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Summary of Atomic Habits (chrisbehan.ca)
446 points by behan 4 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 124 comments



I'm sorry, but at 7500 words, this is more of a novella than a summary.

The summary at the end of the book is shorter than this blog post and contains the big takeaways.

I love this book as much as the other person does, but there are much better reads to go deeper into some of the inspiration:

https://twitter.com/JamesClear/status/1059504529111158784

Additionally the major influences on the book:

https://twitter.com/jamesclear/status/1059521349239169024

Tiny Habits for example is super underrated and one of the better habit books if you enjoyed this one.


That's because the title was editorialized.

The original title "The Thinner Book: Atomic Habits by James Clear" is explicit on its nature:

> The most important ideas in your typical 300-page book can usually be distilled into several pages. These several pages are the thinner book.


There is a role for summaries with different levels of detail. The short capsule summaries are useful(for one thing, it is easier to remember) and your link itself is a great example.

But, there is also a role for longer summaries, which are still short relative to the book, but include useful points and some of the illustrative examples not present in the shorter summaries. Reading a 250 page book has ample scope for the mind to wander and lose track of the important issues which is not an issue with a 10 page summary.

Further, summaries at this level are less available, and it would be a good thing if more books had such summaries. (The downside being people might be more likely to skip the original book and the author is not rewarded - this can be corrected to an extent if the author themselves give these shorter summaries at the end of the book or as a separate short book. Also, some others might be motivated to get the original book after reading the summary).


Here's an automatic summarization in 20 sentences.

https://smmry.com/https://www.chrisbehan.ca/posts/atomic-hab...


7500 might barely be considered a novelette. But if you're going to categorize non-fiction in fiction terms, the most comfortable length category is short story, which usually goes up to 10k.


I loved reading Atomic Habits during the first lockdown. I was excited to try out its actionables, specially tracking to keep me honest.

I tried a bunch of iOS apps, but wanted no friction, no tracking, no cloud, no social, etc. so eventually built https://flathabits.com. Also wanted to own my habit data (as plain text), so I made sure Flat Habits stored its data locally as an org file.

I'm an Emacs nutter and can say the strength of a habit tracker lies in removing daily friction from the tracking process itself. The plain text part is cherry on top (bringing piece of mind around lock-in). In my case, it's been months since I looked at the plain text file itself.

As for forming habits themselves (the actual goal)... it's been well over a year since I started running. I've kept it up since reading Atomic Habits (and started tracking).


Whoa, this is the app I've been looking for. Thank you so much. Every app under the sun now requires an account, has a friends list and stores data remotely.

Please let me pay you for this app.


> Please let me pay you for this app.

If you wanna send me money, you can buy my other app ;) https://plainorg.com


I was thinking this looks a lot like Plain Org. Those Emacs users must have a shared iOS UX or something. Nope it’s the same developer. Great job!


Thank you :)


I would love to use this. Android please :(


Sorry. It's a native iOS app.


I've been struggling in finding the right way to track my habits from apps to notepad. Thank you for this seems like it will definitely help me focus!


> Optionally, you can save your habits to a shared location or cloud

How do you do this bit? Is it documented anywhere? (or maybe I'm missing the obvious)



Aha! I tried the export menu didn't look at the import option

Nice one :)

For the sake of sharing I'm looking at setting it up the same as my Obsidian dir from here. Get it all chucked into git using the synced dir option in Working Copy, and a pair of Shortcuts to resync the git repo whenever I open/close the app (just the on close one if it doesn't play nicely with the file changing after opening the app)

e.g. https://img.imgy.org/rAxr.jpg plus a shortcut triggered by app close to run this shortcut


Is there an Android version of this? Looks really cool.


Thanks. Nice to hear there’s interest. Unfortunately, it’s a native iOS app. Android support is out of scope for me.


May I build the Android version? :)


I too would love an android app.


I've tried a few and this is my favorite habit tracker app on Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.isoron.uha...

Ad-free and FOSS: https://github.com/iSoron/uhabits


Oo I'll give this a shot. Thanks so much!


I read this book and I think this sums it up in a Tweet:

The laws are: Make it obvious, Make it attractive, Make it easy, Make it satisfying; Each law maps to one of the four steps of habit formation: Make it obvious → Cue Make it attractive → Craving Make it easy → Response Make it satisfying → Reward; Make it Obvious To effectively build a new habit, make the cue for that habit blatantly obvious


For example? Leave fresh fruit on the table to encourage (cue) eating an apple a day?


No, to watch an apple rot on your counter over 2 weeks to remind yourself of your mortality and motivate yourself.


That's the danger of doing something like this. Plenty of people leave things out to remind themselves to do it, but it quickly becomes part of the background noise. I've had loose wires hanging from the ceiling for nearly a year to remind myself to install lights at some point.


Both of these could work. For example, after reading the book, I stopped showering unless I worked out for 30 minutes on my Concept 2 rowing machine and I have been very consistent about rowing since linking those habits. The rowing machine is also more convenient than running because it is not dependent on weather, so that follows another principle--make it easy to do the right thing.


Memento malum.


Sort of like a 'Vanitas' painting but much cheaper.


In the book he takes almost this example. Once a week (after doing grocery shopping for example) prepare some fruits: peel and cut them if applicable and place them in containers in your fridge. Then, when times comes to have a snack it's really easy to eat fruit vs. something else. That would be the "make it easy" rule. You could combine it with the inverse of that same rule rule for junk food: "make it hard" and don't buy junk food during grocery shopping.


Yup. In general - handle the dependencies after you've done The Thing instead of before doing it the next time.

It's easy to do Y and Z after you already got up and did X. It's much harder to persuade yourself to do Y so that you can do Z so that you can do X when you're lying in bed fighting to get out 15 minutes earlier.


Leaving the fruit on the table also makes it easy to eat it.

Make it easier to do the good habits, and harder to the bad ones.

I'd recommend looking into the research that Prof. Wendy Wood at USC Marshall has been doing on habit forming behaviour in humans.


Set fresh fruit as your desktop wallpaper?


I've been having major issues reading books (mainly non-fiction and strategy and personal development oriented) due to what I feel to be "filler content" as mentioned in the thread above.

I'd be very interested in authors (I mean book authors) to provide direction on the mindset and shortcomings of the summary culture (e.g. Blinkist et-al)

Surely, every 10th article on my FB feed is about reading books and there is perhaps enough justification to read books


I recommend reading the author's blogs & listening to their podcasts. The goal is to have their core ideas drilled into your head, and sometimes that takes time. Having a cadence of a weekly blog post does that much better I find.

Maybe don't try to read the whole book in one week, but rather space out each chapter over a long period of time so that the message "sticks" with you.


I question the value of services like Blinkist. If you reduce a book to a five minute gist, what does the reader gain? Maybe a "huh, neat" at best. What is remembered? Are there any lasting takeaways? Padding popsci nonfiction with anecdotes is as old as the genre itself. Comprehension requires time and variety, and all those stories and asides can help reinforce and round out the message.

If you're just looking for the point or thesis of one of these books to satisfy your curiosity, you obviously don't need to bother with however many hundreds of pages there might be, especially if you view reading as a chore.


I tried Blinkist but gave up quickly. Their summaries are not high quality. I don't know who writes them. When I looked up summaries of books I'd already read (Deep Work, Startup of You and some others) they didn't match my sense of the book.

I wish someone would fill this niche. There's definitely a need for a good book summarization service. The service shouldn't try to replace the book-read. They only need to help you decide whether you should buy/borrow the book.


I agree that the Blinkist summaries are low quality. I think this https://shortform.com may be the answer, although it's expensive.


The E-Myth (Revisited?) is a book that suffers badly from having page after page of sentimental drivel, padding it out significantly.

The core message is quite insightful and worth knowing, but the author doesn’t respect the readers time.

Edit: some book notes from Derek Sivers-

https://sive.rs/book/EMythRevisited

It’s like a modern open world video game in book form.


I read close to 70 books last year and learned to skim all the filler by scanning down the page, reading a paragraphs first sentence until I get past the filler. Or I skip complete sections/chapters based on their titles. Business books all follow a formula with clear chapter descriptions and authors guide to content in the intro. I haven’t found summaries valuable because it’s not always the authors main point that sparks ideas for me.


In my view its an antiquated business model and there is no virtue in clinging to it as a writer or buying into it as a reader. Ideas are not better merely because they've been printed and bound. Most ideas in this genre can be (and are) expressed in a blog post, but the legion of middlemen in the publishing industry can't make money on blog posts. One of the ways publishers stick their fingers into this process is by demanding more material.


