Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

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Author: James Clear
Published: 2018

Goodreads: 4.35/5
Amazon: 4.8/5
(Jul 2020)

Over the course of building habits to pursue success and happiness, there seem to be 2 major problems lying ahead: to identify which habits are good and deserve to be a part of our lives, and how to actualize them so that they are really OUR habits. While many people agree that The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey‎ is among the best guides to address the former problem, for the later one, I personally have the best experience reading The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson and this book, Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Compared to The Slight Edge (about which I have a post here), Atomic Habits shares some common ideas and philosophy but offers a variety of novel concepts and solutions. If The Slight Edge is a bit more directed to helping readers to recognize the importance of having small improvement every day, Atomic Habits gives more specific guidance on how to obtain the habit in the easiest ways. From another point of view, we can say that The Slight Edge is more about the theory while Atomic Habits is heading toward practical solutions.

Why do we need to care about our habits?

Because our habits are what form our nature. A habit is not something that lasts only for days or weeks, but for a lifetime. What we do, or do not today might not matter much, but if things repeat, the compound interest they bring will eventually be huge. Getting 1 percent better every day counts for a lot in the long-run. In other words, our everyday habits will change our lives, and we should be the one who is in control, to make them work for us instead of against us.

If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.

The Atomic Habits is structured around its 4-step model of habits, those are cue, craving, response, and reward. The cue is what reminds us of what we need to do. The craving is our desire, our motivation to do. The response, or our response, is our actual action. Lastly, the reward is what we gain after we have done with the work. Correspondingly, James Clear offers the 4 laws of behavior change that accomplish the steps: make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying.

By complying with these laws, we are going to make our lives better more easily without pushing pressure on the so-called willpower. I couldn’t agree more with James’ words:

People with high self-control tend to spend less time in tempting situations. It’s easier to avoid temptation than resist it.

Put another way, people with high self-control are the ones who spend less time in self-control. They put themselves in easier situations, where they don’t have to make use of their willpower.

How do they do that? Maybe different people have different solutions, and not every solution can work for every individual. You need to find the ones that are suitable for yourself. And if you need help finding, come to James Clear’s Atomic Habits, a catalog of the most viable methods together with explanations, examples, and stories are clearly presented in this easy-to-read, well-written book.

Below, I will have a summary of the wonderful insights distilled from the book.

Law 1: Make it obvious

\bullet Write down your habits to become more aware of your good/bad behavior. It is often that our routines are seemingly invisible to our eyes since they are already very familiar acts that we do every day. This leads to the fact that we might be unaware of them and the total amount of non-fruitful activities that stick with us through time. For example, some of us might always check their mobile phones right after waking up each morning, skip breakfasts, or retreat to Facebook when encountering a difficult task at work. Writing down our actions throughout the day not only helps us spot the bad behavior that we have not fully aware of yet, but also shows us what we have done well, giving us more motivation and self-confidence.

\bullet Make use of the Pointing and Calling strategy: another method to not omitting your bad habits is to point at it and say out loud what you are intending to do. This is a proven strategy that improves our attention and forces us to be conscious of whatever mundane work we are doing.

\bullet The cue of time and location: time and location are likely the most common and effective cues for our habits. Fill out the sentence:

I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

By making it specific, your brain will feel it easier and more committed to actually take action. Furthermore, at home, set a distinct role for each area of your rooms. For instance, an armchair is dedicated only for reading, when you sit on this chair, you read books, when you are not reading books, you are not supposed to approach this chair; a desk only for work; the TV is moved out of the bedroom.

This is also the reason why changing where we live makes it much easier to change our behavior. At a new place, we are free to set up new cues instead of spending effort to fight against the old cues that have been there, familiar to us for a long time.

\bullet Habit stacking may also help. If you want to start a new habit, stack it with an old habit of yours. For example, you want to clean your room every day, an idea might be to arrange to do it right before you go for a bath. Thus, when you go bathing, you are more likely to be reminded of the need for room cleaning.

As a final point, let’s make the cues of good habits obvious in your environment (and conversely, the cues of bad habits to be hidden). Surround yourself with things that remind you of the good habits and what is good for you in the long term. If you decide to take on the habit of reading 10 pages a day for every single day, build a bookshelf, even small, and put it somewhere that catches your eyes. If that is not possible, write a memo and put it on your desk might also work. The key is, by all means, to not only prevent yourself from forgetting to do the good acts but also make you be conscious of those acts, to make you feel those are so familiar and are a part of your life.

When you have been noticed what you are supposed to do, you will likely struggle to decide if you will really do it at that time or not. This is usually the time people try to draw out their willpower. However, things can be much easier if the act is attractive enough.

Law 2: Make it attractive

We find things attractive if we predict that they will result in something great. The higher our prediction, the more attractive that we see.

What prevents us from doing many of the good habits is the fact that those habits rarely return a big reward in the short, foreseeable period of time. Spending 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week for exercising might not get us anything for the first days, even months, but only years later that we can see the result, which is too far ahead in the future that little interest can be extracted out. Furthermore, doing exercise immediately produces a bad output: it drains our energy, takes away our time, and leaves us with the discomfort of a sweaty body. Hence, although we all know that exercising is good, most of us failed to find it attractive to be practiced regularly.

