Atomic Habits
April 11, 2020

Changing your life through Atomic Habits – why this book will help you

By Paul Laughlin

Recently, I’ve heard many people mention their need to establish new habits, so it was a great time for me to read Atomic Habits.

This bestseller from popular blogger, James Clear, is a brilliant guide to understanding the power of habits. Within only 264 pages (excluding endnotes), James shares so much research on habits & practical tips to apply.

So, in this book review, I’ll share what this book contains. But your real learning will come from putting the exercises into practice. Many are finding they currently have more time for reading & self-improvement. So, read on for why now might be an ideal time for you to buy this book…

Why tiny changes can make a big difference

Once I read this section sub-heading, I knew it was inevitably going to reference the work done by the British cycling team. However, that is only one of many examples used in this opening section. Those include James’ own personal story.

It’s heartwarming to read his personal journey, overcoming a huge setback to his promising baseball career. Through the book, we learn how James has learnt so much about habits & what he has learnt from personal experience (not just scientific research). This helps to keep this book feeling personal and achievable throughout.

In this first section, James also introduces a model that provides a structure for the rest of his book. Grounded in scientific research (plenty of citations & endnotes), this identifies 4 stages of a habit. The first two stages being grouped as the Problem creation & the final two as the Solution:

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Response
  4. Reward

Based on these 4 stages, James identifies four laws of habit formation that respond to each stage. These laws can help with both positively forming habits & negatively resisting them. I explain more about each law below. he also introduces the idea of habit stacking. More on that later.

One final insight before then is the importance of identity. How focussing on identity is more productive than focussing on goals. Having a clear vision of who you see yourself as & of actions/habits you take being a vote for or against an identity. This is well worth exploring further.

James’ 4 laws for habit formation

First law: Make it Obvious

The first law of habit formation is built on the model of cues (or triggers) that start the whole process. Most are visual, so the law is to make what you want to do visually obvious in your normal environment. It sounds so simple but visual and environmental cues can be so powerful. Like me leaving out my running clothes the night before.

In each of these sections, focussed on a particular law, James shares examples from people’s lives. Then he supports the principle with scientific research (normally delving into some of the mechanisms involved). Finally, he shares a chapter or two on how to put it into practice.

My favourite tips from this section are:

  • The best way to start a new habit is to ‘stack it’ on top of an existing embedded habit (like brushing your teeth). As an example, I’ve stacked meditating on my cushion as a habit to follow immediately after showering & dressing for the day.
  • Don’t rely on motivation. James does a great job of debunking the idea that you will be successful through your willpower of determination. He recommends we focus much more on our environment & systems. Surround yourself with cues to do what you want & hide other things.

Second law: Make it Attractive

This second law responds to the Craving part of James’ model. How can you generate craving to embed a habit? Make what you want to do attractive. He helpfully unpacks how it is the anticipation of a treat that is actually the most powerful drive.

I mentioned before the concept of habit stacking. For instance, I now meditate in my room straight after drying & dressing following a shower. In this section, he proposes to stack a new habit before you allow yourself something you relish. For instance, I will have a quiet time prior to allowing myself to enjoy my first proper coffee of the day.

For each section, there are plenty of positive & negative examples. This is because each of these laws works positively (to help you form new good habits) & negatively (to help you break old bad habits). An example here is to reframe bad habits by thinking about the reward (or lack of). Remind yourself of a later consequence or feeling that you can associate with that behaviour (as a deterrent).

My favourite practical tip from this section is:

  • Join a culture where your new desired behaviour is a cultural norm. For instance, an online book club if you want to establish habits in line with your identity as a reader. An online yoga class if you want to encourage habits in line with your identity as a fit flexible person.

Third law: Make it Easy

When I look back over which routines or behaviour changes have stuck, or which bad habits are difficult to through off, ease is clearly part of the reason. It’s amazing to me how little extra effort will work effectively as a deterrent. For example, plugging my iPhone into a charger that is further from my bed will reduce the habit of checking my phone.

James explains the power of making the change you want easier. Reduce friction. This again links back to environment. How can you change your living/working space so the behaviour you want to do is easier & bad habits are more effort? There is so much power in this and his focus on processes & possibly apps to help you automate where that helps.

My favourite practical tip from this section is:

  • The two minute rule. Rather than get demotivated because you can’t reliably make a major improvement, reduce your new habit down to something that can be done in 2 minutes each day. The powers of compounding & routine will soon help you see benefits & build on a firm foundation of doing something reliably.

Fourth law: Make it Satisfying

To sustain any new behaviour, you need to find it rewarding. We are just wired this way (rewarding those synapses that result in pleasure & reducing those that result in suffering). So, it’s important to give yourself rewards. An important reminder to ambitious overachievers who can too easily be fixated on the next challenge & never pause to celebrate small wins.

In this section, James again shares helpful positive & negative examples. For instance, to break a bad habit, find an accountability partner. The shame of confessing that you have succumbed again to a bad habit can act as a motivation. On the positive side, raise your self-awareness & start a habit tracker. Notice the small things that you do reliably each day. This will both help identify where you can do stacking & encourage you with the awareness of any progress.

My favourite practical tip from this section is:

  • Never miss twice. This is like ramifying habit formation. I know for me that achieving a winning run of repeated behaviour can be motivated by not wanting to break the chain/streak recorded on my Apple Watch or Calm App. Gamifying, even with little virtual badges can be motivating, but it can also risk depression when you slip up. This tip says it’s ok to miss one, but aim never to miss twice in a row.

How to go from good to great with your habits

I anticipated this final section of James’ book to simply be the icing on the cake. Some nice extras to finesse your performance. In fact I found some of the most important lessons from this book in this section.

The first is when he tackles the perennial issue of nature versus nurture. Are you genetically predisposed to be better at something than others or can anyone do anything if they really believe?

I am so pleased that James pops the balloon on so much self-improvement mumbo jumbo here. Genetics, physiology & natural aptitudes do matter. Become more self-aware, find what you do easier than others. Find what you can cope with the boredom of keeping doing because you enjoy it. Lean into that & become the best you can be at your natural strengths, perhaps even your unique combo fo a few.

The second gold nugget in this final part is what he calls the ‘Goldilocks Zone‘. In line with the law of making things easy, he shares research that successful new habit achievement also depends on the right level of challenge. Analogous to the famous bears’ porridge, not too easy, not too hard, but just right. “Maximum motivation occurs when facing a challenge of manageable difficulty“.

Are you ready to improve your atomic habits?

I hope this book review has motivated you to read this book in its entirety. I say that both because its well written, so a pleasure to read & because there are so many insights & tips that you really will misroute if you only read one of those summary PDFs.

If you have read this book, or others on habit formation, then my challenge is are you putting it into practice? If not, what is stopping you? Let’s all work on our habits and feel free to share your learning here.