Applying “Atomic Habits” to Fasting, Fitness, & Overall Health

Applying Atomic Habits to Health, Fitness, and Intermittent Fasting

Back in 2018, James Clear published his bestseller, Atomic Habits.

I’d already been following him for a few years before that, so I figured the book would be great.  

I was right. 🙂

The author spent several years digging into the best research about habit formation, and then carefully distilled it down into simple, practical advice.  

The book is fantastic, so I’d highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already!

Since habits strong influence everything we do, it makes sense that the best way to improve your health is to gradually improve your health habits.

Today I’ll walk you through key points from the book, Atomic Habits, along with a bunch of concrete examples of how you can use those principles to improve your health and fitness.

Obviously I can’t do the whole book justice in a blog post.  But if this post helps you improve even one small habit related to your health, I’ll consider it a major success!

Let’s dive in.  

Small Changes Compound Slowly Over Time

At the beginning of the book, Clear points out that gradually improving your habits is the best way to succeed in the long run, in any area of life.

Since major changes don’t happen overnight, people often get frustrated and give up. But if you make a small positive change and stick with it, it’ll lead to massive improvements in the long run.

Here’s the author telling a story about how tiny changes can add up to a major result:

Make Small Improvements to Your Health Habits
 

When people start a new exercise or nutrition regimen, they often expect to see dramatic results right away. But in general, that’s not realistic.

Think of all the New Year’s resolutions people make.  Then, think of how often they promptly give up about one week later, because they haven’t seen major results.

Don’t be like them.  

If you want to make significant improvements, start with a very small change that you can commit to do consistently. 

Here’s a health example: 

What if you committed to replacing just one type of processed junk food with a healthier option (like having eggs for breakfast, instead of sugary cereal or granola bars)?  

Try to keep it simple, and start small.  After a while, the cumulative positive impact will be bigger than you expect. 

Systems are Better Than Goals

When you make a goal, there are basically two possible outcomes: you either succeed, or you fail.

For example, people often make really ambitious weight loss goals, but since they don’t have the right habits in place, they typically fail and then feel depressed.

Goals also feed the illusion that “everything will be great” once you reach a particular goal.  

A better option?

Instead of setting goals, focus instead on gradually improving your “system”. 

Your system is made up of all your habits, large and small. Start by changing one little habit, to improve your system.

For example, if you want to lose weight, start by cutting out sugary soda or juice.  Once you’ve changed that single habit, weight loss will start to happen naturally, with a lot less effort.

As the author puts it:  “You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your system.”

Every Action Reinforces Your Identity

Right now, you have an “identity”, associated with all your current habits.

Each time you do something new or different, that’s one “vote” for a new identity.

By taking small but consistent action, you can create new beliefs about yourself, which results in a new identity.  The new identity in turn will help support better habits.  

It’s a virtuous cycle.  

Build a “Healthy” Identity

Each time you take a small healthy action — like choosing a better food option, or exercising for a few minutes — that helps build your healthy identity. That means every time you do it, it’ll get a little bit easier the next time.

That’s one of the ways that even a very small action can have a huge impact on your long-term results.

Notice Your Habit Loops

Cue → craving → routine → reward

That’s the sequence of events that happens each time you perform any habit.

Since most habits happen unconsciously, the first step in change is just to be more aware. 

Become aware of your habit loops

Try to pay attention to what cues are initiating your good (or bad) habits.  What makes you think of it?  What are you craving? What happens next? What is the ultimate reward?

For example, what cue happens right before you eat junk food, or smoke a cigarette?  What situation are you typically in when it happens?  

As you build awareness, you’ll have an easier time adjusting your habits.

(Interestingly, awareness is also the first step to interrupt an anxiety loop, as explained in this fantastic interview with psychiatrist Jud Brewer.)

The 4 “Laws” of Habit Change

James Clear establishes four “laws” that you can use to create better habits.

(You can also use the opposite of each of these laws to help eliminate bad habits.)

Let’s walk through each of these laws and see how it might be applied to something like fasting, or your overall health and fitness.

Law 1:  Make it Obvious

Since every habit has a “cue”, it helps to make that cue really obvious when you’re trying to establish a new habit.  The most powerful cues are time and location.  

How can you apply this to fitness or fasting?

Decide what time, and in what location you’ll exercise.  That’s called an “implementation intention”, and it dramatically increases the chance you’ll follow through.  

After that, set a reminder, which will act as your cue.  As a final step, put your workout gear in a convenient location so you’ll be ready to roll.  

With fasting, you could choose a simple schedule for the week, write it in big bold letters on a piece of paper, and hang it on the wall where you’ll see it every day.  

Similarly, fasting apps usually have various notifications you can use to remind yourself about your plan, and keep on schedule.

Your Environment is Stronger Than Your Willpower

As Clear points out, self-control is a short-term strategy because it doesn’t last. 

In contrast, when you make changes to your environment, it has a bigger impact in the long run.

For example, if you want to eat a certain type of food, put it in a place where you’ll see it. And if you don’t want to eat a certain type of food, put it where you won’t see it…or don’t bring it into your home at all!

