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The Difference of 1%: "Atomic Habits" by James Clear Book Recap

By Blake Reichenbach

As a part of my ongoing project to better understand what it means to be an expert and to assess the tactics that experts employ to operate at their best, I've been reading pretty voraciously these last few weeks.

One of my most recent reads was Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear, and given its relevance and particular usefulness, I wanted to do a quick write up of it.

Clear's emphasis is on making small adjustments to your daily routine so that you can– in a sense– get 1% better every day. Throughout the book, Clear breaks down the strategies and routines he's developed and refined over time to do exactly that. As Clear explains in the introduction to the book,

[...] improving by 1 percent isn't particularly notable– sometimes it isn't even noticeable– but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here's how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you'll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you're done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you'll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or minor setback accumulates into something much more.

In order to achieve this daily improvement of 1%, Clear establishes four laws of atomic habits: make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying.With these laws, he breaks down how someone can either develop the habits that they want to have or break the habits that aren't benefitting them.

What I found particularly enjoyable about Clear's writing was his method for contextualizing his strategies in clear, real-world application. One of the issues I typically have with books like this is the way in which concepts are presented– it's not uncommon for them to be nebulous and to spark thought without actually sparking change. Atomic Habits was quite the opposite, as practicality seems to be of the utmost importance for Clear.

What it can Teach us About Expertise

Though not written directly about expertise, I picked up this book because I found it particularly applicable to my ongoing Expert Project because of how I understand and define expertise. To me, expertise is about pursuing consistent growth and mastery, and one of the ways that you can do that is to develop habits around your desired area of growth.

If you want to get in shape and be an expert in physical fitness, you have to structure your identity and habits around physical fitness.

If you want to climb the corporate ladder at work and be an expert in your department, you have to structure your habits around your work.

If you want to become a successful blogger who can use their work to build a passive income, you have to structure your habits around blogging and becoming a better blogger (yowza... I just called myself out).

When it comes to being an expert, the person who consistently works to advance their skills and their knowledge– the person who invests time and energy into getting 1% better every day– is the person who is going to come out ahead.

What it Doesn't Teach us About Expertise

Atomic Habits is a general guide to controlling one's habits. What the concepts can essentially be applied universally, it's not specific to developing or reclaiming one's expertise. The reason expertise is so intriguing to me is that it is about more than credentials, titles, habits, or tenure. While habits can help you to further develop your sense of expertise, unless you get past the mental roadblocks that cause us to hand over our expertise to others (e.g. "I'm not the expert here so I'll let someone else answer this") or lack confidence (e.g. "someone else is probably better at this than me, so I won't try") then our habits alone will only be a piece of the solution, not the entire solution.

While our actions influence our mindset and our mindset influences our actions, I think there's still plenty of room to go deeper into the personal, mental aspects of expertise and what it means to be an expert in today's workplace.

Tags: Books, Book Review

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