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Atomic Habits: James Clear (Summary)

Tiny Changes Remarkable Results.

Taking a leaf out of Charles Duhigg's bestseller "The Power of Habits", James Clear seeks out to provide a framework to instil new Habits as well as ways to give up bad habits. Duhigg's book was about the "theory" of habits and their formation, then James Clear turns the science of habit from theoretical to applied science. So like me, if you wake up each day and mutter to yourself, this is the day and then slap yourself in the mirror and shout "Carpe Diem" then this is an excellent book to read which provides practical advice on how to form a good habit and give up bad ones.

About the Author:

James Clear is a speaker and author of this page-turner, which also happens to be the New York Times bestseller. James Clear started writing a newsletter 3-2-1 in 2012, which grew into a subscription and eventually lead to this book deal. James has appeared on numerous noteworthy podcast, such as "Capital Allocators" and Sam Harris's "Making Sense" podcast. If you use Sam Harris's meditation app "Waking Up" each day as I do, his interview is also available there. Given not all interviews from Sam Harris's podcast end up within the mediation app, I would like to think Sam Harris saw wisdom and adroit advice in James uttering as I did. James Clear has his website, and the link is listed below.

About the Book:

After reading Duhigg's two bestsellers, "The Power of Habits" and "Smarter faster Better", I was able to derive better meaning and assimilate more information from this book than I would have otherwise. I was able to collate the data across the three books ("The Power of Habits", "Smarter faster Better", and "Atomic habits") and come up with my version of wisdom which the two authors did not explicitly write in the book. While Duhigg's book was an eye-opener and provided detailed case studies, James's book offers a template, "A System". Anyone motivated to form habits and want to give up bad ones, which are detrimental to their personal growth, can do so using this system.

The book is divided into numerous chapter, each putting scaffolding around how to build a habit or dismantle it. James begins by describing adversity he faced in the form of a life-threatening injury suffered while playing baseball. The book starts with how he overcame this adversity and learned the power of small habits and their life-altering effects in the course of his recovery. For me, the most exciting phenomenon he describes is the compounding effect of the habits, similar to the concept of wealth compounding through investment and interest/dividend earned. According to James, good habits similarly have a compounding effect on our healthy being and progress.

The failures of the philosophy that tie ourselves to achieving goals and its uncompromising nature is also laid bare. For example, you want to lose weight, and the stated goal becomes "lose 'x's kilograms or pounds". This approach, according to James, is a cop-out, and as in most cases, it remains a mere declaration. The real work begins when you have to create a system that makes you lose weight and keep off the weight.

These can be habits around exercising on a given day and time or avoiding certain food groups. Most people, including yours, truly chastised and berated ourselves when we set ourselves lofty goals and didn't achieve them. Instead, the approach should be to cheer oneself for taking one tiny step on the ladder, e.g. going to the gym at least for 20 minutes daily rather than for one hit session a month for two hours. We usually end up doing ourselves to congratulate ourselves for once a week exercise schedule and use it as an excuse to skip the next seven days.

James describes the Habit loop as similar to Duhigg with one added step. While Duhigg habit loop was three steps "Cue > Routine > Reward", James describes it as "Cue > Craving > Response > Reward", similar to how Nir Ayal describes in his book "Hooked"(summary coming soon).

As I said, if "Power of Habit" was an epiphany, then this book is a template to implement that realization into reality.

You can create your template at the following website: Habit Score Card.

The book outlines habit formation and process in the form of 4 laws, namely :

1) Make it Obvious

2) Make it Attractive

3) Make it Easy

4) Make it Satisfying

Make it obvious: This law of forming habit translates into:

"Create visible cues in our daily life which remind you of the task until they become unconscious, involuntary actions".

The most straightforward action or example which I keep repeating is when you see a toothbrush, you have the cue to brush your teeth. How many people will wash their hands if the soap is not next to the basin? Take away the soap and put it in a place where it is not visible, and you will see a significant drop in the proportion of hands washed, even during a pandemic! It's an observable fact which is ubiquitous in its simplicity.

Make it more accessible and obvious to perform a habit.

Pointing and calling out your behaviour is a good way of enforcing it or becoming aware of it. James cites Kurt Lewin's equation, "B = f(P, E)". This equation means an individual's behaviour (B) is a function(f) of the PERSON(P) which includes their history, personality and motivation and their environment (E), which provides for both their physical and social surroundings. Habit creation, according to James, is akin to creating an identity that has its flow-on effects. For instance, why people like to wear expensive suits? More on it below when I discuss Diderot Effect. Similarly, once you have good habits, they can be bragging rights. For instance, have you heard Marky Mark (Mark Whalberg) boasting about his morning routine? Google it !!

