how to build habits: for normal humans

highlights from Atomic Habits by James Clear

“When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, ‘disciplined’ people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroice willpower and self-control.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

The highest light, so to speak, from this book is the way it pulls down the fruit of self-control to an accessible level.

Why it’s hard to get past that one thing

Most of us have at least one “thing” that we can’t seem to get past. Lots of people try a thousand diets to lose weight, but keep returning to their old ways. Lots of other people try to start saving more money, but find their account more or less at the same spot year to year.

Us normies can take heart. The issue may have more to do with the giant leaps for mankind that we’ve been trying to make. James Clear suggests that teeny tiny atomic-level steps are the way to move forward.

Clear teaches that the brain has certain mechanisms that cannot be overridden long term, even by the most powerful motivations. So, rather than pumping out vague motivational maxims, he explains how to work with those natural mechanisms to successfully create or deconstruct habits.

The brain works in cycles, as does almost everything in nature. Clear builds on this concept developed by Charles Duhigg:


For most people, no amount of herculean willpower will be able to sustain a reversal of this process.

For example, while there is some benefit in remembering the good things we’re aiming for (ex: being a healthy weight or having a healthy bank account), telling ourselves those important messages will not, in the long run, turn the clock back to erase the response, craving, and cue.

Working at the atomic level

In order to build positive habits, we have to work at the atomic level, figuratively. I loved this story (I paraphrase):

A man wants to start working out every day, but he invariably ends up skipping the gym. So he decides to make the habit he’s forming something smaller and more manageable. For a while, his only goal was to get himself to the gym. As soon as he was there, he turned around and went home. What a crazy waste of time!

But maybe he needed to tackle one obstacle at a time. One difficulty was the hassle of getting ready and driving to the gym. Another obstacle still loomed ahead, which was more influential in keeping him at home. Maybe he was intimidated about working out near others who were already fit and strong.

He needed to break down the obstacles into smaller battles. After he’d made it a habit to get himself to the gym every day, he then told himself he might as well workout since he was there. He’d workout for five minutes and then leave. All he was asking for was five minutes.

It feels a lot easier to say to oneself, “I am going to endure humiliation for five minutes” than it does to say, “I am going to endure humiliation for 45 minutes.” After working out for five minutes, this guy realizes it’s not that humiliating, and he starts to add on time, and so forth.

The Two-Minute Rule

Clear explains the Two-Minute Rule: “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” [PS, this seems to contradict the previous example. Maybe the guy lived two minutes from the gym.]

To put this very briefly, when you want to move toward a goal, break it down till you can do it regularly in two minutes’ time with very little willpower.

A way I personally have implemented this is in serving dinner from the kitchen counter instead of the dining room table. I wanted to eat smaller portions at dinner, and it took too much willpower to avoid heaping up my plate with second helpings when the food was right in front of me.

So I started serving the food from the kitchen, and I have to leave the conversation at the table in order to get more food. I made the bad habit a little harder to carry out.

To make it even easier, I focused on changing the habit of where I put the plates before filling them up with food. Previously, I’d put them on the table in the dining room, naturally. Once I remembered to put the plates on the kitchen counter instead, I was already on my way toward shifting the tide away from second helpings. This is a small, necessary, and very easy step toward my harder goal of eating only one plate of food at dinner, which is another step toward maintaining a healthy weight.

There is so much more that could be shared, about habit stacking, habit tracking, and the Habits Scorecard, etc., etc. I recommend getting a copy for yourself and highlighting it all over the place.

2 thoughts on “how to build habits: for normal humans

  1. Yep, this is a very useful book. Some good stuff about the power of environment in there. The practical equivalent of the figure in the post is: 1) make it obvious, 2) make it easy, 3) make it attractive, 4) make it satisfying. If you we can manipulate our environments to achieve this with healthy actions, it becomes much easier to establish healthy habits.


    1. Thanks for reading! I decided to leave out the environment stuff so it’d be a “quick read” still 🙂 Another section I really benefitted from was on identity. We have to see ourselves as “that kind of person” who would do the habit we want to instill. Every time​ we succeed, we “vote” for that identity.

      Liked by 1 person

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