Our Habits are Us: The Secrets to Behavior Change

Let’s talk about habits!  Actually, back it up a little. People talk a lot about habits and productivity, and all the 10-second videos on your favorite social media APPs can delude you into think we have all got our act together; that everyone is now one hundred percent into setting healthy habits and achieving all their goals. That’s just not true. Too many people struggle with committing to good habits and there are people that have spent their entire lives talking about one [seemingly easy] habit or goal they want to achieve but which they never quite seem to do. As we head into May (or would we be in May by the time I finish writing this? We’ll see. Yay made it in time for April after all), it can be a good time to take stock of goals we set at the beginning of the year, but this can also be a depressing event if you’ve fallen off the wagon of all the good habits you started on January 5. Behavior change is hard but extremely necessary since sustaining healthy behaviors is crucial to a long and healthy life. In fact, according to Dr Edmondson of Columbia’s Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health, a recent study shows that human behavior accounts for almost 40 percent of the risk for heart disease, cancer, and stroke. So, behavior change can literally be life or death. Given that, how can we imbibe healthy habits and ultimately change behavior?

I will make sure this isn’t as long as the post on Deep Work (by the way, there is no harm in continually revisiting that set of posts at all as it ties into a lot of things including what we are talking about today).  Most of this post will draw from James Clear’s Atomic Habits, which many of you have either read or at least heard of but which most of you never ever incorporate into your life so this bite sized version (along with other tips and tricks) should help with that. 

Clear starts out the book by explaining what exactly goals are and narrowing them to what makes them seem so unconquerable. The reason goals intimidate so many people is because of the laser focus on what you want to achieve. It makes sense; after all, the reason anyone focuses on any habit is to achieve a goal. If you want to imbibe a healthy eating habit for instance, there are a few goals tied to that: either you genuinely want to be healthier (as reflected in your health metrics like blood pressure or sugar levels etc.) or you want to lose weight or you want to gain weight or just modify your body in one way or another. The problem is when you focus only on the results and ignore the process that leads to the result. Like Clear argues, both winners and losers have the same goals. When the focus becomes just the goals, the change can be very momentary (hi! yo-yo diets) plus it can limit your happiness. We are all familiar with the mentality: once I reach [insert goal] then I will be happy. This means you’re postponing your happiness until the next milestone. But that’s not the only problem, you also envision only one path to success when there are so many paths to success. 

The solution Clear proposes is to focus on the overall system. There are several benefits to this. As long as your system is in place, you can be happy or satisfied and you don’t have to wait till some arbitrary time in the future when you achieve your goal. You also quit starting with an outcome and instead start with an identity. For instance, “I’m trying to quit smoking” easily becomes “I’m not a smoker”. The main challenge to this is tied to the perennial problem of linking anything to your identity or the core of who you are: when it so much as shakes, it can destroy you. It’s why the American culture of making every single thing an identity is worrisome. Just because you “do something” or “think something” doesn’t necessarily make it the foundation of who you are. I would like to think human beings are more dynamic than that. Even Clear notes this because he also mentions that identity change can be a curse. Once people (again in this country) make their allegiance to that identity, it can limit change. It’s how you hear people boldly proclaim: “I am not a morning person” “I am always late” “ I am not good with technology”. Yet, Clear argues the need to make a habit a part of your identity. Not to mention, it may also depend on which habit and what aspects of your values you link the habit(s) to. As this study found, habits may serve to define who we are especially when considered within the context of self-related goals or central values. You can’t after all call yourself a generous person if you never actually give. In addition, when habits relate to feelings of identity, there is a higher self-esteem and striving toward an ideal self. 

Avoid making any single aspect of your identity an overwhelming portion of who you are. When you cling too tight to one identity you become brittle.” – James Clear

So, yes identity is important. Identity over goals. But how? You can’t just say “I am a runner” without ever getting up from your bed much less wearing your running shoes. The answer is habits. They are how you embody your identity. Yet, even they can’t just magically happen. We change little by little, day by day, habit by habit. Clear makes the point that no single instance transforms your beliefs. So, forget any grandiose plans or radical change as those don’t necessarily translate into meaningful change. Small habits can and do make meaningful differences. One fantastic example Clear gives that demonstrates the intersection of habits and identity is about his friend who lost 100 lbs by always asking what would a healthy person do. All day long she asked herself, would a healthy person walk or take a cab? Would a healthy person order a burrito or a salad? She figured if she acted like a healthy person long enough, she would eventually become that person. She wasn’t wrong. 

Forget about all the myriad of life hacks out there or external measures like earning more money, losing weight, reducing stress. Clear argues that while habits help with all these things, it is still not fundamentally about having something but about becoming someone. Habits help you become the type of person you wish to be. So how do you actually become that person?

According to Atomic Habits, to change behavior, you should make it obvious; make it attractive; make it easy; and make it satisfying. Clear says these fundamental laws are key to creating good habits and breaking bad ones. Let’s take each of this and break it down.

