Atomic Habits by James Clear: Book Summary and Insights

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Atomic Habits Summary

James Clear’s Atomic Habits offers practical strategies and proven ideas that will help you create good habits, stop destructive behaviors, and improve your life with a simple, four-step process for making small changes that compound into large, positive results.

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Key Takeaways

The Fundamentals

What are atomic habits? An atomic habit is a small habit that is part of a bigger system of changing your life with self-awareness, goal-setting, and action. With the right set of atomic habits, you can harness the power of small changes to create remarkable results.

The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits

“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” We focus too much on single, defining moments when real progress comes from making small improvements on a regular basis. Over a long enough time period, those small improvements — created through building atomic habits and breaking bad habits — can compound to great results.

“Your habits can compound for or against you.” Like compound interest can help you in your financial life, the compounding power of habits can work for you or work against you. If you focus on good habits like better productivity, knowledge, and relationships, your life will improve over time. If you let bad habits repeat (like stress, negative thoughts, or outrage) your life gets worse over time.

Progress is not linear. We often expect our efforts to have a linear relationship with progress. But because your efforts and atomic habits compound over time, progress starts slow in the beginning and then grows at a much faster rate. If you give up too early, you lose the power of compounding.

“Forget about goals, focus on systems instead.” Goals are measurable results, but systems are the specific processes that help you achieve those results. It’s better to focus on systems that build good habits in the direction you want to go, instead of dwelling on a one-time goal that is not repeatable. Because systems are so important to the results you achieve, it’s important to avoid building the wrong system.

How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa)

When building atomic habits, there are three levels of possible change:

  • Outcome change: This involves changing the results in your life (e.g., losing weight, publishing a book, etc.)
  • Process change: This is about adopting new habits and systems that move you toward the type of person you want to be (e.g., healthy habits like going to the gym to lose weight).
  • Identity change: This is about changing your beliefs, self-image, and ideas about yourself and other people on your path of continuous improvement.

If you want to make big changes in your life, it’s don’t focus on specific outcomes. Instead, optimize your systems for making good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible.

Your daily habits, including your financial habits, healthy habits, eating habits, cleaning habits, and everything that you do, ultimately create the person you are. So the best way to become who you want to be is to develop a set of good habits and systems.

How to Build Better Habits in 4 Simple Steps

Habits are patterns of behavior that you’ve repeated enough to become automatic. The most helpful function of atomic habits is to solve the problems of your life with as little effort as possible.

The science of habit formation involves four things: “A cue, which triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue.”

For example, a cue could be that your phone vibrates to let you know you have a text. Then the craving is that you want to know what someone said to you. The response is that you grab your phone and read the text. The reward is that you satisfy your craving to read the message. The habit loop repeats when your phone buzzes again.

There are four laws of behavior change for building better habits that leverage the science of habits: (1) make it obvious; (2) make it attractive; (3) make it easy, and (4) make it satisfying.

The 1st Law: Make It Obvious

The Man Who Didn’t Look Right

Because habits are automatic actions, our brain does not pay attention to them. With some training, you can start to become aware of the cues in your environment that encourage both good habits and bad habits. If you want to change a particular habit or make bad habits impossible, awareness is the first step so that you’re not trying to fly in the dark.

The Best Way to Start a New Habit

If you want to create new good habits, the best way to do it is to use the two most powerful cues: time and location. For example, let’s say you want to start reading more books because you believe that’s important for business leaders like you. You can make an intention like this: I will read a book at 7am (time) in my favorite lounging chair (location). This is a simple way to use the science of habit formation to your advantage.

A good way to adopt habits is to habit stack. Let’s say you have a habit of drinking coffee in the morning. If you want to read more books, you can say that you’re going to read while you drink your morning coffee (perhaps instead of scrolling social media). Habit stacking like this is easier because you already have the habit of drinking coffee and reading something. You’re just changing what you read from social media to a book to the delight of your future self.

Motivation is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More

Because the cues in your environment are signals for your habit loops, it’s important to amplify the cues you have for good habits. For example, if you want to go to the gym more often, at night, you could put your gym clothes in plain sight so that when you wake up in the morning, you’re reminded that you want to go to the gym.

If you’re struggling to let go of some bad habits, it can help to change your environment so that you’re not surrounded by old cues that lead to the behavior you want to change.

The Secret to Self-Control

You cannot rely on intrinsic motivation for behavior change. That’s because motivation comes and goes, and when it goes, suddenly that motivation you had to quit smoking is consumed by your desire to reduce stress with just a few drags.

If you truly want to eliminate a bad habit, it’s helpful to make the cue for that habit invisible. Let’s say you love snacking on chips at lunchtime, and you want to develop better eating habits. Instead of relying on self-control to avoid the chips that you have on the counter, you can simply not buy chips at the grocery store and buy apples instead.

If the chips aren’t in the house and on the counter, you’re not likely to crave or eat them. This is much more effective than relying on willpower and self-control, both of which eventually fade and let bad habits repeat in the long run.

The 2nd Law: Make It Attractive

How to Make a Habit Irresistible

To activate the reward part of the habit loop, it helps to make the atomic habits you want to do attractive. Because the reward of a habit often releases dopamine, we are often motivated to do something to get the dopamine at the end of the cycle. If the reward is good enough, we begin to anticipate it, and that motivates us to act.

