Atomic Habits: The Valley of Disappointment and Other Tails of Habit Formation
In re-reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, I was reminded early on in his book of a principle that applies to all aspects of change.
He references sitting in a room that is 25 degrees with an ice cube on a table. If you watch the ice cube, it won’t melt.
If you raise the temperature one degree, it won’t melt.
If you raise the temperature one more degree, it won’t melt.
Do it again to 28 degrees, still, nothing happens.
You can follow that path to 31 degrees and feel like you’re wasting your time and not seeing results, but once the temperature hits 32 degrees, the ice starts to melt.
Was the previous time and energy wasted? Yes, you shouldn’t be sitting in a room watching an ice cube melt. That’s a waste of time, but stepping back and looking at the principle, all of the habits and energy we put into our progress is not wasted, it sits in what he refers to as a “Valley of Disappointment”.
Progress is not a linear path, it’s a slow curve up and the results are always better than we expect if we can compound them every single day.
The next important step is what Clear refers to as “The Plateau of Latent Potential”. That is the moment when you cross the threshold (where are my Joseph Campbell guys at?) and all of your labors pay off (The Boon).
This reminds me of another book that has had a big impact not the way I think about breaking old habits and creating new ones “The Miracle Morning” by Hal Elrod.
In his book he describes a three-stage phase to setting a new habit:
Days 1-10 = it’s going to suck.
Days 11-20 = It sucks but not as bad.
Days 21-30 = This isn’t as sucky anymore and I can keep doing this.
He mentions a critical stage at the end of the second phase where we realize it’s easy and most of us relax and ultimately slip back into our old habits (this often stems from the belief that a habit takes 21 days to form and modern studies suggest it could take between 30-60 days to LOCK IN a habit which is more important).
He mentions the last phase as being incredibly important because it solidifies the habits and overrides the old process.
For me, I implemented this process twice with a major addiction in my life that I had never been able to shake: soda. Since I was a kid drinking two liters of Shasta (don’t judge my parents, this was just part of living an impoverished life in the ’90s), I’ve never been able to quit the sweet sweet “Nectar of the Gods” AKA Dr. Pepper.
Ultimately, reading Hal’s book and seeking that I could subdivide the process into those three distinct areas made the difference.
The first time I was driving to the Sundance Screenwriter’s lab to translate for a fellow and his co-writer (from The Dominican Republic and Cuba respectively) I literally pulled over, threw my soda out, and grabbed some chocolate milk. Why? Because you can’t chug chocolate milk without getting sick but it still hit my sugar cravings built over a lifetime of soda addiction.
Those first 10 days were awful. But I knew that. I knew it was going to suck for 10 days and I looked forward to that next stage which I knew was still going to suck, but just suck a little less.
Stage two came, and guess what, it sucked… just not as bad as the first stage and that was progress.
I pushed through, nurturing my addiction with chocolate milk and carbonated water (which isn’t a good substitute but it hits the other part of soda I like: the burn).
Then I hit Stage 3, and hey, this was easy. Super easy actually. I did it, awesome.
I remembered Hal’s words, and so I pushed through Stage 3.
Boom, I was clean. I was able to overcome my addiction and ultimately ended up soda-free… for 7 months.
What happened next? I went to an Oklahoma Sooner’s football game in Norman, OK with one of my best friends Colby Danklef. I decided to celebrate with an ice-cold Dr. Pepper at the game. OH MY. It was so good. And BOOM, just like that I binged for two more years on soda undoing all of the progress I’d previously made.
Fast forward to Dec 2019. I’m visiting my girlfriend in San Jose, CA and she makes a comment when I try to rationalize my soda (I’m drinking Diet but I’m still drinking basically only soda at this point): “I don’t care if you want to be a big fat fatty, I’ll still love you.”
I was shocked. I was upset. I was hurt. I looked at her, fear in her eyes. She was obviously unsure of how I would react to her comment. I said nothing. I internalized that.
It really hurt.
How could someone who supposedly loved me say something like that…
I had plenty of time to think about it the next day as I drove from San Jose to Los Angeles and then hooked out to Phoenix, AZ to spend Christmas with my family.
I stewed in the car. I didn’t like that.
It made me uncomfortable.
Then it clicked: people who love us tell us things we need to hear even when we don’t want to hear them.
The discomfort I felt was my mind trying to protect me from the truth which was: I weighed the most I’ve weighed in my entire life and nothing had changed.
I pulled over at the next gas station.
I threw out my sodas.
I bought my chocolate milk, and I loaded “The Miracle Morning” by Hal Elrod on Audible.
I was done. No more soda.
Fast forward again, it’s May 2020 and I still haven’t had a soda, more than doubling my previous record and it’s not even an afterthought for me anymore. In fact, I even turn down things that could be considered quasi-sodas because I know how powerful those triggers are for me. I’ve lost 60 lbs. I’m happier than I was before. And that woman who said those mean things to me is now the mother of my daughter Grace.
I’m a lucky man. I was lucky enough to pick someone who would be brutally honest with me when I needed to hear it. I was lucky enough to read Hal Elrod’s book. Now, I’m lucky to have a beautiful little girl that smiles when she sees me and looks around the room when she hears my voice.
Whatever you need to change in your life, do it.
You aren’t alone, and you don’t have to forge ahead with an iron will. You’ll fail that way. Trust me.
Leverage systems to reach your goals. Start by picking up Atomic Habits and learning the simple process on how to stack small changes in your life to get through that “Valley of Disappointment”.
I promise it’s worth it.