doesn’t need my endorsement; 15 million other people also own a copy of Atomic Habits and have attempted the atomic (as in tiny but powerful) shifts towards having the habits that embody the identity they choose.
There are, however, undeniable applications to help your Wonderfully Wired child learn executive function provided you don’t assume all of Clear’s strategies and principles will work for your different thinker and insist that one size fits all.
Habits are about Identity
“The real reason habits matter,” writes Clear, “is not because they can get you better results (although they can do that) but because they can change your beliefs about yourself.”
Wonderfully Wired children get plastered with so many labels by the world around them. Remedial teachers and well meaning parents can get into a nasty habit (ha!) of assigning the things a child ‘should’ do more of and insist on the discipline to do less of others. But savvy parent-coaches unlock in children that which matters to them and teach them how to develop the habits that serve them.
Coaching my own Teens with Clear’s concepts
I decided not to tell my kids why they need good habits or which good habits they need.
We warmed up by using a virtual deck of Change Cards created by Michael Dietrich-Chastain:
What is something you have recently chosen to do more of in your life?
Daily push ups!
What is the last habit you quit?
What is a new routine you’d like to have?
I’d like to write creatively more often.
The questions make the kids feel taken seriously enough for me to spend a couple of minutes getting their buy into some of Clear’s ideas.
I tell them that it’s a myth that people with good habits work harder than others. “Self control is a short term strategy.” says Clear “Disciplined people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower”. I invite them not to dismiss habits as something neurotypicals with lots of focus and inhibition can manage. Clear’s advice has the exact purpose of making the life they want easier to attain instead of a daily slog.
I explain that they need to write the answers to my questions under time pressure: No one is going to read the notes but I don’t want them to over-think their answers.
Initiate: What new habit will most help you this next year?
Identify: What are you already good at that can help you create this habit?
Imagine: What will your life look and feel like if you regularly have this habit?
Innovate: What are two things you can do to get there?
*We pause here and I sneak in three of Clear’s simple strategies in case they’d like to use these:
The 2 minute principle says that breaking a habit down into its most basic starting action that takes no more than two minutes is a way to overcome the hardest inertia of creating the habit. Can you do one push up a day for a week? Can you only light a candle and sit in front of your journal at a spot you choose to write in for 7 days?
Habit stacking is the idea of tacking a new habit you’d like to start onto one you already do. After I close my books in prep I’ll drop down and do one push up. Habit stacking leverages routines already established by making them the trigger for a desired new one!
One space one use is a strategy Clear teaches for engineering your environment to trigger the habits you’d like to have. Make your beanbag for reading and journaling only!
Implement: Choose one of the three strategies and commit to using it for a specific period of time, decide when and where exactly you’ll give it a go.
We head into a time of reflection, always encouraging thinking about thinking. What did you notice about yourself as you answered these questions? What was easy? What was hard?
I didn’t start with a habit they must have or a way they must develop it. I invited them instead to know themselves and access what motivates them - that autonomy we treasure and foster!
This won’t be our last session together talking about habits. We need to explore more of Clear’s laws, strategies and brilliantly practical advice, of course I’d love to see more than push up habits ! But I’m convinced that long term success requires their buy-in as well as the skill of building and maintaining a routine that serves their purposes. As their parent coach I choose the long wins everytime over short term compliance.