Book Review - Atomic Habits
A number of people have recommended James Clear’s Atomic Habits in recent months so I was excited to pick it up. I ripped through it pretty quickly. It’s a great read! Not pretentious. Not condescending. Just a good collection of observations about habits and human behavior. There is a key sentence in the book that summarizes it perfectly in my opinion.
Originally posted on Medium.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
The Japanese have used the word Kaizen to describe the process of taking small actions to improve overall. I believe James is saying something very similar. He continues: “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
A lot of athletes already have this mindset, at least in the frame of their sport. Swimmers strive for 1% better. When races are won by hundredths of a second, 1% can make the difference between winning and losing. I don’t think many of us apply a similar train of thought to our every day lives. Athletes are hyper focused. Improving our lives seems to grandiose, hard to focus in on. Atomic Habits provides tools and methodologies for gaining that focus. Establishing habits, very small ones to start, we can iterate and make improvements in our lives overall, just like athletes focused on their sports.
James makes some terrific points about setting yourself up for success, by establishing habits and using systems to keep those habits. He says “Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”
You may set a goal at the start of the year to go to the gym and get healthy. But unless you establish a system of getting you there, you’ll more than likely lose interest after a few weeks. It’s why gyms are really busy in January, but fall back to normal levels in February. A super simple system that works for many is setting our gym clothes out the night before. It’s one less excuse in the morning and establishes a habit that changes your mindset. There are many examples in the book. All make for “ah ha” moments while reading them.
Atomic Habits covers everything from establishing habits to explaining the motivation behind goals. I highlighted the following paragraph.
“In short, we optimize for what we measure. When we choose the wrong measurement, we get the wrong behavior. This is sometimes referred to as Goodhart’s Law. Named after the economist Charles Goodhart, the principle states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Measurement is only useful when it guides you and adds context to a larger picture, not when it consumes you. Each number is simply one piece of feedback in the overall system.”
Anyone measure their weight every morning when trying to lose a few pounds? We establish that habit, but it doesn’t help us lose weight. The weight measurement can’t be the habit, exercise has to be.
James hits on many psychology principles, making them extremely approachable. Back to the Kaizen principle he notes:
“Whenever you’re looking to improve, you can rotate through the Four Laws of Behavior Change until you find the next bottleneck. Make it obvious. Make it attractive. Make it easy. Make it satisfying. Round and round. Always looking for the next way to get 1 percent better.”
A number of the principles resonated for me personally. But in the end it all comes down to the following:
“Your actions reveal how badly you want something. If you keep saying something is a priority but you never act on it, then you don’t really want it. It’s time to have an honest conversation with yourself. Your actions reveal your true motivations.”
Thinking back, I’m embarrassed to see what my actions revealed. Some things I said were a priority but didn’t act accordingly. I may have felt motivated and had great intentions, but never established the habits and system that ultimately created the actions that would truly reveal my motivations.
There are plenty of motivational posters in gyms citing the quite “Show me your habits, I’ll show you your future.” It’s a good quote, but after reading Atomic Habits, I would like to propose an alteration.
“Tell me your habits, and I’ll tell you what really matters to you.”
After reading Atomic Habits, I know how to easily create habits that back up my true motivations and priorities. I’ve already started incorporating them into my daily routines. Long term, I want to stick with these habits, not simply to have a long running streak, but rather so I can look back from the future and be proud of where I ended up all because I established habits to act on the things that were important to me.
Atomic Habits is one of the books I have been recommending to people lately. It’s a quick read that doesn’t come across like a self help book. It’s down to earth and approachable. Maybe add it to your list and establish a habit of reading 1% more per day.