I recently read through (and listened through) the entirety of Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s the first book I’ve read in the ‘productivity’/’self-help’ genre and so I thought, rather than my usual review where I try to break the book down into a review of the plot and a review of the characters and then round it off with a summary, I’d try something a bit different.
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For those of you who’ve not heard of it, Atomic Habits is one of the best-selling books of all time in its genre. To summarise it, it essentially gives an in-depth and science-based understanding on how you can remove bad habits and introduce good habits into your life with some simple four steps processes. The idea is that if you integrate a small, very consistent change into your life that you want to see, it will then go on to become something that’s automated and so part of who you were.
The examples Clear regularly uses are exercising or stopping smoking (a positive new habit and a negative old habit). The four steps he uses are: cue, craving, response, reward.
I obviously don’t want to and never could articulate fully the many ideas Clear has as to how you can implement these four steps into your life.
Along with these steps, he gives very regular research insights into previous works of habits and successful people who have decided they want a change and so decided to bring a more consistent change to their life which has resulted in them stopping a bad habit or introducing a new one.
I’ll start off right off the bat by saying that I think the most impressive thing Clear managed to do with Atomic Habits is to write a whole 300+ page book on what I’ve summarised above. I’ve seen plenty of those apps that can summarise non-fiction books for you in audiobook form and I would likely suggest listening to one of these if your interest is more towards actually implementing the processes rather than finding out any history or background behind the logic.
So, is it any good?
In short: yes. I am always sceptical when going into ‘self-help’ books like these that they’re just going to be a load of fluff about how you should change the way you think or ‘try harder’ but Atomic Habits never really tries to do that. At every single new learning moment, Cear provides evidenced research and tangible applications to your life so you never feel like you’re left guessing as to what he means or what he’s trying to tell you.
His ability to keep you interested is an impressive feat too; he uses graphs and visual identifiers to help explain a lot of what he’s trying to teach you and so this allows you a better understanding as to what it is you should be looking into.
The book essentially goes through the four different steps to implementing or removing a habit and the section breaks these down into more granular chapters. Some chapters you could probably skip as they’re more about mindset and, as I said, research that led Clear to his summaries, but most of the content in this book is very much worth reading.
Why did I actually want to read Atomic Habits?
I’m a big sceptic for almost everything (other than technology but that’s because I’m a sucker for new shiny tech); anytime anybody tells me that something changed their life or that I should sleep more or that I should change when I drink my coffee. I always try it for a few days or a few weeks, realise it hasn’t completely revolutionised my life, and go back to the way that made my life have less effort to it.
Therefore, James Clear trying to convince me with anything he wrote in Atomic Habits was always going to be a bit of a challenge. I only picked up this book because I’d heard and seen so many positive things about it that I thought it might change my perspective on these things.
Something else I should note is that I’m also a huge fan of trying to optimise my life. I often watch Ali Abdaal on YouTube, I’m always looking for the most efficient way to organise my notes at work, and I’m always downloading new ToDo apps to see which ones keep me completing tasks more regularly, I live a lot of my personal free time by setting myself time goals “Oh, I’ll play this until 8pm and then I’ll go shower and read from 8.30pm”.
All of these things allow me to feel like I’m never truly wasting the minutes of my life. Even when I’m watching TikTok or scrolling through Instagram or Twitter, I like to think this is crucial to allowing my brain to switch off and allowing my mind time to not have to worry about schedules, deadlines or hard work (though sometimes I do find myself on TikTok for way longer than I would have liked, but that’s another story).
Therefore, when I realised Atomic Habits was about implementing small consistent habits to your life that would become an automated habit to improve yourself, I was a big fan of this idea.
Did it actually change my life then?
Well, no. But also yes a little bit. Atomic Habits, essentially gave me the confidence that if I want to achieve something, I don’t have to make a drastic change today that I will then have to try and make a huge effort to keep up every single day. It embedded the idea into me that I can make a very small new habit today and that if I keep up very consistently, I will see the much larger ramifications at a later date.
The first thing I did after finishing Atomic Habits was download a habit-tracking app. I love apps and I love having something digital that I pick up at all times and be reminded of (my phone is, after all, likely where I spend most of my time when not at work, leisure etc).
Once I had my habit tracker, I looked at what I’d like to improve about myself. The big one for me at the time of writing this is staying in some form of shape. Ever since I was a teenager and staying thin and “ripped” hasn’t become so easy, actively exercising and going to the gym is something I’ve nearly always thought about. I would love one day to feel accomplished in feeling like I was in great shape and other people noticed that.
However, one of the big things Atomic Habits teaches you is that one of the first steps of a new habit is also changing the way you refer to the habit you’re doing. So rather than saying to someone “I sometimes go to the gym” you say “I work out”. It’s not only verbally changing the way others see your efforts at the gym but there’s also evidence-based proof that by verbalising these things, it helps build your confidence and determination to continue being that person.
Therefore, the first two habits I added to my tracker were to do 30 press-ups a day and to go to the gym twice a week. Neither of these two tasks is a hard ask for me. I told myself the 30 press-ups didn’t have to be all at once or even at the same part of the day and I told myself two days a week at the gym is eight times a month which would mean I’m spending less than £2 a gym session.
A week later I can now do 30 press-ups without stopping and have gone to the gym four times since I started the tracking. I’m not saying it’s worked as I’m very much someone that keeps something up for a month or so and then lets it fade away as I often remember how much life easier was without this habit. However, I’ve set a small habit that isn’t too strenuous and something I can do in less than a minute in the press-ups. And I’ve set up another habit that works well around my life – I work from home two days a week but my partner has to get up early for work anyway so she wakes me up and then as soon as I’m up and in my gym gear, it’s a go that I’ll be gyming that day.
Would I recommend Atomic Habits to others?
It 100% depends on what you want to try and get out of the book. If you’re looking for your whole entire life to change and to become a millionaire in the next year, then this book may not quite be for you (though I think Clear does offer some advice on his website for people like this). However, if you’re someone who’s looking to lose weight or take up running, quit smoking or take up meditation, then Atomic Habits could offer you some great foundations for how to do this.
Atomic Habits essentially guides those of us who are looking for a small improvement on a route that will likely see a much larger improvement in years to come.
So what would I rate Atomic Habits out of five stars?
Atomic Habits final rating – 4.5/5
I’ve noted a few times in this review that I am a huge sceptic when it comes to any of these books that claim to change your life, however, I came out of reading Atomic Habits not feeling like I’d read a load of wishy-washy nonsense about how I should change my mindset but with real tangible applications. Also, my favourite lesson to come out of this book is that you don’t have to start off big – in fact starting off very small and consistently doing something very small is the best way to start as it promotes what you want to be being very easy. If you’re looking to become a millionaire in the next six months, this may not be the book for you, but if you’re trying to consistently take up running or lose a little weight or something tangible like this, then Atomic Habits may offer you some great steps to help build up those habits.