Atomic habits by James Clear: review (kinda)


I am just in the final stages of reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. 

This is a book I’ve been intending to read for quite a while. Funnily though, I’ve actually been recommending this book to people, even though I hadn’t read it myself. In fact, I recommended this book to a student group I was working with on a design project, and they ended up using the book as the basis of designing a habit formation app. I had to admit to the group that I hadn’t yet even read it (embarrassing!). 

Atomic Habits + Tiny habits (another great habits book by BJ Fogg) make for great reference material for those of you trying to build healthy and productive lifestyles. 

Clear’s book lays out a simple to understand framework for building new habits as eliminating bad ones. 

This starts with the understanding that habits have four stages:


Thus to build a new habit, we need to maximise these four stages. That is where Clear’s laws come in. 

Conveniently, these laws can be inverted to eliminate bad habits. 


A simple example might be:

I want to get more exercise

Make it obvious – track current exercise, scan day for good times to exericse, find existing habits to which you could attach exercise, set up the environment to trigger desire to exercise (e.g. make exercise equipment visible).

Make it attractive – pair exercise with an activity you enjoy (e.g. listening to podcasts), join an exercise group, find a pleasing ritual to use to lead in to exercise. 

Make it easy – start simple and small, get the necessary equipment, remove impediments.

Make it satisfying – reward yourself immediately after, track your exercise to see your progress.


Once you’ve read the book and understood the concepts, you can then use Clear’s cheat sheet to remind yourself of the techniques for each of these laws in order to quickly brainstorm how you might get a new habit up and running. A very quick and convenient way to plan important changes in your life. 

Whilst I am a fan of the simplicity of these steps and their application, what I personally got out of the book was the enjoyment of reading Clear’s observations about what it is actually like to do this kind of habit change work. I appreciated his insights into the process. 

Clear makes many observations about habit formation throughout the book which I thought helped give the discussion of habits a better grounding in the actual experience of building habits, rather than simply the mechanics.  

Some of my favourites (i.e. stuck in my head) were: 


It is about incremental gains

Much of the improvement in our professional and personal lives comes from the small regular improvements we make over time, rather than groundbreaking seismic shifts. For example, it is the incremental improvements to my workflows that make me a better employee over time, moreso than any sweeping changes I make in a single go. Small (i.e. atomic) regular changes compound over time, much like small regular investments help build long-term wealth.  


The early stages of habit change can be unrewarding

There is a lag period in the early days of starting a new simple habit before positive impacts are felt. This delay can mean we abandon efforts before the point that real benefits start to accrue. The early stages of habit change require a degree of faith in the process until we start to see benefits emerging from our consistent regular investments of time and effort. 


Make sure to connect the changes you make to the person you want to be 

Improvement for improvement sake might be a desirable outcome for some, but for most of us, the improvements we make in our daily lives are in the service of building us into the person we want to be. I talk about this a little more below, but this means that for many people, they will need a sense of the person they want to become in order to set the larger context for their efforts to build new habits. 


Motion vs action 

We’ve all done this; busy ourselves with ‘preparatory’ activities that make it seem we are taking action, when in fact we are delaying the specific action we need to take. It is like me researching different types of pushups online, rather than just getting down and doing some pushups. Whilst some preparation is normal, it isn’t until we are actually taking action that we truly know what the impact of the changes we make will be. Ask yourself ‘Am I really taking action, or am I mistaking motion for action?” 


Good systems of change are more important that goals

What Clear describes in this book is a process or system for making positive changes in one’s life. Clear believes that employing such systems is more important than the goals we set. It isn’t that goals are unimportant (they give us a sense of the destination), but goals and desires change over time (because of factors within and out of our control). With a good system in place, we are far more adaptable to the reality of shifting goal posts.  


The ‘Goldilocks Rule’ 

As you start to develop competence and capacity in a given area, maintaining interest in that area might require consistently pushing yourself just outside of your capability/comfort zone. Challenging yourself is a key component of motivation (and flow, interestingly enough).   


These aren’t the only insights and observations. You’ll find many more in the book as well as examples of the laws and insights in action.  

Before I leave this book recommendation, I would like to share some of my thought process as I approached the end of this book. What this book and Tiny Habits do is give you actionable strategies to implement better self-improvement processes in your life. They’re instruction manuals on how to improve.   

What they can’t really do however is tell you ‘why’ you should improve. They can’t tell you what kind of person you currently are, what kind of person you want to be. The bigger question of ‘what kind of life do you want?’ is one that you’ll have to answer separately from the concepts in this book. This book will help you with the strategies to make those wishes a reality, but it won’t answer those bigger questions about meaning and purpose. Maybe it is about being a better student, a better friend, a better parent. Maybe it is about being wealthier or healthier. This is up to you to decide.  

To be clear, this isn’t intended to be a criticism of this book, or other books on habit formation. Rather it is just pointing out that these books are instruction manuals for the process of change, not really the destination of change. Thus, if these kinds of books leave you with a bit of an empty feeling, it may be because the strategies described in them, don’t yet have a purpose in your life. There isn’t yet the bigger vision. You may need to look elsewhere for the purpose. 

Overall this book is a recommendation from me. It is easy to read, easy to understand and I can see the value of his process already in changes I am making in my own life. I borrowed mine via the Libby app and South Australian Public Library service.

Posted in
Books Healthy Lifestyle Life Skills Recommended Reading

Leave a Reply