Have you ever wanted to start getting up early, or eating better? Oh, I’m sure you have, and I’m sure that you’ve had issues making these new habits stick in your life. Today we’re going to look at Atomic Habits, which is James Clear’s answer to our struggle with building the habits we want and casting off the habits we wish we didn’t have.
One of the first questions that Clear answers for readers is why he’s qualified to write a book on habits. Turns out he had a fairly serious injury in baseball and had to relearn a bunch of basic things in his life. His life was nowhere near where he wanted it to be, and the changes he was forced to make showed him the importance of habits.
We all face challenges in life. This injury was one of mine, and the experience taught me a critical lesson: changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years. We all deal with setbacks but in the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits.
His promise for the book is:
In the pages that follow, I will share a step-by-step plan for building better habits — not for days or weeks, but for a lifetime.
Clear provides us with his 4 step habit model, which he calls a few different names during the book. It got just a bit confusing what we should call it, but we’ll use one of his later names and call it a habit loop. A habit loop consists of four parts.
By using this with positive reinforcement we can create good habits, and by reversing them we can stop the habits we don’t want to have.
Clear then gives us four laws that deal with habit change. These laws form the basic structure of the book. The first law is to make the habit obvious. The second law of habit formation is to make it attractive. Clear’s third law is make it easy and his fourth law is to make your habit satisfying.
When we add a discussion on the fundamentals of habit formation, and end with advanced habit tactics, we get the six sections of the book. Four of them being the laws that are preceded by the fundamentals and followed by Clear’s advanced tactics.
Clear starts introducing readers to the fundamentals of habit formation by showing us how small changes can yield big results. He uses the cycling team Sky as his example. The adopted a process they call marginal gains and have used it to yield big results and wins in the professional cycling world.
Team Sky goes as far as changing out the beds and cleaning the rooms with disinfectant during The Tour de France. This way they know that riders are getting a good sleep on the mattress they prefer with the sheets that they prefer1.
Clear uses this example to show us how little things can yield big results.
It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.
While we often celebrate a breakthrough, we rarely acknowledge all the work that it took to get to the breakthrough.
Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change.
Ryan Holiday echo’s this sentiment in Perennial Seller when he says:
The more you do, the harder you work, the luckier you seem to get. - Perennial Seller
Clear calls all this work before your breakthrough the plateau of latent potential. Continuing your work day in day out for years builds up the momentum that is needed for the breakthrough, you just don’t see it until the day that it’s all unleashed. Unfortunately at this point the world says you were an overnight success.
Clear also uses one of my favourite quotes from the book here as he says:
You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
If you’re not where you want to be, maybe ask yourself where your systems are at. Are they ready for where you want to be?
Clear also uses the fundamentals of habit formation to show how habits shape our identity. I’ve called myself a Cookie Monster (identity) and then lament the fact that I eat the cookies. To change that behaviour, maybe I need to stop calling myself a Cookie Monster. Jeff Goins has often said that he started getting traction with his writing, when he started calling himself a writer.
As the book looks at our identities, it also acknowledges the stories that we have told ourselves and the impact they have had on us. Since I’ve called myself a Cookie Monster for years, it’s going to take extra effort to break that identity.
When you have repeated a story to yourself for years, it is easy to slide into these mental grooves and accept them as a fact. In time, you begin to resist certain actions because “that’s not who I am.” There is internal pressure to maintain your self-image and behave in a way that is consistent with your beliefs. You find whatever way you can avoid contradicting yourself.
Clear says that I’ll need to start forming a new identity with new evidence to break that cookie eating habit.
New identities require new evidence. If you keep casting the same votes you’ve always cast, you’re going to get the same results you’ve always had. If nothing changes, nothing is going to change.
Atomic Habits suggests a simple two step process to start rewriting our identities. First, decide who you want to be. Second, use small wins to reinforce that identity. Going back to my cookie analogy, I enforce that I’m not a Cookie Monster by not eating cookies when they are available. Now, that might be hard so he’ll suggest later that maybe I just shouldn’t have cookies if I don’t want to eat cookies.
From there Clear talks us through the basics of the Four Laws of behaviour change, before he devotes entire sections to them in the book.
This section opens up with a story of a man that was correctly diagnosed as having heart issues by a paramedic during a family event. No, there was no precursor, just an experience paramedic seeing a family member and insisting that they head to the hospital now. The paramedic’s diagnosis of heart issues were based of the gut feeling that things didn’t look right.
This unconscious recognition and action is what we want to establish with our habits and making our actions automatic means we need to make them obvious. As we establish cues for our habits, the action we want becomes the next obvious thing to do.
Before readers dive into forming new habits, Clear gives them some work to do to establish what their current habits are. You’re supposed to write them down and name them. That would be me writing down that I eat cookies and then when I’m about to eat a cookie naming it by saying “I’m about to eat a cookie when I shouldn’t be”.
Once you have your habits written down, Clear wants you to rank them by asking yourself “does this help me become the type of person I want to be?” If yes, keep the habit, if no then do something about it.
