The Pequod Review:
James Clear's thesis in Atomic Habits is simple but potentially life-changing:
The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become. Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become... The real reason habits matter is not because they can get you better results (although they can do that), but because they can change your beliefs about yourself.
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes a part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this... If you show up at the gym five days in a row — even if it's just for two minutes — you are casting votes for your new identity. You're not worried about getting in shape. You're focused on becoming the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts.
Clear spends much of the rest of his book restating this thesis in a variety of ways, so at times it can feel repetitive. But just as often his various examples and explications wind up making his message clearer and more tangible:
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.
This can be a difficult concept to appreciate in daily life. We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment. If you save a little money now, you’re still not a millionaire. If you go to the gym three days in a row, you’re still out of shape. If you study Mandarin for an hour tonight, you still haven’t learned the language. We make a few changes, but the results never seem to come quickly and so we slide back into our previous routines.
Unfortunately, the slow pace of transformation also makes it easy to let a bad habit slide. If you eat an unhealthy meal today, the scale doesn’t move much. If you work late tonight and ignore your family, they will forgive you. If you procrastinate and put your project off until tomorrow, there will usually be time to finish it later. A single decision is easy to dismiss... Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations. That said, it doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success. You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.
If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
The San Antonio Spurs, one of the most successful teams in NBA history, have a quote from social reformer Jacob Riis hanging in their locker room: “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it — but all that had gone before.”
Self-help books seem to thrive on encouraging contemplation and preparation for action, rather than action itself. (Maybe this is because it has the profitable side effect of ensuring constant demand for more self-help books.) Atomic Habits does the opposite, and as a result it's an exceptional work full of truly useful advice.