Atomic Habits by James Clear: Analysis, Criticism, and Summary
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I assume you’ve heard about the book Atomic Habits. But is it worth reading or listening to on audible?
In my opinion, the answer is no. This article explains why the book misses the point.
I’m not impressed with Atomic Habits because I find it misleading. It confuses the concept of habits with established management practices.
You see this problem in the book’s lead example, British Cycling. The British Cycling team had been unsuccessful for a long time. But they got a new performance coach who dedicated himself to making incremental improvements to every aspect of the racing team’s operation. Examples included wiping the wheels down with alcohol to increase grip and removing dust from the trucks transporting the bicycles to reduce degradation.
The team’s improvement was remarkable. While it had only won one gold medal in the previous 100 years of the Olympics, it won 14 of them in the next two. Their strategy worked.
So here’s where the faulty logic comes in. The author attributes these incremental improvements to atomic habits. And then he leaps to his conclusion. If you apply the atomic habits approach, you will make remarkable progress in your life.
The argument doesn’t make sense. Habits didn’t drive the British Cycling team’s improvements. And prioritizing them in your life will result in you putting in a lot of effort but making little progress.
Habits and incremental improvements are two separate things for racing teams, companies, and people.
It’s better to use habits to manage your energy and your environment.
Let’s start with energy. Why go to bed at a reasonable time, get enough sleep, eat healthy, and exercise? What impact does it have on your job? The answer, of course, is energy and focus. It’s critical for getting work done quickly.
Habits also help you manage your environment. Your environment includes other people like family and friends. You make a habit of spending time with them to have a happy personal life. These relationships indirectly help you be more productive in your professional endeavors.
However, habits don’t relate to the improvements of the British Cycling team. You incrementally improve the process by treating the tires down with alcohol and eliminating dust. And you add these items to a race preparation checklist.
Is the author saying that you should create checklists for your current life and call those habits? Imagine how long your list could grow. How would you measure your output? How would you remain flexible and adaptive?
The author is at the tip of something more interesting. But he appears unable to dive deeper.
British Cycling is applying the theory of constraints. It’s a widely used approach to improving business performance. Business schools often teach it in their operations management courses.
In 1984, Israeli Ph.D. and consultant Eliyahu Goldratt published “The Goal.” The book—a bestseller that is still popular almost 40 years later—is a business allegory. It follows a fictional plant manager’s journey in improving the profitability of his operation.
Goldratt makes two principal points. The first is that the purpose of business is to make more and more money. You accomplish this goal by increasing sales while controlling assets and operating expenses. The second is that the best way to increase sales is to identify bottlenecks within the business’s operation. By aligning constraints with customer demand, you improve business performance.
Companies like Tesla and Amazon demonstrate that Goldratt’s approach is still relevant. A well-known agile expert who worked at Tesla, Joe Justice, mentioned that Tesla applies Goldratt’s approach. In annual letters, Jeff Bezos has said that Amazon focuses more on inputs than outputs. It’s the same concept. By inputs, he means that they’re reducing constraints within Amazon’s operation rather than obsessing over results like profitability.
Finally, while you might not have heard of him, Graeme Hart is an investor and the richest guy in Australia and New Zealand. He owns the world’s biggest producers of aluminum foil, trash bags, and fast food containers.
Interestingly, he describes his wealth as a byproduct of doing his job well. His approach involves using debt to finance acquisitions and working the assets as hard as possible.
Okay, let’s think about that description for a moment. Money is a byproduct of working an aluminum foil operation as hard as possible. What does that mean?
It sounds an awful lot like Goldratt. Focus on sales and manage constraints to match demand. Shareholder returns are a byproduct.
This same technique is evident in British Cycling. They apply the theory of constraints to improve their performance.
To apply the theory of constraints, you need to think in systems.
Complex systems have a lot of parts that interact with one another and the external environment in unpredictable ways. Examples of complex systems include the human body, businesses, and cycling teams.
To improve the performance of a system, you focus on a specific output. Examples might include healthy life expectancy for the human body, cash profit for a business, and average race speed for a cycling team.
In the case of British Cycling, imagine all the variables. You have the athletes, coaches, sponsors, equipment, competitors, weather on race day. The number of factors is overwhelming.
So here’s the performance coach’s novel idea. Given the tiny differences separating winners from losers in international cycling, what if you focused on little things instead of big ones? What if you increased aerodynamics by eliminating dust?
