The book "Atomic Habits" is one of the best treatments of habits you will find, but in truth, it is much more about human behavior, why we do what we do and how to take advantage of that knowledge to lead happier, healthier, more productive lives. There is a reason this book has sold over two million copies to date. It is easy to read, understand and apply. You can achieve small wins almost immediately.
Habits are pattern matching algorithms created by your brain to complete a task as efficiently as possible in response to a cue for the purpose of a reward. The brain is initially very active in creating and optimizing the algorithm, but as the algorithm becomes more efficient with each use, it is encoded in the subconscious mind and requires little, if any, conscious thought. This encoding frees the conscious mind to level up in difficulty and to focus on new challenges.
This is the meaning of the phrase atomic habits — 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.
— James Clear (p.27)
Atomic habits harness the power and approachability of small change. For those of you familiar with kaizen, breaking big problems down into smaller pieces and continuously improving on small wins is a key component to success. Each success builds upon the previous one with repetition, compounding over time. That compounding effect builds momentum and unlocks new levels of performance and efficiency. Clear applies this concept to behavior design. In doing so, he provides numerous practical strategies for adopting effective habits that stick and for starving out ineffective habits that can be as tenacious as the hardiest lawn weed.
The book is organized according to Clear's four simple steps of building a habit...
Problem (1. Cue → 2. Craving) → Solution (3. Response → 4. Reward)
— James Clear (p.46)
...and his four laws of behavior change. The laws apply to effective habits you want to establish, while the inverse of each law applies to ineffective habits you wish to eliminate.
1st Law: Make It Obvious → Inverse: Make It Invisible
2nd Law: Make It Attractive → Inverse: Make It Unattractive
3rd Law: Make It Easy → Inverse: Make It Difficult
4th Law: Make It Satisfying → Inverse: Make It Unsatisfying
— James Clear (p.53)
My top 5 takeaways are organized primarily by a melding of the habit loop and the four laws.
When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it — but all that had gone before.
— Jacob Riis (p.21)
The threshold at which incremental change results in a noticeable, and at times, dramatic change is referred to by Clear as "The Plateau of Latent Potential." This leveling up is the result of small change compounded over time. Unlocking a new level of performance takes repetition over time. How do you stay the course? You do so by first favoring habits that align with your identity and then by adopting a system of incremental change that works for you.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
— James Clear (p.37)
Aspirations are the North Star of behavioral change. They guide while habits transform. To truly become who you aspire to be, simply do what that person would do. Each action you take further solidifies who you are or who you aspire to be. Behaviors and beliefs are born from your experiences in life, but you are in full command of who you are and what you believe. You can decide to change at any given moment through the power of self determination.
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
— James Clear (p.27)
Once you have chosen a desired identity, your progress and level of success is proportional to your commitment to the process. What is the process? It is simply a consistent routine that you stick to for getting your reps in on those actions that align with your identity. It is important that the process itself is enjoyable and rewarding, because the achievement of goals is momentary and fleeting. You are in this for the long haul, so the process must be aligned with your identity as a way of life.
A very simple example of an effective system is choosing exercise classes instead of individual training. Many people find working out together with likeminded individuals in a fun environment to be enjoyable and rewarding. Your system can simply be a consistent schedule each week that fits comfortably into the flow of your life. Before long, you crave each session as you continue to improve and unlock new levels of fitness. Reaching your fitness goals is great, but you may actually enjoy the process even more!
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
— Carl Jung (p.62)
Habits are neither good nor bad. When objectively considered against your desired identity, they are simply effective or ineffective. Effective habits reinforce who you aspire to be. Ineffective habits do not. Habits and the cues that trigger them often go unnoticed. The process of eliminating ineffective habits starts with becoming objectively aware of them.
Many of our failures in performance are largely attributable to a lack of self-awareness.
— James Clear (p.63)
Clear provides some strategies for doing just that. Writing habits down in a habit scorecard makes them visible. Tallying the occurrence of each habit as it is triggered solidifies awareness. Another approach is announcing your ineffective habits aloud along with their negative consequences. This practice is known as pointing and calling, used successfully by transit officials in identifying important safety cues as they are observed.
Time and location are the most common cues for triggering habits. You are more likely to follow through on a new habit when it has a specific time and place. A strategy Clear refers to as implementation intentions can be used to establish new habits by specifically calling out time, place and behavior. The formula is "I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]."
Clear also builds on an idea from Kurt Lewin which states that behavior is a function of Person and Environment. Person includes personality, history and aspirations. Environment includes physical, social and perceived. Our behavior is defined by the relationships we have with objects in our environment, not the objects themselves. Designing an environment with cues for an effective habit that are many, obvious and not in conflict with other effective habits increases the probability that it will stick.
The trick to doing anything is first cultivating a desire for it.
— Naval Ravikant (p.261)
Habit-forming behavior is associated with elevated levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is released in anticipation of a reward and when experiencing the pleasure of a reward. It is the anticipation of a reward that causes us to act, signaled by a spike in dopamine. When making a habit more attractive, you are essentially increasing anticipation of a reward and/or the pleasure of the reward itself. The anticipation of a reward is often more enjoyable than the reward itself.
Beneath the craving of every behavior lies a deeper motive rooted in ancient desires: food, shelter, approval, acceptance, safety, etc. Habit forming products play on ancient desires to create a strong gravitational pull that is difficult to oppose:
We are wired with intense cravings for these ancient desires. They are the very definition of attractive. Our minds constantly scan the real and perceived environment for any cues that would hint at the presence of rewards associated with these desires. What works well for product companies can also work well for you. Temptation bundling is one strategy you can use to associate something you want to do (driven by ancient desire) to something you need to do. Clear uses the example of an electrical engineering student who rigged Netflix to only play when he maintained a certain speed on his stationary bike. He bundled the ancient desires of escaping and experiencing adventure with the need to exercise.
We imitate the habits of three groups in particular: The close. The many. The powerful.
— James Clear (p.115)
Humans are highly social and tribal by nature. We are heavily influenced by the groups with which we associate. We start life by imitating — not choosing — our habits. Family, friends and community reinforce these social norms while we imitate them. We continue looking to the tribe even as adults for guidance when uncertain, and we frequently conform. Any behavior that challenges the tribe is unattractive. The tribe typically wins.
You can turn the power of the tribe to your advantage by associating with groups that support your chosen identity and reinforce behaviors you value. Likewise, you can disassociate with groups who promote behaviors you no longer value. Social media is a modern equivalent of the tribe. It can be supportive or destructive depending on the medium and the people to whom you associate.
The best is the enemy of the good.
— Voltaire (p.142)
According to Clear, roughly half of the things we do on a daily basis are done out of habit. Some of those habits serve as inflection points where a key decision can direct the course of hours to come or the entire day, so it is imperative that we make the things in life that matter most easier to do.
One approach is to start by showing up. Many of us struggle to get enough exercise. One of the reasons we struggle so much is that we make the first step big, scary or inconvenient. A few strategies for making this easier include starting small, fitting the behavior more conveniently into your life and creating small rituals that prep and cue the behavior you want.
The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.
— James Clear (p.231)
Clear recommends the Two Minute Rule when getting started with a habit like working out. Start by doing a very simple workout that lasts two minutes or less. You may feel a bit silly at first, but you are training yourself to show up. You are getting used to a small amount of increased activity. Accomplishing even two minutes of walking, resistance training or yoga can be very rewarding. Once you have done this enough times and it becomes automatic, you will find yourself naturally extending the time or increasing difficulty. As this happens, resist the temptation to level up too fast. Always make sure it never really feels like work.
Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.
— James Clear (p.236)
When planning the time for your workout, make sure it fits conveniently into your life. You may find a morning workout before you shower more convenient. Perhaps the morning is also less chaotic than the evening, especially if you have children. Perhaps there is a gym at or near work, and it is more convenient to take a walk or work out during your lunch break. The point is, set yourself up for success by fitting the behavior into the flow of your life.
Rituals help cue the behavior you want and prepare for the next occurrence. For example, laying out your walking shoes or your workout clothes the night before makes changing into them very convenient. Clear relates the story of Twyla Tharp, an accomplished dancer and choreographer, who would call a taxi to go to the gym every morning at 5:30 AM. Calling the cab is a small ritual that is easy to perform, and it is an inflection point that determines whether she will work out that day or not. It builds momentum. It primes the pump.
Make effective habits convenient, easier to perform and prep ahead of time where possible. You can do the inverse with ineffective habits to discourage them.
Being poor is not having too little, it is wanting more.
— Seneca (p.263)
We live in a delayed-return environment with brains wired for an immediate-return environment. We naturally favor immediate rewards over future rewards. The present is valued more strongly than the future. Instant gratification almost always trumps good intentions. There is no sense in trying to circumvent what is hard-wired, because your body will fight you tooth and nail. What you can do instead is turn natural proclivities to your advantage.
The costs of your good habits are in the present. The costs of your bad habits are in the future.
— James Clear (p.189)
One way to do this is to ensure you receive an immediate, positive reward for each effective habit you are working on. The reward doesn't have to be big. In fact, the smaller and more targeted the reward, the better because it builds intrinsic motivation. For example, I am a HUGE fan of dark chocolate. After I eat a healthy meal, I immediately follow with one square of dark chocolate while congratulating myself. The reward itself is pretty healthy compared to other sweets and is accompanied by a phrase like "nailed it!" while smiling. I have done this so often that when I crave dark chocolate, I immediately associate it with a healthy meal and aspirational thinking.
Change is easy when it is enjoyable.
— James Clear (p.193)
Positive emotions evoke satisfaction, negative ones do not. In the example above, the chocolate makes me feel good, the phrase I say does as well, and the smile tops it all off. Smiling is one of the best little rewards you can give yourself. The more you do it, the better you feel.
Behavior changes quickly with immediate consequences. Consequences, like rewards, are most effective when specific, tangible and relevant. Use negative emotions by providing an immediate consequence to an ineffective habit you are trying to get rid of. Take smoking cigarettes as an example. You can immediately follow the behavior with thoughts of how bad it is for your health by picturing how black your lungs are, how you are at increased odds of getting lung cancer and how bad your breath must smell. Yuck! Do this often enough and you soon associate the behavior of smoking with extreme negativity.
The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.
— James Clear (p.193)
Clear provides some strategies for immediate rewards. Habit tracking provides positive, visual feedback of completing a new habit. Adding a mark for that habit provides an immediate reward, a positive sense of accomplishment. An accountability partner can enforce a contract you define regarding a habit. Failure is now a public and painful blow to your ego. Gaining approval from your partner is also a powerful social motivator. We hate to disappoint.
Big change is never easy, but you don't have to do it all at once to become the person you aspire to be. As playwright John Heywood once wrote, "Rome was not built in one day," and as James Clear rejoins, "but they were laying bricks every hour." Use your aspirations as a guide, and take small steps in that direction with Atomic Habits. This book provides everything you need to get some early wins, build momentum and even enjoy the journey.
Be sure to check out James Clear's website. It is filled with helpful articles, book reviews and other great content. You can get the book "Atomic Habits" or read reviews at the following sites: