The Suprising Power of Atomic Habits

Jan 09 2019

Reading through Atomic Habits

I think it’s easier to talk about a book in-depth when going chapter by chapter, at least for nonfiction books.  It makes me nervous to worry whether I remember everything I thought throughout the time it takes me to read an entire book.

One book I’ve been wanting to read for a while is Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear.

My other chapter posts contain a list of chapter sections, but it’s hard to tell by the formatting on the kindle edition.  But my guess would be:

Subsections of the Chapter

One of my library science courses was on usability studies, and they talked quite a bit about habit formation in terms of how people encounter and can be coaxed into using technology.  One of the foremost researchers into habit formation and behavior change is B.J. Fogg, who founded the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University.  In his behavior model, any behavior or change of behavior occurs at the convergence of three elements: motivation, prompt, and ability. Each of these elements is a whole thing in themselves, but if even one is missing, the behavior will not occur.  Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit) conceptualizes habit building as a cue, routine, and reward system. Regardless, it’s clear there’s some kind of combination of stimulus and response, i.e. classical conditioning, when you get into forming habits.

I’m interested in building habits because I know that I need structure to do well with things, and some of that structure has to be self-imposed.  Habits are my way of tricking myself into creating this structure.

Atomic Habits begins with an introduction that outlines Clear’s experience with habit building.  He tells the story of how he was involved in a childhood accident that involved severe injuries. Over time, physical therapy, and the development of good habits, he was able to get back into baseball and grow to great success in his college team.  I don’t want to make light of his injury, or his efforts within the sport, but the story also made it sound as if his development of good habits only began in college.  I don’t know why the detailing of his injury was necessary to begin the book.  I don’t think it lends any level of credibility or demonstration of his expertise in habit-building. I would believe him to be just as credible an expert if he had simply started talking about his use and experimentation with habits.  In the introduction, he also references Charles Duhigg’s model of habit formation. Clear’s model involves four steps that will sound somewhat similar: cue, craving, response, and reward.

The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits

“Habits are the compound interest of self improvement.” - James Clear

I’ve listened to a couple of podcast episodes that interview James Clear. Most of them have a finance/productivity slant to them, so the above quote makes perfect sense as to how they got interested in the book. The story he uses is of the British cycling team, and I really f-ing love this story.  They embarked on a series of 1% improvements:  type of pillow case, massage gels, more comfortable bike seats, adding rubbing alcohol to tires for better grip, etc.  Anything that could be slightly improved, no matter how tangential or small, was changed.  No single improvement could be held responsible for their later success, but altogether they made a massive difference and the cycling team won multiple years afterward.

I really like this focus on tiny, small improvements rather than big things. For myself, saying I’m going to do one Duolingo language-learning module a day is more feasible than saying I’m going to learn a foreign language.  Part of this is in the idea of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) goals. But part of it is also breaking down a idealized concept into the parts that make it so. It also gets around the issue I sometimes have with getting started on a project.  There’s a name for it, which I’ve forgotten, where the thought process goes something like I want to ship some unused makeup products to my sister, but before I can do that, I should really sort through all of my makeup, and to do that, I’ll need to sit down and inventory everything.  Before I know it, a small 5-minute task has turned into an hour-long one and I just don’t have the time to do it.

Focusing on 1% type improvements involves tricking myself a couple of different ways.  It asks me to break down larger concepts into small, feasible tasks.  But it also asks me to consider each decision in the extreme.  If I decide to get fast food instead of cook a meal, I could think of it as this is just one decision in the longer realm of things and so it hurts “nothing” or this one decision is going to compound into more poor decisions so I need to break it now before things get worse.

To his credit, Clear also considers how compounding affects negative habits in terms of thought behaviors.  I’ve done a lot of work on not letting negative thoughts spiral into larger depressive patterns, and Clear notes that this is a type of negative compounding.  He conveys it as a way to think of how habits can work for or against you, which is interesting, but he doesn’t say much more about it other than to warn that letting negative habits compound should be avoided because habit formation can cut both ways.  Yes, thank you for that insight.

