« Making Sense with Sam Harris

#200 — Creatures of Habit

2020-04-29 | 🔗

In this episode of the podcast, Sam Harris speaks with James Clear about habit formation. They discuss the difference between creating good habits and discontinuing bad ones, the role of the environment, the misalignment between immediate and long term outcomes, the remembering self vs the experiencing self, goals vs systems, the compounding of incremental gains, the role of attention, the four laws of behavior change, “temptation bundling,” and other topics.

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
What colors make a test podcast by SAM Harris just a note to say that if you're hearing this, you are not currently on our subscriber feed and will only be hearing partial episode of the podcast if you'd like access to full episodes, you'll need to subscribe, it Samharris, DOT, org. There you'll find our private rss feed to add to your favorite podcast through, along with other subscriber only content, and, as always, I never wanted money to be. The reason why someone can't listen to the podcast. So if you can't afford a subscription, there's an option at Samharris, dot, org to request a free account and we grant one hundred percent of those requests. No questions asked okay today, I'm speaking with James, Clear James is the author of the book atomic habits
which has been repeatedly recommended to me? Many of us go through life. Aspiring to acquire good habits and aspiring to Whose bad ones- and we treat that process as though, were fundamentally mysterious, but, as it turns out, some people thought on about habit formation and james- is certainly one of those people. So want to get him here on the palm cast to talk about it, really anything you, want to accomplish, in life depends on your behaviour in any sense is almost entirely highly dependent on the kinds of habits you can form whether there are any work or diet or fitness or relationships or practice like meditation it's really all a matter of acquiring good habits,. And I bring you James clear
I I'm here with James, Clear James thanks for joining us em could sought. You see you wrote this book atomic habits. That was, recommended me many many times before I picked it up. It say great analysis habit formation and what it takes to dick. Can you bad habits and afford? good ones and there's a lot detail here that I want to get into, but You have a and interesting personal story of how you came to this. He really you had an experience of amateur, build your life in an impressive way, but maybe we should start there why? How did you come to think about habits and how this forced on you buy em the whims of chance right. Well, I
I grew up in a family? Will the played a bunch different sports? My dad was a professional baseball player. He played the minor leagues for single cardinal. And I played a variety of things. Growing up in sports played a big part, my childhood, until I was about sixteen and The final day of my sophomore year of high school, I suffered this very serious. Injury rose hit in the face with a baseball bat and it was an accident. A classmate of mine took a swing and Beth slipped out his hands and sort of rotated kind of helicopter style through the air and struck me right between the, XO broke, my nose broke the bone behind my nose. Your ass might bone like fairly deep inside your skull shatter both I sockets I look down. I had spots, ran blot on my clothes I had a one classmate who literally took the shirt off his back and gave it to me to kind of plug up the the blood coming from my broken nose
I was sort of unaware of how seriously I had been injured in everybody's running over to me, my we gotta started making the long marched down back into the high school. We run this field outside of the school, and I got to the nurse's office and starting answer questions. But I didn't answer them very well and I think the third question they asked me was what's your mom's name and that took me about ten seconds to answer, and that was the last thing that I would The swelling in my brain got to the point where I lost consciousness. Do you have taken our high school in a stretcher, went to local hospital when we got there. I started to struggle with basic functions like swallowing and breathing a couple minutes later I lost the ability to breathe on my own, so they had to intubate me. Nurses are pumping breast into me by hands around that time. I have my first seizure of the day. I'd end up having three more and so the doctors confirm decided. It was too serious to handle the local hospital,
had the air carrier me to a larger facility. So my mom came with me: I'm a helicopter I'm unconscious at this point. She holds MA way down with fight of this larger hospital in Cincinnati and we land on the roof. The hospital, a team of dozen doctors and nurses come out wheel me into surgery, take my mom off to a waiting room when she gets back up with my dad and, as I was getting ready to undergo surgery, I had another seizure and so that I guess they decided that I was too unstable that times they place me to a medically induced coma, and around this time a priest comes up to my parents and actually this particular facility, this particular hospital. They were familiar with it because about a decade before my sister have been diagnosed with leukemia at the age of three, and this was the same.
