Atomic Habits

By James Clear

Date: 19 August, 2019

Just the Highlights in : 16 Minutes

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Summary and My Thoughts

There is a great deal of practical content in this book, so I will attempt to summarize the major points the best that I can. The starting point is the emphasis on developing a system that incorporates a collection of positive habits that follow from an identity that you have chosen to adopt. This system should foster continuous improvement by eventually automating prior habits and then using those automatic habits as a foundation for the effort-ful practice of habits of further difficulty. In the context of this book, habits are repeated actions or behavior that follow the feedback loop of cue->craving->response->reward.

To successfully build the habits that your system consists of:

You should make it obvious by first taking note of your current habits (and how they form your identity, your system, and how they are derived from your identity), assign a specific time and location for your new habit(s), stack your new habits after pre-existing habits, and adapt your environment to surround yourself with cues that help you execute your habits.

You should make it attractive by bundling it with existing habits that you naturally crave and surround yourself with people or a culture where these new habits are encouraged.

You should make it easy. Instead of staying in motion and appearing productive, focus on repetition and the practice of the action so as to build the neural pathways responsible for making the habit easier to perform. You should prime your environment to remove any friction or resistance to performing the habit you seek to perform. Another way to make your habit easier is to break down your desired habit into a two-minute decisive moment that eventually builds into the more taxing components of the habit.

You should make the habit satisfying by incorporating immediate successful reinforcement for performing the habit, utilizing the help of a habit tracker for visually tracking habit completion and progress, and possibly even having an accountability partner or commitment device to ensure that you complete your habits.

The book continues to describe the importance of genetics in the guidance of areas of opportunity to direct your identity and habits. How to utilize the Goldilocks principle of not too difficult and not too easy to ensure that your habits are elevated to a flow state of continuous improvement and utilizing deliberate practice to ensure that your habits and performance do not decrease or become stale as they become more and more automatic.

This paragraph is a bit of a personal reminder to myself when reading books such as this:

Like many of these personal development books, simply reading the material may provide a somewhat therapeutic experience but you would ultimately be wasting the material within. Rather, you should try to reflect on the material, and implement the practical advice dispensed in the book and then judge the effectiveness thereafter. To accomplish this, you should continually revisit the book and your own efforts and determine how the principles implemented have affected your life and also how well you implemented the practical advice of the book.

Chapter 1 - The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits

This chapter describes the importance of making small (i.e., 1%) improvements over a consistent timeline. These small but consistent improvements are the result of instituting small (i.e., “atomic”) habits in your daily life. If you were to improve your life by 1% each day, you would end up 37x “better” after a full year; vice versa if you decline by 1% each day you would end up at 3% of your original performance after one year. Therefore, small habits have a compounding effect despite perhaps their immediate effect not being noticeable. Your current state in life, for better or worse, is the culmination of the compounding effects of your habits. Time is the magnifier of the effects of your habits; this is true for both good and bad habits. James Clear uses the ice cube immediately melting at a discrete temperature after a series of gradual one degree increases as an example of a “breakthrough moment”, or the moment where previous actions eventually accumulate to produce a noticeable effect at a particular threshold. This concept is represented by what is described as the Plateau of Latent Potential where results from your habits may not be noticeable until a certain breakthrough moment in the future.

Instead of focusing on explicit goals, focus on building a system of habits, a process in your life that not only meets the explicit goals you had set but also progresses further past those original goals. Even if you forgot your goals and simply focused on your system, you would still get similar results. Goals are good for setting direction while systems are best for making progress.

There are many problems with simply focusing on goals:

  1. Winners and losers have the same goals, therefore the true differentiation is the implementation of their systems.
  2. Achieving a goal is a momentary change whereas you should focus on changing the system into one that consistently addresses the problem that your goal describes.
  3. Goals restrict your happiness such that you delay your happiness until each future goal’s milestone, rather you should adopt a system-first mentality and find happiness in the system you create rather than narrow your happiness to the completion of explicit goals.
  4. Goals are at odds with long-term progress. Many people tend to lapse back into their original state once they have met their goal, rather a system requires endless continuous improvement and refinement.

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your system. Good habits and bad habits are the result of the system that you have created and changing them requires changing your system.

Chapter 2 - How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa)

Changing habits is difficult because often we try to change the wrong things and we try to change our habits the wrong way.

