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From Dateline Reruns to Planks: How I Fit Back Into My Pants Using Habits

26 March 2024

Geof read Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear and learned about The Four Laws of Behavior Change that help regulate habit formation and maintenance. In this post, he outlines how he’s started to implement his interpretation of the Four Laws to be more active in his old(ish) age.  

Tags: balance, change, geof read

Reruns of Dateline while enjoying pizza replaced a lot of my outdoor activities last summer. It was hot and humid, and Keith Morrison’s siren song narration of murder and betrayal called me to the couch every night. While it was more pleasant than sweating in 100% relative humidity, my new behavior wasn’t good for me. It was getting harder and harder to fit into my clothes or to stand up and sit down without grunting. Enter James Clear’s Atomic Habits.

Clear introduces a simple, intuitive, and practical approach to changing behavior based on his Four Laws of Behavior Change. Before I talk about those, I want to share the most engaging part of the book for me – the notion of identity as a driver of behavior change.

I’m trying to be more active. I’m an active person. Clear introduces the three levels of behavior change: outcomes, processes, and identity. He also argues, convincingly for me, that lasting behavior change occurs at the level of identity. By aligning our habits (behaviors) with our desired identity, we can regulate those habits (behaviors) that help us reach our desired identity.

Imagine three concentric circles. The outer layer is outcomes. Most of our goals, according to Clear, are outcomes based, essentially a return on our behavioral investment. For example, as I tried to adopt more active habits, I could focus on the number of pull-ups I could do by next summer.

The next level of behavior change is processes. Processes focus on what you do (and don’t do) as you pursue your outcomes. Here, I could focus on the number of trips to the gym I make each week, or the foods I choose to cut out of my diet.

The final layer is Identity, and “changing your beliefs, your worldview, your self image, and your judgements about yourself and others.” This is the level of most enduring behavior change and habit formation.

Because of their frequency, habits also have the most influence in shaping our identity, and vice versa, creating a feedback loop. Clear emphasizes that the process of building habits is, in fact, the process of becoming ourselves, and that we undergo gradual microevolutions through habit change. He provides strategies for shaping identity through habit formation, such as using affirmations (e.g., “I’m an active person” vs “I’m trying to be more active”) to reinforce behaviors.

By becoming the type of person who embodies our desired outcomes, we are more likely to choose those behaviors aligned with our desired identity. (e.g., “What would an active person do? Watch Dateline, or take an evening walk?”)

The Four Laws of Behavior Change. Clear presents four fundamental laws that govern habit formation, providing a practical framework for behavior change.

Make it obvious. The first law emphasizes the importance of clarity and intention in habit formation. Clear suggests strategies such as habit stacking, where we link a new habit to an existing one, and environment design, where we shape our surroundings to make desired habits more obvious. By creating visual cues, we increase the likelihood of changing our behaviors.

An example of environmental design for me was pulling a yoga mat my wife gifted me from the closet and putting it on the floor in my office. If I have ten minutes between calls, I can do planks or Russian twists instead of browsing the internet.

For habit stacking, I set up our coffee maker each night before bed to brew coffee in the morning. Now I also link the behavior of pouring two cups of frozen fruit into a bowl and putting it in the refrigerator. The thawed fruit is more intentional, and easier to prepare the next day, than a bowl of cereal or a frozen pastry.  

These types of habit formations hit on all three levels of behavior change from above. For example, the number of minutes I hold a plank over time would be an outcome; the activity of doing planks instead of playing computer solitaire in the minutes between meetings is a process; and the belief that exercise is something an active person would do creates feedback for identity formation.

Make it attractive. The second law delves into the role of motivation and rewards in behavior change. Clear introduces the concept of temptation bundling, where we pair an activity we enjoy with a habit we want to adopt. By making habits more appealing, we increase our motivation to engage in them consistently.

For me, I started going to the gym with my oldest daughter at least three times a week. I get to spend time with her, and we can motivate one another while working out. On Tuesday nights we also meet my father for dinner after the gym, so I'm staying active as both a son and father, and rewarding myself with dinner out.

Again, through the three lenses of behavior change, spending time with my father and daughter are outcomes, going to the gym three times a week is a process, and these activities reinforce the identity of an active person rather than watching TV reruns on the couch.

Make it easy. The third law highlights the significance of simplicity and convenience in habit formation. By making habits easier to adopt, we reduce friction and increase the likelihood of their integration into our daily lives. I also see this as “starting small” and not underestimating the power of small changes.

Simple behaviors, like parking my car on the other side of campus and walking to class when I teach are both simple and convenient. I save time finding a parking space in the less popular and more distant spots, and I get a brisk walk to and from my car.

In terms of the three layers of behavior change, the outcome is less stress hunting for one of the few parking spots closest to the library (where I teach); the process is driving straight to the auxiliary lot and walking to class, all reinforcing the identity of an active person.

Make it satisfying. The fourth law emphasizes the importance of immediate gratification and positive reinforcement. Clear discusses the role of habit tracking and celebrating small wins to make habits satisfying. By creating a sense of reward and accomplishment, we reinforce the habit loop and increase the chances of habit maintenance.

For example, I use both a calorie tracking app for diet, and an exercise app for activity. The green and red indicators on the app are a visual cue each day, helping me make more informed decisions. The outcome is a series of positive feedback markers from my tracking apps, the process is prioritizing activities to “get my steps in” throughout the day, and the identity again is an active person.

Progress not Perfection. Clear acknowledges the challenges and obstacles that arise during behavior change and provides strategies for overcoming setbacks and staying consistent, such as focusing on the process rather than the outcome. Clear reframes behaviors that support the process as being like “votes” for our future self. For example, there are days my daughter and I don’t want to go to the gym (leg day). Instead of skipping the gym all together, we commit to a smaller, less ambitious workout. While we don’t get a full workout in on those days, by showing up, we maintain a process and the momentum toward our future identity.

Reflection and adaptation are also key components of maintaining habits, as we learn from our experiences and adjust our approach accordingly. By embracing the idea that setbacks are part of the journey and being flexible in our approach, we can navigate obstacles and maintain our habits in the long run.

I Still Like Keith Morrison. I still enjoy pizza and Dateline reruns. However, after forming and maintaining numerous small (atomic sized) habits, I have a little more balance than last summer. By thoughtfully considering new outcomes, integrating new processes, and adopting a more active identity, I’ve formed new habits and behaviors. My clothes fit a little better, it’s easier to get up and down off the floor, and I’m finding other ways to become, and remain, more active.


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