I have the same feelings as you a lot of these books are glorified blog posts - my trick to dealing with them is to treat them as such. I read on kindle so for books like this I read on my ipad and check the 'continuous scrolling' option. Eliminating the 'book' aspect of them makes you feel less guilty for skipping whole paragraphs when they're really just filler!


Fully agree with you, and exactly what I've decided to do this year! I want to read lots of non-fiction books and create similar long-form summaries.

My goal is to explore new ideas, expand my second brain, and share the learnings with my audience.


I always go way too late to bed, reading hacker news all night, and wake up late and exhausted as a consequence.

First impressions of this blog post are good, going to think of ways to change my identity and behavior, and report back in a month or so with the outcomes here.


I’ve managed to cut news out of my life entirely. Nothing really changed, except the extra free time.

Hacker news is not really any different, it is just easier to justify as “I might find something useful here”.

But all I achieved here is fav & forget smart sounding articles, and point whored at the comment section for easy dopamine.

It’s a trap.


And still you are here


sounds familiar


One thing I have found that helps is "not finding my phone attractive". Weird phrasing, pardon my English.

Basically, I have a midrange phone that cannot play the latest games at 60fps, and has a crack on its tempered glass running through the middle. This functionality and appearance makes it much less appealing than say, a Kindle with no scratches to spend time on.

Due to this, I basically forget my phone is next to me on my bed, and it only serves to take calls if needed in the middle of the night and wake me up next morning with the alarm.

Good luck!


The thing that I've found helpful with going to sleep on time and not spending too much time in the night on the phone is to just keep the phone in a different room. That way, you either read a book or go to sleep, both of which are better than social media (including HN IMO)


I also keep my phone in another room. Helps me with waking up because I need to get up to turn the alarm off. For going to bed on time, with which I still struggle, I tried to set reminders on the phone.

- 10 PM - Stop chores.

- 11 PM, settle down. Means no "active" things anymore, like gaming, HN. I lie down. Reading a book would be best then, watching TV is a bit worse but still more passive. Audiobooks or podcasts get me sleeping then right away.

- 11 PM: Go to bed. Getting up from the couch, brush teeth, go to bed. I think a routine like this is very helpful.


If it helps you stay motivated, I'd love to hear the results of your "experiment" :)


Seconded on updates! Staying up too late is the issue I have struggled with for the longest time and all my attempts to change the behaviour have failed in the long run (e.g. working out earlier in the day, short periods of taking melatonin at a particular time to 'reset my circadian rhythm', meditation before bed, cutting out caffeine).


Consider enabling greyscale mode on your phone.

I have an older iPhone, and a triple tap of the home button will toggle grayscale. Incredible difference in my sensory experience when everything looks a bit…dull.


Pleased to see this pop up here today as I'd just finished the book yesterday.

I've been putting off buying it for a long time as I'd assumed it was another great blog turned into a book that contained 90% filler.

As someone else said below, there's a small amount of filler in here, but it feels like the right amount and allows you to take the time to absorb the content more fully.

I honestly feel like this book has fundamentally changed the way I view work, side projwects and tasks in general. I've procrastinated on a number of things as they felt like huge efforts that were not achievable - reading Mr Clear makes me realise that I can achieve those by not focusing on the end goal but getting into a habit, a system, and chipping away at it over time.

You could say the book's content is obvious stuff, but it's certainly opened my eyes and changed my thinking.

Highly recommend.


I started reading Atomic Habits last october, and couldn't get much further than chapter three.

There just wasn't much there to grab a hold of me. Nothing new I had not heard in multiple poscasts or read in articles elsewhere.

Not saying the book is bad, just not so phenomenal when the ideas aren't new to you.


In fact, the Rich Roll podcast episode with James Clear is the one I'd recommend for all. Roll is a great listener and interviewer, and together they did a much better job than the book alone in focusing on the forging-an-identity part of habit formation. Highly recommended, it's something like two hours long.



Thank you for the recommendation, will check it out


I'm not sure this is really a summary with this much content. Even the examples are left in. Here's the cheatsheet published with the book if you want an actually short read: https://s3.amazonaws.com/jamesclear/Atomic+Habits/Habits+Che...


I do, and thank you. The amount of fluff in pop-sci books is absolutely killing me.

