Atomic Habits of Desire
A dialogue of books: James Clear's "Atomic Habits" and "Wanting"
Books are always in conversation with other books. In the case of James Clear and I, I’m grateful that this conversation has extended beyond the books to a personal chat. Below I’ll explain one of the many important connections I seen between his book, Atomic Habits, and my book, Wanting. James weighs in with a few words of his own in response to a few questions from me. I hope you enjoy.
Some books seep into our lives over a long period of time. They may not hit us in an instant with force of an intellectual tsunami, but they end up filling up our inner reservoirs with the kind of wisdom that doesn’t recede back into the nearest ocean of content.
Atomic Habits by James Clear is one of those books. I realized its relevance in a particular way last year when, after getting married in July 2021, I noticed my wife Claire and I picking up and imitating the habits of one another with extreme ease.
One of our many examples: I like to cook, but I’m terrible about making the time to do so. Not Claire. When the clock hits about 6pm, she closes her laptop, puts on some good music in the kitchen, and starts prepping. It doesn’t take long before I am drawn there by the smells and sounds, and I roll up my sleeves and get to work. We talk about our day; we laugh; I usually get into some sort of trouble.
The beauty of it is that Claire’s healthy habit breaks me out of my habit of not knowing when enough-is-enough at my desk.
Cooking together has become a healthy end-of-day ritual for us that checks multiple boxes: we spend quality time together, we cook healthy food rather than ordering in every night (a bad habit that I got into during certain phases of the pandemic), and we put down off our devices.
Each good habit reinforces another good habit, and a positive flywheel of desire is set in motion.
Flywheels of Desire
What do I mean by “positive flywheel'“ of desire? It means doing one thing that naturally leads into a greater desire to do the next thing, which works as one giant wheel to accomplish some even greater desire. A flywheel becomes self-perpetuating, each step powered by your desire to do the next thing.
It’s the opposite of a doom-loop, in which doing one unhealthy thing leads you to naturally want to do another unhealthy thing (drinkers who like to bum cigs when they drink is a common example). What if we could engage in healthy versions of this? I believe we can. I believe we must.
For Claire and I, a positive flywheel is now in motion around this cooking ritual which means simply that we want to cook together, we want to talk about our days together. Stopping work doesn’t seem like a painful sacrifice to me anymore, a point at which I have FOMO about all of the emails and Slacks I’ll miss; no, now I look forward to it. You don’t have to pry my hands off of my desk.
A Model-Based Approach to Developing Good Habits
In my experience, there’s no better way to develop a habit than to develop strong desires which support that habit. This is part of the definition of what classical philosophers like Aristotle call “virtue.” When you possess a virtue, you possess a habit that makes it’s easy for you to do something which would be hard for someone who didn’t possess that virtue. Importantly, you want to exercise that virtue the way that someone who has trained to run well takes great pleasure in the act of running, whereas for someone who has been sedentary for months it would be painful and unpleasant.
Now when I go back to the beginning of this small positive flywheel that Claire and I have developed in our marriage, I realize that it wouldn’t have happened unless she had been a true model of desire for me. Without my being exposed (daily!) to her desire to stop working and to start cooking, it’s hard to imagine how I ever would’ve developed it on my own in these past six months. She acted as a positive influence on me because I love and respect her, but also because of the intimacy of our relationship.
And this aligns perfectly with what James Clear says in his book. There is a chapter titled “The Role of Family and Friends in Shaping Your Habits”, which describes my personal experience very well.
James acknowledges the role of ‘models’ in our life (though he uses slightly different language than I do), and notes that there are three kinds of models in particular that have an outsized influence over us in ways that can be both positive and negative. They are:
2. The many
3. The powerful
This is where his book intersects deeply with my own research. My book Wanting is about the social forces that affect what we want. It draws on the work of a French social theorist named René Girard (as regular readers of this newsletter know very well), who discovered that the nature of human desire is mimetic, or imitative, rather than completely autonomous. We want what other people want because they want it—and this is extremely important to understand when it comes to goal-setting or even habit formation.
It’s infinitely easier to develop a strong habit if we have a good model. And some models are better than others.
The Close, The Many, The Powerful
As I’ve written elsewhere, goal-setting doesn’t work. That’s because nearly everyone misses the first step, or the first principle: understanding why they are choosing which goals to “set” in the first place.
Each of us is born into a system of desire that we didn’t choose—the dynamics of desire in your town, in your family, or on social media, for instance. But these systems greatly shape the kinds of goals we typically choose to pursue. That’s because the systems shape our desires. In James’s words: “We don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.” And that is even more true when it comes to our desires: we tend to adopt the desires of the people around us.
