November 8, 2021

Mental models

#183 – James Clear: Building & Changing Habits

“If you're going to be building habits anyway, you might as well understand what they are and how they work and how to shape them so that you can be the architect of your habits and not the victim of them.” —James Clear

Read Time 51 minutes

James Clear is the author of the New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits. His extensive research into human behavior has helped him identify key components of habit formation and develop the “Four Laws of Behavioral Change.” In this episode, James provides insights into how both good and bad habits are formed, including the influence of genetics, environment, social circles, and more. He points to changes one can make to cultivate more perseverance and discipline and describes the profound impact habits can have when tying them into one’s self-identity. Finally, James breaks down his “Four Laws of Behavioral Change” and how to use them to create new habits, undo bad habits, and make meaningful changes in one’s life.


We discuss:

  • Why James became deeply interested in habits [1:45];
  • Viewing habits through an evolutionary lens [6:00];
  • The power of immediate feedback for behavior change, and why we tend to repeat bad habits [9:15];
  • The role of genetics and innate predispositions in determining one’s work ethic and success in a given discipline [14:30];
  • How finding one’s passion can cultivate perseverance and discipline [23:15];
  • Advantages of creating systems and not just setting goals [29:15];
  • The power of habits combined with self-identity to induce change [36:30];
  • How a big environmental change or life event can bring on radical behavioral change [50:30];
  • The influence of one’s social environment on their habits [54:15];
  • How and why habits are formed [1:00:30];
  • How to make or break a habit with the “Four Laws of Behavior Change” [1:09:30];
  • Practical tips for successful behavioral change—the best strategies when starting out [1:16:15];
  • Self-forgiveness and getting back on track immediately after slipping up [1:30:30];
  • Law #1: Make it obvious—Strategies for identifying and creating cues to make and break habits [1:39:45];
  • Law #2: Make it attractive—examples of ways to make a new behavior more attractive [1:47:45];
  • Law #3: Make it easy—the 2-minute rule [1:58:45];
  • Law #4: Make it satisfying—rewards and reinforcement [2:03:30];
  • Advice for helping others to make behavioral changes [2:06:00];
  • More.


Pre-show notes

  • Peter wanted to interview James after reading his book for the second time
  • He realized this is such an important part of what he tries to do in his practice, and of course, what most of us try to do in our lives, which is change behaviors
    • Behaviors can really be distilled into habits
  • This episode delves into Jame’s background, why this is an interesting topic to him, but mostly, it dives really deep into the four components of what goes into forming behavioral habits, and then, of course, breaking those apart
    • To explain how one can unlearn or learn new habits
  • This episode is great for anyone who’s ever wanted to change a behavior or create a behavior


Why James became deeply interested in habits [1:45]

What excites James about habits

1 – People build habits all the time whether they are thinking about it or not

  • 40-50% of our behavior is automatic and habitual
  • Automatic things include: brushing teeth, tying shoes, unplugging something after you use it
  • One’s behavior is shaped or influenced by habits that preceded it
  • For example, what one does with 3-4 minutes of free time (waiting in line or at home); this may be thinking about an email, playing a video game, scrolling social media
  • This conscious behavior was set by the habit of pulling out one’s phone

“The reach of our habits is very wide and it’s influencing our behavior all the time” – James Clear

  • James thinks “if you’re going to be building habits anyway, you might as well understand what they are and how they work and how to shape them so that you can be the architect of your habits and not the victim of them” 
  • Many times people think habits are happening to them; that they don’t have much influence on them
  • The brain is always trying to automate and make behaviors more efficient
    • If one doesn’t really know what’s happening or where to adjust it, then it kind of feels like it’s happening to you rather than happening for you

2 – The realization that most of us in life wants some kind of results

  • To get better at a skill, lose weight, make more money, reduce stress, etc.
  • Results are a lagging measure of the habits that preceded them
    • One’s bank account is a lagging measure of financial habits
    • One’s weight is a lagging measure of nutrition and training habits

Focus on what you can control

  • Habits are not the only thing that influence outcomes in life, i.e., Luck and randomness are other forces
  • But by definition, randomness is not under your control
  • The only reasonable approach is to focus on what’s in your control
  • Over long time horizons, your results tend to bend in the direction of your habits

I think because your brain is building habits all the time anyway and because your results are heavily influenced by the habits that you repeat, those are two primary reasons that I feel like got me interested in the topic.” —James Clear


Viewing habits through an evolutionary lens [6:00]

Evolutionary rationale for humans to be creatures of habit

  • Peter notes an evolutionary rationale for why we’re creatures of habit
  • The less energy we have to devote to things would free-up energy that can be used to survive and procreate
    • For example, the autonomic nervous system controls things completely without our voluntary control
      • This includes functions like breathing and having your heart go from beating fast or beating slow

When did humans begin to proactively change habits?

