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Atomic Habits - Book Brief

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

I asked about the topics you'd like to learn more about in 2021, and one of the ideas you provided was around capacity, how to do more with less resources and time management. Since I’m still seeking that unicorn skill myself, I thought I might direct us to skills and behaviors we can explore to help us create capacity.

One thing that has become stressfully true in my own day-to-day is that there's not enough time to do everything I want. I knew this logically to be a fact, but I hadn't hit the end of my capacity to power through and get everything done in a while. I had forgotten that time is one of the most precious resources we have.

My husband and I are in the process of moving while I also get up-to-speed in a new role at a new organization in a new city. I'm finding that physical limitations and mental capacity are requiring that I choose what gets done or what doesn't because I also need to rest. Prioritizing is hard, especially when you're passionate about all of it. I know you understand.

So, one subject that I thought we might cover in an effort to stretch our capacity is the creation of habits to "automate" some of those things that we spend energy on. I've been hearing about Atomic Habits, by James Clear, for a while, via book lists and recommendations. The start of a new year seems like the perfect time to provide you with a Brief of some of his helpful points.

It's funny how the brain works and makes connections. Once you begin reading new content, it connects dots and applies personal examples to bring the material to life and I hope internalize it. I love that. I wish the connections my brain was forming were revealing the unicorn skills of time management. Alas, those were not the connections forming, though there are some really promising ideas in Atomic Habits on productivity that I know you will find personally helpful.

The topic that has been rolling around in my head the last several months is how to answer the age-old dilemma of helping leadership have talent and performance discussions with their teams. Managers are pros at side-stepping performance conversations, because they are difficult, they are uncomfortable, managers are busy, etc., etc.

Sometimes I think this is a stickiness problem - that the learning just isn't sticking. In this case, I think it's good ol' human nature. None of us like having hard conversations, so we avoid it and create habits that successfully avoid the dreaded conversation. I'd like to apply Clear's Atomic Habit model to how we support leaders in having in the moment performance conversations.

Quick side note, Talent Folks' Book Briefs offer talent development-specific application from business, leadership and sundry books. It's not a review or a synopsis. It includes concepts that you can apply to your daily Talent Development work.

What are Atomic Habits?

James Clear's premise is that small changes in our habits add up to significant results over time. He says,

"a slight change in your daily habits can guide your life to a very different destination. Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. Success is the product of daily habits - not once-in-a-lifetime transformations" (p 17).

The small 1 percent changes are what equate to the power of habits making them an atomic force. Atomic habits are "a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth" (p 27).

What's in a Habit?

Clear begins his explanation of habits with how they work, which is the cue, craving, response and then the reward (p 47). The cue is what causes us to begin a behavior, the craving is the state of change that the cue stirs up. The response is the action we take to satiate the craving to earn the reward. Now, there's a lot more to it, but you'll have to read the book to learn more.

4 Laws of Behavior Change

In this Book Brief, we're going to apply the 4 Laws of Behavior Change that Clear teaches create habits that stick to how we help managers deliver performance feedback.

I'm leveraging a nice summary graphic of the 4 Laws here by She also provides a thorough summary of the book and a personal application on increasing her reading habit, which is pretty neat. Link here.

Our Example: Managers Avoid Having Performance Discussions

Let's say the habit is something like this:

Cue - Manager witnesses employee performance gap (maybe treating a customer poorly, missing a deadline, showing up late)

Craving - Manager wants to maintain peace and avoid confrontation

Response - Manager overlooks the gap or provides a rote response

Reward - Manager avoids difficult situation and there's peace (along with co-worker eyerolling)

But we are going to finally help managers create a new habit where the response is a performance discussion and the reward is improved performance. Bam!

Our goal: use the 4 Laws of Behavior Change to address the response. I'm wondering if a focus on habit formation would provide support where our great intentions and expensive training programs fail to make progress.

It's not that the concepts don't stick… well, it is because they don't stick. But maybe it's because we haven't helped managers with a system to overcome the effort that it takes to make the right choice to address the performance situation. Addressing behavior and performance issues doesn't feel good, so we are often going to take the easy out and overlook it or find other things to be busy doing. We humans are conflict avoiders… well most of us.

What can we do to better support managers with a new habit? Here are 12 ideas based on the 4 Laws:

  1. Let's have an open conversation and help managers recognize that avoiding the situation will likely be our go-to habit (p 54). Let's name it and recognize it.

  2. Use the implementation intention formula during class to help managers create a statement on what they will do the next time they need to address performance (p 78).

  3. Help managers identify a location at their worksite that is set-up for discussions with employees. Proactively set the environment to be conducive to effective discussions (p 90).

  4. Identify an action a manager might take after the performance discussion that's a reward of sorts. Like after this difficult conversation, I'll take a few minutes to get a cup of coffee (p 111).

  5. Let's make it easy for managers, and give them discussion openers, words to say, whatever it takes. Let's reduce their barrier to having the conversation with an easy, go-to model (p 151).

  6. To the same point, if we can get managers through the first two-minutes of the conversation, then they are more likely to engage the discussion. Let's use class time or peer exercises to practice how we'd pull someone aside for a performance discussion. If we can get them somewhat comfortable with the first two minutes, they will more likely make it happen (p 162).

  7. Let's also get the same leadership model or conversation framework to all managers. Create shared knowledge and language so that managers have a community to discuss, coach and encourage each other (p 118).

  8. Reframe the difficult conversation to highlight the benefits of the performance discussion in the long-term. We are driven by short-term benefits, but with employees it's all about the investment in the long-term and results over time. A key to performance discussion is consistency (p 131).

  9. It comes down to the point that managers just need to have the discussion and keep having them. Frequency makes them easier and improves the immediate result, because we get better at it. The best way to build the habit is to just do it (p 145).

  10. Identifying a way to feel instant gratification is another great tactic. It makes the action they just took feel satisfying. Brainstorm in class what an instant reward might look like. Cup of coffee? Quick break? (p 190)

  11. Another tactic that works is habit tracking. In this case a quick note to track the conversation works to the benefit of the manager in tracking a successful behavior as well as documenting that the discussion happened (p 197).

  12. Finally, a tactic we all know - accountability partners. Pair up managers to support each other with specific performance discussions and for accountability on how they are doing (p 210).

What I really enjoyed about this exercise is the ah-ha that we really should be leaning in to support the habits around difficult conversations. The models and skill building that we have out there are great - it's the behavior of applying them that I'd like to tackle. I'd like to try new thinking in leadership development to support the launch and reinforcement of strong habits for challenging discussions along with how we can create systems to provide continued support.

You have ideas, I know you do. I'd love to hear your take. Let's discuss!

James Clear, well done. Really enjoyed your work on Atomic Habits.


Clear, James. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2018. Ebook.

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