Building & Changing Habits |The Peter Attia Drive Podcast with James Clear

Key Takeaways

  • Your brain is building habits all the time, even if you are not thinking about them
    • 40-50% of our behaviors are automated and habitual
    • You might as well understand what they are, how they work, and how to develop them
  • “Your current habits are perfectly designed for your current results”James Clear
    • The system that we use is what is inevitably guiding us towards the result of where we end up
    • We want many different results but the thing that we need to change is the system- our daily habits
  • The goal of James’ book “Atomic Habits” is to make changes that are small and easy to do
    • Link them together, like atoms link to create a molecule
  • By performing habits, we perform identities
    • Every action you take should be like casting a vote for becoming a person that you want to be
  • “Irreversible lifestyle changes tend to be a big driver of quick behavior change” James Clear
    • Never underestimate the power of your environment
    • The people you surround yourself with can make or break your system
  • How to create a good habit:
    • The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious
    • The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive
    • The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy
    • The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying
  • The 1st and 3rd laws are the best places to start for changing behavior
    • Multiple small choices can make a big impact on your environment in the long-term
  • It’s rarely the first mistake that ruins you
    • The real problem is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follow
    • Don’t let a slip-up become a new habit

Key Books Mentioned

Intro

  • James Clear (T: @JamesClear) and IG: @jamesclear) is a writer, public speaker, and entrepreneur focused on habits and decision making. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits.
    • In this episode, James breaks down his “Four Laws of Behavioral Change” and explains how to use the laws to create new habits and make changes in your life
    • Check out James’ website
  • Host- Peter Attia (@PeterAttiaMD)

Why James Became Interested in Habits

  • Your brain is building habits all the time, even if you are not thinking about them
    • 40-50% of our behaviors are automated and habitual
    • You might as well understand what they are, how they work, and how to develop them
    • The goal is to be the creator of your habits, not a victim
  • The outcomes of your life are heavily influenced by the habits you repeat
    • Most of us want some kind of results in life (e.g. lose weight, make more money, reduce stress, etc.)
    • Usually, these results are the “lagging” measure of our habits
    • Example: our weight is the lagging measure of physical activity and nutrition
  • The only reasonable road is to focus on what’s in our control
    • Over long-term, results tend to bend in the direction of our habits

The Role of Genetics and Innate Predispositions

  • Free will is the power to act independently of natural and social forces
    • If free will is an illusion, how can we ever change our behavior?
    • James doesn’t care because nobody knows the answer to the free will vs determinism debate
  • If our behavior is predetermined, then it doesn’t matter because we will do certain behaviors regardless of our choice
    • If it isn’t predetermined, why not choose the thing that you think is the best option?
    • At that point, the difference between having free will or not doesn’t matter anymore
  • From a pragmatic standpoint, it makes sense to choose the best option
    • If you have free will, you will be glad you choose it
    • If you don’t have free will, your choice is irrelevant anyway
  • When changing behavior, some people will have an easier time, and some will struggle
    • There is a genetic component to some of the mental characteristics (the will to train, to be better, etc.)
    • These mental qualities make you more likely to persevere and be more interested in certain things

Finding One’s Passion Can Cultivate Perseverance and Discipline

  • “Why should I even try? I will never be Michael Phelps” – This kind of reasoning is faulty
    • “Genes don’t tell you not to work hard, they tell you where to work hard. They don’t tell you not to have a strategy, they just inform your strategy”James Clear
    • What if grit, determination, and discipline are our natural abilities based on the things we work on? 
  • Find domains, categories, and skills for which you have a deep interest
    • “It’s very hard to beat the person who is having fun because they’re gonna want to keep working longer than the person who is suffering”James Clear
  • We can’t all be Michael Phelps or Michael Jordan, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop exploring
    • Those who are curious and willing to explore are more likely to discover something they are interested in, and that is a fit for their natural abilities
    • Everyone can improve and find something that they like to work on
    • When people work on something they don’t like, chances are they will get bored, frustrated and move on

