By Sam Lambert
When he was a star high school baseball player, James Clear suffered a traumatic head injury during a game, which severely debilitated his health, his self-esteem, and his prowess as an athlete for the rest of his high school years. Despite this major setback, he later became the “top male athlete at Denison University” while also excelling academically. How was he able to bounce back so successfully?
Clear explains that the secret was accumulating small, helpful habits and using them to overcome his challenges. In his book Atomic Habits, he clarifies that the best way to develop your skills is to formulate a “system of continuous small improvements” that helps you achieve progress, rather than simply chase limited goals (25). The book is filled with meaningful anecdotes and scientific studies which help illustrate helpful principles and tools, so many that it’s difficult to cover the breadth of his discussion in so limited a space.
For one, it’s much easier to create active change in ourselves if we become mindful of our habits. In other words, “one of our greatest challenges is changing habits is maintaining awareness of what we are actually doing” (64). Clear explains that applying this rule makes it easier to consciously apply habits in helpful ways, such as habit stacking (or grouping small habits that naturally flow into each other) (74) and seeking out environments which compel us to fulfil certain habits (for example, spending time with fit people in order to make it feel more natural to work out and stay in shape) (116). This self-awareness can help readers to understand the psycho- and sociological principles behind their brain and their behavior and empower themselves to control their actions.
However, Clear also acknowledges that our enthusiasm for our habits does not remain constant. According to him, the only way to prevent our habits from dropping off is to “master the habit of showing up” (163). That is, we can’t expect that we will always be excited to exercise our habits (even if they’re something we enjoy), nor can we expect every day to be perfect. The most important thing is to do “show up” and do some version of the habit every day, even if it’s only two minutes’ worth (162–3). By doing so, we’ll be able to truly assert our identity over time, saying with increasing confidence “‘Hey, maybe this is who I am’” (38).
Most importantly, Clear communicates that our habits have a reciprocal relationship with our identity. On one hand, we often let our negative habits define who we are by “[sliding] into mental grooves and [accepting negative habits] as fact” (35), which can prevent us from truly developing. On the other hand, if we let our identity guide us towards habits that would fit us, while still exploring new aspects of ourselves (222), we can more easily mold our habits to fit the type of life that we currently have and want to improve. In this way, Clear leads readers to make a true difference in their lives.
Clear’s book can enact immensely positive change in any person’s life if applied well. Its principles remain with readers throughout their lives.