There are three layers of behavior change from outer to inner:

  1. Outcomes - Concerned with changing your results (e.g., losing weight, winning the game).
  2. Processes - Concerned with changing your habits and systems (e.g., implementing a workout routine).
  3. Identity - Concerned with changing your beliefs, worldview, self-image, and judgments.

The process of change determines the success of changing your behavior. Outcome-based habits focus on what you want to achieve. (e.g., “I want to quit smoking.“) Instead you should focus on changing your identity (e.g., “I’m not a smoker.”) for better success. The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. True behavior change is identity change. The goal is not to achieve a result rather it is to become something. The more deeply an action or habit is tied to your identity, the more difficult it is to change. To successfully change your identity you should first decide the type of person you want to be and then prove it to yourself with small wins. Habits matter because they can change your beliefs about yourself as you focus on becoming the best version of yourself by continuously editing your beliefs, and upgrading and expanding your identity.

Chapter 3 - How to Build Better Habits in 4 Simple Steps

A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough that it has become automatic. Generally the formation begins when encountering a new situation and the brain attempts to respond. If the result from the response is satisfactory, the brain catalogs the response for any future similar situations. This feedback loop can be described as: try, fail, learn, try differently which filters the useless responses from the useful responses. As habits become more automatic, the brain can focus on more novel and difficult situations. The process of building a habit can be broken down into the steps: cue, craving, response, reward, the habit feedback loop. The cue triggers the brain to initiate the behavior. The craving is the motivational force behind every habit. The response is the actual habit that you perform. The reward is the end result of the habit which either satisfies us (has your craving been satisfied?) or teaches us (was this reward worthwhile to remember?). If any of the four steps are not satisfied, the habit will never be formed. This habit loop is constantly running and scanning your internal and external environments for cues. The cue and craving steps belong to the problem phase of the habit loop. The response and reward steps belong to the solution phase of the habit loop.

There are four laws of behavior change that help create good habits (the inverse of which can help break bad habits):

  1. Make it obvious (invisible).
  2. Make it attractive (unattractive).
  3. Make it easy (difficult).
  4. Make it satisfying (unsatisfying).

The 1st Law - Make it Obvious

Chapter 4 - The Man Who Didn’t Look Right

Because of the unconscious and automatic nature of habits, people are often unaware of their everyday habits. The chapter prompts the reader to review their own habits using the pointing-and-calling method of pointing out your own unconscious habits and creating a “scorecard” for your daily habits, adding a +/-/= next to each habit based upon its nature (beneficial, detrimental, neutral). Does the habit help you become the type of person that you wish to be? This scorecard will raise your awareness of your bad habits as well as your good habits.

Chapter 5 - The Best Way to Start a New Habit

This chapters starts by introducing the concept of implementation intention which researchers describe as the optimal way to start a habit by assigning both an explicit time and place for the habit to be performed in the format of “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.” You’re essentially creating an appointment for the action that you are attempting to execute. Instead of lacking motivation, most people lack clarity as its not obvious when and where to complete an action; implementation intention solves this. I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]. Consistent implementation intention allows the mind to unconscious begin to associate certain time and location combinations with specific behaviors.

One implementation intention approach is described as habit stacking where each action becomes a cue to initiate a future behavior. After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]. You attempt to tie your new habit to an existing habit that you already perform. To accomplish this, make sure that the new habit shares the same context as the habit that is serving as the cue for it. You also want to make sure that both habits share the same frequency.

Chapter 6 - Motivation is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More

Rather than relying on your own intrinsic motivation to help you accomplish your behavioral change, your system should work to build a sensory environment filled with productive behavioral cues and void of any cues to negative behaviors. If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, you should make its cue a big part of your environment. Your behavior is not defined by the objects in your environment but rather the context and relationship that you have with the objects in your environment. Try not to mix contradicting contexts and environments such as doing business-related tasks in your kitchen. It is easier to build new habits in a new environment because you’re not fighting old cues.

Chapter 7 - The Secret to Self-Control

This chapter makes the case that self-control is more-so the result of simply removing the cues or exposure to the cues for the potential bad habit from your environment (i.e., making it invisible). Cue-induced wanting is the external trigger that causes the compulsive craving to repeat bad habit. Self-control is a short-term strategy, most people do not have the willpower available to consistently resist the cravings generated by the cues in their environment so the better strategy is to remove the cues altogether.

