Book Summary of ‘Atomic Habits’​ by James Clear

A habit is a routine or behaviour that is performed regularly and in many cases, automatically.

In the long run, the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our habits. This summary includes a step-by-step plan for building better habits – cue, craving, response and reward – and the four laws of behaviour change that evolve out of these steps.

There’s no one right way to create better habits, but this summary describes an approach that will be effective regardless of where you start or what you’re trying to change. 

The Fundamentals

Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. However, the difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. The effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.

We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter, but over your lifetime, these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. 

Habits are a double-edged sword. Bad habits can cut you down just as easily as good habits can build you up. Your habits can compound for you or against you. Productivity, knowledge, and relationships positively compound. Stress, negative thoughts and outrage negatively compound.

An atomic habit is a tiny change, a marginal gain, a 1% improvement. They are little habits that are part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.

There are three layers of behaviour changes. The first layer is changing your outcomes, such as losing weight, publishing a book, or winning a championship. The second layer is changing your process, such as implementing a new routine at the gym, decluttering your desk, or developing a meditation practice. The third and deepest layer is changing your identity, such as your worldview, your self-image, or your judgements about yourself and others.

The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become. Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. In order to become the best version of yourself, you must continuously edit your beliefs and upgrade and expand your identity. Habits can change your beliefs about yourself.

A habit is a behaviour that has been repeated enough times to become automatic. The ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible. Any habit can be broken down into a feedback loop that involves four steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.

The Four Laws of Behaviour Change are a simple set of rules we can use to build better habits. They are:

1) Make it obvious.

2) Make it attractive.

3) Make it easy.

4) Make it satisfying.

 The 1st Law – Make It Obvious

Over time, the cues that spark our habits become so common that they are essentially invisible. Our responses to these cues are so deeply encoded that it may feel like the urge to act comes from nowhere. Therefore, the process of behaviour change begins with awareness.

Before we can effectively build new habits, we need to get a handle on our current ones. This can be difficult to do, but there are two exercises that can help. Pointing-and-Calling is an exercise that involves verbalising each of your actions in order to raise your awareness from a non-conscious habit to a more conscious level. Once you’re aware of your habits, keep a Habits Scorecard and mark whether the habit is negative, positive, or neutral.

Habits are easier to start if you have an implementation intention, which is a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. The implementation intention formula is: I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]. Habit stacking is another exercise that can help. The habit stacking formula is: After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].

Small changes in context can lead to large changes in behaviour over time. Every habit is initiated by a cue. We are more likely to notice cues that stand out, so make the cues of good habits obvious in your environment.

Gradually, your habits become associated not with a single trigger but with the entire context surrounding the behaviour. The context becomes the cue. It is easier to build new habits in a new environment because you are not fighting against old cues.

You can break a habit, but you’re unlikely to forget it. Once the mental grooves have been carved into your brain, they are nearly impossible to remove entirely. That means you must reduce exposure to the cue that causes bad habits.

The 2nd Law – Make It Attractive

The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming. Habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop. When dopamine rises, so does our motivation to act. It is the anticipation of a reward – not the fulfilment of it – that gets us to take action. The greater the anticipation, the greater the dopamine spike.

Temptation building is one way to make your habits more attractive. The strategy involves pairing an action you want to do with an action you need to do. The formula is: After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].

Social norms are extremely powerful, and they determine which behaviours are attractive to us. We tend to adopt habits that are praised by our culture because we have a strong desire to fit in. We tend to imitate the habits of three social groups: the close (family and friends), the many (the tribe) and the powerful (those with status and prestige).

One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behaviour is the norm, and you already have something in common with the group. The normal behaviour of a tribe often overpowers the desired behaviour of the individual. Most days, we’d rather be wrong with the crowd than right by ourselves.

Every behaviour has a surface level craving and a deeper underlying motive. Your habits are modern-day solutions to ancient desires (ie the desire to connect and bond with others results in the habit of checking Facebook).

Your habits are caused by the prediction that precedes them. The prediction leads to a feeling. You can break a bad habit by highlighting the benefit of avoiding it to make it more unattractive to you.

