Book Review—Atomic Habits

by James Clear

Do you think habits depend on more willpower than you’re willing to muster?  Do you think reading a whole book about habits would be boring or inspire feelings of failure?  Well, think again.  Instead of avoiding Atomic Habits by James Clear, you should dive into it.  Better yet, buy your own copy so you can highlight and flag loads of helpful content that you’ll re-examine many times.  This book will change how you see your habits and yourself.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear offers practical and logical advice, clear wording and structure, and compelling research and examples from various fields including business, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and sports.  In reading this book, we learn why we do what we do, and why we aren’t doing what we wish we were doing.  Once we understand the factors that support or undermine our efforts, we can then step forward more confidently on our journeys of growth and change.

One example of logical advice is to think more about systems than goals.  For example, a team’s goal may be to win a game or championship.  Just having that goal won’t help them win.  But, by developing systems to improve their play, endurance, and strategy, they will more likely see progress and victory over time.

I had been yearning for a better writing system for years, yet still found myself rarely writing.  This book, however, taught me that no factor is too minute to dismiss when analyzing and building a system.  Since then, I’ve discarded pens that gave too much resistance and slowed my speed and enthusiasm.  I’ve noticed that using a timer sharpens my focus.  I even found that giving myself a simple checkmark to signal meeting my successful daily quota has improved my production and efficiency.  A lot of little changes can have a big impact.

Another piece of helpful advice is “when you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.”  For example, if you want a reading habit, begin by reading for just two minutes.  Clear maintains “the point is to master the habit of showing up” (162–163).  Repeatedly putting in two minutes every day makes a habit easy, achievable, and less likely to overwhelm.

Let’s apply that advice to an AU assignment that may be on your mind.  You have a deadline and the requirements.  You may also have a strong desire to put the whole thing off until the night before.  But what about two minutes today?  In just two minutes, can you reread the assignment requirements and jot down ideas? Can you read a few paragraphs from one of your sources?  In two minutes, can you open a file and begin a rough outline? What can you do with tomorrow’s two minutes to build on today’s progress? Once we can show up regularly, we can gradually build on those two minutes.  Breaking a task or goal down to what can be achieved in tiny, regular increments makes it easier to develop a system that can sustain us through many assignments, not just one.

Over the course of the book, James Clear also addresses why habits are more likely to stick if they are part of our identity or desired identity and how habits can be supported or thwarted in our environments and relationships with others.  He explains the interactions of expectations, cues, cravings, responses, and rewards.  Readers come to see change as a process of little steps, as showing up for ourselves a bit at a time, and as something that will reap compounding benefits over time.

Clear has four rules for building better habits:

  • Make it obvious.
  • Make it attractive.
  • Make it easy.
  • Make it satisfying.

Not only are these rules clear, succinct, and memorable, they also provide a guiding structure for the book itself.  James Clear first presents a rule for building a desirable habit, and guides us through the supporting evidence, examples, and application.  Then, in the next chapter, he addresses the rule’s flip side to deal with breaking an undesirable habit.  This structure is logical and easy to navigate.

Another great feature of the book is that each chapter concludes with a summary.  These bullet points concisely remind us of the principles we’ve explored in the previous pages.  If you own your own copy of this book, you’ll definitely want to flag these summaries for easy access and review.

James Clear writes about the complexity of habits in a simple, straight-forward way.  His sentences are short and comprehensible without being choppy or monotonous.  He uses accessible vocabulary and a friendly, down-to-earth tone.  This style helps the general audience move easily through a book that contains an astonishing amount of research in just 306 pages.

Fascinating and varied research and examples help elevate Atomic Habits beyond what could be an otherwise humdrum topic or typical self-help book.  For instance, in exploring the role that environment plays in habit formation, Clear refers to research on relapse rates for heroin-addicted Vietnam soldiers after returning home from war.  These rates are compared to those of heroin-addicted individuals outside of war who are released from treatment to return to their original communities.

The relapse rates for the veterans were dramatically lower with only five percent of them relapsing within a year and 12 percent within three years.  In contrast, “typically, 90 percent of heroin users become re-addicted once they return home from rehab.” It turns out, a “radical change in environment” is key to such contrasting results (91–92).  Once they were removed from the war experience in Vietnam, the veterans were less likely to resume their use of one the most addictive substances we know of.

Clear also delves into to the pointing-and-calling process used by the Japanese railway system, how much brainpower we use on visual cues, anticipation’s role in dopamine-release and motivation, and even the story of Victor Hugo giving away all of his clothes so that he would be forced to stay home and finish writing his book.  Using the same reasoning as Hugo, Clear also made distractions difficult when writing this book.  He admits, “Every Monday, my assistant would reset the passwords on all my social media accounts, which logged me out on each device.  All week I worked without distraction.  On Friday, she would send me the new passwords” (175).  They repeated the process every Monday.

Full of helpful advice and examples, as well as a wide range of supporting research, Atomic Habits is a quick, compelling read with clear language and structure.  Because Clear reassures us that the little things we do can have a big impact on the lives we lead and the people we become, this is a book you will come back to as time passes, circumstances change, and self-awareness grows.

Clear, James.  Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.  New York, Penguin Random House.  2018.
%d bloggers like this: