‘Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones’ by James Clear is a masterclass in habit-forming. I say this with confidence because with the guidance provided in the book, I was able to cut off a bad habit (excessive scrolling on my phone) and develop a couple of good habits (freewriting everyday and getting some steps in).
The step-by-step guide itself was impressive in its own right, but what I liked about it the most is how simple and actionable it was, plus how James Clear explained everything so convincingly. So now, let me walk you through how he managed to convert a skeptic (me!) into a believer of tiny habits.
- Author – James Clear
- Genre/Sub-genre – Non fiction, self help, psychology, personal development, productivity, business, leadership, science, health
- Content warnings – Fatphobia, injury/injury detail, body shaming, eating disorder, medical trauma, addiction, ableism
- Type – Standalone
- No. of pages – 309
- Goodreads rating – 4.37
‘Atomic Habits’ Overview
James Clear sets out that picking up a good habit is thought to be tough not because we lack willpower or commitment, but because we don’t have the right systems built to support a habit to form and sustain. So to build these systems, he suggests following the four ‘Laws of Behavior Change’ that can help start and maintain a good habit. They are:
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
He suggests inverting these laws to break a bad habit:
- Make it invisible
- Make it unattractive
- Make it difficult
- Make it unsatisfying
Clear provides detailed explanations on how these laws work and he accompanies the guided chapters with anecdotes and personal experience, making it easy to see how the practices he’s proposing have a very real impact.
‘Atomic Habits’ Book Review
I (reluctantly) started on ‘Atomic Habit’ back when I was in a reading slump, hoping I can pick up reading everyday again. I figured if the book is as good as a lot of readers said it was, it just might convince me to get back to my TBR.
So there I was, expecting a noncommittal read and eager to (hopefully) get back to the books I abandoned halfway, and James Clear hit me with an opening narrative so intriguing that I couldn’t help but get hooked on the book.
He explains his foray into habit forming came after a huge setback during highschool, where he suffered a severe injury playing baseball. Wanting to get back on track, he started practicing small habits like sleeping well, studying consistently, and keeping tidy. I’ve got to say, the results were really inspiring:
“…improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable—sometimes it isn’t even noticeable—but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding…” – Chapter 1
It’s a little bit of a genius move; put this way, I could see how much impact a small habit can have, especially if they compound over time – which is exactly what Clear suggests.
So I thought of trying out the ‘atomic’ method of habit forming, going by Clear’s laws of behavioral change. Let’s see how I did!
1. Make it obvious
With the first law of behavioral change, Clear suggests that if we are to be intentional about habit forming, we have to make our habits obvious.
I loved the example he cited to show the benefit of making it obvious – the ‘Pointing and Calling’ safety practice from the Japanese railway system. This involves all the railway staff pointing and calling out specific details like arrival time, speedometer reading, and signal status. This habit seemed a bit weird to me, but making these safety details obvious by speaking them out loud has actually helped reduce errors up to 85 percent. So Clear’s suggestion here is to make the habit so obvious that you can’t miss it at all:
“Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. It is not always obvious when and where to take action.” – Chapter 5
I felt like I could relate to this because I often complain I’m not motivated to do something, so I experimented with the first law of behavioral change by trying to make a habit of walking everyday.
I work at my desk all day, tapping away at my keyboard and often when I stop for the day, it’s too late to go out for a walk or I’m just not too excited for it. So to carve out a time and to ‘make it obvious’ to get up and go, I followed Clear’s habit stacking formula.
I make myself a cup of coffee everyday around 5 in the evening, so I paired my coffee break with a 20 minute walk. I placed my running shoes right near my desk so when I get up to brew a cup, I’d put the shoes on and go on to make coffee. And since I’m already wearing shoes, what I’m thinking is I might as well step out of the house to take a walk for ten minutes and then back home.
Believe me, I didn’t think it’d make a difference at first either, but against all expectations this actually worked. Apart from a couple of days where there was a ton of rain, I’ve been out as soon as I’ve had my coffee. And now, when I’m having coffee at a completely irrelevant time, I get the urge to get up and walk which means two things – I’ve successfully hardwired my brain to go for a walk after coffee, and I probably should have stacked walking with another habit 😅.
