The Three Layers Of Habits

In the book Atomic Habits by James Clear,* he encourages us to think about habits in three layers: the behavior we do, the pattern in which we do it, and the identity that we associate with it. These three layers surround everything we do in all of our relationships, both personal and professional.

Let’s start with an example. Offer a person a cigarette. If they identify as a smoker they’ll say, “yes, please,” “no thanks,” or “I’m trying to quit.” But, if they identify as a non-smoker, they’ll state, “I don’t smoke.” Most people probably think that the thing we do becomes the pattern that gives us our identity, but Clear makes the point that it’s the identity that triggers the pattern, which ultimately triggers the thing we do. To the teenager who is considering smoking, they are playing with the identity of being a smoker well in advance of taking their first drag.

The three layers insight applies to complex situations like our businesses as well. We have to identify not just what our short and long-term goals are, but also examine how we literally and figuratively identify ourselves with them. If we identify with being stressed and overworked, what does that say about the things we do? Contrast that against identifying with being the consummate professional in our field. This is much more than self-actualization.

Clear encourages us to ask how a habit moves us closer to the future self/business/etc. that we are in the process of becoming – for better or for worse. Instead of approaching things statically as “I yam what I yam,” we should channel our inner Popeye and approach them dynamically as “I yam much better after spinach.” It’s transcendental, which may feel a little cheesy, but ask any smoker about the gap between “trying to quit” and “oh, I don’t do that.”

When we understand the three layers of the behavior, the pattern, and the identity, we can start to solve lots of problems from the perspective of this identity anchor. “Does this type of person do a thing like that,” and “people like us do things like this” become deeply important to remember. When a client seeks to do something we know is not in their best interest, we can trot out this logic. The same applies to ourselves, our children, coworkers, and maybe even our spouses. Most importantly, by maintaining a growth mindset towards our inner-post-spinach Popeye, we can actually start to shed the static identities that we wish to part with. There’s still a ton of work to do to successfully form a new habit, but a little knowledge like this can make it a noble pursuit.  

*Disclosure: Habit books always seem a little motivational speaker-ish to me, but after Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, I’ve realized they’re also capable of being deeply insightful into the basic building blocks of our behavior and psychology. So, if you still think this is just self-help, do take a deeper look.

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