Habits are attractive when we associate them with positive feelings and unattractive when we associate them with negative feelings. Create a motivation ritual by doing something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit.

The 3rd Law – Make It Easy

The most effective form of learning is to practice. Focus on taking action – the amount of time you have been performing a habit is not as important as the number of times you have performed it.

Human behaviour follows the Law of Least Effort. We will naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work. Therefore, you are more likely to succeed if you create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.

Reduce the friction associated with good behaviours. When friction is low, habits are easy. Increase the friction associated with bad behaviours. When friction is high, habits are difficult.

Habits can be completed in a few seconds but continue to impact your behaviour for minutes or hours afterward. Many habits occur at decisive moments – choices that are like a fork in the road – and either send you in the direction of a productive day or an unproductive one.

The Two-Minute Rule says, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do” so break your habits down into bite-size chunks. Standardise before you optimise. You can’t improve a habit that doesn’t exist.

Committing to habits will increase your future behaviour. The ultimate way to lock in future behaviour is to automate your habits. Prime your environment to make future actions easier. Automate your habits. Invest in technology and onetime purchases (like buying a better mattress or enrolling in an automatic savings plan) that deliver increasing returns over time.

The 4th Law – Make It Satisfying

Humans are more likely to repeat a behaviour when the experience is satisfying. The human brain evolved to prioritise immediate rewards over delayed rewards.

The Cardinal Rule of Behaviour Change says, “What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.” To get a habit to stick, you need to feel immediately successful, even if it’s in a small way.

The first three laws of behaviour change increase the odds that a behaviour is performed. The fourth law increases the odds that the behaviour will be repeated.

One of the most satisfying feelings is the feeling of making progress. A habit tracker is a simple way to measure whether you did a habit – like marking an X on a calendar on days you did it. Habit trackers and other visual forms of measurement can make your habits satisfying by providing clear evidence of your progress 

Don’t break the chain. Do your best to keep your habit streak alive. If you do miss a day, try to get back on track as quickly as possible. Never miss twice in a row.

We are less likely to repeat a bad habit if it is painful or unsatisfying. An accountability partner can create an immediate cost to inaction. We care deeply about what others think of us, and we do not want others to have a lesser opinion of us.

A habit contract can be used to add a social cost to any behaviour. It makes the cost of violating your promises public and painful. Knowing that someone is watching you can be a powerful motivator, so use social interactions to motivate behaviour change.

Advanced Tactics

The secret to maximising your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition. Pick the right habit and progress will be easy. If you pick the wrong habit, it will be a struggle.

You cannot change your genes, which means they provide a powerful advantage in favourable circumstances and a serious disadvantage in unfavourable circumstances. Habits are much easier when they align with your natural abilities. Choose habits that best suit your genes.

Genes do not eliminate the need for hard work, they clarify it. They tell us what to work hard on.  

The Goldilocks Rule states that your motivation will be at its peak when you work on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard, not too easy. Just right.

The greatest threat to success is not failure, but boredom. As habits become routine, they become less interesting and less satisfying so we sometimes get bored. Anyone can work hard when they feel motivated. It is the ability to keep going when it isn’t exciting that makes the difference. Create a schedule and stick to it, regardless of your motivation levels. 

The benefit of habits is that we can do things without thinking. The downside is that we stop paying attention to little errors.

You can master a habit by narrowing your focus to a tiny element of success and repeating it until you have internalised the skill. Then use this new habit as the foundation to advance to the next frontier of your development. Each habit unlocks the next level. Keep building.

Reflection and review is a process that allows you to remain conscious of your performance over time. Try not to cling to an identity – it makes it much harder to grow beyond it.

Success is not a goal to reach or a finish line to cross. It is a system to improve, an endless process to refine. If you make habits obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying, you will be more likely to stick to them. If you keep making tiny changes, you will discover remarkable results. 

Hope you enjoyed this summary. As always leave me a comment if you did.

P.S. I need a business coach (willing to train [at my expense] the right individual with some get up and go / sales/ marketing/ business prowess) to facilitate demand for my coaching business. I will cover all start up costs for the right person. If you, or someone you know, is interested, please click here for more information

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