Atomic Habits

Atomic Habits is one of the better advice / self-help books I’ve read. I first (quickly) read it a few years ago, but more recently gave it a re-read and took more careful notes. Like many books in the genre its page count could be less and still retain the core lessons. But the advice is sound and James Clear has an approachable way of breaking it all down.


His core premise in the book is that:

Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years…With the same habits, you’ll end up with the same results. But with better habits, anything is possible.

The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits

We have a tendency to overestimate the impact of singular changes and to underestimate the contributions of small, daily improvements. These small, daily habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Both the value of good habits and the cost of bad habits are most clear in retrospect.

You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.

When we see what appears to be a breakthrough moment we should realize that it’s the accumulation of many small actions. Like the winding of a spring our work was stored for its release.

Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the process that lead to those results.

Our goals can help us set a direction but it’s our systems that are best for determining how we get there. If we focus on goals we’re focusing on something that only lasts for a moment rather than a long-term process.

The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking…is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement.

How Your Habits Shape Your Identity

Generally we find changing our habits to be difficult for two main reasons: we try to change the wrong thing and we try to change in the wrong way. Clear outlines three levels at which change can occur:

  • Outcomes: changing our results.
  • Process: changing our habits and systems.
  • Identity: changing our beliefs, assumptions, and biases.

All levels of change are useful in their own way. Our concern should be the direction of change. We’ll have the greatest impact if we start with identity change and work outward toward the results we want to see. Once we change our identity the new habits we seek will have no choice but to stick around.

Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last.

Clear suggests a simple two-step process:

  1. Decide the type of person you want to be.
  2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.

The first step is not what or how, but who. You need to know who you want to be.

How to Build Better Habits in 4 Simple Steps

Our habits are essentially just behaviors that our brains have automated. We do this, consciously or otherwise, to ease our brains. Our conscious minds can only focus on one thing at a time. So habits enable us to free up cognitive capacity and put our attention toward other things.

Habits form through repetition of a feedback loop: cue, craving, response, reward. Clear relates these to four laws for changing habits. So no matter the habit he encourages asking ourselves:

  1. How can I make it obvious?
  2. How can I make it attractive?
  3. How can I make it easy?
  4. How can I make it satisfying?

The 1st Law: Make it Obvious

Our common cues become invisible overtime. We may recognize the result but we can be lost as to its cause. So our first step in behavior change is to gain awareness of our cues. And one of the more significant challenges is maintaining this awareness.

Clear recommends taking an inventory and scorecard of our current habits. It can help to ask, “Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be?”

One way we can make desired habits obvious is to set an implementation intention. This is a plan we make beforehand about when and where to act. It’s shown to help solidify our habits as intention alone is often far from enough. We can add on to this by chaining our new habit on to an existing one. Clear refers to this as habit stacking.

Your habits can be environment-dependent as well. This calls to mind the habit fields article from years back. Our senses can all trigger a habit cue, but it’s our vision that has the strongest impact. So when forming a habit set yourself obvious and frequent visual cues. New environments can also be ripe opportunities to form new habits; all of our prior cues are disrupted.

The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least.

It’s easier (and more effective) to creat a more disciplined environment than it is to be a more disciplined person. Plus, once our old habits are set their memory patterns rarely go away. The expression of the habit may stop, but the mental grooves remain.

The 2nd Law: Make it Attractive

Our brains can be triggered by supernormal stimuli. This is a heightened or exaggerated version of reality that triggers a stronger than usual response. It can be helpful for behavior change as the more attractive an opportunity is the more likely it will become habit-forming. Our brains come to depend upon the anticipation of a reward more than the fulfillment of it. That anticipation gets us to act.

Temptation bundling gets us to link an action we want to do with an action we need to do. We can pair this with habit stacking as well to create chains of new action.

When looking to change our habits we shouldn’t overlook the power of social norms. There are three relevant groups:

  • The close. We embody the habits and identity of those we’re closest to.
  • The many. We can connect our habits to those of a wider peer groups.
  • The powerful. We can imitate the habits that contribute to esteem in others.

A craving is just a specific manifestation of a deeper underlying motive.

These motives are constant and our behavior just finds new ways to express itself. Our daily actions are also more predictive than they are reactive. We’re observing situations and making our best guess for how to act based on what worked in the past.

Reframing your habits to highlight their benefits rather than their drawbacks is a fast and lightweight way to reprogram your mind and make a habit seem more attractive.

The 3rd Law: Make it Easy

Being in motion and taking action are not the same thing. The former is planning-focused while the latter is outcome-oriented.

If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. You don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it.

The goal is to reach automaticity, or the ability to perform a behavior without conscious thought. This is reached through frequency, not time. It’s about how many times we repeat an action, not how much time passes.

Out of all the possible actions we could take, the one that is realized is the one that delivers the most value for the least effort.

These proportional returns matter. It’s a good thing to be lazy; we just have to tune and direct that impulse. We can make habits easier through either more effort or less friction. The latter is far more sustainable. So we should introduce friction ahead of bad habits and remove it in front of the good habits we want to adopt.

Small habits are the best place to start. They help set the boundary conditions. So it’s putting your running shoes on, not running a 5k each week.

What you want us a “gateway habit” that naturally leads you down a more productive path.

As our habits solidify we can advance our practice, with the goal of always staying below the point at which it feels like work.

The best way to break a bad habit is to make it impractical to do. Increase the friction until you don’t even have the option to act.

The 4th Law: Make it Satisfying

It’s immediate satisfaction that has the most sway on our habits. Our brain evaluates rewards inconsistently across time; it will prioritize what feels good now even if the long-term effects are bad.

What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.

We want to focus our rewards on the end of an activity. The longer the delay the less the effect. This is particularly true when dealing with habits of avoidance.

It can e hard to feel satisfied when there is no action in the first place. All you’re doing is resisting temptation, and there isn’t much satisfying about that.

Tracking our habits can leverage multiple laws of behavior change. It:

  1. Creates a visual cue that can remind us to act.
  2. Is inherently motivating because we see the progress we are making (and we don’t want to lose that).
  3. Feels satisfying whenever we record another successful instance of our habit.

Missing a habit once, though, isn’t vital. We need to just focus on not letting that repeat lest it begin a new habit.

Advanced Tactics

There are some fields where our genes predispose is to a certain level of success. If we’re short, basketball will be difficult. But running might be easy. The trick is to use predisposition in our favor and choose the right field of competition. Our competence is highly dependent upon context.

Sustaining an effort is the most important thing for any enterprise. The way to be successful is to learn how to do things right, then do them the same way every time.

Pat Riley