I would have liked some kind of note that this compounded interest of habits can be controlled.  It doesn’t have to take the shape of exponential growth, and that systems can be interrupted or controlled if they start to take on that darker shape.

The Plateau of Latent Potential

To describe progress, Clear coins his own term “The Plateau of Latent Potential.” Obviously, I love semi-dramatic phrases like this. I don’t know who said it first, but the way he describes progress is similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Not that either of these are epiphanies.  The metaphor is of the changing states of water, and the idea of critical mass.  Clear uses the example of watching a block of ice melt.  As you slowly raise the temperature, not much is happening. However, once you hit thirty two degrees, it melts. The symbolism is that progress, for the most part, is invisible but necessary.  The ice would not have melted without the steadily warming temperature, the sculpture did not instantly emerge from the block of marble, etc.  Small actions over time build up to extraordinary feats.

The Plateau of Latent Potential, then, is that time of struggle in forming the habit. My first thought was of the often-cited measure that it takes 21 days to build a habit.  The plateau then consists of days 1-20. Not that the 21 day thing actually works. Clear has a fun graph of how this feels over time, contrasting what you think should happen as a straight line of increasing growth, versus the reality in that it is a slow, then rapid (almost exponential) growth. However, I much prefer the graph depicting the Gartner Hype Cycle, seen below. This is one of my favorite graphs, period.


[caption id=“attachment_101” align=“aligncenter” width=“436”]hypecycle Gartner Hype Cycle[/caption]

If you replace “Technology Trigger” with any new habit or behavior you want to foster, the rest of the graph matches up with this idea of invisible progress and the many examples you see of someone starting say a New Year’s Resolution with great excitement, only to drop it after their inflated expectations have landed them in a trough of disillusionment.  But! If you continue to work at it, you’ll slowly emerge to the plateau of productivity after steady enlightenment of how you can accomplish this in reality, not through some inflated fantasy. All you need to do is change the visibility axis to enthusiasm, and the maturity axis to time.  This was first introduced to me at Math Honors Day, care of Dr. Bertram, as an example of what it’s like to conduct research (in mathematics or otherwise). So true.

Systems, Not Goals

“Winners and losers have the same goals.” - James Clear

I love this cold truth.  The difference between succeeding or failing at a goal can be a number of systemic issues beyond your control.  However, you can control the process you use to meet that goal. Clear separates the two by nodding to Scott Adams of Dilbert fame: “Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”  I like that this encourages you to think beyond a specific outcome.  I’ve had to do a lot of work to get past the idea that, once I reach this goal, that’s when my life will begin, or that’s when I’ll be happy, or that’s when everything will be better.  I think there can be a tendency, often promoted through media, to put your life on hold until after the goal is met.  Depending on the goal, you may be putting your life on hold for a long time.  I like the emphasis on system because it includes the now; making your life after the goal part of the system that begins with your life as it is now.

One of the episodes in the new Marie Kondo show has a couple that is organizing their home to make room for a possible new child.  Throughout the episode, you can see the wife fighting against the urge to keep things for this future that she has imagined.  And part of that is incredibly pragmatic: why throw away things that you will need in the future? At the same time, you can see that it’s hard for her to enjoy her life now because she’s saving everything for the future.  It’s almost as if she doesn’t know what to get rid of because she doesn’t know what she’ll need when she’s in that future imagined life.  There’s a bit of a what-if/catastrophizing mentality that I understand, but there’s also a disconnect between how she lives now and how she imagines she’ll live in the future, with no clear bridge from here to there. I think habits are often framed as a means of creating that bridge, but shifting from goal to system-oriented habits also answers the questions: What happens once I’m there? Who will I be then?

I’m looking forward to hearing more about building a system of habits, and I hope BJ Fogg gets a shout-out later on.

Bless his heart, there’s also a chapter summary at the end. It’s as if he knows.

Atomic Habits Read-Through