Field Report #7: How I Process “Atomic Habits” by James Clear

Those who do not react flexibly to the demands of the situation make themselves slaves to their stubbornness.

When processing James Clear’s Atomic Habits1, I deviate from the actually recommended reading method. The reason is: I work the way the book requires and not the way I would like to.

Atomic Habits is perhaps the best-selling book on habits and how to work on them. Reading this book was one reason I decided to tackle my own long-planned habit book. Clear is the most popular proponent of the hedonism model of habits, which assumes that habits are fundamentally the result of conditioning. My criticism is that it unjustifiably reduces the human being to a simple dopamine-driven machine. I consider this to be factually incorrect and want to make a counter-proposal with my book.

I am pursuing the following goals with this book:

  1. Enrichment of my structure note on habits in general.
  2. Inspiration for my own book. It will be more comprehensive than any book available and suggests concrete habits (e.g. starting the working day with an exercise routine), but also offers projects that you can use to improve your own habit structure.
  3. Enriching thematic structure sheets such as nutrition or training. Habits are the infrastructure of lifestyle. Therefore, I hope to improve my existing habit-based content.

These are the choices I made in the course of processing:

1. I roughly skimmed the book and decided that I don’t need to read it before processing it into notes. The reasons are:

  • It’s written clearly and understandably. The simple language allows me to focus more on processing after reading.
  • It is very well-structured. Even after the first skim, I have a good overview of how the book is structured.
  • I am very familiar with the topic of habits. I have already worked extensively with habits as part of my work as a trainer.
  • I already have existing structures in my notepad for the topic.
  • I know exactly what I want to do with the book. So it’s not open-ended processing or familiarising myself with a topic that I don’t yet know.

2. I have placed the following structure notes on a hotkey using the saved search function. I use these structure notes as an entry point for integrating the new notes.

  • A structure note for general habits. I already had this before.
  • A structure note for a planned book about habits. I also had this one long before.
  • A structure note for the book I am processing (here: Atomic Habits). I don’t always do this, only if I want to read the book repeatedly or if I want to get an overview of the book itself and not just the topic (e.g. if I want to write an article about the book).

3. Clear provides very good summaries of each chapter at the end. I have therefore decided on the following workflow:

  1. Skim the chapter.
  2. Write the points of the summary at the end in the outline of the structure note about the book.
  3. Write my own thoughts and links into this part of the outline.
  4. Go through the book and create notes on the individual points of the outline.
  5. After I have written a note, I check the references to the corresponding part of the book and edit them if necessary. If I have the impression that it only reproduces what is in the reference anyway, I go straight to the primary source.
  6. While writing the note, links usually emerge. I record these.
  7. Once I have written a note, I include it both in the structure note on habits in general and in the structure note for the book on habits.

It took me a total of three mornings (from 7am to 1pm) to complete the whole process – including the reading, of course.

Action Items: Principles, Methods, Best Practices

  • Develop a whole series of workflows so that you can work optimally in each individual case. Without a choice, you have no flexibility and are forced to use tools that are often unsuitable for the task at hand.
  • Concentrate on the actual task of the first read. The first read has one main purpose: to prepare the book for processing. If this can be done by just skimming, leave it at skimming.
  • First, ask yourself what the book is asking of you. The individual in individualising the workflow is the to be processed source, not you.

Recommended Reading: A very related approach is the Short Knowledge Cycle. Highly recommended reading!

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