Understanding how desires are shaped socially—the impact that others have on what we want, and on how much we want it—is critical to choosing better goals and developing pathways of desire that will ultimately not disappoint.
There’s nothing worse than pursuing a goal or working hard to develop a habit only to realize years later that it’s not the thing that we really wanted—that it was a socially-derived desire that we may have cared about for all of the wrong reasons. (As one saying goes, “Why do we work so much for things that we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like?” One simple answer: mimetic desire.)
Let’s briefly examine the three types of models that James and I have identified in our respective work. I’ll ask James a few questions along the way to go a bit deeper than we did in our books, and hopefully this is the start of a broader dialogue with our readers.
#1: The Close
People who are close to us have the power to affect us in ways that others can’t. Who do you think most people are more envious of? Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world? Or one of their colleagues with a similar role who makes an extra $10,000/year and displays Christmas Card-caliber photos on Instagram of family vacations every month?
For everyone I know, it’s the second person. People who are close to us influence us more than those who are far away because we have the possibility to interact with them regularly and compare ourselves to them. They are part of our world. That means we can see ourselves in them, and they in us. We simply identify more closely with them. This ups the ante.
By “close”, I don’t necessarily mean physical closeness. I mean existential or social closeness, too.
There’s a reason why going to a high school reunion is so awkward, and in some cases so terrifying: we are re-engaging with people with whom we shared a baseline, with whom we were (and still are) close to in age, and with whom we shared a common social environment at one point in our lives. That is why it is all the more mortifying to see the disparities, and why the urge to compare is far stronger than it would be with someone who went to high school in a different state or who graduated in a different year. We’re less likely to think of ourselves as their rival.
I asked James about this “close” category of model:
With me being from Michigan and you in Ohio, we could easily be rivals. Glad to see we’re operating outside of that nasty double-bind on the gridiron! Alright, my question is: what’s an example of one of these models in your life? My wife is one of mine, which might be an obvious answer for anyone who is married. So let’s say that your wife doesn’t count, just to make it a bit more interesting.
James: One of the habits that has served me best throughout my life is the habit of working out consistently. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say I wouldn’t be an entrepreneur without it. There are many days when the rollercoaster ride of entrepreneurship has me feeling down, but a good workout helps to recalibrate things. I genuinely want to exercise and enjoy the time I spend training. This desire to workout is largely an imitation of my dad. I started joining him during his workouts when I was in grade school. I wouldn’t do very much (maybe one or two exercises) but he always made the experience fun. And we spent time together. In those early years, I would sit in the gym as he worked out and we would talk between sets. Today, many years later, we do the same whenever I return home. His enthusiasm for working out pulled me into the gym early in life and, gradually, my own enthusiasm has developed as well.
#2: The Many
We are all influenced by what other people want—whether we’re willing to admit it or not.
And the influence of the crowd extends far beyond what we think. The crowd, or the majority opinion, also affects what we desire.
Think honestly about it: If we want something that nobody else wants, we begin to wonder if we’re wanting the right thing, don’t we?
Most people would rather be wrong than alone.
“The normal behavior of the tribe often overpowers the desired behavior of the individual,” writes James in Atomic Habits. Therefore, changing our behavior and developing new habits is far easier when those habits fit in with a tribe.
But this seems inherently dangerous, especially today. Some of the tribalism or herd-like behavior I see is not something I necessarily want to lean-into in order to develop crowd-reinforced habits.
So I like re-framing this one a bit. Rather than imitate “the many”, I like to very intentionally choose a small handful of the right models who stand out from the many—and imitate them instead. In this world (and Socrates would agree with me here), the truth is often not found in the majority.
This doesn’t mean that we necessarily need to lose any of the positive force of community; it just means that the community may be smaller and more intentional than the ones that we are normally thrust into during the course of everyday life (school, social media, etc.).
In my experience, even just a handful of the right models can be enough for me to counteract the negative habits of “the many.” Sometimes all I need is one: a single person who provides a strong enough signal, and the comfort of knowing that I’m not alone.
One concrete example: it appears to me like the “many” are becoming increasingly polarized and engaged in escalating and toxic political rhetoric, so I go out of my way to find and cultivate relationships with the few people who don’t seem to be caught in that riptide. (Maybe this is the increasingly attractive proposition of DAO’s, or Decentralized Autonomous Organizations, by the way: smaller clusters of people who opt-in to some basic set of governance...since we can’t seem to agree on a national one.)
