Atomic Habit by James Clear

Rating: 9/10

A really great book that goes deep into the psychology of human behavior. The book looks at our behaviors with different angles and provides step-by-step guide to build good habits.

The biggest takeaway from the book is removing bad habits or building good habits is not about self-discipline. Self-discipline is overrated. They key point is to make things easy to build your desired habits.


Small habits make a difference

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvements. Small habit change is not noticeable.

You should be more concerned with current trajectory than current results. Your outcome are lagging measures of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of you eating habits.

In order to make a meaningful difference, habits need to persist long enough to break through this plateau. This is the Plateau of latent potential. When you finally break through this plateau, people call it overnight success.

Forget about goals, focus on systems instead.
Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to these results.

  1. Winners and losers have the same goal.
  2. Achieving a goal is only a momentary change.
    We think we should change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those goals.
  3. Goal restrict your happiness.
    The problem with a goal-first mentality is that you are continually putting happiness off until the next milestones. Happiness is for your future self to enjoy.
    Goals create an "either-or" conflict: either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are a disappointment.
    A system-first mentality provides the antidote. When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don't have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy.
  4. Goals are at odds with long-term progress. Many runners work hard for months but as soon as they cross the finish line, they stop training.

How your habits shape your identity (and Vice versa)

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

Changing our habits is challenging for 2 reasons: we try to change the wrong thing and 2) we try to change our habits in the wrong way.

There are 3 layers at which change can occur:

  1. Change your outcomes: this is concerned with changing results
  2. Change your process: this is concerned with changing your habits and systems.
  3. Chang your identity: this is concerned with changing your belief, your worldview, your self-image, your judgement about yourself and others.

Outcomes are what you get. Processes are what you do. Identity is about what you believe.

Most people focus on outcome-based habits. The alternative is identity-based habits. We start by focusing on who we wish to become.

Behind every system of outcomes are a system of actions. Behind every systems of actions are a system of beliefs.

The ultimate form of intrinsic motivations is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It's one thing to say "I'm the type of person who wants it". It's very different from "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. When your pride gets involved, you'll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.

You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you'll stick with on is that it becomes part of your identity.

Example: the person who incorporates exercise into their identity doesn't have to convince themselves to train.

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

Your habits are not the only actions that influence your identity, but by virtue of their frequency they are usually the most important ones.

Your habits are the path to changing your identity. The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do.

  • Each time you write a page, you are a writer.
  • Each time you practice the violin, you are a musician.

Each habit not only gets results but also teaches you something far more important: you trust yourselves. New identities require new evidence. It is a simple two-step process:

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

How to build better habits in 4 simple steps

Why your brain builds habits?

  • The first time you encounter a problem, you ask yourselves: "How do I respond to this?"
  • You keep exploring until you find a reward.
  • Your brain immediately begins to catalog the events that preceded the reward. "What did I do right before that?"

Whenever you face a problem repeatedly, your brain begins to automate the process of solving it. Your habits are a series of automatic solutions that solve the problems and stresses you face regularly.

As habits are created, the level of activity in the brain decreases. You learn to lock in on the cues that predict success and tune out everything else. Your brain skips the process of trial and error and creates a mental rule: if this, then that.

Habits are mental shortcuts learned from experience. Habit formation is incredibly useful because the conscious mind is the bottleneck o the brain. It can only pay attention to one problem at a time. As a result, your brain is always working to preserve your conscious attention for whatever the task is most essential.

Whenever possible, the conscious mind likes to pawn off tasks to the nonconscious mind to do automatically.

Habits do not restrict freedom. They create it. It's only by making the fundamentals of life easier that you can create the mental space for free thinking and creativity.

The science of how habits work

4 stages of a habit:

  1. Cue: noticing a reward
  2. Crave: wanting the reward
  3. Response: obtaining the reward.
  4. The reward

Cue triggers your brain to initiate behavior. It is a bit of information that predicts a reward. Your mind continuously analyze your internal and external environment for hints of where reward are located.

Cravings are the second step that are the motivational force behind every habit. Without motivation or desire, we have not reason to act. What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers.

For example, you do not crave smoking a cigarette but the feeling it provides.

Every craving is linked to a desire to change your internal state.

Cues are meaningless until they are interpreted. The thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the observer are what transform cue into a craving.

The third step is the response which is the actual habit you perform. If a particular action requires more physical or mental effort than you are willing to expend, then you won't do it.