The 2nd Law - Make It Attractive

Chapter 8 - How to Make a Habit Irresistible

This chapter introduces the term, supernormal stimuli, where an exaggerated cue elicits a stronger response than normal. This term is the backbone to many marketing strategies used by food manufacturers to attract more attention to their individual products; make it attractive. The dopamine-driven feedback loop shows how dopamine spikes as a new habit forms. In the beginning, the dopamine spike occurs in the reward step, next it occurs in the craving step (desire), next it occurs in the craving step but if the reward does not match the expectation, the dopamine will drop. The brain is geared more towards wanting rewards rather than simply liking the rewards. You can use temptation-bundling to bundle potential habits by linking a habit that you need to do with a habit that you want to do. This is similar to the habit stacking and follows the format: After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT]. The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming.

Chapter 9 - The Role of Family and Friends in Shaping Your Habits

Oftentimes, your habits are the result of the social context that you are surrounded with. People imitate the habits of (1) the close such as family and social groups, (2) the many such as society at large, and (3) the powerful with status and prestige. You can use this concept to build better habits by joining a culture where your desired behavior is the norm or where you already have something in common with the group. The normal behavior of the group overpowers the behavior of the individual.

Chapter 10 - How to Find and Fix the Causes of Your Bad Habits

The key here is to make the habit unattractive. All cravings have an underlying motive such as: conserving energy, obtain food and water, finding love and reproduce, connect and bond with others, winning social acceptance and approval, reduce uncertainty, achieve status and prestige. Your bad habits address an underlying motive in a different manner than a positive habit addresses the same motive. Habits are about association, if you can associate the hard but good habit with a more positive experience then you will be more likely to repeat the behavior. Similarly, associate the bad habit with a negative experience will reduce the chances that you will repeat it. Create this ritual by doing something that you enjoy immediately after a difficult positive habit.

The 3rd Law - Make It Easy

Chapter 11 - Walk Slowly, but Never Backward

An experiment involved separating a group of photography students into two groups: one graded based on quality (submitting one photo) and one graded on quantity (submitting the most photos), the latter group produced the best photo. This is explained by the idea of being in motion and taking action. When you’re in motion then you’re spending time planning, strategizing, and learning but you’re not taking actual action. Taking action produces an actual result and delivers an outcome. Being in motion makes us feel productive and making progress without running the risk of failure. Preparation becomes procrastination. To master a habit, you should focus on repetition, not perfection. Long-term potentiation is the process of your brain creating the neural pathways for a specific behavior through repetition. This process goes from effort-ful practice to automatic behavior. The number of times that you have practiced the habit is more important than the amount of time you have been performing the habit.

Chapter 12 - The Law of Least Effort

This chapter uses the metaphor of a garden hose that is bent in the middle: to resolve the flow you can either increase the flow of water or you can simply remove the bend in the hose. Trying to pump up your motivation is similar to increasing the flow of water and requires a great deal of effort and tension. Making your habits simple and easy is like removing the bend in the hose itself. One way to make your habits much more easier to perform is to prime your environment so that everything is setup for ease of use in conjunction with your desired behavior. People are naturally drawn to the path of least resistance, so try to remove as much resistance or friction in the way of performing your habit. Likewise, you can increase this friction for habits that you wish to remove.

Chapter 13 - How to Stop Procrastinating Using the Two-Minute Rule

Everyday there are decisive moments which are little choices that have an out sized impact on the progression of your day. Your habits are the entry points for these decisive moments. The two-minute rule states that when starting a new habit, it’s best to start small (your habit should take less than two minutes to do) rather than big. You can scale down any habit to a two-minute version, this is to make your habit as easy as possible. This two minute habits are known as gateway habits which eventually lead to the more challenging components of the habit. The more that you ritualize the beginning of the habit, the more likely it becomes that you will slip into the deeper parts of the habits so standardize before you optimize. Start small.

Chapter 14 - How to Make Good Habits Inevitable and Bad Habits Impossible.

You can make bad habits more difficult by creating a commitment device. This device is a choice you make in the present which controls your actions in the future. You can use technology to automate the actions of good habits which can lock in your future behavior. There are also onetime choices that continuously affect your future habits and deliver increasing returns over time.

