Atomic Habits, James Clear (Review/Summary)

I recently finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear and wanted to bring its ideas to you today. This was another recommendation from Kaiser, who previously recommended that I read The Big Five for Life by John Strelecky, and links into a recommendation from Lee Cho to read How to Fail at Almost Everything by Scott Adams. Lastly, there were my own posts on building a habit of charisma, which you can find here and here.

The book is structured by Clear with a chapter dedicated to each “stage” of a habit:

Cue -> Craving -> Response -> Reward

A typical example of a good habit is brushing your teeth. The cue is to wake up. The craving (desire) is for a clean mouth. You brush your teeth. You have a clean mouth. A typical example of a bad habit is eating junk food. You walk past a kebab shop. You crave the food. You buy the food. You eat the food. Now whenever you walk down that street you risk repeating the action and building a bad habit.

Then within each section Clear goes over how to make a good habit more appealing and a bad habit less appealing:

Cue (make it obvious / invisible) -> Craving (make it attractive / unattractive) -> Response (make it easy / difficult) -> Reward (make it satisfying / unsatisfying)

There are also techniques which he recommends using to improve your adherence to the desired habit (or avoiding the undesired one) such as:

  • Keeping a habit scorecard to see your faults and existing habits
  • Ticking successful days off on a calendar
  • Writing down your desired habits to stick to them
  • “Habit stacking:” intentionally putting a desired habit after a current one e.g. after I brush my teeth I will floss
  • “Temptation bundling;” incentivising/disincentivising yourself to do the desired habit / avoid the undesired habit by pairing it with something pleasurable / unpleasurable (though not destructive e.g. don’t reward a good habit with a slice of cake because that would simply be a new bad habit)

And tonnes more. I won’t go through everything in the book and I’ll let the above serve as a taster. It is well worth reading and I’ve added it to the list of books I plan on reading once a year.

But the big question is: why care about habits? This is where it ties into those posts I linked at the start. I believe that at the very top of your life is your big goal. Your heart’s desire. The big pie in the sky dream. Underneath that you get a bit more specific (the “Big Five”) and go into ambitious tangible goals. But as I learned from Scott Adams’ book, having goals isn’t a good approach, instead it’s better to have systems. Systems are habits, which is where this book comes in. Habits are the things which, as Clear points out, allow you to become 1% better every day. And that 1% adds up to a tremendous amount in the long run (if you were to actually become 1% better at something every day you would be over 37 times better at it in a year; that’s the power of compounded returns).

This is why, on my coaching calls, I am always talking about methodically applied progressive overload, just as you would in the gym. If you went to the gym, as a beginner, and didn’t record how much weight you were lifting or how many reps you did – you just went with the flow – you wouldn’t get much better. You certainly wouldn’t get as good as you could. And so my advice to students is always to be taking a few notes at the end of each session, and at the end of the week. Three things they did well, and one thing to focus on fixing in the next session. That’s a system which encourages the methodical elimination of weak points, while still praising the student for their good work. It’s a system I still use today if I want to mechanically improve areas of myself.

And how has this book flowed through into my life? The first has been that I’ve started to meditate (sit quietly) each day. I started it out at two minutes and then each Friday I increase that by one minute. My goal is to get that up to ten minutes daily; I’m at six minutes now. Another habit I introduced was to sweep my floor each day. Cleaning is one of those things which is easy to let go by the wayside, since you don’t see the immediate disadvantage of not doing it (it’s more something which builds up over time). And so I got myself started by practicing temptation bundling, and I said I could only make my morning coffee after I’d swept the floor.

A negative habit which I’ve stopped doing is watching porn. One of the best points that Clear makes in his book is about how eventually the cue becomes linked to the reward. That’s why it’s important to spot the cues in your life. For me that was using my laptop while sitting on my bed. It was way too easy from there… And so I banned myself from using my laptop while on my bed, and instead I have to sit in my chair or at my desk to use it. I also physically wrote down the negative effects of watching porn to reinforce the message.

Another example, specific to Daygamers, is that some guys eventually end up resenting London because it’s not Eastern Europe (or wherever else they’ve had success before). Once they reach central London, it reminds them of the past, and then the comparisons start flooding in. Eventually Daygame becomes a chore with few bright spots. Daygaming becomes their cue to start feeling bad and their vibe takes a downturn. This is another example of dopamine at play.

In conclusion, it’s well worth reading this book!

Yours unfaithfully,

Thomas Crown

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