Book Review: Atomic Habits

Table Of Contents

TL;DR: Read this Book, when…

  • you want to raise your awareness of your habits
  • you are looking for a framework to help in starting or stopping habits
  • you enjoy real-world stories about habits


{% include book-link.html book=“atomic-habits” %} by James Clear claims to provide “An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones”, and it does that.

This doesn’t mean that you will magically transform into your best self after reading the book, but the book actually provides a framework for building and breaking habits and the explanations behind it. If you really want to change your habits, you can do it with this framework.

Clear builds on top of the “habit loop” from The Power of Habit and provides rules on how to address each step in the loop to make a habit stick or unstick.

He also connects our habits to our identity, reminding me a lot of the concepts I read in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Likes and Dislikes

The book is written in easy-to-read, conversational language and structured into short chapters, making it a quick and entertaining read.

The rules for habit-making are always accompanied by one or more real-world stories. This gives credibility to the rules and provides some satisfying “aha”-moments.

The only thing that bothered me a little is that the “Atomic” part of the title was only really relevant in the first couple of chapters.

Key Takeaways

Here are my notes of the book. I added some comments in italics.

The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits

  • doing tiny in improvements leads to an aggregation of marginal gains
  • small improvements usually pay out much later, just like when you change the course of an airplane
  • “Success is the product of daily habits - not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.”
  • habits need to persist long enough for the tiny improvements to accumulate to something noteworthy
  • focus on a system to make changes instead of on the goals you want to achieve

How Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa)

  • change must be driven from our identity, not by the goals
  • pride is a prime motivator for changing established habits
  • to build habits, you need to know who you want to be
  • decide who you want to be, then prove it to yourself with small wins every day

How To Build Better Habits

  • the habit loop consists of:
    • a cue (noticing the reward)
    • a craving (wanting the reward)
    • a response (obtaining the reward; this is what Charles Duhigg calls the “routine” in The Power of Habit)
    • a reward that satisfies us
    • funny and totally irrelevant analogy to software development: the habit loop is like an endless loop in code - a thread that continually scans for cues to trigger a habit routine
  • to establish a new habit, you must address each part of the habit loop:
    • cue: make it obvious
    • craving: make it attractive
    • routine: make it easy
    • reward: make it satisfying

The Man Who Didn’t Look Right

  • you don’t need to be aware of a cue to start a habit - it can be automatic (like a paramedic telling a man “he doesn’t look right” and needs medical attention without being able to tell why)
  • you can only change a habit, however, if you’re aware of it
  • pointing at something and calling it out can make an unconscious action conscious
  • a habit scorecard (a list of habits marked as good, bad, or neutral) helps to make habits conscious

The Best Way to Start a New Habit

  • having a plan greatly increases follow-through
  • plan a time and location to start a habit
  • time and location are the most common cues for habits
  • habit stacking is the process of chaining habits so that one habit is the cue to another

Motivation is Overrated

  • the environment (when and where) is more important for forming habits than the intrinsic motivation
  • visual cues are more powerful than others - they are more obvious to us
  • you can design your environment - put visual cues around you to trigger habits
  • if you want to separate habits, associate a certain environment to one habit only (for instance to separate work from personal time)
  • it’s easier to build a new habit in a new environment (I’m currently experiencing this first hand, after having moved to Australia)

The Secret to Self-Control

  • a radical change in environment (like returning home from war) can re-set habits completely (this includes hard habits like a heroin addiction)
  • people with high “self-control” usually structure their life to make things easy for them, so they actually don’t actually need self-control
  • the best way to get rid of a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue of that habit

How to Make Habits Irresistible

  • there are supernormal stimuli that make things irresistible, like certain combinations of fat and sugar
  • “We have the brains of our ancestors but temptations they never had to face”
  • “Desire is the engine that that drives behavior” - once a habit is formed, dopamine is released on the cue, not on the reward!
  • to make a behavior attractive, combine it with something tempting - Clear calls this temptation bundling

The Role of Family and Friends

  • habits that are “normal” in our environment are the most attractive - “One of the deepest human desires is to belong”
  • to support habit change, join a culture where your desired behavior is normal and where you already have something in common with the others