The 4th Law - Make It Satisfying

Chapter 15 - The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change

The cardinal rule of behavior change is: What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided. We are more-so wired for immediate satisfaction rather than delayed rewards therefore what is immediately rewarded is repeated and what is immediately punished is avoided. A habit needs to make you feel immediately successful (even in a small way) and enjoyable for the habit to last. Immediate reinforcement helps maintain motivation in the short-term while you wait for the long-term rewards to arrive.

Chapter 16 - How to Stick with Good Habits Every Day

This chapter introduces the habit tracker tool. This is a visual measurement device that helps you measure the frequency of your habits. The typical examples include a calendar (cross off each day that the action was accomplished), workout logs, food journals, loyalty punch cards. Habit tracking is obvious, it creates a visual cue by recording your last action which can serve as a cue to trigger your next action. It also keeps an honest visual reminder of your success/failure of consistently performing that specific action. Another benefit of habit tracking is that it is attractive; progress is motivating and habit tracking allows you to visualize your progress. Habit tracking is also satisfying when you record a new successful instance of your habit. Since habit tracking can seems like an additional burden, it is best to try to make the measurement as automatic as possible where manual tracking should be limited to your most important habits. After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [TRACK MY HABIT]. You should also ensure that you know which metrics to measure and track when considering your habits. Try not to miss twice, if you miss once then try your best to get back on track as quickly as you can.

Chapter 17 - How an Accountability Partner Can Change Everything

You are less likely to repeat a bad habit if it is painful or unsatisfying. You use an accountability partner to help enforce the immediate cost of executing a bad habit. Another method is to use a habit contract which adds a social cost by publishing your personal violation when executing a bad habit. Accountability partners can be a very powerful motivator.

Advanced Tactics

Chapter 18 - The Truth About Talent (When Genes Matter and When They Don’t)

The key to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition; habits are easier to perform and more satisfying to stick with when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities. Genetics are difficult to change and they provide an advantage in one arena and a disadvantage in another arena in life therefore genetics determine your areas of opportunity rather than your success/failure probability. Your genetics can also determine your personality traits such as your openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neurotic-ism. If you pick the right habit suited for your genetics then progress will be much easier, picking this habit is matter of answering the following questions: What feels like fun to me, but work to others? What makes me lose track of time? Where do I get greater returns than the average person? What comes naturally to me? Your genetics tell you what to work hard on.

Chapter 19 - The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and Work

The way to maintain motivation and achieve peak levels of desire is to work on tasks of “just manageable difficulty”. The Goldilocks rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working tasks that are right on the edge of their current ability (i.e., not too hard, not too easy). When you hit the Goldilocks Zone, you enter what is described as the flow state or the feeling of being in the zone and fully immersed in the activity. The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom, that is why people are drawn to activities that produce continuous forms of novelty or variable reward. Anyone can work hard when they feel motivated, it’s the ability to keep going when work isn’t exciting that makes the difference between a professional and an amateur. You should never be a fair-weather anything and oftentimes you means falling in love with the everyday boredom that a scheduled habit can produce.

Chapter 20 - The Downside of Creating Good Habits

Oftentimes as habits become more and more automatic, you become less sensitive to feedback from the habit and it becomes easier to let small mistakes occur resulting in a minor dip in performance. If you want to maximize your potential and achieve elite levels of performance, you need to add deliberate practice to your habits to continuously improve and not allow any potential backslide. You should narrow your focus to mastering one habit until it becomes automatic and then use that habit as a foundation as you deliberately practice the next habit in your overall development. When your habits start feeling automatic and comfortable, you should be weary to avoid slipping into complacency. To do this, you should build a system for reflection and review to ensure continuous improvement. The author, James Clear, uses an annual review process where he asks the questions:

  1. What went well this year?
  2. What didn’t go well this year?
  3. What did I learn?

After six months, he creates an integrity report where he asks further questions such as:

  1. What are the core values that drive my life and work?
  2. How am I living and working with integrity right now?
  3. How can I set a higher standard in the future?

You need to reflect on your own personal identity and review how your beliefs and old habits are currently serving you.

Conclusion: The Secret to Results That Last

Never stop making improvements in your life. Always try to create a system of habits that help you become 1% better everyday. Tiny changes over time can create remarkable results. There is no finish line or permanent solution, it is a system of continuous improvement and progress.

About

Blake Adams is a writer, software developer, technical consultant, and financial independence enthusiast living in Oxford, MS.

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