Book Notes: Atomic Habits By James Clear

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Atomic Habits

Atomic Habits by James Clear

Publisher : Avery (2018)

ISBN-13 :978-0735211292

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Book in 3 Sentences

  • An atomic habit is a tiny change, a marginal gain, or a 1 percent improvement that forms the building block of a larger system that results in remarkable outcomes over the long-term. It is a little habit that is part of a larger system.
  • Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Changes that initially appear small and unimportant will compound into incredible results, provided you’re able to stick with those changes for years.
  • Your habits can compound for you or against you. Good habits will account for incredible results over the long term. Bad habits, repeated over years, can compound into toxic results.

Five Key Takeaways

  1. We overestimate the importance of dramatic actions. We convince ourselves that significant outcomes arise out of big actions.We undervalue the importance of small habits or actions, made repeatedly, over a long period of time.
  2. Habits are the compound interest of self improvement. Small habits, made repeatedly over time, can yield incredible results. Success is the product of thousands of daily small habits, not a dramatic once-in-a-lifetime transformation.
  3. If you want to create better habits or achieve better results, focus on the processes or systems that lead to those outcomes. Focus on systems, not goals.
  4. There are four main stages of Habit Formation:
    • Cue
    • Craving
    • Response
    • Reward
  5. There are Four Laws of Behavior Change that map onto each of the stages of habit formation:
    • Make it Obvious
    • Make it Attractive
    • Make it Easy
    • Make it Satisfying

Top 3 Quotes

  • [An atomic habit is] a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth. pg. 26
  • The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It’s remarkable what you can build if you just don’t stop. Pg. 200
  • Your actions reveal how badly you want something. If you keep saying something is a priority but you never act on it, then you don’t really want it. pg. 204


The Self as Architect/Designer

A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed on a regular basis- and, in many cases, automatically. An atomic habit is a small habit that is part of a larger system, and that compounds to yield incredible results over the long term.

We tend to think that our habits are fixed and immutable; that they are things that happen to us. What if we could design our habits, so that we can architect or design our own lives in our preferred direction, rather than simply letting life happen to us?

Atomic Habits by James Clear offers us a system to become more intentional about and aware of the habits we incorporate into our lives, and a way to design those habits so that they can compound into amazing results over the long term. Conversely, it also offers us ways to notice bad habits, and offers suggestions and systems to break the hold that bad habits may have over us.

The North Star of habit change is identity change. The most effective way to change your habits is not to focus on what you want to achieve, but to focus on who you want to become. Your focus changes from hitting the gym five days a week into becoming a person who stays in shape. Going to the gym then becomes part of your identity, and ensures that your habits and actions are in alignment with the person you wish to become.

Four Stages of Habit Formation

There are four stages to forming a habit:

  1. Cue: The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. It is a bit of information that predicts a reward. For instance, placing vitamins on the bathroom sink the night before provides a visual reminder to take those vitamins the next morning.
  2. Craving: Cravings provide the desire or motivation to perform an action. Without desire, there can be no action. A cue must trigger a craving or a desire to perform some action. A cue must be translated into a craving, and people respond differently to cues. The sight of a cigarette can trigger a craving in some people, and nothing at all in others. Cravings differ from person to person.
  3. Response: A response is the action taken to satisfy a craving. It is the actual action performed, and can be either a thought or an action.
  4. Reward: A reward is the end goal of every habit. Performing the response must lead to a reward, otherwise, we would not undertake it. Rewards satisfy our craving, close the habit feedback loop, and teach us that an action is pleasurable and should be repeated.

These four stages form a habit feedback loop, and all four must be present in order to ensure that a habit forms and can be sustained.

These stages of habit formation also form the foundation for the 4 Laws of Behavior Change, which provide a simple set of rules for creating good habits, and breaking bad ones. Each stage of habit formation can be mapped onto a specific law of behavior change. The Four Laws of Behavior Change are:

  • The 1st Law (Cue): Make it obvious.
  • The 2nd Law (Craving): Make it attractive.
  • The 3rd Law (Response): Make it easy.
  • The 4th Law (Reward): Make it satisfying.

And, we can invert the four laws of behavior change to learn how to break a bad habit:

  • Inversion of the 1st Law (Cue): Make it invisible.
  • Inversion of the 2nd Law (Craving): Make it unattractive.
  • Inversion of the 3rd Law (Response): Make it difficult.
  • Inversion of the 4th Law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.

1st Law of Behavior Change: Make it Obvious.

The 1st Law of Behavior Change is to make it [the cue] obvious.

To create a good habit, make the cue, i.e., the trigger to act, visible and obvious. We must notice the cue, which then triggers a desire to act. We must design our environment in such a way that the cues of good habits become visible, noticeable, and obvious.

