Book Review: Atomic Habits—by James Clear
James Clear is my new obsession. If you don’t feel like reading his book, I highly recommend listening to him. Try his YouTube talk or his interview on the Ten Percent Happier Podcast with Dan Harris.
Habits are the actions, thoughts, emotions, etc. we repeat regularly. They are how we “vote” for who our future self will be.
To paraphrase F.M. Alexander, humans don’t decide their future. We decide our habits. Our habits create our future.
The gains of any habit accumulate. Small changes compound through repetition. Our future self is an aggregate of how we act in the present. Clear gives the example of a pilot who, when leaving Los Angeles, accidentally shifts the route of the airplane by 3.5 degrees. That initial, almost imperceptible redirect results in landing in New York instead of Washington.
Our personal trajectory suffers a similar problem. In 5 years, the way we move, eat, sleep, etc. today will drastically impact who we become, but it is only when looking back on chunks of time that we see the value of small choices—it is only when looking back that we see our 3.5-degree redirects.
In many ways, it is a relief to know that small, seemingly inconsequential actions such as a short walk, core work in front of the TV, and/or drinking a glass of water can elicit long-term transformation. Adopting a healthier lifestyle doesn’t have to be daunting. We don’t have to run a marathon today to be healthy tomorrow.
Unfortunately, the inverse of this positive is that small changes are inherently small, and thus often don’t feel meaningful. In the moment it is all too easy to self-sabotage with a “this one time doesn’t make a difference,” “this one missed workout won’t matter,” or “this one indulgence isn’t really important” inner dialogue.
To add insult to injury, healthy choices don’t typically create a comparable dopamine hit to their less–than–ideal counter–habits. Think skipping the cigarette vs smoking the cigarette. Often, unhealthy habits create a positive dopamine hit in the present but adverse repercussions in the future. While, on an intellectual level, we understand the negative impact of a choice, the desire for a dopamine hit makes us emotionally weigh the cost as “worth it” in the present. This innate cognitive bias to value rewards inconsistently over time is understood as time inconsistency—the emotional “cost” of good habits are in the present and cost of bad habits are in the future. Our brain prioritizes immediate rewards. Once we know this, it becomes our job to consciously reframe healthier choices as enjoyable or meaningful to produce a positive dopamine hit in the present.
The crux of the problem
Habits are being created whether you like it or not. You can’t opt out of habit creation. We are all always voting for the future self we will become, consciously or unconsciously. Every act is a vote, whether you are aware of the vote or not.
Work to understand how the brain works in relation to habit formation. (Checkmark. We just covered that.) Become aware of your habits. Analyze the path your habits have placed you on. Create systems for success!
Step one: Become aware of your habits
Learn what you do, think, and feel on a habitual basis. To do this, keep a habit journal for a week to become aware of how you use your time, what thoughts you repeat, where you self-sabotage, etc.
As Charles Young famously said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Stop calling life fate. Start driving your own life.
Step two: Ask yourself, “Where is my current path taking me?”
Your outcomes are the lagging measure of your habits. You get what you repeat. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating and exercise habits. Your bank account is a lagging interest of your spending habits. Your cleanliness is a lagging habit of your cleaning habits.
The question is are your habits placing you on a path directed toward the future self you want to be? Ask yourself, “Are my current habits serving me?” Measure your current trajectory vs your current results.
Be less concerned with where you are and more concerned with the path you are on. Time multiplies what you feed it. Look at how you live your life and ask yourself, “What will be the eventual problem or eventual result of my habits?” Remember, small current habits (how you think, anger issues, emotional eating, lack of activity, etc.) may seem insignificant, but they determine the difference of who you are vs who you could be.
Step three: Implement systems that will create healthier habits
Once you pinpoint the habits you want to ditch vs the habits you want to consciously foster, work to create environments and systems that support your goals. Nothing just happens. You can’t wish new habits into existence. Architect the life you want—create environments, systems, and social support networks that promote the habitual actions and thoughts you desire.
