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Must Read Books on Habits

Habits are the backbone of self improvement. Without fostering better habits, improvement can’t happen. Establishing a growth mindset and a sense of mindfulness are two cornerstone habits that will accelerate the process.

Be sure to check out what I consider the most foundational posts on this site:

Before getting into the must read books on habits, I want to talk about what a habit is.  There are many different definitions (even in the dictionary) for what constitutes a habit but the two below from Merriam-Webster align most with my thinking:

  1. A behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance.
  2. An acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.

I like these two definitions because they are very broad and encompass so much.

Too often, we think of habits as behaviors such as smoking, drinking, or biting our fingernails.  All of those are habits, but habits can be so much more.

We can also have routine ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving as well.  And since a large part of what we do in life is based on what we think, feel, and perceive, it’s important to look at these as habits as well.

The reason I point this out is because some of the books below might not seem directly related to habits as you might think of them. 

However, each of these books does talk about things that we do in life that show up as patterns.  Some can be good, others can be bad.

When we first take a high level view of our lives then drill into the details, we can usually identify some ways that we think, feel, or perceive that simply aren’t serving us or others in our lives in a positive way. 

These books can be a starting point to shed a light on some of those things and even help change them.  In fact, these are some of the best self help books in general.

Related The ultimate guide to self improvement

Atomic Habits

One of the newer books on habits, Atomic Habits is already proving to be in a class of its own. Released in late 2018, it sold over two million copies in less than two years.

Some consider this book the definitive guide to breaking bad behaviors and adopting good ones.

As the title suggests, “atomic” habits are tiny. Atomic habits are small, but mighty because the accumulation of them can change your life.

This book on habits is about tiny changes producing exponential results.

James Clear has spent his entire adult life focusing on habits, decision-making, and continuous improvement. He is a regular speaker at fortune 500 companies and has had his work featured in Time Magazine and CBS This Morning among others.

Clear shows how we can create good habits and eliminate bad ones by resolving our identity crisis, and creating systems that will produce desired outcomes.

He provides an inside-out approach to behavior change, which ensures the sustainability of the behavior we seek to elicit.

This book shows you how to build better habits in 4 easy to understand steps. Clear posits that a new habit will stick when you:

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it easy
  3. Make it attractive
  4. Make it satisfying

This book is great for people who:

  • Don’t feel like they have enough time to create new habits
  • Have failed at building new habits by trying to do too much too fast
  • Are interested in how our habits our tied to our identities

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

It isn’t by chance that this book has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.  This book is the real deal and lives up to it’s subtitle ‘Powerful Lessons in Personal Change’.

If I had one self improvement book to read for the rest of my life, it would be this one. The first time I read it was several years ago and I continue to go back to it frequently.  I’ve yet to encounter a problem with my effectiveness, or lack of it, that isn’t addressed in this book.

It really is an incredible book about habit change and one of the best that there is.

Anyone can benefit from the lessons of this wonderful book because it is so in depth and gives you excellent action items.

You must first learn to master yourself and then begin to master your interactions with other people and the world around you.  The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People gives you the blueprint.

This book is great for people who:

  • Desire to become more effective in every area of their life
  • Have heard about the time tested & world-famous seven habits, and now desire to learn them

Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results (Volume 1)

Have you ever made a new year’s resolution on 12/31 only to crash and burn before January is over?  Most of us have at one time or another.

The reason isn’t because you’re lacking willpower, motivation, or desire.  Okay, maybe you are but often its more because you’re trying to do too much too fast.  There’s a reason people say the phrase ‘old habits die hard’.  We like to think they can be killed quickly, but that just isn’t reality.

If you haven’t worked out in the past year, it’s not reasonable to expect to immediately start working out 2 hours a day.  You can make an attempt but chances are that several days in, your willpower will be depleted.  Once your willpower is gone, old habits kick in like gangbusters.

In mini habits, Stephen Guise talks about how to break down more arduous achievements into smaller ones.  The premise of this book about habit change is to focus on small changes. Changes that you have a 100% chance of committing to until they become habits. 

Once they become habits, you don’t have to expend energy on them any longer and you can build additional positive habits on top of them.

This book is great for people who:

  • Are finding difficulty achieving their health or weight loss goals
  • Are looking for methods of building new skills without a ton of effort
  • Have a true desire to make a change but don’t know where to start

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

The Power of Habit provides a holistic view of how habits are formed, why they are so hard to change, and how they extend beyond individuals to organizations and even societies.

At the core, all habits can be broken down into three distinct phases: a cue, a routine, and a reward. In Judson Brewer’s book, The Craving Mind, he discusses this concept as well but calls it trigger, behavior, and reward.

