017. Atomic Habits by James Clear - Part 1

Part 1 of 2. We review Atomic Habits by James Clear

Overall Review 

Leo's take:
I have read many self-help books. I have never found a book so condensed with information. This is a book I found with many takeaways and lessons. I can tell this is a book James had been working on as a series of blog posts, but had successfully made those blog posts into an actual book which each piece connected much better than the other.

I compare this to Derek Sivers book on which felt much more disconnected. (It had great elements but there was as much cohesion as this book). This book is filled with so many lessons - many I practice without thinking (and I have talked about on the podcast) but this book explains them so clearly.

Erik's take:
This book is phenomenal and I agree with Leo: it’s very nutrient dense. The information is organized in a hierarchical way that makes the high-level process easy to remember and serve as reminders for all of the little details as well. I also greatly appreciate the vast amount of short, practical analogies and examples. The examples weren’t all relatable, but they were short enough that I didn’t feel alienated by them.

The supplemental material offered with the book purchase is great, too. Cheat sheets, templates, Q&A, bonus chapters... I’ve never read a nonfiction book that got me so geeked to apply the lessons and use the extra tools. And while some of the concepts from the book tend to come more easily to me than what I see of some of my peers, I’m still eager to try the approach to both break a habit and adopt a new (good) one.


Content warning: the introduction starts with a graphic description of bodily harm. If you may find this unsettling, skip the intro. It merely serves as a source of credibility and using the lessons described in the other chapters to overcome adversity.

James captures you right off the bat (no pun intended) with a great anecdote about a serious injury and how he slowly recovered from it through habits.

The Analogy of the Ice Cube 

  • The overall thesis of the book is that small changes can compound themselves and how with time those small changes can lead to big outcomes.
  • This idea is best illustrated through the financial concept of compound interest.
  • The book also compares persistent atomic habits to melting ice:
    • A one-degree shift, seemingly no different from the temperature increases before it, has unlocked a huge change.
    • Complaining about not achieving success despite working hard is like complaining about an ice cube not melting when you heated it from twenty-five to thirty-one degrees.
  • We like the analogy of melting ice. Sometimes change takes a long time. Sometimes change requires persistent effort. In both cases you either must trust that results will start to happen (i.e. don’t arbitrarily give up) or know at what point the scales will tip in your favor.

Reshaping Your Identity 

  • This chapter is where the book really hooked Erik. He looooooves the notion of Identity-based Habits, which is the idea of using your identity or reframing your identity to acquire better habits. For example, think “I am vegetarian” instead of “I want to eat less meat” to lock those habits in your mindset and transition to the person you really want to be.
  • Something we wish was covered a bit more is that other people project their images of our identity onto us (a.k.a. peer pressure). It can be difficult to reframe something such as “I am a confident person” after years of nourishing an identity that we are anxious, shakeable, and easily give into peer pressure (as an example).
  • The overall point here is to communicate to yourself and others that you are changing. Declare who you are and let the people who care about you know it too so they can better support your new habits.

The Habit Loop 

  • The stages of a habit, from the book:
    1. cue,
    2. craving, 
    3. response,
    4. reward
  • The steps to develop a good habit, from the book: 
    1. make it obvious, 
    2. make it attractive, 
    3. make it easy, 
    4. make it satisfying
  • Simple does not mean easy, and that’s where the book's templates, strategies, and examples become really useful.
  • We like the big-picture thinking here: use habits to make your behavior automatic so you get lots of small rewards to keep you going and then you get the big, long-term intrinsically motivated pay-offs as well.

Are Habits Boring? 

  • Habits do not make life dull. They eliminate (or at least diminish) the arduous process of doing things we don't want to do. They also free our minds from thinking about things we don't want to do.
  • In the long term, we learn to enjoy those things when they become automatic and we continue to reap the benefits of the habits.

Comparing to Power of Habit

  • Atomic Habits contains many personal short examples, analogies, and stories whereas The Power of Habit contains longer stories about newsworthy examples of habits at scale. We found Atomic Habits' stories much more relatable and reproducible.
  • The stages of a habit in Atomic Habits involves four steps: cue, craving, response, reward. This is a longer list than the habit loop from The Power of Habit (cue, routine, reward), but we find Atomic Habits' list easier to remember, perhaps because of the double alliteration and parallels it draws with both making new habits and breaking bad habits.
  • The Atomic Habits process of making new habits and breaking new habits seems much more concrete to us than those from The Power of Habit. The steps to form a good habit and the inversion of that same process to break a bad habit also seems much more simple!

Related Episodes

  • 001 - A Sleepy Episode: Erik’s approach to getting a good night’s rest and a great start to the day is a good example of habit stacking
  • 003 - Goals and Actions: One point we make is to pursue goals in small, actionable ways
  • 004 - Power of Habit Review: We read and review The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
  • 005 - Making Quick Decisions: The 5-Second Rule is strikingly similar to the 2-Minute Rule outlined in Atomic Habits
  • 009 - Working On Your Own: Environment design is very important to getting the most out of your work day when you’re a freelancer/solopreneur
  • 010 - Time Wasters: Another exercise in environment design focused on removing bad habits that waste your time
  • 011 - Year in Review: Habits aren’t enough, you also have to stop occasionally and consciously look at and re-evaluate what you’re doing
  • 014 - Project Breakdown: Our process of breaking a big project down into actionable and measurable pieces is really similar to breaking a big goal or identity shift into atomic habits
  • 015 - The One Big Thing: Leo and Erik both use habit tracking, writing things down, and environment design as the biggest boosts to their productivity

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Music by Max Sergeev from Fugue

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