I mentioned in a previous post that I have done a lot of reading during this season of quarantine. Some of that has been just for entertainment or increasing my knowledge in a certain area, but some has been more of the “self-help” variety. Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear definitely falls into the self-help category.
Before I go any further, I want to make two points very clear:
- Generally speaking, I really don’t like self-help books.
- I really, really liked Atomic Habits.
This review will be a little different from usual, because I “read” Atomic Habits as an audiobook. I took some notes on my phone while listening, so I will have some summary points to share, but I won’t have page numbers for any of the specific quotations.
Atoms are very small things. They are the building blocks of the world around us, but they are invisible to the naked eye. They are also very powerful—the power of the atom can provide electricity to an entire region in the form of a power plant, or untold devastation in the form of a nuclear bomb. This is the premise of Atomic Habits: habits are little, sometimes nearly invisible things that can bring about powerful change—for good or ill—in our lives.
James Clear offers four laws (I think he used the “laws” terminology; I am not certain) for successfully building good habits, and also an inversion to each law to help break bad habits:
- Make it Obvious: If you want to successfully implement a new habit, it needs to be something that is in your face and can be easily remembered. If you want to read more before bed, set a nightly alarm to remind you to do so. Have a specific time and location where you plan to implement your habit (“I will go for a 2-mile run at 7 AM in the morning.”). Stack your new habit onto another habit that you already do (“While showering in the morning, I will pray about my day.”). The inversion of this law: Make it Invisible. If you always crave junk food at the end of the day while watching TV, then do something other than watch TV. Take a walk or read a book—remove the cue that encourages the bad habit you are trying to avoid.
- Make it Attractive: If you want to successfully implement a new habit, it needs to be something that is desirable to you. Which habits are attractive to us are significantly determined by the culture in which we live, so you should join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. In other words, hang out with people who are already doing the thing you want to do. If you want to eat healthily, go out to eat with friends who are healthy eaters. If you want to get in better shape, spend time with friends who work out regularly. If you want to become a better Bible student, join a Bible study group. You can also make a new habit attractive by connecting something you need to do (the new habit) with something you want to do (“I will get to spend ten minutes on social media after I complete my morning run.”). The inversion of this law: Make it Unattractive. Reframe your mindset by highlighting the benefits of avoiding the bad habit. If you want to quit smoking, focus on how cutting cigarettes out of your life will improve your health, put money back into your bank account, and make your car smell better.
- Make it Easy: If you want to successfully implement a new habit, you have to do it…a lot. You have to get your reps in: the amount of time you have spent performing a habit is not as important as the number of times you have performed it. To begin with, focus on just doing the thing even if your initial efforts are easier than your ultimate goals. So, say for example that you want to start a habit of working out regularly at the gym. To start, it is not as important that every workout be an hour long at high intensity (or whatever the ultimate goal is); what is important is that you go to the gym without missing if at all possible. Pack your workout clothes in your gym bag and set your alarm the night before. If you have a busy day or aren’t feeling well, don’t skip your workout; just abbreviate it. Go run for ten minutes instead of an hour; do five push-ups instead of thirty. Make it as easy as you need to, but get your reps in. By doing this, you are using a commitment device, which is a choice you are making in the present that locks in better behavior in the future. The inversion of this law: Make it Hard. Make it difficult to continue to do the things you don’t want to do. If you want to stop eating junk food, get it out of your house. Now, whenever you have a craving, you’ll have to drive somewhere to get it. If you want to stop watching so much TV, put your television in another room where you don’t spend as much time, or unplug it after each use. Now, a habit that you may have indulged when you were feeling tired or lazy requires extra energy to do.
- Make it Satisfying: If you want to successfully implement a new habit, you have to feel good about it. Identity is what sustains a habit. Ultimately, you want to think of yourself as the kind of person who [does whatever the habit is that you are trying to implement]. Track your habits to see your improvement over time. Try to keep your habit streak alive. You are not perfect and will have a lapse, but when you do, try to avoid a second lapse. The inversion of this law: Make it Unsatisfying. We are less likely to repeat a bad habit if it is painful or unsatisfying. Enlist an accountability partner who will ask you how you are doing in avoiding your bad habit.
Here were some of my favorite quotations from the book (again, sorry that I don’t have page numbers for these):
“Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally; bad habits make time your enemy. Your habits can compound for you or against you.”
“You do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems.”
“Every action you take is a vote for the kind of person you will become.”
“This is the secret of self-control: make the cues of your good habits obvious; make the cues of your bad habits invisible.”
“The most effective form of learning is practice, not planning.”
“Create an environment where doing the right this is as easy as possible.”
“It’s better to do less than you hoped for than nothing at all.”
“Incentives can start a habit; identity sustains a habit.”
“The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It’s the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident; missing twice is the start of a new habit.”
“We optimize for what we measure, and when we choose the wrong measurement, we get the wrong behavior.”
“Until you work as hard as those you admire, don’t explain away their success as luck.”
“It doesn’t matter what you are trying to become better at; if you only do the work when it is convenient or exciting, then you will never be consistent enough to achieve remarkable results.”
It is hard for me to overstate how much I appreciated this book. Clear does not write from a Christian perspective, but this book is really all about discipline and character formation, and I found that much of what he wrote applied to me as a disciple of Jesus.
I give this book a strong recommendation. I have implemented some of his advice in my own life as I seek to grow during this season of quarantine, and have found it to be helpful and practical. It’s a book that I plan on buying a physical copy of so I can keep coming back to it.