The book also discusses how developing important keystone habits has a domino effect and causes us to automatically create other positive habits. 

An example of this would be exercising.  According to Duhigg, strengthening your willpower is the most important keystone habit you can develop.

The overarching theme of the book is that it is possible to identify our negative habit patterns.  And once we identify them we have a responsibility to do something about it. 

Since all habits follow the cue, routine, reward loop, we can engineer ways to substitute the routine (negative behavior) for something positive while still getting a reward.

What makes this one of the best books on habits is that it really digs into the genesis of habits and why they develop in the first place.

Achieving lasting change is no easy task but it can be done by focusing on keystone habits such as exercising, having a healthy diet, and most importantly, building willpower.

This book is great for people who:

  • Want to start a positive habit like waking up earlier in the morning, or kick a bad habit like too much junk food
  • Are interested in how companies use our tendency to form habits to drive our behaviors
  • Are interested in how new routines can be implemented in organizations and even communities

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

What motivates you?  Do you even know?

All human beings have basic needs (food, shelter, clothing,etc) and these can be motivating factors. 

We can also be motivated by the prospect of being rewarded or conversely, avoiding punishment.  Basic needs, rewards, and punishment all fall under the category of extrinsic motivation.  These are things that act upon us and cause us to react.

There is another form of motivation that exists for all of us.  It is called intrinsic motivation and the defining feature is that it does not require outside incentives. 

A great example that Pink gives in the book is the incredible success of the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, which relies solely on volunteer writers who aren’t compensated at all.

He goes on to talk about how extrinsic rewards can actually diminish our intrinsic motivation.  Once we are rewarded for a particular behavior, we are no longer motivated to perform that behavior if the reward is taken away.  This is true even when our initial motivation was purely intrinsic.

Overall, what I took from this book is that rewards and punishment are only effective in the short-term and often lead to harmful behavior in the long run. 

Finding a way to draw out intrinsic motivation in yourself and others is the key to sustainable success.  This is because intrinsic motivation leads to passion, dedication, and self-determination on the road to meaningful goals.

This book is great for people who:

  • Want to learn about the various things that make up human motivation
  • Desire to build the skills to motivate themselves and others

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Have you ever heard the terms fixed mindset vs growth mindset?  If not, you’re about to learn all about them in this wonderful book by Carol Dweck.

People with a fixed mindset believe their gifts and talents are innate and they are more or less ‘stuck with what they’ve got’.  The fixed mindset person assumes they are naturally good at some things and terrible at others.  This may be true to a degree, but it’s the very mindset that prevents them from even trying to develop certain skills.

The person with the growth mindset, however, believes they can improve anything as long as they put in the effort.  In fact, it is the belief that drives the effort and eventual improvement.

Dweck explains that people with a fixed mindset seek approval while those with a growth mindset seek development.

Those with a fixed mindset see failures as disasters while people with a growth mindset see them as opportunities.  If you have a fixed mindset you will avoid difficulties whereas a growth mindset will push you to lean into them.

The key message in this book is that it is possible for people that don’t already have a growth mindset to develop one.  By confronting our own attitudes and ideas, we can develop a growth mindset and realize our potential to the fullest.

What makes this one of the best books on habits is because it can help you establish a growth mindset. A growth mindset is a great habit to have and will lead to other positive habits.

This book is great for people who:

  • Are curious about how their behavior and the behavior of others is influenced by mindsets
  • Are looking for strategies to reach their full potential in life

Related: The Beginner’s Guide to The Growth Mindset

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

We all have a finite amount of willpower.  In fact, our willpower is similar to any other muscle in our body.  The more we use it without interruption, the less we have available. 

For instance, if someone brings in a box of doughnuts to work in the morning and you choose not to eat one, it will be more difficult to avoid another temptation later on in the day.

The good news is that we can also strengthen our willpower, just like a muscle.  Something as simple as following an exercise plan or sticking to a budget can improve decision making in other areas of our lives.

What makes this an essential, must read book about habit change? As Charles Duhigg mentions, strengthening your willpower might be the greatest keystone habit there is. And that means developing it will always lead to building additional positive habits.

In order to effectively increase our willpower, it is important to have goals that don’t conflict with one another. 

If we simultaneously decide that we want to spend more time with our family and log more hours at the office, we’re likely fail. 

Those two goals aren’t really compatible and are more likely to lead to stress and anxiety rather than increased willpower.

Even if you strengthen your willpower, it is still finite and will inevitably fail at some point.  The way to fight against this is to prepare ahead of time what you will do when certain temptations arise. 

Having a plan in place prior to the temptation occurring gives you a better chance at fighting it. More on this in my post about improving self discipline.

You will still have to use willpower in the beginning, however, following the plan consistently will make it a habit which will allow you to fight temptations automatically.

