The title of the book is explained right at the beginning, building on the tag line – Tiny (atomic) changes Remarkable Results – small but powerful habits that succeed.
The structure of the book is conducive to building up the theory step by step, going from a compelling introduction, to the fundamentals and then the four laws to build the said Atomic habits.
A Personal Connect
What I found compelling was the personal connect I felt with some of the top goals mentioned in the book, namely – writing and weight management. Seemed as if the author knew the exact challenges that I faced in life. Turns out G knows me better than I figured my own self.
The most important take away for me was the realization offered in the book – Boredom is the main cause of breaking a good habit. How true that is! We go to the gym regularly, or write regularly, but what we actually fight against is not laziness, but the boredom of doing the same stuff over and over again, and sustaining it over a long period of time.
All the chapters have examples that are exemplary and on-dot. The instances themselves are highly motivating and compelling in their conviction.
I now share the learnings that I deem the best from each chapter. Readers who need to comprehend the quotes better and read more such gems will have to read the book. If there are crucial details missing in any of the related stories I mention, it is deliberate – to avoid spoilers for one thing and also to get readers curious enough to read it themselves.
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
Chapter One is ‘The Introduction’ establishes a personal connection right from the word go. Starting off with an unbelievable story that hooks readers with the heroic resilience of the author, is the first winner in the book. It establishes the success of the methodologies that Clear proposes in the forthcoming pages. The story is followed by the Fundamentals that put forth the whole theory of Atomic habits.
The plateau of latent potential, with the valley of disappointment, is a convincing premise. It tallies with what I have experienced in my own weight loss endeavors, especially when I broke through the said plateau ( in terms of actual figures of breaking a weight loss plateau, as well as the psychological one)
If you want better results, forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.
The system of continuous improvements is based on survivorship, building on the premise of a system of Atomic habits.
Chapter Two ‘How your habits shape your identity’, includes the three levels of behaviour change.
Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do.
Outcome-based habits versus Identity-based habits makes a lot of sense, especially when it is connected to building habits that last. Making a good habit a part of the identity is a convincing argument presented by the author. The three levels – Outcome change, process change and identity change are useful premises to upgrade and expand better identities.
A type of person who wants this versus a type of person who is this – forms the core of establishing the right identity of pride, for oneself.
Walking through life in a cognitive slumber, as the author puts it, becomes a norm of attachment of a person’s identity. Sliding into mental grooves and accepting them as facts causes untold damage to our growth. This hits hard because most of us have been conditioned to accept ourselves the way we are made to believe, mostly through others’ perceptions. This is reinforced through the group versus personal identity crises we all encounter in our society.
Shifting the focus from going backward from results by being consistent and reliable to create an identity-based habit building, is a workable plan offered by Clear.
Chapter Three, ‘How to build better habits in three simple steps’, begins with an interesting puzzle box experiment by Psychologist Edward Thorndike with cats. This is connected to how the brain builds habits that last.
Habits are mental shortcuts learned through experience.
Habits do not restrict freedom They create it.
The four-step Habit Loop process – the Cue, Craving, Response and Reward seems like a powerful tool to identify and build good habits.
Cravings – motivational force behind habits – and the response which delivers the reward are excellent follow ups to understand how the brain is a reward detector, as Clear expresses the idea.
Make the cue invisible, the craving unattractive, the response difficult and reward unsatisfying – to break a bad habit. The opposite works for every good habit to sustain.
Make the behaviour change obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying to build better habits.
These four laws are further elaborated in the forthcoming chapters. Chapters 4-7 are for the elaboration of the First law: Make it obvious
Chapter Four uses excellent examples to show us how a conscious awareness of behavioural change, based on implementation intentions, leads to automation of habits.
Setting behaviours goals with time and location is a doable premise to get things done. The Habit stacking process as a simple plan to overhaul the habits, by pairing an existing habit with a new one – leading to a cycle of behavioural dominoes – is explained well by the author.
We have heard the importance of motivation innumerable times from various sources. So, when th e title of Chapter Five: Motivation is overrated, environment often mattes more - claims the opposite, one sits up and pays attention. Making the cue a part of the environment, by altering it for increased positivity is touted to be the key to achieve the required environment.
Secondly, the role of the context and its power to build new habits is an important reality check for most people. Avoid mixing contexts to mix habits, by making the context the cue is crucial awareness.
Chapter 7: The Secret to Self Control begins with a compelling story of heroin addiction of American soldiers in Vietnam. An environment devoid of triggers is pointed out as the key to reduce bad behaviour.
The people with the best self-control are the ones who need to use it the least.
The premise of Cue-induced wanting is not new to us. Making the cue invisible rather than obvious is the most effective way to break an undesirable habit.
Chapters 8-10 elaborate the Second Law: Make it attractive
In Chapter 8: How to make a habit irresistible, I totally loved the examples of birds used by James Clear in the book. The adult Herring Gulls experiment is fascinating, so is the one involving geese. Identifying the bliss point of food to create a dynamic contrast (a combination of sensations) that makes certain foods addictive to the brain.
