Atomic Habits: A book review

After being less than impressed with The Power of Habit, I decided to give Atomic Habits (amazon link=> we get a cut) by James Clear a spin.

tl:dr Although this book is much better than The Power of Habit, it is ultimately still an imperfect book.  Definitely worth giving a read, maybe not worth purchasing unless you have a specific easy-to-define-and-implement habit you want to focus on.

Unlike The Power of Habit, most of the book (until the last section) is made up of examples that make sense and are not taken out of context. It also goes much more into depth with more nuance than the previous book (which it does cite extensively).

Each chapter ends with bullets and potentially actionable items.  There are habits cheat sheets with “laws” explaining how to create a good habit and how to break a bad habit.  These laws are broken into easy to remember subheaders:  Make it obvious, Make it attractive, Make it easy, Make it satisfying.  Make it invisible, Make it unattractive, Make it difficult, Make it unsatisfying.  This is helpful– I hope that the podcasters at By the Book pick this one up sometime.

The “Advanced Tactics” section that the book ends with is problematic, relying almost entirely on anecdote and contradicting most of the rest of the book, leaving the reader with a particularly confusing “it’s complicated” message, along with additional bizarre messages like you should only try to do what you do well (I should really be a grocery bagger, I thought to myself, though that is not where my comparative advantage lies) but you should also only chase your passion (because people do more when they enjoy the work) but you should also do the boring bits (because the most successful people do the parts they don’t enjoy).  Examples from this section are very correlation is causation.  After reading it, I felt a sense of hopelessness, like maybe I should just early retire and forget my career, which I hope was not intentional.

For me– most of the stuff discussed in the book I already do or have done.  But I also have been struggling with bad work habits for the past couple of years.  I used to have very good work habits, but somehow they’ve been broken.  I need to fix that, but I’m not sure how.  It seems to be more complicated than say, getting into the habit of taking a walk every day or calling about politics.  (And… when I start focusing on one area of life, something starts slipping in another, which is not what any of the online lifestyle bloggers ever mention… it’s always exercise more and everything else will get better too.)

I’m not sure if this book will help with that, but I’m going to think really hard about the systematic problems I’ve been having with my work and give these checklists a spin.  I also want to get a book on habits by an actual academic to see if that has any useful advice.

And, of course, I will blog about all of this in a future post.

20 Responses to “Atomic Habits: A book review”

  1. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Tuesday there are Impeach rallies all over the US. Find one near you here: https://act.moveon.org/event/impeach-and-remove-attend/search/?event_id=125888

    If you can’t attend one, call your rep: https://5calls.org/issue/articles-impeachment-trump
    And then call your senator to demand a fair trial in the senate, which Lindsay Graham has already gone on record as saying he will not do: https://twitter.com/brianschatz/status/1205933464656080896

  2. CG Says:

    Please do talk about this in a future post. I’d be interested to know what work habits you find optimal and sub-optimal and how they’ve changed over time. I always feel I could be doing my job more efficiently/better/in a way that would make me happier. But it’s possible that I’m actually doing about the best I can. Hard to know.

  3. rose Says:

    I shall be hoping to read more about the habits (good and not so helpful) that you and your readers find most helpful that you already use, most in-effective and hampering in your daily work, most desired for the new year. And please maintain the habit of Saturday Links and regular posting here because your posts are clearly on the positive habit side for me.

  4. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    As a spoiler: I’ve been listening to podcasts with the actual academic as a guest and it all sounds really depressing. Habits persist if they’re things you enjoy. You can break bad habits by making it impossible to do them. Otherwise, you’re SOL because Willpower always breaks down. Maybe Atomic Habits is a little better than actual summarized research because it provides hope… hopefully not false hope.

    • Debbie M Says:

      Maybe substituting something else enjoyable would be possible? (And I don’t mean things like: instead of eating cookies, eat fruit. Or instead of snacking, do push-ups. I mean things that are actually enjoyable. Yes, I know fruit can be enjoyable, but is apple pie crumble a la mode really healthier for me than cookies?)

      I’m with you on the problem where focusing on one thing wrecks other things. Unless maybe the one thing is time management. Or some health thing that gives you more energy, like making yourself get used to that breathing machine for sleep apnea. Or maybe doing things that are actually fulfilling helps you stop doing things that just seem like it, like maybe shopping or video games.

      If you can figure out what changed a couple of years ago, that might help. And as far as web surfing, it may help to know if you do better with abstinence (e.g., no surfing at all at work) or with portion control (I may do it the 15 minutes before lunch only).

      Good luck! And thanks for the info on when the impeachment rallies are going to be.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        The problem is that not all work is fulfilling all the time. And work is generally harder than web surfing.

        I can’t leech block the entire internet because I need some of it for work.

        I’ll talk more about my specific problems Wednesday and solutions next week.

