Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Kiley Peters

Resources, Life

Atomic Habits by James Clear is one of the most actionable books I've read/listened to lately. It's a pretty short read and it's packed with specific actions you can take to change your habits and, ultimately, the results of your life.

His whole philosophy is based on the idea of making tiny, or "atom-like" changes. And then those small changes snowball. For example, say you were in sales and you started off with $100 on January 1st. If your goal was to sell 1% more each day, you'd have increased your sales by 33% by the end of the month and 130% by the end of the quarter. Small incremental changes really add up and make a difference.

He breaks this down into four laws:

  1. Make it Obvious
    This first law is surrounding how to create good habits. Here are the cliff notes:

    • Make it obvious. Clearly call out your good habits.
      Yay for tiny desk calendars that show the days you were good!
    • Use implementation intentions: I will (behavior) at (time) in (location).
      One I use at night (but still working on getting better at it): "I will read before I go to bed in my bed." And another I'm working on is "I will work out at 8am in my office space." #ThatCOVIDLife
    • Use habit stacking: After (current habit) I will (new habit).
      This is my morning, "After I get out of bed, I will make my bed. After I brush my teeth, I will take my vitamins." I'm so exciting, I know. Contain yourself.
    • Design your environment. Make the cues for your good habits obvious and visible.
      My life is dictated by post-it notes. In my bathroom. On my desk. By my bed. In my purse. Daily reminders. 
    • Inversion: Make it invisible. Reduce exposure to the cues of your bad habits from your environment.
      Someone needs to hide the Scratch Ice Cream raw cookie dough balls from me. I haven't found the strength to do it myself yet...
  2. Make it Attractive
    The second law is about how to convince yourself to follow these habits. The short version is:

    • Use temptation bundling. Pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do.
      When the weather is nice, I love riding my bike about 7 miles to a coffee shop where I sit down and work for an hour or two and then ride back. I'm usually listening to an audiobook while doing this, which makes me feel super productive and whole - physical, intellectual, business all in one!
    • Join a culture where your desired behavior is the norm.
      For example - if you want to work out more, surrounding yourself with runners or health nuts will make it easier to achieve that lifestyle.
    • Create a motivation ritual. Do something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit.
      Does eating cookies before working out count? Asking for a friend...
    • Inversion: Make it unattractive. Highlight the benefits of avoiding a bad habit to make them appear unattractive.
      Wisconsin bikini body...? (Is that even a real thing though?)
  3. Make it Easy
    The third law is all about making it easy to actually accomplish your desired behaviors, automating as much as possible.

    • Reduce friction. Decrease the number of steps between you and your good habits.
      I'm trying to cut up a bajillion veggies all at once, so I can't make up the excuse that it takes too long to make a salad. So far, it's kind of working - but adding white cheddar cheese to my salads is significantly increasing the acceptance rating.
    • Prime the environment. Prepare your environment to make future actions easier.
      I try to keep my office clear so it's ready for me to work out in and I don't' have to move anything in order to do so.
    • Master the decisive moment. Optimize the small choices that deliver outsized impact.
    • Use the Two-Minute Rule. Downscale your habits until they can be done in two minutes or less.
      Not quite to two minutes yet, but I've been trying to get better at exercising. I found an app that allows me to do 5-14 minute workouts, with the average being about 7-8 minutes. I figure, heck, I could work out for 7-8 minutes. It takes me longer than that to figure out when I'm getting out of bed in the morning. Sheesh. It's been much easier to adopt that habit.
    • Automate your habits. Invest in technology and onetime purchases that lock in future behavior.
      I'm a big fan of this tactic. I've been practicing Duolingo every day for over a year now, and one of the reasons I've been able to stick with it is that every night 10pm, I get a notification reminding me that I need to do my lesson or I'll lose my streak. I'll tell you, after you've done something every day for 365 days, you don't want to lose your streak!
    • Inversion: Make it difficult. Increase the friction, steps you need to take to execute your bad habit.
      Still, someone needs to hide the cookie dough...
  4. Make it Satisfying
    Make it exciting and fulfilling to accomplish. This can also include getting an accountability partner or signing a habit contract not only to hold yourself accountable but also because we care what other people think of us, whether or not we want to admit it.

    • Use reinforcement. Give yourself an immediate reward when you complete your habit.
      My friend and colleague, Kristina Mousseau, is very good about this. After running at least 10 miles, she'll reward herself with pickle chips. But she ONLY gets the pickle chips if she runs at least 10 miles. She ran 16 miles last weekend. Atta girl, Kristina.
    • Make “doing nothing” enjoyable. When avoiding a bad habit, design a way to see the benefits.
    • Use a habit tracker. Keep track of your habit streak and “don’t break the chain.”
      This goes back to my Duolingo obsession. It's easy to not care if you break a streak that's only a week or so, but when you get going and you're 9-10 months in, you don't want to let that streak die. It's almost gamifying your habit creation.
    • Never miss twice. When you forget to do a habit, make sure you get back on track immediately.
      This too goes back to my Duolingo habit. They'll allow you to miss one day, but you have to earn gems to cover that day. But if you miss two days, you'll lose your whole streak. I was recently in a place with little to no wifi for a few days and literally went for a walk in the woods to find a signal so I could complete my lesson and not lose my streak. #Commitment
    • Inversion: Make it unsatisfying. We are less likely to repeat a bad habit if it is painful or unsatisfying. If you don't trust yourself to break your bad habits, bring in a friend. Make a pact that if you <insert bad habit> then you owe them $5. If you do this bad habit every day, you're out $150 at the end of the month.
      One of the gyms in town does this - if you book your class and cancel with less than 24 hours before class, you lose your class and you owe $5 (which they donate to charity). 

Atomic Habits is very actionable and not as theoretical as some books, so I appreciated that. James Clear has also, very generously made a lot of notes and templates available for download here.

Let me know if you have any other habit-forming tips to share!

Kiley Owner & CEO, Brainchild Studios

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