Changing your food environment will have a bigger impact than just trying to exert self-control.  

Think about other ways you can change your environment to make cues for good habits obvious, and cues for bad habits invisible.

Law 2:  Make it Appealing

Remember the second step in the habit loop is “craving”.  How can you make yourself crave a good habit?

James Clear recommends pairing good habits with pleasurable activities.  

For example, while you exercise you could listen to music that you really like, or an audiobook or podcast that you really enjoy.  Anticipating the opportunity to enjoy the podcast episode while you work out will make you look forward to the activity.  In other words, you’ll “crave” it.

4 laws of habit change from Atomic Habits

Another way to make an activity appealing is to associate it with positive feelings.

Here are a few examples:

After I got a little bit of experience with prolonged fasting I noticed it consistently leads to mental clarity, or even euphoria.  Thinking about good feelings that come from fasting made doing a prolonged fast more appealing.  

Alternatively, you could spend a few minutes thinking about how fasting will lower your risk of diabetes, heart disease, or other health problems.  Visualize yourself with and without diabetes (and all the related complications).  Since fasting helps prevent diabetes, that mental exercise can connect positive feelings about good health with the idea of fasting. 

Another approach would be to spend some time thinking about how much more productive you can be if you skip breakfast (or dinner, or whatever).  That could make short-term daily fasting seem more appealing.

Interestingly, the anticipation of an activity actually creates a bigger reward in your brain than the activity itself, so anything you can do to associate a good habit with positive feelings can really help you stick to the habit.

Use Groups & Culture to Your Advantage

Another thing that can make good habits appealing is when they help you fit in with a particular group, like your family, friends, or church group.

Think about what groups you’re spending time with, and whether they reinforce your good (or bad) habits.

A note about family:

Since you can’t really avoid your family, try talking to them about your plans, and see if they wanna try fasting with you, or exercising together.  That way, you can create a “healthy culture” inside your own home.  

Another option for fasting is to join an online forum or group to help keep you motivated and accountable.  Read other people’s success stories, and you’ll feel inspired.  If you can find a similar group that meets in person, even better. 

Law 3:  Make it Easy

Probably the biggest mistake people make when trying to prove any area of their health, is trying to do too much all at once.

Think back to all those New Year’s resolutions that people make. It’s usually something really ambitious, right?  Like spending an hour in the gym every single day.

If you’re not used to going to the gym, and you try to spend an hour in the gym everyday…. it’s probably not gonna last very long.

Why not try something easier, so you can get some repetition in and start forming a new identity?

Here’s an example:

What if you started with just 5 minutes of exercise per day, at home, using simple equipment like resistance bands (or just body weight)?  

Make a new health habit very easy, like baby steps

By choosing something easy, you’ll be more likely to actually stick with it for a while, which gives your brain some time to adapt to the new habit (and new identity).

Once you’ve established a consistent habit, then you can work on improving it. Like increasing the duration from 5 minutes to 10 minutes, or increasing the intensity.    

Making Meditation Easy (My Story)

A few years ago I tried to get in the habit of daily meditation. At one point, I made a plan to meditate for 10 minutes everyday.

After a bit, I noticed I usually didn’t get around to meditating.  I was resisting it because 10 minutes felt like too big of a commitment. 

When I changed my daily plan to 5 minutes instead, suddenly it felt easy and not overwhelming. So I was able to do it consistently.

You can use a similar approach:

For any new habit, dial down the intensity until you find a version that feels easy enough that you can do it consistently.

Be consistent first. Then go from there.

Make Intermittent Fasting Really Easy at the Beginning

I often talk about making intermittent fasting (a.k.a. time-restricted eating, or TRE) easy at the beginning. That’s because if you’re not used to it, any type of fasting can seem intimidating. And like anything else, there are growing pains when you first start.

Here’s how you can make TRE easy:

Start by delaying breakfast by just one hour a couple times a week.  That’s a small enough change that it shouldn’t seem overwhelming, and it lets you get some practice while building consistency.  

After a week or two, try delaying breakfast a bit longer, or even skipping it occasionally.  Gradually turn up the intensity over several weeks, until you get to your desired regimen, such as 16/8 or 14/10.  

(Naturally you could do the same thing by eating dinner a little earlier.  So do whatever works for your schedule.)

Beginners Guide to Easy Fasting pdf cover

I shared a similar approach in my Easy Fasting Guide, along with a bunch of other useful tips.  So if you haven’t checked that out already, go have a look!

Make Bad Habits Difficult

When it comes to bad fitness habits, perhaps the most obvious example is eating junk food.

How can you make this more difficult?

One way is to focus on the time you spend shopping. It’s a relatively small amount of time, but it can have a huge impact. For instance, if you don’t buy any processed junk food while you’re at the store, you’ll be a lot less likely to end up eating it.

Seems almost too obvious, right?  But it works.  

If it’s impossible for you to keep junk food out of your home (because someone else likes to eat it, for example), you could try keeping it out of sight, like inside a cabinet somewhere where you won’t be constantly tempted. Or maybe in your basement freezer. 