      • Debbie M Says:

        I made it to the second rally–slept through the first one, oops. I now have a re-usable poster. I had too many things on it for it to be legible from far away, though. It said (in two columns):
        Impeach!
        * extortion
        * bribery
        * fraud
        * libel
        * profiteering
        * obstructing justice
        * breaking treaties
        * abusing power
        * inciting violence
        * foreign solicitation
        * violating immigrant due process
        None of this is okay.

        Favorite other poster: “Does this ass [picture of Trump] make my country look big?”

  5. xykademiqz Says:

    I sometimes feel like all self-help books are written by and work for one personality type, the type that craves control and gets far more kicks from depriving self than from indulging self. This is also the type we’re all supposed to strive to be like. Which is also the reason why the advice (which far too often boils down to “You are a fat/lazy/underachieving piece of $hit and you know it, and you need to be deeply ashamed, and from shame somehow magically motivation should arise”) fails for so many people.

    For me, for instance, variety is paramount. There is nothing that won’t start to bore me sooner or later, even if it’s enjoyable stuff, which is my biggest issue in establishing routine and causes problems with other things and people in my life. But that’s how I am; I can’t change it and don’t want to because, to me, this is also where creativity and adventurousness stem from.

    I have found that, for me, tempering expectations, being forgiving toward myself, acknowledging the stuff I hate as OK to hate, and allowing myself to do what I crave to do as often as I am able to, together all have a much better effect on my overall productivity and happiness than constantly beating myself up for essentially failing to have a completely different personality type.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I tend to mainly read the “boring” evidence-based self-help books by experts who have done research on the topic, so things like Willpower or What Works for Women at Work. They’re a bit less formulaic, but I know exactly the type of book you’re talking about (in fact, I really enjoy the By the Book podcast which occasionally takes aim at these patterns).

      For me, I don’t usually want to change myself, except when I do. And right now I do… I want to get back to what used to be normal for me after having had some disruptions to my routines.

      I also need variety!

  6. natalieinne Says:

    Have you read Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies? The basic premise of the book is people have four tendencies that respond differently to inner and outer expectations. If you figure out where you fit (which is easy to do. There’s even an online quiz to help you at https://quiz.gretchenrubin.com/), there are specific actions suggested that fit your tendency. For example, if you respond well to outer expectations but not so much to inner, you set something up with a friend. It’s been very helpful to me to understand how to motivate myself and people I work with.

  7. Solitary Diner Says:

    Interesting….I have Atomic Habits checked out from the library, but now I’m wondering if the book by the academic would be a better place to spend my time. (Although I have enough bad habits that reading two books about habit change wouldn’t be a terrible idea either.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Atomic Habits is definitely way better than the Power of Habit. In fact, if he’d just stopped it before “Advanced Tactics”, it would be a pretty good book, I think. So just don’t read that section. ;) Also you can skip his preamble about his life story. I haven’t read the one by Wendy Wood yet, but she’s not going a great job selling change on the podcasts she’s been on… I mean I know that people don’t change their habits easily and there’s no real magic bullet, but… if you already know that you shouldn’t buy chips if you don’t want to eat them and that you’re more likely to exercise if you find an exercise that you like instead of hate… that’s pretty much what she’s about in her interviews.

  8. M Says:

    “And… when I start focusing on one area of life, something starts slipping in another”

    This is so true for me.

    For me, my best “habit changing” has come during fits of inspiration. I don’t know why, but for some reason I will just suddenly out of the blue feel motivated to do something (not always something new – sometimes something I have been wanting to do for a long time), and then I will do it. This could be committing to a diet, starting to journal, going for a 10 min walk each day, logging my writing productivity, etc. Sometimes these initiatives will “stick,” but often they will be phased out. In part, there is only so much time and space in a day to do everything “right.” I can’t do ALL of these things all of the time. Or… if I did, I would have to be a super-duper regimented person. So only a few habits really stick, but fortunately at least a few do. And some even become lifestyle (e.g., working out, eating healthy, etc.) For those that don’t stick, I think what helps is to be okay with a few things: one is being “okay” with falling off the wagon and continually getting back on. This could be the case with writing productivity or keeping my surroundings “tidy.” I might do well for a month, but then fall off for a month. But that doesn’t mean I can’t go back to doing well when I feel like I’m able to. Another is being okay with cycling out of habits and then maybe cycling back into them at a different time. This could be the case with something like a daily lunch time walk… which is just so much more appealing in the spring and fall, despite a more “hardcore” person being able to do this in any weather. Also being okay with half-assing certain habits. Maybe I won’t journal properly every day, but maybe it’s still worth it if I even break it out every few days or once a week to at least touch base with some sense of organization and life control.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My DH is a lot like that!

      I do a lot less cycling. Generally if something doesn’t stick after a month, I just give up entirely.

      I am hardcore with the walks, but mainly because I’ve had accountability partners who have come to expect it (when one went on maternity leave, another stepped in and when the second got a better job offer the first was back from leave).


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