Review of Atomic Habits, a potentially life changing book

Atomic habits cover

Recently, I finished reading Atomic Habits. It can be a life changing or a boring book, depending on how much of a mess or organized you are in your life, and whether you desire to improve it. A little bit of background about how I organize my life which serves as a note for the readers, as well as my future self.


Why I started reading it? No specific reason – mostly to curate a habit of practising yoga at home; can’t judge a book from it’s cover. This book which keeps surfacing in recommendations everywhere, so it made into my list as well 😛.

It’s been more than a year since I came across the article about time boxing technique by Nir Eyal and it has yielded me a lot of benefits. I have tried apps like Todoist – which is an excellent tool for what it does, but after using it a bunch of times I realised most of my stuff was recurring which doesn’t require something like Todoist.

Moreover, there was the thing about GSuite going paid for legacy users having free accounts, at which point I realized Office 365 gives much more value for money so I shifted to Office 365 subscription. Eventually GSuite made older users free, but now I’m too invested in the Microsoft ecosystem to go back.

Microsoft had acquired a Todo app called Wunderlist few years ago; now known as Microsoft Todo. The integration with the rest of the Microsoft ecosystem is still patchy, but works for me; I don’t depend much on them, it’s merely a reminder tool for me for stuff which can’t be put in the calendar.

The practice of time boxing and putting stuff on the calendar helped me extract time for what I consider an important aspect of my life – learning to play Tabla, an Indian musical instrument. Anybody who has dabbled a bit in music will tell you how much practice it takes to master it. And it’s not an easy task while having a job as well.

Okay, enough of background, let’s move to the book. The book is a bit long one and there are too many takeaways from it, so this article is likely to be long.

Review with quotes and comments

The author, James Clear starts with an introduction of himself where he describes how he had a crazy accident which threw his life off gear and bounced back after a few years.

A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly—and, in many cases, automatically.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 6). Random House. Kindle Edition.

One critical thing he mentions, which I can totally vouch for as someone who has been into Iyengar Yoga since about 7 years now and a music student for 1.5 years:

changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 7). Random House. Kindle Edition.

Then he introduces the four step model of habit formation as the backbone of the book:

four-step model of habits—cue, craving, response, and reward—and the four laws of behavior change that evolve out of these steps.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 9). Random House. Kindle Edition.

There are many aspects in the book which I could relate with myself because of the fresh experiences of starting to learn a musical instrument.

habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 20). Random House. Kindle Edition.

I recently gave my first stage performance at my institute’s annual day:

I received a lot of appreciation from my well wishers and folks with music knowledge. I did not reach this level in a day, that’s impossible. Tabla is not an easy instrument to master, there are lot of nuances in it. It is result of the daily practice of about 2 hours.

I have even faced the Valley of Disappointment:

there is often a Valley of Disappointment. You expect to make progress in a linear fashion and it’s frustrating how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months. It doesn’t feel like you are going anywhere. It’s a hallmark of any compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 20). Random House. Kindle Edition.

I could relate this with my career as well. I have spent a lot of time as a system administrator managing infrastructure; reading log files is part of the job. So when a new issue comes up while working, it many times clicks just instantly what could be wrong and many times that is indeed the issue. If I say more on this it would perhaps seem like boasting. May be my past & present colleagues would be better people to speak about this.

We all define goals in life, about what we want to achieve. But many things get abandoned in between because we don’t see results quick enough. To quote from the book:

Goal setting suffers from a serious case of survivorship bias. We concentrate on the people who end up winning—the survivors—and mistakenly assume that ambitious goals led to their success while overlooking all of the people who had the same objective but didn’t succeed.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (pp. 24-25). Random House. Kindle Edition.

The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 26). Random House. Kindle Edition.

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 27). Random House. Kindle Edition.

One can probably relate to the last quote with their performance in academics. I have no idea about the current state of the Indian education system [including, but not limited to Engineering], but when I was a student it was quite a gruesome experience as most of the things were based on rote learning, not understanding or application of the principles.

We have our habits because our identity is defined by them. If we do not follow the habit something feels weird. For example take the case of washing hands before eating. It’s a habit we have been doing since childhood, and it comes in practice even when eating street food (very hygienic 😏).

This identity change comes by telling yourself something for years and years. Which is why, bad habits are not easy to change.

The key to developing habits lies in this fact:

Thorndike described the learning process by stating, “behaviors followed by satisfying consequences tend to be repeated and those that produce unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated.”

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 44). Random House. Kindle Edition.

And why one should have habits:

Habit formation is incredibly useful because the conscious mind is the bottleneck of the brain.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 46). Random House. Kindle Edition.

As a software engineer and a person who uses computer a lot, the habit which has helped me the most is learning touch typing. If memory serves me right, it was some time around 2011-12 when I was exploring learning typing as I was pretty slow at it.

Typeracer race history

So I found KDE Application called KTouch which was a pretty good typing tutor. I learned on QWERTY layout first, then eventually Colemak as well (by remapping the keys). My typing speeds exceed 100 WPM with high accuracy of over 95% (see the race history screenshot). Not having to think about which key to press to put the right character on screen is such a huge relief and improves productivity when working like anything.

Like I mentioned earlier, that this book has too many quote – worthy stuff and a lot of takeaways, I’ll write about which benefit me the most. You should really read the book if at this point it raised your curiosity. It’s called Habit stacking.

Habit stacking is a special form of an implementation intention. Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 74). Random House. Kindle Edition.

I have started using this to practice yoga at home, after work hours so that I can be healthy (as such, sitting all day causes a lot of damage to the back and joints). It should also improves my learning capability, because exercise causes better learning as described in The book on exercise you must read.

There are four laws of behaviour change described in the book which is worth mentioning (each law is one chapter):

  1. Make it Obvious
  2. Make it Attractive
  3. Make it Easy
  4. Make it Satisfying

The last chapter is about Advanced Tactics, where James says:

The secret to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 218). Random House. Kindle Edition.

Choosing which game (not just sports – everything in life is a game, no?) to play is important because each of us is made differently by nature. If we choose the wrong game, we may not succeed or be average. If we choose the right game, it may give massive success and can take one to great heights.

That does not mean you can skip hard work.

Our 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.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 226). Random House. Kindle Edition.

Until you work as hard as those you admire, don’t explain away their success as luck.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 227). Random House. Kindle Edition.

Also, for success, falling in love with boredom is a pre-requisite:

The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. And as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 234). Random House. Kindle Edition.

The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 236). Random House. Kindle Edition.

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