Willpower is not just an abstract concept as previously thought. This book can help you understand some of the science behind it.  Even if you’re not interested in the science, it can help you learn how to wield it more effectively in your life.

This book is great for people who:

  • Sometimes have their success thwarted by their lack of steadfastness or stability
  • Are interested in behavioral science and how the brain works

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

Continuing with the theme of willpower brings us to The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal.

McGonigal describes temptations as willpower challenges.  In other words, a challenge in which your long term desires are battling your immediate urges.  She describes the strength of a person’s willpower in terms of “I won’t”, “I will”, or “I want”.

“I won’t” is the ability to resist temptation when placed in front of you.  An example would be “I won’t” eat that piece of delicious chocolate cake.  “I will” is the strength to do what you dislike now in order to receive positive benefits later. 

An example would be “I will” go to the gym even though I feel like binging on Netflix.  “I want” is the ability to remember your long term goals and what you truly desire.

McGonigal goes on to talk about the fact that stress is a willpower killer and the various ways to reduce stress, thereby strengthening willpower.  Meditation, exercise, and a good night’s sleep are just a few.

Like the previous book in #6, this one also talks about willpower being like a muscle but also mentions that it can be overused.  McGonigal believes that doing frequent, but small, willpower challenges is the best way to gradually improve your self-control.

Another interesting aspect of this book is the idea that our willpower can improve or decline based on the company we keep.  Willpower, or lack thereof, is contagious!

This is a great book about habits for essentially the same reasons as the previous book. Willpower, self discipline, and self control are all closely related. They are also crucial habits to build.

The key message in this book is that we have the ability to gain control over our bad habits by harnessing the energy of willpower.

This book is great for people who:

  • Want to be more effective when it comes to achieving their goals
  • Have ever struggled with lack of motivation, procrastination, addiction, or temptation
  • Have a desire to create real and lasting change in their lives

High Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become That Way

High Performance Habits posits that high performers aren’t born with certain personality traits or some kind of extraordinary ability to achieve.  Instead, the key to long term success lies in mastering certain habits.  The book outlines six of them that can get you well on your way.

Those six habits discussed in the book are:

  • Seeking Clarity
  • Generating Energy
  • Raising Necessity
  • Increasing Productivity
  • Developing Influence
  • Demonstrating Courage

High performers constantly and deliberately practice these habits.  A great deal of confidence is gained through practice and over time a continual loop of growth and self improvement is formed.

This is easily a top book on habit change because it focuses on six specific habits shared by high performers.

This book is great for people who:

  • Have an interest in the habits of extraordinary people
  • Desire to improve their current professional performance
  • Would like to be healthier and happier overall

Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior

We are all susceptible to behaving in destructive ways sometimes.  In fact, the majority of the time we behave destructively we do so on autopilot with little to no conscious thought. 

In Rewire by Richard O’ Connor, he delves into how it is possible to rewire our brains and reverse our bad habits to be happier and healthier.

Rewire contains valuable insights on why we do things we regret, why we tend to blame our faults on “just being human”, and one way to overcome addiction.

One of the key messages in this book is that by practicing mindfulness and staying dedicated, we can rewire our brains so that our bad habits disintegrate.

A fantastic choice if you’re looking for a great book on habit change. A lot can be said for creating new, positive habits. However, it is just as crucial to recognize bad habits and eliminate them or replace them with good habits.

This book is great for people who:

  • Might be struggling to overcome an addiction or bad habit
  • Want to gain more self control and peace of mind
  • Would like to help a loved one or friend with an addiction

The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

The ONE Thing helps you to discover your most important goal, and gives you tools to ensure you can use your time productively to get there.

The book reveals that many of the maxims we accept as good practice are actually myths that only hinder our progress.

It also provides advice on how to live your life with priority, purpose and productivity without sending other aspects of life out of balance, because this is the way to perform the kind of focused work that leads to great success.

An invaluable habit to form is the ability to quickly recognize what is most important on any given day. This book shows you how to do that which makes it a top book on habit change.

This book is great for people who:

  • Would like to make improvements to their productivity
  • Find it hard to make time to commit to their goals
  • Have a desire to find more clarity and purpose in their daily lives

Wrap Up

Take action today and pick read one of these excellent books to help get you on the path to success.  If you know someone else who might benefit from this list, please share!

Additional Reading The ultimate guide to self improvement

These are some of the best books on habits out there.  These are great reads for anyone who has an interest in self help, self improvement, or personal development.  They talk about habit formation, habit change, creating new habits, and breaking bad habits

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  1. RS RS

    Habits makes man punctual in life. It’s really useful post.

  2. Great article related to habits. Thanks for sharing this blog.

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