• 5th February 2019
Books
Psychology

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 is up beautiful?

How are you today?

I am excited!

I just finished the book Atomic Habits by James Clear.  At the moment, I am 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 behavioural change.  So let us 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 behaviours that lead to remarkable results.

If you are having trouble changing your habits, the problem is not you.  The problem is your system.  Bad habits repeat themselves again and again, not because you do not 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 will get a proven system that can take you to new heights.

Clear is known for his ability to distil complex topics into simple behaviours 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 medallists, 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 organisation 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 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 analysing 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 behaviour Change

Habits Are Formed Through Emotion

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

Let us think of something that you want.  Do you not crave more money, a loving partner, a meaningful career?  What you really want is the emotion behind that behaviour.  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 behaviour, you can start by either attaching discomfort or pleasure to your behaviours.

I do not 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 favourite 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 Diderot could not afford to pay for the entire wedding.  Diderot was well known for his role as the writer of the “Encyclopaedia “, one of the most comprehensive encyclopaedias 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’s financial troubles, she approached him and made him an offer to buy his personal library for 1,000 pounds, which would be today about a 150k.  Suddenly, all of Diderot’s money problems were gone.  With the money, he did not only pay for his daughter’s wedding, but he also acquired a badass scarlet robe for himself.  That robe was so fancy that immediately, nearly all other belongings of Diderot seemed out of place.  After all, you cannot wear a sexy robe with ugly shoes, right?

But it did not 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 for him to get a new luxurious 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 out, you might also be more likely to develop good eating habits not to 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 behaviour happens in isolation.

Why Is This Key Information?

This Diderot Effect does not only happen with positive behaviour bundles but also with negative ones.  If you start the bad habit of drinking yourself into another universe every Friday, you also might develop other habits of deterioration.  If you have a hangover, you might be less motivated to work out on a Saturday, or have quality time with your spouse, or eat healthy that day.  And it does not 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 of bad habit clusters of mine: alcoholism, substance abuse, and chronic avoidance.  If I had not made those decisions for myself to live my best life, my experience on earth would be fundamentally different.  Who knows, maybe I 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 behaviour

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

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

Lately, I am more and more fascinated by what I call the duality of behaviour.  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 prioritising work over the connections of your family or friends.

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

Decisions become habits.  Habits shape your identity.  Your identity shapes what you will attract into your life — for better or for worse.  What you will attract into your life will affect the environment you live in.  You will know at least a 1,000 people in your life, and those 1,000 people will at least know a 1,000 people, which already puts your range of influence of about 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 of the little decisions in your life add up to the question: Do you make things better or worse?

Our habits also change the belief of who we are.  The very fact that I invested energy and time in writing this article means that you are a reader and a learner.

The real power of habits is that each decision shifts the tilt a little bit of who you think you are.  Every day, decisions are tiny arguments for who you think you are.

If you, for example, start to implement healthy habits like snacking on salad, your identity changes.  It is an argument for the case that you might be a “healthy person”.  All of those little tiny right decisions you make add up.  With them, you take on new roles in your life.  A healthy person makes different decisions 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” is probably 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 do not 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 regularly doing and what future you are creating right now.

  1. a) Start by making a list of your daily habits.
  2. b) Now, ask yourself: Is this a good habit, a bad habit, or a neutral habit?
  3. c) If it is a good habit, write “+”, if it is a bad habit “-” if it is neutral “=”.
DAILY HABITS POSITIVE (+), 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 started 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 of the 80/20 Rule that people like Tim Ferris use, for example.

It is crazy how prevalent this rule still is.

Let us take, for example, the National Basketball League.  Since the existence 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.

Are you not a hooper?  No problem let us take soccer as an example.  While 77 countries have competed in the World Cup, just three counties have won 13 of the last 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 a 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 organisations enjoy the bulk of the rewards in life?

Before I, by accident, make you a communist, let us 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 fully grown with its advantageous position because it is so strong, it has basically a monopoly over its terrority.  Due to its strength and hold, it can produce more seeds and spread its 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, and start-ups complete for potentials clients.

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 paralysed, why even compete with the big boys?

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

We are all so hungry for the big leaps, the big changes in life, when 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 explaining that by actively implanting new tiny steps, these will compound over time.

The Pareto Principle shows us that we need just 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 Rohm

This is relieving news, you do not need to transform your entire freaking life everyday day, your start-up does not have to become a unicorn by tomorrow, and your sports team will not 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% better than you were 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 week, 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 is just too much immediate discomfort.  Remember: Behaviour that is immediately punished will be avoided in the future; behaviour that is immediately rewarded will be repeated.

So what can we do?

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

Here is his math:

If you can get 1 per cent 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 which makes 1% change in its course.  What starts as a tiny shift becomes an enormous difference.

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

Just as 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 us say you have the habit of starting your day with a bowl of sugary cereal (I love criminis).  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 are that long term results often are invisible to us.  We either cannot 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 will not be fluent by next week; you will, however, be fluent next year.  If you decide to start saving your pizza money so you can travel more, you still will not 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 emphasises that our small decisions matter.

If we repeat 1% of 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 bad 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 regularly?  Are you getting better at your job?  Do you constantly read and improve your skillset?

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 cannot 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 to 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 they are capable of living.

The Platen Of Latent Potential

One of my favourite graphics from the book Atomic Habits is “The Plateau of Latent Potential”.

All too often, we believe that progress is linear.  We hope the results will come quickly; otherwise, we are very quick at losing interest.  James Clear is great at emphasising 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 fulfilment.

One of my favourite 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.

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 calls this the valley of disappointment.

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

Habit formation, however, is a double-edged sword.  Bad habits also compound.  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

  1. Think of 3 Habits that will positively compound for you over time.
  2. 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 Behaviour Model from Professor BJ Fogg at Stanford University.  If you are not familiar with his work; click here to read up, or watch the video below.

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

  • Trigger (your go sign)
  • Ability (you need to be actually able to perform the behaviour)
  • Motivation (there has to be some form of emotional award attached to the behaviour; otherwise you would not do it)

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

As an example, let us take the bad habit of smoking.

To weaken this habit, we can:

  1. Take the trigger away (if this is possible, we solved the problem).
  2. Make it Harder (the more difficult a behaviour, the more motivation you need to execute it).
  3. Decrease the motivation (emphasising, for example, that smoking kills you, or raising the motivation of a competing behaviour).
Law 1 Make it Invisible  Reduce exposure.  Remove the cues of your bad habits from your environment…
Law 2 Make it Unattractive Reframe your mindset.  Highlight the benefits of avoiding your bad habits.  ..
Law 3 Make it Difficult Increase friction.  Increase the number of steps between you and your bad habits…
Law 4 Make it Unsatisfying Get an accountability partner.  Ask someone to watch our behaviour.

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

I do not 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 kind of put his own name on it and sold it as a new method.  In James Clear’s defence, 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 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 behaviour psychology, but that you are reading a book of 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 cannot 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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