Finally, response delivers reward. The first purpose of rewards is to satisfy our craving. The second purpose is to teach us which actions are worth remembering in the future.

Feelings of pleasure and disappointment are part of the feedback mechanism that helps your brain distinguish useful actions from useless ones. Rewards close the feedback loop and complete the habit cycle.

The best way to star a new habit

Habits that reinforce your desired identity are usually good. Habits that conflict with your desired identity are usually bad.

The first step to changing bad habits is to be on the lookout for them. If you feel like you need extra help, then you can try Pointing-and-Calling in your life. Say out loud the action that you are thinking of taking and what the outcome will be.

Hearing your bad habits spoken aloud makes the consequences seem more real.

We are more likely to change our habits when we have implementation plan, which is a plan we make beforehand about when and where to act.

Habit stacking

When it comes to building new habits, you can use the connectedness of behavior to your advantage. One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already to each day and then stack your new behavior on top.

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

The key is to tie your desired behavior to something you already do everyday. You can insert a new habit in your daily routine.

Wake up > Make my bed > Place a book on my pillow > Take a shower.

The secret to creating a successful habit stack is selecting the right cue to kick things off. Don't ask yourself to do a habit when you're likely to be occupied with something else.

Habit stacking works best when the cue is highly specific and immediately actionable. Many people select cues that are too vague.

Motivation is overrated; Environment often matters more.

We tend to choose things that are obvious to us. Creating obvious visual cues can draw your attention toward a desired habits.

Over time your habits become associated not with single trigger but with the entire context surrounding the behavior. Stop thinking about your environment as filled with objects. Start thinking about it as filled with relationship.

You can train yourself to link a particular habits with a particular context.

Robert Steele's study of American soldier returned from Vietnam war: 90% of people who are heroin addicted eliminated their behavior. This study contradicted what was popular belief at that time regarding heroin addiction.

The answer was simple: addiction could be dissolved if there was a radical change in environment.

Scientist analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren't all that different form 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 situation.

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.

"cue-induced wanting": an external trigger causes a compulsive craving to repeat a bad habit. Once you notice something, you begin to want it.

Resisting temptation is an ineffective strategy. I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environments.

The most practical way to eliminate bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it. Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one.

How to make a Habit Irressistible

Society is filled with highly engineered versions of reality that are more attractive than the world our ancestors evolved in. Social media delivers more"likes" in a few minutes than we could get in the office. Online porn splices together stimulating scenes at a rate that would be impossible to replicate in real life.

If history serves as a guide, the opportunities of the future will be more attractive than those of today. The trend for rewards to become more concentrated and stimuli to become more enticing.

The Dopamine-driven feedback loop

Scientists can track the precise moment a craving occurs by measuring a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Release of dopamine is the source of craving and desire. Without dopamine, desire dies. Without desire, action stops.

Dopamine is released not only when you experience the pleasure but also when you anticipate it. It is the anticipation of a reward - not the fulfillment of it -that gets us to take action.

The reward system that is activated in the brain when you receive a reward is the same system that is activated when you anticipate a reward. As an adult, daydreaming about upcoming vacation can be more enjoyable than actually being on vacation.

The wanting portion in our brain is large. The liking part is smaller.

Temptation bundling

Case study of ABC (a broadcast company): If you drink red wine and eat popcorn at 8pm every Thursday, then eventually "8pm on Thursday" means relaxation. More probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.

The habit stacking + temptation bundling formula is:

  1. After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED].
  2. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].

For example, if you want to check Facebook, but you need to exercise more:

  1. After I pull out my phone, I will do ten burpees (need).
  2. After I do ten burpees, I will check Facebook.

The seductive pull of social norms

Humans are herd animal. We don't choose our earliest habits, we imitate them.

We imitate the habits of three groups in particular:

  1. The close
  2. The many
  3. The powerful
Imitating the close

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 day.

Join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior and you already have something in common with the group.

Imitating the many

Whenever we are unsure how to act, we look to the group to guide our behavior. We are constantly scanning our environment and wonder "What is everyone else doing". That's why we check reviews on Yelp or Amazon.

There is tremendous pressure to comply with the norms of the group. The reward of being accepted is often greater than the reward of wining an argument, looking smart, or find truth.

Imitating the Powerful

Humans everywhere pursue power, prestige, and status. This tendency can be vain, but overall, it's a smart move. Historically, people with greater power and status has access to more resources, worries less about survival and proves to be more attractive to mate.

