Ambushed by Gratitude

The Gratitude Connection

by Donald Officer

No one to follow and nothing to teach, except that the goal falls short of the reach ~  Leonard Cohen, The Goal

One of the biggest recent business bestsellers is James Clear’s relatively short but intensive book, Atomic Habits. The author claims he chose the title because the best way to build a good habit is by the deliberate repetition of the smallest fragments of a desirable and obviously repeatable behavior: small fragments like atoms in the physical world. I think Clear also had in mind two other properties of the atom to compare our behavior to. In the atom lies the origin of the greatest physical power we have so far unleashed and an invisibility which makes all its attributes forgettable without concerted attention. Our daily routine resembles the atom in both ways. We fail to note how the little things we do build from simple outcomes to recognizable regular processes to a firm unmistakable identity we correlate with personality and character.

This simple building block habit framework might be the first thing we should be grateful to James Clear for bringing to the fore. That his methods are so accessible might be the second. He knows, for example, when to reference science directly and when to draw analogies that link relevant psychology to a familiar experience. In these respects, the former distinguished college athlete brings a disciplined mindset to his work essentially regarding it as a mission. But there’s nothing starry-eyed about his approach. In this respect, you could say that pragmatic leadership drives him. To summarize: processes shape goals which otherwise might actually obstruct.

Starting with himself, as Clear frankly admits, none of us is a perfect automaton and we all need tools like resilience, grit, and above all an overriding sense of purpose for the long haul. However, he makes common cause with advocates of transformational change (often misleadingly presented as miraculous or nearly overnight alteration). Those advocates proclaim the why, Clear gives us the how. So what has this to do with grateful leadership?

The flat answer is everything. Gratitude is not fully achieved as a predisposition, but only when it becomes a habit. Leadership is not a title or a mantle to wear. Credible leaders embody structured character built on repeated processes in pursuit of dependable responses. The first time you acknowledge someone, it might be an experiment or a rationale. Will you repeat your acknowledgments or expressions of gratitude? Will you perform small acts of appreciation regularly thereafter, especially when struggling under distraction or pressure? Only if your practice has become sufficiently habitual – is becoming part of your core beliefs and values.

Still, the discipline of atomic habits has a mathematical quality to it. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz at the end of this post. You’ll soon discover as I did that sometimes quantifiable relations help pull the pieces of Clear’s program into place. The author discerns patterns common to all habits. Along the lines of behaviorist theory, his research concludes our habits follow a four-step order beginning with a cue that sparks the brain to initiate a craving in anticipation of a reward. Cravings are motivators, not habits in themselves. It is the response to the craving triggering rewards that shape the habit. If the response delivers a reward, the habit is reinforced.

All that may sound excessively mechanical or uninspiring, but if you look closely, drawing on your own everyday experience you’ll appreciate that it frames a gut level mechanism wide open to many directions and interpretations. Knowing that, allows you to direct your habits in multiple ways at a controlled pace. That’s a great superpower to have. Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. First, though, we have to overcome the paradox. Habit has us in its grip. Breaking a habit is tough to do, in some ways nearly impossible since all habits leave traces in our brains. Nevertheless, we don’t have to feed them. Our best approach to an undesirable habit is to build a desirable one that takes up what would have been commandeered space. Build a habit to beat a habit. Nonetheless, we can effectively find ways to ameliorate the worst effects of those habits we’d prefer not to have as well. Sometimes that is crucial to ultimate success.

Habits start small (Clear’s two-minute rule) but build on top of each other. Rewards become cues to coming sequences and so on. Stacking, it’s called and is additive when quantified. The impact of habit compounds – an exponential measure. In creating a new habit, don’t expect linear progress. There’s a motivational sag before the positives of a new habit take hold or the negatives of one you are trying to eliminate fall back. How do these predictable tendencies play out (there’s the math!) or how do outside influences come to bear? Atomic Habits addresses the dynamics in a thoughtful strategic way. Most importantly though, Clear explains how to build habit management systems. Let’s look at his pillars of the habit-building processes.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear draws on strongly supported science he distills as four laws of habit formation. He backs up this formal characterization with multiple illustrations as well as sound habit science. His habit-forming laws and supporting techniques were not all discovered by the author, but he deserves credit for presenting them in executable form. Here they are:

1. Make the targeted habit obvious.
2. Make your approach attractive.
3. Make the execution easy.
4. Make the consequences satisfying.

How to eliminate a counterproductive habit? Do the opposite: 1) obscure cues; 2) make reinforcement setup unattractive; 3) make execution difficult, and 4) Ensure results are unsatisfying. Author Clear is detailed and exact in supporting his steps or laws. They form an effective meld of science and common sense. Most of us stumble on aspects of each of them all the time. Nevertheless, I wish I’d had this concise checklist in this form decades ago.

I hope that on its own, this introduction gives you the incentive to look into James Clear’s book and his career as a habit expert. He’s built his system steadily paying close attention to feedback at every turn. He is all over the internet in newsletters, email lists, webpages, interviews, YouTube, etc. Most of his message he gives away on line, even donating a percentage of the profits he makes from speaking, writing and consulting to an international public health charity. He is an example of how a disciplined individual can make a difference that matters in today’s world.

Robert Quinn, a co-founder of the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship would refer to the evolution of understanding that accompanies the consistent practice of positive habits like grateful leadership as the “fundamental state of leadership.” In books like “Building the Bridge as you Walk on It,” he writes about the parallel, potentially exponential development of awareness and authenticity this powerful and empowering state brings into being. In this context, the leadership habits we own are never static. They are directed from within even as they are realized by reaching out to others. This is how grateful leadership achieves its greater good. This is how atomic habits transform.

What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.