After all, aerodynamic drag is a constraint they can manage.
There’s no need to create a plan around this type of activity. Instead, it’s all about continuous improvement.
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In other words, the theory of constraints complements agility. Agile is a software development approach that many programmers and businesses apply. It’s simple to understand its philosophy. Consider taking a moment to review its guiding principles. And note how agile emphasizes responding to change over following a plan.
By drawing the wrong conclusion from the British Cycling example, the author proposes something that makes little sense.
He recommends you develop habits based on his four-part system:
—Make it obvious
—Make it attractive
—Make it easy
—Make it satisfying
How would British Cycling have succeeded had they followed these steps?
Attacking bottlenecks has little to do with it being obvious or attractive. Of course, you would like it to be easy and satisfying. But these conditions are inappropriate in this context.
More appropriate guidance might have been:
—Use habits to maximize your energy and consistency
—Use common sense and logic to reduce the system’s constraints incrementally
—Be methodical and consider creating a checklist you can repeat next time
The guidance that Atomic Habits provides is occasionally thought-provoking but largely unproductive. Applying it risks wasting time while failing to make progress. Buyer beware.
Habits have the power to change your life. Small changes compound over time and can have a significant impact on the trajectory of your life.
—A four-step loop describes how to develop new habits. Follow the guidelines for each step to succeed in building good habits.
—Inventory your existing habits and evaluate whether they are contributing to the life you strive to lead.
—Adopt a holistic view where you see your life as a system. Habits are components of this system. And minor improvements can lead to meaningful changes.
—Continue evolving. Habits serve you. Don’t let them own you.
Just like atoms are the building blocks for molecules, “atomic habits” are the building blocks of your life. To progress in your life, focus on minor improvements to your daily habits. Small changes that compound over time translate to dramatic improvements.
When you repeat the following four-step loop, you can form new habits. The steps are:
The four laws for building better habits through minor improvements are to make it:
Processes are more important than goals. Goals define your desired result from an endeavor. But the system underlying those goals is more important. Applying these laws to improve your habits changes your trajectory. And results are a byproduct.
The six sections of the book explain the fundamental aspects of atomic habits:
Section 1: The Fundamentals. Habits work like compounding interest for self-improvement. If you improve by 1% every day, your long-term gains will be huge. In one year, you will improve by 38 times. It’s, therefore, better to avoid significant changes in favor of incremental improvements that, over time, lead to remarkable results.
Section 2: Law #1 — Make It Obvious. An efficient approach to creating a new habit is to incorporate cues into your home and work environments. These signals trigger an implementation intention where you respond in a specific way when a situation arises.
Section 3: Law #2 — Make It Attractive. The more attractive you make your habit, the greater your ability to practice it. Build rewards into your new habit design. The anticipation of receiving them increases your ability to initiate action.
Section 4: Law #3 — Make It Easy. Strive to make performing a habit as straightforward as possible. Embrace the learning by doing mindset. It is more effective than learning by reading or thinking about something. Repetition makes good habits automatic.
Section 5: Law #4 — Make It Satisfying. Habits are more likely to stick when a reward follows them. It can be small. But using it repeatedly increases the chances of your new habit sticking.
Section 6: Advanced Tactics. Developing and refining your habits never ends. Continuously search for opportunities to improve your performance by 1%. When you encounter a bottleneck, find ways to eliminate it. These improvements compound over time, leading to long-term growth.
British Cycle is the organization that governs professional cycling in Great Britain. It hired Dave Brailsford as its performance director in 2003.
Brailsford immediately implemented a performance strategy that focused on aggregating marginal gains. His approach demanded that the team analyze all aspects of its operation to identify improvements. The thesis was that by breaking down every component of riding a bike and improving it by 1%, the combined improvement would dramatically increase performance.
Examples of improvement taken by Brailsford and his coaches included:
—Redesigning bike seats to make them more comfortable
—Improving bike tire grip by rubbing alcohol on them before races
—Optimizing muscle temperature by adding clothing layers
—Monitoring performance with biofeedback sensors
—Testing the drag of cycling fabrics in wind tunnels
—Painting the inside of team trucks white to spot dust bits that affected bike performance
—Teaching riders hand washing techniques used by surgeons to reduce the risk of catching a cold
The hundreds of minor improvements they made compounded, leading to phenomenal success. In the previous 100 years, British Cycling had won just one Olympic gold medal. In the following two Olympics, they won 14 gold medals.
