Notes on Atomic Habits

By James Clear

Image for post
Image for post

These are my notes on ideas and concepts I found interesting — not a comprehensive summary of the book. Buy the book

The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits

We convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. Actually, the inverse is true: Small improvements accumulate into remarkable results.

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.

Image for post
Image for post
If you get 1% better each day, you’ll end up with results nearly 37x better after 1 year

1% better every day

The effects of small habits compound over time.

They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. A slight change in your daily habits can guide your life to a very different destination.

Making a choice that is 1% better or 1% worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be.

Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.

Your habits can compound for or against you:

Positive Compounding

  • Productivity
    Accomplishing one extra task is a small feat on any given day, but it counts for a lot over an entire career.
  • Knowledge
    Learning one new idea won’t make you a genius, but a commitment to lifelong learning can be transformative.
  • Relationships
    People reflect your behavior back to you. The more you help others, the more others want to help you.

Negative Compounding

  • Stress
    By themselves, common causes of stress are manageable. But when they persist for years, little stresses compound into serious health issues.
  • Negative thoughts
    The more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid, or ugly, the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. The same is true for how you think about others.

Systems > Goals

  • Goals are about the results you want to achieve.
  • Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.
  • Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.
  • The purpose of setting goals is to win the game.
  • The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game.

A system of atomic habits

If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system.

You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.

How to Build Better Habits in 4 Simple Steps

The ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible.

A habit is simply a behavior repeated enough times to become automatic.

Habit formation is incredibly useful because the conscious mind is the bottleneck of the brain. When you have your habits dialed in and the basics of life are handled and done, your mind is free to focus on new challenges and master the next set of problems.

The habit loop

The cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue.

Image for post
Image for post

How to create a good habit

  • The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
  • The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
  • The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
  • The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.

These laws can be inverted to learn how to break a bad habit:

How to break a bad habit

  • Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible.
  • Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive.
  • Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult.
  • Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.

Whenever you want to change your behavior, simply ask yourself:

  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

Over time, the cues that spark our habits become so common that they are essentially invisible: the treats on the kitchen counter, the remote control next to the couch, the phone in our pocket, etc.

Our responses to these cues are so deeply encoded that it may feel like the urge to act comes from nowhere. For this reason, we must begin the process of behavior change with awareness.

One of our greatest challenges in changing habits is maintaining awareness of what we are actually doing.

The habits scorecard

The habits scorecard is a simple exercise you can use to become more aware of your behavior.

Make a list of your daily habits. If it is a good habit, write “+” next to it. If it is a bad habit, write “–”. If it is a neutral habit, write “=”. E.g:

  • Wake up =
  • Turn off alarm =
  • Check my phone -
  • Take a shower +

Habit stacking

Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit. This method can be used to design an obvious cue for nearly any habit.*

The habit stacking formula is: “After I [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”

Examples:

  • Meditation: After I pour my cup of coffee each morning, I will meditate for one minute.
  • Exercise: After I take off my work shoes, I will immediately change into my workout clothes.

Motivation is overrated — environment often matters more

Given that we are more dependent on vision than any other sense, it should come as no surprise that visual cues are the greatest catalyst of our behavior.

Designing your environment for success
Stop thinking about your environment as filled with objects. Start thinking about it as filled with relationships. Think in terms of how you interact with the spaces around you.

The power of context also reveals an important strategy: habits can be easier to change in a new environment.

Go to a new place — a different coffee shop, a bench in the park, a corner of your room you seldom use — and create a new routine there.

The secret to self-control

The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often.

Perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment.

Basically: People with high self-control tend to spend less time in tempting situations. It’s easier to avoid temptation than resist it.

Once the mental grooves of habit have been carved into your brain, they are nearly impossible to remove entirely — even if they go unused for a while. That means that simply resisting temptation is an ineffective strategy.

It is hard to maintain a Zen attitude in a life filled with interruptions. It takes too much energy.

In the short-run, you can choose to overpower temptation. In the long-run, we become a product of the environment that we live in.

This is the secret to self-control: Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.

The 2nd Law: Make It Attractive

How to Make a Habit Irresistible

When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it.

Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. Cocaine addicts get a surge of dopamine when they see the powder, not after they take it. Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act.

Your brain has far more neural circuitry allocated for wanting rewards than for liking them.

We need to make our habits attractive because it is the expectation of a rewarding experience that motivates us to act in the first place. This is where a strategy known as temptation bundling comes into play.

Temptation bundling can make your habits more attractive

Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do.

