Book review: Atomic Habits

In an episode of the North Star Podcast with David Perrell, the software entrepreneur Daniel Gross said something that I thought was very wise:

The definition of a habit, for me, is something that doesn’t require willpower. How can I build a large collection of habits that are healthy—that are correct—and save them to RAM in my head so that I don’t have to think about them? I would like to have that done by the end of my 20s. I’d like to be in a good place in terms of body composition, in terms of what I eat, in terms of how I work, so that I can spend the rest of my life not thinking about that stuff.

I heard this a few weeks before the New Year, and I got to thinking about which habits I might want to build or break in 2019. I found the perfect companion to this reflection in James Clear’s new book, Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Break Bad Habits & Build Good Ones.

The motivating idea behind the book is that habits are the compound interest of behaviour. Get 1% better each day and you will rarely notice a change on any given day, but by the end of a year you will be 38% better than when you started (\(1.01^{365} = 37.8\)). It’s often not possible or useful to try to quantify your skill level—maybe you just want to remember to floss—but the insight is that huge long-term differences can be born from barely perceptible but consistent short-term differences. Hence, atomic habits: pennies that grow into a fortune.

Clear explains that all habits, good or bad, play out in four stages:

  • The cue. You perceive a specific signal. You see cookies on the kitchen table.
  • The craving. You feel a rush of desire for a specific reward. Your mouth starts watering as you imagine the chocolate chips melting in your mouth.
  • The response. You perform an action. You pick up a cookie and bite into it.
  • The reward. You experience pleasure as your desire is satisfied. Your taste buds send gushing thank-you notes up to your brain.

Each stage of this cycle is a lever you can pull to influence your behaviour. To build a good habit, pull them one way; to break a bad one, pull them the other way. This is the essence of Clear’s method.

Stage To build a good habit To break a bad one
Cue Make it obvious Make it invisible
Craving Make it attractive Make it unattractive
Response Make it easy Make it hard
Reward Make it satisfying Make it unsatisfying

The book is broken into four sections, one for each stage of the habit cycle. Each chapter begins with a short vignette about a historical figure, and then dives into a related piece of advice. If you’ve done some thinking or reading about habit formation before, then you might be familiar with many of these ideas already. This was the case for me. However, even if you feel like you know the landscape well, I think you would find at least one actionable idea in the book. For the rest of this post, I’ll describe the ideas that I’ve implemented myself since reading it.

Habit stacking

One of the easiest ways to build a new habit is to attach it to an existing one. By resolving to start performing a new habit directly following another one that is already ingrained, you turn the old habit’s reward into the new habit’s cue; you make it obvious. After enough repetitions, the new habit is woven into your life.

Last year, I developed a stable habit of doing push-ups and kettlebell swings after every 25-minute work block throughout my workday. When I read about habit stacking, I recognized an opportunity to use these existing habits as foundations for a new one: drinking more water. Now, every time I do my push-ups and kettlebell swings, I drink a small glass of water. I’m more hydrated than ever.

Implementation intentions

In a study, two groups were asked to make to-do lists, but one group was given a small tweak that resulted in them accomplishing many more tasks than the other. They were told to write down with each task the time and location where they intended to complete it. They created an implementation intention. This is another way to make a behaviour more obvious, this time by associating the action with a context that can be perceived as the cue.

I’ve started writing down implementation intentions every time I add an item to my to-do list. Instead of Call the bank to order a new debit card, it’s Call the bank to order a new debit card in the living room on Saturday morning. While there are still plenty of overdue tasks on my to-do list, this new habit of writing down where and when I intend to complete each task has helped me cross a number of them off.

Prime your environment

I first learned the value of this lesson three years ago when I lived in a tiny coach house in Welland, Ontario. I had always struggled to get out of bed on time, but I was teaching courses of my own for the first time and couldn’t afford to be late for class. So I came up with a solution. Each night before bed, I prepared my stovetop espresso maker and put it on the stove, alongside a clean mug and my phone (my alarm). When my alarm started ringing, I had to get out of bed and walk over to the stove to turn it off. Immediately, I would turn on the stove element and go back to bed for a snooze. Ten minutes later I would be woken again by the gurgling of the espresso, as well as the fear that it would boil over if I didn’t get up to turn off the element. My reward for getting up the second time was a fresh cup of coffee. Ever since then I’ve been completely cured of my snoozing habit.

As Clear explains, priming your environment for its next use is a great way to make a desirable behaviour more obvious as well as easier. After reflecting on this, I’ve been experimenting with a few changes:

  • Pumping up my bike tires as soon as I get home from my evening bike commute. (This makes it easier to choose the bike as my mode of transport the next day.)
  • Repacking my gym bag as soon as I get home from the gym. (This makes it easier to go for a work-out whenever I feel like it.)
  • Filling up a big water jug next to my desk at the end of each work day. (This makes it easier to stay hydrated the next day. Note that putting the water jug there also makes my drinking habit more obvious.)
  • Placing a novel on my pillow after making my bed each morning. (I’m trying to build the habit of reading fiction before bed because I find that it helps me sleep.)

Make it small

I’ve used various habit trackers for about four years now, and I’ve just about settled on TaskLife as my favourite. I define a list of behaviours, and each day the app asks me whether I’ve done them. The beauty of it is that I can choose the frequency with which I want to perform each task, as well as the time period over which to calculate that frequency. It’s like Andy Matuschak’s system of smoothly ratcheting targets with teeth, minus a bit of smoothness and all the teeth.

The most common reason that I’ve failed to hit my target frequency has been the size of my tasks—they have been too hard. For example, it’s often hard to find the time and motivation for one full hour of writing, so I would often skip that habit. Even before reading Atomic Habits, I had recognized this problem and made some changes, like cutting 60 minutes of writing down to 10. But Clear offered many more ways to break down a complex or challenging behaviour into a task that can be completed in under two minutes. Since getting started is by far the hardest part of most habits, I decided to change all my habits in TaskLife to 2-minutes-or-under tasks as a way of making it easier to spend time on the things that matter to me. Here is the current list of questions that TaskLife asks me each morning about my previous day, along with the frequency with which I aim to complete those tasks over a rolling window of 21 days:

  • Did you study at least one flashcard? (70%)
  • Did you read at least one page of fiction? (70%)
  • Did you write at least one sentence? (55%)
  • Did you read at least one Pocket article? (50%)
  • Did you play at least one chord on the guitar? (50%)
  • Did you write at least one sentence in your journal? (50%)
  • Did you go to bed by 9:30pm? (50%)
  • Did you send at least one message to a friend? (50%)
  • Did you read at least one page of nonfiction? (40%)
  • Did you walk through the doors of the gym? (25%)

Automate it

Lastly, the easiest way to make a task easier is to delegate it to a machine. As a data scientist, I have obviously implemented this one before, too. I’ve automated my health insurance payments, my donations to charity, my bus pass top-ups, my memorization efforts, my sleep tracking, my exercise tracking, and my rebalancing calculations in my investment accounts. But there are always more things to automate, and Clear’s chapter on the subject got me to reflect on what else I could do. Since reading the chapter, I’ve set up automatic payments on all of my regular bills, and on my to-do list (with an implementation intention!) is the task of setting up automatic monthly transfers into my investment accounts.

In summary, I highly recommend Atomic Habits. If the topic of habit formation is new to you, I think this book is probably the best general resource you’ll find. And if the topic is already familiar, you’ll find that the book is a quick and engaging read with dozens of fresh ideas that you can consider implementing in your life.


Author | David Laing

Senior data scientist at Imbellus and lecturer in the Master of Data Science program at the University of British Columbia.