Books
Psychology
  • 5th February 2019

James Clear’s Atomic Habits {Book Review}

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.

James Clear

What’s up beautiful

How are you today?

I’m excited!

I just finished the book Atomic Habits by James Clear At the moment I’m devouring all books on habit formation that I can get my hands. And I must say that this one is one best that is out there. James Clear, a blogger, and self-made habit formation expert has created a book that is a MUST read for everybody who is hungry for behavioral change. So let’s go! What is the Atomic Habits about…

Book Summary

No matter your goals, Atomic Habits offers a proven framework for improving–every day. James Clear, one of the world’s leading experts on habit formation, reveals practical strategies that will teach you exactly how to form good habits, break bad ones, and master the tiny behaviors that lead to remarkable results.

If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Here, you’ll get a proven system that can take you to new heights.

Clear is known for his ability to distill complex topics into simple behaviors that can be easily applied to daily life and work. Here, he draws on the most proven ideas from biology, psychology, and neuroscience to create an easy-to-understand guide for making good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible. Along the way, readers will be inspired and entertained with true stories from Olympic gold medalists, award-winning artists, business leaders, life-saving physicians, and star comedians who have used the science of small habits to master their craft and vault to the top of their field.

Learn how to:
*  make time for new habits (even when life gets crazy);
*  overcome a lack of motivation and willpower;
*  design your environment to make success easier;
*  get back on track when you fall off course;
…and much more.

Atomic Habits will reshape the way you think about progress and success, and give you the tools and strategies you need to transform your habits–whether you are a team looking to win a championship, an organization hoping to redefine an industry, or simply an individual who wishes to quit smoking, lose weight, reduce stress, or achieve any other goal. (1)

Who is James Clear

James Clear is an American author, entrepreneur, and photographer. And of course, he is the founder of JamesClear.com

James writes about habits and tries to answer, the question “How can we live better?”.

James has the talent to translate hardcore scientific research into words that normal people like myself can actually understand. He does so by analyzing the stories of top performers from many different fields.

If you would like to learn more about James Clear click here.

Lessons I Learned from Atomic Habits

Lesson 1:  The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change

Habits are Formed Through Emotion

If you can only remember one thing from Atomic Habits it is the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided. 

Let’s think of something that you want. You don’t crave more money, a loving partner, a meaningful career what you really want is the emotion behind that behavior. You know that it will feel sweet to be with somebody who loves you. You crave money because you assume that it will take away the negative emotions that you have associated with being poor.

If you want to hack your behavior you can start to either attach discomfort or pleasure to your behaviors.

I don’t want to go too much into depth about how habits are formed because I already wrote an awesome 20 pager on that topic. Click here if you would like to learn more about how habits are formed.

Lesson 2: The Diderot effect

One of my favorite case studies from James Clear’s Atomic Habits is the curious case of the French philosopher Denis Diderot. Diderot’s daughter was about to be married and Denis Diderot could not afford to pay for the entire wedding. Diderot was well known for his role as the writer of the „Encyclopedia“, one of the most comprehensive encyclopedias of the time. In order to support his daughter, Diderot had to think of ways to come up with the money. When Catherina the great, the Empress of Russia heard of Diderot financial trouble’s approached him and made him an offer to buy his personal library for 1.000 pounds which would be today about a 150 k. Suddenly all of Diderot money problems were gone. With the money, he did not only pay for his daughter’s wedding but also for a acquired a badass scarlet robe for himself. That robe was so fancy that immediately nearly all other belongings of Diderot seems out of place. After all, you can’t wear a sexy robe with ugly shoes right?
But it didn’t stop there. Diderot soon felt the urge to upgrade all of his possessions. He replaces his rug with one from Damascus. He shortly went out and bought expensive sculptures. His old chair had to go in order for him to get a luxurious new leather chair. Like falling dominos, one purchase led to another. This effect is now commonly known as the Diderot Effect.