Imagine you love small doses of dark chocolate and you want to build a good habit like going to the gym. One thing you could do is to only allow yourself to eat dark chocolate once you log a workout. At the end of the workout, you get the reward of the chocolate, so you’re motivated to go to the gym and finish the habit with the joy of eating chocolate.

The Role of Family and Friends in Shaping Your Habits

The people and environment around us have a big influence on what behavior we find attractive. That means that we often will do things that are praised by people in our culture because we want to fit in and be well-liked. It also means that the people and culture around us matter a lot in moving us toward or away from our desired behavior.

There are 3 groups of people that influence the process of habit formation – friends and family, our wider tribe, and people with status and prestige. A great way to build good habits is to surround yourself with people who already do the behavior you wish to do and who you have something in common with. That way, there are other people doing what you do, enjoying it, and approving of it.

How to Find and Fix the Causes of Your Bad Habits

A great way to shake a bad habit is to make it unattractive to you and to highlight the benefits of avoiding a bad habit. For example, if you want to drink less alcohol, you could come up with a long list of great benefits (like being a healthy person) you will gain from drinking less alcohol. That will make drinking less attractive.

The 3rd Law: Make It Easy

Walk Slowly, but Never Backward

The best way to learn and make progress is to take action. Planning can often feel like action, but it’s really not. It’s better to simply do things, and little by little, those behaviors begin to become automatic and ingrained and ultimately easier as you repeat desirable behaviors. Moving slowly is a reliable way for using atomic habits for self-improvement.

The Law of Least Effort

Humans are naturally lazy and will gravitate toward things that require less effort. That’s why you should optimize your environment to form good habits and break bad habits.

For example, imagine you want to lose weight and are thinking about forming new habits that help you with that goal. If you keep only healthy food in your house, for example, there is very little friction for you to eat healthy when you get hungry in the afternoon.

And when your intrinsic motivation for your new habits wanes, there is high friction if you want to eat something unhealthy because you have to order it or go to the store. Because there is higher friction, you have created a helpful barrier for your bad habits.

How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the Two-Minute Rule

The two-minute rule: “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.”

When you’re creating a new habit, make it as simple and easy as possible. This is very important for creating atomic habits.

If you want to exercise more, instead of planning on going to the gym for an hour a day, decide to do 10 pushups in the morning. You can do that in under 2 minutes, and after you do it for 30 days, you’ll have built the good habit of exercising every day. From there, you can more easily add on more difficult forms of exercise since you already have momentum.

Making Good Habits Inevitable and Bad Habits Impossible

If you can lock yourself into the behavior you want to do more of or do less of, your likelihood of doing it is much higher. The best way to do that is to make a decision once that automates your future decisions.

For instance, let’s say you want to invest more regularly. Instead of logging into your account every week to invest, you can set up an automatic investment to occur every week. Once you set up your automatic investment, it runs in the background without you having to think about it.

The 4th Law – Make It Satisfying

The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change

If you enjoy something, you’re more likely to do it. That’s why the cardinal rule of behavior change is “What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.”

So when you’re starting a new atomic habit, you need to make a way to find it immediately rewarding, so that you feel good about doing it again.

How to Stick with Good Habits Every Day

Progress is one of the best forms of motivation. To benefit from the power of progress, you should keep a habit tracker to measure when you did the things you say you wanted to do. As you track your efforts over time, you will find it rewarding to see all of the progress you’ve made. It’s particularly rewarding if you don’t skip on doing your desired behavior.

Two rules that can help you make the most of the habit tracker: (1) don’t break the chain – keep your habit streak alive for as long as you can; (2) Never miss twice – if you miss one day, get back on track the next day. With habit trackers and a commitment to tiny behaviors, you can make the process of learning habits more accessible, enjoyable, and effective.

How an Accountability Partner Can Change Everything

Leveraging the power of an accountability partner can help you stay on track. In part, that’s because we care what other people think about us. If you say that you’re going to do something to someone, it’s more likely that you’re going to do it.

One way to make an accountability partner more effective is to have a penalty if you stick with a particular habit. Let’s say you want to write every day for 30 days. You can make a deal that you will pay your accountability partner $50 for every day you don’t write. And if you make that deal, you’re going to be much more likely to sit down and write every day. If you’re motivated by money, this is a very useful tool in the early stages of habit formation.

Advanced Tactics – How To Go From Being Merely Good To Being Truly Great

The Truth About Talent

If you want to succeed in life, you increase your chances of success by choosing the right places to compete and the right atomic habits to build. The opposite is true if you make the wrong decisions.

We all have talent in different areas, and if you learn about the areas you’re inclined to, you can choose to build good habits in a game that comes easier to you and likely be more successful.

The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and Work

Goldilocks rule: “Humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities.”

If you’ve been doing something for a long time, you will likely get bored. And boredom is a great way to halt your self-improvement and let bad habits repeat. So it’s important to find ways to continue pushing yourself in a domain to stay motivated and excited about what you’re doing. That way you don’t get bored and quit.

Reviewing Your Progress

Atom habits and consistent, deliberate effort can help you on any path of continuous improvement and mastery. One important piece of this path is to make sure that you regularly reflect on and review your performance so that you stay aware of what’s going on over time.

On a weekly basis, you can use habit trackers, to-do lists, journaling practices, and other tools. But you also want to be able to zoom out and check in over a longer time scale so that you can measure how you’re doing.

An annual or quarterly check-in on the areas that you care most about can help shed light on what’s going well, what’s going okay, and what needs improvement.

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