Hospital where she had received her chemotherapy treatments turns out of the same doctor or the sorry, the same priest that met with them a decade prior that they also talk to that day. Thankfully, the story you know has a good ending so They spent the next day that medical induce coma by twenty four hours later, my vital signs to stabilize the point where doctors side to release me from the coma us await back up and down the process. Appealing sword begins, and This is the reason I tell the story. The result, I think it's related to the discussion we're having now is, This was a time in my life. You know all humans have habits me we're building them from the time that were born, but this was the first time, in my hand, was forced and I had to start small. You know I didn't have a choice. I can just flip the switch and go back to
normal young, healthy person. I was before all I really wanted, was to get back on the baseball field, get back to me, no move to living my normal life, but my first physical therapy session. I was practicing basic motor patterns like walking in a straight line. I couldn't drive a car for the next nine months. I had double vision for weeks and so started by just doing the small, simple things that almost now lie. Cuz, I talk to you now and almost seems insignificant. You know, like I went to bed at the same hour each night or prepared for class for an hour each day. This is the first time in my life after physical therapy was done that I start training consistently in the gym. So we know first once or twice a week and then eventually, three or four times and they were small habits, but they gave me a sense of control over my life again, something I felt like have been ripped away and
gradually. I started to build confidence rebound for cover. I never ended up. Adding a successful high school baseball career was the next year. When I went out to the team I was cut, was only junior to be cut from the varsity team senior season that made the team barely got to play but I didn't managed to kind of weasel my way into a college team and continued to build those small habits and get better, and so my freshman year came off bench software season, those starter juniors team, captain than my senior season. I ended up being named the economical America team, which is about thirty players round the country, and you know I never play professionally, but I do feel like I was able to maximize my potential gonna, make the most of the circumstances that were push my way.
And I think that's really kind of the lesson for many of us, with habits and in the role they play. No a kind of broadly see three major pillars or things influencing our outcomes in life may got luck and randomness, which, by definition, is not under your control. You have your habits, the behaviors, that you practice the actions that you take and you have your choices. Strategy that you follow, and you can't control luck and randomness. But if you can control the other two, if you can make good choices and do good habits, then you can often kind of get luck to sort of go. Your way can increase your surface area for good things to happen, despite the randomness that comes along and that's kind of how I feel like the punchline to my story, and I don't really know that, there's anything legendary or heroic about it. We all face challenges in life, and this was just one that I faced, but it did teach me about the importance of small habits.
They can help you re down from challenges if you're willing to stick with them for months or years, was your ability to rebound obvious from the start. You're a period where you typed tipped into depression or despair and took some significant period of time even find your way toward growing your way out of this predicament. Well, I The first thing I said when I walk back up Ben sort of was cognizant of what was going on. Was I never asked for this and I think A lot of people feel that way when challenges gonna come their way its liking. A. Why me here is simply that sometimes Sir sure that I did have a period where you know it was hard. Looking back on it now What I remember is trying to be very positive about it. There's this you think I m about this more recently. You maybe you ve, seen this in your life as well as the
they're like positive and negative feedback loops throughout life, and there's this this interesting thing we're stuff kind of feeds on itself and either direction. You know, like you're, a little bit overweight and that makes you feel a little depressed. And so then you feel like sitting on a couch more and eating your feelings away. And then you get more of a wait and just now this downward spiral now and then The same is also true on the upward side. You no one saw for whatever reason. I think, as I was rebounding from that I tried to focus on some small win some little foothold that I could get to push off of and move the momentum in a positive direction, so maybe at Nino that first fiscal therapy session. That was something like you know, being able to successfully complete each exercise or to do the number of wraps that repression arrived from the physical therapists or whatever, but that is a very small, tiny thing, but gave me little foothold naked use that too, how little momentum into the next thing, and
