New York: Avery, 2018.
320 pp. $27 (hardcover).
By 2003, the British cycling team hadn’t won an Olympic medal for ninety-five years. No Brit had won the Tour de France, ever. That year, the team hired a new coach, Dave Brailsford. His approach, which he called the “aggregation of marginal gains,” was to search for minor improvements in every aspect of the sport (13). Brailsford’s theory was that these marginal gains would compound into dramatic improvement.
He was right. Between 2007 and 2017, the British cycling team “won 178 world championships and sixty-six Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured five Tour de France victories” (15).
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear uses the British cycling team and a plethora of other examples to illustrate how small improvements in one’s routines and habits can manifest in great progress toward one’s goals. Clear shows how and why we form habits and offers techniques for managing the process and driving self-improvement.
By self-improvement, Clear doesn’t just mean accomplishing a particular set of goals. “Building better habits isn’t about . . . achieving external measures of success like earning more money, losing weight, or reducing stress” (41). Improving your habits can help you accomplish such things. But improving your habits, according to Clear, is also a mechanism for improving your identity and self-image, which enables you to achieve your full potential. As Clear puts it, “your habits are how you embody your identity” and thus create your self-image:
When you make your bed each day, you embody the identity of an organized person. When you write each day, you embody the identity of a creative person. When you train each day, you embody the identity of an athletic person.
The more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior. In fact, the word identity was originally derived from the Latin words essentitas, which means being, and, identidem, which means repeatedly. Your identity is literally your “repeated beingness.”
Whatever your identity is right now, you only believe it because you have proof of it. If you go to church every Sunday for twenty years, you have evidence that you are religious. If you study biology for one hour every night, you have evidence that you are studious. If you go to the gym even when it’s snowing, you have evidence that you are committed to fitness. The more evidence you have for a belief, the more strongly you will believe it. (36–37)
Actions toward changing your identity, Clear writes, are akin to voting. “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. . . . Each time you write a page, you’re a writer. Each time you practice the violin, you’re a musician” (38). The idea is to cast as many votes as possible for the person you’d like to become. In time, as you accumulate votes, you will prove to yourself that you are the type of person you chose to be.
Clear points out that focusing on the type of person you wish to become can be a powerful tool for changing your habits. He tells a story about a friend who leveraged her desired identity to lose more than one hundred pounds. She focused on it relentlessly “by asking herself, ‘What would a healthy person do?’ All day long, she would use this question as a guide. . . . She figured if she acted like a healthy person long enough, eventually she would become that person. She was right” (40).
By contrast, ignoring your desired identity can inhibit your ability to build powerful new habits. As Clear explains, “It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior” (33). You may want to write a novel, but if you believe that you’re incapable of creativity, you’ll struggle to write. You may want to start a business, but if you believe that you’ll always be disorganized and scatterbrained, you’ll struggle to keep up with its demands.
Habits are difficult to improve because, once formed, they operate at the subconscious level. Clear holds that your subconscious is always scanning your internal and external environment, looking for cues that alert it to the possibility of obtaining a reward. “[T]he cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop—cue, craving, response, reward . . .—that ultimately allows you to create automatic habits” (50–51).
According to Clear, “the conscious mind is the bottleneck of the brain. It can only pay attention to one problem at a time” (46). Whereas focused thought takes place in the conscious mind, habitual behaviors are driven by the subconscious. “Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks” (46).
In order to help the reader take conscious control of his habits, Clear offers his Four Laws of Behavior Change: “(1) make [the behavior] obvious, (2) make it attractive, (3) make it easy, and (4) make it satisfying” (54). Clear provides techniques both for implementing these ideas to create good habits and for inverting them to break bad habits.
For instance, one technique, which Clear calls environment design, helps you leverage cues in your environment to cultivate your desired habits. This may involve using existing cues or adding new cues to your surroundings to remind you of habits you’re trying to form—or removing existing cues that trigger habits you’re trying to break. For example, if you’re trying to set the habit of drawing regularly, you might put your sketch pad and easel in your living room instead of in your closet. This would be an instance of Clear’s first “law”: setting a cue to make the possibility of drawing obvious, thus increasing the likelihood that you’ll draw.
If you were also trying to reduce the amount of mindless channel surfing you do, you might put your easel in front of the TV so that when you sit down to watch TV, you see your cue to draw instead. Or you could take it to the next level and put your TV in a closet and your sketch pad on your entertainment center. Doing this would also leverage Clear’s third “law” by making it easier to draw than to watch TV.
Another technique is one Clear calls the Two-Minute Rule: “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do” (162). For example, setting a habit to exercise can be daunting, as it involves several steps over a period of time. But paring it down to just putting on your gym clothes is quick and easy, and doing so sets the activity in motion.
The point of the Two-Minute Rule, according to Clear, is not to do only easy things or to “trick” yourself into doing more difficult things, but rather to “master the habit of showing up” (163). Consistently performing a behavior is what drives habit formation. Starting with easy behaviors and doing them consistently is a great way to build momentum toward establishing a habit. Once you’ve mastered showing up, it’s easy to move on to the next small increment. For instance, one man who used this strategy would go to the gym, work out for just five minutes, then leave. “After a few weeks, he looked around and thought, ‘Well, I’m always coming here anyway. I might as well start staying a little longer’” (165). So he did and, in time, he lost more than one hundred pounds.
One challenge of adopting new habits is that the rewards often don’t materialize until some time in the future. Yet, Clear explains, immediate rewards reinforce habit formation more strongly than delayed rewards. So instead of struggling against the temptation of instant gratification, use it to your advantage: Immediately after performing a behavior you’re trying to make habitual, give yourself a reward.
I’ve started using this technique myself to build a habit of regularly writing and doing research. Writing is difficult work, and its full rewards don’t come until a piece is finished. But for every hour I spend reading, thinking, or writing, I reward myself by setting aside some money to fund my trip to TOS-Con 2019. Watching this pile of money grow, I find that even struggling with a draft becomes immediately rewarding. And by the time this review is published, I will have achieved more than 20 percent of my savings goal.
The techniques I’ve mentioned here merely scratch the surface of what Clear offers in his book. He includes a great deal of behavioral science to show how habits form and why his techniques work. And the science is blended with many actionable ideas and illuminating examples.
A couple of minor flaws are worth mentioning. Clear could do a better job of distinguishing between the roles of the conscious mind and the subconscious in forming habits. Also, he occasionally equates cost with sacrifice. All actions have costs, but not all costs are sacrificial. For someone set on achieving a life-serving goal, certain costs associated with improving the requisite habits are worth bearing, which makes bearing them a net gain, not a sacrifice or net loss.
Fortunately, these flaws don’t detract much from the immense value of Atomic Habits. I read Clear’s blog for years before the release of this book. Given the quality of his prior work, I expected Atomic Habits to be quite useful. But I was astonished by how useful it is. For anyone wishing to improve his habits—big or small, in any area of life—this book will be a big help.