Book Review

Beyond the Plateau of Latent Potential

October 10, 2021

A simmary of the lessons from the James Clear Book, Atomic Habits

From small habits, big things one day come, so argues James Clear in “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.”

Making major changes in your life require not so much great upheavals to the daily routine, but rather just lots of small, concrete steps in the direction you want.

“Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you are willing to stick with them for years,” Clear writes. Small changes in daily habits may not seem significant, but they are the “compound interest” of self-improvement.

Or self-destruction. Habit building works both ways.

“When we repeat one percent errors, day after day, by replicating poor decisions, duplicating tiny mistakes, and rationalizing little excuses, our small choices compound into toxic results.”

Clear borrows an idea from fames British cycling coach Sir David John Brailsford CBE, who espoused the idea of breaking a task, such as winning a race, into all the many different small ways that it can be improved. If you improve each bit just one percent, the whole will be uplifted by quite a margin.

“That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest,” Warren Buffet was quoted in the book.

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones
James Clear, Random House

Instead of focusing of outcome, focus on you want to become. Behavior that is incongruent with this perceived self will not last. Behavior that is tied to this self will be reinforced.

True, it takes time to do a major reversal in your life, and you may become discouraged when you don’t see immediate results. These are times when you are charging through a “plateau of latent potential,” as Clear calls these times when you are trying your best but don’t see any results. This is a normal.

But the breakthrough moments are often the end result of many previous actions.

We are encouraged to think of in terms of our current trajectory rather than wherever we may be in that moment.

A simmary of the lessons from the James Clear Book, Atomic Habits

One trick to building better habits is to not think in terms of setting goals, but establishing systems.

“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress,” Clear writes. Systems free you from the expectation of success that goals burden you with. Taking this approach, in the words Giants coach Bill Walsh, “The score takes care of itself.”

Decide the kind of person you would want to be, then build up habits to support this vision, proving it to yourself with small wins. Don’t worry about achieving a particular goal, as much as staying on course.

“Your habits are how you embody your identity,” Clear writes. “The process of building habits is actually the process of becoming yourself.”

The beauty of forming habits is that that they, by their very nature, automate processes. You don’t think about doing them or not. Or don’t think about them as you are doing them – your mind does all the work. In fact it can be difficult to stay mindful on what you are doing when you are habitually doing something.

“Give your habits a time and a space to live in the world,” Clear writes. Good habits should be stacked upon each other (“habit stacking”).

You need to specific with when and where good habits take place. New habits are more easily created, and bad ones more easily broken, in fresh environments. Clear argues that people who appear to be more disciplined structure their lives so they are rarely in tempting situations.

Habits are built on four steps: cue, craving, response and reward. The cue makes it obvious that the behavior should be undertaken. The craving makes the behavior attractive. The craving should be linked to the desire of changing your internal state. The response – the habit – should make the habit easy to do. And the reward makes it satisfying.

Quotes from "Atomic Habits"

A simmary of the lessons from the James Clear Book, Atomic Habits

“We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment.”

“A very small shift in direction can lead to a very meaningful change in destination”

“You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”

“just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.”

“The slow pace of transformation also makes it easy to let a bad habit slide.”

“The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated.”

“The more deeply a thought or action is tied to your identity, the more difficult it is to change.”

“Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs and upgrade and expand your identity.”

“Behavior is a function of a person in their environment”—psychologist Kurt Lewin

“Whenever you face a problem repeatedly, your brain begins to automate the process of solving it. Your habits are just a series of automatic solutions that solve the problems and stresses you face regularly.”

“Disciplined people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they simply spend less time in tempting situations.”

Art by Marian Zazeela, Dia Beacon, New York.