How to Find and Fix the Causes of Bad Habits

  • our behavior is controlled by predictions - each cue produces a prediction
  • a prediction leads to a feeling - a craving
  • making or breaking a habit is often just a mind shift - tell yourself about the benefits or drawbacks often enough and you will change
  • create a (de)-motivation ritual to support this

Walk Slowly But Never Backward

  • thinking about the best way to do something is “motion” but not “action”
  • we often think to make progress while in motion but without taking action
  • you make a habit easy by repetition - not by preparing, planning, or other ways of procrastination
  • habits are built by repetition - not by time

The Law of Least Effort

  • we are motivated to do whatever takes less effort
    • Daniel Kahneman, in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (review pending, I’m currently reading it), says our mind has two modes: one for doing things automatically and one for doing things consciously - doing things consciously costs more effort so we always take the automatic (habitual) route, if possible
  • design your environment to make habits easier
  • the secret of Japanese companies' “lean production” was to reduce obstacles from the production process wherever possible - we can apply that to our habits
  • set up your environment so that good habits are easy and bad habits are hard

How to Stop Procrastinating

  • our habits lead us through many decisive moments every day - work out or not? TV or not?
  • when you start a new habit, make it less than 2 minutes - this can form a gateway habit that triggers a routine that may take more effort
  • the secret is to learn to show up - the actual routine will form eventually

How to Make Good Habits Inevitable and Bad Habits Impossible

  • automation using technology or other humans can work to establish and fight habits - Clear calls this a commitment device:
    • a shutdown timer to disable internet access after 10pm to get to bed earlier
    • boxing half of your dinner before eating to reduce the amount you eat
  • strategic one-time decisions can shape future habits - like removing the TV from the bedroom

The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change

  • “What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.”
  • we prioritize the present over the future
  • create an immediate-return environment for your habits to make them satisfying
  • “The costs of your good habits are in the present. The costs of your bad habits are in the future.”

How to Stick With Good Habits Every Day

  • use a habit tracker to make a habit obvious, attractive, and satisfying
  • “Don’t break the chain” is a powerful mantra - often accounted to Jerry Seinfeld, who writes one joke every day, even if it’s a bad one
  • habit tracking keeps you focused on the process, not the result
  • if you slip, start a new streak the next day
  • never slip twice in a row - this leads to an “all-or-nothing” mindset which doesn’t help in building a habit
  • we optimize for what we measure - so make sure to measure the right thing

How an Accountability Partner Can Change Everything

  • an accountability partner adds an immediate cost to slipping a habit
  • a habit contract signed by you and your partner can give extra motivation

The Truth About Talent (When Genes Matter and When They Don’t)

  • habits are easier to establish when they play into natural abilities and inclinations
  • genes matter, but it’s more productive to focus on your own fulfillment

The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and Work

  • we experience peak motivation on tasks that are just hard enough to challenge us
  • variable rewards, e.g. rewards in 50% of cases and no reward in the other 50%, increase the dopamine rush for each reward (this explains the ridiculous amount of time I have spent in loot-based computer games like Diablo and World of Warcraft)
  • “Professionals stick to the schedule. Amateurs let it get in the way.”
  • you have to embrace boredom to effectively stick to a habit (also see Deep Work in which Cal Newport has dedicated a whole chapter to “Embracing Boredom”

The Downside of Creating Good Habits

  • improvement usually stagnates with time - you need deliberate practice to overcome this
  • establish a system of regular review and reflection
  • don’t let your habits lock you into an identity you don’t want


{% include book-link.html book=“atomic-habits” %} is an entertaining book that provided some “aha”-moments for me. If you are interested in habits, this is a definite reading recommendation.

The rules in this book are highly actionable, more so than in other books I’ve read about habits. But don’t let that fool you in blissful idleness - the changes won’t come just by reading the book.

Written By:

Tom Hombergs

Written By:

Tom Hombergs

As a professional software engineer, consultant, architect, general problem solver, I've been practicing the software craft for more than fifteen years and I'm still learning something new every day. I love sharing the things I learned, so you (and future me) can get a head start. That's why I founded

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