Jan 23 2019
Reading through Atomic Habits
Continuing onward, Atomic Habits now addresses the second law of behavior change as corresponding to the four stages of habit formation below.
Cue : Make it Obvious Craving : Make it Attractive Response : Make it Easy Reward : Make it Satisfying
This chapter does exactly what it says and talks about how we zone in on things that are attractive or exaggerated (supernormal stimuli). What I didn’t know was how exaggeration is used by the food industry. Mouth feel is known as orosensation, and along with this, companies are trying to increase the dynamic contrast which combines sensations so that you don’t lose interest. I never thought of combining textures in that way before, but it makes sense. This may have just changed how I evaluate recipes.
We like to things that bring us pleasure, and making a habit attractive is one of the biggest battles. Waking up early isn’t sexy! Clear takes attraction to a chemical level: dopamine. Habits, negative or positive, are a “dopamine-driven feedback loop.” However, Clear points out that dopamine is released both during the experience and in the anticipation of it. It’s linked to motivation and desire, which is something you want to harness for building a positive habit. What’s funny to me is that I regularly deal with anticipatory anxiety and fear. It’s a completely automatic reaction. I’ll jump or get very anxious/uncomfortable if I feel something is coming, regardless of how distant or controlled it may actually be. If only I could use it for positive things!
This chapter includes another fun diagram in which spikes in dopamine are associated with the four stages (cue, craving, response, reward). If the spike becomes associated with the reward, next time it comes around it will begin to spike at the associated cue, but perhaps not at the reward. However, you have to be consistent in associating the cue with the reward, otherwise the dopamine spike will not build to a consistent pattern. To chain the cue and reward more closely together, Clear turns to the idea of temptation bundling in which “an action you want to do is connected to an action you need to do.” This is the section where I now pity dear, sweet James Clear. He uses the example of Shondaland’s Thank God It’s Thursday (TGIT) lineup on ABC: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder. All excellent shows. The TGIT lineup was promoted alongside a campaign for, as Clear states, something women want to do in that they want to drink red wine and eat popcorn. Let us all be clear. This was not a campaign from ABC. This was recognizing the immense popularity of Scandal’s Olivia Pope and how women viewers would emulate her habit of eating popcorn and drinking red wine when enjoying the show. ABC finally recognized this trend among its viewers and capitalized upon it by bringing red wine and popcorn into their promotion of the entire Thursday night line-up. You could also argue that the TGIT lineup, regardless of red wine and popcorn, is temptation bundling in itself as you want to watch and need to watch all three shows.
Another term for this temptation bundling is Premack’s principle, which Clear cites as “more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.” Does this sound like it could be made into a formula? Yes, yes it does. Clear’s formula statement is then:
After [Current Habit], I will [Habit I Need]. After [Habit I Need], I will [Habit I Want].
You could also consider this to be stuffing the not-fun task into a sandwich of fun tasks, or hiding the bitter pill.
It is incredibly hard to do things one way when everyone and everything around you is trying to influence you toward a different way. Part of this is social norms, gender norms, and the dominant cultural narrative. These are difficult to fight against. Clear lists three groups that we imitate: the close, the many, and the powerful.
While it’s normal to pick up traits and behaviors from those immediately surrounding you, I notice I do it to a stronger degree. There are a lot of different descriptions of this: mimicry, aping, etc. that all have different connotations, but it’s just something I do. Clear recommends hacking this tendency by surrounding yourself with people who have the same habits you aspire to or want to maintain. When it comes to the many, however, Clear argues that we often may second guess ourselves if we become the outlier. As for the powerful, they invite admiration and aspiration of their attributes, even if we don’t understand the more complex details involved.
I’m actually very pleased that this chapter opens with a brief story about quitting smoking because it looks at Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking. I don’t smoke, but I was fascinated when the By the Book podcast mentioned it as the book that helped one of the hosts quit smoking. To do so, the book (as paraphrased by Clear) reframes the cues into having new meanings. It changes the relational frame, so to speak, so that the habit becomes invisible and thus breakable.
Taking this further, Clear discusses how we need to look at the underlying motivation behind a habit. His examples include how social media apps use the motivation to create social relationships with others, and how a dating app equates to finding love (and reproducing, if you’re into that). This speaks more directly to me through emotional eating. While I may want to change this habit into eating healthier, addressing the emotional issues that the bad habit solves will help even more. Clear argues that by changing how we make predictions—and how that anticipation moves from negative to positive—is key in developing new habits.
Now, finally, Clear wants to talk about how to make waking up early into a sexy habit. One example: demonstrating choice. He uses the example of changing internal language from ‘having’ to do something to ‘getting’ to do something as if it is a privilege and a choice, not an obligation. Clear argues for highlighting the benefits of a habit, not just the disadvantages. While this is about mindset, he also encourages a physical aspect through a motivation ritual, a way of integrating the cue through a consistent sensory supplement to the action that can later function as a cue on its own. It’s a kinder, gentler version of Pavlov’s bell.