Book Review: Atomic Habits
By James Clear; published by Avery Publishing Group, October 16, 2019. 320 pages. Hardcover $27
Reviewed by Chris Wendel
In a nutshell: Author James Clear combines behavioral science and relatable stories to clarify why most of us struggle with bad habits and lack the practical tools to build better ones.
Who is it for? For general audiences.
Author’s quote: “A good player works hard to win the game everyone else is playing. A great player creates a new game that favors their strengths and avoids their weaknesses.”
We all make efforts to adopt good habits that are difficult to maintain, while experiencing the frustration of bad habits that are hard to shake. Think of that pivotal time in your day when deep-rooted habits determine if it’s a good, productive day or a bad turn into a trough of ineffectiveness.
Author James Clear studied biomechanics in college before embarking on a series of entrepreneurial pursuits that combined his science background and writing skills. Through his experiences, Clear developed a comprehensive system for managing habits. Released in late 2019, the book “Atomic Habits” is a combination of detailed research and human-interest stories rolled into a practical guide for anyone seeking better results in life. Its title is derived from the concept of small incremental changes that accumulate and sustain over time.
“If you make small, easy changes and layer them on top of one another like units in a larger system, you can get powerful results,” Clear explains.
Clear points out that our usual strategy for forming better habits is to make goals. There is a problem with this approach, however. Setting goals will point you in the right direction, but it takes processes or systems to reach your goals. Clear’s system is a series of small consistent positive changes that over time become durable habits. The system then sets up obstacles to discourage poor habits.
The 1st Law of Behavior Change is to make it obvious. The strategy is to connect an intended behavior to a time and location, i.e., forming a daily exercise routine tied to an exact time and place. For example: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of exercise on Monday at 7 a.m. in my living room.” This creates a prior plan about when and how to act, which is critical to implementing that particular habit.
Clear then describes the strategy of pairing a new habit with an existing habit, known as “habit stacking.” “If you’re developing a habit of saving money,” he writes, “the idea would be to wait 24 hours when wanting to buy something over $100.”
Critical to the process is adopting an identity that supports the new habit that you’re building. Instead of saying you’re going to quit smoking, it’s more effective to decide you’re taking on a healthy identity. The book also advises small changes to your environment that create a better context to trigger cues that further support good habits, such as: “If you want to practice guitar more frequently, place your guitar stand in the middle of the living room.”
Applying real life examples, including stories of business leaders, Olympians, and recognizable celebrities, makes the book quite enjoyable. “Atomic Habits” also includes a series of worksheet-like materials that bring the presented concepts together into a solid strategy for moving forward. The end result is a useable guide for instilling good habits and ensuring that bad habits are less likely to occur.
It’s easy to understand why “Atomic Habits” has held a top position on The New York Times list of bestselling business books for several months. The book’s broad appeal combined with its relevant stories and techniques reframes ways we can all become more effective.
Chris Wendel is a Business Advisor with Northern Initiatives, a Community Development Financial institution (CDFI) based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at email@example.com