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Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

posted by Greg on Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Is making (and keeping) good habits far easier than we were led to believe? Posing the question is Oxbridge team member (and web dev whizz) Greg, who has recently enjoyed reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits. His review explores why we give up new habits quickly and the four laws to follow to transform your habits, achieve great results, and exponential growth. Stick around until the end for Greg’s verdict, and see how the book is making a positive impact on his life.


Is making and keeping good habits easier than we were led to believe?

February has arrived, and 2019 seems like a distant memory, as will many of the New Year resolutions that you and your friends and families made! Despite starting with the best of intentions to learn a foreign language, change career, start your own business, etc., it’s true to say that for the vast majority of people, they will have already fallen off the wagon. The textbooks are now gathering dust and the gym kit is lying at the bottom of the wardrobe.

Considering how smart and equipped we are, how come we can’t keep new habits going beyond a month? Why can’t we stop our bad habits either? This is a question that Atomic Habits by James Clear seeks to address. With over a million copies sold and featuring in many bestseller lists, I decided that this was the perfect time to read it and see if it offered reliable strategies helps us achieve our goals.

Like other books in this genre, it’s a quick and easy 300 page read with a clear structure of twenty chapters with summaries at the end of each one. The inclusion of many anecdotes throughout the text is really helpful as they reinforce what Clear teaches and make it more memorable.

The book starts with an introduction to what atomic habits are: namely, something small (like the atom) and repeatable (the habit). It gives a description of how we create our goals and outcomes and why we often give up too soon. A key part of forming habits is that instead of focusing on the outcome (e.g. giving up smoking), we should focus on our identity (“I am not a smoker”). People who focus more on the identity part are more likely to stick to their new habits.

A key part of forming habits is that instead of focusing on the outcome we should focus on our identity.

Why do we give up new habits so quickly?

So often when we start something, we give up because we don’t see results quick enough. This can be explained through the Plateau of Latent Potential. For example, when learning a language, you expect to be able to hold up a conversation and order food with some level of fluency after a couple of months. But that’s rarely the outcome; you might still find putting sentences together tricky and might only have a hundred words that you know from memory.

Chart showing how you expect growth to be linear, but it's actually exponential and you under perform initially, but outperform in the long run

We tend to expect too much when starting something new. It’s only when we persevere that we really see growth.

We can see that we expect progress to be much faster in the beginning, but in reality, we only really start making progress after we have persevered for a longer period of time. Practice a foreign language for a year or more on a regular basis and you improve a lot faster.

The book emphasises the benefits of how habits compound over time and what a big difference that makes. Imagine you had £100 on the 1st of January. If this decreased by 1% every day, you would have £2.55 by 31st December. By comparison, if you were to increase that £100 by 1% every day, you would have £3,778.34 by the end of the year!

The book seeks to get you on (and keep you on) this exponential growth curve with four laws:

Law 1: Make it Obvious

Being aware of each time you complete a habit is important. A calendar or other tool that allows you to cross things off helps to keep you accountable. This can be as simple as a paper calendar or an iPhone app.

Habit stacking—attaching new habits you want to existing ones—is a concept the author introduces. For example, saying, “After I brush my teeth, I will do five press-ups” (Why just five? I’ll explain later!). This makes it easier to remember and take action.

Your environment also matters. It’s much easier to perform a habit when everything is ready. For example, you might make sure your gym kit is packed the night before you go to morning classes or your desk at home is tidy before you leave for work, so when you come home, you can start studying immediately.

Law 2: Make it Attractive

Screenshot of YouTube videos for the search "study with me"

Get that classroom/library feeling from your own home.

We like rewards. It gives us a little dopamine hit that excites our brain when we accomplish something. It’s why every like you get on Facebook and/or bonus you get playing Candy Crush keeps us hooked! Our brain gets a little positive “buzz” from it. Clear shows how we can use this to our advantage. Do you have a favourite series on Netflix? Tell yourself  you can only watch the next episode after you have gone to the gym! Exercise seems a bit more tempting now, right?

If you go to a class or gym to exercise, you will know that habits are easier to keep when we’re doing them with others. You don’t always need to leave your home either. Search YouTube for “study with me” videos and you can find people who just record videos of themselves studying. Put this full screen on your computer, TV or tablet while your studying and you’ll find you don’t want to take a break until they do as well!

Law 3: Make it Easy

This section covers the environment, automation, and decreasing the number of steps to start a habit. It’s about making habits so easy that you couldn’t not do them! Using the habit mentioned above of ‘five push-ups,’ you will notice that it’s really a low number. By keeping the habits small, you’re more likely to start… that’s the hardest part of habits. Once you’ve done five, you can do more, but it’s better to do five push-ups a day than fifty push-ups never! The same applies to anything: you could start by going for a run for five minutes. It’s not long, but the key is to make the habit first and make it stick.

Law 4: Make it Satisfying

Our brains like to know they will be rewarded for our efforts, and knowing we’re progressing is a great way to help our brain see what we’ve done. There’s a story attributed to the comedian Jerry Seinfeld when someone asked him how he got so good at writing comedy. According to the story, Seinfeld said that he wrote comedy every single day and would mark a cross on a calendar to show his progress. Effectively, he was building a chain as each cross connected to the next. His aim was to never break that chain. Imagine looking back at a week, month, or year of crosses: knowing that each repetition contributed to your new knowledge and skills.

Imagine looking back at a week, month, or year of crosses: knowing that each repetition contributed to your new knowledge and skills.

After these four laws, the book gives a bit more advanced advice. It also lists some of the sources that he mentions in the anecdotes, so there’s further reading available, too.

In with the good, out with the bad…

Throughout the book, Clear makes the point that the laws can be reversed to stop negative habits. Do you keep reaching for the biscuit jar at night? Move it on top of your tallest cupboard in another room. If you have to get a step ladder and go to another room to get biscuits, you’re a lot less likely to do so.

The same goes for your phone. Are you using it too much? Remove the games and social media apps and perhaps leave your phone in another room altogether!

Review Summary

Overall, I loved this book. It’s clear and concise with lots of actionable steps you can make towards making your own positive habits in learning and life.

Screenshots of a habit tracking app

Habit tracking apps can make your progress much more visible.

I felt really empowered that it gave me the tools to accomplish whatever I wanted. I’ve now installed Habit – Daily Tracker on my iPhone, and I’m tracking four small goals (I’ll add more later when I know these habits are really automatic).

If there was anything more I could ask for it would be interviews with successful business people, athletes and leaders who use these skills. More knowledge about how others implement the laws on a daily basis would be really informative.

As an added bonus, if you email the author with proof of purchase, he will send you additional checklists and support materials to assist in keeping your good habits.

Book score: 8.5/10

You can find out more from James Clear online:
https://jamesclear.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jamesclear
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jamesclear
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jamesclear/

Atomic Habit’s official website: https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits

The book can be purchased from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Atomic-Habits-Proven-Build-Break/dp/1847941834/ref=sr_1_9_sspa

Apple Store: Habit – Daily Tracker app: https://apps.apple.com/gb/app/habit-daily-tracker/id1445651730

Like this content?

We would like to thank Greg for his thoughtful analysis of James Clear’s powerful, self-improvement book. Did you enjoy what Greg had to say? Don’t worry, he assures us there are more reviews coming to the blog soon. In the meantime, we have courses that may be of interest to you if you found this article interesting: