Book Summary: Atomic Habits by James Clear


Atomic Habits is the go-to guide for building good habits and breaking bad ones. Author James Clear shows you a four-step process to create small changes to your habits that compound to large, positive results in your life over time. You can leverage this understanding to improve your habits and quality of life. If you’re new to personal development literature, this book may be a good place to start.

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Key Takeaways

The Fundamentals

Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference

The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits

“An atomic habit is a little habit that is part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.”

  • “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” We focus too much on single, defining moments when the reality is that progress comes from making small improvements on a regular basis. Over a long enough time period, those small improvements compound to great results.
  • “Your habits can compound for or against you.” The compounding power of habits can work for you or work against you. If you focus on better productivity, knowledge, and relationships, your life will get better over time. If you focus on 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 compound over time, progress starts slow in the beginning and then begins to grow 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 lead you to where you want to go, instead of dwelling on a one-time goal that you can’t repeat.

How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa)

  • There are three levels of change:
    • Outcome change: This is able changing your results (e.g., losing weight, publishing a book, etc.)
    • Process change: This is about changing your habits and systems (e.g., a new habit at the gym).
    • Identity change: This is about changing your beliefs, self-image, and ideas about others.
  • If you want to make big changes in your life, it’s better to avoid focusing on specific outcomes and instead optimize your systems for becoming the person you want to be.
  • The daily actions you take ultimately create the person you are. So the best way to become the best version of yourself is develop a set of habits and systems that reflect that person.

How to Build Better Habits in 4 Simple Steps

  • Habits are patterns of behavior that you’ve repeated enough to become automatic. The best way to leverage habits is to solve the problems of your life with as little effort 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 lead to certain habits. Awareness is the first step of behavior change, because without it, you’re flying in the dark.

The Best Way to Start a New Habit

  • If you want to create new habits, the best way to do it is to leverage the two most powerful cues: time and location. For example, let’s say you want to start reading more books. You can make an intention that reads like this: I will read a book at 7am (time) in my favorite lounging chair (location).
  • A good way to create a new habit 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.

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

  • If you 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 eat healthier. 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 instead buy apples. 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, which don’t work in the long run.

The 2nd Law: Make it attractive

How to Make a Habit Irresistible

  • To active the reward part of the habit loop, it helps to make the 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 habit of going to the gym. One thing you could do is to only allow yourself to eat dark chocolate once you go to the gym. At the end of the session, 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.
  • There are 3 groups of people that influence our habits – friends and family, our wider tribe, and people with status and prestige. A great way to build better 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 you will have when you drink less. 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 get yourself doing things, and little by little, those behaviors begin to become automatic and ingrained and ultimately easier as you repeat desirable behaviors.

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 so that doing good habits is as easy as possible and doing bad habits is difficult. For instance, if you keep only healthy food in your house, there is very little friction for you to eat healthy when you get hungry in the afternoon. There is high friction if you want to eat something unhealthy, because you may have to order it or go to the store. Because there is higher friction, you will do the thing you don’t want to do less often.

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. 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 habit of exercising every day. From there, you can more easily add on lengthier or more difficult forms of exercise.

How to Make 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. 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 your automatic investment happens, 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 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 leverage 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 stay on track: (1) don’t break the chain – keep your habit streak going for as long as you can; (2) Never miss twice – if you miss one day, get back on track the next day.

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 some sort of cost if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do. Let’s say you want to write every day for 30 days and you tell your accountability partner. If you add in a stipulation that you have to pay him $50 for every day you don’t write, you’re going to be much more likely to sit down and write every day.

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 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 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 will make you less motivated to keep going. So it’s important to find ways to continue pushing yourself in a domain to stay motivated and excited about what you’re doing so that you don’t fail simply because you got bored and quit. Keeping a schedule can help.

The Downside of Creating Good Habits

  • Habits and consistent, deliberate effort can help you on the path to 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. 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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