The paragraphs on Dopamine induced feedback loop is fascinating as well, because the behaviour of mice is predictably so. The role of dopamine in identifying a want versus a like is compelling. The best part of the chapter is where ‘temptation bundling’ as the author calls it is used to make habits attractive. The idea of clubbing exercise with binge watching Netflix (movies, in my case) is something that had occurred to me multiple times, though I never took the step to bring it to fruition.
Chapter 9: Role of family and friends in shaping your habits is something that most of us are already aware of. What’s new is the example illustrated in the chapter.
A genius is not born, but educated and trained.
The culture we live in determines which behaviours are attractive to us.
The Polgar sisters who became chess wizards is a classic example that illustrates this idea. Clear proposes the idea of Imitating the close, the many and the powerful to prove the seductive pull of social norms. The best culture is where the desired behaviour is normal behaviour, that overpowers the desire of the individual.
The culture of imitating the many is explained well with the social conformity experiment of cards by Solomon Asch. The tendency to go with the crowd, even when the contrary is before their own eyes, is an eye-opener of the power society wields over us.
Chapter 10: How to find and fix the causes of your bad habits focusses on how to reprogram our brains to enjoy habits that are hard.
Every behaviour has a surface level craving and a deeper underlying motive.
Example for exercise: Its time to build endurance and get fast (benefits of running, instead of ‘to run’). It talks about specific rituals that put us in the right mindset to do a required task. Clear advises us to reframe the associations/predictions we have with the bad habits to rid ourselves of them and vice versa for the good habits.
Chapters 11-13 explain the Third Law : Make it easy
Chapter 11: Walk slowly but never backward begins with yet another story, a highly compelling one, at that. The results of the photography experiment – quality versus quantity - seems surprising at first but is only a reflection of classic human behaviour. The importance of quantity to achieve quality is highlighted with finesse.
Habits form based on frequency, not time.
The most effective form of learning is practice, not planning.
Forming a new habit by crossing the habit line (activating neural circuits associated with them) is illustrated well. How many does it take to form a new habit? Not how long, but how many – is the crux of the discussion.
Chapter 12: The Law of least effort starts with a highly fascinating piece of information that shows the connection between human behaviour and the shape of continents across the world. And this is showcased thorough the spread of agriculture across the world.
It makes absolute sense, because it taps on to a basic nature of humans –that which requires the least effort is the most motivating.
Making your habits easy to reduce effort seems easy, although we must agree that not all activities we want to do fall under this category. Practice environment design’ is what the author suggests.
Habits are easier to build when they fit into the flow of your life
Reducing the friction is what Clear calls the process. The example of Japanese ‘lean production’ with addition by subtraction methodology is interesting. Subtraction of wasted effort makes a lot of sense.
Create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.
Priming the environment for future use is thus a useful plan of action.
Chapter 13: How to stop procrastinating by using the two-minute rule begins with yet another story of how making something a routine reduces the effort of thinking about it. It works on the principle that it is easier to continue doing something than doing something new or different.
When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.
40-50% of our actions are determined by habit, on any given day. Thus the importance of decisive moments, that set options available to the future self are established in the chapter. The options that follow the first choice, determine how the next few hours go by.mThe first two minutes become a ritual for a larger consistency.
Chapter 14: How to make good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible begins with how Victor Hugo wrote the famous The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the 1830s.
A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future. Automating a habit and never thinking about it again seems like a good way to get things done.
I like the way Clear equates social media to mental candy that he removed to create an environment of inevitability.
Chapters 15-17 enunciate the Fourth Law: Make it satisfying
Chapter 15: The Cardinal rule of behaviour change charts the course of an American public health worker who shifts to Karachi and tackles the extreme unsanitary conditions there. Making people adopt handwashing through innovative methods works wonders in improving the health conditions of the children. The example of Wrigley revolutionising chewing gum is also an interesting tale.
The mismatch between immediate and delayed rewards hits home, elaborating the premise of .
The Human brain did not evolve for life in a delayed-return environment.
The tendency of time inconsistency where the brain tends to prioritize the current moment makes us realize why we procrastinate good habits and imbibe bad ones faster.
What is immediately rewarded is repeated.
What is immediately punished is avoided.
Thus the importance of short-term rewards to keep us motivated and reinforce our identity is a useful hack to tackle this tendency.
Chapter 16: How to stick with good habits everyday elaborates a simple technique called the Paper Clip strategy that made a huge difference to the exponential growth of a sales rep. Moving the chosen ‘clip’ from one place to another establishes a routine that is simple, yet effective.
The most interesting story is that of Benjamin Franklin, who noted down thirteen positive attributes every single day, when he was twenty. The habit tracker has worked wonders for Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian too.
Making the habit tracking an obvious, attractive and satisfying process is the key. Example: Keeping a food log when we want to lose weight. The author also includes a passage on how to recover quickly from a missed good habit.
Never Miss Twice. Lost days hurt you more than successful days help you.
Avoiding a 33% loss is just as valuable as achieving a 50 % again.
