Book Recommendation: Atomic Habits

Habits are the invisible foundation that underline everything you’ll ever do, experience or achieve.

Any effort for self-improvement needs to start by looking at what you actually do every day. If a goal doesn’t cause you to change your habits, then there’s not much point of actually setting one.

Although there’s been many books and guides written about creating habits (including my own), I want to recommend a particularly good one: Atomic Habits, by James Clear.

James Clear, if you haven’t already subscribed to his newsletter, is one of the few writers who is both smart without being difficult to read. This book compresses down a huge swath of research, stories and insights into a four-step process for thinking about changing your behaviors.

A Habit-Driven Approach to Success

The title of Clear’s book refers to a different philosophy towards success. Rather than basing success on grand ambitions or overwhelming efforts, he sees it as being cultivated from thousands of small, atomic habits.

This is a view I’m sympathetic towards. For starters, it’s a lot more approachable than one which relies on extreme intensity. Not everyone can finish heroically difficult projects. Everyone can make simple changes to the habits that run their lives.

Second, despite the approachability, major changes are possible by slowly replacing the atomic building blocks of your behaviors. Change a dozen or so major habits—eat healthier, exercise more, wake up early, read every day, meditate, stop procrastinating, etc. and it’s not just that you become more effective, you become a different person.

This latter view, of changing one’s fundamental identity (“I’m the kind of person who eats healthy.”) rather than simply changing a behavior is a big part of Clear’s approach.

We all feel the weight of the person we are, that sometimes we’d like to change. Although we’re not infinitely flexible, investing in the process of changing habits can give you the freedom to become a lot closer to the person you’d like to be.

I experienced a similar kind of transformation the first time I seriously studied habit-changing, as I wrote about here.

Clear’s Four Laws of Behavior Change

Clear organizes his habit-changing framework into four “laws” of behavior change. They are:

  • Make it Obvious.
  • Make it Attractive.
  • Make it Easy.
  • Make it Satisfying.

Behind each of these laws is a surprising depth of psychological insight. For instance, for many casual observers #2 and #4 would seem to say the same thing. Except Clear highlights how our nervous system is wired up to experience “wanting” and “liking” differently, so something can cause cravings and not be too enjoyable, or be pleasurable but not as tempting.

Making habit changes work often depends on understanding subtle distinctions like these. Since many of these little adjustments are happening below our conscious awareness, there’s a lot of improvement that can be gained by just making yourself aware of it explicitly.

Beneath these broad laws, there are many smaller examples and tactical suggestions. Even as someone who was familiar with this topic, and have read a lot of the research being cited, I was pleased to find some suggestions I’d like to transfer to my own life. Clear’s idea of a cleaning habit based on “cleaning rooms as you exit them” is an interesting approach to handling larger habits which require ongoing work.

What’s more interesting to me, than which suggestions Clear imparts, are those he leaves out. While some of this is likely due to space constraints, I thought it was interesting that Clear avoids any recommendations based on setting a habit for a certain length of time (21, 30 or 60 days are all popular benchmarks).

I believe this omission is intentional, as Clear’s focus is on establishing semi-permanent, long-term habits, rather than aiming for a quick transformation. Frequency of habit, rather than duration, is his preferred benchmark for getting to automaticity.

Read Atomic Habits

Judging by the enormous success of his newsletter, I doubt Clear’s book will need much help from me in promoting it. However, in our time as friends and in reading his work, I’ve been pleased with how Clear tackles topics with nuance without overcomplicating things.

Atomic Habits is a great book for anyone who is starting their path to making behavior changes. Even if you’ve already been working on habits for years, the book is a good refresher course in what matters, and can help you reaffirm your commitment to building up the behaviors that run your life, one habit at a time.

Note from Scott: James Clear gave me a review copy early, however I’ve also purchased my own hardcover copy personally.

How to Know When to Quit

You know the dilemma.

You’ve been doing something for awhile, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Should you keep going, and push through with it? Or quit and do something else?

There’s no right answer to this.

Sometimes, sticking through will be the right answer. My business took off after five years of work, and after a disappointing two years which were bad enough that I was nearly at the quitting point.

Other times, quitting early will save a lot of pain. I spent over a year in a project in university when it became clear it was a toxic environment with an ethically-questionable advisor. I stuck through, but part of me regrets not stopping a lot earlier.

The decision of when to quit isn’t just for big life-changing decisions. When you step on the exercise bike, start studying or decide to meditate. All of these will push you to ask whether you should keep going a few more minutes, or give up and do something different.

The Commitment Muscle

Sticking through things longer builds resilience. Not only do you increase your endurance, you start to trust that you are able to keep the promises you make to yourself.

However, sticking through on a bad idea, project or effort can lose you years of your life. If the environment around you was rotten, this can scare you away from anything similar in the future. Quitting ahead of time in a bad relationship, bad job or bad project can be the very thing you need to improve your ability to stick to good ones.

The goal is to increase your ability to sustain commitments you make to yourself, without undermining those commitments by over-committing to the wrong things.

Decide Your Quitting Points in Advance

How do you overcome this?

Simple. Choose your quitting points before you start. These are pre-specified periods of time, effort or stress that you decide you’re willing to endure before you step back and re-evaluate.

When I started setting new habits for myself, one of the best ways I learned was a thirty-day trial. The benefit of setting a new habit over thirty days isn’t that after one month everything will be on autopilot. Rather, it’s that thirty days is a good amount of time before you set a quitting point. Even a habit that is inconvenient and ultimately unworkable is worth thirty days of testing.

Similarly, when you set big goals, choose the points in time when you’ll be able to step back and re-evaluate.

In my business, for ongoing commitments to new projects, I usually aim for one year to test things out. That’s not enough to necessarily reach success with those projects, but it’s enough time to decide whether it’s worth continuing or whether I want to try something different.

How to Pick Your Quitting Point

There’s three ways you can pick your quitting points:

1. Set shorter lengths of projects.

The easiest way to do this is to simply set projects that are short enough that committing to them all the way is easy enough to do. Most big projects in work, health, learning and life can be broken into chunks of 1-3 months which aren’t too much to commit to.

2. Set re-evaluation points for ongoing habits and goals.

For things which you expect to pursue for a very long time, you may want to set up junctures for re-evaluating your progress. Here, the goal is to put in quitting points that are sufficiently far out so that you’ve gotten enough information before you decide to switch. They should also be spaced out enough so that day-to-day frustrations don’t turn into abandoning the whole project.

At the same time, defining these points in advance also gives you some freedom. It means, when things get bad, you know when to re-evaluate them in the future.

3. Based on impact to other areas of your life.

Time is the most straightforward way to manage quitting points, but you may choose other metrics. One way might be to look at how those things impact your life. You may decide to work on one goal, so long as it doesn’t start interfering with another area of your life.

This one is harder to do, because many of these boundaries are going to be subjective. However, you might decide, in advance, that a certain project is something you’re going to work on for a point, but you’ll put it aside if it gets too stressful or if you stop enjoying it.

The value of deciding this in advance, rather than simply quitting when things become unpleasant, is that you’re exercising your ability to set an intention to commit to a certain level and stick with it. If you want to be able to achieve goals that require pushing through some discomfort, you need to be able separate those commitments from ones you’re pursuing just for fun.

Making the Decision

Ultimately, picking your quitting points doesn’t help you answer the question of whether to continue or quit. There’s no general “right” answer that will cover all cases. But, by picking your quitting points in advance, you give yourself the ability to accomplish a lot more things.