Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones
by James Clear
Atomic Habits offers a straightforward, step-by-step framework for creating good habits, breaking bad ones, and driving long-term behavior change.Based on behavioral science, it provides a comprehensive manual for taking control of your habits.
More than 40% of our daily actions are driven by habits rather than conscious thought, as mentioned in The Power of Habit summary. When so much of our behavior is automatic, it seems worthwhile to take another, deeper look at managing habits.
We often believe that massive success requires massive action. This book is based on the premise that good habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Rather than a once-in-a-lifetime transformation, success is a product of our daily habits. And small, incremental changes can have profound results through the effect of compounding. A 1% improvement in any area can compound to create outsized results. And while a 1% better or worse choice may seem insignificant at the moment, these moments add up to who you are.
The content is organized around a four-step habit model and the four laws of behavior change derived from these steps. The first of the six sections covers the basics of habits – how habits develop, why they matter, and how to improve them. The following four sections are organized around the four laws of behavior change. Their focus is on building good habits, breaking bad ones, and setting up systems that enable good habits to become a part of your life for long-term success. The last section explores some advanced topics. An appendix covers applying this book’s ideas to business and parenting. And there are links to an array of online resources.
Author James Clear writes about habits, decision-making, and continuous improvement. Atomic Habits has sold over 8 million copies worldwide and has been translated into over 50 languages.
About this summary: It provides an overview of my takeaways from a book that I’ve found useful and recommend to others. A summary isn’t meant to replace reading the book. There is much more than I can cover here. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy for yourself.
A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough to become automatic. Habits allow us to solve everyday challenges and carry out recurring activities with the least energy and effort.
Atomic habits are small habits within a larger system. In the same way atoms form molecules, atomic habits form larger outcomes.
Habits are the building blocks of our lives. Each of them is a basic unit that helps you get better as a whole. Small habits don’t seem like much, but when they build on each other, they can lead to wins with payoffs far exceeding your initial investment.
Developing habits is a matter of learning mental shortcuts. Habits free your conscious mind to focus on other challenges and problems.Habits built in the present can help you achieve more in the future.
The Power of Atomic Habits
Because of the compounding effect, minor changes in habits make a big difference. In the long run, getting 1 percent better every day makes a big difference. Looking back in several years, the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones become clear.
Time and good habits work for you. With bad habits, time works against you. Small changes may seem insignificant at the moment, but when taken over a lifetime, these decisions determine the difference between who you become versus what you could’ve been.
We need to be patient. Before reaching a critical threshold, changes may appear insignificant. And, because change happens slowly, it’s easy to let bad habits slide.
Your results are a lagging measure of your habits. Net worth reflects financial habits. Weight reflects eating and exercise habits. Knowledge reflects learning habits and so forth. “You get what you repeat.”
Habits can work for or against you:
|Things that positively compound:
|Things that negatively compound:
Focus On Systems, Not Goals
The problem is your system if you’re having trouble changing your habits. You repeat bad habits not because you don’t want to change but because you have the wrong system for changing.
Improvement starts with better systems, not better goals. Goals are about what you want to get out of something. Systems are about the steps that are taken to get to the results. Goals provide direction, but systems provide the way forward.
The problems with goals:
- Both winners and losers aim for the same goals. There’s a lot of survivorship bias in what’s been written about setting goals. In our focus on the winners, we assume the goals were the reason for their success. And we overlook the people who had the same goal but didn’t succeed.
- Reaching a goal is a temporary change. When you reach a goal, your life changes for the moment. One problem is solved at the results level, but the fix is temporary. Instead of trying to fix results, fix the system. Fixing problems at the system level is the only way to make genuine progress.
- Goals limit your happiness. Goal achievement is episodic. A system that’s performing well is a continuous source of satisfaction.
- Long-term progress and goals are at odds. Goals are about winning the game. Systems are for continuing to play the game. Progress is about the cycle of continuous improvement and refinement. Your progress will depend on how committed you’re to the process.