You can use similar approaches when it comes to things like smoking, or drinking too much alcohol.

Use your creativity, and think about how you can add more barriers to bad health-related habits.

Law 4:  Make it Satisfying

Good habits usually aren’t immediately rewarding. But maybe you can change that.  

See if you can think of a way to insert a pleasurable outcome at the end of your good habit. Try to use short-term rewards that are consistent with the identity you’re working towards.

For example, after you do your workout for the day you could eat a really delicious and satisfying (healthy) meal.  Like steak, avocado, and blueberries.  

Similarly, when you get to the end of your fasting window for the day, you could likewise eat a delicious and satisfying meal.  That kind of gives you a reward for your accomplishment.  

Habit Tracking Creates a Cue, Craving, & Reward

Another way you can make a habit more satisfying is by tracking your progress.

Here’s one approach:

What if you place a huge calendar on the wall, and put a big red check mark each time you accomplish your task for the day?  The calendar will not only act as a reminder, it will also stimulate a desire to do the task, and ultimately you’ll feel satisfaction when you add the check mark.

Track your health habits on a calendar, like daily fasting

(Conversely, you’ll feel dissatisfied if you have an empty day on your calendar, with no check mark.)

I also find using an app to track my fasting times is quite satisfying.  The app shows me statistics, like my average fasting length, and fasting history, which I enjoy seeing.  Fasting apps also have notifications, which can act as a reminder or help you see your progress.  

Overall, any method of tracking your habit will significantly improve your chances of following through.  

Make Bad Habits Painful (A Powerful Tool!)

This is basically the inverse of the fourth law above:  In addition to making good habits satisfying, you can also try to make bad habits very unsatisfying, or even painful.

I’ve used this strategy very successfully, and I think you can do the same.

Here’s what I did:

Back in 2019, I made a few specific rules related to my health and fitness, including what type of food I would eat and how much fasting I would do. I wrote down the rules, shared them with my little brother, and he agreed to become my accountability partner and check in every week.

I also set a penalty if I didn’t follow through.  My penalty was donating money to a cause I did NOT support.

That penalty was sufficiently strong motivation that I NEVER broke the rules. It was simply too painful to imagine donating the money to that particular cause. 

As long as you’re honest about it, this can be an extremely effective strategy.  

If you don’t have someone to be your accountability partner, you can do basically the same exact thing using the website called Stickk.  You make a commitment, set a penalty if you want, and check in periodically.  It also lets you share the commitment with other people.  

The Goldilocks Rule

Remember the story of Goldilocks? She didn’t want her porridge too hot, or too cold. She wanted it just right.

When you’re trying to form a new habit, use the same approach.

Don’t try to do something that’s super difficult, or overly boring. Challenge yourself just a little bit, but not too much. 

That’s the sweet spot, which keeps things interesting, but not overwhelming.

As time goes on, you can turn up the difficulty just a little at a time, to keep yourself engaged.  

Summary and Final Thoughts

Whew, that was a lot!  How about a recap:  

As you improve your habits, don’t underestimate the power of very small changes. Small improvements compound over time, to produce incredible results.

Rather than setting goals, try to create a system around you (made up of all your habits) that will support your progress.  

Each action you take reinforces your identity, so every time you can take even a tiny positive action, it’s beneficial in the long run.

The habit loop goes like this:  Cue → craving → routine → reward

Pay attention, and try to become more aware of your own habits. See what initiates them, and what keeps them going.  

Try to make the cues for good habits obvious, and cues for bad habits invisible.  Changing your environment to support good habits is more effective than just using willpower.  

See if you can make good habits more appealing, by associating them with positive feelings and pleasurable activities.  Do the opposite for bad habits.

Make your new habit (like exercise, or fasting) very easy at the beginning, so you can get some reps in and let your brain start adapting.  If it’s overwhelming, you’ll probably just quit. Be consistent first, then you can improve the habit even more.  

Try to make good habits satisfying.  One simple way to do this is by using a habit tracker, like a calendar or an app.  

A powerful tool to make bad habits unsatisfying (or “painful”) is to use a commitment device. For example, you could report weekly to your friend or family member, and even have a penalty in place if you don’t follow through. You can do basically the same thing with a website like Stickk.

By using the principles I’ve explained here, you can steadily improve your habits little by little, which in the end will give you the best possible chance at success.  

Now it’s your turn.  

What’s one simple health-related habit you can improve on?  Choose something, and write down how you’ll use these principles to get started!

(By the way, there’s a lot more info in the book than what I could cover here, so go get yourself a copy!  I’m sure your public library has it.  And if you’d like, you can also see the concise-yet-comprehensive notes I took while I was reading the book, on this google doc.)

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Ben Tanner, PA-C

Ben Tanner, PA-C

Ben has been practicing as a physician assistant (PA, or PA-C, similar to a doctor) in emergency medicine, urgent care, and family practice since 2014. Since 2016, he has developed an avid interest in various forms of fasting, using it to improve his own health while helping friends, family, and patients do the same.

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