Atomic Habits: A Psychology Book Masquerading as a Self-help Book

My therapist wouldn’t shut up about this book. Monthly sessions inevitably have the book not over-recommended to me, but despite this her persistence was notable. Eventually, I caved for some reason or another; I’d forgotten what crisis or near-crisis had me spontaneously buying the book following one afternoon session. I started reading, was pretty turned off by the first few pages, more on that later, and by the second chapter, I was hooked. I was singing the Habits Gospel right along with my therapist, trying to make everyone an acolyte of James Clear, the author of the book.

The Intro

Quickly, very quickly, he talks about how a car accident or concussion or whatever paralyzed him. Or comatized him, something like that. I figured the introduction would take an overbearing turn towards, “And by following my lessons, you too can do anything you can ever want, live your dreams no matter what happens to you!” and just fucking gloat about his life story/success. Looking at you Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I hated that fucking book. Luckily, none of that here from James Clear; dude got better at baseball and got on the state team and that was that. He moved on with his life. He then started blogging as a hobby, became interested in habits, and eventually wrote a book to summarize it all up. Atomic Habits is the result. He concludes the intro by saying, roughly, that habits have a ton of power, even if they’re small and unassuming habits.

To the Point

Firstly, James Clear’s writing is tight and concise and he doesn’t jerk himself off over his realizations like he’s a fucking guru or something. With all sincerity he insists that his book is backed up by science, and he’s just boiling down the key points for everyone. Sure, there’s a bit of a method to it on his part, his own spin and interpretation of the science, but he never pretends like he “discovered” something.

The chapters are at most ten pages long — compare this to the so-called “Hitler Book” (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) with its 90-page-long chapters of utter dryness — and it’s a breeze. I contrast his style with that of Jordan Peterson; Peterson went on so many long and strange religious tangets where I’d just want him to shut the fuck up and get on with his Rules for Life. Tell me your point, explain why it’s your point, maybe a little reasoning behind your point, and wrap things up. Then we can go, quickly, to points three, four, and so on, ending the fucking book. Clear lays out the science quickly and gives some real-world examples demonstrating how stupid human behavior really is. There’s a pun with his name and his writing style but that’d be too easy…

You could say James Clear has a very…clear writing style!

Example. This book runs 306 pages in the version I have. This is counting the index, references, and all of that extra stuff that isn’t really meant to be read. It’s a small book. The text isn’t small, it’s average-sized, and the spacing is reasonable. It’s not text-heavy I suppose. I’m not an expert book reviewer guys! The ratio of printed to unprinted area is smaller as compared to The Bible or The Hitler Book. Maybe I’m trying to say it’s a fast and easy read?!

Small Habits, Big Gains

He doesn’t tell you that you can instantly find success or any of that other self-help trash, never once mentioning “motivation” or “willpower” as the keys to being productive, thankfully. Habits are the basic iota of behavior and nearly everything we do is a conditioned response to something. Cue, craving, response, reward! You never get around to being productive because social media is so addicting; you might have a habit of going on social media for a ‘quick fix’ and the cue/craving/response/reward chain is always furiously leading you, as a habit, back into things that you’re aware are bad of you. Social media is just one example: you certainly have your own bad habits that you despise and good habits that you continually put off.

The power of habits, especially small ones, is what Clear initially focuses on. We think being an author means writing a book or blogging everyday while these are just the surface-level successes, not the road to success. The road is easy and well-known – you just practice until you’ve Gotten Gud – but practice is a boring and repetitive thing that we can easily burn ourselves out on. By establishing small habits you get your ‘practice in’ and become better without the burnout.

As Clear states again and again, you have to establish fundamental skills before you can be uber-successful at something.

Your Big Dumb Human Brain

After James makes his point that habits are actually pretty powerful and might be the key to success (or as a prerequiste for the practice that will actually make you successful) the remainder of the book discusses how dumb your brain is and how you can trick it into doing what you want it to do. The human brain product of evolution that hasn’t changed much in the last tens of thousands of years, at least. Here we are in our modern age with a dumb ape-brain wondering why Candy Crush (and speaking of candy…dumb brain thinks that sounds better than a fucking salad) is so fun and why we can’t put it down to write that term paper that is due tomorrow despite feeling like shit for procrastinating so much.

I wont give too many tips — just read the book yourself – but most are stupidly easy to do; I’m talking laughably easy. Humans’ big, dumb brains are visual computers; you leave healthy food out and you will eat it. Your dumb brain sees food, easily accessable food in plain sight, and it wants you to eat it. So you do. It doesn’t even feel like doing something healthy. If you start to associate writing with your morning coffee or any other current habit, you’ll naturally do it without thinking. Good habits become automated just like your commute to work every day. How frequently do you consciously think of driving when you’re in a car? Never. And so it can be with writing or exercising once you learn how to trick you dumb brain into working the way you want. Most of his tips are borderline genius.

…And Bad Habits

Bad habits and good habits are both habits and it’s up to you to interpret how the habits are for you. That being said, the tips for good habits work just as well for bad habits, only in reverse. To summarize: make good habits easier to do and bad habits harder to do.

Disregarding the unique aspects of addictions, most of them can be viewed as bad habits that somehow reinforce themselves. Drinking makes you feel bad until you’re drunk again and caffeine makes you feel sluggish if you haven’t had your daily fix. So you drink to return to your baseline or fix a cup of coffee and you’re good to go. An addiction, yes, but also a habit. And a habit that you can break just like anything else.

It’s very empowering hearing bad habits, even really bad habits, can be broken if you get smart and tweak a few things to make them slightly less appealing. By knowing how habits form it’s easier to be strategically smart about them. I’m talking every-time-you-smoke-you-eat-a-hot-pepper type shit here. Like, hey, I’m fucked up, but I can fix it by just tweaking some of my daily habits and making new ones. Duh. It’s easy now!

(I have a serious peanut butter and sleep habit. I think they’re psychologically linked where I cannot fall asleep unless I’ve had peanut butter. 500 calories right before bed? Well that’s not good! Hope isn’t totally lost: I have turned my 3-loaf Big Boy sandwich into a standard, boring, and relatively “light” 2-loafer sandwich. Progress is progress.)

[Insert Closing Title Here]

I’ve been recommending this book to nearly everyone else that might be interested in self-improvement. I’ve whined before about how self-help books seem to not “stick” long for me; a month goes by and I’ve forgotten the lessons that seemed so profound earlier. I doubt I’ll have the same problem with this book because it reasons from basic science, a good first-principles foundation where all the tips and tricks naturally follow. Atomic Habits is about habits and how to form them and not necessarily a self-help book with a list to memorize or follow. As the title implies, it seems to be more of a psychology book than a self-help book.

Luckily, it hasn’t been only myself this book has affected in a major way. A friend from work picked up the audiobook version and finished it before I did! She’s apparently having success with working out and staying on top of the stuff she needs to stay on top of, just like my success with eating better, writing, and lifting weights. Another friend says she owns the book but never gotten around to reading it. Okay…

And to the people I can’t get to read…I’m trying to do the whole “live a good example” thing and just be the embodiment of good habits and personal change. Don’t read the book if you don’t want to, but it’s working for me and I’m trying to sell it with my actions alone sometimes. Seriously, check it out! You may find yourself eating apples and bananas wondering if eating healthy really is this easy.


One response to “Atomic Habits: A Psychology Book Masquerading as a Self-help Book”

  1. Eric Avatar

    Don’t be so hard on yourself. This world is just a bridge, not a destination. It takes you from one place and into another. You don’t need to master jack shit. Just cross it and help others to cross it. The world literally ends when YOU die.
    Go rock climbing again.


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