Book 35: Atomic Habits – James Clear

As habits form a substantial part of our daily behaviour they are worthy of regular scrutiny and investigation. Early last year I finally got to reading Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit’—and it was a tremendous book that I’ve recommended far and wide. Atomic Habits is more a recent book that many liked even more, so I ordered a hard copy.

The key difference between the two books is that while ‘The Power of Habit’ provides a journalistic picture of the inner workings of habits through a collection of research, anecdotes and analysis, Atomic Habits is a practical handbook. Everything here is included on the basis of whether it will help people build the kind of positive habits that create lasting change.

The essence of Clear’s concept is that small (atomic) habits produce remarkable changes over time:

The compounding effect of positive habits is an ongoing theme. He also believes that while goals are useful in providing direction, it is the system, or your collection of habits, that will drive progress:

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” 

To underscore this point, he adds later that ‘winners and losers have the same goals.’ Quite.

While Duhigg sees the habit loop as having three distinct parts (cue, routine, reward), Clear adds ‘craving‘:

This makes a lot of sense, and if you pause before checking your text after receiving a notification you’ll notice how strong the craving can be.

The system to create good habits is built around four laws. These laws link to the four stages of habit.

So, we want to make the cue obvious, the craving attractive, the routine easy and the reward satisfying:

This is a concise, comprehensive system that made immediate sense to me. The book then, is essentially a practical toolkit based on these four laws.

To break bad habits you inverse these laws. So the cues become invisible, the craving unattractive, the routine difficult and the reward unsatisfying:

As an example, since reading this I scheduled a computer shutdown at 9pm to make my late night chess match more difficult. Having to switch on the computer and type in a password added just enough friction to erase the habit entirely. Now I add the time saved to my reading before bed — too easy!

No matter how dialled in (or rampant!) your habits are, this book is a vital resource. Paired with The Power of Habit, this should be part of every person’s ongoing education, ideally as part of secondary or tertiary schooling. The ideas here are empowering and transformative. They give the reader the tools to improve every aspect of whatever circumstances they find themselves in.

Essential reading.

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