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Atomic Habits; Book Summary

A fairly extended summary of James Clear’s Bestseller, Atomic Habits.

What are Habits? 💭

Habits are the compound interest of self improvement.

This definition is quite wordy and a little complex; habits are just daily activities that you perform almost effortlessly.

They are small activities that are natural to you, they do not involve much friction, and you perform them without strenuous thought. Of course, they do not start out frictionless, you usually have to spend a lot of time grappling with a habit, trying to make it stick. But when you have mastered a habit, with the steps that Clear goes on to outline, it becomes effortless, easy almost.

Habits can be both good and bad, and it is important that you make a clear distinction, so that you can work on curbing your bad habits and strengthening your good habits.

Why are Habits Important? ❗️

Primarily, habits provide a foundation; if you’re having an off day, you can fall back onto the strong habits you have curated to keep you going. Habits, as they eventually become effortless, can be used to get you started and ensure that you stay on the right track.

Clear outlines a second key reason as to why habits are important; they feed into the rule of time. As Clear says,

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.

Time multiplies whatever you feed it.

Feed it bad habits? Those will compound upon each other, pushing you further into an unhappy, unhealthy life. A bad habit serves to strengthen all the other bad habits.

If we were to repeat those small, 1% errors, day after day, those actions would compound into toxic results.

Feed it good habits? Those will compound upon each other, becoming stronger and stronger, pushing you inter a happier, healthy life. All the good habits serve to strengthen each other, and in turn, strengthen you. And so, overtime, you will improve.

If we were to repeat those small, 1% successes, day after day, those actions would compound into phenomenal results.

Notice how the explanation for both good habits and bad habits are extremely similar? Asides from the end result; with good habits you improve, but with bad habits you sink? It is key to notice the similarities, so that you do not fall into the trap. Good habits can start out good, but can very easily turn into bad habits, and so it is important to become, or stay, aware of this.

How Do You Form Strong Habits? 💪🏻

Clear outlines the 4 steps in forming strong habits;

  1. Make It Obvious.

Habits, over time, become effortless. They need to be able to be performed without much strenuous thinking. To do that, they have to be obvious. They have to be ever present, so that it would be almost impossible to skip it.

To ensure that they are obvious, and that they do not require much thinking, you can do two things;

The first is to make it small; if you break the challenging habit you want to form into small, easy and achievable parts, it’ll be much easier to get started.

The second factor is to make it present; put the habit everywhere. If it is everywhere, the friction between you and that habit is minimized.

Say, for example, you want to start eating a little healthier. To make it small, challenge yourself to one less energy drink each day, or to eat one fruit! And to make it present, you can put the fruit bowl out on the table, so that when you walk past, you’re more inclined to grab the fruit.

2. Make It Attractive

It’s unlikely that you will form a strong habit if it doesn’t appeal to you. You need to play to the human desire of aesthetics; make it attractive. There are lots of hard tasks, such as working out or studying, that we have to do, but often look pretty boring and difficult. Try make those things pleasurable!

This can be done, for example, by changing the environment, so that the place of work is somewhere you actually enjoy being.

3. Make It Easy

The less friction between you and the habit, the more likely you will complete it.

If you set yourself an incredibly hard task, and offer no support, you’ll likely struggle, potentially even give up with the habit. But if you set yourself something manageable, small, atomic, you’ll be more inclined to give it a go, and more likely to succeed!

Make it so easy that to skip the habit would be almost embarrasing.

4. Make It Immediately Satisfying

As humans, the majority of us prefer instant gratification; the process of immediately receiving a reward after we accomplish a hard task. Play to that instinct, reward yourself each time you complete the habit!

If you get a feeling of joy after you perform the habit, you’re more likely to want to perform it again, to relive that same joy.

Focus on Systems, not Goals. ⚙️

Goals are the end result you want to achieve, and systems are the processes that you put into place in order to reach those goals.

Many of us, when trying to form habits, focus only on the end goals. We focus on where we want to be in the end, resulting in ignorance for where we are now. Multiple problems arise with this.

It’s almost like having an end destination, but no journey mapped out, no car, no fuel, nothing.

Clear outlines that, to form a strong habit, you have to forgo the thought for the end goal, and focus on the systems that you can set up in order to get there.

You won’t reach a goal by always wishing for that goal, or imagining it. What will help you, however, is action. Day to day action. The only way to hit the goal is to get better each day, and to take the necessary steps on the journey.

Systems are best for making that day to day progress. When you have systems in place, which are, in essence, effortless actions that you carry out in an order, you can keep going on that journey, when things get difficult. Too many of us give up on the first hurdle, but strong systems enable you to keep going ahead. They encourage progress, and therefore, they grant results.

Successful systems, such as a strong morning routine, or a pre workout warm up, also provide a solid foundation. The systems, like habits, are something you can fall back on if things don’t seem to be working.

