Book Summary — Atomic Habits
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1 paragraph summary:
The best book I’ve read on habits. I was a sceptic at first as there are so many resources on habits in the world, but this book condenses them nicely. Not too short, not too long, great stories and some epic pratical and instantly actionable insights. Loved it.
Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.
We all deal with setbacks but in the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits.
The backbone of this book is my four-step model of habits — cue, craving, response, and reward — and the four laws of behavior change that evolve out of these steps.
The effects of small habits compound over time. For example, if you can get just 1 percent better each day, you’ll end up with results that are nearly 37 times better after one year.
Success is the product of daily habits — not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.
You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.
Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.
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. Habits are a double-edged sword. Bad habits can cut you down just as easily as good habits can build you up, which is why understanding the details is crucial.
Goals are about the results you want to achieve.
Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.
If you want better results, then forget about setting goals.
Focus on your system instead.
Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.
Problem #1: Winners and losers have the same goals.
We concentrate on the people who end up winning — the survivors — and mistakenly assume that ambitious goals led to their success while overlooking all of the people who had the same objective but didn’t succeed.
Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. Every candidate wants to get the job.
And if successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers.22 It wasn’t the goal of winning the Tour de France that propelled the British cyclists to the top of the sport.
Problem #2: Achieving a goal is only a momentary change
Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment. That’s the counterintuitive thing about improvement. We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results.
Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.
Problem #3: Goals restrict your happiness.
The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.” The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone.
Problem #4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress.
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 goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.
How habits shape you
You do not rise to the level of your goals.
You fall to the level of your systems.
There are three layers of behavior change:
- a change in your outcomes,
- a change in your processes,
- or a change in your identity.
The first layer is changing your outcomes. This level is concerned with changing your results: losing weight, publishing a book, winning a championship.
The second layer is changing your process. This level is concerned with changing your habits and systems: implementing a new routine at the gym, decluttering your desk for better workflow, developing a meditation practice.
The third and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is concerned with changing your beliefs: your worldview, your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level.
Outcomes are about what you get.
Processes are about what you do.
Identity is about what you believe.
With outcome-based habits, the focus is on what you want to achieve.
With identity-based habits, the focus is on who you wish to become.
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.
The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it.
It is a simple two-step process:
- Decide the type of person you want to be.
- Prove it to yourself with small wins.
This process can lead to beliefs like:
- “I’m the kind of teacher who stands up for her students.”
- “I’m the kind of doctor who gives each patient the time and empathy they need.”
- “I’m the kind of manager who advocates for her employees.”
I have a friend who lost over 100 pounds by asking herself, “What would a healthy person do?” All day long, she would use this question as a guide.
Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you develop your deepest beliefs about yourself. Quite literally, you become your habits.
How to build better habits
“Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.” As habits are created, the level of activity in the brain decreases.
Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks.
The people who don’t have their habits handled are often the ones with the least amount of freedom.
Without good financial habits, you will always be struggling for the next dollar. Without good health habits, you will always seem to be short on energy.
It’s only by making the fundamentals of life easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity.
The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.
First, there is the cue. The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. It is a bit of information that predicts a reward.
Cravings are the second step, and they are the motivational force behind every habit. Without some level of motivation or desire — without craving a change — we have no reason to act. What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers. You do not crave smoking a cigarette, you crave the feeling of relief it provides. You are not motivated by brushing your teeth but rather by the feeling of a clean mouth.
The third step is the response. The response is the actual habit you perform, which can take the form of a thought or an action. Whether a response occurs depends on how motivated you are and how much friction is associated with the behavior. If a particular action requires more physical or mental effort than you are willing to expend, then you won’t do it. Your response also depends on your ability. It sounds simple, but a habit can occur only if you are capable of doing it.
Finally, the response delivers a reward. Rewards are the end goal of every habit. The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. We chase rewards because they serve two purposes: (1) they satisfy us and (2) they teach us.
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.
How to Break a Bad Habit by Inversion
- 1st law (Cue) Make it invisible.
- 2nd law (Craving) Make it unattractive.
- 3rd law (Response) Make it difficult.
- 4th law (Reward) Make it unsatisfying.
Law #1 — Make it obvious
Our greatest challenges in changing habits is maintaining awareness of what we are actually doing. This helps explain why the consequences of bad habits can sneak up on us. We need a “point-and-call” system for our personal lives.
“Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?” Habits that reinforce your desired identity are usually good. Habits that conflict with your desired identity are usually bad.
The sentence they filled out is what researchers refer to as an implementation intention, which is a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. That is, how you intend to implement a particular habit.
“When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”
Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. It is not always obvious when and where to take action. Some people spend their entire lives waiting for the time to be right to make an improvement.
Diderot’s behavior is not uncommon. In fact, the tendency for one purchase to lead to another one has a name: the Diderot Effect. The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption that leads to additional purchases.
Many human behaviors follow this cycle. You often decide what to do next based on what you have just finished doing. Going to the bathroom leads to washing and drying your hands, which reminds you that you need to put the dirty towels in the laundry, so you add laundry detergent to the shopping list, and
Habit stacking is a special form of an implementation intention. Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit.
Motivation is overrated. Environment matters more.
In this way, the most common form of change is not internal, but external: we are changed by the world around us. Every habit is context-dependent.
You want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment. The most persistent behaviors usually have multiple cues.
The power of context also reveals an important strategy: habits can be easier to change in a new environment. It helps to escape the subtle triggers and cues that nudge you toward your current habits. 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.
Researchers refer to this phenomenon as “cue-induced wanting”: an external trigger causes a compulsive craving to repeat a bad habit.
This practice is an inversion of the 1st Law of Behavior Change. Rather than make it obvious, you can make it invisible. I’m often surprised by how effective simple changes like these can be. Remove a single cue and the entire habit often fades away.
Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. You may be able to resist temptation once or twice, but it’s unlikely you can muster the willpower to override your desires every time. Instead of summoning a new dose of willpower whenever you want to do the right thing, your energy would be better spent optimizing your environment. This is the secret to self-control. Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.
Law #2 — Make it attractive
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.
We imitate the habits of three groups in particular:
- The close.
- The many.
- The powerful.
We pick up habits from the people around us. We copy the way our parents handle arguments, the way our peers flirt with one another, the way our coworkers get results. When your friends smoke pot, you give it a try, too
One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. New habits seem achievable when you see others doing them every
We are readers. We are musicians. We are cyclists. The shared identity begins to reinforce your personal identity. This is why remaining part of a group after achieving a goal is crucial to maintaining your habits. It’s friendship and community that embed a new identity and help behaviors last over the long run.
When changing your habits means challenging the tribe, change is unattractive. When changing your habits means fitting in with the tribe, change is very attractive.
Humans everywhere pursue power, prestige, and status. We want pins and medallions on our jackets. We want President or Partner in our titles. We want to be acknowledged, recognized, and praised.
This tendency can seem vain, but overall, it’s a smart move.
Historically, a person with greater power and status has access to more resources, worries less about survival, and proves to be a more attractive mate.
“You are losing nothing and you are making marvelous positive gains not only in health, energy and money but also in confidence, self-respect, freedom and, most important of all, in the length and quality of your future life.” By the time you get to the end of the book, smoking seems like the most ridiculous thing in the world to do. And if you no longer expect smoking to bring you any benefits, you have no reason to smoke. It is an inversion of the 2nd Law of Behavior Change: make it unattractive.
You can make hard habits more attractive if you can learn to associate them with a positive experience. Sometimes, all you need is a slight mind-set shift.
Now, imagine changing just one word:
You don’t “have” to.
You “get” to.
You get to wake up early for work. You get to make another sales call for your business. You get to cook dinner for your family. By simply changing one word, you shift the way you view each event. You transition from seeing these behaviors as burdens and turn them into opportunities.
Law #3 — Make it easy
Everyone on the left side of the classroom, he explained, would be in the “quantity” group. They would be graded solely on the amount of work they produced. On the final day of class, he would tally the number of photos submitted by each student. One hundred photos would rate an A, ninety photos a B, eighty photos a C, and so on. Meanwhile, everyone on the right side of the room would be in the “quality” group. They would be graded only on the excellence of their work. They would only need to produce one photo during the semester, but to get an A, it had to be a nearly perfect image. At the end of the term, he was surprised to find that all the best photos were produced by the quantity group. During the semester, these students were busy taking photos, experimenting with composition and lighting, testing out various methods in the darkroom, and learning from their mistakes. In the process of creating hundreds of photos, they honed their skills. Meanwhile, the quality group sat around speculating about perfection. In the end, they had little to show for their efforts other than unverified theories and one mediocre photo.
