Feb 01 2019
Reading through Atomic Habits
My read-through of Atomic Habits by James Clear continues with his third 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
In this chapter, Clear emphasizes action. It’s all about the verbs, and just as he cites Voltaire, perfect is the enemy of good. Practice and improvement depend on more than just thinking about it. However, he does warn against what I have heard referred to as productive procrastination. You avoid the “real” work or the more difficult tasks; although you are still doing something productive you’re not taking care of things as you should. The difficult task continues to be avoided. Although I know quite a few people who would disagree, Clear does not believe that planning is an action. Planning does not achieve results; actions do.
The point of moving toward action lies in automation. While Clear uses examples of musicians, mathematicians, etc. and the brain growing from these repeated connections, I think more specifically of muscle memory in terms of playing the piano. For a few years, I had to memorize pieces of music for a competition. The more I practiced, the more I learned the piece through the spatial relationship between the key I needed to press and the position of my finger to press it. To this day, I still remember one musical work from that time, albeit a short one that takes less than two minutes to play. I can play it correctly, but only if I remember which note to start from. From there, I place my fingers on the keyboard and they begin moving on their own. I cannot sit down and tell you what notes I hit, but I can instantly begin playing it. It’s no longer something to think about, just something to be done as soon as I give it the right start. For me, this reaffirms Clear’s attention to the power of active practice over passive learning. I think it’s something we all intuitively understand when we tell people that we prefer to learn ‘hands-on’ or I have to ‘play’ with this first before I can ask more questions.
Clear charts out the path to what he calls ‘automaticity’ (the process of using practice to automate an action) by creating a nice graph of growth or what he literally describes as a learning curve. As you repeat the action, the degree of automaticity increases. Eventually, it reaches what he calls the “habit line” where in the habit is formed. From this graph, Clear teaches the maxim: “habits form based on frequency, not time.” This graph is also used to demonstrate there is no good answer to how long it takes to build a new habit. Since we’re focused on frequency, Clear argues that the better question is how many times it takes doing something before the habit is formed.
In this chapter, Clear asserts that we do whatever is most convenient. So true. Instead of attributing it to laziness, however, Clear portrays it as a means of conserving energy. Every action requires a certain amount of energy expended. For me, this concept is best portrayed by through the Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino. She describes how those dealing with chronic pain or other illnesses have to protect their energy. If each action costs a spoon, and you only have five spoons today, how do you decide to spend them?
The less effort required by something, the more likely we are to do it. This is the principle Clear invokes in the third law of behavior change: make it easy. In this light, Clear argues that habits can be seen as obstacles to our results—and the more difficult it is or the more energy required to overcome this obstacle, the less likely you are to keep up with this habit and obtain the desired result. The goal is to reduce friction, or to find a way to make this action cost fewer spoons.
Although Clear uses a different example to illustrate this point, he references the idea of addition by subtraction in which you gradually reduce any possible points of friction. Going back to his story about the British cycling team, I like to think of it as compounding ease—reducing the tiniest bit of friction, even 1%, over time can make a habit much quicker and easier to complete. Another example of this is with voice-activated products. Clear mentions how this product is only removes the need to pull out your phone and open an app, but this slightest convenience is so easy to get attached to, that it’s noticeable when you no longer have this shortcut. I talked about this with a friend, in that the only point of buying a much more expensive wi-fi scale was so that I didn’t have to remember to manually enter my weight into a spreadsheet. I likely paid $80 to not manually type a number into a spreadsheet each morning. It sounds utterly ridiculous. But, I love it. And I know much more about my weight gain/loss patterns than I would have without it.
In the first law of behavior change, Clear talked about the impact of environment and design on making actions obvious and part of the design. I really like the example of ‘resetting a room’ to “prime it for the next action.” In kitchens, it’s similar to mise en place in which you set the stage, or set out all needed ingredients, in advance of cooking. This reduces the need to gather things as you cook, or getting distracted by prepping other things and letting your food burn by mistake.
The inverse of this applies as well, in that Clear suggests creating more friction for bad behaviors. These small barriers may be enough to prevent you from engaging in actions you want to avoid or do less. Clear asks the question “how can we design a world where it’s easy to do what’s right?” and I think this is a fantastic way to think about how our environment and social network can influence our ability to succeed or fail.
This is one of the more click-bait titles in the book, and I’m curious how it’s going to go. Using the example of Twyla Tharp, Clear reinforces that many of our daily actions, almost 40-50%, are done automatically out of habit. Just like muscle memory, with one movement leading to the next, these habits send us down a path of choices and influences how we traverse it. Once this first habitual task is completed, the rest easily follow. Clear refers to these moments, in which you choose between one path of actions or another, as decisive moments. These are the points in which you may decide whether or not to workout, whether or not to cook dinner, etc. From here, a vast network of smaller, habitual choices unfold. Clear argues that habits in particular, are the entry point and not the end (remember, they are helping you get to your result, not the result in itself!).
The two-minute rule is used to help make actions smaller so that they are more likely to be completed. Clear suggests scaling down ‘read before bed each night’ to ‘read one page.’ And here’s where I realize that I’ve been doing a form of this for a while. In my journal, I fill-in a box if I’ve done yoga that day. But when I do yoga, what I mean is, did I complete one sun salutation this morning? By taking what could eventually become a 30-minute practice and starting it at 1 minute, I have been far, far more successful at making this part of my mornings.
All of my morning actions meet Clear’s requirement of being easy to start, as each one takes between 1-5 minutes at most. Each time I complete one, I fill in the box of my journal page, and suddenly I want to fill-in more boxes. This is exactly the kind of gateway habit he wants. While I think mine is fulfilled a little differently, he’s right in that doing one simple task will make it that much easier to complete another, and another. What he’s encouraging us to do here is to ‘show up,’ to at least try and to put it in some kind of marginal effort. He also points out that the more an action is ‘ritualized’, the more our body and mind accept that this is happening and get ready to engage in the action. Inversely, these can also be used to dial down for the evenings.
Clear states that part of the two-minute rule’s magic is that once you start an activity, it can be difficult to stop and you’re far less likely to stop after two minutes. If you do something for just two-minutes, you’ll likely get sucked in to the activity and do more. By practicing, you’re also reinforcing the idea that this is part fo your identity—it is a thing you do and by extension a thing you are. From two minutes, you can begin habit shaping to scale things up, and even introduce new phases of connected activity by chaining things together to create a larger system toward the goal.
In this chapter, Clear focuses on the inverse of making it easy: making it difficult. There are a number of apps that prevent browsing during writing periods, or otherwise shut off features to prevent distraction. Clear references such a commitment device that creates a timer for outlets so that the wi-fi router no longer has power and the internet is effectively down after 10pm. Making a bad behavior impossible, or nearly impossible to do (such as leaving the debit/credit card at home when going to the gym to prevent a quick meal afterwards—something I have certainly never done). Although Clear provides a lot of great examples, I really like how these examples require thinking: what is the problem, what factors are involved in that situation, how can I change this situation to reduce the problem. Dieting? Change to smaller plates to make it seem like a large portion while still eating a smaller amount. Completely psychological, but effective.
Atomic Habits Read-Through