I read Atomic Habits of course read alongside my goal setting for the end of the year. Like nearly everything on the good end of the self-help spectrum there are some good nuggets and suggestions, buried among the winded anecdote warm ups (pages of summary of Steve Martin’s fabulous Born Standing Up, before the big reveal you can see coming miles away without having read the book, it’s Steve Martin!) and appeals to join email lists online. Two stars (Three if this is your first systems-self-help book)
Anecdotitis plagues all of these books. The personal ones are the most useless since there is so little application one can take from them. The book is reasonably priced, but much of the information could be found on his website. Trying to go to one of the links he suggests in his book? It should be said in advance “give me your email at this link for more information.” Email harvesting sours me.
The good notes & quotes:
Like some other self-help books, the emphasis is on building systems, not setting goals. The “Atomic habits” are not really that atomic, meaning they combine into compounds or whatever but really mean an advocacy of cumulative small changes. Yep, the “improve 1% a day” message it’s 37x improvement over a year is cited here, which is not that useful to biological creatures…but I get the point.
Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems…Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress… You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
His description and visualization of the “Plateau of Latent Potential”: “When you finally break through the Plateau of Latent Potential, people will call it an overnight success.” This is the most memorable contribution of the work; knowing that you will feel behind your goals for a long while before you cross the level you think you should be.
The change in psychology to make the goal part of your identity, something you get to do, not just must do or “trying to do” is another strong suit:
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes 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…Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one…
How does one set a system to enforce that? Join a group.
We imitate the habits of three groups in particular: The close. The many. The powerful…
Your culture sets your expectation for what is “normal.” Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. You’ll rise together…
When you join a book club or a band or a cycling group, your identity becomes linked to those around you. Growth and change is no longer an individual pursuit. We are readers. We are musicians. We are cyclists. The shared identity begins to reinforce your personal identity. This is why remaining part of a group after achieving a goal is crucial to maintaining your habits. It’s friendship and community that embed a new identity and help behaviors last over the long run…
There is tremendous internal pressure to comply with the norms of the group. The reward of being accepted is often greater than the reward of winning an argument, looking smart, or finding truth…
When changing your habits means challenging the tribe, change is unattractive. When changing your habits means fitting in with the tribe, change is very attractive.
There was something about one anecdote that did strike me. I think I’ve heard it once before, about Jerry Uelsmann, a photography professor at Florida breaking the class into a group, one of which took a picture every day, no pressure, the other had to submit just one. Which one wound up with the highest quality? Of course the former.
So in the end, this means you just have to stick with the systems you’ve made, even when you get bored. This is of course the rub for me, and I found this final quote strong, something that maybe should be on my wall:
The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. And as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty. Perhaps this is why we get caught up in a never-ending cycle, jumping from one workout to the next, one diet to the next, one business idea to the next. As soon as we experience the slightest dip in motivation, we begin seeking a new strategy—even if the old one was still working. As Machiavelli noted, “Men desire novelty to such an extent that those who are doing well wish for a change as much as those who are doing badly.”