Time for a New Read in a New Year: Atomic Habits by James Clear (Book Review)

None of us knows what the future holds for us, 2020 certainly taught us that.  All we really possess is the now. While the destination is unknown, the choices and behaviours in the now will help decide our direction of travel to the betterment or otherwise. 

Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, once said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”.

What better way, then, to kick off a new year, which follows the most extra-ordinary year, than with a book about habits. 

Love it or hate it, and most of us will likely testify to the latter, 2020 gave us a rare glimpse into what makes us tick – our strengths, our weaknesses, and what matters to us most. The once packed social and professional diaries were abruptly emptied as we became cut off from physically being with others. Travel plans were in tatters and goals and plans looking increasingly uncertain. Most of us had more time. Time to be uncomfortable with ourselves, time to, often reluctantly, look inwards to redress our frustration, unhappiness or unfulfillment. 

But with the new year always comes renewed hope, never more so than now. 

It’s the middle of January and although this has been anything but a routine new year, it’s likely many of our resolutions have bitten the dust or at least become lacklustre, as they sadly often do as we proceed into the year. The enthusiasm and determination we felt initially slowly being replaced by guilt, shame and a deep sense of failure.

So where are we going wrong and why this perpetual pattern?

James Clear explores this very phenomenon in his best-selling book Atomic Habits.

According to Clear, many of us give up because we think too big and may have a goal but lack a system to support achieving it. He writes:

Breakthrough moments are a result of many previous actions. Habits must persist past the initial valley of disappointment (the early phase where we put in the effort without seeing results). Most of us overestimate what we can do in the short term but underestimate what we can do in the long term.”

If goals were enough on their own, then we scarcely would need to make the same resolution twice. As Clear powerfully expresses, the athlete who comes first in the race and one who comes last both have the same goal – to win the race. So what goes wrong?

“We don’t rise to the level of our goals, but fall to the level of our systems.”

The system is the process that leads to that result.

So decide the person you want to be and prove it to yourself with small wins. Incentives will start the habit but identity will sustain it. 

James Clear discusses what he calls the 4 rules of behaviour change – How to make good habits and break bad ones. 

The 4 laws of behaviour change can be inverted to stop a bad habit and are as follows: 

Make the cue obvious

1. Prime your environment to make good habits easier – your surroundings and environment should support your new habit. e.g. keep water bottles in sight and biscuits out of sight. Reduce the friction of good habits, and increase the friction of bad habits. 

2. Use implementation intentions, when A happens, I will do B – A then becomes the trigger for B, e.g. when I get out of bed, I will do 10 press-ups (B).

3. Habits stacking – associate an existing habit with a new one. When I make a cup of tea, I will drink a cupful of water first.

Make it attractive

1. Temptation bundling – Bundle an unattractive task with something enjoyable – then you are more encouraged to do it .e.g. listening to music while doing the ironing.

2. Join a culture where your desired behaviour is the normal behaviour – evidence shows your closest friends have the biggest impact on your achievements. Other examples are groups e.g. park run, slimming classes or language which have proven success.

Make the response easy – A habit needs to be established before we can perfect it

1. To make a habit stick it is the number of repetitions that is important, not the number of days or weeks, so establish a new habit in a small form. 

2. Make the behaviour easy, and reduce the friction. Or add friction to reduce the ease of doing a bad habit. 

3. Scale down the habit to 2 minutes – whether it is a two-minute workout, two minutes of reading, or two minutes of learning a new language. This allows us to form a new identity, through enforcing self-belief, to someone who CAN. Once established, it is easier to build on that habit. 

Make the reward satisfying – What is rewarded is repeated 

1. Make habits satisfying by attaching an immediate gratification. 

2. Anticipating pleasure gives the motivation to act.

Achieving a goal is only a momentary change but choices compound to get you there. Small incremental changes lead to massive results. This seems obvious but it’s important. As the author outlines, a continuous 1% improvement in any aspect e.g. our sleep, healthy eating, or study habits may not seem much in the short term but with time these add up to take us somewhere entirely different.

I really enjoyed reading Atomic Habits. While not being revolutionary, it brings together a psychological theory of human behaviour with practical tips and inspirational examples. I would highly recommend it.

None of us knows what the future holds for us, 2020 certainly taught us that.  All we really possess is the now. While the destination is unknown, the choices and behaviours in the now will help decide our direction of travel to the betterment or otherwise. 

“Success is the product of daily habits, not once in a lifetime transformations, you should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than your current results” – James Clear

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