Atomic Habits by James Clear promises to help you better understand and master your habits. It states that through small changes you can better your life and form new habits that work towards your success. Does it satisfy all its claims? This Atomic Habits review will cover some of the most interesting concepts I noticed from this book before arriving at a final verdict.
As a note, I am affiliated with Amazon, so buying through my link may result in a commission. That being said, I will be impartial during this review and bring up any problems with this book without overselling it.
Atomic Habits at a Glance
- Pages: 306
- Reading Length: Fairly fast, should only take a few days
- Recommend?: Definitely
- Action Plan?: Yes, highly detailed
Aggregation of Marginal Gains
This is perhaps one of the strongest tips in Atomic Habits from my viewpoint. Also known as 1% changes or compounding changes, this is a philosophy of making seemingly minute gains that compound on top of each other.
If you’re like me, then you’re often looking for the big changes. You’ve never run before, but you want to go a whole mile right now. You’ve never written a book before, but you’re going to make the next bestseller in less than a month. You’ve never uploaded a video, but that first one you upload is going to hit one million views.
It’s natural to want to do big, outstanding things that people admire us for. However, it’s also that viewpoint that is holding us back. The Aggregation of Marginal Gains is about making small changes that might only improve your performance by 1%. I know, sounds too tiny to matter, but that’s where compounding changes come in.
Let’s say you improve yourself by 1% today, and then 1% tomorrow, and then another 1% the next day. Still nothing impressive (sorry, it’s the truth), but each of those changes compound and add to each other. After several months or a year you’ll notice something truly spectacular happen. You’ll finish that book, lose all that weight, run that full mile, whatever you have your heart set on.
So if anything improves your performance, even just a little, then James Clear says go for it. Each positive change, no matter how small, goes a long way.
However, the same is true for negative changes. You can easily skip a workout, stop doing your new habit, or do a little less today because you “need to relax.” That one day lost can lead to a week or month of lost progress, and those negative changes add up. Progress, even small, is where you should place your focus.
Four Stages of Habit
Habits are continuously reinforced via their four stages. They are: cue, craving, response, reward
- Cue: something happens
- Craving: your physical/mental reaction to the stimuli
- Response: what action you take in response to the stimuli
- Reward: satisfying the need
James Clear shows several examples of this, but here’s a sample breakdown:
- Cue: phone vibrates
- Craving: you want to know what caused the vibration
- Response: you turn your phone on and read the notification/message
- Reward: you satisfied your craving for knowing why the phone vibrated
This might seem simple, but at their core habits truly are simple. That’s what makes it so hard to break bad ones and form new ones because the processes are usually below your notice. By understanding these stages, how they apply to your current habits and those you wish to form, you can better master your mental processes.
Systems Instead of Goals
I found this point interesting, though logically thinking about it I don’t know if it’s that useful. However, it’s still a point that really stood out to me.
Most people are obsessed with goals. Common goals include:
- Losing 10 pounds
- Making $1,000 online
- Write a book
Goals are great. They give you direction and drive. However, they’re meaningless on their own. Wanting to lose weight isn’t enough to get you there. According to many experts you “have to want it.” If you don’t achieve your goal, it’s because “you didn’t want it enough.”
The problem likely lies more in your system. Goals are like destinations. It’s where you want to go. Systems are directions, they show you how to get there. Let’s continue with weight loss.
You want to lose 10 pounds (currently I want to lose 16 honestly, but who’s counting?), so how do you do it? A system would look like this:
- Meal prep and journaling
- Run 1 mile/day
- Lift weights Monday, Wednesday, Friday
Great! You’re well on your way to losing weight. Not only that, but a system can continue to be implemented and perfected. After losing that 10 pounds you can continue doing the same things to lose more, or you can make changes to reach a similar goal. For example, if you want to gain more muscle, then adjust how often you lift.
I’m skeptical of the usefulness of this point only because anyone who started working towards a goal has already developed a system. They go hand in hand. I can see it useful for those who have trouble understanding how to get started towards their goal, and honestly building a system makes the process less mentally taxing. A useful tip for sure and one worth understanding.
James Clear inverted the idea of how changes affect us as people. According to him, behavior change occurs across three levels. They are:
- Outcomes (results like losing weight, writing a book)
- Processes (changing habits and making a new routine)
- Identity (your personal beliefs, worldview, and self-image)
Let’s say you want to become a writer. Most people take an Outcome-Based approach, so starting from Outcome and leading to Identity. It looks like this: you want to write a book (Outcome), so you start writing 1,000 words a day (Process), and when it’s finished you’ll be a writer (Identity).
That makes sense and can definitely work, but inverting the scale is a much better approach. Let’s do it together. You know you’re a writer (Identity), so you write 1,000 words a day (Process), to make your first book (Outcome).
This small change in outlook makes the process much easier to stick to. You’re not writing because you want to become a writer. Instead, you’re a writer and you’re writing because that’s what you do.
Let’s take the direct example from the book to show you something a little less innocuous. You want to quit smoking and someone offers you a cigarette:
- No thanks, I’m trying to quit. (Outcome-Based)
- No thanks, I’m not a smoker. (Identity-Based)
The Identity-Based approach requires less mental energy because you’re simply acting according to who you are. The Outcome-Based approach requires you to strive and go through all the processes before you’re finally this new identity. Like most of the book, it seems like a small change, but it makes a big difference.