Advantages of Creating Systems Instead of Goals

  • Progress is one of the most motivating feelings to the human mind
  • At the most base level, we are goal-directed organisms (e.g. get water, find shelter, etc.)
    • In the present times, we find many different goals outside of our basic needs for survival (e.g. getting a promotion, learning a new language)
  • We need to resolve the basic tension of where we are and where we want to be
    • The pleasure we get from reaching these goals seems universal for all human beings
    • There is also some bias towards status and rank in society, winning will make us feel good
  • Goals are not the primary force that drives results
    • Every F1 driver has the goal of winning the race, but only one will win in the end
    • Goals might be necessary for success but they are not sufficient
  • What makes the difference in the performance?
    • James answers this in his book by explaining the difference between systems and goals
    • The goal is the desired outcome, and the system is the collection of the daily habits that we follow
    • If there is ever a gap between our goals and our system, our daily habits will always prevail
  • “Your current habits are perfectly designed for your current results”James Clear
    • The system that we use is what is inevitably guiding us towards the result of where we end up
    • We want many different results but the thing that we need to change is the system- our daily habits
    • The pattern of connection between the system and the goals is not always clear, but it is there
    • Goals are for wining one time, systems are for wining again and again

Why is the Book Called Atomic Habits?

  • James chooses the phrase “atomic” for 3 reasons:
    • Atoms are “small”, and habits are best when they are small and easy to do, especially at the beginning
    • They are the basic building block of chemistry, the fundamental unit in a larger system, just like habits are
      • Habit is like an atom in the overall routine of our day
    • The third meaning is the source of energy or power
  • All three meanings combine to form the narrative of the book “Atomic Habits”
    • The goal is to make changes that are small and easy to do
    • Link them together, like atoms link to create a molecule
  • This is how you get powerful results with small changes

The Power of Habits Combined With Self-Identity

  • Identity change is James’ original idea, most of the other ideas in the book have been around for some time
    • The concept of identity change is more like a mindset or a philosophy of how behavior change works
    • It is not supported by science like most of the ideas in the book
  • Why do we, the society even care about habits?
    • We care about them because they provide external things (e.g. making us more productive, more fit, etc.)
    • The deeper reason could be that our habits are guides that show us what we truly care about
  • By performing habits, we perform identities
    • If you practice basketball every day, you start to think of yourself as a basketball player
    • After a while, doing certain habits for a longer period will align behaviors with a particular identity
  • When people want change, the first thing on their mind is the outcome, e.g. “I want to gain 10 lbs of muscle in the next 5 months”
    • From there, we dive into the process, or the plan, e.g. To build muscle I need to be in a caloric surplus, and exercise at least 3 times a week
    • The assumption is that if we do those things and make that goal, we will become the kind of people that we want to be
  • But, why not ask ourselves “What kind of habits would a person with that kind of identity have?”
    • This way, we use that identity to inform the process and the habits and let the outcomes come naturally
    • Every action you take should be like casting a vote for becoming a person that you want to be
    • Doing one push-up does not dramatically change your body but it casts a vote for the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts
    • Writing one page is evidence of you trying to embody the identity of a writer
  • Don’t just “fake it until you make it”, you need to have evidence
    • Otherwise, you are potentially indulging in a delusion or toxic positivity
    • Does it bother you when you don’t do it? If it does, it means you have a habit
    • This is a sign that the habit started aligning with your identity

The Influence of Social Environment 

  • Never underestimate the power of your environment
  • Radical epiphany changes are not a reliable long-term solution
    • But sometimes they work, and people “stick” with them
  • Why is it that a lot of smokers quit smoking when they become parents?
    • Massive changes in our environment or lifestyle are one of the most effective ways to rapidly change behavior
  • James struggled with his sleeping schedule until he got a dog
    • His dog gets up a 7 a.m. regardless of James, and he needs to walk him
    • “Irreversible lifestyle changes tend to be a big driver of quick behavior change” James Clear
  • The people you surround yourself with can make or break your system
    • If you want to make a habit stick, hang out with like-minded people
    • Strange behaviors are only strange if you are the only one who does them
  • The desire to belong can sometimes overpower the desire to improve
  • The environment is like a form of gravity, you can resist it for a little while, but at some point, it begins to take its toll
    • If it’s possible, change or adjust your environment where your desired behavior is the normal behavior
    • “Environment is like an invisible hand that drives our behavior”James Clear