You do not rise to the level of your goals.
You fall to the level of your systems.
Identity Shapes Habits, Habits Shape Identity
Three levels of behavior change:
- Changing outcomes: goal setting and changing your results, e.g., losing weight.
- Changing processes: changing habits and systems, e.g., implementing a new productivity routine. Habits are built at this level.
- Changing identity: changing your beliefs, the way you see the world, the way you see yourself, the way you view others. This level is where your beliefs, assumptions, and biases are formed.
“Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.” In building durable habits, each level of change is useful. The direction of change matters too.
To change your habits, focus on who you want to become rather than what you want to achieve. Most people try to change their habits by starting with what they want to accomplish, resulting in outcome-based habits. A better tack is to focus on who they want to become – building identity-based habits.
Every system of actions is based on a set of beliefs. Individuals, organizations, and societies follow a similar pattern. Habits are shaped by beliefs and assumptions – an identity underlies the system.
Our behaviors reflect our identity. The more deeply rooted a thought or action is in your identity, the harder it is to change it.
Identity conflict stands in the way of positive change at any level – individual, team, or society. Habits that conflict with your identity won’t take root.
Conversely, habits also shape your identity. No one is born with preset beliefs. You embody your identity through your habits, which are learned and conditioned by experience.
“Identity change is the North Star of habit change.” Your habits help you become the kind of person you want to be. Habits literally shape you.
A two-step process to changing your identity: (1) Choose the person you want to be. (2) Solidify the change through a series of small wins.
Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
How to Build Better Habits
Habits have four steps:
- A cue – Your brain starts behavior in response to the cue.
- A craving – Every habit is motivated by cravings. It’s impossible to act without motivation or desire.
- A response – A thought or action. You may or may not respond depending on how motivated you are and how much friction is involved.
- A reward – The response leads to a reward, which is the end goal of every habit.
The cue is noticing the reward. The craving is desiring the reward. The response is the fulfillment of obtaining the reward.
Rewards serve two purposes: to satisfy and to teach. Rewards satisfy cravings and help us remember which actions to repeat in the future.
This four-step process isn’t something you do sporadically; instead, it’s an endless loop that runs continuously in every moment throughout your entire life.
To build better habits, follow the Four Laws of Behavior Change:
- Make the cue obvious
- Make the craving attractive
- Make the response easy
- Make the reward satisfying
To break bad habits, reverse the four laws:
- Make the cue invisible
- Make the craving unattractive
- Make the response difficult
- Make the reward unsatisfying
The 1st Law – Make It Obvious
Changing Behaviors Starts with Awareness
Before we can change habits, we must be aware of them. We stop paying attention to what we are doing when our behaviors become automatic — when they become habits.
Point-and-Call and a Habits Scorecard can help build awareness.
- Point-and-Call is a simple process of verbalizing your actions that elevates your awareness, bringing nonconscious behaviors to a conscious level.
- A Habits Scorecard involves making a list of daily habits and scoring them positive, negative or neutral, which can help you detect your habit-driven behaviors and their impact. (There’s a free scorecard template available through the book.)
Build/Re-Build Using Implementation Intentions and Habit Stacking
An implementation intention is simply how you intend to implement a habit, such as when and where to act. A variety of cues triggers habits, but time and location are the two most common. Implementation intentions capitalize on both. It links the new habit with a specific time and place.
The Implementation Intention Formula:
“When situation X happens, I will take action Y.”
Habit stacking is creating an implementation intention for a new habit based on an existing habit. It’s using an existing habit as a cue for a new habit. Cues that are specific and actionable work best for habit stacking. Vague cues don’t work.
The Habit Stacking Formula:
“I will do [new habit] after [current habit].”
Environment Matters More Than Motivation
As outlined by behavioralist Kurt Lewin, behavior depends on the person’s environment, or B = f (P, E).
To change your cues, change your environment. Environments are full of cues. Habits can be triggered simply by where we are and because of the cues in that environment. Since you’re not fighting against old cues, forming new habits in a new environment is easier.
Create or choose environments where cues for good habits are apparent. Every habit is set in motion by a cue. And the cues that we act on are the ones that stand out.
Even slight changes in context can lead to significant changes in behavior. For example, move to a more expansive space to think more creatively.
The Secret to Self-Control
To overcome a bad habit, reduce your exposure to the cue that triggers it. It’s the best form of self-control. Habits are unlikely to be forgotten once formed. Invert the first law of behavior change and make the cue invisible. Avoiding temptation is easier than resisting it.
The 2nd Law – Make It Attractive
How to Make a Habit Irresistible
We act based on the expectation of a reward, not the fulfillment of it. The brain chemical dopamine drives the habit loop. Dopamine spikes higher as anticipation increases. And our motivation to act increases as dopamine levels rise.
Anticipation is far greater than the reward. Our brains have more neural circuitry allocated to wanting rewards than liking them. The brain’s circuitry is ten times more activated during “wanting” than when we’re “liking.”
Use temptation bundling to make habits more appealing. Pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do.
The Habit Stacking Plus Temptation Bundling Formula:
After [current habit], I’ll perform [habit I need].
After [habit I need], I will do [habit I want].
The Role of Culture and Social Norms
Culture defines what behaviors are attractive. Because of a strong desire to fit in – to belong – we adopt habits that fit the norms of our culture. We emulate the habits of three social groups in particular:
- Those close to us (family and friends). Proximity has a powerful effect on our behavior – both the physical and social environment. Our tendency to imitate other people’s habits increases the closer we are to them.
- The group (our tribe or the crowd). Most of the time, we prefer to stand with the group and be wrong rather than stand alone and be right. Tribal norms often override individual preferences. We are motivated to engage in behaviors that will gain us approval, respect, and praise.
- Those with power and status. Power and status exert a powerful influence.
Find and Fix the Causes of Bad Habits
Modern-day habits are a response to ancient desires; they’re simply a new take on old vices. The same underlying motives drive behavior, but every period of history has different habits.
Frame your habits in terms of their benefits rather than disadvantages to make them more attractive. Do something enjoyable right before a problematic habit as a motivation ritual.
The 3rd Law – Make It Easy
Taking Action Versus Being in Motion
Taking action is different from being in motion. Despite sounding similar, the two ideas are different.
- Motion is planning, strategizing, and learning. Good things, but they don’t create results.
- Action is behavior designed to achieve a result.
In motion, you feel you’re accomplishing something. In reality, you’re just preparing to do something.
When preparation becomes procrastination, something needs to change. It’s not enough to just plan. Practicing should be your priority.
The key to mastering a habit is repetition, not perfection. It’s unnecessary to outline every feature of a new habit. Practicing is all you need to do. This is the first takeaway of the 3rd Law: You have to get your reps in.
Habits take root based on frequency, not time. The time it takes for a habit to become automatic doesn’t really matter. What matters is making progress by taking the necessary actions.
To build a habit, you must practice it. An excellent way to ensure that you practice is to adhere to the 3rd Law of Behavior Change: Make it easy.
- Practice is the most effective form of learning.
- Be in action rather than in motion.
- Repetition makes a behavior progressively more automatic.
- Time in practice doesn’t matter. Reps do.
Our brains are always looking for the easiest option. When faced with options, human nature chooses the one requiring the least effort. This is because the brain tries to conserve energy wherever it can.
“Make it easy” means making it as simple as possible to do the right thing in the moment. Make good behaviors easier by reducing friction. Habits are easier to form when friction is low. Reduce bad behaviors by increasing friction. Habits are hard when friction is high.
Select and arrange your environment to make the actions you want easier. Arrange your life so that the things most important to you are also the easiest to do.
Use the Two-Minute Rule to Stop Procrastinating
When forming a new habit, the action should take less than two minutes. In the beginning, it’s not about doing the thing; it’s about overcoming inertia – it’s about showing up. It’s the most effective way to master a complex skill.
Don’t try to design a perfect habit at the outset. Instead, get into action. Do the easy thing – consistently. You can’t improve a habit that doesn’t yet exist. Don’t let best be the enemy of good.
Practicing a creative ritual makes it easier to get into the creative process, which increases the ability to focus that’s required to accomplish great things.
Notice that habits occur at decisive moments – forks in the road that can send you in productive or unproductive directions. And although habits can take seconds to complete, they can affect your behavior for minutes or hours.
Make Good Habits Inevitable and Bad Habits Impossible
Achieving success often depends more on making bad habits difficult than good ones easy. “Make it difficult” is the inversion of the 3rd Law of Behavior Change.
Automation can help. It can make good habits unavoidable and bad habits impossible when working in your favor. Automation secures future behavior without relying on willpower. Commitment devices and technology can help.
A commitment device is a smart, one-time decision made in the present that governs future actions, e.g., setting up an automatic savings plan. It increases the likelihood of doing the right thing in the future by making bad habits difficult and good habits inevitable. Using commitment devices coupled with technology can create an environment where good habits are almost certain to happen.
The 4th Law – Make It Satisfying.
The first three laws of behavior change increase the chances that a behavior will be done this time. Make it satisfying increases the chances the behavior will be repeated next time. But satisfaction – gratification – must be immediate.
Because of how we evolved, our brains favor fast returns over delayed rewards. Over the millennia, humans survived, thrived, and evolved in an immediate-return environment. But life in modern society primarily involves delayed returns, a.k.a., deferred gratification. Behavioral economists call this “time inconsistency.” The way our brains evaluate rewards is inconsistent with the timing of rewards in the modern world, which has many implications.
Good intentions aren’t enough. We face the cost of good habits in the present, but the costs of bad ones are experienced in the future.Since the brain focuses mainly on the present, you can’t count on good intentions about the future.
You can train your brain to accept delayed gratification. To do that, add some pleasure to the habits that have a long-term payoff and some pain to the ones that don’t.
Use some immediate rewards to reinforce the behavior. For a habit to take hold, at least part must be enjoyable. Some bits of reinforcement can offer the immediate pleasure you need to enjoy a habit. It’s easier to make changes when they are enjoyable. And even small successes and minor pleasures are enough to make a habit stick.
Focus on creating good endings. Satisfying endings are especially potent because our memories are most vivid during the closing phases of any experience.
The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change:
What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided.
How to Stick with Good Habits
Use a habit tracker to gauge your progress:
- Tracking makes habits obvious. Recording your current action can trigger the next. It gives you a visual reminder to act. Noting your behavior may inspire you to change it. Keeping track of your habits also keeps you accountable.
- Tracking makes habit-building attractive. Making progress on something that matters to us is a highly effective motivator. Tracking provides tangible evidence we are progressing, which motivates us to keep going. The sense we’re making progress is a satisfying feeling. Each win fuels our desire.
- Habit tracking is satisfying. Habit tracking helps us stay focused on the process. Keeping track of your progress can become its own reward. It feels good to record your “reps.”
Also, habit tracking shows you’re “casting votes for the type of person you wish to become,” which leads to immediate intrinsic gratification.
How to make tracking easier:
- Automate your measures as much as possible.
- Manually track only your most important habits. Consistency is key.
- Write down each measurement as soon as the habit happens. When the behavior is done, write it down. This method lets you combine habit stacking with habit tracking.
The Habit Stacking + Habit Tracking Formula:
When I have [CURRENT HABIT], I will [TRACK MY HABIT].
Recover quickly. No matter how consistent you are with your habits, inevitably, life will interrupt you at some point. A simple rule for recovery: never miss twice. Get back on track as soon as possible if you miss a day. But try not to break the chain. Maintain your habit streak.
