Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones
Under the ‘Read & Grow’ series, MMA organised a discussion on the theme of the book “Atomic Habits – An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” authored by James Clear. Mr Babu Krishnamoorthy, Investment Consultant, Mr Dayanand, Former Managing Director, Reckitt Benkiser and Mr ISAK Nazar, Founder, Manna Foods were the panellists.
Babu: Jim Rohn, the speaker and thought leader said, “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” Every aspect of life is filled with examples of all of us trying something new but coming back to the habits that we are used to. If we want to grow, we have to give up some of the bad ones and imbibe the good ones. ‘Atomic habits’ gives a template of how you can move into better habits. If you’re able to become 1% better over one month, then over a 60 month period, you are a 60% better person than you were.
Nazar: In marketing, now there’s a new concept called purpose marketing. You will have to find a purpose in anything you market, whether it is a product or a personality or a concept. Similarly, habits do not form just like that. You need a purpose. I will give two or three examples. After my college days, I joined as a sales representative. From those days till I became Managing Director, I used to get up only at 7 am or 8 am till I was 35 years. One day I watched an interview of a politician. He said whatever time he got into bed, he would get up at 5 o’clock. It really struck me. From that day onwards, barring any kind of emergency, I get up at 5:30 in the morning. Throughout the book, James Clear talks about a small habit, practicing it continuously and achieving scalable results.
I had a great corporate career but something was telling me that I should be an entrepreneur. Pharmaceutical has been my background. I was selling medicines and switched over to dealing with overhead conductors, underground cables and HDPE bags. But the pharmaceutical thing was on my mind and so I wanted to start a pharmaceutical company. We have a small group of friends and we would meet once in a month. During our discussions, I said that my company’s name, the area and investments required were all finalised. But the wife of one of my friends who is a leading food technocrat intervened and said, “You’re getting into a competitive area. Why don’t you think of a futuristic proposal of getting into a food category that will offer healthy, traditional and natural food? You will be a category creator and you will not be one among hundred people.” It was a tough call. For the next 60 days, every day I thought about it and studied it. I went and met people. Finally, we launched the brand Manna. She also said, “If you want to get into this food business, you should equip yourself.” So I went to CFTRI and joined an 18-day course in Food Technology as a regular student, stayed in the hostel with three other people and completed it. So a small trigger like the politician’s interview and the suggestion by my friend’s wife can create a great impact. Reading books is a great habit and for me, nothing compares to reading a physical book. According to ‘Atomic Habits’ even small habits like how you walk, how you sleep, how you talk, how you dine and how you learn from others matter a lot.
Dayanand: I completely agree that small steps, consistently done, give you a habit, good or bad. In 2002, I was in Mumbai, working for GlaxoSmithKline as regional manager. Every evening at 5:30, a vendor would come and sell vada pav, which is popular in Mumbai. I developed the habit of eating vada pav at 5:30 and got addicted to it. I could later on break it with a lot of effort. James Clear talks about a model for making habits. In this, your identity is in the centre. There is a set of processes around it. Then there is a set of outcomes around it. Normally, we start with the outcome, for instance, I want to lose 15 kgs. The author suggests, start at who you want to be—a fit, healthy, agile and energetic person who can play with the kids for the next 25 years. That’s your identity. If you can crack the identity, the process and then the result or outcome will follow. In 2016, I had an extremely bad knee injury. My doctor said that I can’t do cycling, jogging, even climb the stairs or play football or tennis. Everything is gone. The only thing open for me was swimming. When I was 20 years old, I swore that I would never put my toe in a swimming pool because I wasn’t comfortable with water. Two years back, at 52, I learnt swimming and now I am able to able to swim to the deep side of the pool. I want to be fit and agile and I had no other choice and so I learnt swimming.
Babu: I joined a running group called Chennai Runners about 10 years ago. I was not focussing on fitness until then because of my lifestyle. I enrolled for the programme and on the first day, I met a senior and said that I wanted to run 10 km and asked him, “What’s the most difficult part of the exercise?” He looked at me funnily and said, “The most difficult thing for a runner is the distance between his bed and the shoe stand. If you can conquer that distance every morning at 5:00, believe me, you will be a great runner.” He also said, “Before you get started, make sure the previous night, you keep your running gear –your shoes, socks, etc.—ready outside so you will have the path of least resistance and you won’t change your mind.” That piece of advice really helped me.