The Framework Behind the Four Laws

  • Researching for the book, James found 40 different models of human behavior (biology, psychology, neuroscience)
  • Those models generally fall into two categories: 
    • Motivation models (things that compel us to act: internal drive, motivations, cravings)
    • Reinforcement models (rewards from behavior, after the act)
    • James wanted a model that explains both the motivation and the reinforcement, and their influence on our actions
  • We oftentimes think that human behavior is reactive, but human behavior is mostly predicting
    • This is an observation that James came across while reading Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book “How Emotions are Made
  • According to James, what’s missing from the previous models of habit and behavior is the element of prediction
    • The first time you take a bite of a pancake you don’t know what to expect 
    • Afterward, you get a surge of dopamine, almost like to mark the experience
    • The next time, you know what to expect and the dopamine spike comes before the bite
  • In this context, dopamine is a teaching molecule that helps mark favorable experiences
    • The next time we see something that we enjoyed, dopamine spikes in anticipation
    • We get the craving, and that craving, or anticipation, prediction is what motivates us to act

Make or Break a Habit With the “Four Laws of Behavior Change”

  • The four stages that precede the four laws of behavior change:
    • Cue: something that we notice, like a visual cue of cookies
    • Craving: prediction or the meaning we assign to the cue; sweet, tasty cookies
    • Response: you walk over, pick the cookie, bite
    • Reward: sweet, sugary, tasty, satisfying
      • If a behavior is not rewarding, it’s less likely to become a habit
      • Variable rewards tend to accelerate behavior (think about slot machines)
  • James took the idea of the four stages and turned it into something that’s applicable to daily life
  • This is how he came up with the four laws of behavior change:
    • The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious
      • You are more likely to act
    • The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive
      • You will feel motivated to do it again
    • The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy
      • The more simple it is, the more likely you will do it
    • The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying
      • The more pleasurable it is, the more likely you are to repeat it
  • The four laws are the overview of how to make a good habit

Start with the 1st and 3rd Law

  • 1st and 3rd laws are the best places to start for changing behavior because a dozen of small choices can make a big impact on your environment in the long-term
    • The small choices do not guarantee a change in behavior, but you are stacking the odds in your favor
    • Example: James removed all the applications from his home screen except for Audible because he wanted to listen to more audiobooks instead of mindlessly browsing the internet
  • For the 1st law:
    • Use a habit scorecard: list out every habit you do, see how you spend your time
    • To figure out what the cue is: every time you do a bad habit record the time and the context
    • If you do it for a couple of days, you will start to notice a pattern of whatever it is that is prompting the undesired behavior
  • For the 3rd law:
    • Follow the 2-minute rule
    • Take any habit you want to build and scale it down to something that takes 2 minutes or less do
    • Reading 30 books a year becomes reading just one page
    • Doing yoga four times a week becomes just taking out your yoga mat
  • Master the art of showing up 
    • James mentions how one of his readers went to the gym 4 times a week but stayed in the gym only for 5 minutes
    • “A habit must be established before it can be improved”James Clear
    • We tend to go all-or-nothing on our habits, and the 2-minute rule helps us get over the tendency of perfectionism
    • Start “showing up”, find a small way to establish a habit, even if it seems ridiculous like “just take out your yoga mat”
    • Once you gain a little foothold, start to scale up and expand

How to Break a Bad Habit

  • To break a bad habit, just do the reverse;
    • Make your cues invisible (if you are on a diet, don’t follow food bloggers on Instagram)
    • Make it unattractive
    • Make it difficult (insert more steps between you and the behavior)
    • Make it unsatisfying (layer immediate consequence or a cost to a behavior)
  • Three ways to break a bad habit:
    • Eliminate it entirely, go “cold turkey”
    • Reduce the behavior (instead of drinking a beer every night, you drink only on weekends)
    • Replace it (water instead of beer)

Forgiving Yourself After a Slip-up

  • It’s rarely the first mistake that ruins you
    • The real problem is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follow
    • Don’t let a slip-up become a new habit
  • Gretchen Rubin’s idea:
    • Divide the day into four quarters: morning, afternoon, evening, nighttime
    • If you make a mistake, keep it contained in that quarter
  • If you can keep your failures small, it’s easier to get back on track quickly and maintain the momentum
    • Learn to be flexible and to remove judgment
    • You are not a failure if you are working to lose weight and eat junk food for one day)
    • Life is dynamic, and it is not necessary to predict every single step that you take
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