Jan 18 2019
Reading through Atomic Habits
Book: Atomic Habits, by James Clear.
There are more chapters to this book than I thought, and I’m coming up on the library due date. For these shorter chapters, I’ll just read them together.
I’m excited to see Clear talk about identity in relation to behavior change. While a simple task like scheduling tasks on your calendar is meant to help make me more productive, if I don’t look at that calendar, it’s not useful. Nor if I ignore the calendar alerts. While the task can sound like it will help me, it won’t unless it works in a way that complements how I operate, flaws included.
Clear points out two common obstacles in changing habits: we focus on the wrong thing, and we change them in the wrong way. This chapter digs into how we focus on the wrong thing. To do so, Clear uses concentric circles to illustrate the three layers of behavior change, from outer to inner:
Outcomes: What you get Processes: What you do Identity: What you believe
Clear posits that it’s more impactful to consider the direction of the change you want, whether start from identity to outcomes, or from outcomes to identity. One example is of someone refraining from smoking a cigarette: I’m trying to quit vs. I’m not a smoker. I think one of the fears from claiming an identity is the idea of being judged a hypocrite. For me it would also be the overwhelming concern that (and this is probably the point) that if I lapse, then I’m kicked out of the club; once I state I’m something then I can never relapse. Maybe this is more of a commitment issue?
“Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last.” - James Clear
What worries me a little here, and perhaps this is a shades of grey thing, is how it states that you have to change who you are. Most of the time when I come across this kind of language, it stems from a religious background, and calls for a dismissal of the previous self and total transformation into a new one. I took that very literally while growing up and the resulting binary is hard for me to shake. I think it’s an easier read, at least for me, to say that instead of changing who you are you want to improve (or grow?) who you are. Fortunately, Clear uses positive examples of of intrinsic motivation. In particular, he argues that pride is one of the strongest motivators for maintain habits associated with what makes you proud. The belief must become part of the behavior; the verb of the behavior is to “become.” The flipside of pride is shame and self-deprecation. There’s a lot of scholarship on how you talk to yourself can also subconsciously effect what you believe about yourself: e.g., “I’m always late.” The way you talk about yourself can alter your story, and spread that story to others. I kind of want to stop for a moment and write out the things I am instead of thinking what I am not. Usually these self-deprecating remarks take a small part of an identity and make it a requirement for claiming membership at all. I can be good at math without having to be good at abstract algebra.
The Two-Step Process to Changing Your Identity
Oh, just two steps? I wish I knew it would be so simple! To lead in, Clear argues that our identity has been built through our habits, as a kind of conditioning. This identity can build up from negative habits just as easily as positive ones. Clear argues that these repeated habits provide evidence for our identity, but let me tell you how well I can make conclusions about my identity and my relationship with the world without any evidence what so ever. Hello, depression. Hello, anxiety.
To improve or grow ourselves by changing these habits, it takes repeating this “new” habit until that evidence can build itself up into my identity. I like how he frames completing the act involved in a habit as a suggestion of the person you can become. As you continue to repeat the habit, Clear suggests that you are also building up trust in yourself. That is a whole other issue, but I do see how it is a way of trusting that you are capable of growth. There are other analogies for this, such as: there is a fight between two forces, and the one who wins is the one you feed more. In other words, majority wins.
“Decide the type of person you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins.” - James Clear
That’s it. Those are the steps. It’s a little “fake it ‘til you make it” but I do like that he wants you to think critically about your values and what kind of person lives by those values. The goal is to create a feedback loop between who you want to be and what that person does.
Clear goes into the reasons why habits matter, but it’s more of the same about how habits help you become the person you envision. The way he phrases it, though, makes me realize that my habit tracker, while improving my habits, doesn’t have a clear focus on how these connect with my identity. One on hand, I’d say that’s awesome in that I know who I want to be in general, I just need help remembering all the habits that are part of me. On the other, I do want to think more about how I can connect these in a more meaningful way.
Alright, with this next chapter we’ll be up to six simple steps. I’m curious what the final count will be by the end of the book.
Laws AND steps? So many things. Clear opens this chapter with Thorndike’s experiment on how quickly cats would solve a puzzle. Repeating the same puzzle resulted in them learning to solve it more quickly over time. I’ll just say that I’m impressed by the cats’ ability to stay focused on the task.
Why Your Brain Builds Habits
I like that Clear links habit building to problem-solving. The first time is a matter of trial and error, or as Clear describes this feedback loop: “try, fail, learn, try differently.” This is the habit formation process that can lead to knowing how exactly to make a habit work for you. He also cites Jason Hreha to describe habits as “reliable solutions to recurring problems.” While I may be changing some habits to become a better person, framing these acts as habits means I want to automate them to some degree so that they take less mental effort and fewer decisions to execute the actions.
The Science of How Habits Work
Going back to Clear’s introduction, he breaks down the process of building a habit into those 4 SIMPLE STEPS: cue, craving, response, reward. The cue portion is also sometimes referred to as a “trigger” or “stimulus” depending on who you’re reading. However, Clear points toward an anticipatory feature of this in that a cue also hints at a reward, more deeply felt through a craving for that reward. Clear describes cravings as desiring the state delivered by the reward rather than the reward in itself; in other words, the feelings that come with/after the reward. Our response is to obtain the reward, which is the end goal of the habit. Clear argues that we chase rewards because they teach us and satisfy us. What we are taught is whether we view this reward positively or negatively.
Clear argues that you need all four steps to form a habit, otherwise the chain from cue to reward collapses and you will struggle to repeat the action to build it into a habit. All four are necessary to build and sustain a feedback loop.
Clear uses the concept of problem solving to frame the four steps into two stages. The Cue and Craving represent the problem stage in which the brain realizes something needs to happen. The response and reward are the solution stage, in which the brain decides what it will achieve. What I like about this is how he breaks down more automatic processes, like wanting to immediately grab your phone when it buzzes, to look at how this feedback loop is operating. It also makes me want to analyze what I’m doing to see what kind of reward I think I’m getting from this, and whether it’s a reward I want to continue pursuing.
The Four Laws of Behavior Change
I’m going to continue poking fun at the number of things and what these things are called. However, I do like how he’s breaking apart the theory and the application of habits. With the four laws, he’s really suggesting what kind of attributes each part of the feedback loop should have if you want to use it to design a new habit. I love that he also inverts this to look at how you might break a habit.
Make it obvious vs. Make it invisible Make it attractive vs. Make it unattractive Make it easy vs. Make it difficult Make it satisfying vs. Make it unsatisfying
Thinking how you can make an action obvious or attractive will help make it both fit your way of doing things, and reaffirm how the habit is important to you.
Atomic Habits Read-Through