To break a bad habit, we must do the inverse of the First Law of Behavior Change: we must make the cue invisible. We must design our environments in such a way that our exposure to negative cues is reduced or eliminated. That way, we don’t have to rely on willpower to resist temptation. We will be able to avoid the temptation entirely if we remove our exposure to whatever causes the temptation, ie. the cue.

We can probably resist temptation once or twice. But when we are repeatedly exposed to a negative cue or temptation, our ability to resist diminishes. Relying on will-power to resist temptation is a short-term strategy. A more effective long-term strategy or use of our energy is to design an environment in which we are no longer repeatedly exposed to these negative cues.

2nd Law of Behavior Change: Make it Attractive.

The 2nd Law of Behavior Change is to make the behavior so attractive or tempting that we will desire to do it.

To increase the odds that a good habit will occur, you need to make the habit or behavior more attractive. Habits thrive on desire. Without desire, there is no action. In order to act, one must first want to act!

Desire is tied to a biological neurotransmitter called Dopamine that is responsible for anticipating and experiencing pleasure. The dopamine-driven feedback loop goes something like this:

  • Dopamine => Desire/Craving => Action => Pleasure/Anticipation of Pleasure

When dopamine increases, so does our motivation or desire to act. More dopamine equals more desire, and hence, more motivation to act. Thus, the more attractive something is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming. It’s a dopamine driven habit feedback loop.

One way to make a habit or behavior more attractive or desirable is to pair it with another action or behavior that you want to do, or enjoy doing.

For instance, if you enjoy watching a certain television show, but you need to start going to the gym to get in shape, you can bundle going to the gym with watching the show. You would allow yourself to only watch a certain show on your phone at the gym. If you don’t go to the gym (the need), you can’t enjoy your show (the want). The idea is that you’ll eventually become excited about going to the gym because it means you get to watch your favorite show.

We call this temptation bundling, where you link an action you want to do with an action that you MUST do. Over time, you’ll become used to performing a habit or behavior if doing it means you get to do something else you really want to do.

Another way to make a behavior more attractive is to join a culture or environment where the desired behaviors are normal, common, or regular occurrences. For instance, if you want to read more books, join a book club where you can meet other people for whom reading is a regular activity. Humans have an ancient need to belong (to a tribe or community), and so a behavior becomes more attractive when it helps us to fit in with our desired or actual community.

We tend to imitate people who are close to us (our friends and family) (the close), people with power, prestige, and status (the powerful), or simply just follow the crowd and do whatever everyone else is doing (the many).

If a behavior can earn us approval, respect, praise or status, we will find it attractive.

To break a bad habit, we must do the inverse of the 2nd Law of Behavior Change: we must make that habit unattractive.

3rd Law of Behavior Change: Make it Easy.

The 3rd Law of Behavior Change is to make the action easy; and the key to making the action easy is to focus on repetition, rather than perfection. It’s enough to take action, or to just do the thing, repeatedly, as opposed to focusing on perfection, or waiting for the right moment. You just need to get your reps in!

To build a habit, you need to practice it. Not think about doing it, or plan to do it. You need to, to quote Nike’s slogan, “just do it”! The habit becomes easier the more frequently you do perform it.

In addition, we don’t necessarily want a habit; we want the outcome that a habit confers. For instance, we don’t ultimately want to go to the gym. What we want is the health and fitness benefits conferred by going to the gym. The more difficult the habit, the greater the friction between you and your desired ultimate outcome. Thus, it’s important to make the habit so easy that you will do it even when you don’t feel like it. You must make your good habits so frictionless and convenient that you’ll be more likely to follow through on them.

One way to reduce friction is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible (environment design). We also want to increase the friction associated with our bad habits, where doing the wrong thing becomes as difficult as possible. For instance, if you want to watch less television, you could unplug it after each use. The friction involved in plugging the television back in every single time will make you reconsider how often you actually want to watch something.

You can also harness the power of momentum to make it easier to sustain a habit. A lot of times, we continue doing things because we have already started doing things, and it’s easier than to start doing something different. We binge watch Netflix for hours because we’ve already watched a couple of episodes, and it’s easier to just let things continue.

Another way to make things easier is to not bite off more than you can chew. Start with the smallest, simplest action you can take, and then gradually build up in terms of complexity. See what you can do in two minutes! If you want to read more books, don’t start by reading 2 hours every day. Start small. See what you can read in two minutes. Or, read a page a day, and gradually work your way up to more. Starting with large goals can easily cause you to become overwhelmed and lose motivation. Start small, and once you’ve begun doing the right thing, it’s easy to harness momentum and just simply continue doing it.

Automation (often, through technology) is another way to make good habits easier. Automation can turn boring and repetitive tasks into easy and painless recurring habits. For instance, erolling in an automatic savings plan makes it easier to create a savings habit, without having to manually transfer money into savings yourself.

