“The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

— Bertrand Russell

One of the ironies of life is that many bad habits provide immediate rewards while negative consequences are concealed for a long period of time. If I decide to eat a donut and smoke a cigarette as I type these words, my immediate state of mind would be significantly improved and I would face no serious risk of adverse harm on this day, or the next, or the one after that. But I am taking the risk of forming a nefarious habit where my mind would begin associating sugar and nicotine with the act of writing. Although helpful in the near term, these habits could very well become crutches upon which I would increasingly rely in the years to come.

Good habits often seem to offer the opposite scenario: immediate discomfort that is only rewarded in the long run. If you are an obese smoker eating a donut every morning when you start your day, that first bout of exercise is going to be nothing but sheer misery and it won’t really improve the next day. But by the second or third week, most people will begin to see the dawning of noticeable improvement. Through the passage of time will your body change and harden to the point where you will, one day, come to regard exercise as a highlight of your day and perhaps achieve the release of endorphins knows as a “runner’s high”. But what if that runner, now addicted to the daily release of endorphins, allows his habit to morph into dysfunction by running while injured or sick? A good habit can be transformed into a dysfunctional one if we are not careful.

In contrast with most other animals, human beings have a capacity to act with thoughtful agency rather than merely respond to a series of stimuli in a purely deterministic process. We can connect cause and effect over long periods of time and act to optimize our outcomes in cases where the impact of our actions is not immediately apparent. But it is one thing to understand this at an intellectual level and quite another to break free of powerful psychological impulses that could frustrate our best intentions. It is much easier to structure one’s life with the tailwind of human nature at our backs rather than to constantly fight a losing battle.

There are few things that I find less appealing than “self-help” books that promise to cure intractable problems through a series of easy steps. For the most part, there are no shortcuts in life and self-help literature is rife with easy and unrealistic answers. Fortunately, James Clear’s Atomic Habits is much more accurately characterized as a book in the field of human psychology. It is through understanding psychology and establishing strategies intended to make our inherent nature a tailwind rather than an obstacle that Clear bases his thesis for achieving remarkable results through tiny changes. Clear advocates a strategy in which one accrues the “aggregation of marginal gains” to achieve long-term results. This concept is the equivalent of harnessing the power of compound interest to increase your wealth, except Clear’s strategies aim at self-improvement rather than financial returns.

“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.”

Atomic habits, p. 16

Just a few pages into the book, Clear puts forth a seductive proposition that is especially likely to resonate with people who have spent their energy trying to harness the power of compound interest in their financial lives … but is the analogy an apt one? Do habits truly compound as transparently and regularly as the exponential function governing compound interest?

The Physical and Intellectual Spheres

One way to approach the question of linear and exponential functions as they relate to habits is to consider the difference between the physical and intellectual worlds. A habit governed by a physical constraint is likely to exhibit less of an exponential function of improvement than an intellectual habit.

At the early stage of a habit, one is likely to see noticeable improvement in either category. Someone who is out of shape will be unable to run a mile without stopping and might fail to complete the distance in less than fifteen minutes. But daily practice will cut that time by ten, twenty, or thirty percent and soon enough, the runner will break what seemed to be an elusive ten minute mile! But then progress will slow down and a further thirty percent improvement and achievement of a seven minute mile will take months or years of effort, if it is achievable at all. This type of habit is characterized by quick initial progress followed by a plateau beyond which further progress becomes more difficult.

In contrast, consider an intellectual habit such as reading widely. What is the likely pattern of returns for someone who decides to spend one hour every night reading — not just reading randomly but embarking on a thoughtful program of self-improvement intended to result in exposure to multiple fields?

Progress will seem slow at first. It will be hard work as the intellectual muscles gain form and function, but eventually dedicated study will result in internalization of that first mental model, and then another, but the long-term effects will be anything but linear and progress will speed up rather than plateau over time.

Intellectual fitness will build up at an increasingly rapid rate. But why?

The human mind does not learn new subjects and mental models in isolation. As we add additional models to our repertoire, the models start to interact with each other. It is as if pieces of a puzzle start fitting together exposing greater pieces of the intellectual universe.

