Atomic Habits: The Fundamentals

This is the discussion thread for the first section of Atomic Habits: “The Fundamentals”!

Book club index here.


I found the introduction a bit weak, so my first impression was “meh”.

Later on, the author presents a clear and well-defined framework for the rest of the book: A habit = {cue, craving, response, reward} and we manipulate each of these parts individually to change. I liked that; it gives a good idea of what’s about to come. Apart from that, I didn’t feel there was much content in the “Fundamentals” chapter.

I enjoyed part one. I think James Clear is doing a good job laying the groundwork for what’s to come. Chapter three makes the case that the four-phase habit loop (cue, craving, response, and reward) is plausible model that we can use to design successful interventions in our own behavior, whereas chapters one and two make the case that we should trust a small, consistent effort to deliver results.

I think the latter point is probably more counterintuitive. I’ve observed insufficient patience and inflexible personal identity as failure modes in my own life. As a parent of two small children, I don’t have a ton of opportunity for heavy lifts towards my goals. I have to make do with small but consistent effort, so I feel like those first two chapters are helping me cultivate the right long-term attitude towards my habits.

I really liked the analogy between latent heat and hitting performance plateaus. I think that’s going to be helpful as I troubleshoot my own goals, prompting me to think about whether the dose-response curve for my goal has any discontinuities. If so, then I’ll think about how there are time periods where I need to keep putting in effort without any visible return and without losing my gumption.

Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change.

I was thinking about this in the context of playing saxophone when I was in high school. I went through a period where I had to put a ton of practice into unlearning bad habits in order to make progress. After a frustrating few months of worse performance, the new muscle memory finally took hold and I got a major improvement in my tone nearly overnight.

That being said, I was not putting in a small, consistent effort on that habit: I was practicing for at least an hour every day. I might not have gotten anywhere without that much effort. Scott Young talks about this in “Why You Should Be More Extreme”: when you adopt a new habit, you have to calibrate yourself to the correct level of effort. When you start with a small effort, you run the risk of being below the threshold to get any results. And without results, motivation drops and it might not be easy to push yourself hard enough to get above the threshold later. Scott recommends starting with a big effort when your motivation is highest, then dialing back until you find the minimum effective dose you can maintain.

I can reconcile the two when I think about Beeminder goal design. Starting a goal with a small slope doesn’t preclude putting in a big effort, I just may need to retroratchet early on so that Beeminder keeps me accountable for consistency.


Now that I’m back at reading, I notice that my comment maybe didn’t convey my overall impression of the book:

I like it a lot, and I love how clear and concrete the message is.

The only thing I didn’t like was the Team Sky introduction which is an unfortunate example because of how shady the team turned out to be (the author acknowledged that but still). But that shouldn’t detract too much from the book as I it seems like he doesn’t follow cycling and was just a bit ignorant in that example.


I do not know of the appropriate adjective, but there are a lot of non-distilled hard-to-action pop nonfiction books. They’re good, but they’re not instructional. To me, a classic example is The Power of Habit. I didn’t like the Power of Habit, and put it in the “non-distilled hard-to-action pop nonfiction”. On the other hand, The Willpower Instinct is much more “Here’s a thing, here’s a quick story about it, and HERE’S A WAY YOU CAN INTRODUCE IT TO YOUR LIFE”.

The intro to this keeps saying it’s going to be actionable–which made me optimistic. (I also had seen a heavy marketing effort for this, which I sometimes associate with things “needing” heavy marketing.)


Some selected parts from the first chapters

a) A concept extremely close to Beeminder ideas
“Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.”

b) This one introduced a new way too look into my Beeminder goals
“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.”

C) Finally, this part got me into trying to “second think” simple decisions to really figure out why I make the choices I make.
“What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers. You do not crave smoking a cigarette, you crave the feeling of relief it provides. You are not motivated by brushing your teeth but rather by the feeling of a clean mouth. You do not want to turn on the television, you want to be entertained. Every craving is linked to a desire to change your internal state.”


I particularly like the relation of identity and habit.

Tom Peters said that “What you value is precisely reflected in how you spend your time”, and a lot of that time is spent non-consciously without concern for the trajectory of what kind of person you’re learning to be.

UPDATE: and I suppose that Beeminder is also tied up with identity. Beeminder users don’t cheat, for instance.