\bullet To pair what you want to do with what you need to do is one solution. Taking me as an example, I find doing exercise not enticing (because of the reasons I just listed above in the last paragraph), but reading is pleasant. Thus, I often pair these 2 activities to do at the same time, reading an ebook while having a treadmill run. Many others like to watch videos or listen to music during their work out, which are also good practices of keeping your healthy lifestyle.

\bullet Another way is to engulf yourselves in the right culture where your desired behavior is just normal behavior. Join a club, move to somewhere so that you are surrounded by the well-behaved people, or even try to persuade people around you to pursue the good habits together. When we are a part of the group, it is our sub-conscience that tells us to follow the norm of the group, our conscious mind would then feel easier to accept it and guide the body to act (with lesser use of willpower). The 3 social groups that have the highest effect on our behavior are the close (family and friends), the many (the major), and the powerful (those with status and prestige).

Law 3: Make it easy

Thirdly, we have to make the work easy. Many people halted their work just after the planning phase but hadn’t attempted to do the practice. The reason? Because we all are afraid of failure. We plot the plan as this is painless, but couldn’t draw out the brave to actually work on it, the potential failure and difficulty threaten us, making us unable to progress.

The nature of humans (and maybe most, if not all of the other animals) is to follow the Law of least effort. We naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work. Accordingly, it would be tough to require ourselves to do arduous tasks on a common basis. Rather, it should be more satisfying to make the tasks easier by reducing the friction associated with good behaviors.

\bullet Prime your environment to make future actions easier. If you want to build the habit of reading, it is better to have the books available around you, either on the shelf near your desk or a soft-version inside your phones. If you have to come to your uncle’s house to borrow the book every time you want to read it, it is much likely that your habit-building attempt will end in vain.

This also reminds me of the tip of pre-setting up the tasks one wants to be doing tomorrow from the night before, as mentioned in many other productivity books and articles. The tip and this rule have something in common, their goals are both to eliminate the futile detail, which could hamper us, so that we can fully spend our effort on what are really meaningful.

\bullet Know about habits that can be completed in a few seconds but continue to impact your behavior for minutes or hours afterward. You may be a bit surprised, but actions like this exist. For example, the act of putting on your shoes will (likely) take you for a run or a walk, the act of calling a cab and tell the driver your favorite gym’s address should precede a training session.

\bullet The Two-Minute Rule: when you start a new habit, it should take less than 2 minutes to do. This rule’s idea is to make the habits easy and relaxed at the start. Gradually, when we are more familiar with the tasks, our inner minds will be more comfortable with extending the habits to a longer time. It is also worth noting that most of the habit actions do have a short-version that take no more than 2 minutes, such as reading 1 page for the reading habit, running 1 minute for the exercising habit, writing down 1 thing that you feel appreciated for the gratitude habit, etc. We should start simple, and will only up the game when we enjoy doing it. Forcing ourselves to do unpleasant work is usually not recommended.

\bulletMake use of technology and tools. As of today, when everybody seems to have (at least) a smartphone, the detrimental effects of technology and how it distracts us from our productive work are more acclaimed than ever. However, technology is not entirely bad in terms of trying to form good habits. Most of the time, we can automate the boring work with machines, just as using a washing machine, a dish-washer, using email filters to clear up our inbox, setting our mobile banking so that wage is automatically deducted for saving.

Others, non-high-tech tools and gadgets may also serve us well. Consider buying a high-quality mattress to aid your 8-hour sleeping habit, a supportive chair or standing desk for better general health, and maybe a smaller plate to reduce calorie intake.

Law 4: Make it satisfying

While cue, craving, and response are for doing an action this time. The reward is for repeating that action next time, and over time. The simple universal rule is: what is immediately rewarded is repeated, what is immediately punished is avoided. Adhering to this rule, we should strive to make good behavior instantly fruitful and/or the unhealthy ones promptly catastrophic.

One way to make it satisfying is the feeling of making progress. It is not bad to maintain a habit tracker that records every time we complete a good act. Many learning applications have this feature built-in, such as Duolingo and Memrise. They keep a detailed log of our performance every day, how long the streak lasts, and summarize that data with appealing visualizations. This is proven to be effective in motivating users to be more diligent in having the work done. If you have 5 minutes, check out your App store/Play store, there are a variety of habit tracker apps freely available.

On the other hand, if you are more inclined to social interaction, you may ask someone for being your accountability partner, who observes and may reward/punish you according to your progression. Knowing someone else is watching you can be a powerful motivation.

Some other notes

  • Never miss twice, if you miss one day, try to get back as quickly as possible.
  • Genre does pose a role in what we can achieve. You are not likely to be a world champion in running if you are born short. Play a game that favors your strength. Genres do not eliminate the need for hard work, they just tell us what to work hard on. Pick the right habits and things are easy, you are easier sticking to the habits, and the habits will return better results.
  • The Goldilocks Rule: we are at peak motivation when working on tasks that are roundly 4% above our current abilities.
  • The most dangerous enemy of being successful is not failure but boredom. Real heroes overcome boredom, while trivial men couldn’t.
  • Rather than your goal, focus on who you wish to become, your identity. Don’t aim to get fit, aim to be a constant exerciser.

My final thoughts

From the time I finished reading it, Atomic Habits by James Clear have become one of my favorite self-help books (alongside The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson).

This book offers very clear explanations and easy-to-apply solutions to the problem of building good habits and discarding the bad ones. If you search on the internet for comparison of this book with many other famous best-sellers, the recommendation would often be: If you choose only one to read, read the Atomic Habits. I, personally, share the same thought.

The book: Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

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