5 Takeaways from ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear

Nicholas Richardson
6 min readFeb 6, 2022

Last summer a friend of mine suggested the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. After purchasing the book but never opening it up for 6 months, I was put on a project at work that had to do with understanding the ways in which average folks could become above-average savers (I work for a digital bank). Our goal was to create a flow in our digital banking app that would entice users to [do something] that would ultimately increase their average save balance.

A lot of financial health research and competitor analysis went into this project but I also read this book as part of my exploration. I’ll save the story of how this book influenced our banking app’s design for another day and focus on the broader lessons from this book for this article. So without further ado, here are my five most impactful takeaways from Atomic Habits:

1. Energy is stored before it is released (this is the reality of progress)

This takeaway has to do with the unrealistic expectations we tend to bring into things we are working towards. Clear writes, “Habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance.” He asks us to consider melting an ice cube. heating an ice cube from 26 degrees to 31 degrees doesn't seem to do anything, but heating it just one more degree will cause it to begin melting. He says, “Oftentimes people make small changes, fail to see tangible results, and decide to stop. Avoid this trap by giving the process time — way more time than you would expect. If your hard work seems wasted, it’s not. It’s just being stored. Just like the ice cube, all the action happens at thirty-two degrees.”

This is a hard thing for us to understand. The ice cube most likely also fails to understand that in just one more degree increase in temperature, it will begin to cross into the unknown. I can think of plenty of times where I’ve quit something because it just didn’t feel like I was making progress — My pathetic attempt at learning Spanish is on the top of the list. But okay, we can wrap our minds around this idea, sure… But what now what? What else does Clear have to teach us?

2. Focus on the system

This is a favorite of mine because it gives us all an excuse to become system designers. Clear points out that prevailing wisdom tells us to focus on setting actionable goals in order to achieve our aspirations. Then he points out the problems with this idea by writing, “Goals are good for setting direction, but systems are best for making progress.” he continues, “If you want better results, then forget about settings goals. Focus on your system instead.” He supports this idea by explaining winners and losers both have the same goals, so the goal itself can’t be what determines success or failure. It’s hard to argue with Clear. I’m always impressed when an athlete or coach is able to win a championship multiple times in different organizations. They obviously are carrying with them a system that can be implemented in a variety of environments and produce the same results — impressive! So ask yourself, how much have you invested in your system for whatever it is you’re after? I’m starting to think I need to do more than Duolingo for 10 minutes every few days to reach my goal… my system is s***! Time to move to Mexico and go all-in.

3. Your identity controls your behavior

Have you ever heard people talk about manifesting things? We mere mortals somehow possess a direct line into the unseeable realm of cosmic energy which impacts everything in the universe, and if we can learn the secrets of how the energy we emit influences all other things in the world, we can actually dictate what happens to us? As wild as it sounds, I think it’s true in certain ways. To get us one step closer to Clear’s point, let’s review The Law of Attraction which can be defined as: I attract to my life whatever I give my attention, energy, and focus to, whether positive or negative. In Atomic Habits, Clear points out how we (incorrectly) think we have to change our behavior before we allow ourselves to identify as a person with [insert desired behavior]. He explains if we can identify as a person with [insert desired behavior] first, the behavioral change is more likely to follow as a result.

I suppose this means I have to truly believe I speak Spanish right now, in this moment, in this moment where I literally only know a few sentences… If I can in the deepest part of my identity, believe that this is now who I am, Nick — you are bilingual — than I am more likely to start doing things a Spanish speaker would do. I buy it... Adiós mi viejo yo, he evolucionado. Soy hispanohablante.

4. Make it easy

Clear reminds of the story of the Ceramics teacher who split his class up into two groups: Group A — which was asked to produce one single, perfect ceramic bowl by the end of the semester and Group B — which was asked to produce as many ceramic bowls regardless of quality as they could make by the end of the semester. Which group produced the better ceramic bowls come finals week? Group B! Wow, all of those sayings like, “practice makes perfect” and “It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert” are true after all. So we know we need to spend a heck of a lot of time working towards something if we want to master it, but what if we find it hard to do the thing? Well, then we won’t do it because we kind of suck as a species. Rather than fighting against the way you are wired, work with it and (getting back to your system here), be intentional about keeping each step in your process easy.

I am at a point where the monotony of my Duolingo lessons at home is causing it to feel painful. It’s not feeling easy anymore. The lessons get tricky, fast! As a result, I am falling off the wagon. All the in-app gamification in the world can’t save me now! How could I make learning Spanish easy again? Perhaps I go back to Mexico and practice my lessons over some Mezcal at the beach? Or maybe I join a class and get some in-person lessons. There are so many options, but the point is that if you’re finding something too hard to keep doing, go back to your system and design it to where you are still making forward progress, but through easier actions.

5. Never miss twice

Building on point #4, the idea that you should never miss twice is again, all about not quitting. That’s sort of the moral of this book… If you can just figure out a way to not quit, by any means necessary, you will eventually get into the [good] habit of something or break a bad habit. Not quitting however is insanely hard and the book contains a few hundred strategies and ideas on how to not quit.

Clear writes, “Failing to save once will happen, but it’s important to get back into the routine as quickly as possible.” He continues by using working out as an analogy, “This is why the ‘bad’ workouts are often the most important ones.[They] maintain the compound gains you accrued from previous good days… Don’t put up a zero. Don’t let losses eat into your compounding.”

Compound gains is what the ice cube analogy is about. If you just stay in this cycle of going from 29°F to 30°F you’ll never experience a breakthrough. Neutral days still maintain your progress (and curb your steps backward) which is just as important as your progress itself.

Crap, I have missed my Spanish lessons way more than twice… I think it’s definitely time to return to my system and redesign it in a way that makes this easier. Sorry Duo, you’re just not Duo-ing it for me anymore.

In conclusion

I’m only scratching the surface of what’s in this book and I highly recommend you read it if you haven't already. It has so many great ideas to unpack and actually try in your own habit-forming journey. Good luck on the EASY road ahead!

Adios, amigos!