Small Habits, Big Changes: A Review of Atomic Habits

May 23, 2022
Author: James Clear
Publisher: Avery, Illustrated Edition
Publishing Date: October 16, 2018
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0735211292

At take-off, how much would you have to change the heading of a 747 leaving Los Angeles to make the plane land in Washington DC instead of New York? It turns out that the answer is not very much—just a little over seven feet (seven!). On the scale of a massive airplane this is a tiny change, but it adds up to a major difference when compounded across the long distance of a cross-continental flight. This idea is the focus of James Clear’s book Atomic Habits.

The premise of the book is simple: tiny habits have a surprising power to affect change in our lives. Clear argues that habits don’t just add up, but instead compound exponentially—if you get 1% better at something every day for one year, you will be 37 times better at the end of the year. Conversely, if you decrease by 1% per day, a year later you will have declined to nearly zero1.

“…tiny habits have a surprising power to affect change in our lives.”

If you’ve ever tried to pick up a new habit (flossing your teeth, anyone?) or break a bad one, you know how difficult this is to do. Clear says that this is because “habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance…this is one of the core reasons why it is so hard to build habits that last. People make a few small changes, fail to see a tangible result, and decide to stop”2. He goes on to point out that for most of us, when we try to start a habit we focus on the goals; this is a flawed strategy. This is not goal-bashing, merely pointing out that focusing on goals does not contribute to lasting change, noting that “a goal-oriented mind-set can create a ‘yo-yo’ effect”3. I’ve seen this at work in my own life with exercise – in my 20s, I had a goal of doing a sprint triathlon, because I wanted to be fit, and I did this (twice!) but both times after the race ended, so did all regular exercise. Clear further observes that “goal setting suffers from a serious case of survivorship bias”4, that is, we concentrate on the people who end up winning and their goals, forgetting that the losers also had a goal of winning. Goals are not a reliable method of motivating and sustaining change.

As an alternative to using goals for motivation, Clear proposes that you need better systems: focus “on the overall system, rather than a single goal”5. A system of atomic habits can be “the building blocks of remarkable results”6. The reason that small habits can be so effective is that “behind every system of actions are a system of beliefs”7—what you believe about who you are, your identity. When we try to change a habit we often create habits based on a desired outcome (e.g. quitting smoking) rather than on our desired identity (e.g. not being a smoker). “True behavior change is identity change…(and) your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity”8. While this close connection between identity and habit may sound a bit daunting, it is actually good news, because when viewed through this lens, “every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become…you don’t need to be perfect. In any election, there are going to be votes for both sides…your goal is simply to win the majority of the time”9. In other words, your habits shape you as much as you shape your habits, if not more.

“True behavior change is identity change… (and) your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity.”

James Clear

After setting the stage with this alternative perspective on why habits are important, Clear proposes “four simple steps” to build better habits. The steps are grounded in psychology research—though this book is by no means an academic treatise—and most of Clear’s citations are popular-level sources. The steps are Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward, which form a feedback loop that is “the backbone of every habit, and your brain runs through these steps in the same order each time”10. Even with Clear’s guidance, “simple” may be an overstatement when it comes to figuring out how to implement habits effectively, but through the examples and research the author highlights, it is obvious that these steps are effective.

The majority of the book is devoted to unpacking the four laws of behavioral change, which derive from the “four simple steps.” Through anecdotes, research summaries, and examples, Clear unpacks each law and sets out corollary steps to help readers identify and make effective and lasting changes. For example, the first law (related to “cue”) is “Make it obvious.” Clear starts off his exploration of how to make a habit obvious with “one of the most surprising insights about our habits: you don’t need to be aware of the cue for the habit to begin”11. He then walks through the process of observing your own habits (the Habits Scorecard), starting new habits (implementation intentions and habit stacking), the powers of motivation and environment (spoiler alert: environment design is more important!). Along the way he shares interesting stories to emphasize his points, including how in 1971, 15-20% of US troops in Vietnam were addicted to heroin, but on returning home, 90% of those soldiers kicked the habit12. His point? If you eliminate the cue, the habit derails.

“ Through anecdotes, research summaries, and examples, Clear unpacks each (law on behavioral change) and sets out corollary steps to help readers identify and make effective and lasting changes.”

As he walks through the four laws (Make it Attractive, Make it Easy, Make it Satisfying), Clear mostly focuses on how to use them to develop a good habit, but he also applies them to breaking a bad one. At the end of the book he also thoughtfully addresses two potential dark sides to a discussion of habits. First, he acknowledges that that habits aren’t everything – genes matter too. Giving the example of two world class athletes who are seven inches different in height, but wear the same pant in-seam, he notes: “genes cannot be easily changed, which means they provide a powerful advantage in favorable circumstances and a serious disadvantage in unfavorable (oneness)”13. For one of these two athletes (a runner) long legs and a short torso are an advantage, while for the other (a swimmer) the opposite is true. The point, Clear says, is that given that you can’t change your genes (and probably some other characteristics about yourself), you should look for a “game” where the odds are in your favor. Second, he discusses the risk of complacency. He emphasizes that in order to continue growing, it is necessary to regularly review and reflect on your habits. For both of these downsides, he provides concrete suggestions for how to address them in your own habit formation.

Atomic Habits is a thought-provoking read for anyone interested in how their little actions might lead to big changes in their lives. It reads (or listens) quickly, but if you decide to implement the ideas from the book, you may find yourself going back again and again. To help with this, Clear has provided several key reference sheets on the book’s companion website. He also has bonus chapters on applying the atomic habits principles business and parenting available for purchasers of the book. Overall, I highly recommend Atomic Habits, and I hope it helps you on your own habit formation journey.

About the Author
  • Kayt Frisch is a wife and mother who serves an Associate Professor of Engineering at George Fox University. When not teaching in the classroom she can be found building relationships over good food, good coffee and board games, or hiking with her family.

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  11. pg. 61  

  12. pg. 91  

  13. pg. 219  

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