Nazar: I have developed the habit of being at my office at 8.45 am every day, come what may. For any learning, the platform should be ready. I keep my platform always ready to learn. I have a five-member strong team taking care of our core areas like finance, administration and marketing. This team has been there for 20 years since we launched the brand. In spite of other offers, they continue with me for some purpose and reason. Money alone does not matter. There is something beyond money. My father told me that the best charity is not money or food but sharing of knowledge.
Babu: What are some of the habits that one should imbibe when they are 25?
Dayanand: It was 1998. I was working in GlaxoSmithKline and, ultimately, I spent 23 years with them. The first three years were brilliant. Around that time, I got married. I was Resident Manager of Karnataka, going from town to town. I didn’t know Kannada then. I spent 16 extremely successful years in sales. I moved to the corporate office in Delhi. I had to lead a cross-functional team. Three years into my career at GSK, my boss told me that I was not listening. He said, “Why don’t you allow your team to express?” I tried to defend but he said, “Listen. Just take this feedback and reflect on it.” I got the same feedback at home. There was an ego clash but I was thankful that I got that feedback much earlier in life and started working on it.
The second thing I would say, is willingness to learn. Most of these multinational companies never allow you to settle down in a place for more than two or three years. So, we lived in about 12 to 13 cities in 25 years but every 2 or 3 years, I was thrown into a new environment and your past doesn’t land you anything good. You have to start afresh, see what is around you and learn. I became a general manager and managing director. I knew nothing about Corporate Finance but as a GM, I had to suspend judgment and be open to saying, “Look, I just don’t understand this.”
Babu: It is great to have successful habits but you need to give up on some bad habits too. Before Diwali, I decided to go on a crash diet. I went to get some clothes stitched for Diwali and I discovered that my tailor measured my waist and added 2 inches more. I was even angry with him, but that was the truth. Soon, the entire sweet shop was inside my house as every relative, every friend gave sweets. I quickly gave up on my diet and continued my way. This book says that if you want to imbibe a habit or give up on a habit, then you must create an atmosphere that supports that. I needed to be in an environment away from sweets.
Dayanand: The author talks about four things in habit formation – cue, craving, response and result. In my vada pav addiction, the cue was the vendor entering our office with a basket of vada pav. I crave for that. I respond by eating and the result is satisfaction. To break that habit, I had to create the environment. I kept a few fruits and a bottle of water on the table which I had to cross to go and get vada pav. I stopped eating for two days and ultimately, I overcame eating vada pav whenever I wanted.
Babu: Did you face any difficulty in forming or changing any habit?
Nazar: Many things. I knew only marketing before getting into the business and I struggled with it initially. I am a very bad negotiator. The good point is I know that I am a bad negotiator. So I leave it to the person who does that purchase. The balance sheets would come to me from the auditors at the last minute for review and approval. In that urgency, I would go with whatever my auditor says. I realised that I was not doing a good job there. I have now left it to the professionals. Reading is a great habit. Unfortunately, even the newspapers are not read today. Supplements are read more than the main newspaper. Reading newspapers helped me to develop my language. While reading, you should read it with passion and with an intention to make a change in your behaviour. I recently read the book, “Die Empty.” The author of the book says, “Don’t keep anything here before you die. Give to others.”
Babu: Who are your inspirations and what are their habits?
Dayanand: My inspiration has always been the common man or common woman. It was 2017 and I was in Accra, capital of Ghana, doing a market visit. There was a young woman, in the early 20s. It was blistering hot, around noon. She was carrying a baby, maybe one-year-old. In most parts of Africa, women carry the baby, tied with a cloth on their back. The baby literally clings onto the mother’s back. In the market, she was doing physical labour, carrying goods on top of her head and moving them. I was in the wholesale market for about one and a half hours, making calls, standing in front of the outlet and just watching the consumers. The woman kept on working with complete commitment. I was an expatriate living in Nigeria who flew to Ghana. I was paid well and yet I was complaining. I was inspired by that woman and her commitment. Sometimes you see a blind person walking and crossing our roads, tapping the stick in front of them. We can help them for the next 2 or 3 minutes to cross the road, but after that, they smile and keep walking. Do they know that the next step they take will lead to a manhole or not? Yet, they take the next step. They possibly have hope or trust in life that something else will hold them. We are well paid, have good house, drive a car and yet, we complain about what we don’t have. When I see them having so much hope in life, I realise how much hope I should have and stop complaining.