Inversely, the way to break a bad habit is to make it hard to do. One way of making your bad habits more difficult is to create a commitment device, i.e.. a way to lock in future behavior, bind you to good habits, and keep you away from bad ones. For instance, if you commit to donating money to a political candidate you hate every time you skip going to the gym, you’ve created a financial commitment or incentive that will help keep you on track to stay in shape.

4th Law of Behavior Change: Make it Satisfying.

The 4th Law of Behavior Change is to make the experience so satisfying that the pleasure we experience from doing it compels us to repeat that behavior. It comprises part of the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change : “What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.

The first three laws of behavior change increase the odds that a behavior will be performed once. The 4th Law of Behavior Change, unlike the first three laws, increases the odds that the behavior will be repeated the next time!

In order to make a behavior satisfying, one way to do this is to focus on the ending. We tend to remember the ending of an experience more than other phases. For instance, you might remember the last day of your vacation more vividly than the first. Consequently, you want the ending of your habit to be satisfying, so you can remember more vividly the pleasure you felt in performing the behavior, and become more inclined to repeat it.

We are also motivated to continue habits when we make progress. Making progress is satisfying; it reassures us that our efforts are not being made in vain. Visual measures like habit trackers help to make a habit more satisfying because they provide external evidence of our effort. This is why keeping a habit tracker can help to sustain a habit; it makes it satisfying by providing external evidence of our hard work. It feels good to watch your results grow!

Habit tracking leverages multiple Laws of Behavior Change: it simultaneously makes a behavior obvious, attractive, and satisfying.

When habit tracking, it is okay if you slip up and miss one day. The key is to never miss twice. If a perfect streak is broken, that’s okay. Use that as an opportunity to create a new perfect streak. Life happens, and you cannot be perfect all the time. Do not let the desire for perfection deter you from even beginning a habit at all, or letting a broken streak prevent any further attempts. It’s important to just show up and do the work; and focus on the process, not on creating a perfect streak. Don’t let the losses compound. One missed day is a mistake. Two missed days is the start of a bad habit.

Conversely, to break a bad habit, you need to make it unsatisfying. You can make a habit unsatisfying by adding an immediate cost to performing that bad habit. Habit contracts are an example of imposing an immediate cost to a bad habit. A habit contract lets you state your intended commitment, and imposes an immediate punishment or consequence if you fail to follow through. It works best if you assign an accountability partner to witness the contract, and hold you accountable if you fail to follow through. In addition, knowing that someone else is watching and monitoring our behavior makes us more likely to comply with the contract, so that we don’t lose status in their eyes.

Play Games In Your Favor

You have to work with what you’ve got. Our personality is rooted in our genes, but our genes do not have to predetermine our destiny or our chances of success. To be successful, and to have good habits be as effortless as possible, the key is to find a game where the odds of success are in your favor. Find a habit where your talents and interests are in alignment, and it will be much easier to sustain that habit.

For instance, if you like to swim, and want to get in shape, then your best chance of getting in shape is to incorporate swimming into your exercise regime. You’ll find it easier to build an exercise habit that incorporates swimming. That’s where your talents and your interests lie. Play games in your favor, and your odds of success will go up!

One way to identify a game where the odds are in your favor is to ask “What feels like fun to me, but work to others?” Follow the path where you achieve greater returns than the average person. And, if you can’t find any games where the odds are in your favor, create your own game by combining a unique combination of your own existing strengths and talents. The key thing is that you can design your life so that if you can’t win by being better, then you can succeed by being different and creating a new game.

Keep Going

Once a habit is established, how do you prevent yourself from getting bored? How do you ensure that you don’t lose your motivation and sense of excitement? The answer is that you must also be looking for ways to improve.”Once a habit has been established, however, it’s important to continue to advance in small ways. These little improvements and new challenges keep you engaged.”

Nonetheless, boredom will inevitably set in during the course of maintaining a habit. Mastering a habit requires practice, and practice often involves doing the same thing over and over. And, the more you repeat something, the more routine and boring it becomes. That is when a lot of people give up; when a behavior becomes boring and ceases to delight. But, for top performers, it’s important to fight through the boredom, and persist. At some point, you simply have to fall in love with being bored. “The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom”

In a similar manner, it’s important to establish a system for reflection and review. This is to guard against complacency, and ensure that your habits and identity are in alignment, and that you are in a state of improvement, as opposed to stasis. Being able to reflect and review keeps us honest, and allows us to determine whether we are performing better or worse over time.

Boredom and complacency are the enemies of habit formation and maintenance. You must always be looking for small ways to improve on a habit in your quest for self-improvement. And, when boredom inevitably sets in, you simply need to keep going. Anyone can work hard when things are new and exciting. It’s the ability to keep going when work has gotten routine or boring that separates the average from the excellent.

“The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It’s remarkable what you can build if you just don’t stop”

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