Book Review — Atomic Habits

5 minute read

I decided to pick up the book Atomic Habits because I read about Marginal Gains.

I don’t know where I first heard about Marginal Gains, but it’s something I refer back to quite a lot, because I believe it’s a great strategy for continuous improvement.

I’m a big fan of the idea of “Kaizen”, in Japanese it means “improvement”, but the way they apply it to industry and process. I first heard of “Kaizen” from the motor industry in the 90s. It features in Lean Manufacturing, kaizen aims to eliminate waste, by improving processes.

Kaizen was first practiced in Japanese businesses after World War II, influenced in part by American business and quality-management teachers, and most notably as part of The Toyota Way.

So when I read about Marginal Gains, it really resonated with me. The author of Atomic Habits, James Clear says that it’s not about making radical changes, instead says that it is about accruing small improvements over time.

He tells the story of the British Cycling team, which for nearly 100 years had, as he puts it, “endured nearly 100 years of mediocrity”. No British cyclist had won the Tour de France in that time, and the team had won only a single gold medal at the Olympics.

Dave Brailsford was brought in to turn the team around and his strategy was what he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains”.

Brailsford explains, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

When I read about this for the first time, I was blown away. What an fascinating idea. At the time, I hadn’t realised that this was part of a bigger piece, a book called Atomic Habits.

The book takes you on a journey, through the fundamentals of why tiny changes make a difference, as if you were not already convinced, on to making it obvious, making it attractive, making it easy, then making it satisfying.

Some of the concepts really fly in the face of everything we’re taught in terms of how to keep going. Saying that being motivated is overrated, and instead focusing on setting up the right environment so that it’s easy.

A few years ago, when I asked my uncle, who is a marathon runner, how he keeps motivated to keep training every day, he said that he makes it easy for himself. Puts his workout clothes out the night before and then puts them on first thing in the morning while he does chores around the house and gets the kids ready. Because he’s already in his running gear, he thinks, well I might as well do it anyway. This was also one of the themes in the book.

I think we all have habits, some are more obvious than others, smoking, gambling, playing too many computer games and watching too much TV are quite common amongst my friends, but I don’t share in those, although I do manage to have discipline with most of those, I do have a more subtle habits, including biting my nails, too much time aimlessly using my phone, not enough exercise, not eating the right kind of food or eating too much of the wrong food.

In the Atomic Habits book, James gives practical advice on how to limit your bad habits and encourage your good habits. With TV and video games, you can make it harder for yourself, forcing it to become a more conscious decision than an unconscious habit, such as unplugging the console after each use and storing it away.

With biting of nails, it’s a bit harder. But the book again gives practical advice. Biting nails is usually an unconscious habit, for me it starts when my mind is consumed by thoughts on other things, my brain subconsciously finds something for my hands to do, which ends up manifesting in me tidying my nails using my teeth. The suggestion from the book was to get a manicure, and although it seems like a bit of an unusual activity to me, the point was if I was already proud of my nails, I might think twice about biting them. It’s a good theory.

Another one of the central themes was shaping your identity into what you wanted to be. For example, if you wanted to read more books, then you would make “reader” part of your identity. If you wanted to be fitter, then perhaps “gym-goer” would become part of who you are. I really liked this idea, because, again taken from the book, it’s a vote for good habits and that identity, rather than the bad ones.

I liked this idea of thinking about what that identity would do in a given situation. If you want to eat better, would eating a biscuit be a vote for being healthy or not? What would a healthy person do? Would a healthy person work out more? Would they eat less burgers and eat more fish, chicken and vegetables? It’s much easier to make the right decisions when you’re guided by the type of person you see yourself as being in the future.

Yes, we all want to eat nice food, be social, enjoy ourselves, to be able to do and have whatever we want. But it’s that trade off for what you can have now vs the potential that lives in each of us. A vote for having the beers tonight, is a vote against the more healthy person we want to be tomorrow. It has a compounding effect.

I liked the idea of what James Clear described as habit stacking. The idea is that instead of having to really invest time and commitment into forming a new habit, you simply bind it to an existing one. An example might be that, when you’re on your commute to work, you pursue your “reader” identity, and read a book or listen to an audiobook. You can also break habits in a similar way, so maybe if you want to be healthier, you make it harder to just have a biscuit every time you have a brew.

This is, in part, why I wrote this. I want to read more books, I want to identify as someone who reads, is well read, a reader. I am winning at this because I am getting through books, but now I think it’s too easy to forget what I learned or how it made me feel or even how it changed me. That’s where the writing comes in.

I enjoy writing, when I was much younger, I found it hard to collect my thoughts into an order and get them down, but after doing it repeatedly, now I’m much better at it, I actually find it therapeutic and rewarding, so it’s a habit I want to pursue.

I think the key to habits is so it is for yourself, not other people. Own it. Keep showing up.