I read Atomic Habits at the end of last year and I’ve been meaning to talk about it for a while. It’s lived at the back of my mind since I did read it and not necessarily in a good way, it’s more of an irritation I can’t shake. The podcast If Books Could Kill just dropped an episode on it, which has prompted me to finally write out my thoughts on this.
I had a general awareness that this books exists from seeing it in Waterstone’s displays. I think I had picked it up to read its back cover, and then put it down and forgot all about it. Then last year I started watching video tutorials on note-taking using Obsidian.mb, it seemed like everybody had read this thing, and my curiosity was peaked! 
At the time I really wanted to make more time in my day to work on writing and blogging. As an adult person with a full-time job it is very hard to find time in the day for maintaining a clean house, garden, relationships, eating healthy, exercise, and sleep; never mind for anything else. I thought maybe if I could get a bit more structured routine into my week I can carve out some more “free” time for creativity.
The Good Habit I need is to do my workouts in the morning before work. After work just does not work for me – I’m too tired and hungry, and I just want to do something I enjoy. I also find (once I get going) that I have more energy for cardio first thing, and it makes me feel a lot better during the day.
I’ve been getting stuck in the Bad Habit of not getting out of bed when my alarm wakes me up, and staying there either scrolling on my phone or – honestly just daydreaming – until about 5 minutes before I’m to log on for work! I’d still go for a walk at lunchtime and after work (weather permitting) but not doing strength and cardio workouts leaves me feeling grotty and stiff (and also see: Reasons Why I Should Get Up & Do Some Exercise).
I have struggled with this since I started working from home in 2020, and this got worse after I bought my own place and moving house really blew my routine apart. (And I’ve since moved house a second time!).
With that in mind, I thought I’d give Atomic Habits a try to see if it held up to the hype, and whether it might actually help motivate me to get the fuck up out of bed and work on my fitness.
What are Atomic Habits?
It is a bit of a confusing title. “Atomic” here means lots of small parts that add up to a powerful whole. James Clear’s thesis is that building lots of small positive habits into your day will over time transform your life. There seems to be an internet trend in the productivity sphere of describing things as “Atomic” – e.g. “Atomic Essays” etc. So I guess it would make sense to you if you’re already in that space (or are better at science than me!).
Who is James Clear?
James Clear is not actually an expert qualified in anything. He is just a white American man on the internet. He has a blog and a newsletter which became very popular (this is his big brag). He has styled himself as “an expert on habits and decision making” …but what does that actually mean? Definitely not that he knows how to write a decent book!
In the opener of the book he describes himself as a hyper organised, disciplined person who finds it easy to build good habits. This blew my mind because how would someone who’s brain just works like – who hasn’t had to try – be able to help someone like me, who has never been able to long-term stick to a routine of good habits?
While my peers stayed up late and played video games, I built good sleep habits and went to bed early each night. In the messy world of a college dorm, I made a point to keep my room neat and tidy.
The fact that he thinks this qualifies him to dispense advice on the topic set off some alarm bells right away that this man was about to tell me to just do what he does and not understand why I find that difficult. I’m more interested to hear from a naturally disorganised person  that has found a way to keep a good routine for at least a year! I feel that would be a more qualified person to give advice.
He also opens the book with an anecdote about getting hit in the face with a baseball which is completely irrelevant to anything to do with habits or his qualifications as an expert. It was confusing. I guess it is just the one sort of interesting thing about him?
Why is this a book?
It reads like a blog post – or a newsletter – which is exactly what it started out as.
This is so clearly written by a male person (more on this) who, as we’ve read by his own admission, has never struggled with building good habits. The writing is cold, robotic, and insanely repetitive. It is full of meaningless charts and the entire contents of it could be summed up in half a page. But then that’s my beef with almost all self-help books!
He also repeatedly – relentlessly – tries to direct you to his damn website to give him your email address to download more pointless materials (16 times he directs you to atomichabits.com). I found this very off-putting and gave me the vague feeling that I’m being treated like an idiot, and that this is a scam.
Are Atomic Habits useful?
There are some useful ideas here, but again – this does not need to be a full book. It’s a blog post at most. There are not a whole books worth of useful ideas, so the rest is padded with nonsense or at best pseudoscience.
The examples he uses to support his theories are often misrepresented to fit his narrative or based on nothing but anecdotes (and in one case an anecdote of an anecdote). He also cites Twitter and Reddit threads as sources! 
Another problem with this book is that he conflates many things that are very different as equal habits with the same simple solutions. Examples he uses include binge eating junk food, looking at social media, weight training, voting, reading, learning a language, praising your employees, making your bed, chewing fingernails etc as being on the same level. Some of these are lifestyle choices, some down to personality, some are compulsive habits and some are psychological disorders. They do not all have the same solution.
Maybe he has some interesting observations about building good routines and habits, but in trying to stretch that idea out into a book and apply it to all areas of life he loses clarity and everything gets really muddled. Again this because he hasn’t really done hard research to test his theories, he is not an expert – he is just a guy dispensing advice based on some articles, social media posts and a couple of books he’s read.
James Clear’s Four Laws
The whole book centres on James Clear’s 4 Laws. That is the sum total of this book, it is all you need to know.
- Make it obvious (cue)
- Stack your habits to be triggered by time/location/action and stack to follow each other
- Make it attractive (craving)
- bundle good habits with things you want to do (rewards)
- Make it easy (response)
- Build an environment where it is easy to do good habits and difficult to do bad ones
- Habits should be small, less than 2 minutes
- Make it satisfying (reward)
- Habit trackers to give yourself evidence of progress
Here is an infographic I made after I first read this book. It takes a bit of scrolling so you can click here to skip past it!