One key lesson from the chapter is that self-control is a short term solution; the best way to avoid bad habit is to prevent cues such as place, time or company, which leads to the tempting situation. People who seem to have high self-control also avoid situation or circumstances where they have to deploy self-control rather than exerting it. If you do not go to a bakery, there is no temptation of cake. In my humble view, like any exercise, exercising self-control involves spending energy and willpower, which are limited and eventually, you get tired of it.

Make it Attractive: This law draws an interesting differentiation between wanting and liking. Sometimes daydreaming of vacation provides more pleasure than actually being on vacation. The way to achieve and make a hard habit attractive is by pairing it with a habit you want or a need tied to a desire or experience you want. Habit Stacking !!

I have seen the coupling effect in my own life, e.g. I like finance, investing and was curious to see the result of applying that knowledge, which has led to a habit of saving. Since I cannot invest without saving, I have to budget. Though coupling habits may not be possible all the time, sometimes. Two good habits may not always be coupled together; often, it's easier to band together with two bad habits (milkshake and cookies).

Individual's environment also plays a crucial role as our peer group and friends have an indelible influence on us. We tend to follow those who are close to us, the many (Facebook "likes" and Instagram "hearts") and the powerful (Instagram Influencers or Kardashian's take a pick).

As James says, if we can derive the "Diderot Effect" from our habit, then it's easier to sustain the habit.

For those who do not know the Diderot effect, it relates primarily to consumer goods. It states that "Consumer goods will become part of personal identity and as a result, complement each other".

For instance, take that most expensive piece of suit or shoes which you have bought, what feeling does that give you? When you wear them, do they make you feel more attractive or confident?

Similarly, a habit can become that expensive cloth you adorn and show off. I wake up at 5:00 am, and I can go to the gym and work on my project! Voila makes me energetic and full of confidence! Be like Marky Mark ( in waking up habits) and boast about it!

Make it easy: This is the most exciting chapter in the book and the one from which I drew the most wisdom.

This summary is a tool to encourage you to read this book and culminate in me trying to form a habit to write and assimilate knowledge from what I read.

Reading a whole book is in itself a practice of multiple good habits like focus, completing a task, assimilating knowledge and persevering with a job (if the book is thick).

The chapter asks the questions "What is motion and what is the action?". This query led me to introspect, and motion can be without any aim while the action is with a cause and objective.

Many of us and myself included delude ourselves that motion is action. More so, it's vanity because motion is easier to talk about and get social adulation. "Action" requires persistent effort until the aim/goal is achieved; further, it takes time and effort, and there is no instant gratification.

Practice is more important than planning as habits are formed by repetition, not by planning alone. What's the planning point that I will wake up early in the morning and hit snooze or not set the alarm? In my own life, a painful example has been planning to write a blog but falling victim to my bad habit of procrastination. Repeating an action leads to "automaticity"* and this art of making a behaviour progressively automatic by repetition is called habit formation. How much taxing is it for your brain when you are taking a bath each morning or walking? Remember once when you were a toddler, and you could hardly stand on two feet leave alone walk.

James briefly goes through the topic of procrastination, but in my humble opinion, it needs further pondering, and hence I have added my own two cents worth of thoughts.

Remember the famous viral blog post from early 2013, "Why Procrastinators procrastinate"? Like me, if you were inspired and gave up the habit of procrastination (unfortunately not me). If not, I highly recommend reading that blog. Link to the blog Procrastinate, but Why?

"Give away the myth that procrastination means laziness or is some deep-seated flaw within you. It's a habit which is more to do with our anxious primordial brain, and it's emotional equilibrium rather than a personality flaw to criticize oneself. The word procrastination has Latin and Greek origin; for me, the Greek origin rings more true. The Greek origin comes from the word "akrasia", which means "doing something against your good judgement".

Give away the myth that procrastination means laziness or is some deep-seated flaw within you. It's a habit which is more to do with our anxious primordial brain, and it's emotional equilibrium rather than a personality flaw to criticize oneself. The word procrastination has Latin and Greek language origin. For me, the Greek origin rings more true. The Greek origin comes from the word "akrasia", which means "doing something against your good judgement".

So basically, procrastination is self-harm morphed in the form of temporary relief from anxiety. The anxiety is born from doing a job that may be hard or while performing, which you suffer from self-doubt. For example, yours indeed (me) had self-doubt about this website and was afraid of the readers' thoughts and opinion, which is you (please like me!). So procrastination is not a time management issue but an emotional issue. We have to manage the emotions of anxiety, self-doubt or aversion to a hard job, or one may not be sure whether they will succeed at it. Sirois, F. and Pychyl, T. (2013) have written a riveting paper on this topic; you can read it at the following link.