a weirdly, if you're with you're willing to do that rolled, look at life that way and continue to try to drive that momentum. It is sort of get this flywheel effect over the course of a couple years and pretty soon Europe on a surprising herself, by what you're doing, and I think that small habits do sort of compound on each other. In that way, I am struck by the fact that many of us don't spend a lot of time thinking about habits per se, but we think about our lives. We think about a relationships to think about our health. Our finances are careers. The distance between our moment to moment experience and the experience we imagined We want in life and when you look at that distance but the quality of any aspect of our lives. We are quite obviously, inheriting the consequences of our habits moment to moment. An men often is once a year that yet at the new year's resolution moment that people think about actually
getting behind themselves and pushing to change something there. Doing in their lives or not doing. How do you think about a habit and more? How would you define habit? well there's a couple different ways to define. The way that you would usually here defined is in our behaviour. That's been repeated enough times to be more or less automatic, but I think there are a couple other interesting. Fines of attack or lines of explanation that reveal little bit more about it. So they are these automatic, relatively mindless behaviors, almost like you're playing a cognitive script. You know you like pick up your toothbrush lean play the tooth, brushing scripture. You put your shoe on. You play the shooting script. But another way to define a habit would be a behaviour that is tied to particular context for environment. So I think that's kind of interesting because it reveals that You cannot have a behavior outside of an environment and are often heavily influenced by the environment. The writ so like your habit of watching Netflix might be tied to the environment of your couch at seven
or your habit of journaling each morning might be tied to the coffee shop across the street at ten, a m or whatever, and so those behaviors linked to the context round them nothing. It's another interesting way to think about and then at the third way, there's up a researcher behavioral economists to I think, the same Jason, Ria and anyway. I like the way that he defined a happy said something to the effective. They are solutions to recurring problem, homes in your environment, and I like that idea, because you could imagine, for example, but he comes home from work and their exhausted. So you can have this recur problem around say. Five hundred and thirty each evening. Where are you feeling sort of exhausted and stressed and tired from the day and the brain wants to come up to with solutions and automate those as Beth
possible. So one person might fall in the habit of playing video games for a half hour. That's all they do stress and another person might smoke a cigarette and a third person might go for a walk with their spouse You can start to see that, even though the underlying a root causes the same or similar, we can come up with very different solutions to that same problem, and so I think in to large degree people sort of stumble into their habits, sometimes litter? stumbling them like we noticed, stumble across a solution that mean oh, this happens to be the information that came your way throughout life.
Often your imitating the habits that your friends or family and parents you somebody what they do to solve, that recurring problem cease or inherit the habits of the people around you and then at some point you get to be twenty twenty five, thirty years old and you have to like step outside and above yourself and realize cavil. These recurring problems these things that come again again the need to get resolved through My life and I had this set of habits that are used to resolve those problems. But what are the odds that the habits that I have now are the optimal solution to the problems that are faced with ITALY, Spry very unlikely in the universe of options that you have there. You happen to come across the ideal solution at first,
and I think, as soon as you realize that you start to see that your habits or more of your responsibility. Now you know it's your choice as an adult, how you respond to these recurring problems and if you have the option to build habits that solve those things and healthier and more productive or more fruitful way, Then that's your responsibility to try to build those, so I think all of those different lenses give you kind of up various ways of describing a habit and what it is. But that's gonna, roughly the role they play in our lives. Is there a difference that you can? Generic they state between acquiring a good habit and discontinue in a bad ones, are different dynamics to that problem, yachts, gray, question! So first I should say I think it can be. Very