2. Make it attractive
The second law of behavioral change works by making a habit attractive so we get tempted to do it.
Clear mentions that this is the practice that fast food companies follow to make their product so irresistible we always crave for more. Years of research have been poured into enhancing the flavor and mouthfeel of these foods; the science behind that is that our brain is attracted to hyperpalatable food so we are likely to go through a couple packs of potato chips or keep ordering thin crust pizza topped with gooey melted cheese.
So how does this fit in with making a habit attractive? Clear suggests we could heighten the appeal of a habit to immediately draw us to it, using ‘temptation bundling’:
“Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do. In Byrne’s case, he bundled watching Netflix (the thing he wanted to do) with riding his stationary bike (the thing he needed to do).” – Chapter 8
I adopted this technique to get more nutrients in my system. I’ve been warned by the family doctor that I take in way less micronutrients than I’m supposed to and unfortunately, most foods I’m supposed to consume for micronutrients are not the most appealing. So, inspired by Mr. Byrne in Clear’s example, I resolved to watch Netflix only when I’m eating healthy. At first, this meant my time watching Netflix went down drastically, but a show I wanted to watch so badly got released and I had to go for some leafy greens and whole grains just to watch it.
How did I manage to not watch Netflix until then, you ask? Well, I just got my partner to change the password to our family account and asked him to not share it with me under any circumstance (unless I was having the right food). This is also a couple of Clear’s techniques in action; the first is getting an accountability buddy to make sure you stick to your resolve and second is the reverse law of making a habit difficult (by adding the barrier of the password).
3. Make it easy
With this one, James Clear suggests applying the ‘Law of Least Effort.’ He elaborates that when deciding between two similar options, we tend to lean toward the option that requires the least effort. Humans are hardwired to find ways to do things so it delivers best possible value for low effort, so Clear suggests programming our habits that way as well.
“The idea behind make it easy is not to only do easy things. The idea is to make it as easy as possible in the moment to do things that payoff in the long run.” – Chapter 12
Now, our brains can resist doing the right thing even if we make it attractive (remember me avoiding Netflix so I won’t have to eat spinach?); this is where ‘make it easy’ comes in. So to put the third law of behavioral change into action, I tried to make a habit easy with the 2-minute rule. This rule pushes you to do something for two minutes and not a second more, BUT you do it everyday.
I’ve always wanted to build the habit of freewriting because I feel like I lose ‘my own writing time’ since I’m always writing for a particular reason. I’ve tried journaling and morning pages, but I’ve always fallen off the wagon (or page!) probably because I perceive both as big tasks. So I challenged myself to free-write everyday for two weeks to see how I do with the 2-minute rule.
To my surprise, I felt no hesitation starting free-writing when my alarm rang signaling the time to write, because I limited it to two minutes only. I’ve been free-writing for over a year now, and I have this sense of fulfillment whenever I open my notebook. Funny thing is, I get the urge to write whenever I see my designated notebook – I’m not very sure what kind of brain conditioning happened there, but I’m not complaining!
Oh and by the way, the reverse rule of this helped me cut down my screen time because I activated an app blocker that cuts you off from accessing certain apps for a period of time. All my social media apps are blocked from 6 am to 6 pm, and it’s a pain to unblock it even if I wanted to. So I don’t check on social media at all during my working hours, and it has made me productive because I’m less distracted.
4. Make it satisfying
The final law of behavior change is to make a habit satisfying. Now, the challenge with this, as Clear explains, is how we can’t exactly see the progress we are making, especially with small habits. Waiting until the habit compounds is not exactly motivating at the moment, because we never know how long it will take to make a difference.
