Atomic habits for designers

The premise of “Atomic Habits” (James Clear) is that simple micro habits add up to make up who you are, and the most effective way of growing is not by setting long-term goals, but by adopting the behavior of the person you want to become. So instead of “I’m going to write a book”, you start with “I’m a writer, and I can see this is true because I write everyday”.

The book also advocates for breaking habits into their smallest and easiest components, and to focus efforts on setting the first step in motion. For example, instead of aiming to read 52 books a year, you start with the small habit of ‘read 1 page a day’.

Based on that, here’s what I’m trying for 2021:

Identity: I am a compassionate person

  • Self-compassion exercises during first cup of morning coffee
  • Gratitude exercises while brushing teeth. Post-it reminder on toothbrush cup

Identity: I am a designer

  • Open a new figma page in the morning and move at least 1 pixel — ex. make a wireframe copy of an interesting site, copy a component, do a design challenge
  • Listen to design podcast while studying

Identity: I am a learner

  • Read 1 page a day

Identity: I am a creative person who listens to and expresses what I see and feel

  • Write 1 line in journal a day
  • Draw 1 thing a day and post on private instagram, regardless of quality.
  • Write 1 medium post a week

Identity: I am a healthy athlete

(which feels ludicrous to say honestly, but also empowering to believe :D.)

  • Work out or stretch at least 5 min a day

I track progress everyday in a physical workbook that I keep open at all times, which provides immediate visual feedback.

So far…

It’s only been a few weeks, but I’m noticing:

  • More energy at end of day and weekend
  • Feeling less sucked into the minutiae of everyday work
  • Studying design, drawing, reading, writing are starting to feel automatic. I don’t have to remind myself to journal — I feel myself reaching for the pen. Drawing doesn’t feel like an activity I feel obligated to do or feel guilty about not practicing — I just open up the Ipad. I automatically open figma up every morning before work and turn on a podcast, and the morning feels strange if I don’t start it that way.
  • I work out or stretch at least 5 min a day, and on some days that means 20–30 min cardio workout, other days I’m squeezing in a 5 min stretch while watching Netflix

And overall emotionally and mentally:

  • I feel like I’m moving forward, even if they’re in small increments
  • I experience less moments where I don’t know what to do with my time or where starting something new feels like a huge effort, because I have already decided what I want to work on
  • I have multiple values or facets of my identity I’m dedicating time to, rather feeling like I work all the time or recovering from working by zoning out

Atomic habits as a mid-career UX designer

The biggest benefit of starting small with tiny habits is that it feels like a healthier mindset than my usual “As a designer I need to learn, brush up, and keep up on all the things — design principles, methods, skills, tools..” In fact, as part of new year’s resolutions last year, I downloaded huge matrix charts that list out every single skill that is deemed as being essential for UX design, with the goal of fleshing out my skillset. I didn’t get very far.

With small manageable habits, instead of aiming for this unreachable and ever-changing goal of becoming a master at my craft, I can instead focus on the small habits and practices that an evolving designer would do, and celebrate progress for its own sake.

Example of an atomic habit as a designer

This is my daily morning practice in detail:

  1. I open up figma, create a new page, then depending on mood that day, copy a page that I found compelling for whatever reason, copy a component, or do a design challenge:

2. While figma-ing, I listen to a design-related podcast:

3. When I’m done, I log on airtable the date, what I did, any notes and takeaways, and any relevant links. If there’s anything from a podcast that struck me or that I want to remember, I jot down reminders or notes. This log gives me immediate visual feedback on my progress.


Is any of the design work I’m doing groundbreaking, creative or portfolio-worthy? No. But that’s not my goal; my goal is to be a designer who has a healthy habit of learning and growing. And with atomic habits, I feel like I’m on an upward trajectory because I’m spending time everyday reading, learning, writing, drawing, and designing.


User Experience Designer