This spiral of consumption is not only observable with obtaining new possessions but also with habits. Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habits wrote about the existence of keystone habits. A Keystone habit is a habit that will affect other areas of your life as well and will trigger a spiral of improvement or deterioration.

This is powerful intel. A classic example of this effect is known to almost all of us: Fitness. If you start working you might also be more likely to develop good eating habits in order to not sabotage your hard earned gains.

Habits come in bundles. If you go to the toilet, you also flush and you also wash your hands and you might also scroll through social media while chilling on the toilet. No behavior happens in isolation.

Why is this key information?

This Diderot effect does not only happen with positive behavior bundles but also with negative ones. If start the bad habit of drinking yourself into another universe every Friday, you also might develop other habits of deterioration. If you are having a hangover, you might be less motivated to work out Saturday, or have quality time with your spouse, or eat healthy that day. And it doesn’t stop there. Every action triggers a new action for us. The decision to skip one power learning session with your buddy might ultimately result in you becoming a bad student and losing the fun in your desired field of expertise, which might eventually lead you down a completely different life path.

Tiny decisions compound. For example a couple of years ago I decided to attack a couple bad habit clusters of mine: alcoholism, substance abuse, and chronic avoidance. If I would have not made those decisions for myself to live my best life my experience on earth would be fundamentally different. Who knows, I maybe would not even be here.

I would have attracted different people into my life and maybe I would have never found the guts to start pursuing my own journey of making my dreams a reality.

The true power of habit formation does is not lie in the fact that you are going to lose some weight, or learn a new language, or become a little more mindful. Tapping into the power of habit formation allows you to rewrite your future.

Lesson 3: The Duality of Behavior

We always make decisions, whether we like it or not. Nothing is ever neutral. We are all creators.

 Out habits, the things we do over and over again are the building blocks of our lives whether we like it or not.

Lately, I’m more and more fascinated by what I call the duality of behavior. The decision to do something does always mean that we decide against an infinite number of other actions at the same time.

When we decide to go out with our friends on Friday night and get drunk we also make the decision to not be productive on Saturday.

If we decide to stay longer in the office we at the same time prioritize work over the connections with your family or friends.

Each Netflix and pizza binge is a step away from your desired beach body.

Decisons become habits. Habits shape your identiy. Your identity shapes what you will attract into your life — for better or for worse. What you will attract intro your life will affect the environment you live in. You will know at least a 1000 people in your life, and those 1000 people will at least know a 1000 people which already puts your range of influence of at a million. To me, this is fcking crazy. If no one ever told you this. YOU MATTER, whether you like it or not. You are an important part of this world and you have a HUGEEE impact on it. All the little decisions in your life add up to the question: Do you make things better or worse

Our habits change also the belief of who we are. There very fact that invested energy and time to write this article means that you are a reader and a learner. 

The real power of  habits is that each decisons shifts the tilt a little bit of who you think you are. Everday decisons are tiny arguments for who you think you are.

If you for example start to implement healthy habits like snacking salad your identity changes. It’s an argument for the case that you might be a “healthy person”. All those little tiny right decisions yo make add up. With them, you take on new roles in your life. A healthy person makes different decisons from a self destructive person.

Start to see yourself as the hero and director of your own movie. This perspective basically gives you the ability to see the future. If you choose to continue smoking in your current life’s chapter your “life movie” probably is going to have a scene in it where you get cancer. 

This may sound obvious to you, but to me this is crazy. Because every time you changed one of your patterns you also save your future self and the people around you from an INSANE amount of unnecessary suffering. If we would assume for one second that you are the director of your life, would you willingly put a scene at the end of the movie where you will get cancer?

I don’t think so.

Extra Credit Reading: Exercise time! The Habit Scorecard! 