“You must know the big ideas in the big disciplines and use them routinely — all of them, not just a few. Most people are trained in one model — economics, for example — and try to solve all problems in one way. You know the old saying: ‘To the man with a hammer, the world looks like a nail.’ This is a dumb way of handling problems.”

CHARLIE MUNGER, POOR CHARLIE’S ALMANACK, P. 55

As Charlie Munger says, if you only have capabilities in one field, such as economics, you will be hamstrung in your intellectual life and unable to view problems through multiple lenses. But as you gain additional mental models, the interaction that occurs magically compounds your ability to solve problems, as Shane Parrish notes in The Great Mental Models 1:

“A latticework is an excellent way to conceptualize mental models, because it demonstrates the reality and value of interconnecting knowledge. The world does not isolate itself into discrete disciplines. We only break it down that way because it makes it easier to study it. But once we learn something, we need to put it back into the complex system in which it occurs. We need to see where it connects to other bits of knowledge, to build our understanding of the whole. This is the value of putting the knowledge contained in mental models into a latticework.”

The Great Mental Models, P. 35

Interconnecting knowledge, built through the habit of reading, results in a latticework that represents exponential returns … and never before in history has it been more accessible for individuals to access all of this knowledge. Clearly, the habit of reading for one hour every evening is one that promises incremental self-improvement that simply compounds over long periods of time without any physical limitations — the sky is the limit and one is never “done” learning.

It’s About Who We Are

Regardless of the rate of potential compounding of a habit, we should seek to maximize our chances of benefiting from positive compounding while eliminating or at least minimizing the bad habits that lead to negative compounding. This is the entire purpose of James Clear’s book which I read in two sittings over just a few hours. I would recommend reading the book to benefit from those insights and will not attempt to provide a summary here. However, I do want to highlight one very profound point that Clear makes early in the book.

Clear outlines three layers of behavioral change: Outcomes, Processes, and Identity. If we have a desire to lose weight, that is an outcome based habit and this is where most people begin. We know what we want to achieve and we seek to bring about that change. We then build a process designed to achieve the outcome that we desire. The process might involve a new routine or changing your environment in some way. However, the deepest layer of change involves our own identity and only comes about when we alter our worldview. Only habits that involve behavioral change that is congruent with your sense of identity will last:

“Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. You may want more money, but if your identity is someone who consumes rather than creates, then you’ll continue to be pulled toward spending rather than earning. You may want better health, but if you continue to prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you’ll be drawn to relaxing rather than training. It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.”

Atomic habits, p. 33

All habits that last are ones that are ultimately about changing our identity in some way. For example, if I want to build a running habit, if my mindset is that I am an out-of-shape middle aged guy who wants to run, I will have less success than if my mindset is that it is my goal to become a runner. The same is true for writing. I am not just someone who wants to sit down first thing in the morning to write. Instead, I am a writer and this is just one part of my identity. It is what I do. If you pick up a musical instrument, your goal shouldn’t be to learn that instrument but to become a musician. If you want to stop smoking, you are not a smoker who is trying to cut back. You are now a non-smoker. The list of examples is clearly endless.

Practical Self Help

Nearly everyone wants to create better habits or get rid of bad ones but most people simply do not know how to go about the process of change in a way that will last. The majority of “self-help” books seem to focus on bringing about an outcome-based change that could persist for a while but soon fall away.

Earlier, I wrote that I find few things more annoying than self-help books, but isn’t the goal of reading any book really about self-improvement? Taking Clear’s concept of identity based change to heart, rather than picking up reading material with the explicit goal of self-improvement, I am simply someone who is always improving and books assist with that goal by providing new insights or novel ways of thinking about old problems.

I am reminded of the Parable of the Sower which makes the point, in a religious context, that seeds of faith that are planted in poor soil might germinate but will soon wither and die. In the case of habits, attempting to sow seeds indiscriminately without preparing the ground is unlikely to result in success. But by preparing the ground ahead of time and seeking to internalize habits into a change in our identity, the seeds of habits can germinate in good soil and last a lifetime.


Cultivating Habits in Good Soil
  1. The Great Mental Models Volume 1 was reviewed on The Rational Walk in early 2000, followed by a review of Volume 2. []
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