Make it obvious: there are different examples Clear offers to implement making it obvious such as creating a habit scorecard, asking yourself if each behavior helps you become the type of person you wish to be, saying out habits out loud to make the consequences seem real, planning, creating an environment conducive to your good habits, and creating cues to induce your good habits. These are all fantastic ideas. What is important to remember is intentionality and specificity (at least in the beginning stages). You can’t stumble on good habits. You have to carefully design your life so that you are more likely to work on your good habits. One great tip Clear gives is habit stacking, so that you stack your goals next to things you already do for continuity’s sake and to take advantage of the momentum that comes from one behavior and gives way to the next. “When I get out of bed, I will immediately meditate” or “ When I serve myself a meal, I will always put veggies in my plate first” or “When I want to buy something over $100, I will wait 24 hours before purchasing” and do not make exceptions. To eliminate bad habits, the inverse is true, make the habit invisible. As we talked about in the second Deep Work post, there is only so much willpower a person has. So don’t bank on self-control (in the long term at least) or on discipline but live a life or create a life that doesn’t require willpower and self-control. Remove yourself from tempting situations. So, make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cue of bade habits invisible.

Make it attractive: the most important thing to know here is that the expectation of a rewarding experience motivates us to act. Link an action you want to do with an action you need to do. You can combine this with the stacking strategy above. Here is how Clear describes it: After you [current habit], you will [habit you need], and after [habit you need], you will [habit you want]. It doesn’t even have to be that complex. To give you an example, me for instance, there are some random YouTube videos I like to watch that I’m only allowed to watch when I’m exercising. So that video from Trevor Noah’s show or the latest Breakfast Club interview or I don’t know, some random video comparing socialism to capitalism to communism, whatever it is, I’m only allowed to watch if I’m moving. It actually helps me look forward to my exercise. Just as important is surrounding yourself with people who have habits you want to have because we tend to imitate those close to us and/or imitate the many given our innate desire to conform. Therefore, we have to learn to ignore that need to go with the grain or get status by copying the powerful. Habits are attractive when we associate them with positive feelings, and this is a powerful insight we can use to our advantage. Even just reframing your mindset can help with this: “I have to exercise” to “I get to exercise” or in the example Clear gives, “It’s time to build endurance and get fast”. Highlighting the benefit of a habit rather than the drawbacks is a great way to shift your mindset. 

Make it easy: forget trying to find the perfect or optimal way to achieve your goal. That does not matter at all and certainly does not matter as much as repetition. “Perfect is the enemy of good”. You can spend so much time finding the best approach that you never get around to actually doing anything. Just like our muscles respond to weight training, Clear argues that parts of our brains adapts as they are used and atrophy as they are abandoned.  Get to the point where the habit is automatic from so many repetitions. Making it easy also means fitting them into the flow of your life and creating an environment where doing the right thing is possible. Create as little resistance as possible. If starting is so hard, then scale it down to the two-minute version, Clear says. And almost every habit can be scaled down. You can read for two minutes, exercise. Just start! 

Make it satisfying: if a behavior is satisfying, we will repeat it. And if a behavior isn’t satisfying, we won’t repeat it. The irony of this situation is that for almost all bad habits, the consequences are delayed and the rewards are immediate. With good habits, it’s the reverse: the ultimate outcome is great but the immediate outcome is never enjoyable. And unfortunately, we prioritize how we feel in the now. So Clear suggests always keeping in mind that the more immediate pleasure you get from an action, the more strongly you should question whether it aligns with your long-term goals. You can also set up your habits so that progress is satisfying and visual and provide clear evidence of progress. 

One final thing, using an example of swimmers and runners and the different body composition they have, Clear makes an argument for choosing the right field of competition to maximize your odds of success. Too often we focus on our weaknesses when we have our strengths staring at all. Lean into your strengths. It is similar with habit change. When a habit is aligned with your natural inclinations, values, and abilities, they will be easier to perform and more satisfying to stick with. Play a game where the odds are already in your favor. Habits aren’t just determined by personalities and genes, but the truth is deeply rooted preferences make certain behaviors easier for some people than others. But no matter what you are predisposed to, you still have to work at it. Do things that work for you. I personally detest any vigorous and strenuous physical movement;  you know the kind you see people do on IG that looks like they are about to have a heart attack any second now? Yeah, that. So you wouldn’t see me doing 2-hour exercises involving any of those acrobatics moves or any 2-hour exercise for that matter (ain't nobody got time for that). I just stick to what works for me: moderate to low intensity. If the whole world loves reading nonfiction but what you like is romance novels, then read romance novels more. Don’t just build a specific habit cos everyone tells you to. Don’t wake up at 3am everyday (and increase your blood pressure from lack of sleep) because they say billionaires do that. Choose what suits you. 

A whole lot of this is also just luck. There are many people among us that were exposed to certain things and opportunities that favor us. I always say I’m not very inclined to junk food mostly because I don’t think my parents really gave us junk food as kids. It wasn’t even a principle thing (on their end), our reality just was that we never had junk food. And now, we are not very predisposed to it. That said, we can’t just leave everything up to chance. Some things ARE within our control and we can game that system too. We can retrain and remold ourselves to be better and to do better. If you can’t win by being better. You can win by being different, Clear says. You can combine your skills to reduce the level of competition and that makes you stand out. I love stories and I’m also a researcher. Hence, a post like this. Plus, every chapter of my dissertation started with some short story or the other (no kidding!). So forget passion or “really wanting it” or motivation. No one has an endless reserve of passion. If I only wrote when I felt “like it” or when I was passionate, I would never write a thing. What I’m learning is that it is important to always show up despite those feelings of boredom and to always do. An elite coach said to clear about what successful people do that most people never do, 

At some point, it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.” 

In short, don’t stop good habits because you get bored. I once heard how many shots and practice Stephen Curry does and was like, yeah no wonder. For too many of us, once things become ordinary, we stop and seek novelty elsewhere. So, if you only take one thing from this post about habit and behavior change is, let it be fall in love with boredom



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