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Product Management Book Review: Atomic Habits

Updated: Sep 2



**I hope you get as much of a benefit as I did from these books. As a heads up, if you do end up buying one of them from a link in this article, I may collect a small share of sales.


As a Product Manager, there are a ton of books out there to help you improve your skills. One that isn’t technically a Product Management book, but is a great read for Product Managers is Atomic Habits by James Clear.


In many ways, Atomic Habits reminded me of the Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell. James like Malcom focuses a lot on driving towards a 1% gain in productivity consistently instead of larger less frequent gains.


James writes:


“Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.”

In general, a 1% gain seems incredibly attainable. Take any skill. Let’s say you are looking to get better at lifting weights. Of course so many of us would like to go from not being able to bench press any weight to lifting a car the very next day. Atomic Habits asks us to look for 1% gains consistently. If you practiced your bench press and strove to get just 1% better each day, over the 365 days of the year you would literally more than 3x your progress.


In the book, James highlights how this theory has been applied to things like elite level cycling, where everything down to the mattresses that professional cyclers slept on was analyzed to drive incremental improvements to performance.


The creation of great sustainable habits will help fuel success over time, and your ability to break bad and non productive habits will further help build success.


James then breaks down habit creation into basic principles:


1. Make the habit obvious (Focus on the cue)



Making a habit a big part of your day and incredibly obvious will make it easier to form. Take the dental floss out of your medicine cabinet and put it on the sink. Sure it seems small, but visibly seeing that floss might just be the visual cue your brain needs.


2. Make it attractive (Create a craving)



Figure out a way to reward yourself for taking action on the habit. You can assign a “craving” to your cue to make doing your habit more pleasurable. Want to get off your couch and run? After 20 minutes think about a reward for taking that action.


3. Make it easy (Response)



Getting started is the hardest part. Making the habit as easy as possible in the beginning will help fuel the foundation of the habit. Looking to start reading every day? Make sure to pick easy to read books that are pleasurable when you first start working toward a habit. Eventually, if you want to get into something highly intellectual and challenging, go for it but only once you have formed a sustainable habit


4. Make it satisfying (Give yourself a reward)


When forming a habit, you need to make sure completing it is satisfying enough so you’ll want to go back for more. I am a total sucker for Duolingo accomplishment badges. They keep me coming back every day to learn more Mandarin.


Breaking bad habits; James writes is just as, if not more important than building new ones. To break a bad habit, just invert the four rules.


Instead of making it obvious, make it invisible.


Sick of getting sucked into using your phone for hours before going to bed?

Put your phone in another room.


Instead of making it attractive, make your bad habit unattractive. Instead of making it as easy as possible, make it more difficult. And lastly instead of making it satisfying, make it unsatisfying so you won’t want to do it again.


In addition to these four laws for creating habits, one concept that hit home for me was habit stacking.


Habit stacking is the idea of taking one habit or thing you do without even thinking about it, and turning it into a cue.


When I get in bed, I think of three things I’m grateful for.  
After I wake up and get out of bed, I go to a specific chair and meditate for 10 minutes.  

Of course each additional habit you create can then be added to a string or stack. Even though the habits you create might be small atomic sized improvements, stacking habits together will drive to greater and greater returns.


Let’s take this to an extreme example from Tim Ferris’s playbook:



When you turn the bathroom light on before going to bed, take the floss out of the medicine cabinet. You don’t even have to floss any teeth, just by creating the habit of taking the floss out will get you one step closer to your target habit of flossing.


Once you’ve got that down, make it as easy as possible, just floss one tooth. Just one! Of course while you are flossing one tooth if you feel like flossing others, go for it! But starting as easy as possible and focusing on forming the habit will build consistency that will lead to large gains over time.


How does this apply to Product Management?


Atomic habits is a great book for anyone looking to infuse their life with more positive habits OR remove negative habits from their life. But it doesn’t stop outside of work, Atomic Habits can help transform how your team approaches work in an agile and iterative way.


Think about agile ceremonies for example. The way teams choose to run agile ceremonies and processes can be widely different between teams or organizations. Of course your individual team needs to find the right level of structure and process that feels right. But oftentimes people are just lazy. Laziness prevents good habits and laziness definitely hurts some of the benefits your team could be reaping from agile.


Here are some habits I’ve seen teams either in dire need of, or working to build that would lead to more value delivery to the customer:


  • Having agile stand-ups:

Some teams just assume they know what everyone else is working on, or what they should be focusing on and instead often work on duplicative and unimportant features

  • Focusing on the current sprint goal at stand up:

A lack of focus for any team running scrum can result in work being picked up that is a lower priority than the most important feature, or team members just not being aligned

  • Polling the team for levels of confidence at stand-up for hitting the sprint goal:

Checking in with the team periodically can be incredibly beneficial to understand if anything is slowing the team down, or if timing of delivery should be changed with stakeholder expectations

  • Discussing or bringing up blockers at stand up:

I’ve seen teams just not have the habit of actually bringing up and identifying blockers. This is a crucial feedback loop in scrum

  • Retrospecting:

Retrospectives take time, and the benefits can often not be seen for a while. Often teams get into the habit of not having retrospectives but without them, your processes and ways of working will be much harder to improve

  • Taking the time to size work:

While definitely not important to do at all companies or teams, sizing the work can give outside stakeholders a significantly better understanding of when to expect things, and can give great insight into potential benefits of prioritizing feature x over feature y if it will deliver more value faster.

Teams will often take requests from external teams. Agile teams need to make sure they are providing an end product or feature that meets the needs of the stakeholder

  • Pair programming:

Constantly people wonder how having two engineers focused on one thing at a time can drive productivity increases instead of evenly splitting up the work. But this is just not the case, having two minds focused on a problem to work off of one another can be incredibly beneficial. While this is not a product management decision, it is something that a product manager can influence on a team.



There are so many other great examples of how building the right habits can not only help you excel outside of work, but can also help your team as a product manager get better and incrementally deliver more value to the customer. I would highly recommend Atomic Habits to anyone out there looking to be a better you or be a better tech team.


A note on corona:

These are challenging times. If you are still lucky enough to be employed, make sure you’re taking enough time to read and learn. It's during these strange times that we often have more room to try something new!


About the author:

Ben Staples has over 7 years of product management and product marketing eCommerce experience. He is currently employed at Nordstrom as a Senior Product Manager responsible for their product pages on Nordstrom.com. Previously, Ben was a Senior Product Manager for Trunk Club responsible for their iOS and Android apps. Ben started his Product career as a Product Manager for Vistaprint where he was responsible for their cart and Checkout experiences. Before leaving Vistaprint, Ben founded the Vistaprint Product Management guild with over 40 members. Learn more at www.Ben-Staples.com


I do product management consulting! Interested in finding out more? Want to get notified when my next product article comes out? Interested in getting into Product Management but don't know how? Want even more book recommendations?! Contact me!


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