Book Review: Atomic Habits

Title: Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones

Author: James Clear

Topic: Psychology, human behaviour, performance habits

Appropriate for: Compulsory reading for Athletes, Coaches, Parents

Overall rating: 5/5 – go out and get it now!!!


I think this should be compulsory reading for athletes and coaches… I’d heard this book being recommended in various podcasts across different genres and themes, from business to sport. I had it in the back of my mind to get round to reading it. As part of my work CPD budget, I took out an Audible membership to make the most of my time in the car travelling from site to site. So rather than reading this book, I listened to it on my travels…

On of the big issues I find in a performance sport setting, is that we intentionally allocate time for technical training, conditioning, rehab and strength work. However, often the important area of “Performance habits” (eg. sleep, nutrition, mobility, recovery, self organisation) that support elite performance aren’t allocated specific time, rather discussed in small transitions from the gym to the pitch, or in passing. This is an area I’ve actually been giving more weight to in my own practice, implementing specific strategies to ensure we are discussing and monitoring these all important habits. Hence my interest in this book.

An interesting point that James Clear makes is that simply improving by 1% on a daily basis leads to an overall improvement of 37 x current performance (Think British Cycling principle). This is the premise of the book – that “Atomic” habits (as in subatomic, miniscule etc.) can actually lead to much longer and impactful outcomes. This actually speaks volumes to me – think of all the “Atomic” habits that have compounding effects on athletic development and performance…

  • Appropriate sleep duration/quality
  • A quality breakfast meaning you’re fuelled to train
  • A regular warm up/mobility/recovery routine
  • Forward planning of meals/snacks
  • Using a training diary

He also discusses the difference between outcome-based habits (what you want to achieve, leading from external to internal) vs identity-based habits (who you want to become, leading from internal to external).

The initial discussion centres around the 4 part model that James Clear suggests underpins both positive and negative habits (which are context and individual dependant). He poses that even negative habits produce some sort of reward (eg. security, safety, stability) and each habit that reaps a reward is reinforced and repeated. He also contrasts the popular opinion that habits are defined by the length of time they are repeated, but the number of times they are repeated. For example, 3 repetitions in 30 days vs 200 repetitions in 30 days.

I found his “laws” of making/breaking a habit, very insightful and simple to manipulate in order to create the positive habits we/our athletes desire, or to cease the negative habits we/our athletes wish to remove. He not only gives some guiding principles on creating new behaviours, but also some practical techniques to both form good habits and break negative ones. Here are some examples:

1.Make it Obvious

  • Track your current habits to become aware of them
  • Write out implementation intentions, “I will_________(BEHAVIOUR) at ______ (TIME) in ________ (LOCATION).”
  • Intentionally design your environment. Ensure cues for the desired habits are obvious and visible to help reinforce the new habit. (Eg. leave a foam roller visible in your bedroom to trigger your mobility routine)

To reduce a negative habit:

  • Remove the environmental cues that trigger the negative habit
    • Remove unhealthy snacks from the fridge/kitchen
    • Have an intentional shopping list to prevent unhelpful additions
    • Purchase healthy snacks to replace the previous unhealthy ones

2.Make it attractive

  • Use temptation bundling – pair an action you want to do, with one you need to do (eg. Watch your favourite tv show while completing your mobility routine)
  • Join a culture that reinforces your desired habit as the norm (eg. recruit teammates who want to do the same – eg. Crossfit, weight watchers, AA)
  • Start a motivation routine – do something enjoyable right before completing a difficult behaviour

To reduce a negative habit:

  • Highlight the the advantages of avoiding the negative behaviour (eg. by not being on Facebook late into the night – I get a better night’s sleep)

3.Make it easy

  • Reduce resistance by decreasing the steps to complete the habit
  • Setup your environment to support future actions (eg. layout breakfast before bed, make a smoothie and leave in the fridge for the morning, have a pre-planned snack for post-training, use an app to schedule “down time” for social media before bed)
  • Use a “2 minute rule” – establish new habits for only 2 minutes. (eg. I will stretch/foam roll/read for 2 minutes)

To reduce a negative behaviour

  • Make it inconvenient by increasing the number of steps required to complete it (eg. By removing unhealthy snacks, you now need to leave the house and walk to the local shop to buy them)

4.Make it satisfying

  • Use rewards to reinforce performing the desired habit (eg. Chocolate milk after a gym session)
  • Monitor habits by using a tracker, try to build a streak and “don’t break the chain”
  • Don’t miss twice – When you do miss a habit, be sure to perform it the next time

To reduce a negative behaviour:

  • use an accountability partner (think another teammate who wants to do the same habit, create a whatsapp group for meal logging)
  • Create a habit agreement or contract. Make a bad habit costly, visible and “painful” (eg. donating to an organisation you don’t like, or wearing a rival’s kit etc.)

This book does an excellent job of helping to explain how both good/bad habits are formed in our athletes, as well as suggesting practical ways of behaviour change to create positive habits. I think it should be compulsory reading for all athletes and coaches! There are also helpful resources which can be accessed online, as well as guides to apply the principles to both business and parenting!

You can find the book here: Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones

Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.