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Book review | 'Atomic Habits': A practical guide on how to change behaviours and script personal successes

Three years after the book was first released, the principles outlined in 'Atomic Habits' still resonate. Try this: link a habit you want to form with an existing one that brings you joy.

May 06, 2021 / 06:45 PM IST
We underestimate the importance of incremental change. Instead, we often suffer due to our belief that massive success requires massive action. (Representational image)

We underestimate the importance of incremental change. Instead, we often suffer due to our belief that massive success requires massive action. (Representational image)

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a “habit” as “something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it.” What are some of the habits that you have noticed among people in your family and friend circle? Here are some common ones: thanking waiters, biting nails when anxious, completing people’s sentences, switching off fans when not in use, giving unsolicited advice, petting stray dogs, and watering house plants.

How can we become more aware of our habits, cultivate new ones aligned with our goals, and discard the ones that have been unhelpful so far? James Clear’s 2018 book Atomic Habits offers some easy, practical and effective solutions if you have been struggling to get rid of habits that prevent you from being the person you want to be, and finding little success with all your attempts to adopt habits that will take you closer to what you want from life.

If the thought of picking up a self-help book makes you cringe, get past that aversion. It is better to figure out how small changes can help you live differently than spend a lifetime complaining about how your efforts do not pay off. This book can benefit only those who are willing to believe that individual choices make a difference. Systemic change is important; however, it does not happen overnight. In the meanwhile, let us focus on what we can do.

Small wins add up

In this book published by Penguin Random House India, the author focuses on “atomic habits” – a term that he uses to describe small improvements made on a daily basis so that small wins and tiny breakthroughs add up to noticeable change that can be celebrated.


He writes, “Whether it is losing weight, building a business, writing a book, winning a championship, or achieving any other goal, we put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.” According to him, we often suffer due to our belief that massive success requires massive action.

What is the reasoning behind the idea that tiny improvements made consistently are far more meaningful in the long run? The author offers a useful analogy. He writes, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.”

Four steps

This book focuses on four laws of behaviour change:

1. Make it obvious.

2. Make it attractive.

3. Make it easy.

4. Make it satisfying.

It is not just pages of pep talk stuck together. It offers a step-by-step plan for building habits that can serve us for a lifetime. The author draws on insights from neuroscience, biology, philosophy and psychology but the book is not written for academics. He translates research into everyday language that can be grasped quickly.

Forming habits

The science of habit formation is explained through a four-stage process that includes cue, craving, response and reward. This structure can be used to understand our own patterns, and either grow out of them or reinforce them. “Habits do not restrict freedom. They create it,” says Clear. This would be reassuring for readers who think that people who are intentional and like to follow routines do not have interesting lives with space for adventure.

Image_Atomic HabitsOne of the key lessons to take away from this book is how adopting a new habit is not only about changing behaviour but also about changing identity. Apparently, research shows that people who focus only on what they want to do differently tend to be less successful with habit formation than people who focus on who they want to be. To be a reader, to be a vegan, to be a runner, to be a morning person, to be a blood donor – these are identities, and people who want to embody these also have a strong sense of the values they care about.

Another valuable suggestion is the practice of habit stacking, wherein you “tie your desired behaviour into something you already do each day.” A person who wants to get into the habit of making a to-do list could tie that desired behaviour with the cup of coffee that they enjoy every morning. Those who are training themselves to be minimalists can donate a piece of clothing (in good condition, of course) every time they buy a new garment.

Staying motivated

Many of us are quite enthusiastic in the beginning but lose our motivation somewhere down the road and let go of the habit that we wanted to develop for our own good. The author empathizes with us, and shows a way to get back on track. He speaks of the environment as “the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour.” What follows from this is the idea that we are not condemned to be victims of our environment; we can change it.

This may not apply to people who experience domestic violence at home, and do not have the means to move out of their house. The author is referring to changes that are simpler and more superficial in nature. Here is an example: If you want to practice playing an instrument but end up putting that on the backburner, you can place the instrument in a part of the house where you are likely to see it a few times every day.

Key principles

The author also suggests using habit trackers and accountability partners to help you. Perhaps the best way to use this book is to study the main principles, and not take the recommendations too literally. People live under different circumstances, and what autonomy means to one person may not mean the same to another. Moreover, cultural norms and expectations shape how people negotiate relationships.

Do not miss the appendix because it has pointers for additional reading, and links to online resources for readers who are keen to understand how the ideas in this book can be applied to business and to parenting. The author also has a newsletter that you can sign up for.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect)
first published: May 6, 2021 06:33 pm

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