Takeaways from Atomic Habits
Today Me isn’t really the type of person who flocks to productivity gurus or “self-help” style media. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing for my mental health, but other times I’ll also question if it’s stopping me from truly becoming a “better person”.
Nonetheless, I felt pretty intrigued after hearing about James Clear’s book Atomic Habits last year. The byline on the cover reads “an easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones”. I received the book at a great time as I was just beginning to work on my annual tracking plan for 2022, so Atomic Habits served as a nice read for the first two months of the new year. This wasn’t actually the first time I’d heard of James Clear. My dad was subscribed to his popular newsletter series back in the early 2010s and I’d get the occassional forward from him. I was familiar with James’ writing and work to an extent, but I think I’d drifted away over the years. Once again, my dad happened to have bought the book so it was passed down to me. I think the parallel between being forwarded newsletters in my kiddo years to now sharing the book is poetic.
Here’s an unorganized list of my reflections and takeaways from the book. I guess it primarily serves as a personal log since I’ll inevitably forget some things. Someone may just stumble upon this and find value too, who knows. And if James Clear himself sees this: Hi!
Build Systems, Not Just Goals
James draws upon the example of British Cycling in Chapter 1, where he describes how a regimented system of improving 1% daily resulted in massive gains for the cycling team. In particular he notes that everyone effectively has the same goals (every Olympian wants gold, everyone wants that job, etc.), but it’s through individuals’ systems of continuous improvement that the outcome may change in their favor.
This resonated with me to an extent because I’ve done something similar as a student: I stopped setting exam score targets for myself some time in tenth grade. Back then I realized they were causing me more harm than good, and that focusing on the larger picture of learning the interesting and valuable stuff felt more important. My grades seem to have improved after this, so I stopped setting targets for myself thereafter. I haven’t turned back since.
The role of “identity” and how our current self is at odds with the type of person we’d like to become is a recurring concept in the book. I found value in being repeatedly told that I need to focus on the kind of person I’d like to become, and not simply focus on what I want to achieve.
An easy way to build a habit might involve piggybacking off an existing habit or routine. I realized I’ve been inadvertently doing this already by forcing myself to play the NYT Crossword, Spelling Bee, and Wordle while drinking my morning tea/coffee. It seems like a good strategy.
There’s an incredibly eye-opening diagram (figure 14) around page 161 in the book which illustrates how every day is a series of decisions. Every such decision is like a fork in the road; the results of these decisions compound, and you eventually reach some destination that dictates how good of a day you’re having.
In computer science we have a family of algorithms called branch and bound, and I think optimizing the habits/decisions that influence our daily well-being is a somewhat similar approach. Being aware of compounding decisions and what choices influence my well-being can help me prune the bad paths I encounter daily and instead choose paths that are likely to make me happy.
Rebounding From a Miss
A series of quotes, almost like personal affirmations!
- “Perfection is not possible.”
- “The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows.”
- “Just show up on your bad days.”
- “Reaffirm the identity you’re trying to build.”
We all have bad days, but what differentiates the winners from the losers is the rate at which they rebound. It’s okay to miss one day, but missing two days is the start of a new habit.
Talent, Genes, and the Goldilocks Rule
“Genes do not eliminate the need for hard work. They clarify it. They tell us what to work hard on. Once we realize our strengths, we know where to spend our time and energy.”
“Anyone can work hard when they feel motivated. It’s the ability to keep going when work isn’t exciting that makes the difference.”
The Downside of Autopilot
This is something I’ve been mulling over lately too, and I’m glad this was brought up in Chapter 20. Habits may eventually lead to mindless repetition and a slow but discernible decay in quality. Noticing this and course correcting is crucial.
“Reflection and review is a process that allows you to remain conscious of your performance over time.”
I really liked the idea of an “Integrity Report”. I’m a pretty reflective person by nature; I think this helps me be a considerate and principled person in daily life, but it’s also a curse when this becomes unstructured and spirals out of control into overthinking.
The idea of an Integrity Report is to simply formalize this process of reflection every couple of months.
“My Integrity Report helps me realize where I went wrong and motivates me to get back on course. I use it as a time to revisit my core values and consider whether I have been living in accordance with them. This is when I reflect on my identity and how I can work toward being the person I wish to become.”
I felt half the book seemed to repeat things I already “knew” about habit building. I think anyone with some sense of discipline might feel a similar way. However, the few concepts I’ve listed above have definitely changed the way I think about personal identity, decisions, and habits.
And as I said before, I don’t think I’m an overzealous kid who watches YouTubers shill productivity apps any more. So when I picked up Atomic Habits I didn’t have any expectations that it would give me the answers to all my problems in life or help me magically become more productive. Rather, I was hoping it would provide some new perspectives on doing the things I enjoy, living a happier life, and becoming the best version of myself.
I appreciate that the book, by and large, also maintains a similar philosophy and doesn’t make over-the-top promises of getting the reader their next promotion, a girlfriend, or whatever it is alpha male influencers market these days. I think that’s pretty much why most self-help content leaves a sour impression in my mind. Thankfully James Clear’s work seems to be more mature and I’m glad to have read this self-help style book.
I think we all have room for improvement, and reading Atomic Habits is a great way to learn how to build a system to become the best versions of ourselves.