James Clear has a great exercise in his book that you can use to become more self-aware and reconnect your habits to their long term outcomes. The goal of this habit exercise is simply to notice what you are doing on a regular basis and what future you are creating right now.

a) Start by making a list of your daily habits

b) Now ask yourself: Is this a good habit, a bad habit, or a neutral habit?

c) If it’s a good habit, write “+”, if it’s a bad habit “-” if it’s neutral “=”

DAILY HABITSPOSITIVE (+), NEGATIVE (-), OR NEUTRAL (=)
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

Lesson 4: Get 1 % Better each day

This cool hipster on the right Is Alfred Pareto. In the late 1800ies, this dude made a random discovery in his garden.

Alfred noticed that a tiny number of pea pods in his garden produced the majority of the peas.

Alfred who was an economist found this particularly interesting. So he asked himself:

What if this unequal distribution was present in other areas of life as well?

The Pareto principle

After his discovery Pareto was starting to study the distribution of wealth in various nations.

Much to his surprise, he discovered that 80% of Italy’s wealth, his home country, was owned by just 20% of the people. Very similar to the pea pods in his garden.

He continued his analysis and found similar patterns in different countries. In Great Britain, for example, he found that 30% of the total population earned about 70% of the total income.

As he continued researching Alfred Pareto found that although the numbers were variating slightly, the majority of rewards always seemed to be in the hands of a very small percentage of people.

This distribution is the basis for the basis of the 80/20 Rule that people like Tim Ferris use for example.

It’s crazy how prevalent this rule still is.

 Let’s take example is the National Basketball League. Since the existince of the NBA, 20% present of franchises have won 75.3 % of the championships. The Celtics and the Lakers have won almost HALF of the damn championships in NBA History. Exactly like Pareto’s peas.

You are not a hooper? No problem lets take soccer as an example. While 77 countries have competed in the World Cup, just three counties have won 13 of the first 20 World Cup tournaments.

You might say now well, “WTF HAS ANY OF THIS TO DO WITH HABITS“, first of all, sir/Mrs calm down ok? Second, that is a very valid question, give me second to explain it.

Well, the real question is now: Why the heck does this happen? This is unfair right? Why do a few people, teams and organizations enjoy the bulk of the rewards in life? 

Before I by accident make you a communist, let’s consider an example from sexy Mother Nature.

Imagine two trees growing side by side. As peaceful and lovely as this sounds, both of them are in a battle for dear life. They compete for sunlight every single day, if one of the trees manages to grow just a little bit faster than the other, then it will catch more sunlight and in consequence grow even faster which will mean it will steal even more sunshine from the other plant. This continues until the one tree is strong and gets the lion share of sunlight, soil, and minerals.

Once the tree is full grow its advantageous positions because so strong he has basically a monopoly over his terrority. Due to his strengths and held he is able to produce more seeds and spread his species even further. This gets repeated over and over again until there is a damn forest made solely out of a few species of trees. The winning species.

Biologist refers to this as the effect of „accumulative advantage“: What starts as a small advantage gets bigger over time until it becomes dominating.

The Winner takes it all

Like trees, humans are competing for the same resources. Entrepreneurs compete for attention, authors compete for a spot on the best-seller list, sports teams compete for championships, startups complete for potentials clients.

Winner Take All Effects

Imagine Lebron James a year ago, the Warriors outplayed the Cavs by 3 games only, yet they take all 100% of the championship.

The 1% Rule

Focusing touch on the limitation of resources can make you feel paralyzed, why even compete with the big boys?

My take away from Pareto’s Principle is that small progress will eventually compound over time.

We are all so hungry for the big leaps, the big changes in life, what we really need however is to constantly move forward and get a tiny bit better every day. One of the biggest problems in teaching people about habit formation is to explain to people that by actively implanting new tiny steps will compound over time.

The Pareto principle showed us that we just need to get a little bit ahead of the curve. As soon as we start to consecutively set one foot in front of the other IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION we set things into motion and gain momentum.

Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.