Once this vicious cycle begins, it becomes self-perpetuating, followed by discursive thought of self-loathing, blaming yourself, deeming yourself unworthy or putting the task in "too hard to do basket" and so on.

"Soon, this self full-filling prophecy of procrastination becomes a habit. The task which will lead to long-lasting happiness and sense of achievement can wait while I scroll down the next news article or look at Facebook and contemplate how wonderful other peeps lives are and why there are only two likes of my latest post."
That gif above is synonymous with the term "Procrastinatory Cognitions"when you loathe yourself more after procrastination, and the emotional cycle begins

Habit stacking, combining multiple good habits, is another way to ease your way to gaining and maintaining good habits. The author provides a 2 minutes rule where you try out a habit for two minutes and avoid making it a monumental task. The essence is to start small don't read the whole book, just read one page, but do it daily, then do it in the morning and night and gradually progress.

"Start small but do it with consistent or increased frequency and try and never break a chain".

This trickle eventually leads to a flood. You can further understand this example by looking at Sorites paradox or paradox of the heap. Ever imagined how many grains of sand will it take to make a heap? When does a collection of sand grains become a heap and then a hill?

The summary of the chapter is to form good habits, make them easy, start small, stack them, frequency is more important than the duration and more importantly, move slow but not backwards. Conversely, you can break bad habits by reversing the above wisdom by changing our environment to make the habits difficult and increase the friction to do them.

"When we form a habit, we automate a behaviour on which we do not have to spend mental energy and becomes part of our identity."

Make it satisfying: One of the most intriguing founding father of America, Benjamin Franklin, wrote this in his notebook "Lose no time. Always be employed in something useful" and "Avoid Trifling conversation." That quote in itself is a whole lesson and makes one envious that Franklin had that clarity of thought at age 20!! Though James addresses the puzzle of creating good habits satisfying and humans always gravitate towards instant gratification. Quoting French economist Frederic Bastiat points to the obvious but most overlooked fact that when the immediate consequences are favourable (say binge drinking), the later consequences are disastrous( next day hangover or eventually liver cirrhosis) vice versa. Well, why would people smoke even after knowing that it causes lung cancer?

The simplicity of the above argument becomes evident if you read the chapter. James then sets on trying to work around this cognitive dissonance we all human being have and the time inconsistency disease our brains suffer. Eating good and exercise is challenging as the rewards are months away, but that cake gives me instant gratification of taste and sugar hit.

So how do we work around it? James points to the practice of habit stacking discussed in the previous chapter. If I want to save, I tie it up to the amount I invest each month. Investing and tracking it gives me instant gratification; saving is a form of delayed gratification. Investment plays a trick on my mind and gives me instant gratification. I am not saying every one of you is wired the same way, but it's one of the ways to ignore that instant gratification monkey on your shoulder.

Another trick is to have a routine and the caveat "never break the chain of a good habit". Disruptions are bound to occur, but the sooner you get back on board and continue and repeat the habit more permanent and easy it becomes. Don't feel like going to the gym? Fine, go for 15 minutes and laze around on the elliptical. Ironically this lesson rungs true during my swimming lesson. The story goes like this; I am a typical brown Asian who is good at drowning (cue Bondi rescue). Hence to escape that embarrassment, I started taking swimming lessons. There are days when I am exceptionally shit at it more than other days. Though previously, I will give up and drop days of practice and whine. I would have kept at it until my new swimming coach pulled me aside and said, "You can either waste time plus money and delude yourself that you are learning in half an hour class once a week. The other way is to practice in your own time and eventually learn to swim". There is a difference between motion and action or between deliberate practice and deluding myself, e.g. by paying for one swimming lesson per week and equating that with practising swimming.

To summarize the above, our brains are bad at keeping track; we always like to delude ourselves and paint a picture of the good guys. We are bad at noticing our deficiencies. So we might think we have practised enough or eaten well, even if we haven't. The only way to avoid this is to keep track of our habits, preferably written (I use an online task scheduler "TickTick"), having an accountability partner and if the chain is broken, get back on it as soon as possible.

This post has been the most rewarding one of my initial write-ups; there were so many themes that I wanted to write down to lean on them in the future and hence bit self-serving. So apologies for the long-winded post, though if it inspired you to read the book or learn something through my follies, it was worth it.

Pleasure is something that we chase and want while achieving happiness is a pursuit.


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