  • James speculates that it probably does skew as a somewhat recent luxury for one particular reason—our ancestors lived in what was primarily an immediate return environment
    • The majority of decisions made that meaningfully impacted survival were ones that were relatively immediate in nature
    • These decisions had a pretty quick payoff, for example:
      • Taking shelter from a storm
      • Avoiding a lion in the savanna
      • Forging for the next meal in a berry bush
  • Fast forwarding to modern society (certainly in the last 100 years), it seems to have created quite a few structures that favor a delayed return environment (not an immediate return environment), for example:
    • Go to work today to get a paycheck in 2 weeks
    • Study at school today to graduate in 4 years
    • Save for retirement today so you don’t have to work in a couple decades from now

“So I think in a sense, we’re kind of walking through this modern society that rewards ourselves for patience and we still have this like paleolithic hardware where we prioritize instant gratification and immediate returns” – James Clear

  • Delayed gratification has created a mismatch in an evolutionary sense 
  • David wonders if this modern mismatch has led to the desire to change our behavior and to adjust habits, and perhaps it wasn’t something people thought about as carefully thousands of years ago
  • Some aspects of modern society are mismatched with that ancestral wiring
    • For example, why does one care about delaying gratification to get a PhD?… Likely because it affords some sort of status
      • Status is hierarchical and thought to be evolutionarily wired in
      • Some connections to ancestral wiring are there, but they’re not all aligned
  • It seems that the vehicles used to attain status earlier were much ‘simpler’ than they are today


The power of immediate feedback for behavior change, and why we tend to repeat bad habits [9:15]

Comparing 2 example of a learned behavior, riding a bike and swimming

  • Thinking of habits this way, Peter compares the challenges of teaching an adult to do 2 different activities he enjoys, riding a bike and swimming
    • If one took a 20-year old who had never ridden a bike or swam; he thinks it would be easier to teach them to ride a bike because the object is balanced
      • With balance, one gets feedback immediately
        • When balance is lost, one will fall
    • Swimming is also about balance, balance in the water
      • Most people naturally sink feet first
      • One has to balance so they can breathe 
      • Learning to swim well isn’t easy because the feedback loop is very long
        • It’s hard to make the connection that one is out of balance when learning to swim
        • When one is out of balance in swimming, one works harder but doesn’t realize why they’re working harder
        • It also doesn’t hurt as much when one fails at balance in water as compared to on the bike
      • Therefore, it requires much more deliberate practice to learn to swim than it does to ride a bike, at least at some basic level

What is it that determines whether a habit is good or bad? And why do we tend to repeat bad habits?

A question James often gets, “Why do I repeat this habit if it’s bad for me? If it’s so terrible, then how come I keep coming back to it?” 


{end of show notes preview}

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  1. I’m not usually one to nitpick, but… my graduate studies were in Behavior Analysis & Experimental analysis of Behavior. Largely founded on the work of B.F. Skinner. He is not the “psychologist who developed the principle of reinforcement,” for that you need to look go back much earlier in time. Thorndike is credited with “The Law of Effect” from research conducted in the late 1800’s. Thorndike formulated the ‘law of effect’ which states, “…responses that produce a satisfying or pleasant state of affairs in a particular situation are more likely to occur again in a similar situation. Conversely, responses that produce a discomforting, annoying or unpleasant effect are less likely to occur again in the situation” (Thorndike, 1911). Skinner is credited with the development of principles of Operant Conditioning and for establishing the the field of Radical Behaviorism, which is not the same as “Behaviorism” of earlier John B. Watson. Skinner did use the term reinforcement to refine the Law of effect. He also used terms like punishment and extinction to describe consequences of behavior.
    In regard to the podcast, the guest’s comments around Skinner also seemed to indicate a misunderstanding of Operant behavior. So many people seem to think it’s a simplistic idea without any understanding of the nuances. Neuroscience is a wonderful thing, and it is complimentary to our understanding of environmental factors, but when it comes to practical approaches to behavior change, understanding Operant behavior and environmental influences, IMHO, will get you much farther. Lastly, Skinner’s opinions on neuroscience have been largely misrepresented or misunderstood. He acknowledged the value of understanding the underlying effects of environment on the organism.
    “Eventually a science of the nervous system based upon direct observation rather
    than inference will describe the neural states and events, which immediately
    precede instances of behavior. We shall know the precise neurological
    conditions which immediately precede, say, the response…” Skinner

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