—Jim Rohn

This is relieving news, you don’t need to transform your entire freaking life everyday day, your startup doesn’t have to become a unicorn by tomorrow and your sports team won’t be winning in minutes. But if you focus on setting the right things in motion and move slowly, but surely towards your direction, the results will be exponential.

Mental Exercise : What are 3 things you TODAY that will make you 1% percent better than you yesterday?

1)__________________________________________________________________________

2)__________________________________________________________________________

3)__________________________________________________________________________

Lesson 5: Habit Compounding – Your Habits will either work for or against you

We all constantly are looking for big moments of change in our lives. When we want to lose weight we want to hit the gym 7 times a weak, when we want to write a book we want to finish it as soon as possible. I have nothing against the desire of radically changing your life. The problem with big changes in life is that it needs a whole lot of motivation. Motivation, however, comes in waves. If your goal is to lose weight and you start working out 4 hours a day you will probably hate the gym by the end of the week. It’s just too much immediate discomfort. Remember: Behavior that is immediately punished will be avoided in the future, behavior that is immediately rewarded will be repeated.

via GIPHY

So what can we do?

Instead of focusing on earth-shattering improvements we can make the behavior attractive by scaling it down. Making things easy and small means making habits stick. One of my favorite parts about the book atomic habits was that James Clear shows the difference tiny constant improvements can make over time.

Here is his math:

„If you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty- seven times better by the time you’re done“

James Clear

Think of yourself as a ship who makes 1% change in its course. What starts a tiny shift becomes an enormous difference.

Habits pretty much work like investments shares. Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.(2)

Just like money grows through compound interest, the effect of your habits multiple as you repeat them. The real power of habits is only revealed when you take a look at yourself from a birds perspective. Let’s say you have the habit of starting your day with a bowl of sugary cereals(I love ciniminis). If you have this habit for a week nothing big happens, but if you look at it from a greater distance this habit could have a tremendous negative effect on your life. 

The dangers of habit formation is that long term results often are invisible to us. We either can’t see the long term benefits of a good habit, or we are not concerned enough about bad habits because their negative interest will only hit us years later.

If you start studying Spanish tomorrow for an hour, you won’t be fluent by next week, you will, however, be fluent next week. If you decide to start saving your pizza money so you can travel more you still won’t have enough to fly to the Bahamas this Sunday. The gap between reward and effort is very big with good habits and this is why they are harder to form than bad habits.

I think the best part about atomic habits is that it emphasizes that our tiny decisions matter.

If we repeat 1 % errors day by day for years those tiny mistakes will compound into very undesirable outcomes.

Think of your current outcomes as symptoms of either good or bad habits. If you are broke at the moment there is no need to blame the fck out of yourself, instead curiously observe where in your life you might have some habits of dysfunctionality. If your room is messy (undesired outcome) it does not mean that you are a messy person( identity), it simply means that you by accident acquired the wrong habit.

Once we agree that the little things have a powerful impact on our reality we can start to implement or isolate good or bad tiny habits.
Once we adopt this way of thinking it enables us to make a prediction about our life where we might end up, for better or for worst.

Are you spending more money than you are making? Do you make it into the gym on a regular basis? Are you getting better at your job? Do you constantly read and improve your skill set?

Do you drink alcohol more often than you should? What about sugar and cigarettes?
Do you have a healthy balance between work and your social life? (No idiot, they are not the same).

Our tiny daily decisions ultimately define what your future is going to be like.

You are the author of your life.

If you can’t learn the mechanics behind habit formation and you continue pursuing unhealthy habits like smoking, for example, it is almost certain to say that you right now are preparing for a future where you are going to get cancer. This fact to me is frightening. If you never scramble together all of your guts to finally start writing the first page of your book, or make a tiny commitment to getting that dream job or asking that one girl out, the experience of your life on earth will be radically different from what it could be. And if you ask me, nothing is sadder than a person living a life less of what he/she is capable of living.

