Atomic Habits – James Clear

Atomic Habits – James Clear

Updated: 20 December 2023 

A book that flies in the face of ‘quick fix’ solutions, and probably one of the most insightful books on how we build and how we can change our habits. 

We all have habits we’ve picked up[ from those around us, life circumstances, coping mechanisms and self-limiting beliefs. Some of thse are useful and others range from not useful to downright bad for us. Some habits help us and some inhibit us. 

If you can’t seem to make a break-through in areas you really want to amend or improve, this may well be the one book you need to change that cycle or spiral. 

May 2019 Interview at London Real

In an interview with Brian Rose at London Real, James talks through some of the insights he spent 6 years researching. Although he covers a number of elements within his book, there is a lot of detail (including actionable steps to take in building strong habits) that he does not cover.  

Reading/listening to his book is essential for gaining a depth of insight into habits and how to change undesirable automatic behaviour that could be detrimental to your health and life goals.  

A few insights covered in this interview:

  • A habit is: a behaviour that has been repeated enough time to be more or less automatic – so things you can do without really thinking about it.
  • It’s not just luck / natural predisposition and not just habits that determine success in life. However, one of these things you have control over. The most reasonable strategy to take in order to achieve what you want is to focus on controlling your habits.
  • Your outcomes in life are a lagging measure of your habits. The things that most need to change are the habits that proceed the outcomes you want to achieve.
  • Small habits don’t transform you overnight, but every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become.
  • Your habits reinforce a particular identity – either positively or negatively.
  • True behaviour change is identity change. The goal, therefore, is not the outcome you require, but a skillset that enables you to be the type of person you desire to be.
  • The things that often separates you is not your physical gifts, but your ability to practice, to get out of your own way, your mental approach etc.
  • In automating behaviour, you can do regular tasks more quickly while using less mental energy, and also save time, to do so.
  • Bad habits often involved immediate gratification, the rewards of good habits are often only seen in the future – the cost of your good habits is in the present and the cost of your bad habits is in the future.
  • Good habits become easy habits when you can find joy in delaying gratification.
  • If you learn the right (credible) story to tell yourself, it becomes easier to maintain that over the long run.
2023 Fast Forward Conference Presentation Summary

If you do not want to sign up to London Real so you can watch the interview, the presentation at the Fast Forward Conference is a more recent (and shorter) version of the same information delivered by James on (some of the) Atomic Habits.  

A few of the key messages are expounded more fully in the book, but here are some topline take-aways that may help you start thinking about the digital habits you currently have, and how to start making some ‘small win changes’ that can lead to bigger life goals wins as the habits embed.  

  • The aggregation of marginal gains: you don’t need to make sweeping major changes in order to win big. By making small, compounded (1%) improvements on a daily basis, you can change the overall trajectory of your future in a positive way. Resulting in “The Compound Interest of Self-Improvement…time will magnify whatever you feed it”. 
  • “If you are struggling to improve, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system”. We struggle to change if we have the wrong system to be able to change. Setting a desired goal is easy. The hard part is building a system of behaviours, that you then execute, to carry you towards achieving the goal. Your system is the collection of daily habits that you follow that are designed to deliver results. If you want to change your results you need to change your systems (i.e. daily habits). 
  • Your only rational/reasonable approach in life is to focus on the elements that are within your control. It’s up to you to build the habits that can get you to the goal you wish to achieve.  

A habit can be broken into 4 different stages:  

  1. Cue: Trigger that tells your brain to initiate the habit – something that gets your attention. 
  2. Craving: Your brain then starts to make a prediction (automatically) of what may happen in response to that cue. 
  3. Response: The favourable meaning that you give towards the engagement in that behaviour. 
  4. Reward: The satisfying element/the cost of engaging in the behaviour  

 The 4 Laws of Desired Behaviour Change. Make it: 

  1. Obvious – the cues of your good habits need to be visible, available, or get your attention. 
  2. Attractive – the more appealing/enticing it is, the more likely you will feel compelled to do it.  
  3. Easy – the more frictionless/easy a habit is to do, the more likely it is to be performed. 
  4. Satisfying – the more rewarding it is, the more likely you will do it again in the future.  

 If you want to break a bad habit, then reverse these laws.