Does anybody ever really read them cover to cover? Does anybody retain all these words?

For me the volume of filler in most books is overwhelming.


In my opinion, the best take away from the book was the "atomic" part. Meaning, start building your habits with something very small, like one push-up if you want to get into the habit of working out. It's only one example and the rest of the book really helps building the habits into bigger ones and lasting ones which is also important. But this bit was the real eye opener to me.


One of the absolute best posts I have read in a long time, thank you! I skimmed through the book shortly after it came out but never got round to reading it properly. I did read a few summaries but none of them came close to yours. Great succinct and focused presentation of the main ideas and actionable tasks.


This is great, most self-help content is overly repetitive so definitely good to have summaries like this.

Tangential: Is the whole good habits thing not a bit overdone at this point? I meant "Practice maketh perfect" isn't a new message -- every new generation is taught the value of discipline in schools by teachers and sports coaches, Outliers popularised the 10000 hours rule more than a decade ago.

Why do then people still find books repeating obvious advice like this life changing when all it's doing is giving you momentarily high? I am people.


> most self-help content is overly repetitive so definitely good to have summaries like this.

Yup, a lot of them are basically written out versions of blogposts. I mean one of the "original" self-help books, Dale Carnegie's one about people, can be summarized in a list of bullet points - the book itself is padded out with anecdotes.


>Tangential: Is the whole good habits thing not a bit overdone at this point? I meant "Practice maketh perfect" isn't a new message -- every new generation is taught the value of discipline in schools by teachers and sports coaches, Outliers popularised the 10000 hours rule more than a decade ago.

True, but as children become teenagers and teenagers become young adults, they often need their own form of guidance, and perhaps this is a new cycle that will rinsed and repeated. Sometimes , some new research can also help illuminate some best practices that somebody 20 years ago would not have known. For example, I have found the Pomodoro practice really useful for myself, and though I don't follow it to a tee, it has helped me become more productive. Plus I use Trello for personal tasks and Jira for work, that has helped me be more productive.


>>I meant "Practice maketh perfect" isn't a new message

It isn't. But it takes a lot of effort to make the obvious, obvious.

That's where unfortunately you need these things.

For example merely saying Where there is a will, there is a way, doesn't exactly cut it, until you actually watch somebody go so some distance doing a what you considered a impossible thing.


> until you actually watch somebody go so some distance doing a what you considered a impossible thing.

Agreed which I why I would love to see more anecdotal evidence or stories supporting these messages. And by anecdotal evidence, I really mean n=1 stories not some controlled group studies.

Right now it feels like everyone from a lifestyle youtuber to a VC are telling us that _this_ is the way but I don't hear/see enough people turning their lives around or achieving the so-called "impossible" just because they adopted some good habits. Basically the ratio of people striking gold to people selling shovels seems too low to me.


>>I don't hear/see enough people turning their lives around or achieving the so-called "impossible"

Makes perfect sense because hard things are hard to do, I'd like to believe a lot of people quit mid way. You will never hear from them, those that succeed become the few exceptional cases no wants to believe in because, they can't imagine themselves taking all the trouble like the drop outs to get to where the exceptions are.

>>Basically the ratio of people striking gold to people selling shovels seems too low to me.

Yes that's exactly how its supposed to be.

Plus, the point of habits isn't to achieve goals, but have a better system in life to do things.


Excellent content, this stuff is life-changing. I haven't read Atomic Habits but it was on my reading list. It appears based on other comments that the full read is mostly unnecessary compared to a summary like this or the one at the end of the book.

However, it's hard to learn without spending time committing content to memory, which reading a book does well due to the apparent large amount of filler content. Perhaps re-reading a summary multiple times can have a similar effect.


> However, it's hard to learn without spending time committing content to memory, which reading a book does well due to the apparent large amount of filler content. Perhaps re-reading a summary multiple times can have a similar effect.

Or, even better, you can read the book and prepare a summary just like the OP. Reading - the book, the summary, or both - is mostly a passive activity.


Posts like these are really helpful, thanks! Especially since, in my opinion, at least, a lot of the new English nonfiction books that come out nowadays are 90% fluff and 10% actual material. Many of them seem to be filled with anecdotes that often ramble on and on, making them a chore to read. Basically, 30 pages worth of material turned into a 300 page book. And worse, ALL of them are "best-sellers" with raving reviews from supposedly big media outlets adorning their back pages...

