Like those of you reading this blog, I want to do my best to help our fellow animals trapped in the hell that is factory farming. However, certain habits of mine get in the way. For example, I spend too much time checking out the latest news from the National Basketball Association when I should be exercising, or spend too long on my nightly fix of Netflix when I should be spending time on learning and doing so that I can be a more effective activist for farmed animals.
I’ve long been aware of these and other bad habits of mine, but I didn’t have a plan to improve them till I read Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s not the first such book I’ve ever seen, but maybe I read Clear’s book at a time when I was really fed up with my bad habits and searching for a way to change. I decided to write this summary of the book in the hope that Clear’s ideas might help some of my fellow activists, and I hope the summary serves as a way to remind myself to stay the course.
James Clear is well known in the area of building good habits. In addition to this book, you can find him all over the web, including in a two-hour+ interview with vegan notable Rich Roll (on the right with the headphones)– although I didn’t notice any vegan related topics arising in the interview.
To begin the review, the two words in the book’s title, Atomic Habits, need to be defined. Habits, according to Clear, are routine, regularly or even automatically performed behaviors. The word atomic has two meanings: (1) very small parts of larger systems; and (2) possessing great power, as in atomic energy. Clear’s main guidance is that changing small (atomic) habits can lead to big changes (atomic power). It’s analogous to compound interest; if we regularly deposit even a small bit of money every week or month, over time, it will compound, and our savings can grow into a meaningful amount. In other words, our effectiveness as activists is a delayed product of our habits, because good habits lead, although not always immediately, to powerful changes.
Four Laws for Adopting Good Habits
Clear offers four laws for adopting good habits: (1) make the good habit obvious, (2) make it attractive, (3) make it easy, and (4) make it satisfying. In this section, each law will be explained and exemplified with two examples: one example related to how we can improve our health and thereby be better examples to others of plant based health, and one example related to how we can improve our ability to interact with the public. However, it should be stated right away that no one-size-fits-all examples work for establishing good habits. Everyone is different, and everyone’s context changes over time.
Make It Obvious
The first law of habit change is to make habits obvious. This law has two parts. First, making a habit obvious means becoming aware of our habits. By definition, habits are automatic behaviors; thus, we often do these behaviors without even thinking about whether we should carry out the behaviors. The first step toward adopting better behaviors involves noticing. For example, if we indulge in lots of vegan junk food, we should notice the situations in which we eat it. Maybe there is a jar of vegan cookies on the counter in our kitchen, which makes it easy to pop a couple cookies in our mouth whenever we enter the kitchen.
The second part of making habits obvious involves stating exactly what we will do in our good habit. For example, when doing outreach, I have a habit of talking too much. So, if I want to change that habit, I can make a promise that I will ask at least two questions to each person who comes to our table. I can write out that promise, tell my promise to other activists at the table with me, and even say aloud, “I will ask two questions to the next person at our table.”
Make It Attractive
The second law of habit change is to make good habits attractive. Unfortunately, so many of our bad habits are attractive. For example, the sugar and fat in cookies attract our taste buds, and it’s so relaxing to let my mind go numb while reading about today’s basketball games or watching tv. Fortunately, Clear offers strategies for making good habits equally or even more enticing.
One strategy for increasing the attractiveness of good habits is to use social norms. Clear notes that “We don’t choose our earliest habits, we imitate them” (p. 115). Unfortunately, lots of vegans don’t eat healthy food and don’t exercise much. But many other vegans do; so, I can try to hang with them. A second way to make good habits attractive is to associate the habits with our identity. For instance, if I identify myself as being health conscious, I will be attracted to behaviours that help me look and feel that I fit that identity. A third strategy for making good habits attractive involves pairing a good habit with a less beneficial habit. For example, if I want to watch a tv show, I can pair that with a good habit by only watching tv shows while riding an exercise bike or working out on a treadmill.
Make It Easy
When faced with two choices, we often choose the easier of the two choices. This is the idea behind the third law of habit change: make it easy. If a jar of cookies sits of my kitchen counter, eating cookies becomes easy. If a bowl of fruit replaces the cookie jar, eating fruit becomes the easier option. Similarly, if I turn off the alerts on my phone, it becomes easier to focus on the forum page letter I’m trying to write, rather than checking messages. Clear calls this strategy priming the environment (p. 156).
Procrastination poses one of the biggest challenges to building good habits. To address procrastination, Clear proposes the two-minute rule. So many times, I think big, but never even get started. If I just spend two minutes today, maybe that starting effort can bust through the procrastination. For instance, doing a hour-long workout is difficult, but changing into workout clothes after work and planking for a few minutes is easy.
Make It Satisfying
We enjoy behaviours that bring us rewards; thus, Clear’s fourth law of habit change: make it satisfying. The irony is that good habits are often painful in the present, with the possibility, but not the certainty, of pleasure in the future. In contrast, the pleasure of bad habits is in the present, and the pain caused by those bad habits lies only in the possible future. Thus, the question becomes what can we do to maintain good habits when those good habits do not produce immediate results.
What follows are three of Clear’s suggestions for how we can earn immediate satisfaction from our good habits. The first suggestion is to find tasks with the right mix of challenge and success. In contrast, tasks that are too easy quickly become boring, while tasks that are too difficult lead to frustration. Second, if we find others who want to adopt similar good habits, we can encourage and monitor each other. Third, we can record what we do, either the old-fashioned way via paper and pencil or with apps and various software. This habit tracking can help, because it makes it obvious (please remember the first law of habit change – make it obvious) that we are indeed performing the habit. Other benefits of habit tracking include the motivation we feel to be able to tick off another day that we carried out a good habit, and the “pat on the back” we receive when we look at our record of achievement.
It should be mentioned that Clear says it is okay to miss a day now and then. Maybe there was a lightning, so, we couldn’t swim, or maybe we were invited to a restaurant with no brown rice, and all the plant based options were oily and salty. No worries. However, the key lies in not missing twice. Clear states, “Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit (p. 201).”
On page 168, Clear offers advice for those who wish to go vegan (he never states whether he took his own advice on this). Begin by using the crowding out strategy of eating more veggies, thus leaving less room for animal based foods. Then, gradually reduce consumption of animal based foods by moving away from the meat of animals with four legs, then two legs, and then no legs, such as fishes, until finally finding alternatives to eggs and dairy.
In conclusion, the ideas in Atomic Habits offer many ways for us to take control of our lives and thereby do a better job of helping farmed animals. By being vegan, we have already shown our ability to break away from mindlessly repeating the bad habits of many of those around us. Let’s take that a step further by building other good habits. With these good habits, we take greater control of our lives and enable ourselves to not only be more effective activists but also enliven our lives in who knows how many other ways.