We are drawn to behaviors that earn us respect, approval, admiration. Once we fit in, we want to stand out.

How to Find and Fix the Causes of Your Bad Habits

Every behavior has a surface level craving and a deeper, underlying motive.Here's the powerful part: there are many different ways to address the same underlying motive.

Our behavior is heavily dependent on predictions. These predictions lead to feelings, which is how we typically describe a craving - a feeling, a desire, an urge.

A craving is the sense that something is missing. It is the desire to change your internal state. Desire is the difference between where you are now and where you are in the future. Action is triggered to make you feel different.

How to reprogram your brain to enjoy hard habits

You can make hard habits more attractive if you can learn to associate them with a positive experience. E.g. people often think exercise is challenging but you can treat it as a way to endurance and getting fast.

If you want to take it a step further, you can create a motivation ritual. You simply practice associating your habits with something you enjoy.

Make it easy

Most of us want to avoid criticism. That's the big reason why we don't want to take action: you want to delay failure.

You don't want to merely planning. You want to be practicing. If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection.

The law of least effort

Our energy is precious, and the brain is wired to conserve it whenever possible. We are motivated to do what is easy.

Every action requires a certain amount of energy. The less energy a habit requires, the more likely it is to occur.

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.

One of the most effective ways to reduce the friction associated with your habits is to practice environment design. Japanese companies looked for all points of frictions to increase workers' productivity.

Whenever you organize a space for its intended purpose, you are priming it to make the next action easy.

To remove bad habits, make it difficult. If you want to watch TV less, move the TV after watching into a closet.

2 Minute rules

Every day, there are a handful of moments that deliver an outsized impact. This can be called decisive moments. Decisive moments set the options available to your future self.

Decisive moments can have big impacts on your day. That's why mastering the decisive moments throughout your day is so important.

The 2 minutes rule: when you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.

Instead of doing everything perfect from start, do the easy thing on a more consistent basis. You have to standardize before you can optimize.

Strategies like this work for another reason: they reinforce the identity you want to build. If you show up at the gym five days per week - even for 2 minutes - you are casting votes for your new identity.

How the author limit social media usage: He asked his assistant to change passwords of all his social media accounts on Monday and give him the passwords on Friday.

Cardinal Rule for Behavior Change

We now live in a delayed-return environment while human's is to accept immediate reward.

The cost of good habits are in the present. The costs of your bad habits are in the future.

The ending of any experience is vital because we tend to remember it more than other phases. You want the ending of your habits to be satisfying.

The best approach is to use reinforcement. Habits stacking ties your habits to an immediate cue, which makes it obvious when to start.

How to stick with good habits

Making progress is satisfying and visual measures - like moving paper clips or hairpins or marbles - provide a clear evidence of your progress. Don't break the chain is a powerful mantra.

Example: Github commit tracking. The more green you do, the better you are. Or I marked difficult math problem I solved myself with an X. I just wanted to see the book full of mark.

Habit Tracking

The mere act of tracking a behavior can spark the urge to change it.

Habit tracking keeps you honest. Most of us have a distorted view of our own behavior. We think we act better than we do. Measurement offers one way to overcome our blindness to our own behaviors.

Habit tracking is attractive. The most effective form of motivation is progress. When we get a signal that we are moving forward, we become more motivated to continue down the path.

Habit tracking also helps keep your eye on the ball: you're focused on the process rather than the result. You're not fixated on getting six-pack abs, you're jus trying to keep the streak alive and become the type of person who doesn't miss workouts.

When your habits break down

Anyone can have bad day, bad workout but when successful people fail, they rebound quickly. The breaking of a habit doesn't matter if the reclaiming of it is fast.

Too often, we fall into an all-or-nothing cycle with our habits. The problem is not slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can't do something perfectly, then you shouldn't do it at all.

How to find what game you have a favorable odd?

  1. What makes me feel like fun to me but work to others
  2. What makes me lose track of time?
  3. Where do I get greater returns than average person?
  4. What comes naturally to me?

You should choose a game that have a favorable odd. It's more productive to focus on whether you are fulfilling your own potential than comparing yourself to someone else.

How to stay motivated

The Goldilocks Rule: Maximum motivation occurs when facing a challenge of just manageable difficulty.

The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom.

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.

Downside of creating Good Habits

Repetition develops fluency, speed and skill but as it becomes automatic, you become less and less sensitive to feedback. You fall into mindless repetition.

Show Comments