Even worse, a lot of them cannot be trusted... Atleast in Japan, I've seen many books on the bookshelves of big bookstores with clickbaity titles like "The Real Effects of the COVID-19 vaccine! Will you be safe after 2 years!?" written by "reputed doctors" who have a dubious history of peddling weird things.

I have, in principle, stopped buying and reading these nonfiction books unless and until they were written atleast 30 years ago, either written by people on the level of Richard Feynmann in their field, or have a reputable track record and enough (preferably decades) experience about the topic they're writing. This filters out 99.99% of the books flooding the market today. I still run into weird things though.


I've noticed similar thing after reading through Atomic Habits and books written in similar way. Yes, padding the book with cherry-picked anecdotes to support your argument gets old quickly. It bothers me when only one side of argument is presented.

There are few merits though. First, people learn better through examples than through theory alone. If the book can lay down some distilled observations and then show actual life situations where these concepts are presented in context, the subject becomes more clear and understandable. Second, summarizing book information may preserve the gist, but for habit-changing concepts to take hold they need to be repeated and ingested over days and not minutes. Third, not all have the same power of focus and most people need relatable stories to keep their attention.

The Atomic Habits book has good summaries of each chapter and of overall concepts, so you are free to digest it in your own way.

Regarding your principle of reading only 30+ year old books, I would be worried that the contained knowledge has gone stale, is based on data that was proven to be wrong, or just that the language/cultural context has shifted enough for me to misunderstand the author. Also, if a person is a top talent in a specific field, it doesn't mean they are a good writer, or that their interests are aligned with reader's.


i got so influenced by this book that I wrote an app based on this book https://atomiclife.app


Nice app. Did you write it in React Native or Flutter?


react native


Atomic Habits was the best book that I read in 2021.


what habit tracking application has worked for you?


I use TickTick to manage my daily tasks, it also comes with a habit tracker and you can even set reminders for your habits, for ex. Workout time, diet check, meditation time, everything is synced to cloud and the free tier has enough features for a normal user. Moreover the pomodoro timer and time tracking features it offers are a plus and it just gets so easy having all these features in a single application.


I recently built a habit contract (a concept mentioned in Atomic Habits) website (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=29726228). It's helped me achieve a 116 day streak on Duolingo.



Habinator


Somewhat related but I find many nonfiction books could easily be condensed down an immense amount (talking 20 to 50% here). I don't know if it's me getting older or simply not wanting to put up with filler content anymore.

A book that does this terribly is the "The Checklist Manifesto." ~250 pages of filler when the original article was 20 pages, the exact same information but distilled down to its essence:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/10/the-checklist

I haven't read Atomic Habits, but I did get the audio book but after reading this summary (which is very good, and much appreciated) I probably won't give it a listen.

I'm curious if people feel the same way about other books?


I actually feel the same, but I didn’t feel like that with Atomic Habits. The way the author introduces the concepts step by step is pretty interesting and the personal story was kind of motivating for me. I actually went through the audio book first and then bought a physical copy. But I guess that is totally up to personal taste, you definitely won’t miss any crucial information by relying on summaries.

For many non fiction titles Blinkst (or similar services) offer a perfectly good summary of the important content. I get that some people have moral issues since the author is not compensated for his work, but I think buying copies of books where you found the summary helpful is a gold compromise.


The "filler" may be just that, but I think it helps give a reader time to connect the material to their own experiences. I find that as I read a book, my mind drifts away from the material and to my own memories or goals and then back again. It also may be that authors have to say the same thing in several ways, many of which may not resonate with you, but would for another.


Let's consider an axis across books that are terse (maybe not even a book but an article, summary or list) and books that are more verbose (stories, examples, exercises).

Allow a second axis for quality, and only consider the best. If you think a book is padded or leaves out important details, then ignore it for our comparison.

Shorter and longer books are no better or worse (in this comparison, we removed that component above). So what are they?

The right length for a book is between the reader and the topic. It's not inherent to the topic or about the author and the topic. It's between the reader and the topic.

Longer books have a lower density of insights, and take up more time, but there's more to latch onto. This is essential if you need it and a waste if you don't.

Imagine a 50 year old football coach looking to learn from a new perspective. He could read incredibly dense coaching advice and it would land well. He has a whole career to relate to the book. He can come up with examples proving or disproving claims. He's well served by the short book.

