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Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

After a few years of life getting in the way, I spent 2023 reestablishing my identity as a book reader. As it turns out, non-fiction is my favorite! Anything from self-help to parenting to informational to inspirational. I love to learn about things and people and events. It’s amazing how a few words on a page can have such an impact on my life. 

One of the first books I read last year was Atomic Habits, by James Clear. I admit, I was a little late to the game. As it was published in 2018, I had already been hearing references to Clear’s work for years in everything from conferences and presentations, to work meetings, to casual chats with friends. 

“I get the gist,” I thought. But when it came up as “currently available” in my library app, I decided to give it a shot. Surprise, surprise, I did not already know everything he said – the book turned out to be quite helpful!

Whether you’ve read the book or not, this review will give you a great head start on becoming the person you want to be this year.

The Premise

As you can probably infer from the title, Atomic Habits is all about changing the tiniest aspects of your life to get big results. Just like atoms are microscopic building blocks of everything, our small habits are what really build our character and our lives. It’s not “go big or go home” for James Clear. If you want lasting improvement, go small. 

Clear illustrates this with the story of the British cycling team. Not exactly known for winning, they were looking for something different. So they hired a new performance director who led them to make hundreds of “one percent” changes. He wasn’t asking them to do a 180. He was asking them to improve by one percent all the smallest aspects of their sport – everything from the clothes they wore to the way they were washing their hands (to prevent illness, you see). The accumulation of all the one percent changes led to big victories, and the team began to win actual events! They didn’t need to get more talent, they needed to gain more knowledge and discipline in the little things. 

So maybe you have a habit you want to create, but you want to be sure it sticks. How do you do it? Clear spends most of the book explaining four steps for making these atomic habits stick: Make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, make it satisfying.

Whether you’ve read the book or not, this review will give you a great head start on becoming the person you want to be this year.

Make it Obvious

Our brains are really good at making predictions. As you go around living life day to day, your brain is observing the cause and effect of everything. The first time something happens, you probably notice it. But as you see the same things over and over, your brain starts to take care of it for you, freeing you up to think about other things. 

This is important to know as you set out to make your habit obvious. You don’t want to have to think super hard to make it happen. You want your brain to easily pick up on the fact that “when this happens, that habit happens.” You see where this is going? Once it’s obvious, there’s no thinking necessary. Your brain takes care of it, and you’re free to think about other things. 

I loved one of the examples Clear used to portray this. A physician at a hospital in Boston wanted to get hospital staff and visitors to make healthier choices. She decided to accomplish this by changing the environment of the cafeteria. Instead of placing bottled water only in specific locations, she had water options available everywhere drinks were placed. Over the course of three months, soda purchases dropped 11.4 percent, and bottled water sales increased by 25.8 percent! 

These people didn’t consciously choose to be healthier. Instead, they went for what was obvious – what was right in front of them: Water.

You make your habit obvious by catering your environment to it. Make it stand out! 

This month I decided I wanted to leave behind the night owl life and become an early bird. Considering how I could make this obvious, several things came to mind:

  • Set my lights to dim an hour before I want to go to bed.
  • Change the settings on my phone to stop allowing notifications at a certain time, or even disable specific (distracting and time wasting) apps.
  • Since I’m already in the habit of washing my face early in the evening, I decided to add teeth brushing to that so I have less to do later.

Make it Attractive

It probably goes without saying that it is easier to do things that have an enticing reward attached to them. When you eat that donut, you get that dopamine spike and feel amazing (for a minute or two, at least). So what do you do when the habit you want to start is boring and tasteless, but good for you?

Find a way to build anticipation for a resulting reward. Clear shares the story of a man who engineered his stationary bike to be connected to his computer and television. Then he programmed the computer to allow Netflix to play only if his bike was being used. In this way, he was able to take boring bike riding, and connect it with a reward he loved doing – watching Netflix! 

I know we’re not all engineers, but there are other ways we can pair things we want to do with things we need to do – and thus create a reward for the wanted behavior.  If you love eating skittles, put them next to your dumbbells and require a payment of ten bicep curls before you can eat one. Anything like that will do!

Likewise, you can do the inverse and make your bad habit unattractive. My sister wanted to be an exerciser, but she found her bed a little too enticing. In order to make getting out of bed a better choice, she set an alarm to go off early every morning. If she did not get up to turn it off, her baby would wake up and then she’d have to help him get back to sleep. Compared to waking a baby, getting up to turn the alarm off was a more attractive choice. You see what I’m saying?

Make it Easy

This might be my favorite one. As a recovering perfectionist, I know what it’s like to think and plan and speculate how you’re going to do something just right, but never get around to actually implementing it. But you know what, it’s not about getting it exactly right the first time. It’s about doing it. Make the habit. The quality of the habit will improve over time – but it will never improve if you never start. 

I have found particular benefit in implementing the Two-Minute Rule, which Clear states as, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” I have found that when I follow this, I find success. When I forget to follow this, life is harder.  

Back to my early bird example – in order to get up earlier, I need to go to bed earlier. I told my husband, “From now on, I’m going to bed at 10:30 p.m.” It only took me a few days of completely failing to realize that going to bed an entire hour early is pretty impossible, at least right up front. That’s when I remembered the Two-Minute Rule! I decided I will go to bed two minutes early this week and then two minutes earlier than that next week, and so on, until I’ve reached my desired time. It may take me longer to get there, but at least I will get there. 

Clear also reminds us to try to find ways to make our desired habit require the least amount of effort. He tells about a man who kept his house clean by attaching one little action to another action he was already doing. For example, every time he turned on the shower, he would wipe down the toilet while the water warmed up. Every time he turned off the television, he would put the remote away, fluff the pillows, and fold the blankets. Cleaning in natural, small increments like this is easy. Letting the dirt and grime and disorganization build up for weeks and then try cleaning it… that is hard.

Make it Satisfying

This aspect is important, because while the first three increase the chances you’ll perform your desired habit right now, making it satisfying increases the chances you’ll do it again later. It leaves you with those good vibes. 

The thing about desired habits is they are often for our long-term good.  Exercise and healthy eating, for example, are not immediately rewarding. Sure, they pay off in the long run, but if you want the habits to stick, you’ll want a way to make them immediately gratifying. 

One great way to do this, as Clear explains, is creating a habit tracker. This is some way to mark or note when you complete your habit. It can be as simple as putting an “X” on your calendar. It’s obvious, attractive, and satisfying! As your “Xs” build up, you’ll see your progress immediately, even if your waistline hasn’t quite caught on.

Here’s to Successful Habit Making

If you haven’t read the book yet, I would definitely recommend it. He includes so many more stories, examples, charts, and step-by-step processes to help you easily implement his strategies. It’s motivating, easy to read, and fun to apply. 

If you do end up reading it (or already have), let me know what you think!

About the author

Hey! My name is Brittan and I live in Utah with my husband and one adorable toddler. I love finding holistic and natural ways to care for myself and my family. I particularly enjoy learning about nutrition, herbal medicine, the emotional, spiritual, and energetic aspects of health, and anything else that contributes to complete wellness. Thanks for joining me!

I am not a doctor. Everything I write about is from my personal experience and perspective. Consult a physician if you have questions specific to your health.

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