Book Review: Atomic Habits

Atomic Habits by James Clear is one of the books I always wanted to read. In one sentence, I’d review this book as “A book that must be present on every such person’s desk who wants to grow in their life”. This book is about understanding, building/breaking and maintaining habits. It helps to teach you about habits and their patterns by building an architecture of habits.

In the initial chapters, James Clear explains the importance of habits and their impact on our daily lives as well as any of our achievements. He also explains how small and trivial habits can lead to big impact on our long term goals. He talks about building a system through habits which will lead to achievements. There are plenty of real-life examples given at start of each chapter to understand the actuality of same.

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems

James Clear, Atomic Habits

The whole book builds up an architecture of habits which includes these components :

CUE → CRAVING → RESPONSE → REWARD

A Cue is when you get a hint about something that builds up Craving to do an action in Response leading to a Reward. And when you get the reward, you tend to repeat the cycle, which builds the habit.

The book is divided into four parts, explaining the four laws by which you can exploit the behaviour of these components and build or break a strong habit.

The first Law is “Make it obvious” which is about making a cue more visible to start the chain of habit. To break a habit, you apply the inverse of this law, which is “Make it invisible”. So when you make it visible, you tend to crave for it and the cycle starts. The author explains how we have became so automatic to our habits that we don’t even notice it, then he gives a scorecard technique to tackle this problem down. He also explains how environment is more impactful than motivation in terms of getting something done, and how can we use this fact to strengthen, build or tear down a habit.

The second Law is “Make it attractive” which is about making a habit attractive such that we crave for it. Because cue only cannot make us take the step to do it if we don’t feel the craving for it (you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink). To break a habit, you apply the inverse of this law, which is “Make it unattractive”. The author explains the chemistry behind what makes an action a habit. The Dopamine released in our brains makes us likely to repeat some actions, forming a habit. James Clear presents a shocking fact that dopamine is released when craving is felt, not necessarily when a habit cycle is completed. He also discusses how peer pressure, society, culture or company can instill, or deform a habit in us.

The third law is “Make it easy” which is about making the desired action least effortful to start with. The author talks about how some of the bad habits are part of our life just because they’re so effortless and frictionless to start the cycle. Think about opening Instagram and scrolling through the reels. The attraction alone cannot always be enough to surpass the friction and make us do something, hence we must reduce friction in beginning to form a habit. Inversely to break a habit, “Make it difficult” and increase friction for bad habits. Want to use less phone mindlessly? put it in another room. He emphasizes the role of environment in making habits easy. “A new habit should take less than two minutes to do” is the Two Minute Rule that James Clear discusses in the chapter. “Standardize before you optimize” means you must first establish a habit by at least showing up to it everyday, then only you can optimise it for achievement. In the later part, he talks about using technology to benefit in forming habits.

Human behaviour follows the Law of Least Effort. We will naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work.

James Clear, Atomic Habits

The fourth law is “Make it satisfying” which tells us that we are likely to repeat a behaviour if it is satisfying. The author states that we as humans have evolved to develop a system that favours instant rewards over delayed rewards. The Cardinal Law of Behaviour Change says that “What is immediately rewarded is repeated, what is immediately punished is avoided”, this is backed by several scientific experiment examples that the author has given. Thus to make a habit stick, we must immediately feel successful. To make the habit satisfying, James Clear suggests using a habit tracker – physical calendar or app. Ticking in a habit tracker after completion feels like a success and you’ll be motivated to keep the streak. If the streak breaks for one day, don’t let it miss on the second day, “get back to it immediately” the author says. Also he warns that one must choose a good metric for tracking as the numbers can mislead, though one must not stick to these numbers for their overall progress. In the last part, he suggests having an accountability partner with whom you can sign a habit contract, on breaking which there should be some punishment for you. This will help you stick to the habit better.

With these four parts, the author lays out the architecture of habits and several techniques with which you can form or destroy a habit. There’s also a special part at the end of the book which is titled “Advance Tactics” but I’ll let it be a surprise for the readers. There are also several resources given as links throughout the chapters (in the footnotes) that you can visit to learn more about the topics.

To me, this book is very practical and it presents applicable techniques that any person can definitely give a try to blend into their lifestyle to change their life – bit by bit. I recommend reading this book chapter by chapter and once finished, reading it again after 6-7 months, as it is concise and somehow motivating.