Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

A lot of people have claimed truly remarkable results from Atomic Habits, the groundbreaking book on daily routines by James Clear. Essentially, Clear sets out a pathway of small steps you can make to your daily life to spend less time procrastinating, and more time working towards your goals. Based around the idea that a small change can make a big difference (as long as you stick to it every day!), Clear teaches you how to assess your current habits, how to construct new ones, and how to make an identity change that will push you towards continuous improvement and, eventually, your end goal.

We break down this book step-by-step so you can see if it’s worth a read.

A Book Review of James Clear’s Atomic Habits

James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” is a compelling guide to steering your life in the right direction, fostering better habits, and offers practical strategies for personal development. Clear delves into the intricacies of habit formation (including the formation of good habits and how to get rid of bad habits), breaking it down into simple steps to provide actionable insights grounded in scientific research on how to form a new habit for lasting success.

Assessing Your Good Habits and Bad Habits

Clear systematically dissects good and bad habits, urging readers to identify and understand their own patterns and habits. He acknowledges the nuance of human behaviour, that everybody is different, but that we are equally all wired with similar responses to stimuli rewards. By categorising habits, he introduces the concept of identity-based habits and becoming the “type of person” that would take on the habits you are trying to acquire. He emphasises that habits are not just your actions but a reflection of our goals and desires. This paradigm shift fosters a deeper understanding of self and empowers individuals to redefine who they are through intentional habit cultivation.

How Well Does Clear Explain Habit Formation?

In addressing the intricacies of habit formation, Clear’s approach is meticulous. He delves into the psychology of habits, explaining how new habits can be established by associating them with pre-existing cues and rewards. He also explains how the anticipation of a reward can sometimes be as driving as the reward itself. The book offers valuable insights into the different types of people based on their response to expectations, shedding light on how this understanding can be harnessed to build and sustain positive habits effectively.

One huge limitation of James Clear’s model is that many of the examples he uses have literal, physical implications. For example he describes gambling and drug addiction, losing weight, and being addicted to coffee, and doesn’t account for the fact that some people are naturally more susceptible to addiction than others. There’s a huge difference between addiction and forming habits, and he doesn’t always acknowledge that. 

What is Habit Stacking?

Habit stacking, a concept introduced by Clear early into the novel, revolves around the integration of small changes and habits into existing routines. Firstly, he suggests that small changes and small habits are easier to maintain than larger goals. He then, as the name “Habit Stacking” would suggest, gives practical advice on seamlessly integrating the habit change into your daily routine. By “stacking” your habits on top of each other, ideally on top of an existing habit, the completion of one habit spurs you on to start the next. Clear’s emphasis on simplicity underscores the idea that incremental adjustments, when stacked together, can lead to significant transformations over time.

Although the model clearly works – which you can see simply from the following that Clears has amassed, alongside the glowing reviews of his novel, the way in which he applies the exact same tactic to every environment at times comes across as reductive. 

What’s the Purpose of Setting Goals?

Clear advocates for setting goals not as distant aspirations but as small, manageable steps aligned with better results. For example, instead of setting the goal: “I want to write a book” which is hard to achieve and even harder to measure, you’d set the goal: “I want to write 500 words every day until I have completed my novel”. This helps you to create a roadmap to success, and design goals that make sense. The book underlines the importance of aligning the level of your goals with your current abilities, fostering a sense of achievement that propels you toward higher aspirations.

The Two-Minute Rule

The rule is simple yet transformative: when you start a new habit, you should be able to complete it within two minutes. Clear says that the key to building good habits is to start with small, manageable actions. By reducing the perceived effort and time required for a habit, individuals overcome the inertia of procrastination and create a pathway to consistent behaviour. The two-minute rule serves as a catalyst for habit formation, instilling a sense of accomplishment and reinforcing the notion that every significant change begins with a small, initial step. This practical approach aligns with the overarching theme of the book—showcasing how minor adjustments can lead to remarkable transformations over time.

He explains the 2-minute rule in detail, even suggesting that you should begin a habit of doing yoga every day simply by rolling out your yoga mat and moving onto your next habit. 

The Four Laws of Behavior Change

Throughout the book, Clear refers back to the four laws of behaviour change, which are the fundamental principles of Atomic Habits. By highlighting the importance of immediate reward and the purpose of building systems, he offers a comprehensive framework for instigating and perpetuating positive habits. He also puts the system into reverse in order to explain how to get rid of bad habits.

Something great about Atomic Habits is that Clear often refers back to resources, statistics and helpful tools on his website. He provides readers with a habit tracker, he runs a free 30-day email course called 30 Days to Better Habits, helping you to implement the fundamental principles laid out in Atomic Habits.

Cue (Make it obvious)

Clear suggests that to establish a desired habit, you need a clear and obvious cue. This is something that triggers the habit and serves as a reminder to initiate the behaviour. Making the cue obvious increases the likelihood of following through with the habit.

Craving (Make it attractive)

The second principle involves making the particular habit attractive. Clear argues that by associating positive feelings and rewards with the habit, you can create a craving or desire to perform the behaviour. This emotional connection makes it more likely that you’ll stick to the habit.

Response (Make it easy)

Simplifying the process of performing the desired habit is crucial. Clear emphasises the importance of making the habit easy to do. By reducing friction and obstacles, you increase the likelihood of completing the behaviour. Small, manageable steps make it easier to incorporate the habit into your routine.

Reward (Make it satisfying)

Lastly, Clear emphasises the significance of providing a satisfying reward after completing the habit. Rewards help reinforce the behaviour and create a positive feedback loop, making it more likely that the habit will become ingrained over time.

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