Atomic Habits by James Clear

Overview (Notes & Thoughts)

Chapter Outline:

  1. Fundamentals
  2. 1st Law: Make it Obvious (invisible)
  3. 2nd Law: Make it Attractive (unattractive)
  4. 3rd Law: Make it Easy (difficult)
  5. 4th Law: Make it Satisfying (unsatisfying)
  6. Advanced tactics (talent / genes, etc.)

The 4 Stage Habit Cycle:

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Response
  4. Reward
Atomic Habits: The 4 Stage Habit Cycle
Atomic Habits: The 4 Stage Habit Cycle

Every time the habit completes the cycle, neural pathways are strengthened as the brain learns to associate the cue with the reward, and fills in with automatic craving and response.

The 4 Laws Of Behavior Change:

(How to change a habit or form a new habit)

1st Law: Make it Obvious

  1. Become aware. Note current habits + (good) or - (bad) for who you want to be.
  2. Use Implementation Intentions.  “I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME]/[LOCATION].”
  3. Use Habit Stacking.  “After [REGULAR ACTIVITY], I will [NEW HABIT].”
  4. Design your environment to make the cue obvious.

2nd Law: Make it Attractive

  1. Use Temptation Bundling. "I will do [THING I WANT] before/while/after I do [NEW HABIT I NEED]"
  2. Join a culture that supports the habit.

3rd Law: Make it Easy

  1. Reduce friction. Eliminate extra steps and prime the environment in advance.
  2. Master the decisive moment. Focus on decisions that alter the course of many.
  3. Use the Two Minute Rule. Downscale habits to two minutes or less to make starting easy.
  4. Automate. Use technology and single purchases to lock in future behavior.

4th Law: Make it Satisfying

  1. Use reinforcement. Design an immediate reward when the habit is completed.
  2. Use a habit tracker (also a reward).
  3. Don't break the chain.
  4. Never Miss Twice. Once is okay, twice is setting a new habit.

Other Themes & Ideas:

Compounding Returns and The Long-term Perspective

"In the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits." - But this is difficult to appreciate within our daily experience. Therefore we need to plan systems in advance.

"It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent... This can be a difficult concept to appreciate in daily life. We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment."

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

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

"Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement."

"Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years."

Focus on Systems (Habits), not Goals

"If successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers."

"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."

Habits Are Leading Indicators of Goals

"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 do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems."

Original quote by Archilochus - “We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

Habit >< Identity Feedback Loop

This is the feedback cycle that we must account for when seeking to implement habits successfully:

  1. Habits succeed when they form part of our identity.
  2. Our identity is shaped by our habits.

"It is a simple two-step process: Decide the type of person you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins"

"Behind every system of actions are a system of beliefs."

"Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last."

I want vs. I am. "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."

"When your behavior and your identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behavior change. You are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be... Doing the right thing is easy."

"The biggest barrier to positive change at any level—individual, team, society—is identity conflict. Good habits can make rational sense, but if they conflict with your identity, you will fail to put them into action."

Habits and routines don't stifle freedom, they CREATE freedom.

"Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate." - Carl Jung

"It's only by making the fundamentals of life easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking."

Outcome vs. Identity based habits

Combination of above two points: habits > goals, and habits = identity, implies that habits should be identity based ("who I am or wish to become"), not outcome based ("what I want to achieve or have")

The Importance of Small Habits and The Two Minute Rule

" If you show up at the gym five days in a row—even if it’s just for two minutes—you are casting votes for your new identity. As the votes accumulate, so does the evidence of your new identity."

New habits should be "gateway habits". It should be easy, quick, and painless. For example, doing one pushup, making one call, or reading for one minute. "But the point is not to do one thing. The point is to master the habit of showing up. The truth is, a habit must be established before it can be improved. If you can't learn the basic skill of showing up, then you have little hope of mastering the finer details."

Willpower and Self-control is not the answer

"[individuals with apparent self-control] aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, "disciplined" people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations. The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least."

"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... One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it."

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

Prehistoric Brains vs. Modern Stimuli = Bad Habits

"We have the brains of our ancestors but temptations they never had to face."

"After spending hundreds of thousands of years hunting and foraging for food in the wild, the human brain has evolved to place a high value on salt, sugar, and fat. When you don't know where your next meal is coming from, eating as much as possible is an excellent strategy for survival. Today, however, we live in a calorie-rich environment. Food is abundant, but your brain continues to crave it like it is scarce."

"These are the supernormal stimuli of our modern world. They exaggerate features that are naturally attractive to us, and our instincts go wild as a result, driving us into excessive shopping habits, social media habits, porn habits, eating habits, and many others."

An animal's environment: "On any given day, most of your decisions have an immediate impact. You are always thinking about what to eat or where to sleep or how to avoid a predator. You live in what scientists call an immediate-return environment because your actions instantly deliver clear and immediate outcomes.

Our modern environment: "If you do a good job at work, you will get a paycheck in a few weeks. If you exercise today, perhaps you won't be overweight next year... You live in what scientists call a delayed-return environment. The human brain did not evolve for life in a delayed-return environment."

Delayed Gratification (Optimizing for delayed-return environments)

“[almost always] when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa… Often, the sweeter the first fruit of a habit, the more bitter are its later fruits." - French economist Frédéric Bastiat

"As a general rule, the more immediate pleasure you get from an action, the more strongly you should question whether it aligns with your long-term goals."

Time inconsistency: The way our brain evaluates rewards is inconsistent over time (optimizing for immediate return).

Choosing Habits Initially

  1. Choose a "keystone habit" (Charles Duhigg) - one that ripples into other habits.

E.g. exercise = better mood, better sleep, better eating habits.

Not binge eating = comfortable stomach, able to exercise, less likely to repeat binge.

  1. Choose the right habit for your predisposition and genes.

"The secret to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition. This is just as true with habit change as it is with sports and business. Habits are easier to perform, and more satisfying to stick with, when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities. Like Michael Phelps in the pool or Hicham El Guerrouj on the track, you want to play a game where the odds are in your favor."

"Genes do not determine your destiny. They determine your areas of opportunity. As physician Gabor Mate notes, “Genes can predispose, but they don’t predetermine.”"

Explore/Exploit: Optimizing Habit Selection over time

- Begin by maximising exploration of new habits and systems (try new things).

- Then shift focus to the current best solution (80-90% effort).

- Allow 10-20% ongoing continual exploration.

Habits are a necessary, not sufficient condition for Mastery

- Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery

- Mastery is built up from a constant progression of habits, with time spent on deliberate practice shifting to build each new habit.