Meet the combined power of one-percent and your environment

Atomic Habits

James Clear
Random House, 2019

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Downright the best—and possibly only—book you need to learn to break bad habits and build good ones effectively.

I cannot emphasise just how good this book is. This book is really good. The basic premise of Atomic Habits is two-fold: one, that forming and breaking habits is not so much about willpower as it is about our environment and the systems for change that we implement; and two, that the smallest and seemingly most unimportant changes compound over time to give remarkable results. This goes both ways: it builds bad habits if you let it or you can use it to build good ones; and it breaks bad habits too, or, if you do not pay enough attention, lets good ones decay.

James Clear takes a straightforward and practical approach throughout the book with a time-tested formula: anecdote followed by statement followed by research followed by guidelines. This rhythm acts like pentameter throughout the book which is itself divided into five parts corresponding to the four steps of habit-building (or breaking) and one part discussing some advanced tactics that discusses such things as talent and motivation.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this book was its no-nonsense approach. It starts by outlining the process in which our brain looks at habits and patterns with cues, cravings, responses and rewards. This is a pretty familiar idea these days although it is outlined differently at times. Nir Eyal in his book Indistractable talks about this as well; as does the McMaster course on ‘Learning how to learn’, although they use slightly different terms: cue, routine, reward, belief. The underlying idea is pretty similar: if you can manipulate one or more of these for your benefit, you can build and break habits as you like.

While speaking of small steps Mr Clear makes sure to clarify that he is not speaking of minute steps that attempt to drill muscle memory into us or normalise a habit out of nowhere, like flossing just one teeth to start with. Instead he refers to picking the simplest act possible that, when repeated over time, compounds to something meaningful and life-altering. The keyword here is compounding as he explains early on in the book: a daily 1% change amounts to you becoming three-and-a-half times better at that work in a year; a daily 1% deterioration will likewise see you dropping to a perfect zero in a year. Mathematics always clears things up nicely.

Here is an extract (with possibly inaccurate punctuations as I dictated this while I was reading) where the idea of small changes is explained:

We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment. If you save a little money now you’re still not a millionaire, if you go to the gym three days in a row you’re still out of shape, if you study Mandarin for an hour tonight you still haven’t learnt the language. We make a few changes but the result don’t seem to come quickly, so we slide back into our previous routines… unfortunately the slow pace of transformation also makes it easy to let a bad habit slide. If you eat an unhealthy meal today the scale doesn’t move much, if you work late tonight and ignore your family they will forgive you, if you procrastinate and put your project off till tomorrow there will usually be time to finish it later. A single decision is easy to dismiss. But when we repeat one-percent errors day after day by replicating poor decisions, duplicating tiny mistakes and rationalising poor excuses our small choices compound into toxic results. It’s the accumulation of many missteps, a one-percent decline here and there, that eventually leads to a problem.

As the book proceeds to set up the four ways to deal with habit-building (or -breaking, the two are symmetrical)—namely making cues obvious (or invisible), making cravings attractive (or unattractive), making responding easy (or difficult), and making rewards satisfying (or unsatisfying)—we see Mr Clear addresses why we would want to do this in the first place. When asked this question most of us respond with our end goals, the place where we all want to see ourselves eventually, but this approach in ineffective, he explains, because ‘winners and losers have the same goal’. This was eye-opening to me. But of course: nobody who loses set out to lose; what differentiates people is their approach, or their ‘system’ as the author calls them. He explains this beautifully—

Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in life … is to set specific actionable goals … results have very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed. What’s the difference between systems and goals? … Goals are about the results you want to achieve, systems are about the processes that lead to those results … If you want better results then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead … The purpose of setting goals is to win the game, the purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long term thinking is goalless thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment, it’s about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.

This idea too is touched upon in the McMaster course on ‘Learning how to learn’ that I talked about earlier (take this course if you have not already, you will thank me for it). The process versus the product, the system versus the goal. Defining goals is great because they give us an end point but what gets us there, or anywhere at all, is our process or system.

With this set-up Atomic Habits, much to my pleasure, eschews magnanimous agendas around goals and definitions and motivation and instead attacks the most practical arm of the problem: the system we set up for ourselves and how our environments can enable or weaken our systems.

This is not to say he lays blame on the environment or encourages you to use it as an excuse, rather he details how you can take control of designing your environment for your benefit, rather than living in an environment someone else designed for you—and this does not involve redoing your walls or laying out your home from scratch, so rest easy.

As much as I am tempted to go on I will stop this review here because I hate to spoil such a great book with summaries and pointers. Make time and read this book. This is not one of those self-help books that should really have been a simple essay. The structure and narrative is central to making readers understand the insights contained in it and the basic push the book makes is this: you are stuck in your identity (e.g. I am not a morning person, I am not good at art, this just isn't for me) which is what makes all your attempts at building and breaking habits fail. Do not make habits tasks; make habits your identity and they will succeed. Of course this is easier said than done, which is why you should read this book; it will make building and breaking habits as easy to do as they are to talk about.

Read this book.