It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change: the fastest way to lose weight, the best program to build muscle, the perfect idea for a side hustle. We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action. As Voltaire once wrote,
“The best is the enemy of the good.”
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 I outline twenty ideas for articles I want to write, that’s motion. If I actually sit down and write an article, that’s action. If I search for a better diet plan and read a few books on the topic, that’s motion. If I actually eat a healthy meal, that’s action. Sometimes motion is useful, but it will never produce an outcome by itself. It doesn’t matter how many times you go talk to the personal trainer, that motion will never get you in shape. Only the action of working out will get the result you’re looking to achieve.
And that’s the biggest reason why you slip into motion rather than taking action: you want to delay failure.
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.
An important truth about behavior change:
Habits form based on frequency, not time.
One of the most common questions I hear is, “How long does it take to build a new habit?” But what people really should be asking is, “How many does it take to form a new habit?”
Every action requires a certain amount of energy. The more energy required, the less likely it is to occur. If your goal is to do a hundred push-ups per day,
The less friction you face, the easier it is for your stronger self to emerge. The idea behind make it easy is not to only do easy things. The idea is to make it as easy as possible in the moment to do things that payoff in the long run.
Habits are easier to build when they fit into the flow of your life. You are more likely to go to the gym if it is on your way to work because stopping doesn’t add much friction to your lifestyle.
People think I work hard but I’m actually really lazy. I’m just proactively lazy. It gives you so much time back.
Redesign your life so the actions that matter most are also the actions that are easiest to do.
Every day, there are a handful of moments that deliver an outsized impact. I refer to these little choices as decisive moments. The moment you decide between ordering takeout or cooking dinner.
The point is to master the habit of showing up. The truth is, a habit must be established before it can be improved.
The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely it becomes that you can slip into the state of deep focus that is required to do great things.
Sometimes success is less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard.
A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future. It is a way to lock in future behavior, bind you to good habits, and restrict you from bad.
Commitment devices increase the odds that you’ll do the right thing in the future by making bad habits difficult in the present. However, we can do even better. We can make good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible.
Fill out the Habits Scorecard
Write down your current habits to become aware of them.
- Use implementation intentions: “I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].”
- Use habit stacking: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
- Design your environment. Make the cues of good habits.
What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided.
Law #4 — Make it satisfying
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. It completes the habit loop.
We are not looking for just any type of satisfaction. We are looking for immediate satisfaction.
One solution is to turn the situation on its head. You want to make avoidance visible. Open a savings account and label it for something you want — maybe “Leather Jacket.” Whenever you pass on a purchase, put the same amount of money in the account. Skip your morning latte? Transfer $5. Pass on another month of Netflix? Move $10 over. It’s like creating a loyalty program for yourself. The immediate reward of seeing yourself save money toward the leather jacket feels a lot better than being deprived. You are making it satisfying to do nothing.
The habit stacking + habit tracking formula is:
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [TRACK MY HABIT].
- After I hang up the phone from a sales call, I will move one paper clip over.
- After I finish each set at the gym, I will record it in my workout journal.
The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.
Goodhart’s Law. Named after the economist Charles Goodhart, the principle states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Measurement is only useful when it guides you and adds context to a larger picture, not when it consumes you.
Habits are easier to perform, and more satisfying to stick with, when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities.
Genes do not determine your destiny.
They determine your areas of opportunity.
What feels like fun to me, but work to others? The mark of whether you are made for a task is not whether you love it but whether you can handle the pain of the task easier than most people.
What makes me lose track of time? Flow is the mental state you enter when you are so focused on the task at hand that the rest of the world fades away.
Where do I get greater returns than the average person?
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. Martin’s comedy career is an excellent
The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom.
We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. And as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty. Perhaps this is why we get caught up in a never-ending cycle, jumping from one workout to the next, one diet to the next, one business idea to the next.
The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.
Although habits are powerful, what you need is a way to remain conscious of your performance over time, so you can continue to refine and improve. It
The solution? Establish a system for reflection and review.
Habits deliver numerous benefits, but the downside is that they can lock us into our previous patterns of thinking and acting — even when the world is shifting around us. Everything is impermanent. Life is constantly changing, so you need to periodically check in to see if your old habits and beliefs are still serving you. A lack of self-awareness is poison. Reflection and review is the antidote.