Imagine a 20 year old who wants to become a football coach. He has a little experience, having assisted another coach one summer. Advice that is too dense may slip past him. There's not as much experience to latch onto*. He'd be better served by a longer book. More stories, examples and exercises.

You can expand or contract a book on your own to match your needs. If you were going add some exercises to the end of this chapter, what would they be? Do them if it seems valuable. What's a story that would illustrate this example? Skim the book to make it shorter. Start a reading group to make it longer.

The best authors help you with this. How To Solve It has a two-page summary of the whole book. That summary can be reduced down to just four steps. You get three levels to match.

* On the other hand, younger people seem better at learning things without reference. Older people have more experience, but seem to need that experience. I think this is why learning entirely new things generally gets harder as people get older.


I had come across a book where the author had divided chapters into two categories, i) Regular chapters and ii) Sidebar chapters. This book was about building something with a particular framework.

Regular chapters were about the topic itself. And sidebar chapters explained what's going on with the framework behind the scene.

The first time when I read the book I skipped the sidebar chapters and later once I had some experience with that framework I went through the sidebar chapters.

So, yeah I also believe that "The right length for a book is between the reader and the topic." And wish to see more topics/technologies covered in that manner.


> Shorter and longer books are no better or worse (in this comparison, we removed that component above).

This is kind of begging the question because between the original setup and this statement, we're assuming the two axes are orthogonal whereas I'd wager they're not.


I get what you mean, but I think there’s a slight difference. I kinda skipped ahead here, but you can phrase it as more of a question.

If we create an axis, and then say “let’s just only focus on the really good ones” is there still any spread on the axis? If not, that axis is a subset of “good ones”. If there is, then we have some other axis to think about.

Extreme example, but if we’re talking about creatine (a nutritional supplement) and we considered the axis of purity and then only the good ones, there wouldn’t be a large range. At least to me, I don’t think there’s any creatine that’s both super high quality and less than 99% purity.

Not the case for books. I can think of great short ones and long ones. And the point of me constraining things this way is to avoid the “a book isn’t good if it’s too long” or “I once read a book that was long and bad” which just isn’t super useful.

Don’t need to keep things isolated though! I’d certainly rather have the average book be half as long versus twice as long. So there’s a trend there, at least for me.


I find this very insightful, thanks for sharing!


>A book that does this terribly is the "The Checklist Manifesto." ~250 pages of filler when the original article was 20 pages

I read this book earlier this year and quite enjoyed it. The main idea could undoubtedly be written in even less than the 20 pages (referring to the original article).

What made this book super interesting were all the deep-dives into how complexity is managed in aviation (his visit to Seattle/SEATAC airport), construction (the myriad complexities in managing construction of a high rise), and the author's main field (healthcare). I found the various stories fascinating on reducing malpractice rates/preventing overworked professionals from carrying out the wrong procedure on a patient.

What I appreciated about this book is, it's not so much as the author saying, "Hey... here's a silver bullet for managing complexity". Instead, it's these semi or psuedo case studies of how problems in the real world have been solved using checklists. One of my key take aways (which I also happened to learn at my job) was that "Simple solutions scale."


> I'm curious if people feel the same way about other books?

Yes, most business book fit this pattern. There are services like https://www.summary.com/ that provide similar summaries for business books.


A book I generally like and agree with, David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs, I find reads better as his original essay. I suspect many books get made this way where content originally starts as a good essay or blog post, but then to fit the requirements of book media, need to be blown up, at costs in time for both the author and audience (& resources for dead trees+transport+storage, if in print).


It's ironic that the very need to bulk books out with filler material is a good example of just such a job!


I chime with this sentiment. The biggest issue in non-fiction books that I have is this - lack of a progress indicator. If it's a biography or an autobiography for example - I intuitively know the progress and this builds some sort of a curiosity to complete the book. In fiction, this is simulated by the story telling. You are almost always eager to find out what next.

In non fiction however, the lack of progress indicator combined with fillers totally takes away the what next phenomenon. On top of this, most non-fiction books try to convey the core of the meaning in repetitive language. Probably there is some science to this. The more you find repeated words sprinkled across, the more they tend to stick in your head. Apparently something that advertisers and marketers use all the time. So may be that's what drives this repetition and filler materials. I've seen this pattern in quite a few non-fiction books. Hooked, Deep Work, Grit etc.