Build a routine from chaining good habits
The main useful idea I got from this book was to cue habits, or what he called “Habit Stacking.” That is stringing together actions in your routine so that one good habit follows another. I also find it helpful to think about each step in this string and its own small, individual and easy to do habit.
For example –
- My alarm clock on the other side of the room goes off at 7am.
- This triggers me to have to get up out of bed to turn it off.
- That is then my cue to go to the bathroom for my morning pee.
- After peeing and washing my hands at the sink I immediately brush my teeth.
- Then I put some music on my phone while I put on my gym clothes because that helps me get in the mood to exercise.
- Gym clothes on are my cue to go to and get out my exercise mat.
- Once I’m on my exercise mat I then do a workout.
I did find this framework to be a useful way to think about my routine and it helped me, for a time – at least up to number four and getting my teeth brushed! I have consistently been brushing my teeth every morning now I trained myself to automatically do it first thing after peeing instead of having to remember to do it after eating breakfast. Before, because now working from home I eat breakfast at my desk, I’d sometimes forget to brush them until much later in the day – gross, I know! 
Numbers 5-7, require more effort and motivation, also worked but for only a few weeks and this is where I start to have some issues with his advice.
The hormone rollercoaster
I say that it is clear this book was written by a male (or, more accurately, someone who doesn’t experience a menstrual cycle) because so many of his examples for habits centre on food and exercise and emphasises that these must be daily and consistent.
His big tip for “Make it satisfying” is to keep habit trackers and “don’t break the chain” of success. That’s fine for simple actions things like brushing your teeth in the morning, but this is less useful for a lot of other habits that rely on my complex physical or mental effort.
If you have a menstrual cycle then your need for food, your focus, and your energy levels are going to fluctuate every few weeks. It’s not always going to be possible – or even healthy for you – to keep the same strict routine.
In my case, I find my energy plummets right around my period, and I’ve learned it is not a good idea for me to be getting up and doing cardio every day when I feel like that because I’ll just end up exhausted for the next week. Thanks to what I learned reading Period Power, I have proven now it is much better for me if I take the 3ish days I’m bone tired to actually lean into that fatigue and fully take a break from absolutely everything that I feasibly can (exercise, chores, thinking!). If I do that my energy snaps back much faster.
If I’m keeping a habit tracker of my morning workouts and only rewarding myself for not “breaking the chain” then every 28-ish days when I have to give my body a break I’m going to ruin my streak and feel like crap about that (on top of all the other self-esteem issues in the hormone soup).
The fluctuations in my hormones with my energy, mood and focus every cycle are a large reason why I find keeping routines difficult. I never seem to be able to keep regular routines for things like exercise – or honestly even keeping habit trackers!  – going consistently for more than about a month because hormones change my motivations so much. James can’t help me with that, and he has no idea what that’s like (based on the contents of his book at least).
I actually read Period Power after I read Atomic Habits, so I have since been working on my cycle tracker and try to lean into what my body and brain want in the different phases of my cycle (see my review of Period Power for more information about that). This has meant I’ve been feeling generally happier and healthier, but I’m yet to work out how I rebuild my morning routine after my last house move!
Caution if you have an eating disorder
James has some irresponsible advice on food and diet (losing weight, getting fit, building muscle) which definitely could be triggering for anyone with an eating disorder. He actually encourages you to hyper-focus on your eating, keep food and weight logs and concentrate on feeling bad about binges (as if binge eaters don’t find it distressing). 
So who is Atomic Habits for?
If you are a person like James who has a lot of self-discipline and finds personal organisation itself rewarding, then you’ll probably like this book, but you also likely won’t need it because this stuff comes easy to you.
People who might need genuine help with building better habits in their lives are likely to struggle to find anything that is long-term useful here. Like all mass-market self-help books, it is too vague and it cannot offer you the specific individual advice that would make a difference.
My two takeaways from it were to make habits small and easy and to stack them to make a routine. Neither of these things are really new or earth shatteringly original advice. I’ve always known I have to make things seem easy and comfortable for me to do them – and there are some areas (like writing this blog) that I need to work on making easier for myself!  Reading this was maybe a nice reminder placed in a new framework, but I didn’t need a whole book to get there.
At the end of the day – as long as you do not have an eating disorder – this book isn’t going to hurt you other than wasting your money and the time it’ll take to read it. I have already told you all you need to know about how Atomic Habits work, so you can take that framework and see if you can apply to it help you with an routine in your life you might need help with.
I just hate these lazy “books” that are just extended blog posts with no research and fucking citations from social media! They just treat readers like idiots, and I feel stupider for having read it.
Have you read this book? Did you find it helpful in the long term?
 I’m not really disorganised I’m more inconsistently organised. My bursts of organisation only last a few weeks. [back]
 If Books Could Kill go into this more, but my favourite example is a story he uses about how homes with energy meters in prominent locations within the home were more likely to conserve energy. According to Peter’s research for the podcast “The source for that is a book from 2015 where the author wrote that she was told the story at a conference in 1973.” [back]
 I’ve read a few articles that say the whole brush before or after eating breakfast debate doesn’t really matter, it’s more important that you actually do brush! Brushing before food in the morning protect your teeth from the food and drink you have for breakfast. e.g. see this advice on a dental centre website. [back]
 See all my abandoned Bullet Journals and more recently abandoned Obsidian vault of daily notes! [back]
 James’s advice on compulsive behaviour and binge eating, quote: “If you eat a chocolate bar every morning, acknowledge it, almost as if you were watching someone else. Oh, how interesting that they would do such a thing. If you binge-eat, simply notice that you are eating more calories than you should. If you waste time online, notice that you are spending your life in a way that you do not want to.” .. Dude, that is awful advice. [back]