Want a new habit to stick? Implementation intention is a neat mental trick that will get a new habit in your head and will get it stuck there. This is all about setting a certain behavior at a time and location.
For example, you want to learn how to draw. How do we make sure we do it? Implementation intention would go like this:
- I will (Behavior) at (Time) in (Location)
- I will draw at 3pm in my room.
The plan should be easy to follow and should work with your current schedule. This obviously wouldn’t work if you know you’ll be busy at 3pm or if your room isn’t conducive to drawing. But, if your intention is right, then this is a powerful tool.
It takes the vague “I should” (I should draw more, I should eat less, I should meditate more, etc) and turns it into a concrete plan.
This works equally well with bad habits that you want to stop. Though we should modify the formula a little. A better one would be:
- When (bad habit) arises, I will (response)
- When someone offers me a burger, I will politely decline
Be honest. Whenever you’re trying to break a bad habit it’s instantly reinforced when someone offers that thing to you. You know you want the burger despite wanting to lose weight. Also, since you never gave the situation much thought, you’re going to give in to your craving more than your goal.
Using this helps you form responses when your cravings or bad habits come up. Instead of losing the fight because you’re caught between your wants (bad habits) and needs (goals), you already have a response ready.
The book goes into Habit Stacking and other things that drive this point even further, but you can read the book to see more about that.
You’ve probably heard about flow state, but as a refresher this is a state where you are able to produce significant amounts of work of exceptional quality. Both mental and physical resources seem highest during this state and people report being able to achieve much more than in any other state. Everyone, from athletes to scholars, are trying to capture this in a bottle.
According to Atomic Habits, the way to do this is to use the Goldilocks Rule (or the Yerkes-Dodson Rule in psychology). This boils down to working on something that is challenging enough to keep you interested and productive, but not so challenging that it’s difficult to strive forward. So not too boring, not too hard.
I can see the logic behind this. Personally, I’ve had a hard time ensuring this 100% of the time, but I can see this being useful if you’re able to balance the challenge of your tasks.
Sticking Through Boredom
Do you watch motivational videos? I used to binge those for hours. They would fill me with so much energy and make me feel like I can take over the world.
That’s what any new habit should be like, right? It should be fun, exciting, and never, ever boring. Right? That’s the problem. Things get boring. Even that special thing you were called to do in your life, it’s going to get boring. Our brains hate when things are boring. We want things to be fun and exciting.
There are plenty of days I get bored writing, working out, and thinking of new scripts to record. It gets boring. But that’s OK. You don’t have to be full of energy. The world belongs to the persistant.
What separates the OK and good from the great and elite is the ability to push through boredom. This is where your system comes in. You’re not writing 1,000 words a day because it’s fun. You’re doing it because you have to and you need to finish that book. You’re bored of doing cardio and want to play video games, but guess what? You’re going to do it because that’s what your system calls for. You won’t reach those positive, compounding changes without following through.
I’m not going to say you’re bored forever. I’m also not going to say that you should ignore boredom if it doesn’t go away. If you go several weeks and still aren’t having fun or happy with what you’re doing, then maybe a small change is in order. Maybe you need to bike instead of run. Maybe you even need a break (gasp!).
What I’m saying is don’t stop the moment boredom rears its head. You will get bored. It’s natural. If you want to be truly great though, then you have to push through and keep going with your system.
Do you hate when self help books don’t have action plans? I’ve read plenty and many of them don’t include one. They throw dozens of principles, rules, laws, and tips at you, but they don’t package it all into a readable action plan you can go back to.
James Clear didn’t just make one action plan. He made two. There is a set of rules, laws, and plans for forming a new habit and keeping it going. There’s also an adjacent action plan for making existing bad habits less pleasant and enjoyable so they lose energy and die off.
What’s also nice is he shows the action plan after each major chapter. You get to see it unfolding as you understand his four laws of habit change.
What I Don’t Like
Plugs to His Site
There’s really not much bad to say about Atomic Habits. It’s very well researched, written beautifully, and clearly brings all its points to the table in a digestible manner. It has a great action plan, many fantastic tips and rules, and even uses clever analogies and stories to make readers understand why each point is important.
However, there is one small thing I don’t like. It’s minor, and I can mostly excuse it because the resources are helpful, but there are a number of plugs throughout the book to James Clear’s websites.
I get it, I do. He wants more traffic and more buyers. Honestly I can’t fault him too much for this because the resources he leads to are relevant and useful. Plus, they happen only a few times throughout the book, so they’re not shameless.
I’m being nit-picky here because it’s the only negative I can think of. If you can think of any, then please comment below. This is the only thing I can find fault with and it’s so minor it’s barely worth bringing up.
Atomic Habits is a fantastic book for learning about how habits are formed, the dopamine cycle that keeps them going, and ways to break bad habits while reinforcing new ones. Unlike many other self-help books that promise wide sweeping changes and major overhauls of your life, this book acknowledges that habit building and success is about accruing small positive changes over a long time to reach a meaningful destination.
I highly suggest this book. It’s a quick read and the content is worth understanding. Whether you want to improve yourself or you’re just curious about why some of your habits are so hard to break, this is a wonderful resource that is worth your time.