Which is why I think, it's incredibly hard to pick a reading habit if you start with non fiction books. Also I don't think developing a reading habit with fiction will lead to a non fiction reading habit. Personal anecdote, I used to devour fiction as a teenager and in my early 20s. I remember reading Partner by John Grisham in one sitting, without even getting up to eat. Now I can hardly muster the energy to finish a book. I mean, I can but it's no longer that easy.


Yes absolutely, I find even the best non fiction books tend to be about 10% core ideas and insights and 90% allegory and metaphor reinforcing those ideas. Bad non fiction is more of a 1/99 split aha.


With good nonfiction books, it isn’t filler but detail, but you rarely find these on best seller lists. There is a spectrum between pop bs and academic treatise and the sales numbers trend towards the former.

I think I’ve observed the problem getting worse over the years where there is more popular garbage which gets far more attention. People have sort of learned how to optimize and market this kind of book for a broad audience.

It would be nice if there were a marker for pamphlets or books the length of chapters, which is what many things really should be.


It highly depends on the book! A lot of these types of books are simple lessons with a LOT of fillers. IMO they are bad books. Most often, an author has a lot of things to say in their first book, but much fewer things to say in subsequent books, so first books are always a good bet.

For example, “the subtle art of not giving a fuck” is mostly fillers, but books from robert greene or malcolm gladwell are always filled with interesting stories that don’t feel like fillers.


"The subtle art..." is one of the first books I think of re: filler, too, but I do think the filler can have value as a way to spend more time with a valuable idea. Many of these books contain some valuable idea that could have been completely explained in a couple of paragraphs, but then you wouldn't have a built-in way to spend a couple of hours with the topic to give it time to get a little deeper into your psyche.

In a way it's equivalent to packaging a small item in a larger box to make it easier to keep track of. Wasteful on the surface, but there's an undeniable value to it that would be hard to achieve more efficiently.


That's a great way of putting things with your explanations.


The marketing folks think (probably correctly, they tend to be quite data-driven) that consumers don't want to pay $10 for a pamphlet, no matter how good is the information therein.


> For example, “the subtle art of not giving a fuck” is mostly fillers

A meta-lesson from the author perhaps, demonstrating his art.


Depends on the nonfiction but lately I’ve been gearing towards audio format for these kinds of books rather than reading a physical copy. Since a lot of the material follows a repetitive format with lots of examples, getting the main idea across doesn’t require hard focus studying mode. Of course it depends heavily on the book. I wouldn’t listen to Kant’s Critique on an audiobook personally.


I think most self-development and business process books break down as roughly 10% actual content, 30% description to make sure you understand, and 60% descriptions of implementation to show how it works in different circumstances and help you internalize the main points.


Fiction books could likely be compressed the same way, but what's the fun in that? Non-fiction books shouldn't necassarily aim for being as concise as possible, there's value in a more enduring lecture even if the core content is the same, imo.

For books like Atomic Habits in particular, I enjoyed the length, as it allowed me to read that book for a longer period of time, and practice what it was teaching (which lead to habit development). Had been a 50 word tweet, I would've never bothered - but it being interspersed with motivational tales and other filler, I found it far more effective in actually getting me practicing what it taught.


Fiction books are something to savor. Nonfiction books are a necessary evil needed to get to an understanding.

I don’t need 30 made up fake sounding anecdotes to understand a principle. I can tell when someone is making shit up to prove a preconceived conclusion and to sound more convincing. Also I’m a slow reader and get annoyed easily.

I find interviews with writers pitching their book a good example of acceptable information density.


I totally agree. I think that business and self help books are the worst offenders for this: lots of potentially embellished, or plain made up “stories” to wade through, when just getting to the point would work better for me.


Different people learn differently, maybe? The great truths in life boil down to a few sentences (ex: "just do it"). If someone writes a book about that truth, are they wasting your time? Maybe. But there are other people who need to hear the story to learn from that grain of truth.

I've definitely read books that were way too long and full of filler content. But I've also scrolled through tweet-sized brilliant insights that I forgot the next minute.

In my opinion, Atomic Habits was not a filler book (I also listened to it on audiobook), but as always, YMMV.


