Small Changes, Big Gains: The Easy Way to Make Your Dreams Habit-Forming

A Review of Atomic Habits by James Clear

It’s an annoying fact of life that anything worth having requires hard work.  Not only hard work, but usually a lot of endurance and boredom and frustration.  This is problematic, because nature has designed us to be pleasure-seekers, and as a result we often prefer spending time stuffing our faces with Doritos and lying around, sloth-like, checking Facebook. 

Nature has also made us ambitious and imaginative, and full of grand schemes. Nature wants us to make more of ourselves it seems, even while she’s ensuring we’ll further the species. These two seemingly opposing drives hang there in our minds, all day long, the good angel and the bad angel duking it out, taking turns scoring a win. 

The book Atomic Habits, by James Clear, is an ideal companion for giving the good angel a leg up. Clear provides dozens of clever solutions for turning our innate hedonism to our advantage, while always keeping an eye on the big picture – that person inside we feel we could be if we only finally stepped up.  And the good news is that the most effective way to do it is through small, manageable, stepwise tweaks to our daily routines.

Clear starts out by explaining the concept of “the aggregation of marginal gains” – the origin of the book’s title:

Habits are like the atoms of our lives. Each one is a fundamental unit that contributes to your overall improvement. At first, these tiny routines seem insignificant, but soon they build on each other and fuel bigger wins that multiply to a degree that far outweighs the cost of their initial investments.  They are both small and mighty.

The idea, then, is if you do something small every single day to further your goals, over time these small habits will accumulate into huge gains. To illustrate his point, he uses the example of a pilot setting a course from Los Angeles to New York. If she miscalculates by only 3%, the plane will end up in DC.  Similarly, only a 3% daily course correction in favour of your goals has the potential to land you in the place where your dreams come true.  

Clear emphasizes the importance of becoming process-oriented about our objectives.  Atomic Habits helps you set up a system that keeps you showing up every day in the service your goals. Because breakthrough moments occur as a result of constant small behaviours crossing a critical threshold, the most powerful outcomes tend to be delayed.  So setting up an effective system  – one that is continually refined and improved upon – is critical:  it ensures you will persist long enough to break through “the plateau of latent potential.”  

But how to keep your eye on the prize?  What makes Clear’s method unique, and I think uniquely effective, is his emphasis on the role of identity in behaviour change.  He argues persuasively that it’s difficult to change your behaviour unless you can change the underlying beliefs that led to that behaviour.  If we possess habits we find difficult to change, it is very likely we are unconsciously harbouring negative self-beliefs (“I have no will-power”, “I don’t really have what it takes”). Clear argues that changing our habits comes down in part to rooting out those negative self-beliefs and replacing them with a new self-concept.   

Our sense of identity is crucial because our daily habits reinforce our identity – we tend to believe we are what we do.  As Clear puts it, habits are how we embody our identity: “Whatever identity you have right now you only believe it because you have proof of it.”  Each time you go for a run, you prove to yourself you’re a runner.  Each time you practice an instrument, you prove to yourself you’re a musician.  Deciding what kind of person we want to be, and then asking ourselves all day long what that kind of person would do – and doing it – before long, we become that person.

In keeping with the “atomic” theme – that small changes lead us to big results over time – Clear emphasizes that it doesn’t have to perfect.  He uses the analogy of an election: a person running for office doesn’t require 100% of the votes to win an election. Similarly, each time you perform a new habit that reinforces your new identity, that action is a vote for your new identity. All you need is a majority vote to embody your new identity.   

The bulk of Atomic Habits is made of up of dozens of the best science-backed techniques for establishing and sticking to the habits that serve our goals. Speaking directly to our inner lazy bums and libertines, the techniques are organized around Clear’s Four Laws of Behaviour Change: 1. Make it Obvious; 2. Make it Easy; 3. Make it Attractive; 4. Make it Satisfying.  Clear provides a hack tailored to every conceivable personality type and life goal.  These include more familiar techniques (such as putting out workout clothes the night before, pre-chopping fruits and vegetables, choosing a gym on the way to work) and more elaborate approaches such as “habit stacking” – linking a new habit to something you already do.  He includes powerful reinforcers, such as the “habit tracker” (an easy and attractive method of recording it every time you perform a desired behaviour) or the use of accountability partners, whose function it is to make life unpleasant for you if you slack off. 

The final section of Atomic Habits, entitled “Advanced Tactics: How to Go From Being Merely Good to Being Truly Great” tackles increasing your odds at becoming successful, staying motivated, and avoiding the pitfalls of overly rigid self-discipline (yes, there can be a few).  In it, Clear provides an excellent short primer on matching your skills, passions, and strengths to your goals for outsized gains, including links to scientifically-validated online personality tests to assist in the self-discovery process. 

On the road to becoming truly great, one bit of bad news about which Clear doesn’t mince words is that there will be bad days when we are too tired, bored, and drained to go on. His solution: “you have to fall in love with boredom.” He doesn’t explicitly say how, only points out that all professionals have somehow learned to show up when the chips are down. An occasional missed day here and there won’t make a significant difference for modest goals (the majority vote – see above).  But for making those big dreams come true, finding a way to fall in love with the whole package – including the hard times – is something we must reconcile. It sucks, but helping us arm ourselves with our new identity matched to our skills and passions, and powerful techniques to reinforce our goals, Clear has provided every conceivable support. 

Atomic Habits is an engaging, enlightening and motivating read.  But more importantly, if we can only bring ourselves to bet on ourselves and put into action Clear’s entirely doable suggestions and techniques, Atomic Habits is potentially life-changing.  Rather than deny our compelling needs for gratification in the moment, Clear has provided an effective way to harness them in service of our big picture goals.  In so doing, Clear demonstrates that our dreams actually can come true.  Perhaps there’s hope for us pathetic slobs after all. 

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