MARCH Book Of The Month: Atomic Habits by James Clear

"Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones"

Helena Nuttall

Given its place high up on bestselling lists all over the world,  Atomic Habits became an inevitable choice for our book of the month. I also considered that as we’ve spent the last year stuck at home with enough time to organise our wardrobes and pantry cupboards more meticulously than we could have ever imagined, that perhaps at this time of year we should have a go at giving our habits a Spring Clean. What little changes could we make and what kind of an impact would they have?

Like most #selfcare books, James begins his with a personal story. His life radically changed after being hit in the face by a baseball bat at school, leaving him with injuries that set his dreams of playing professional baseball entirely off track. When James went on to Denison University, he made it his mission to become a great player again. He ended up achieving the university’s highest academic honour, and though he never ended up playing baseball on a professional level, he was still able to compete as a college athlete. When he realised that his success at Denison wasn’t down to anything extreme or exceptional, just little habits that he went about consistently, he began to write and publish articles about habit forming to help others reach their potential just as he was able to. Within three years of blogging his email list had hit 200,000 subscribers and a book deal was signed with Penguin Random House. His articles have now been published in top publications such as Time, Entrepreneur and Forbes and he’s regularly invited to speak at major companies. His academy was launched in 2017 and has been growing exponentially ever since. 

The Fundamentals 

“(…)atomic Habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.” 

p. 28.

In the first section of the book labelled ‘The Fundamentals,’ James describes the significance of small habits. As someone who has always been encouraged to set goals I found this section of the book absolutely fascinating. He tells us to actually put our goal setting aside, and focus instead on building a system for improvement. By becoming fixated on goals we often miss what is fundamental; becoming a better version of ourselves everyday. It is habit building that really brings about lasting change. 

The First Law: Make It Obvious

“You don’t have to be the victim of your environment. You can also be the architect of it.”

p. 84.

What I took from this section is that we can make habit forming easier for ourselves by creating an environment that is conducive to what it is that we are trying to do. An example given for this is someone wishing to read more. He suggested that they set aside a realistic time to read everyday, and in this person’s case before going to sleep would be the most convenient time. By leaving a book on their pillow when they make their bed in the morning, it would almost be difficult for them not to pick it up and read at the end of the day. A specific plan and an environmental cue may be all that is required to ensure consistency. Along with facts and case studies James provides us with exercises including ‘habit stacking’ to spring us into action. 

The Second Law: Make It Attractive

“(…) our goal is to make our habits irresistible.”

p. 104.

James recommends pairing tasks we may think of as arduous with something we enjoy doing. That way, we are more inclined to complete the task we would usually end up procrastinating as it allows us then to move on to what it is we fancy doing. He also asks us to think about who we spend our time with as we are likely to adopt the habits and practices of those around us. Being part of a group can be extremely beneficial to building and maintaining habits. For instance, if someone decided they’d like to improve their fitness through cycling, joining a cycling group would help to hold them accountable to this. 

The Third Law: Make It Easy

“We can make good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible.”

p. 171.

This section of the book is packed with tips for making a habit easier to commit to. What really struck me is his advice to do less of what we intend to do. For example, if I’d like to read more and intend to read 50 pages everyday, instead I should aim to get 10 pages read. I think often we miss the point that anything is better than nothing and by setting ourselves big goals and challenges we set ourselves up for failure. Because of other commitments 50 pages everyday would be difficult to stick to and if I missed one day I might be tempted to give up. 10 per day is so manageable that most days I could end up doing more. But either way, 10 pages everyday for a year adds up to more than 50 pages for a few days and then giving up entirely. “It is better to do less than you hoped than nothing at all.” James recommends creating a ‘commitment device’ for tasks that we intend to do but in the moment may decide to put off. The case study that he uses to describe how these can be used is available to read about on his blog. 

The 4th Law : Make It Satisfying 

“Positive emotions cultivate habits. Negative emotions destroy them.”

p. 186.

Habit tracking is excellent tool and James lists the benefits:

  • Benefit #1 – Habit tracking is obvious. “(…) your last action creates a trigger that can initiate your next one.”
  • Benefit #2 – Habit tracking is attractive. “The most effective form of motivation is progress” 
  • Benefit #3 – Habit tracking is satisfying. “It is satisfying to cross an item off your to-do list” 

Habit tracking can help us to achieve consistency and ensure that even if we fail on one occasion that we get back on track very quickly after. (“…when successful people fail, they rebound after.”) He does however warn us that sometimes we may find ourselves tracking the wrong thing, and reminds us that while it can be really helpful, it is still merely a tool. For example, someone trying to lose weight may focus on the number on the scale, a measure with a propensity to fluctuate. In that instance noticing healthier hair and skin and feeling more energetic might serve as a better marker. 

Creating accountability can also be an excellent tool to keep us on track, and in this section James describes a case study where somebody designed a habit contract to help him achieve his weight-loss goal. 

Advanced Tactics 

“How to Go from Being Merely Good to Being Truly Great”

p. 215.

My Key Take-Aways From This Section:

  • You’ll make your life a lot easier if you choose to form habits which align with your natural abilities ie. being a natural runner and deciding to train for a marathon
  • To master a skill it is important to show up even at times you don’t feel motivated or when it’s not convenient 
  • “A lack of self-awareness is poison. Reflection and review is the antidote.”

I recommend Atomic Habits to anyone wishing to rid themselves of bad habits and create better, new ones. The easing of lockdown is the perfect opportunity to rise to new challenges – so what better time than now?!

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