E.g. Perhaps you want to hear about the latest celebrity gossip, but you need to get in shape. Using temptation bundling, you could only read the tabloids and watch reality shows at the gym.

The Role of Family and Friends in Shaping Your Habits

The culture we live in determines which behaviors are attractive to us.

We tend to adopt habits that are praised and approved of by our culture because we have a strong desire to fit in and belong to the tribe.

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 (1) your desired behavior is the normal behavior and (2) you already have something in common with the group.

The normal behavior of the tribe often overpowers the desired behavior of the individual. Most days, we’d rather be wrong with the crowd than be right by ourselves.

If a behavior can get us approval, respect, and praise, we find it attractive.

How to Find and Fix the Causes of Your Bad Habits

Habits are attractive when we associate them with positive feelings, and we can use this insight to our advantage rather than to our detriment.

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.

Exercise
Instead of telling yourself “I need to go run in the morning,” say “It’s time to build endurance and get fast.”

Finance.
Saving money is often associated with sacrifice. However, you can associate it with freedom rather than limitation if you realize one simple truth: living below your current means increases your future means. The money you save this month increases your purchasing power next month.

Meditation.
You can transform frustration into delight when you realize each interruption gives you a chance to practice returning to your breath. Distraction is a good thing because you need distractions to practice meditation.

The key to finding and fixing the causes of your bad habits is to reframe the associations you have about them.

The 3rd Law: Make It Easy

We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action.

“The best is the enemy of the good.” — Voltaire

Motion VS Action

This is the difference between being in motion and taking action. The two ideas sound similar, but they’re not the same:

  • When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce a result.
  • Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will deliver an outcome.

If motion doesn’t lead to results, why do we do it? More often than not, we do it because motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure.

Most of us are experts at avoiding criticism. It doesn’t feel good to fail or to be judged publicly, so we tend to avoid situations where that might happen. And that’s the biggest reason why you slip into motion rather than taking action: you want to delay failure.

Repetition > Perfection

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. This is the first takeaway of the 3rd Law: you just need to get your reps in.

Each time you repeat an action, you are activating a particular neural circuit associated with that habit. This means that simply putting in your reps is one of the most critical steps you can take to encoding a new habit.

The Law of Least Effort

The less friction you face, the easier it is for your stronger self to emerge.

The idea is to make it as easy as possible in the moment to do things that payoff in the long run.

How to achieve more with less effort
Trying to pump up your motivation to stick with a hard habit is like trying to force water through a bent hose. You can do it, but it requires a lot of effort and increases the tension in your life.

Making your habits simple and easy is like removing the bend in the hose. Rather than trying to overcome the friction in your life, you reduce it.

How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the Two-Minute Rule

Yes, a habit can be completed in just a few seconds, but it can also shape the actions that you take 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 states, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.”

  • Start by mastering the first two minutes of the smallest version of the behavior.
  • Then, advance to an intermediate step and repeat the process — focusing on just the first two minutes and mastering that stage before moving on to the next level.
  • Eventually, you’ll end up with the habit you had originally hoped to build while still keeping your focus where it should be: on the first two minutes of the behavior.

Example: Becoming vegan

  • Phase 1: Start eating vegetables at each meal.
  • Phase 2: Stop eating animals with four legs (cow, pig, lamb, etc.).
  • Phase 3: Stop eating animals with two legs (chicken, turkey, etc.).
  • Phase 4: Stop eating animals with no legs (fish, clams, scallops, etc.). Phase 5: Stop eating all animal products

The 4th Law: Make It Satisfying

The Cardinal Rule of Behaviour Change

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

We are more likely to repeat a behavior when the experience is satisfying.

The human brain evolved to prioritize immediate rewards over delayed rewards.

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 behavior change — make it obvious, make it attractive, and make it easy — increase the odds that a behavior will be performed this time.

The fourth law of behavior change — make it satisfying — increases the odds that a behavior will be repeated next time.

How to Stick with Good Habits Every Day

If I miss one day, I try to get back into it as quickly as possible.

“The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessarily.” — Charlie Munger

This is why “bad” workouts are often the most important ones. Sluggish days and bad workouts maintain the compound gains you accrued from previous good days.

Simply doing something — ten squats, five sprints, a push-up, anything really — is huge. Don’t put up a zero. Don’t let losses eat into your compounding.

Written by

Founder of DoubleUp (DoubleUp.agency), co-founder of Supercast (supercast.com). Admirer of simplicity, fan of excess. Sharing notes at booknotes.email

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store