Eight ways to create powerfully positive atomic habits!
1. Reduce the friction
Prime your environments, your thoughts, your schedule, your social environment, etc. so that the healthy choice is the “easy” choice—or the seamless choice—and unhealthy choices are inconvenient and unattractive.
Optimize environments. Make cues for healthy habits obvious and cues for bad habits invisible. A classic example would be to prevent nighttime binging by purging junk food from your house. One is less likely to indulge if the binge requires a trip to the store—laziness typically wins over a desire for candy.
Consider an implementation strategy—“when situation x arises, I will do response y.” For example, “When I have to go out to eat I will read the menu ahead of time and decide what I will eat in advance.”
Consider habit stacking—after I do x I will do y. For example, “After I pour coffee I will meditate for 1 minute.”
Consider a commitment device, a choice your current self makes so that your future self is locked into automatic future habits. Some examples of a commitment device: automatic deductions from your paycheque to save money, a better bed for improved sleep and fewer incidences of back pain, enlisting a fitness buddy to improve workout consistency, locking your credit card in ice to decrease impetuous spending.
2. Ask “Who do I want to be?”
Each expression of a habit is a micro evolution. Each time you “act” out your new habit you say to your brain “maybe this is who I am.” However, we must understand that actions that are incongruent with our sense of self will not stick, at least not long term, so stop trying to make generic changes because you feel you should.
3. Stop “shoulding” all over yourself!
Instead, connect your goal habit to your desired identity. For example, instead of making your goal “to exercise,” frame your goal “to become the type of person who prioritizes moving to become the vital, alive, and energetic human I know I want to be.” Or, instead of a goal “to stretch because I should,” make the goal “to stretch so I become the type of person who can get down on the ground and play with my grandchildren.” Make your goals meaningful—give yourself a strong “why”!
4. Learn how to trick your brain
Desire is the engine that promotes behaviour. The brain releases dopamine when it anticipates that a habit/experience/choice will bring a positive result.
How you predict that an experience will feel impacts your level of desire. When you anticipate a positive reward, your brain creates dopamine. That dopamine is what inspires action. When you act and frame the experience as positive, you reinforce the positive anticipation, which then increases the likelihood you will act in that way again. Talk about a snowball effect!
The question is have you created a positive or negative health snowball?
Does your brain anticipate positives from actions such as Netflix, candy, and drinks? Or does your brain think a powerwalk with a friend is the bee’s knees? A craving is a sense that something is missing—a desire for a change in state. The desire is to feel differently in the future than how you feel now. So, give your brain data (through repetition) that your desired state change will come through motion, hydration, sleep, etc.
If you currently only anticipate positives from less–than–ideal health habits (a cake or Netflix binge, going to the bar, etc.), make it your mission to consciously reframe healthier habits. Make healthier habits satisfying, enjoyable, and meaningful. For example, instead of framing your workout as something dull, go with a friend and frame it as “fun and social.” Treat yourself to lovely hand soap after exercise or listen to your favourite song before or during every training session so exercise is something you look forward to. Consciously note positives—like how much you enjoy the hand soap—to give your brain data. The more data you give your brain that the healthy habit is enjoyable and positive, the more you will reproduce that habit.
Our brains are elastic. They can evolve. It is your job to use this adaptability to your advantage and create new positive associations.
5. Shame gets you nowhere good, fast
Stop with the negative shame–filled self-talk. Shame is counterproductive, it is “auto–catalytic”—it actually inspires more of the behaviour you are trying to stop.
Let’s say you want to quit smoking. Your father makes a degrading comment about how you still have not quit and thus must be lazy. You then shame yourself, internally calling yourself “worthless” for not being able to quit, thinking “He must be right, I am a lazy ass.” This makes you anxious. Anxiety inspires your current self to smoke so that you can—momentarily—feel less anxious. You are anxious so you smoke. You shame yourself about smoking, which causes you anxiety … so you smoke.