Writing down your habits is one of the keys to habit recognition and formation. When you want to start something new, write it down. Then take it a step further and make a plan. What time will you perform your new habit? What will it look like when you do it? Write down the roadblocks that will get in the way of your new habit and then the ways you’ll deal with them. By taking these steps to build your habit, you’re increasing your chances of actually completing it.
Another key to habit formation, is environment design. That’s me taking those cookies off the counter in plain view and putting a lid on them. Then stick them on a shelf in a cupboard that doesn’t get opened very often. By making these changes I’ve built an environment that will help me succeed at my goal. I could take it a step further by cutting up fresh veggies and putting that container in an obvious spot in the kitchen.
Environment design is powerful not only because it influences how we engage with the world but also because we rarely do it. Most people live in a world others have created for them. But you can alter the spaces where you live and work to increase your exposure to positive cues and reduce your exposure to negative ones. Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your life. Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it.
Clear also says that we need to be careful about mixing habits and environments. He says not to watch TV in bed because bed should be for sleeping, and obviously the other thing. This is why an office is a great way to stop working. Keep your work in the office and you’re less likely to work crazy hours. If you have a small space then Clear recommends setting up zones, like a chair for work and a different chair for reading.
He finishes off the first law by talking more about environments and addiction. While many drug users can kick the habit in rehab, they start again as soon as they leave because they head back into the same environment that got them addicted in the first place. To kick a bad habit design your environment so that no discipline is required to execute it.
Maybe I shouldn’t make cookies at all if I don’t want to eat them because you don’t stick to positives habits in an environment that supports negative ones.
A primary goal of food science is to create products that are more attractive to consumers. Nearly every food in a bag, box, or jar has been enhanced in some way, if only additional flavoring.
Food...oh my cookies again all laden with sugar and so attractive. See this is why I eat them and this is the second law, you need to make the behaviours you want attractive.
The opposite effect is why starting to get in shape can be so hard. It sucks to walk a block and feel like death, but it takes time to get to a point where you can run the 10 minutes you set as a goal. That means you need to figure out how to make your habit attractive. For the running thing, maybe you only let yourself listen to that steamy book you love if you’re on the treadmill.
Habits are dopamine-driven feedback loop. Every behavior that is highly habit-forming — taking drugs, eating junk food, playing video comes, browsing social media — is associated with higher level of dopamine.
Bundling walking on the treadmill, or around the block, with a behaviour that you enjoy is called temptation bundling. You bundle the thing you love with the thing you aren’t so sure about. Clear tells us of someone that hooked up their TV to a stationary bike for power. The TV could only be on if the bike was being pedalled.
In Rule Two, Clear also tackles environment again, as he looks at how the people around us shape our habits. The fact is that the family, culture, church, and school we grew up in affects what we see as normal. If you’re parents regularly ran, then running is just a normal activity. If they sat on the couch all the time, running was likely for crazy people
In Connected we learned that there is a rule of three. It states that our friends, friends, friends affect us.
Our own research has shown that the spread of influence in social networks obeys what we call the Three Degrees or Influence Rule. Everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on our friends (one degree), our friends’ friends (two degrees), and even our friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees). Our influence gradually dissipates and ceases to have a noticeable affect on people beyond the social frontier that lies at three degrees of separation. - Connected
This means that if a friend’s friend’s friend becomes obese, we are more likely to gain weight. Because many of my friends run and cycle and swim, and are very competitive in these fields, I’m much more likely to be in shape. Recognizing this means you need to design the environment of the people you are with to help your habits.
One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is that normal behavior. New habits seem achievable when you see others doing them every day.
Joining a running club means you’re more likely to run. Having a friend to meet for a run, means you’re likely to show up.
Finally in Rule Two, Clear addresses how we think about our habits. The things that happen to us are highly impacted by how we frame them.
…our behavior is heavily dependent on how we interpret the events that happen to us, not necessarily the objective reality of the events themselves. Two people can look at the same cigarette, and one feels the urge to smoke while the other is repulsed by the smell.
You may hear this when you talk to a morning person who says they “get” to get up early and then a night owl laments anything before 9 am. They’ve each framed the time of day in different manners, and reinforce their own behaviour.
To make things you don’t want to do less likely, frame them as unattractive. Maybe I could tell myself I’m gaining weight when I eat a cookie?
One of my enjoyable pursuits is running long in the mountains, like 50km long. Talking with a friend this summer that was going to attempt his first long run I said that whatever he did, don’t stop just keep walking. If it feels like you’re going to fall over, keep putting one foot in front of the other. 99% of the time this feeling will pass and you’ll get to the end.
Clear echo’s this in Atomic Habits as he talks about always trying to find the best way to do anything.
It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change: The fastest way to lose weight, the best program to build muscle, the perfect idea for a side hustle. We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action.
Much like I don’t think that the specific productivity system matters, you just need a system, you just need to get started. Refine your habit as you find problems, but get going and make it easy.
The number of days that you need to perform the habit before it becomes automatic isn’t even the biggest thing you should be worrying about. Just put in the reps and at some point you’ll look up and realize you did the work without thinking about it. That means it’s a habit now.
If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. You don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it.
