By Ty Mack
The year I turned 40 I finally learned how to read. Actually that’s a bit misleading, as I have been devouring all sorts of fiction ever since primary school: classics, crime novels, sci-fi, you name it. But non-fiction nearly always left me cold. Sure, I slogged through plenty of it out of necessity, but not with much enthusiasm. Then I discovered a radical new reading tactic, thanks economist and polymath Tyler Cowen. The trick is to stop being a slave to reading every page, front to back, of every book you start. Now I skim ruthlessly, open books randomly, and see if they grab me. I start a ton of books, stop reading many of them quickly, and have many books going at the same time. This technique has cracked open the world of non-fiction for me and helped lead me to today’s subject: James Clear’s Atomic Habits, a book filled with useful strategies for the training rock climber.
Habits and Identity
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
Atomic Habits presents a model of behavior change that consists of three layers. These can be thought of as concentric rings or layers of an onion. The outer layer is outcomes, the middle layer is processes, and at the core is identity. Identity is where we need to start our journey to behavior change. (Could add a diagram here)
The natural tendency is to go about this backwards. Our goals are usually outcomes: routes to send or boulder problems to tick. In order to achieve these we need processes (systems and habits) that will incrementally move us in the right direction. Everything is underlain, however, by our identity– our beliefs about the world and our image of ourselves. Habits are not going to stick if they conflict with our identity.
Maybe I’m a route climber who is held back by the tendency to holler “Take!” whenever things get uncomfortable. I realize I need to shift my identity to being a fighter, someone who screams and grunts like Adam Ondra and can try really hard in a wide range of conditions (feet above a bolt, pumped, on a day that is “too hot”). Then I think about collecting small wins that will reinforce my new fighter identity: falling instead of taking, using my breath as a source of power (and maybe some powerful noise), taking another burn despite it being too hot or my skin feeling thin. Before I know it, I’m booking that trip to Mallorca to try Loskot and Two Smoking Barrels!
I must admit I’m a bit skeptical that we can just change our identity on a dime and Atomic Habits doesn’t provide a simple roadmap for identity change. But I am compelled by the idea of a feedback loop between habits and identity. Find the identity you want to build. It’ll probably feel uncomfortable at first, but collect enough actions and build habits that reinforce it and it will eventually fit better. As the identity strengthens, it will in turn make those new habits even stickier.
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“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision.”
Atomic Habits lays out a practical framework called the Four Laws of Behavior Change:
- Make it obvious.
- Make it attractive.
- Make it easy.
- Make it satisfying.
The 3rd law is an important one. Clear suggests that if you want to create a new habit you should prioritize frequency. This could mean streamlining the habit at first so it takes as little time as possible, reducing friction, or priming your environment to make the habit easier. But the key is to get in the reps: repetition not perfection!
Another version of thinking small is sticking to the schedule even if that means reducing the scope. Are you running out of time to get to the gym for that limit bouldering workout that’s in your training plan for today? Don’t blow off the workout completely! Instead scale it down to a hangboard workout at home. Or some body weight strength training in your living room. Because a small win is so much more important than putting up a zero for the day.
I’m not saying that you can get away with doing just tiny workouts and achieve the results you want. But there are huge returns over the long run of creating the habit of regular training. It is better to start there and optimize those workouts over time than to plan a bunch of lengthy and complex training sessions that your hectic schedule keeps preventing you from doing.
Just Because It Looks Easy Doesn’t Mean It Is
This last lesson I learned from James Clear didn’t come from Atomic Habits, but instead from a recent interview podcast I came across. Atomic Habits was Clear’s first book. It was published in 2018 when he was 31 years old and has now sold over 10 million copies and topped the New York Times bestseller list. Talk about making it look easy, right?
But the second half of the podcast interview revealed just how much toil, tactics, and mind-blowing, insane, completely-next-level attention to detail and obsession lie behind Atomic Habits. Before writing the book, Clear had been blogging about habits and behavior change for years, churning out countless words on the topic. He deconstructed hundreds of best selling self-help books to understand commonalities in their structure and titles. Then he wrote a 700+ page manuscript and ruthlessly compressed it to 250 pages, slapped a near-perfect title on it, and spent 15 months planning a comprehensive book launch. Maybe not quite as easy as it appeared at first glance!
Oh yeah, and James Clear’s website lists some fun trivia about his life that includes a deadlift personal best of 501 lbs and a 305 lb bench press. He probably didn’t get to those numbers either without putting in a lot of time and effort.
On my first climbing trip to Spain, at the tender age of 21, I was feeling great about my climbing and was hell bent on ticking a route of the “magical” grade of 8a. At the first crag I visited, I found a suitable route and promptly laid siege. I remember the route clearly: a savage three-bolt boulder problem followed by 20 meters of easier, but pumpy tufa-pulling. Several frustrating days later, I could just piece together the opening boulder problem, but I couldn’t stop to clip any of the bolts! As I tried to psych up for another fruitless attempt, a grizzled old French climber walked up and asked if he could, “Perhaps take a look?” He tied in, shoed up, stubbed out his cigarette, and absolutely strolled up the route. I distinctly remember him not only chalking up but also gently blowing the chalk off his fingers on every single hold on the opening boulder problem that I found so desperate.
25 years later I am probably closing in rapidly on the age of that French crusher on that day. And I’m still putting in the hard work week after week, year after year that will enable me to make it look easy.
So here’s my closing recommendation: get your hands on a copy of Atomic Habits. Open it at random and read a few paragraphs, skim the whole thing in an hour, or absorb every single word. Or skip the reading entirely and listen to a podcast with its author James Clear. I bet you’ll come away with some habit building strategies to improve your life and your climbing.
ABOUT TY MACK
Ty was fortunate to grow up as a climber in Lander, WY during one of its many “golden eras” and now has more than 30 years of climbing under his belt. Though a sport climber at heart, Ty is a generalist with a myriad of diverse ascents: big wall free climbs in Yosemite and Zion, ice and mixed routes, headpoints, and highball boulder problems.