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Step 49: Atomic Habits (optimization pt 2)

One of the top recommended books at the end of the year was James Clear’s “Atomic Habits.”

And indeed, he offers practical advice and research about habit formation, while also discussing behavior and habits as the foundational blocks for building identity.

This is part 2 in a 4 part series on Optimization.

In this episode we cover the aggregation of marginal gains, getting 1% better every day, the plateau of latent potential and the valley of disappointment, habit stacking, as well as offering some tips, and discussing how to make your environment work for you.

Part 1: The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

Habits are really about identity change. Behaviour change is simply the means to get there (the feedback loop).

What are atomic habits? They are the smallest possible habits, tiny little things that you can begin doing easily for remarkable changes.


The British cycling team wasn’t doing so well until their new coach, Dave Brailsford, implemented very small, incremental changes: things like trying out different tires or massage lotions to increase recovery time.

They did not see immediate results, but the gains accumulate over time. This known as the aggregation of marginal gains.

The idea here is if you only get 1% better every day in a specific task by the end of the year you are 37% better. Which is great, but the real magic comes when you multiply the effect across years.

“Small habits don’t add up. They compound.”

James Clear

Dave Brailsford and British Cycling, as of 2018, won 5 of the last 6 Tour de France events with 3 different riders, capturing dozens of gold medals, and setting many Olympic and World Records in the process. Their system works.

Note: the optimization apparently continued outside of the parameters into the gray zones… and now it’s sort of Lance Armstrong all over again.

Part 2: Slow Burn

it’s not about getting what you want, the power of habits is the change who you are. Or who you want to become.

James clear’s analogy for the challenge of change is the Ice Cube. If the Ice Cube is in a room at 23 degrees, and you heat up the room by 1°, nothing happens. This is like me being on a diet for one week. But you could heat up the room 1 degree eight or nine more times (and maybe you should consider that eight or nine years) but when it hits that magical 32° the ice begins to melt.

The lesson that Clear and other authors articulate is that it takes between 5 to 8 years to become an overnight success. And during this time, pretty much no one will see a difference, but suddenly, there will be a state change.

To describe this, he introduces The Plateau of Latent Potential & The Valley of Disappointment.

We are getting 1% better every day. We expect that arrow on the chart to keep pointing up with steady lineal progress, but Clear says that it is actually more like a plateau before we rise exponentially.

He cautions where you place your emphasis: outcome metrics will vary, but if your process is good, such as showing up every day and staying on a schedule, the results will show up. It just might take another 3 or 4 years… If my system is good.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

James Clear

Having big goals is normal… everyone has a dream, but having big passion alone will not get us there. It is the daily systems we put in place that get us there.

But to do this, we must also be aware.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

James Clear

Do you remember the story about the Elephant and the Rider? Where the rider (ego) thinks they are in control, but the unconscious is an elephant… and if it decides to walk left, we tend to pretend we (as the rider) are in control and rationalize the direction saying “yes, I always wanted to go that direction anyway.”

To change your path, you must be aware of your unconscious patterns and behaviors.

The insight here is that we tend to think our habits help us achieve a goal… but really, habits are behaviors that determine our identity.

your identity feeds your habits, and your habits feed your identity, forming a feedback loop.

So, this is not about just collecting hacks or forming odd habits: focus on the big goals, learn to embody your values.

One thing you can do when looking for the path to manifest your values is to ask yourself: what kind of person writes a book? What kind of person has success in this space? You hear that Hemmingway started writing at 5:00 AM everyday and wrote for 3 hours no matter how hungover. If you take on this habit, your identity will change: you will become a writer (but hopefully not a heavy drinker.)

One way to consider all of this is to both PUSH and PULL yourself.

Set the goal and let it PULL you forward: let that dangling carrot inspire you and drive you. Let the habits PUSH you. It may feel odd to enact behaviors (copycat or mimicry) that you do not fully comprehend at first, but sometimes merely performing the action can lead you to the insight and benefits, which over time can manifest a change in interior motivations as well.

Part 3: Habit Stack

your habits are just the automated solutions that solve the problems your brain faces regularly.

James Clear

We can hack our environmental awareness to stack things together, making a mutually reinforcing chain of behaviors, or habits.

To form a new habit, we have a cue that triggers craving, which prompts a response, and then we get our reward.

But the “cue” can be developed, we can hack it, according to Time, location, or even by a preceding event, so you can trigger cues to link or stack habits together ~ potentially driving out old bad habits and replacing them with potentially good habits.