useful, to look at your bad habits because- and we I think we all have had this experience- that I haven't seemed to form so readily so easily, and yet good habits can be kind of difficult to to build into last. I think it's interesting to ask like why is that what qualities of a bad habit make it so readily formed, and so there are quite a few insights that I discuss atomic habits that sort of came from that opposite lens from looking at the inverse, so I'll discuss some of those in a few minutes as we get deeper into the conversation. But to answer your question: what's the difference between a good happen? To that have it some people like wealth is bad. Why would I do it? like it, if I know this isn't good for me, why do I keep coming back to it and depending on which experts you talk to some? Have it experts don't even like the terms, good and bad, because they're like we'll all behavior service in some ways they make this kind of us course semantic discussion about it? I don't know that. That's quite right,
Socrates, essentially that no one knowingly does bad. Everyone has a story about why what they're doing is is good, at least for them. So I think there is truth to that, but from a practical standpoint from a useful standpoint, I think we can define what a good having a bad habit is and the way to do it is to consider that behaviors produce multiple outcomes across time. So broadly, speaking, let's say: there's like an immediate outcome and an ultimate outcome. Now the immediate outcome of most good habits is ours are most bad. Habits is pretty favourable idiot outcome of eating a donor is great. That swedish agree is tasty its enjoyable. It's only the ultimate outcome d, keep repeating that behaviour for a year or two years or whatever that's unfavourable, same story, kind of with likes me cigarette the immediate outcome of smoking. A cigarette is, you know, maybe you get to socialize with a friend outside the office or you Kirby, nicotine craving, or you take a break from work or do stress it's only the ultimate outcome. That's
favourable with good habits? Often the reverse, like the immediate? I'm going to the gym specially that first week of first month, not very far. Well, your body looks the same in the mere scale hasn't the change of anything you're sore. It's only the ultimate outcome a year or two years now that is favourable. And that miss alignment between the immediate How come the ultimate outcome, I think, is one reason why it so easy to slide in the bad habits, because they feel good the moment and can be difficult to build good habits, because a lot of the returns are delayed, and I think this, back to some sort of female evolutionary wiring. I mean from the vast mature ready of human history. Humans have lived in what scientists we call an immediate return environment. Almost all Your choices had some kind of immediate or near term impact on your life. Do I take shelter from the storm run away from the lion. Do I forged for berries in that Bush? For my next meal,
and I'm now really just the last five hundred years, or so you know we could debate exactly how much time but relatively shorts in human history. We live in this modern society where a lot of the greatest returns that we get now or actually a delayed return environment. You go to work today to get a paycheck in two weeks or you go to class today to get a college degree in four years. You save for retirement today so that you can be retired and free in a decade or two, and so we have this weird shift where increasingly, the pay off of delaying gratification or of making long term choices is greater and greater because the institutions, in society and culture we set up and yet are Pelee Olympic Mines seem to be wired to prioritize the immediate outcome, and so I think all of that together helps explain
sort of what the difference is between a good haven't a bad habit were. What does that behaviour get you in the long run, the ultimate outcome, and also why it's like color easy to build bad habits and fall into them slide into them a readily. So I like to summarize that by just saying the cost of your good habits is in the present the cost of your bad habits as in the future, and I think that can help to describe the difference between the two year. S really interesting. It relates to a few other issues. We should Gus here, and that is the difference between focusing on goals and focusing on process that has significant consequences and also this this distinction. I know you're familiar with Danny Economies, work and you his famous for many things, but one of his useful distinction this between the remembering self and the experience himself and the experiences Elvis your moment to moment experience of your life and integrated