Also knowing when to track a habit and when not to, is elaborated well. Our tendency to overvalue numbers and undervalue ephemeral, soft or difficult to quantify undermine the importance of our progress, if any.
Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing.
An example is where the author points out that Non-Scale victories can be effective for weight loss.
Chapter 17: How an accountability partner can change everything reinforces the buddy partnership methods that we have heard of, to get difficult things done.
If the failure is painful, it gets fixed.
The strength of punishment must match the relative strength of the behaviour you are trying to correct. To be healthy, the cost of laziness must be greater than the cost of exercise.
Knowing that someone else is watching you can be a powerful motivator.
Essentially, Clear says that a mere slap on the wrist may not work to change bad behaviour. He proposes the Habit Contract – accountability to someone, tackle this issue.
Chapters 18-20 discuss some Advanced tactics: How to go from being merely good to being truly great
Chapter 18: The truth about Talent (when genes matter and when they don’t)
This is the chapter that I found most realistic, practical and on-dot. Analysing the suitability of a passion in accordance with what our genes have provided us with makes more sense when Clear clarifies with the comparative study of Olympic Gold medal winner athletes: Michael Phelps the swimmer and Hicham El Guerrouj, the runner.
The height factor with the difference of seven inches between the two, and the length of their torsos is perfect for their chosen sports. Clear elaborates the concept of biological determinism to show the influence of genes on behaviour.
The secret to maximizing your odds of success is t choose the right field of competition.
Genes do not determine your destiny. They determine your areas of opportunity.
Next, the author explains how one can determine the best opportunity based on personality, which is a result of gene clusters.
I found the passage on neuroticism interesting. All people possess this personality trait at varying degrees. Higher the neuroticism, the more the sensitivity to negative cues, and vice versa. The takeaway is based on this premise.
Build habits that work for your personality.
Choose the habit that best suits you, not the one that is most popular.
Choose habits that align with your natural abilities.
Naturally, the next step is to find what works for the individual personality to stay motivated and yield success. This is easier said than done. The author acknowledges this. Trial and error is impossible in one lifetime. So, he proposes the explore/exploit trade-off as a solution to the conundrum.
Try out many possibilities, research a broad range of ideas and cast a wide net, says the author. He insists that it works 80-90% of the time, leaving 10-20% scope for more exploration. The example of Google using a similar strategy resulting in creation of Gmail and Adwords is a classic one.
A combination of what feels like fun, makes us lose track of time, gives greater returns and comes naturally to us is the option that must be chosen.
Specialisation is a powerful way to overcome the accident of bad genetics.
Transform the environment to work in your favour and work hard on what comes easy to you.
Chapter 19: The Goldilocks Rule: How to stay motivated in life and work begins with the story of a little boy who walks into Disneyland and end sup creating magic. Steve Martin’s rags to riches story is a thing of legends.
I found the Goldilocks zone close to the truth. Challenges that lie at the perimeter of our ability, on the edge of current abilities work best for us.
Maximum motivation occurs when facing a challenge of just manageable difficulty.
Boredom is the greatest villain on the quest for self-improvement.
The elite weightlifting coach who tells Clear that at some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of lifting the same stuff over and over and over are the successful ones in addition to genes, luck and talent.
The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom.
Professionals stick to the schedule, amateurs let life get in the way.
Clear points out the importance of novelty, with variable rewards, in the routine to spike dopamine and memory recall. The ability to keep going makes all the difference.
Chapter 20: The downside of creating good habits warns those with good habits not to fall into traps of mindless repetition, that allows mistakes to slide. Pay attention to little errors that occur because of becoming habituated.
Do not reinforce current habits, improve them. To remain conscious of performance over time, is what the author cautions us about. Refine and improve (fine-tune) when it becomes automatic and comfortable.
Habits + deliberate practice= Mastery
Ensure that you reach new levels of performance until higher range of skills are internalized.
To do this, one needs to review habits and make required adjustments. The example of the Lakers at the NBA is a good reinforcement of the same.
A lack of self-awareness is poison. Reflection and review is the antidote.
Essentially, the author warns us against locking ourselves into previous patterns of thinking and acting.
The Conclusion offers secrets to results that last, tarting with Sorites paradox – a Greek parable. The effect of one small action -the atomic habit – is reinforced here.
Success is not a goal to reach or a finish line to cross. It is a system to improve, an endless process to refine.
Tiny Changes. Remarkable results
The book concludes thus, with the main tagline.
Conclusion of review
This is by far the best self-help non fiction that I have read till now. I could not put it down, even after I finished it. Which is why this review is almost a booklet in itself.
Also, we live in an age where we are inundated with advice from all quarters. Most advice revolves around what Not to do, offering no alternatives about what needs to be done instead.
This book is different in that respect. It is a unique combination of compelling real-life examples, awareness of how things are, realization of where we are wrong and how to go about setting it right
Having said that, no self-help book is worth its salt if we, the readers do not take up the initiative to help ourselves with all the guidelines. Read the book, but also try to imbibe the learning at least to some degree. I will try to, hope you do too.
And if you found this piece beneficial, do share it wherever you deem useful, and follow my blog for more. Happy reading, readers!