“Making progress is satisfying, and visual measures—like moving paper clips or hairpins or marbles—provide clear evidence of your progress. As a result, they reinforce your behavior and add a little bit of immediate satisfaction to any activity. Visual measurement comes in many forms: food journals, workout logs, loyalty punch cards, the progress bar on a software download, even the page numbers in a book. But perhaps the best way to measure your progress is with a habit tracker.” – Chapter 12
I tried tracking my newfound habit of walking, with a visual habit tracker. It felt like a hassle at first, but I resolved to make a tick on the tracker that I hung on the corkboard above my desk immediately before sitting down to work after my walk (habit stacking!). I have to say, ticking off each day feels really good because I’ve successfully done something I couldn’t get myself to do before. With the tracker, I’ve also got the added challenge of maintaining my streak because I don’t want to leave a day unticked. I have missed a day or two, but then I remember what Clear said:
“No matter how consistent you are with your habits, it is inevitable that life will interrupt you at some point. Perfection is not possible. Before long, an emergency will pop up—you get sick or you have to travel for work or your family needs a little more of your time. Whenever this happens to me, I try to remind myself of a simple rule: never miss twice.” – Chapter 15
So I try to never miss two days in a row, and so far, I never have.
When I read this chapter, I realized I’ve been using this law of making it satisfying without realizing it, with my language learning habit. My current streak on Duolingo is over 400 days long, and knowing the pain of losing the streak (I lost my earlier streak at 342 days😅) I fight tooth and nail to get my language lesson in everyday before midnight.
There you have it, all the laws of behavioral change in action. This is exactly what I meant when I said James Clear’s book is simple and actionable. When I started reading, it didn’t seem to take a lot out of me to start forming a habit so I thought “I might as well try” and that went on for three months before I finally admitted to myself that ‘atomic habits’ actually work.
One thing I have to mention though, I felt the content could have been a bit shorter considering it’s self-help. James Clear had made the book digestible with chapter summaries and simple graphics, but I still felt like it took forever to finish the book (it could be me, I was in a reading slump after all).
Considering I managed to get out of my slump plus build a few good habits along the way, I suggest giving ‘Atomic Habits’ a try (even if you have a less than enthusiastic attitude to forming habits like me). Inside the book, you are highly likely to find nuggets of wisdom that appeal to you, and simple ways of tricking your brain to do good that make you want to try out a new habit just for the fun of it.
Who Should Read ‘Atomic Habits’
Anyone who wants to pick up good habits or to break a bad habit should read this book, as it can give you that gentle push you’re looking for.
If you want to understand what influences human behavior and how we form habits, this book is a solid starting point.
Books Similar to ‘Atomic Habits’
Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is a refreshing take on life, perspectives, and how we tackle challenges when they come our way. If you need a self-help read backed by science, experience, and wisdom punctuated by ruthless humor, this book is an awesome choice.
If you’d like to read more about how small actions compound into creating a big impact, The Tipping Point is a captivating read that can change the way you approach personal challenges and professional tasks.
Also, if you’d like to find more self-help recs, my collection of self-help book reviews and lists of recommendations can point you in the right direction!
James Clear’s Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones is exactly the book you need to read if you want to develop a good habit and break a bad one. Clear promises no magic, but instead, he shares with us a whole lot of convincing anecdotes, digestible research findings, and simple, actionable tips to make any big habit possible. So if you want to read any self-help book on developing habits and improving yourself, let it be this one.
Yes! It’s a simple, easy-to-follow guide on how to form good habits and break bad ones and it’s worth reading because it’s actionable and reliable.
The four rules, or rather laws, of behavioral change in ‘Atomic Habits’ are, make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying.
‘Atomic Habits’ is so popular because it helps you build systems of habits instead of goal-based habits. That way, you are focused on sustaining the habit without being overly focused on the outcome.
Although ‘Atomic Habits’ doesn’t claim to be written for people with ADHD, a lot of ADHD-friendly practices like the 2-minute rule, body doubling, Pomodoro technique, etc. are included and encouraged in the book.
Yes. ‘Atomic Habits’ draws on relevant research and concepts from biology, psychology, and neuroscience to explain how we can get massive results by compounding a lot of small habits.