Atomic Habits – James Clear
The author had dreams of a sporting career until a baseball bat came loose and landed in his face during a game, landing him in a coma. This isn’t a cheesy all-american kid come true motivational book though, thank goodness. It’s a genuinely engaging take on why we form habits and how to use greater understanding of how habits form to make positive changes for work, fitness or anything.
Essentially Clear argues that just showing up and doing something regularly, to build the habit, is enough to get you going and make a difference. So he argues that regularly doing one or two pushups every day at the same time (for example after walking the dog) is better than occasionally managing twenty. And through the cumulative impact of incremental improvement (like interest on a savings account) progress will mount and become noticeable.
Personally I love anything which unpacks and challenges the myth of ‘overnight success’. Just showing up every day, building a streak of doing the thing each time, breaks down even the toughest challenges to bite-size chunks. Some of my favourite examples in the book (of which there are many) relate to the comedians Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld each of whom are reported to have worked daily on their jokes in a relentless way their effortless delivery belies.
Clear’s book isn’t earth shattering, it doesn’t offer breakthrough new science. It’s a very well presented and thought through framework for understanding habits, how they form and when they can be a problem. That in itself is a valuable contribution.
I don’t think improving your habits will necessarily make you a better person, build your emotional intelligence or launch your music career. But they could make your life better by cracking a few things and just getting them done. And if you make your habit practicing guitar every day, then maybe that music career has a chance after all.
The No-S Diet – Reinhard Engels and Ben Kallen
I came across Reinhard Engels through Oliver Burkeman’s book Help. Engels, a librarian turned programmer based at Harvard, is a bit of an internet legend for coming up with a range of ‘Everyday Systems’ for dealing with the challenges he faced: getting enough exercise, quitting smoking and losing weight. All of his ideas he shares freely from his websites but popular demand led to this book being published on his most successful idea, the No-S Diet. I ordered it from one of those online discount used bookstores that ship from millions of miles away so it came weeks after I ordered, and forgotten about it. By strange coincidence it landed a few days after I’d started Atomic Habits, and it turns out they’re a perfect match.
No-S is essentially a specific habit building system for controlling eating. The system is to eat only three plates of food a day with no seconds, no snacks and no sweets. The exceptions when the rules don’t apply are ’S-days’ which are Saturday, Sunday and special days like birthdays. That’s it. And indeed the whole plan is on the cover of the book.
Still the book does have value as Engels explains more on how and why he came up with the plan, and why it works. The most compelling argument he makes, based on analysis of mainly US government data sets, is that an astonishing 90% of the growth in Americans’ calorie intake has been through snacks. In fact he claims the data shows that the average calorific value of American dinners has declined in the last few decades, whilst snacking has more than made up for it. He is scathing on the diet and fitness industry which hawks snacks and health bars at the same time as telling us to restrict our eating habits. Normalising snacking, in Engels’ view, is the slippery slope to losing control over what and when we eat.
Let me repeat that as it’s stunning… 90% of the extra calories eaten through the decades when those on Western diets have grown fatter than ever, come from snacks. Wow.
Let’s be cautious with our stats though, Engels only shows correlation and not causation. Still his case is a strong one when he brings in comparisons with other nations such as France and China who have low but growing snack intakes, matched by low but growing obesity.
I’ve become a bit of a snack watcher since reading the book – and I can report that my kids are obsessed with snacking. Is this the new normal? I hope not. Measures are being taken!
I can report that since I’ve been trying to No-S habits I have lost weight, my appetite feels more regulated and I can’t take as many sweet things as I could gobble before. One plate of food is plenty enough and I rarely feel tempted to snack now. Maybe he’s onto something?