Their success underscores the central point of incrementalism. While most people strive for significant, sudden changes, incremental improvement can lead to superior outcomes. Or, stated differently, daily habits drive success in any field.
You should therefore use habits as tools to pursue your goals. Evaluate the alignment between your current practices and your desired path in life. Assess whether they are leading you to where you want to go.
Managing your expectations is crucial to success. The benefits of good habits take time to manifest. This delay is due to the compounding system. You will encounter a “Plateau of Latent Potential” where results from your new habits gather strength before becoming apparent. To break through the plateau, continue nurturing your new habits.
Atomic habits require a paradigm shift. Results are byproducts of their underlying systems. While it is tempting to focus primarily on results, you will achieve more by incrementally improving the systems that yield results.
Atomic habits are the building blocks of systems of achievement. They are the small practices that compose larger-scale systems.
Habits are difficult to develop when you focus on the wrong things. Don’t emphasize outcomes. Instead, emphasize the processes that generate your desired results and the beliefs that form your identity.
Actual behavioral change results from identity change. Imagine an onion. Outcomes are its outer layers, while your identity is its core. Changing practices requires that you focus on the person you strive to become instead of the achievement. Habits are not about having something; they are about becoming someone.
Repeat habits until they become automatic. Avoid a simple trial and error approach to developing them. Instead, apply the following four-step approach:
—Use cues to trigger your brain to initiate a behavior with the expectation that it will receive a reward
—Your brain will then crave the reward that results from the behavior
—Respond by taking an action that results in the reward
—Finally, the prize you win will either satisfy your craving or signal what you need to change in the future
A simple set of rules complement the habit loop. Use it to form desirable habits and break undesirable ones:
—Cue—make it obvious
—Craving—make it attractive
—Response—make it easy
—Reward—make it satisfying
Apply an inverse set of rules to break bad habits:
—Cue—make it invisible
—Craving—make it unattractive
—Response—make it difficult
—Reward—make it unsatisfying
Vagueness is the enemy of forming new habits. Creating new patterns starts with evaluating your current ones. However, you probably aren’t aware of many of them. After all, when habits become automatic, you no longer notice them.
An inventory is a critical first step. Begin by writing a list of all your current habits. Then note whether each practice has a positive, neutral, or negative effect on your life and career.
Clarity is crucial to forming a new habit. Avoid falling into the trap of expressing a vague intention, e.g., someday I’m going to do such-and-such a thing. Instead, form a specific plan by completing the statement, “I will [behavior] at [time] in [place].” For example, I will stretch for 15 minutes at 10:00 pm every night in my living room. This approach is called “implementation intention.” Studies demonstrate that this clarity increases motivation to form a new habit.
“Habit stacking” is another strategy for developing new practices. In this approach, one habit triggers another one. Follow the format, “After [current habit], I will [new habit].” For example, after lifting weights, I will jog for 20 minutes.”
A critical feature of habit stacking is that you link a new behavior to something you already do. The first action in the sequence serves as a cue for the second one. It doesn’t need to stop with one new habit. You can include additional steps in the series. This technique leverages the momentum you generate in initiating the first action to complete additional ones.
A third strategy for developing habits is to increase the visibility of positive cues in your environment relative to negative ones. For example, if you want to drink more water and less soda, leave a pitcher of water on your countertop while hiding soda in the back of your refrigerator. To realize this technique’s full power, redesign your environment to emphasize positive cues and hide negative ones.
Dopamine plays a vital role in forming habits. It’s a chemical that your brain releases when you do something you like or anticipate a future reward. Therefore, expecting a reward can prompt you to act. The better the prize, the more likely it will work.
Apply “temptation bundling” to exploit the power of rewards. Follow the format, “After [current habit], I will [desired habit]. And after [desired habit], I will [reward I want].” For example, “after running five miles, I will stretch for 15 minutes. And after I stretch for 15 minutes, I will browse Instagram for 10 minutes.”
Temptation building pairs an action you want to perform with another you don’t want to do. But it puts the undesirable one first. You can maximize the power of a prize by combining this approach with habit stacking. In other words, complete multiple new habits before indulging in a reward.
Be aware that culture influences your habit formation. You are more likely to adopt habits that win the approval of other people. After all, everyone wants to fit into a group and elevate their status within that group. The three most influential groups are:
—Friends & Family. You may develop habits that are similar to those close to you without realizing it.
—Tribal Identities. As you observe the behaviors of groups you want to be a part of, you will likely adopt them. These behaviors often overpower your personal preferences.
—Influencers. Humans often emulate high-status individuals’ behavior in society, hoping that it leads them to similar success.
Culture can be a powerful habit-forming strategy. Consider joining a group where the behavior you aim to adopt is prevalent among its members. If you identify with this group, you will be highly motivated to adopt its behaviors.
You can also try reversing the reward principle. Do something enjoyable before beginning a specific task you find difficult. By repeating this approach, you can create a motivation ritual. In time, this ritual will automatically put you in the mindset to complete the more challenging task.
Learning by doing is a superior approach to learning. It is more effective than reading about a topic or listening to other people describe their experience.
Therefore, make taking action your priority. Forming habits requires repeated effort until a particular behavior becomes automatic.
Five approaches help it easier to perform new habits:
—Prime your environment
—Recognize when decisive moments arise
—Apply the two-minute rule
—Automate your new habits
To reduce friction, make the process simple and intuitive. Habits that require fewer steps are more realistic than those that require more steps. Similarly, when the tools you need are nearby and easy to find, you will find it easier to perform your desired behavior.
Priming your environment requires minimizing temptations. Remove devices, apps, foods, and other things that distract you from the task at hand.
Recognizing when decisive moments arise requires paying attention. You perform close to half of your actions on a typical day out of habit. But there will also be moments when you decide whether to implement a new behavior or opt for the old routine. When you plan for decisive moments, you improve your ability to choose the option where you grow.
The two-minute rule provides a rule of thumb for new habits. When you perform a new behavior, it should take less than two minutes to complete. This guideline emphasizes the point of simplicity. Break habits into small, bite-sized portions that you can handle. The logic is that they have two phases. You begin by forming it and optimize it later.
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If you enjoy a behavior, you are more likely to repeat it. This idea implies that you should strive to make a habit as pleasant and satisfying as possible. Reward yourself immediately after you complete a new behavior. And your motivation will increase. For example, if you’re trying to eat healthier by eating at home instead of at restaurants, immediately transfer the money you save into a savings account for vacation.
Habit tracking contributes to your motivation. You can track your habits using a calendar by simply marking the days that you performed them. This approach helps you build up momentum. You’ll work to keep your streak alive.
The three benefits of habit tracking contribute to your motivation:
—By visibly tracking your habits, you trigger the next instance of performing the behavior. You won’t want to feel the disappointment of breaking your streak.
—Reflecting on your progress is intrinsically motivational. You will see how far you’ve come and eagerly continue moving forward.
—You will experience a sense of satisfaction as you see results from your effort. And you are likely to continue seeking that feeling.
When your streak does end, apply the rule, “never miss twice.” This technique helps shift your attention away from the end of it and towards starting a new one.
Keep things in perspective when tracking your habits. In economics, Goodhart’s law states, “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” In other words, don’t allow your habits to distract you from the big picture. They should help you live a more fulfilling life, not one consumed by obsessing over rigid rules.
Consider collaborating with other people when building new habits. An accountability partner is someone to whom you report your progress on scheduled intervals. You will likely work harder to deliver results to someone you respect and who has your best interests at heart.
A habit contract can also be a powerful tool. This process involves drafting an agreement where you define the behavior you commit to developing into a habit. Remember to include the consequences and punishments of failing to create it. Complete the contract by finding a couple of people to sign the contract and hold you accountable. Clearly defining your objective in this way will increase your motivation.
To raise your game to the next level, consider applying the following tactics once you master the habit-forming loop:
—Play to Your Strengths. Focus on developing habits where you have a natural inclination rather than address weaknesses.
—Don’t Overemphasize Genetics. Your natural abilities can be an asset. But they don’t replace the need for consistent and focused effort.
—Apply the “Goldilocks” Rule. You will optimize your growth and motivation when you focus on the edge of your abilities. This point is where something is neither too difficult nor too easy. And finding balance is critical to sustaining your motivation.
—Leverage Variable Rewards. Boredom threatens success more than failure. Establish variable rewards for when you partially complete your habits. This approach minimizes all-or-nothing thinking while boosting your engagement level.
—Periodically Recalibrate. Habits eventually become automatic and require minimal thought. However, in this phase, errors begin to arise. Regularly review your performance to maintain the quality of your habits.
—Remember Who You Are. Habits offer you the opportunity to reinvent yourself. But don’t become a slave to them. Strive to continue evolving. They serve you, not vice versa.