My question to James on the idea of “the many” and how they influence our habits:
Is there a positive example of ‘the many’ that has helped in your habit formation? Or is there an instance when you’ve had to form a smaller, ‘hand-picked’ set of models that go against the grain?
James: Selecting the right group to imitate is a crucial decision in life. In my case, I began hosting author retreats while I was in the process of writing Atomic Habits. I would get 6 to 8 peers together (usually authors who were 1-2 years ahead of me) and we would hang out for a few days to discuss our businesses, writing, and book launches. It was an incredibly helpful series of events and it gave me an opportunity to learn from people who had successfully accomplished what I was hoping to achieve. I was new to the game, but these people knew what steps to take and by imitating their process (and adjusting it to my own situation), I was compounding from a higher principle. It was like I got to start the journey halfway up the mountain.
#3: The Powerful
We like to imitate the powerful because we assume that they have something that we don’t.
Of course, they do: they have power. That’s why they’re powerful.
But there’s something more complex going on. We imitate them because we are drawn to behaviors that seem to earn more respect or status—and we assume causality between the behaviors of the powerful and the power that they possess.
Many times, though, the causality that we ascribe to their power is simply an illusion, and we’re mistaken.
After World War II, something called “Cargo Cults” originated on several of the islands of Melanesia. The islanders had been receiving visits from American and Allied forces who stopped over for refueling. On subsequent trips, the Allies would parachute cargo off of their planes as a way to buy goodwill with the people on the ground.
Pretty soon, the people on the islands began to associate the cargo that fell from the sky with the landing and takeoff rituals of the planes. After the last troops had left, they began imitating the behaviors of air traffic controllers; they built makeshift runways and wooden planes; they played the part of soldiers at the airstrip. They did all this in the hope that they could begin to realize some of the wealth and power of their visitors.
Of course, it never came. They were imitating the wrong things.
The moral of that story is to make sure you understand the connection between behaviors and outcomes. Some people have power for reasons having nothing to do with their habits—cronyism, for instance. Others are powerful because they developed habits that ultimately made them miserable (like an obsessive concern with how they are portrayed in the media), but which we don’t see or know about because we only have access to their carefully curated lives.
The bottom line is this: be careful about perceived power and the way that it affects your desire.
I asked James about his thoughts on this third type of model, “the powerful”:
You write that there’s nothing wrong with wanting approval, respect and praise. Imitating powerful people is attractive to us precisely because those are normal objects of desire, which powerful people seem to possess. Do you have any additional guidance on how to emulate them, though, in a way that helps to avoid the negative consequences?
James Clear: I think there are two key elements here.
The first is to look for a pattern rather than a single source. I think it is perfectly reasonable to imitate successful people. (What is the alternative? To imitate people who have failed to accomplish a particular task?) But the key is to not imitate a single successful person because, as you have mentioned, we can’t be sure their habits are the reason for their success. However, if you see a pattern of behavior across multiple successful people, then you can be more confident that a specific action is related to the result.
The second thing is to imitate people who have recently succeeded. I generally think it is more helpful to imitate peers who are 1 to 2 steps ahead of you than “mentors” who are 20 steps and 10 years ahead of you. The world changes quickly and strategies need to evolve. In many cases, the people who are at the top of the heap today were starting their journey 10 years ago. The strategies they used to gain a foothold a decade ago are now out-of-date. And the things they are doing today might make sense for someone at the top of the mountain, but might not be very helpful for someone beginning to climb. By comparison, people who have succeeded recently are more likely to be using strategies that are still effective today. And, if they are just a few steps ahead of you, then their situation is likely more similar to yours as well. I guess we could summarize this thought by suggesting to imitate newly powerful people (or people who are close to your level, but gaining power quickly) and not just powerful people in general.
Final Word: The Meta-Habit
Since we’re talking about habits today, I’ll close with a very short story about a monk I lived with for a time in Italy. The first time that we hung out, I asked him to explain why the robe of a Benedictine monk was commonly referred to as a “habit.”
The word came into English via French as “habit” (meaning “clothes”), he told me, but the original root of the word was the Latin habitus, which implies a way of being, or a condition.
And the most important condition of all, he told me, is awareness. The state of being aware conditions everything else. That means being aware of my desires, as well as the habits that I’m engaged in. Most people have no awareness of the habits they’ve already developed, and even less awareness of the desires that likely led to that habit formation in the first place. So the meta-habit is to the habit of being aware of our habits (and desires).
It’s a daily task. “Just like these strange clothes that I wear,” he told me, “you have to put on the habit of awareness, daily.”
Not doing so leaves us naked, even when we think we’re fully clothed.