all the data under that curve is is what it's like to be you, and if we could ping you, randomly twenty times a day and an experience sample from you I ask you how you feel and each moment we would get some some measure of what it's like to be. You, and I will report back your well being such as it seems to you in a window that very focused around the present moment, but the remembering self is who comes online when anyone's asked how they feel about their their life in a much more global retrospective. Since how's your career going harrier relationships and its through, member himself. That is the one that tends to make decisions about. What to do in life. What kinds of calls to pursue? What's in this case, what kinds of habits to rethink and and try to change- and there is a dandy his has noticed and more or less surrendered to this fact
that there is a reliable mismatch between the remembering so on account of what is good what is worth doing and and who has become in and what s life is like and the experience themselves data that can be reported back, so you can think you had a terrible time over the line last week, but the sampling would say otherwise and vice versa, and he is really no way to get the remembrance Calvin experience himself into? true harmony, I have my doubts. That- and we have an extreme, an ongoing disagreement on this front but I'm wondering what you think about this distinction between what you're doing with your mind when you are making some kind of global assessment who you are and how it sees and where you want to go and what, like to be you really
moment to moment throughout your life and then how this relates to this effort to change habits and whether we could prioritizing focus on goals where we want to get too verses, they focus on process or the kind of systems we create to produce certain results. So let me take the the remembering sulphurous experiencing self first then we can come to the systems and goals bees, yup so I cut off commons works very interesting and you know I mean take away from a lot of these discussions and you'll hear him say this is well loves. I'm basically comes down to like you will not be, The exception, you know, will talk about these biases and just note. About them. Does not shield you from them. You have. You still can be the victim of of all of these things, and so my practical take way when it comes to building habits. Is you don't want to go against the grain of human nature? You want to work with it and that's one reason. For example, a large part of my floss fees around
making good habits the path of least resistance, because what you find is that, regardless of what you're remembering sell for your most strategic self would think if you sit down trotted design out your ideal day or remember what your best performances are like the truth is moment to moment when you're sitting there in about to make the next decision, we often choose what is easiest to what is the path of least resistance? Where does the action that requires the least energy So we want to design environments, design a lifestyle and situations that make those good actions is easier, seems obvious as possible, and so for that reason I think that's kind of my main practical take way. There are a lot of interesting in a theoretical, or things done just kind of consider. Some of the discussions the remembering sulphurous is experiencing self reminded
Little bit of I think re dahlia has like a little division. We basically says like your both the strategic controller of your life and you're, the in the mix like operator as well. You know you're you're, both the ceo and the frontline worker, your both the general and the soldier, and sometimes become alternate back and forth between those selves, and I think what the best plan that the general can come up with is often very different than what it's like to be on the battlefield as a soldier- and I don't know- I don't know how it may be possible to get those fully aligned, which is what your kind of hinting at- Even doing so might be very hard, or maybe it's fleeting, that's gonna. How it feels to me is occasionally I have moments working glimpse that events like how I'm acting or what I'm thinking in the moment is maybe more aligned with what that remembering self would say. But then I get distracted or my attention go somewhere else. Or somebody walks in the room, her new project rises and
I had it, but I had it only for a moment almost like chasing a state of flow, it's different than flow, but it's similar in the sense that it doesn't last all the time. So I don't know if that's just those are kind of my thoughts off the cuff about it. But have you talked more about the system those pieces, well yeah, let's say waiter that, so how do you think about the difference between a Hassan calls first as a focus on system and I remember one thing that jumps out to me is that the goals are a really just idea. And even when their realized, I guess there are different kinds of goals and some can seem more. Durable than others, but many There are even in their moment of fulfilment, are enjoyed very briefly and unless you decide to a form, the goal that you want to run a marathon, and then you we run your first, marathon. Well, you know that took you know if it's your first, it probably took for you to five or six hours, but how long it took the moment of fulfilling that have crossing the finish line.
Then you have that fulfilment, and then you, after you have this memory. You had this idea that you met your goal. You can try to ring out whatever satisfaction you can get out of repeating that to yourself, but the process is is the light of being someone who who is now a runner who you're who trained for the marathon and hopefully continues to like. Running thereafter so they're very different in terms of duration and most of life is clearly the process and our goals are these brief landmarks? the landscape of our moment to moment living. But I know from your book there other consequences too. Focusing on one burst, the others had, he think about goals and process were systems so yeah. That's a great entered pointed this discussion is poor, This is one of the core ideas in atomic habits, which is that you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to level of your systems and the region
I mean oh bring that up or if you like it. So such a central thing is that often when people disgusting your change when they talk about habits that they want to shift. It usually is centered around some kind of goal. They start with. Like all, I want to lose forty lbs or I'd like to double my income, or I want to reduce stress. They have some kind of outcome that they want, and so the implicit assumption behind that is, if I can just achieve this thing, then I'll be the kind of person I want to be then I'll have you know the life I want to have and so there's this focus heavy heavily. We are heavily focused on outcomes, but in this sort of comes back a little bit, we mentioned near the beginning of the conversation we said in a we have habits all the time that we dont think about them. That much and yet there are kind of, in the background, influencing all these outcomes that we have and so the way that I would describe that is most of your outcomes in life. Are lagging measure of your habits. So forget pull your knowledge is alive,
finding measure of your reading and learning habits, your bank account is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your physical fitness is the lagging measure of your eating and drinking habits. Even the clutter on your desk at work or in your garage or your bedroom is a lie. A measure of your cleaning habits, and so did you get really motivated and set up a goal like I've, gotta clean my my room and then you spend a couple hours doing that you have a clean room for now, but if you don't change the sloppy messy habits that led to a dirty room in the first place Then you turn around two weeks later and you got a dirty room again, and so we we often think that the output of the things that needs a change but is not really the results. The need to change its like fix the inputs. Me outputs will fix themselves and that's come of this. This language of systems, verses goals of our first heard that that specific phrase from Scott Adams, but you here in many different ways, process of Rocco
whatever it's been discussed, Pino ad nauseam for centuries, but to put a little finer point on it and to link it back to habits. This is how I would describe it your goal, is your desired outcome. The thing that you want to achieve your system is the collection of daily habits that you follow and if there is or a gap between your desired outcome and your daily habits, there's ever gap between your system. In your goal, your daily habits will always win, right, like almost by definition, your current habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results, like whatever system. You ve been running, let's say the last six months or last year, whatever collection of daily habits. Human following have carried you inevitably to this place that Europe right now and
go there again. You know I mentioned this earlier in the conversation there are, of course, other forces, riders, lock and randomness and so on, but I think largely speaking, we could say that that is true, that you're, that the things that you repeat day in and day out, the system that you run carries you to this outcome and so for the all of those reasons, We should focus much more on the daily habits when the system, then we do on the Golan the outcome and you mentioned, there's sort of these downsides. Are these negative effects that come from focusing too much on on the goals? So the first one Is that, as you mentioned, achieving go really only changes your life for the moment, you know like it's only it's only a momentary thing, it doesn't make. It's not like. This is one of my challenges. When people talk about like a thirty data, on four habits. Early twenty one days than the habit is formed. Whatever slight habits are not really a finish line to be crossed in that sense, in other,
It's not like just do this for a little while and then you'll be a healthy person achieving a goal and change your life for the moment. The second thing, though, and I thought that was so interesting when I first came across That is that the winners and losers so to speak in any given domain. They often have exact with the same goal so say, you're the Olympics, and you got twenty five people competing in the event. Presumably all of them have the goal of winning the gold medal and it's not the goal that makes the difference in their performance or if you have a job opening and a hundred people apply for a job. Presumably all of the candidates have the goal of getting the job, and so a goal might be necessary, but it is not sufficient for success. We really need is the daily habits, the preparation, the behaviors that led to that outcome now now I've criticise those little, but I should say I do think they can be useful to the things that I think they can be useful for some one is clarity, setting a sense of direction
Do you have a clear goal? You know what direction you want to row in or in the case of a team or direction with the whole team to run and get everybody on the same page. And I also think there useful for filtering. If you have a goal- and somebody comes to you with an opportunity- they say hey, would you like to join our work on this project or claims in our interest in this? You can run it through that filter of your Golan. It's easier say no, if it's like. I know that doesn't help me achieve Michael, but short of that. I think that its much more for to focus on the habits in the system and most of the time we probably spent, I don't know eighty percent of our time say talking about outcomes and goals and what we want to achieve and what the future should look like, and I think it should be flipped around that's fine. We know where one ahead now, let's put the go on the shelf and focus instead on the system in a daily behaviors, Yeah another way to merge. These two ways of thinking is to recognise that the real goal-
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Transcript generated on 2020-05-01.