The Platten of Latent Potential 

One of my favorite graphic from the Book Atomic Habits is „The Plateau of Latent Potential“

All too often we believe that progress is linear. We hope results will come quickly, otherwise, we are very quick at losing interest. James Clear is great at emphasizing that tiny habits are like the seed of a tree. The seed of every habit is the will to act, a tiny decision towards either immediate pleasure, and long term discomfort and pain, or towards immediate discomfort and long term pleasure and fulfillment.

One of my favorite metaphors for habit change is the story of the Chinese bamboo tree. Like any other plant, the Chinese Bamboo Tree requires nurturing – water, soil, sunshine, and minerals. In the first year, there is no visible sign of activity, the seed sleeps in the ground. In the second year, again, no growth above the soil. Finally, in the fifth year, a miracle takes place. The Chinese Bamboo Tree grows 80 feet in just six weeks.

In order for us to make our habits for us and not against us, we must somehow survive the obvious time gap between our expected results and what actually happens. James Clear calls this the valley of disappointment.

Our behavior is the steering wheel of our future. Every time we choose a salad over a donut we lay a tiny brick for our desired dream future. A better future.

Habit formation, however, is a double-edged sword. Bad habits compound also. So the next time you overwork and neglect your family, be very aware because those tiny decisions against your family will eventually compound.

Mental Exercise

A) Think of 3 Habits that will positively compound for you over time

B) Think of 3 Habits that will negatively compound against you over time.

Positive Compounding

Negative Compounding

1)1)
2)2)
3)3)

1 Thing I did not like about Atomic Habits

One obvious thing that I did not like about James Clear’s Atomic habits is that his entire method of changing habits is based on the Fogg Behavior Model from Professor BJ Fogg from Stanford University. If you are not familiar with his work; click here to read up or watch the video below.

Bildergebnis für fogg behavior model

Three things need to be there in order for a habit to occur:

  • Trigger ( your go sign)
  • Ability  (You need to be actually able to perform the behavior)
  • Motivation ( There has to be some form of emotional award attached to the behavior, otherwise you wouldn’t do it)

According to the Fogg Behavior Model we can play with 3 variables(trigger, ability, motivation) to either create a good habit or weaken a bad habit.

As an example let’s take a bad habit of smoking.

In order to weaken this habit we can:

A) Take the trigger away (if this is possible we solved the problem)

B) Make it Harder (The more difficult a behavior the more motivation do you need to execute it)

C) Decrease the motivation ( Emphasizing for example that smoking kills you, or raising the motivation of a competing behavior)

Law 1 Make it Invisible Reduce exposure. Remove the cues of your bad habits from your environment…
Law 2 Make it UnattractiveReframe your mindset. Highlight the benefits of avoiding your bad habits. ..
Law 3 Make it DifficultIncrease friction. Increase the number of steps between you and your bad habits…
Law 4 Make it UnsatisfyingGet an accountability partner. Ask someone to watch our behavior..
  

James Clear’s 4 steps of breaking a bad habit are: 1 Take the trigger away, 2 Decreasing the motivation and 3 making the habit harder and 4 changing the environment for you.

I don’t want to take anything away from Atomic Habits, but there are a lot of cases in his book where he used the models of other people and kinda put his own name on it and sold it as a new method. To James Clear’s defense, everybody does it, and James makes a conscious effort to give credit to the people who came before him.

One thing I LOVED About Atomic Habits

James Clear does a phenomenal job of using case studies to explain psychological effects in a very simple way. Reading Atomic Habits does not feel like you are reading a book about behavior psychology, you are reading a book about stories about personal transformation. Although not all of his methods are solely his work, he is teaching habit formation in a fun way to thousands of people, you can’t help but give him credit for that. Good job.

My opinion in one sentence

The best book on habit formation that currently exists.

Drop a comment and let me know what your key take away was from James Clear’s Atomic Habits

As always thank you for reading and go kick ass.

Footnotes

  1. www.atomichabits.com
  2. https://www.nateliason.com/notes/atomic-habits-james-clear

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