Thoughts on Atomic Habits (Chapters 4-8)


Chapter 4- The Man Who Didn’t Look Right

Chapter 4 focuses on creating cues. With enough practice, your brain will pickup on the cues that predict certain outcomes without consciously thinking about it. One such example that Clear refers to is the Japanese rail conductor, in which they verbalize and point to each action that they perform. This is referred to as pointing and calling or verbalizing your actions. This allows us to raise actions from the unconscious to the conscious memory. This verbalization can allow us to create an awareness of our good and bad habits. This exceptionally hits home not just in a doctorate journey, but in the IT field as well. Both of these (at least for me) are essentially task-driven elements of my life. The more I procrastinate, the more I get behind. The more I get behind, the more that is forgotten and/or dropped. Thus, creating a habit scorecard, as Clear suggests, is a good template to rank my behaviors and focus on changing or eliminating bad habits in the process.

Chapter 5- The Best Way to Start a New habit

Chapter 5 begins with what is defined as the implementation intention which is essentially creating a plan of when and where to act rather than just planning the action itself. The book describes an exercise study where exercise was more likely when an implementation intention (or plan) was set. I feel that this is critical for doctorate students like myself, as an endless pit of journal articles and book chapters might be unmanageable unless an implementation plan is set. The book suggests that many who don’t follow through with their habits lack clarity and not motivation. I can see this as being true as tackling a pile of academic work is easy to get motivated for (at least for me it is). The issue I commonly run into is implementing such work into a seemingly busy schedule. Clear states that to change these habits one must implement the 1st Law of Behavior Change: Make it Obvious. One such way to do this is to perform what is referred to as habit-stacking or in other words, stacking a daily habit on top of another. As I thought on one such way to habit-stack in my doctorate curriculum, I focused on journaling/blogging as a way to stack my habits. My career in digital forensics couses on sharing new/novel findings and forensic artifacts (such as artifacts from a new Android app) to colleagues within my community. One such failure of mine is that I consistently lack the discipline to publish blog postings pertaining to my research. Therefore I intend to habit-stack my doctorate readings and share them along with my technical blog-postings.

Chapter 6- Motivation is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More

Chapter 6 focuses on the notion that small changes in context can lead to large changes in behavior over time. Clear suggests that every habit we form is initiated by a cue and we notice the cues that stand out. Therefore, bad cues, such as junk-food or overly playing video games could be a bad cue. For me, the cues seemingly hit home. I consider myself to be a somewhat motivated person; a person who intends on seizing everyday to its fullest potential. Sometimes I tend to forget that there are only so many hours in a day and take too much on. This is purely because I take too much on from my daily cuses. To exemplify, if I hear the cue of a neighbor mowing the yard, that cue will prompt me to readjust my day to mow my yard, even if the original plan was to mow it the next day. This behavior of mine can soemtimes result in me “dropping the ball” per-se on more important behaviors such as keeping up with my doctorate coursework. Clear states that if you make cues of good habits obvious in your environment, then you are more likely to follow through with good habits. Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior, so by changing environment you are more than likely changing the behavior. I intned to follow through on this by setting up a distraction-free office envrionment to work on my school and work tasks at home. I feel, as the book suggests, changing the entire context surrounding my behavior (i.e. changing and organizing a home-office) then I can change the cue surrounding the beahvior. This will allow me to avoid mixing contexts of habits (i.e. hearing my neighbor mowing) and replace it with a good behavior (such as blogging).

Chapter 7- The Secret to Self-Control

Chapter 7 focuses on the inversion of the 1st Law of Behavior Change which is to make it invisible. One such example the text focuses on is a finding that nearly 35% of Vietnam soldiers were hooked on heroin during their time serving in Vietnam. However, the addiction rate fell to 1 out of 10 when returning to the US. This sharp decline, Clear suggests, was not because of being a disciplined person per-se, but rather creating a more disciplined environment free from heroin. The stresses, peer-pressures, and cues that were present that drove a soldier to be hooked on heroin that were present in Vietnam were not present back in their homes in the US. However, the habit was not forgotten. The book suggests that people with high self-control tend to spend less time in situations that might cause a craving or temptation,. Therefore they were less-induced to partake in the habit. One such way to eliminate a bad habit is to make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible. This inversion of the obvious therefore leads to positive behavior change. For me this essentially means retooling those cues that divert my attention and invert them towards positive cues and motivations that will allow me to tackle the work required of a doctorate degree.

Chapter 8- How to Make a Habit Irresistible

This chapter focuses merely on stimuli, and their affects on our behavior. One such study that the text highlights is that of Dutch scientist Nico Tinbergen, who observed baby herring gulls pecking at a red-spot on a mother’s beak to signal their hunger. The scientist found that by placing a red-dot on a mere piece of cardboard the baby gulls would peck that as well. This suggested that the stimuli was not brought on by the beak or the mother, but rather by the presence of the red dot. This concept was defined as supernormal stimuli. One such example involved the supernormal stimuli brought on by eating pizza rather than kale. Clear suggests that many people crave pizza over kale because of the supernormal stimuli of the melted cheese and crispy crust. It also suggests that we crave items such as pizza as they contain primitive bliss points that our ancestor’s would seek (salt, sugar, fat). Even though these items are plentiful in quantity today, our brains are still wired to seek them as in the early days of our existence these items were scarce and essential to our survival. One such way to counter the 2nd Law of Behavior Change: making it attractive is to create temptation building. This involves linking an action you want with an action you need to do. For me this involves completing my work and doctorate homework/readings before partaking (or rewarding myself) with some time with a video game. Not only does this create a reward for the behavior, it also reinforces the good behavior.

Chapters 4-8 Takeaways

For me the major takeaway during thisis that changing the environment is as essential as changing the habit. The strategy to pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do also involves putting yourself in the environment to make it happen as well.

Module 2 Readings

For this module we were tasked with the following readings:

  • Learning Networks and the Journey of “Becoming Doctor” (Barnacle & Mewburn, 2010)
  • Resilient Doctoral Students in California: A Reflective Study of the Relation Between Childhood Challenges and Academic Success (Bessy & Gonzalez, 2018).
  • Why Did I Drop Out? Former students’ recollections about their study process and factors related to leaving doctoral studies (Leijen et al., 2016).

Each of these readings for me carried the common theme: navigating multiple responsibilities in addition to the rigor of PhD studies. Each of these articles portray the PhD student as an exceptionally busy person, generally having to juggle repsonsibiltiies such as family, career, and other tasks in lieu of their PhD studies. In Bessey and Gonzalez’s research, they identified the 4’R’s: relationship, relevance, rigor, and reflection being important facets of successful PhD students. Similarly, Leijen et. al. describe the same factors related to PhD persistence as: motivation, goal-directedness, positive self-concept, and well-being. Upon completion of the readings of this module, I cannot help but wonder that the most important habits to develop are those that develop strong research methodologies as it seemed that many of the failures of PhD students were those that did not feel equipped to carry-out the rigors of research, nor did they develop the relationships to take on such rigor. Developing habits where one feels competent, integrated, and valuable are, in my opinion, essential to experience success in any doctorate program. As doctoral students, I can see that not being inspired by your research and/or what you are learning to cause burnout and even dropout. Simply put, life continues to happen, regardless of how much work we have in a particular portion of our PhD journey. Developing not only resiliency to continue to push forward, regardless of the obstacle, is key to doctorate success and completion.