Thoughts on Atomic Habits (Chapters 1-3)


I was recently tasked in doctoral seminar to read the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. I’m sure many of you, like myself, struggle to build and balance a professional life that sometimes drags you in more ways that you are capable of. Thus, you sometimes find yourself drowning in a list of project deadlines and due dates, unfinished research, and colleagues and students demanding answers to projects that you’ve committed to. This book addresses these “atomic” or “small” changes that one can make to achieve these small goals and, thus, achieve more.

Although this blog post will be limited to the first 3 chapters of text, my thoughts and reflections will hinge upon the overarching themes of the text itself.

A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly- and in many cases, automatically.

In the first chapter Clear lays out the fundamental thoughts of his book: changing habits. He does so by introducing a four step model of habits: cue, craving, response, and reward. habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Getting 1-percent better everyday counts for a lot in the long-run, Clear iterates. This reminds me of the “Rome wasn’t built in a day” logic, where compounding small changes often appear to make no difference until a critical threshold is is crossed. Like atoms as a building block of larger molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results. Clear also refers to this as the “aggregation of marginal gains” One notable instance of this “aggregation of marginal gains” that Clear refers to is the successful rise of the British cycling team in the early 2000’s. Up until the hiring of Dave Brailsford as Performance Director in 2003. Up until 2003, the Brits had never produced a Tour de France winner, nor had they fared well in Olympic competition. Brailsford’s philosophy hinged in search for, and improving, tiny margins of gains in which he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” This included small details such as: putting rubbing alcohol on tires to improve traction, cyclists wearing heated gear to improve muscle performance, to even testing fabrics which were more dynamic. In the following 10 years from 2007-2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships, 66 gold medals, and 5 Tour De France victories. The small improvements, argues Clear, compounded to these remarkable results. This process, referred to as “compounding” can lead to positive results. Positive compounding can be productivity, knowledge, and even relationships. People reflect your behavior back to you so compounding “niceness” and promoting good relationships will result in stronger connections over time.

Clear also refers to the “Plateau of Latent Potential” which refers to habits needing to persist long enough to breakthrough. Every individual has goals to attain, but relatively few take the time to develop a system to attain those goals. Thus, it is more important to develop a system that addresses certain goals, such a system to lose weight, rather than focusing on a goal to lose weight. This, Clear argues, will lead to better results.

Chapter 2 focuses on how your habits shape your identity (and vice versa). Clear defines the 3 layers of behavior change: outcomes, processes, and identity. Outcomes are focused on changing your results, such as winning a championship. This is where most goals are formed. The 2nd layer is changing your process, which focuses on developing a new routine or developing a new workflow to attain goals. Most of the habits we build are associated at this level. The third, and deepest level is changing your identity. Changing your identity and focusing on identity-based habits. Outcome-based habits focus on what we want to achieve, while identity-based habits focus on who you wish to become. This starts with formation of an identity. For instance, if a person wishes to quit smoking they develop an identity that no longer identifies them as a smoker (they are not trying to quit and focus on quitting themselves). I do believe there is some truth to this statement as sometimes our identity gets in the way of our goals. If we do not believe we belong in a certain community we will find ways to disassociate and lave such a community. Very early on in my scientific career I was intimidated by the knowledge of others, individuals that had been in my field of study for years, if not decades, before me. However, over time, my behaviors changed because my identity changed. It’s important to decide the person you want to be and focus on that identity. This will lead to true behavior changes, which in turn leads to changes in habits.

Chapter 3 focuses on how to build better habits. Habits are mental shortcuts learned from experience. Clear defines the habit loop: cue, craving, reward, and response. A cue, such as a game, leads to a craving (to play more of that game), which then the person responds by playing the game, which then leads to accomplishing something within that game (reward), which then elicits a reward. This loop can happen in nearly a fraction of a second. These 4 stages are defined as the “Four Laws of Behavior Change” It provides a simple set of rules for creating good habits and breaking bad habits. Habits, especially automatic ones, can reduce cognitive load. Thus, developing good habits can allow a person to focus on more important things in life that require time. In essence, a habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic. The Four Laws of Behavior Change are a simple set of Rules, Clear argues, we can use to build better habits. They are: 1) making it obvious, 2) making it attractive, 3) making it easy, and 4) making it satisfying.

If I could sum up, in thought, the most important theme of these first few chapters it would be that the ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible. Time is linear. Time is important, something that we will NEVER get back in this life. Therefore, developing an identity that produces good habits is critical in building and living life to its fullest.