If you've scrolled through tweet-sized brilliant insights and forgot them the next minute then maybe they weren't that brilliant to begin with? Or maybe you have a habit of mindlessly scrolling which you need to get out of. In any case, I find it hard to believe that people would prefer to read 200 pages which could be condensed down to a single sentence.


I think it comes down to individual learning style. Here [1] is James Clear tweeting a 3-sentence summary of his book. These ideas totally impacted the way I operate and helped me achieve a lot more than I would have on my own. But I needed to read the book to implement these tactics. If I only read the tweet, I don't think it would have had any long-term impact on me.

I agree that being wordy can be a waste of time! And I agree that many business books blow up small ideas into large books. I also think that sometimes expanding on an impactful insight can help you teach it better.

[1] https://twitter.com/JamesClear/status/1477686252333903877


There are wiki summaries of most self-help books that have basically the same amount of information. The only issue is a moral one - you're not compensating the author for their advice.


I'd rather not promote a business model of bloating 10-20 pages of information into 200-300 pages to justify selling a book.


It's a rough problem, though.

Let's consider that writing a book, in terms of typing, doesn't take that long. However, the perception of value is proportional to the size of the book: are you going to pay for 10-20 pages of information?

Now, let's consider the cost of researching that information. In some cases, it can be the output of years of doctoral research. In others, it's "only" six months of dedicated research. That's six months to research an idea, find evidence, challenge it with alternative explanations, test its efficacy, and determine the best way to present that information. (We won't even talk of the issues of marketing and the other parts of a book that don't involve writing it.)

That is, you need to put together 600 pages of research. You can then distill it into 200 pages or 20 pages. If you distill it into 20 pages, people will think it is less valuable. That is, you spend more time and get less out of it.

(It's something I struggle with. I am part way into research that could increase the productivity of non-great (that is, average or worse) developers 5-25%. The core idea can be explained in 5 pages. The extended idea takes 20. However, it's currently a hypothesis and doing the work to prove it out is estimated at 3-4 months of solid work.

How would I present that information? I can say it wouldn't be a 20 page article or blog post because it's not monetizable. So, how do you change that business model?


> So, how do you change that business model?

Short books for solving a problem that readers have, long books for entertainment.

People will absolutely pay good money (thousands) for a 20 page pdf that solves a painful problem. But they’ll fidget and squirm at the prospect of $20 for 300 pages of edutainment.


I feel exactly the way you described. And considering that I'm on a self-improvement track and have a few books like this to read, adding the day to day life (job, family, other skills, etc) to the mix makes me wonder what's the best way to ingurgitate 250 pages or 11 hours-long audio. Especially when you quickly notice the (almost) same thing is being repeated over and over.

Summaries like this one are a godsend, I'll look for the same for other similar books.


There's a service I tried once called blinkist.com where they have a large library of books that they condense by summarizing them into a smaller package. As well, most books also come as audiobooks. I used it but found it was hard to come away feeling you had absorbed much from the books when they had been shortened the way they were. But yes, definitely other people feel the same way you do.


Popular books are probably having a lot of fillers (like a good deal of Anime).

My experience with not so popular book is very different. "The democracy in America", "India After Gandhi", "Spin and other turns", "A corner of a foreign field", "The idea of natural inequality and other essays", "Scaling" are a few books that I really wish were longer.


I think that only matters if you read the book in a day. I read books like this over a month, so filler helps remeber what I read.


Not just “getting older” but I’m sure you read a lot of other books of similar topics or genre. I find most books to share very similar ideas and topics narrated in different ways.

Reading more and more books will keep you prepared for the deja vu that happens when reading future books.

Now, I, either read faster till I hit something different or skip ahead.


Fwiw there are apps like 12min and Blinkist which provide condensed audio summaries of various books.


My favourite example of this is "Essentialism", which has so much filler that really (if fully following its own philosophy) could easily have been less than 5 pages in total.


All self-help books can be condensed to a few pages. 5 pages is probably on the high end.

I am an avid notetaker and most books I have read, I can summarize in less than a page, sometimes half a page. I do try to condense though, so 3 pages is probably realistic.


Agree 100%, I found the Steve jobs biography too unnecessarily long to listen to on Audible.

I think it’s because if it’s a larger or longer book the author can charge more, but I hate that.


I highly recommend listening to the whole book. The stories themselves are quite motivational (IMHO).


Many nonfiction books could be shorter.




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