Simple Habit Stack: Every time you close your laptop, do 10 pushups.

Mental Habit Stack: In a more complicated version, [[Tom Bilyeu]] from[[impact theory]] says that after meditating you have just reduced a lot of cognitive distress and anxiety. During this kind of super open and calm state anything you do afterwards should be more focused and your brain should be more receptive. So for instance you would stack meditation and journaling future goals together. Or meditate, then read, allowing your mind to absorb the content without the typical daily cognitive anxiety.

Physical habit stacks: When you workout your body becomes super absorptive of protein or anything else you put in your body… for about 20 minutes post workout. This is a peak window that you should take advantage of for gains and decreased soreness and inflammation.

This “knowledge of knowledge”, knowing when you can maximize your efforts with a little stack allows habits to interlock and become routines.


TIP 1:

Apparently drinking a full glass of water before going to sleep and after waking is a great practice: after you wake up you tend to have exhaled a couple pounds of water, which you need to replenish. Another tip: add some pink Himalayan salt and lime juice to your morning water, it is kind of like poor man’s diet Gatorade with electrolytes, to refresh the minerals you lost overnight.

Source: Human Performance Hub: Kickstart your day

TIP 2:

Stack that one with this one gleaned from Dr. Andrew Huberman: Taking Omega 3 fatty Acids and Creatine seems to help good mental health and push back against depression.

So, layout your vitamins in the morning and include Omega 3’s and Creatine in the mix.

Source: Dr. Andrew Huberman Podcast

Tip 3:

While you are gulping down vitamins with your poor man’s gatorade, get some sunlight in your eyeballs! Also from Dr. Andrew Huberman:

Your body is a clock… your circadian rhythms should be set by gathering at least 10 to 15 minutes of low-level sunlight… this means morning and evening… interestingly, from 10-4 direct sunlight decreases dopamine production.

Source: several of Huberman’s Podcasts .

Part 4: Environment

“Sometimes success is less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard.”

James Clear

But what about bad habits, temptation, and will power? The latest science shows that will power is like a battery charge: if you use it all up, you have to go to sleep to re-charge and get more of it.

I did an episode, Step 19: Breakdown of Will on a book by George Ainslie, where he shows how understanding temptation (and reward paths) can also lead us understanding how willpower functions.

We need to change our thinking. We need to consider will-power and discipline as a limited resource, not a character trait. Then we can begin to set up your life to not only avoid temptation, like food or procrastination, but also we can make our environment serve us by limiting bad distractions, and planting good ones.

Small behavior hack: if you don’t drink enough water, simply put bottles or glasses of water all around you when you start your day, so you no longer need the willpower to walk all the way to the fridge to get water every so often.

This is modifying your environment, which can be part of a habit stack: when you enter your office gather the empty water bottles from yesterday and fill them all up again and disperse them, before you let yourself get a cup of coffee. Or if you need a reward habit stack, flip it: every time you drink a cup of water you reward yourself with a cup of coffee, or you get to check Instagram for 5 minutes. whatever your drug is, but be careful of these REWARD Stacks… at the end of the day we don’t want to train ourselves to be entitled to a reward for doing something so mundane as drinking water.

Clear says, your environment is an “invisible hand” that guides your behavior.

“What often looks like a lack of willpower is actually the result of a poor environment.”

James Clear

Right, but how do you do this? If you know you have limited willpower then early in the day (while you are still fresh and full of discipline vigor) you can set up your environment to aid that weak willed ninny that you become in the afternoons.

If you suffer from checking social media, then early in the day you set a software to block it until after work.

If you eat too much at lunch, pre-pack your lunch into a smaller tupperware container. Like Odysseus tied to the mast, take the decision away from the future you.

“Winners often win because their environment makes winning easier.”

James Clear

And as a nice little cartoon I once saw says: it is hard to heal yourself in a toxic environment.

Sometimes the hardest thing is making the change that can let you thrive… you can do the little thing today, and start that process like melting that ice cube. It might take us 2 to 5 or maybe 8 years to become that overnight success. But it will never happen if we don’t start with the tiny things first.

My new daily habit:

Belly Button Lint

If you would like Ryder to create some longer form written articles on various concepts (like the behavioral science on temptation vs willpower) let me know!


James Clear, Atomic Habits 2020

A much, much better review of Atomic Habits: Duddahawork

Step 19: Breakdown of Will

Dr. Andrew Huberman, Huberman Labs (podcast and IG)


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