This is the best book out there on habit formation

February 22, 2019

When I spoke to an all-hands annual meeting of team members just after the New Year, I flashed a popular meme on screen that my wife had spotted online. It said, “I’m opening a gym called “Resolutions.’ For the first two weeks, it’ll have exercise equipment. After that, it’ll turn into a bar for the rest of the year.”

OK, maybe this isn’t very funny. But it does illustrate a nearly unassailable truth about traditional annual resolutions or goal setting processes: they are simply ineffective. They may begin with incredible insight and good intentions, but they will not create a blueprint for real and lasting progress in our lives.  The problem is not the intention to change but a system to sustain and track progress. (Tracking your progress toward a goal is an often-overlooked step – more on that in a future column.) Put another way, motivation is fleeting and can’t be counted on in the long run, and what doesn’t get measured often doesn’t get done.

That’s why so many people fail.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to fail. And I certainly don’t want my team members to fail either because, in my experience, companies succeed when the people who work for it succeed and grow. That’s why books like “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones” are particularly important for leaders. By understanding the mechanics of habit formation, you can help others understand and embrace them, creating a hugely beneficial exponential effect.

At my company, we talk a lot about personal and professional growth. Last year, we dug deep into Carol Dweck’s seminal work “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” If you’re serious about reaching your potential, you ought to give this one serious attention. It focuses on the benefits of ditching a “fixed” mindset (one that gives up easily and ignores feedback) and replacing it with a “growth” mindset that embraces challenges and learns from criticism. Carol is an engaging writer on top of being a leading psychologist, so the lessons she imparts are easy to follow. It’s an important book that has become the bedrock of the “success” curriculum we’re building at Hagerty. I highly recommend it.

This year, another book will join “Mindset.” James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” is, in my mind, the ultimate book ever written on habit formation. What’s fascinating about Clear (in addition to his well-researched insights) is how he came to be a world-renowned expert in the first place, one who routinely works with Fortune 500 companies and professional sports teams.

It all began, frighteningly enough, with a baseball bat. On the last day of his sophomore year in high school, a classmate of Clear’s took a full swing and lost his grip. The bat went flying and hit Clear right between the eyes, breaking his nose, fracturing his skull and shattering both eye sockets. Months of surgeries, vision problems and physical therapy ensued, but by the time he entered college Clear had recovered, even making the baseball team.

3 Atomic Takeaways: 

  1. Get 1% better every day

  2. “Stack” a new habit on top of an existing one

  3. Start small – no more than 2 minutes

The accident had set him back, though, so he began focusing on his habits to improve his chances of becoming a starter on the team. Instead of staying up late and playing video games with his pals, he got to bed early so he’d be rested and able to do his best. Instead of living in a sea of empty pizza boxes and dirty gym socks, as many college guys do, he worked to keep his dorm room tidy because it gave him a sense of control. To add muscle, he began a modest weight lifting regimen and stuck with it, eventually adding 30 pounds of muscle. All the while, his confidence grew. And, yes, he ultimately became a starter.

“We all face challenges in life,” he writes in “Atomic Habits.” “This injury was one of mine, and the experience taught me a critical lesson: changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.”

The key, he says, is improving 1 percent each day. “If you can get 1 percent better each day for one year,” he writes, “you’ll end up 37 times better by the time you’re done.” That’s what compounding, exponential success looks like.

That concept resonates with me. I believe reaching your potential isn’t about extreme effort or heroic measures. Nor is it about setting some crazy goal then gutting it out until you reach it. It’s about creating a system to help move you incrementally and steadily toward your goal. As Clear puts it, “You do not rise to the level or your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

An example he uses in the book is the British cycling team. Before hiring a new performance director named Dave Brailsford in 2003, British Cycling was a laughingstock, suffering a hundred years of mediocrity. At the time, they had won just one Olympic gold medal, the last one coming in 1908. Nor had a Brit had ever won the famed Tour de France. Things were so bad, top bike manufacturers were reluctant to have British cyclists use their gear, for fear of being associated with them.

“By understanding the mechanics of habit formation, you can help others understand and embrace them, creating a hugely beneficial exponential effect.”

Brailsford changed all that with his strategy of “the aggregation of marginal gains.” He believed that by breaking down every aspect of cycling he could find and make small changes that would ultimately make a huge difference. He tested the team’s racing suits in wind tunnels, hired a doctor to teach cyclists how to properly wash their hands in order to avoid illnesses that could derail their training. He even had the inside of the team truck painted white to help spot dust specks that could impact the performance of the bikes themselves.

Success soon followed. At the 2004 Olympics, Brit cyclists won two golds. Four years later, they won eight more.  From 2003 to 2013, British bikers – road, track, BMX and mountain – won 59 World Championships, and Brailsford was eventually knighted.

Clear does a marvelous job using anecdotes like that to illustrate the research behind his small steps approach, including the four-step pattern (cue, craving, response and reward) that your brain religiously runs through in creating habits.

He doesn’t just leave it there, of course. He quickly moves the book from theory to practice, showing readers step by step how to create and keep good habits and rid themselves of bad ones through a variety of techniques. My favorite: Habit stacking, which is when you identify a positive habit you already do daily then stack another habit you’d like to ingrain on top of it. I’ve tried this and it works, which Clear explains this way: “Many human beings follow this cycle. You often decide what to do next based on what you have just finished doing.” Makes sense to me.

“Atomic Habits” is simply a terrific book. I think you’ll get a lot out of it and it’s a great addition to just about anyone’s “toolbox,” but especially leaders, who are in a position to share these lessons with others.

So what tools do you put in your toolbox? Do you have a systems approach to visualizing, managing and capturing your dreams and goals? Do you have the mechanisms to overcome the failures of resolutions and motivation? I’d love to hear from you. You can write to me at

Onward and upward!


Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash