Atomic Habits – Book Summary & Detailed Review

Atomic Habits is an easy-to-read book on changing habits with a ton of actionable tips. I had previously read Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit.  There are some overlaps between the two but Atomic Habits is a more practical book than the Power of Habit.

James Clear is a  writer at Jamesclear.com and is a popular speaker on topics such as continuous improvement and habit formation. He has consulted for a number of clients including Cisco, General Electric, Honda, Intel, LinkedIn, Lululemon, McKinsey & Company, and Merrill Lynch.. He is also a former college baseball pitcher.


Atomic Habits – Book Summary

The Power of Compounding

We convince ourselves that big success requires massive action. But it’s the small improvements that add up over time and deliver big results. When we improve by 1 percent, we may not notice the small improvement. But improving 1% every day means that we will be 37% better at the end of the year – a more pronounced and meaningful change.

If we cut a tree and the tree falls down, it’s not the last blow that brought down the tree, it’s the hundreds of blows before it.  But we think that we are not making progress until the tree falls down.

The tree analogy applies to habits too. Habits appear to make no difference until we hit a critical threshold (Plateau of Latent Potential). In the early and middle stages of improvement, we feel disappointed because we don’t see the results of our hard work. We need to persist long enough to break through the Plateau of Latent Potential to succeed.

Focus on Systems, Not Goals

Goals are important, but they are not sufficient.  Goals focus on the outcome, whereas systems focus on the process that will lead to that outcome.  If we have a system, we are more likely to succeed. I loved this line from the book:

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems

Whether we need to get good grades, improve our fitness, or grow our business, we are often told to set goals to achieve them. While goals are important, focusing too much on the goals misses the big picture. 

  • Winners and losers often have the same goals. The winners have a system in place to achieve that goal but losers don’t.
  • Achieving a goal only leads to a temporary change. Let’s say that we want to have a clean room. We gather our will power to clean the room but what happens the next day or the next week. The room will be messy again. What we need is a system to keep our room clean so we don’t have to clean the room again.
  • Goals restrict our happiness. We tell ourselves that we will be happy after we achieve our goals. By doing so, we are putting off our happiness until we get to a milestone. If we focus on the system, we will be happy anytime as long as we are following the system.
  • Having a system will ensure that we succeed in the long run. When we have goals, we create a “yo-yo” effect where once a goal is reached, we stop doing the activities that helped us reach our goals.  The purpose of a goal is to win the game, the purpose of a system is to continue to play the game.

Change Your Identity

We need to focus on the kind of person we want to become, not what we want to achieve. For example, instead of trying to avoid cookies, we should try imagining that we are someone who eats healthy and lives a healthy lifestyle.

There are 3 layers of behavior change

  • Changing outcomes – Here we are only concerned with changing the results. For example, lose weight, get a good grade, etc.
  • Changing our process – Here we implement a new routine. Most habits are associated with this level
  • Changing our identity – This is where we change our beliefs, our self-image. Behaviors that are consistent with our beliefs are likely to persist

Two-step process to change your identity

No one is born with preset beliefs. Every belief we have is learned and conditioned through our experience. Our experience is really our “repeated beingness”. To change our identity, we need to decide the kind of person we want to be and then prove it to ourselves with small wins.  To improve, we must continuously edit our beliefs and upgrade our identity. Identity-based habits work based on feedback loops – our habits shape our identity and our identity shapes our habits.

Four Steps To Behavior Change

  • Make it obvious 
  • Make it attractive 
  • Make it easy 
  • Make it satisfying 

First law of behavior change – Make it Obvious

Habits scorecard

We need to maintain awareness of what we are doing. Only then we change our habits. A Habits Scorecard is just the simple exercise of creating a list of our daily habits. For example, we can list the 15 habits or activities we do right after wake up.  The list may include wake up, check the phone, take a shower, etc.  Then next to each habit, we mark whether it is a good habit or a bad habit.

Best way to start a new habit

To start a new habit, we need don’t just need motivation, we also need clarity – when and where do we plan to take action. We need a predetermined plan. Our plan may look something like this.

I will [behavior] at [time] in [location].

Habit stacking

An easy way to implement our plan is to pair our new habit with a current habit. Let’s say that our goal is to meditate every day. We can pair it with pouring a cup of coffee every morning (a current habit). This way, we will never forget to meditate every day.

Environment is important

We believe that our accomplishments are a result of our motivation, talent, and effort. While these things certainly matter, our environment plays an invisible role in our outcomes. We need to design our environment to make it easy to achieve our goals. If the goal is to take medication every night, put the pill bottle next to the faucet in the bathroom.

Secret to self-control

Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. The problem with bad habits is that you can break them for a while, but you are unlikely to forget them. It takes too much energy to resist the temptation. It is almost impossible to stick to positive habits in a negative environment. We need to remove the cues to get rid of the bad habits.  People with high self-control spend less time in tempting situations. It is easier to avoid temptation than to resist it. If you are feeling that you are not enough, stop following social media accounts that create jealousy and envy.

Second law of behavior change – Make it attractive

Habits are based on a dopamine-driven feedback loop. Every habit-forming behavior such as taking drunks, eating junk food, or browsing social media is associated with higher levels of dopamine. Dopamine is released not only when we experience pleasure but also when we anticipate it. It is the anticipation of the reward, not the fulfillment of it that gets us to take action. Greater the anticipation, the greater the dopamine spike. 

Temptation bundling

To make habits attractive, we need to pair the action we want with an action we need to do. If workout is a priority, consider combining your favorite activity, watching Netflix, with riding a stationary bike. 

Role of friends, family, and culture

Humans are herd animals. We like to fit in, bond with others, and gain the respect of our peers.  The normal behavior of the group we belong to overpowers the desired behavior of individuals. We tend to imitate the habits of three social groups, 1) the close (family and friends), 2) the many (the tribe), and the powerful (those with status and prestige).

Fixing bad habits

Every behavior has a surface level craving and a deeper, underlying motive. The craving is just a specific manifestation of the underlying motive. Whenever a habit successful addresses a motive, we develop a craving to do it again. How do we reprogram our brains? Look at the behavior you need as opportunities, not burdens. Reframe the habits to highlight the benefits rather than the challenges. 

We can even create a motivation ritual by associating our habits with something we enjoy. Ed Latimore, a boxer liked to put on his headphones while writing. This allowed him to focus on writing. But after a while, the headphones became the cue that he associated with increased focus. The craving followed naturally. He didn’t even need music, just the act of putting on the headphones did it. 

Third law of behavior change – Make it easy

Practice and more practice, not just preparation

Most of us spend time planning and preparing but never really acting. Preparation becomes a form of procrastination. To form new habits, we need to start with repetition, not perfection. We need practice, not planning.  As we put in the reps, the behavior will become progressively more automatic. 

Humans are lazy, prime the environment

We humans will naturally gravitate towards the option that requires the least amount of work. So it is key to have the right environment where it is easy to do the right thing. Reduce friction associated with good habits and increase friction associated with bad habits. 

2-Minute rule to stop procrastination

When we start a new habit, we need to scale it down to a two-minute version. If we are trying to read before bed every night, a 2-minute version of that will be to read one page every night. If we are trying to build a habit of folding laundry once it is done, a two-minute version of the new habit will be to fold one item from the laundry basket. We must standardize before we optimize. We can’t improve a habit we don’t have.

As we master the art of showing up, the first two minutes become a ritual at the beginning of a larger routine. Think of the two-minute rule as a warm-up before peak performance. Make the first two minutes easy and the rest will follow.

Automate habits to make them stick

Automating habits will deliver great results over time. Single actions such as enrolling in an automatic savings plan will reap rewards for a long time. Use the right technology where possible to guarantee the right behavior.

Fourth law of behavior change – Make it satisfying

Cardinal rule of behavior change

We tend to prioritize immediate rewards or delayed rewards. So what is immediately rewarded is repeated and what its immediately punished is avoided. To build a successful habit, we must make it feel immediately successful, even if it’s in a small way. 

Track Habits

To ensure that we are making progress, we need to track our habits. Journaling is a great way to keep track of your progress. Put an X on the calendar every time you follow through on your new habit.  Don’t break the chain. Keep doing it every day, even if you do it only for two minutes.

Get an accountability partner

Knowing that someone is watching us is a powerful motivator. An accountability partner can create an immediate cost to not following through on our habits. We deeply care about what others think and don’t want others to have a lesser opinion of us. 

Bottom Line

Atomic Habits is ideal for anyone looking to change existing habits or build new habits. The book contains a number of actionable tips you can start using right away. The author does a good job of citing examples to drive home his points.

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