Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book was recommended to me by a good friend. I had a fairly good idea what was coming, and that it wouldn’t be much, but I didn’t mind. As a teacher desperately trying to help stressed students pass their exams, any extra ideas I could glean about forming good habits (for studying) was going to be welcome. I suspected there wouldn’t be too much to pick up however.
I was right really, you won’t be surprised to hear, but there’s two caveats I need to add to this damning summary: First, this is my sphere of expertise both personally (I’ve been micro-managing habit routines since I was 15) and professionally where I’ve taught for years that cram-studying is a disaster and gradual, habitual studying is the answer; second, there are some interesting facts, inspirational stories and useful pieces of information in there regardless of how much you know, or think you know, about forming good habits. If I could offer 3.5 stars I would, for these reasons.
Yes, the book suffers for being rather ‘American’ – rather full of clever can-do ideas which if someone was likely to take up and maintain they’d probably be the kind of person who wouldn’t need the book in the first place. Yes, the heavy premise of ‘how to succeed’ (which is also rather American but typical in the self-help world) is galling and just sets people up to feel even greater failures when nothing has changed months after reading the book. And yes, most of what is inside has been said a million times before. It’s just another (admittedly well-written) self-help guide and rather ten-a-penny.
But what James Clear says is actually true, at least on the whole. Some of his examples are super – I now tell my students all about the British cycling team, for instance – and the practical tips and techniques to avoid pitfalls are on point. He’s absolutely right about the principle of improving 1% at a time and the ‘butterfly effect’ (as I’ve always called it) of tackling things you want to become habits or skills you want to achieve.
Was it helpful to me though? Yes and no. In terms of whether there’s anything better I can do in my own learning and habit-forming: no – I’m doing it all already. But it did at least confirm that and I’m left certain that my problem (thanks to my out-of-control ADHD) is that I’m trying to do TOO MUCH in these myriad incremental ways. In short, I don’t need better ways to improve my physique, musical skills, language acquisition, write my book, read more books etc., etc….I just need to cut down on how much I try to do in a day! Now if there was a book on how to do LESS in a day, I’d snatch that up…
For someone slightly less manically inclined, Clear’s book should be quite a reasonable guide to building that skill or routine you’ve always wanted to develop – or, indeed, to ditch that dream because you realise it’s not part of the ‘real you’ (Clear is quite good at pointing that out too). Just try to avoid catching the American-dream hype and putting the book down believing you’re invincible, the world will see a new you and that weight loss, or extra muscle, or ability to play the piano as a professional, is now at your fingertips. It isn’t; it really isn’t – but James Clear can get you nearer and possibly start you on the journey.
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Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at email@example.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.