If you enjoy performing the system, it brings immense satisfaction. And so, there’s a little more joy present, and that always helps when faced with a hard task; if you go into it feeling joyful, you’re more inclined to stick with it.

Systems encourage continuous improvement, if performed consistently. Form a solid system, find the process that works for you, and stick with it. They provide foundation and can be the motivator for when things get tough.

Systems, continuous actions, will get you to the end goal much quicker than if you were just looking at the scoreboard, or hoping for that exam result.

Focus on Identity, not Outcomes. 🙋🏻‍♂️

When trying to form a solid habit, many of us go about it in the entirely wrong way! We’re more inclined to focus first on the outcome, and then work our way back to identity.

For example, we start with the outcome, say to eat healthier, and work back to the identity, which is to become a healthy person.

The issue with this approach is that, if the habit does not start out as your identity, it becomes incredibly hard to follow. If you do not see yourself as a healthy person, it is harder to make those healthy choices.

If, however, you initially made the habit your identity, and worked towards the outcome, things would flow much more naturally.

If you start with the identity, which is to be a healthy person, you would eat a little healthier, which is the outcome. You know that healthy people make healthy choices, and so you are likely to do so too, with less friction involved. You might even say to yourself, ‘as a healthy person, I’m going to have a helping of fruit with my breakfast’.

Starting with the identity ensures that the habit comes from who you are, and that is an immense form of intrinsic motivation. If the habit starts with you, and your desired identity, its much easier to first perform it but to also stick with it. It makes the habit a little more real, and so, easier to attain.

Rather than working towards the final outcome, work towards altering the initial identity, ensuring that it is in line with the outcome.

For example;

  • The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner.
  • The goal is not to write a bestselling book, the goal is to become a writer.

Habits are about becoming someone, not just doing a bunch of mindless actions. Tailor your habits to who you want to be as a person, always have that in mind, not the end result.

Good Habits and Bad Habits ✅ ❌

Here’s one question that can help determine whether a habit is good or bad for you,

Does this action help me become the person I want to be, or does it go against the desired identity?

If you find yourself taking action and completing habits that go against the identity that you desire, it’s likely to be a bad habit. If it causes conflict with who you want to be, it’s definitely something you need to look into, potentially even curb.

Good habits, on the other hand, make it easier for you to become who you want to be. They push you forward, propelling you to make the choices of the desired identity.

For example, say you want to become a runner. The goal is to run a marathon, but, of course, we focus on the identity, which is to become a runner. Think, what type of things does a runner do to ensure their success?

Someone who is a runner is extremely likely to leave their running shoes out in an obvious place, so that when they wake up the next morning, the shoes are out and ready. This falls into one of the earlier points; make it obvious. The runner knows that if the running shoes are in an obvious place, there’s less friction, and so they are more inclined to run.

For a runner, leaving out the running shoes is a good habit, as it coincides with their identity, and goal, as a runner!

The struggle with identifying good and bad habits is that, many bad habits are disguised as good habits. Many bad habits, immediately after we perform them, illicit some sort of joyous feeling. A little hit of dopamine, perhaps. Yet, after a while, the ultimate outcome feels bad, it turns into a long term unhappiness. The feeling of instant joy makes us perform it again and again, but in the long run, it’s actually doing more harm than good.

Frédéric Bastiat explained this problem perfectly,

“It almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa… Often, the sweeter the first fruit of a habit, the more bitter are its later fruits.”

If something feels good, but the end result actually turns out to be bad, try curb that habit as soon as possible. Temporary joy is not worth long term pain.

Mastering a Habit ⭐️

If you have found a particular action that coincides with your desired identity, and it seems achievable, following the 4 steps in forming strong habits, one key step follows; consistency.

To ensure that something first becomes a habit, and to then master it, you need to be consistent. You need to start out with repetition, and stick with repetition, continuously refining it along the way.

Forgo any need to start with perfection, or even to end with perfection. As much as the habit has to be attractive, it doesn’t have to be perfect; lay off on the aesthetics.

To make it stick, you have to practice, deliberately. Get the reps in, day in and day out.

You must stay consistent through both the good and the bad times, particularly on the days where the last thing you want to do is perform that habit. On the bad days is when it matters most! What you do on your ‘bad’ days can tell someone everything; do you stick with your habits or let them fall?

What is crucial is that you form habits that can help you on those bad days, habits that provide a foundation. If you have solid systems and habits in place, stick with them even on the bad days, and your stronger self will emerge.

Asides from consistency, there is another key element that encourages mastery; ensure that the habit provokes a feeling of joy, of success.

If, after performing a habit, you feel extremely proud of yourself, and you start to smile, that’s a good habit. That’s a habit that you should encourage! The habit provides you with an instant feeling of success, and a long term feeling of happiness. It’s the little wins, truly.

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Sam M

Sam M

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happiness in all areas of life. student 👨🏻‍🎓. 2 weekly newsletters, daily stoic meditations + occasional articles and book summaries.