Atomic Habits in Life and Work

If you haven’t read it already, you may have had it recommended to you by a friend, or noticed it on someone’s bookshelf in the background of a Zoom call. Atomic Habits by James Clear is a great, fast-paced read, and it doesn’t hurt that it has a shimmering gold cover (the hardcover version, at least) which is mesmerizing and pretty to look at.

Below are three key concepts that stuck with me in the days and weeks after I finished the book. If this stuff resonates with you, I highly recommend James Clear’s email newsletter which is a wonderful, quick-skim dose of weekly inspiration and intellectual nuggets to chew on.

1. Our universe revolves around the easy win

In life, as in physics, the path of least resistance explains many behaviors. Humans like to get more by doing less. It’s as simple as that. Why cook dinner when you can press a button and shrimp pad thai shows up at your door? Why go for a run in the terribly miserable cold morning air when you can cocoon yourself under the warm covers for another hour? To dismiss this incredible urge through the incantation of “get motivated” is to fight an uphill battle with how our brains are wired. In business and product design, giving a user an easy win is often the key to unlocking positive user adoption. When writing fiction books, the first twenty pages are critical to hooking a new reader, so you’d better punch them in the face with a short, explosive chapter. When running an ice cream shop, there’s no better way to get customers to step forward and commit to a flavor then giving them a quick and easy sample spoon. In video games, the self confidence you build by programming easy puzzles and weaker bosses in the beginning will pay off in the form of a highly engaged player who will commit to beating the entire game. In UX (user experience) design, building an app that delivers fun in two clicks instead of four clicks will guarantee a faster, more convenient dopamine hit and drive user adoption. In business, when pitching a high-risk-high-reward project to a room of skeptical leaders, it’s often best to run a pilot test. Promising test results will help push hesitant naysayers over the edge and commit their support. In your personal and professional life, look for and orchestrate the “easy wins” and never underestimate the overwhelmingly powerful effect this has on our brains.

2. Self forgiveness and why social media is a dumpster fire

Our brains were designed to operate in a world that existed hundreds of thousands of years ago. While today our to-do list includes laundry, grocery shopping, paying bills and checking email, our brain was optimized for hunting, gathering, reproduction and generally avoiding death by mammoth tusk. The punchline: We are running a very old operating system and wondering why it doesn’t perform optimally in an environment it was never designed for.

Never before in human history have our brains needed to filter such an incessant deluge of information. And to complicate it further, social media platforms force us to process the opinions of thousands (millions?) of humans every day. Our brains cannot operate in a tribe of one billion people, and we wonder why the fabric of our civil society and the integrity of our childrens’ mental health is fraying at its edges. From bullying to sexism to racism to political vitriol, we have created a toxic swamp that we cannot swim out of. So what does this mean for you? It means you have the permission to step away. Go easy on yourself when you only get six out of ten things done on your to-do list and your inbox hasn’t seen zero since 2005. You’re not designed for this. None of us are. We are human beings, not human doings. We do the best we can with what we have, but sometimes you just need to tell yourself that you’re enough, turn off the phone, and go for a walk.

3. Anyone can climb mountains… one foot at a time

Tiny changes, remarkable results. It’s in the title. No matter what you want to accomplish, there is a path to success if you break it down bit by bit, day by day, and focus on doing an excellent job at 100 discrete tasks. One gym workout. One new chapter read. One college class completed. One consulting client satisfied. One leads to two, two to three, and you’re off the races. Andy Stumpf from the Cleared Hot podcast once had a saying that stuck with me. He said, “keep your world small.” By that, he meant that you can’t overburden your mind with the enormity of the goal you’re trying to accomplish (such as learning to play the drums), even if you want it really badly, obsess over it and dream about it every day. Instead, you need to embrace tunnel vision, put up your blinders, and focus on the singular task you are doing right now (such as practicing a clean double stroke roll). In that sense, pretty much any mountain can be conquered if you stomp your boots into the snow one solid step at a time.

Did you read Atomic Habits? Do you agree or disagree? What takeaways resonated with you?

Senior Director of Digital Communications & Brand Experience at NYU School of Global Public Health / Podcast Producer / Occasional Bowhunter