See, by putting the reps in you’re voting for your new identity. You’re building neural pathways to reinforce the behaviour. At some point you'll cross what James Clear calls the habit line and then the effort decreases as the actions become automatic. To get there, put in the reps.
The opposite of making a habit you want easy, is making a habit you don’t want hard. This is taking the batteries out of the remote and then unplugging the TV. Then you put a book in the place where the remote used to go. You made a habit you want to stop harder, and a habit you want easier.
Conventional wisdom holds that motivation is the key to habit change. Maybe if you really wanted it, you’d actually do it. But the truth is our real motivation is to be lazy and to do whatever is convenient. >
Yes, this was environment design again. You need to use little will power when you build an environment for success.
Many people start building habits by focusing on a part of the process that’s much too hard, the whole thing. Your running habit doesn’t start as running, it starts as getting the clothes out the night before, then lacing up your shoes. This easy starting point embodies the two-minute rule, the idea that a habit should take no more than two minutes from start to finish.
As you master the art of showing up, the first two minutes simply become a ritual at the beginning of a larger routine. This is not merely a hack to make habits easier but actually the ideal way to master a difficult skill. The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely it becomes that you can slip into the state of deep focus that is required to do great things.
The truth is, despite how much you may try to force yourself, if a habit you’re trying to form isn’t satisfying, you won’t do it. As Clear says:
What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided.
This is Clear’s cardinal rule of habit formation. You need to figure out how to make the desired habit satisfying to you in some way. He tells a story of trying to get communities in India washing hands regularly. These families were provided with a hand washing station with expensive nice smelling soap and what researchers found was that those with the expensive nice smelling soap stuck with hand washing. It became a pleasurable habit and so they did it.
Another part of making your habits satisfying is tracking them. I have a habit tracker in my Bullet Journal but you can use whatever method you want to make sure that you have a visual reminder of your success in a habit. To Clear there are three main benefits of visually tracking your habits.
First, it makes the habit obvious. You either get the tick or you don’t.
Second, it’s attractive because you are showing your small wins every day and this helps to fuel your fire to keep going.
Third, it’s satisfying. As you keep your streak going, keeping the streak going is a reward unto itself.
As Clear talks about tracking habits, he also introduces the idea that missing a habit once is an accident, missing it twice is the start of a new habit. Don’t beat yourself up over a single miss, but when you see two happening take a second to figure out what needs to change to make sure a third miss doesn’t happen.
A final key to keeping yourself on track with your habits is having an accountability partner or group. Clear talks about an idea that the nuclear launch codes should be embedded next to someone’s heart. This person carries a big knife and if the president wants to fire the missiles they have to look this person in the face as they kill them to get the codes. Is the launch and death of millions worth the killing of this single person?
Yeah’t that’s a bit extreme for any habit you want, but what can you do to increase your accountability? Could you sign a contract with your spouse and personal trainer about how you’ll act. Should this contract have consequences as well? What is the immediate consequence of performing the behaviour you don’t want to be doing?
Any habit you want to stop, should have an immediate bad consequence associated with it. Any behaviour you want to build, should have an immediate benefit that goes with it.
Clear ends this book by talking about choosing the right fields to play in. If your body is built for lifting weights, then trying to become some champion runner is likely out of the question. You can improve yourself, but you’ll never be top in the field.
The secrect to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition.
Clear says that if you’ve put all of the pieces together above and the habit is still a chore and you regularly fail, maybe you’re working outside the area that you should be in. If you can’t ever write, then maybe you should be podcasting as a way to bring leads into your business instead.
To find out, we should be casting a wide net and then using these questions to narrow down our areas of opportunity.
Next, it’s important to recognize the Goldilocks rule. This is the idea that eventually habits become mundane and it’s easy to fail because we’re bored. My wife shows this well because she needs a race on the calendar to really maximize her training. Oh she’ll run anyway, but she excels with a race on the calendar to help her push through the workouts.
The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. And as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty.
Clear finishes up the book with a discussion on the downside of creating habits. First, it can be easy to stop at “good enough”.
When you can do it “good enough” on autopilot, you stop thinking about how to do it better.
So, you write well enough, but you don’t grow with your writing. This is where a coach can come into play. Someone that’s going to help find the areas you can improve and then devise a plan for you to improve them.
Another pitfall of building a new habit, is getting your self-worth bound up in that new identity. Maybe for a few years you read so everyone knows you as a reader, but then you need to do other work to further your career. You’re still learning, just not reading books. Despite this change, you still read and push your reading all the time as you burn the candle at both ends, just to keep an identity.
Feel free to cast off an identity when it doesn’t fit. Don’t let a habit define who you are.
If you’re looking to build solid habits, then Atomic Habits by James Clear does give you a good set of tactics and rules to help you build it. I found the book to be comprehensive and engaging.
Now if you look at my rating of four stars, you may wonder why it didn’t get a full five. For me, I’ve been familiar with a bunch of this stuff for a while so it wasn’t a deeply changing book on my end. But, I think that many people will read it and have their minds blown as they work to create habits.
So yes, you should read Atomic Habits by James Clear, even if you're familiar with many of the ideas in the book already.
Photo by: levork