Obsess the reason, not the number. A potential downside of tracking a specific behavior is that we become obsessed with the number rather than its reason. Economist Charles Goodhart’s Law states, “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” It’s critical to keep habit tracking in its proper context.
Accountability Can Change Everything
Amp up your game by engaging an accountability partner and creating a habit contract.
- An accountability partner is someone who agrees to hold you accountable for your promises.
- In a habit contract, you commit to following through with a particular habit and specify the penalties you will face if you don’t do so.
Add “social cost” to bad behavior. Our reputation matters to us, and we don’t want others to think less of us. A habit contract makes it clear and painful how much it costs to break your promises. Knowing that someone is watching can push you to do your best.
Talent Does and Doesn’t Matter
Your genes don’t determine your destiny but influence your abilities and opportunities. “Genes can predispose, but they don’t predetermine.” Genes can be beneficial in favorable circumstances and detrimental in unfavorable ones. That’s why it’s essential to choose the proper habits to work on and the “game” that best suits you.
Genes don’t take away the need to work hard. They make it clear what to work on – where to put our energies and efforts.
Which habit should you choose to work on? Recall the third law: make it easy. Here are some questions to help with your choices:
- What is fun for me but work for others?
- What is it that causes me to lose track of time?
- Where can I get better results than the average person?
- What comes easily to me?
A habit that aligns with your natural abilities is easier to form.
Choose a game aligned with your strengths. If you can’t find one, create a new game. If you can’t win by being better, you can win by being different. Combine your skills to reduce competition, making it easier for you to stand out.
To maximize your odds of success, choose the right game. Talented players work hard to win the game everyone else is playing. Outstanding players create games that play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.
Choosing behaviors that fit your personality and skills will ensure your habits remain satisfying over time. Invest your time and energy in the things that are easy for you. Progress is easy when you choose the right habit. The wrong habit makes it difficult.
How to Stay Motivated
Failure isn’t the biggest threat to success, it’s boredom. The more routine habits become, the less interesting and satisfying they become. Boredom sets in. When motivated, anyone can work hard.
The key to success is keeping going when work isn’t exciting. There’s a reason why products that provide continuous novelty also cause many habits. Psychologists call it “variable reward.” Variable rewards don’t create cravings, but they can amp up the ones we already have by reducing boredom.
- Embrace boredom. The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by something you repeatedly do.
- Stick to a schedule. Professionals follow their schedules. They know what’s important to them and work towards it with purpose. Amateurs let life get in the way – blown off course by life’s urgencies.
- Focus on your progress. New challenges and minor improvements keep you engaged.
The Goldilocks Rule:
Humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks
that are right on the edge of their current abilities.
The Downside of Creating Good Habits
Despite their benefits, habits come with a cost. At first, repetition improves proficiency, speed, and skill. But, as a habit becomes automatic, we become less sensitive to feedback. The repetition becomes mindless. As a result, mistakes become easier to overlook.
- The upside: Habits allow us to do things without thinking about them. When behaviors are encoded into habits, it frees the mind for more difficult thinking.
- The downside: We stop noticing slight mistakes. And it’s easier to stop thinking about how you can improve when you do it on autopilot.
- The solution: Avoid slipping into complacency by setting up a review and reflection process to stay aware of your performance.
To master something, habits are essential but not sufficient. Combining automatic habits with deliberate practice is the key. Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery.
Clinging to an identity makes it more difficult for us to grow beyond it. Having little self-awareness is poisonous. The antidote is reflection and review.
Make it obvious. Make it attractive. Make it easy. Make it satisfying.
Round and round. Always looking for the next way to get 1 percent better.
The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements.
Book details and where to buy it:
Get the book on Amazon: Ebook | Audiobook | Print (affiliate links*)
Amazon rating: 4.8 of 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.4 of 5 stars
Page count: 319
Publication date: Oct. 16, 2018
Author website: https://jamesclear.com
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