The Science behind Atomic Habits

By: Noha Rahhal

If you consider yourself a “self-help” maniac, then you would probably have heard of Atomic Habits (2018) by James Clear. If not, and you would like to start 2024 afresh with ambitious new year’s resolutions, then you may need to check out this #1 New York Times bestseller, which has been translated into over 50 languages.

Most “self-help” books are notoriously considered to mainly rely on wishful-thinking or life-coaching rhetoric; however, the case is different with Atomic Habits, which sold over 50 million copies worldwide. So, what is so different about Atomic Habits? Or, we would rather ask, what is the fuss all about? The author, James Clear, claims to draw his behavior change ideas from biology, psychology, and neuroscience. In the book, the author heavily relies on case studies from real lifetime stories and proven scientific experiments.

In simple words, and without any spoilers, Atomic Habits is all about making tiny adjustments to our daily behavior to create lasting results. Through four simple laws—make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying—Atomic Habits is believed to be a manual for life-changing routines. However, the book does not just dictate laws; the author delves into other interesting notions, such as the importance of 1% rule, how building systems is much more favorable than setting goals, and the necessity of personal identity change instead of focusing on outcomes.

The One-Percent Rule

Here comes the power of compounding habits, which can go both ways; either positive or negative. Clear writes that if we can get one percent better each day, we will end up 37 times better by the time we are done. However, if we get one percent worse each day, we will go down nearly to zero. “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement,” Clear says. As simple as it seems, sticking to getting better each day can be quite tricky, as habits do not necessarily make much difference on any given day, but rather takes months or even years to witness a real impact. Since we, as human beings, are accustomed to quick results and instant gratification, sticking to a daily pledge of being better, and doing better can be tiresome.

Forget about Goals and Stick to Systems

According to Clear, winners and losers have the exact same goals, which are basically momentary change. For example, you can quit smoking for one day, which is a goal in itself, but if you are dragged back into the old persistent habit of smoking, you will end up again where you started. Changing a habit for a moment is all about temporary result; that is why changing the system is key to attaining the long-term results. “The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game,” says James Clear.

Identity Change is the Winning Bet

This notion tackles the three layers of behavior change: identity, processes, and outcomes. According to Clear, most of us fall into the trap of attempting to change the outcomes without having a closer look at the core of behavior change; that is, identity. Clear says: “The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes a part of our identity”. What he means is simply that when we focus on outcomes, we are shooting for a momentary solution, but when we focus on the identity, we are after the system. For instance, if you focus on losing weight, chances are you will be yo-yo dieting while trying several nutritional fads. However, if you identify as a healthy person, chances are you would be aware of the small and daily decisions you make constantly. You will naturally avoid sugary foods, smoke less, or even give up, sign up for an aerobics class, etc.

Four Laws to Build Habits

As mentioned above, Atomic Habits is widely known for its four laws to build sustainable and healthy habits. They are designed around four stages: cue, craving, response, and reward. In his book, Clear gives a very mundane example of how feeling hungry (cue) triggers your craving for a certain type of food, which will lead you to respond through ordering a meal from a specific restaurant leading to the final sense of reward and fulfillment.