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Book Review: Atomic Habits, by James Clear

Review by Andreya B. Platia, Trainee Clinical Librarian at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.

This book has proven to be one of our most popular non-clinical loaned items and having been described as an international best seller, its mixed reception sparked a little curiosity – readers have loved it and hated it which made me wonder why opinion was so contrasted.

It has been heavily criticised for dragging out the same message across its 265 pages, and Clear’s reference to so many authorities on the subject of habit science has formed the basis for the critics’ condemning him for lacking any originality. However, the author himself describes the book as an 'operating manual', and it is easy to see why.

I would add that it is an operating manual with an evidence-base; Clear has garnered all the knowledge he could about making positive changes and habitual behaviour - the result is an accessible, user-friendly practical guide that the reader can start implementing immediately; a practical companion guidebook whether you are familiar with the theory and science of change or not. There are three key messages in this book.

Firstly, the principal point is that making small incremental changes leads to remarkable results in the long term. The author reminds us that such manageable changes to our habits are the 'compound interest' of self-improvement that are more sustainable than dramatic changes that fizzle out (think of strict diets and new years’ resolutions!).

Secondly, Clear highlights the role of our habits in crafting our identity. Just as our previous behaviours have shaped the person we are now, becoming the person we want to become, rather than setting a goal or a 'SMART' target, requires us to align our habits with the person we want to be.

That way, we’re focused on the day-to-day process of being rather than fixating on the end result. This is the difference between someone wanting to give up smoking and becoming a non-smoker.

Thirdly, the book emphasises the influence of our environment in shaping and supporting our habits.

There’s something forgiving about this idea; that successful change does not require us to have heroic determination or superhuman resilience to our unwanted habit-triggers (I still can’t say no to a chocolate when offered) but we may need to set our environment up to best support our steps towards success. For me personally, this added element is a game-changer.

I’m naturally inclined towards being a very untidy, absent-minded person and all too often I’m the victim of my own folly. One unfortunate episode just recently saw the passenger seat of my car (and the disorganised pile of CDs thrown on top) absolutely covered in honey.

Duran Duran’s Greatest Hits is ruined and it’s best not to ask exactly how it happened. All I can say is I’m not good at putting lids securely on things, I have a knack for making things fly and I’m sure a psychoanalyst would have a lot to say about that. I'Il enthusiastically clean my car and home and it looks great for a day or two before the chaos returns.

But as Clear points out, when I fall foul of my own bad habits - when I’ve lost my car keys or my bank card or my shoes again (or all three) - having a big tidy-up once in a while to deal with the issue isn’t the same as becoming a tidy, organised person and I’m only treating the symptom without addressing the cause.

I could fill my space with a myriad of storage solutions from a certain Swedish home furnishing store, but instead I took the author’s advice; I put my routine under the microscope and considered every little thing I was doing to contribute to the messy chaos and I looked at how I could improve each of these by just one percent. Such actionable exercises as these offered throughout this book facilitate self-reflection, making it feel easy to apply the principles in day-to-day life.

Positive changes naturally follow. Within a helpful summary at the end of each chapter, Clear offers one or two practical tips to try out, an expanding menu that makes the process of reading the book a series of experiments. Along with the examples to illustrate the principles, I found myself inspired to make other changes.

By the third chapter, not only did the kitchen table cease to be a depositing ground for just about everything, but I’m drinking more water, I’ve upgraded my morning wake-up routine, I’m spending less time 'doomscrolling' and investing more quality time and effort into my relationships.

Every chapter explores habit change from a slightly different perspective, and I found this gentle ripple-effect far reaching. While the insights in this book aren’t exactly revolutionary, they are certainly reinforcing rather than repetitive if you treat the author like a life coach and view each chapter as a coaching session.

Try reading it from cover to cover, and yes, its seeming repetition will bore you. But if you begin to consider making a change as you start reading the first chapter, taking your time over this book means that, as you work through it, the changes are reinforced and sustained.

Put the book down, digest the principles, try something out, reflect on how it went and come back to it. Let the author walk you through the process and it is easy to see why this book has sold 15 million copies worldwide.

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