Shaming yourself, or others, is not a viable strategy for habit change.
What works? A growth mindset. Note the behaviour. Create a game plan for change. Don’t connect the behaviour to your worth as a human.
6. Think “reps,” not “perfection”
To cultivate a new habit or to get better at anything—squatting, running, or meal prep—you have to practise. You need to “put in the reps.”
Think reps over time. Instead of asking “How long does it take to create new habit?” ask “How many reps will it take to get better at this?” Creating a new habit requires many attempts.
Remember: best is the enemy of good. Don’t let a desire for perfection stop you from trying. Don’t try to be the best lifter or runner the first week out. Practise. Be willing to suck at first.
Practice is key. Repetition is key. Make your goal to repeat the habit as many times as needed for the action/thought to feel “natural.” Once it is second–nature, keep repeating it so that it always feels natural.
7. Never miss twice … don’t break the habit chain
Missing one workout is an accident. Missing more than one workout has the possibility to become the start of a new “watching Netflix after work” habit!
Anyone can have a bad day. The trick is to not let that bad day spiral. The ability to “re-claim” the habit is the skill we all have to foster. Embrace that negative spirals can hurt you more than good days help you!
Reframe “bad” workouts as “critical workouts.” Reframe getting back on the healthy eating horse ASAP as more important than finding the best diet.
We are only human and thus we will never be perfect but fostering the skill of not spiralling is possible!
8. Be a professional
I have never met anyone who always wants to go to work, but we show up anyway because we are professional. Work on becoming a professional in your health life—work on “showing up” for your workouts and sticking to your eating goals even when you don’t want to.
Two final thoughts
You can’t order new, healthier habits on Amazon Prime.
Real change takes time! Evolving takes … evolution. Evolution is inherently a process. Thus, no matter how hard you wish otherwise, the process will take patience and practice.
You are probably thinking “Duh, obviously change takes time,” but remember that the problem is not what your rational brain knows, it is what your emotional brain feels in the moment.
My challenge to you is this: the next time you want to self-sabotage and tap out of your new habit, make yourself pause, and remind yourself that you are like an ice cube—you need to give yourself time to “see yourself melt.” Even when the room temperature is 25 ° C, an ice cube is frozen solid. The cube continues to look frozen until the room heats to 32 ° C ,and then suddenly, noticeable melting occurs. That final degree shift was the cube hitting its plateau of latent potential—that is, the final degree made the melting visible but that one degree would not have made the difference without the previous increase in temperature. You have to persist with any new habit long enough to cross the plateau of latent potential—the moment when the ice cube noticeably melts.
Do the math:
Ability to hold the discomfort and time needed to evolve > Time required to see results (ie., plateau of latent potential) = Results
Winners and losers have the same goals—winners just have better systems!
All professional athletes want to win, but not all of them do. Anyone with a weight loss goal wants to lose weight, but most don’t. Goals suffer from “survival ship bias”—we think the goals are what made the winners succeed. False. Goals are simply a wish until proven otherwise. It is not the goal that makes one person lose weight and the other person quit after three days; it is the systems set in place to support that goal.
Habits are tiny battles that define who your future self will be. Remember, the results of the battles compound. You don’t need to be perfect to create a new habit, you don’t need to be perfect “to vote” a new healthier version of yourself into existence. To paraphrase Clear, no one needs 100% of the votes to get voted into office. What is required is a majority. Or, as I tell my clients “it is not what you do between Christmas and New Years that counts. What matters is what you do from New Years to Christmas.” It is your norms—your habits—that matter, not your one-off actions.
Inventory your habits. Ask yourself which habits are serving you. Ask yourself what habits could serve you better. Make your goal to “trend positive”—to have more healthy habits this month than last month and to, more often than not, follow through on the habits that serve you.