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  • Writer's pictureThalien Colenbrander

HABIT MANAGEMENT - architect or victim?

Updated: Jan 19, 2023

"We don't rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training."

This punch-in-the-gut quote is attributed to early Greek poet Archilochus. In more recent times, the quote has gained popularity - in slightly different wording - through James Clear's NY Times bestseller book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones in which he writes: “We don’t rise to our goals, we fall to the level of our systems”.

These systems refer to habits we put in place in order to achieve a goal. What you’ll read below is a synthesis of a few concepts taken from Clear's book, interwoven with my personal reflections. If the topic and approach is of interest to you, perhaps you'd like to consider joining my Healing Habits Retreat in January 2023.

Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive. Howard Thurman

While goals can be as wildly different as there are humans, our ultimate goals all boil down to the same thing: to fulfil the highest, most truthful expression of ourselves as human beings. When you think about fulfilling your own potential, chances are that images will come to mind: A mental projection of your (potential) future identity. What you’ll be doing, where you’ll be and with who. How you will speak, interact, how you will carry yourself. And it is this identity-based approach to changing habits that makes Clear's formula relatively easy to integrate, and therefore so effective.

“The quality of our lives depends on the quality of our habits.”


The concept of identity-based habits is one of the important pillars in Clear’s book. He suggests a reversal of the usual goal-oriented approach, which traditionally focusses on the goal as the holy grail. For example, say my goal is to build my own camper van. The assumption is ‘if I accomplish that, then I’ll be the kind of person I want to be’. That is, the person who built her own camper van. This type of thinking underlines the result (i.e. the finished camper van with me as the accomplisher) as the ultimate trophy. And so my satisfaction and embodiment of that person who built her own van, would be delayed until the van is finished - if I finish.


Clear’s suggestion is to start reaping satisfaction right now by inverting that process and asking ‘Who is the type of person who builds her own van?’. My answer: definitely the solution-oriented kind of person who doesn’t give in to the impulse to procrastinate/quit when the going gets tough! The good news is, I can start behaving that way right now - embodying the person I need and want to be, way before I attain the external goal of a finished van. Who do you think is more likely to start and finish a monstrous DIY van-build project: The person who embodies the habits of a DIY van-builder? Or the person who pretends to be a DIY van-builder? A few more examples to illustrate this crucial difference:

  • Between two equally physically fit people, who is more likely to complete a marathon: the one who mentally identifies as an athlete, or the one who is hoping or wishing to be an athlete?

  • Say you offer two fresh ex-smokers a cigarette. One answers: "No thanks, I'm trying to quit." The other answers: "No thanks, I'm not a smoker." Which of these two people you think are more anchored in their habit of not smoking? This is the power of embodiment.

“Your current habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results, your current identity.”

So your habits are the way you embody a particular identity. First you define who it is you need to be to accomplish a certain goal, then you act on the behaviour (habits) that lead towards that goal. For me, one of my goals is to be a compassionate and emotionally balanced person. To have that state of being as my default. But I don't see that as some future version of myself. I am not 'faking it till I make it'. I am that person every time I embody and express kindness and compassion.

This is how I go about it: a habit I ascribe to the compassionate and emotionally balanced person is to accept another person’s character and their life situation the way it is. A compassionate and emotionally balanced person has the habit of assuming no bad intent and most importantly: A compassionate and emotionally balanced person has the habit of being proactive and focuses on giving, not receiving. So this means that when I catch myself judging my siblings for never calling me to chit-chat, I call them. I do this because it is the embodiment of the type of person and sister I want to be. Every time I pick up that phone, I am fostering my identity as a compassionate and emotionally balanced person.

“Be the architect of your habits and not the victim of them.”


Back to the camper van. Say I were to go ahead and embark on this monstrous DIY project and approach it Clear-style, I’d let the goal of the finished van 'take care of itself', and just focus on being the kind of person who doesn’t give in to impulse when the going gets tough. The kind of person who makes a plan for the upcoming day (or hour, or plans the order of activities) and then sticks to it. I’d start fostering that identity. And of course you can imagine a version of this for all kinds of habits: What is the type of leader you want to be at work? What type of partner do you want to be in your romantic relationship, what kind of family member? Every action we take, is like a vote for the type of person we want to become.

“Reinforce the story of the kind of person you see yourself becoming”

CASTING VOTES Habits are a hot topic in our ‘do do do!’ society because of the external productivity point of view. Habits can help you lose weight, get more done, make more money etc. And that's great. But the real reason why habits matter is that they reinforce the story of the kind of person you see yourself becoming. When you start casting votes for a more empowering story, you build your confidence and power on what you KNOW to be true. This is far more effective than building confidence and momentum based on what you HOPE - a concept glorified in the saying ‘fake it till you make it’. Remember the marathon runners and ex-smokers? Clear’s argument is to let the behaviour lead the way: Start by doing one small thing each day. Or almost every day (like with votes, you don’t need to hit a unanimous count to win). For example, if journaling or fitness is a habit you'd like to acquire, try writing one small sentence each day before you get out of bed each morning. It could be writing down the first 3 objects or people that come to mind and merging those into a funny, nonsensical phrase. Do 5 squats the moment you step into the in the kitchen. Knowing that at that moment, you cast a vote for that version of yourself. All big things come from small beginnings.


Without a doubt, Clear says, the #1 thing that sabotages effective habit building, is starting too big. Say for example you want to make meditation a daily habit, don’t 'start with a bang' by enrolling in a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat like I did. It was a hellish ride and did not ignite a badass daily meditation habit like I hoped. What happened is that after that experience, I thought meditating for only 10 minutes each day - which is what I had been doing daily for 1 month prior to the retreat as a build up - would be child's play. So after the retreat, I radically raised the bar to 1 hour each day. I chuckle at the proposition now, but at the time I actually felt like I was skiving. Of course, I felt like a loser each time I didn't manage to meditate for 1 hour (which meant I felt like a loser every day), and unsurprisingly threw in the towel shortly after. It was weeks, if not months, before I humbly got out my 10-minute timer again and restarted. Lesson: start small. Atomic, even.


There's a lot more to this book than I've written here, but I nevertheless hope that reading this blog has in some way ignited a spark, landed a seed of an idea to (re)view your habits. If there's a habit you've identified that you would like to master, start small. A habit must be established before it can be improved: It makes total sense, yet deceitfully tricky to integrate in our lives. All too often, society (as reflected in marketing ads and social media) does not evoke in us a respect for the volume of consistency, but a respect for peak intensity. Big decisions. Radicality. Overnight success. Boom.

More on James Clear’s Atomic Habits: Listen to the audiobook on Spotify (free if you are a paying Spotify member)

I also recommend signing up to his weekly 3-2-1 newsletter. Every Thursday, he shares 3 ideas from him, 2 quotes from others, and 1 question for you to ponder. Honestly, I look forward to reading this each week, it's that good. Short and sweet.

If this blog inspired you, check out my Healing Habits Retreat in January 2023 which includes a workshop on building and breaking habits, in large part based on Clear's book Atomic Habits. I hope you'll join.

And with that, I will leave you with some thoughtful words not from James Clear but from Mahatma Gandhi:

Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.

Love, Thalien xx

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Matthijs R Colenbrander
Matthijs R Colenbrander

😊 ... Whooaaoohw, this one hits home, I feel somethng stirring ... 😊

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