This article is a summary of Atomic Habits.
James Clear’s Atomic Habits is a self-improvement book that describes the power of making small changes over a long period to achieve great results.
Everybody needs a grand goal — big hopes and big dreams — in order to make it in our competitive society.
We all aim for the stars. What we tend to miss is that the goal, on its own, is a bit too vague. This books teaches the reader ways to actually pave their way to the stars. And to keep going beyond.
What follows is an actionable framework of making small lifestyle changes and perspective shifts. It’ll give you a way to control your behavior. To choose your own destiny, so to speak.
Goals vs. Systems
Clear found that it is more important to create a good system of doing things than to just have a goal. A good system allows a person to go above and beyond their goals.
Let’s take an example here. Say there’s Peggy, a software engineer and part-time author, who wants to “get in shape”.
This is a goal, an endgame. It is a vague statement that defines only the objective, and not a way to achieve that objective. In order to achieve her objective, Peggy has to watch what she eats, set up a workout schedule, and maintain a good sleep cycle.
If Peggy can turn these small steps into habits, she’d would be able to achieve her ideal weight and maintain it throughout her life.
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
If we want to hold on to our successes and achieve even greater things, we have to make systemic changes. Just a clear goal is not enough.
Taking small steps is possible; leaping over all obstacles into overnight success is fantasy.
This process of cultivating good habits through small, systemic changes is what Clear calls “Atomic habits”. They are the building blocks of great success, just like how atoms build up matter.
The first step in making a habit is an identity change.
Behavioral patterns emerge from the person’s underlying belief system. If the identity changes, so will the processes of doing things. The outcome will follow.
Actions backed by a strong belief-system tend to be the most impactful. In order to achieve something, a person has to truly want that thing.
Someone hoping to lose weight must first believe themselves capable of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
This will provide an intrinsic motivation to prioritize workout and healthy eating over lazing around and eating junk.
Instead of being someone that only wants to be healthy, it is more important to see themselves as being healthy.
How Habits Form
The four laws of behavior change
The underlying neurological framework of habit formation is a four-step feedback loop of cue, craving, response and result.
The cue triggers a craving in us; this prompts a response, which ultimately leads us to a result.
To explain through an example — think of how the first thing you do when entering a dark room is to turn on the lights. It’s a habit everybody has.
Here, the cue is the absence of light. We crave to be able to see, and respond by flicking the switch. The blossoming of light is our result, which satisfies the craving. Habits are formed though repetition of this loop.
Clear uses this feedback loop to derive his Four Laws of Behavior Change. This is a set of rules to make 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
What this means is that the cue should be easy to catch, the craving irresistible, the response easy and the reward worth the effort. We can take the corollaries to these four laws to give us the steps to break a bad habit —
The 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible
The 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive
The 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult
The 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying
The First Law
A habit, once formed, becomes part of a person’s subconscious identity. It happens automatically. One doesn’t need to be aware of the cue for the habit to be triggered. Cues are generally invisible.
The habits scorecard
Awareness is the first step to forming a new habit. Clear’s strategy is use the Habits Scorecard. This is a system of listing out daily habits, and assigning the labels positive or negative to each trait.
Let’s go back to Peggy and her quest to lose weight. Suppose her morning routine involves eating a PB&J sandwich and then going for a run. She can mark the sandwich as a negative habit, and the run as a positive.
Of course, the positive/negative label is completely subjective. It depends on the individual’s circumstances and goals.
What the Scorecard does is to provide a concrete indication of unconscious behavioral patterns. Using the scorecard as a basis, the person can decide what is working for them and what isn’t.
Awareness through a scorecard will also help you be on the lookout for bad habits. Once somebody is aware of negative traits, they can make corrective responses.
The human brain is a pattern matching machine. If one can form associations among the new habits one is trying to form, it will be that much easier to follow through.
Essentially, the goal is to make the response of one habit serve as the cue to another. In this way, a stack of habits can be formed.
An action plan
Combining these two tools, one can come up with an action plan to start new habits. Suppose a person notices that they have been letting the stress of work affect their family. They want to take up meditation and drink herbal tea to destress. Here’s what they can put into practice –
- After my client call is over at 5pm, I will drink green tea in the break room
- After the tea has relaxed me, I will meditate for 5 minutes in the same room
The corollary to the first law
In order to break a bad habit, one has to start by making the cue invisible.
Clear has found out that habits become associated with the context surrounding the particular behavior. Let’s say a person tends to waste time looking at their phone during working hours.
Upon analyzing their situation, they find that they keep their phone and work computer on the same desk. Setting up separate office space and leisure space would be helpful for this person.
Subtly changing the environment like this gives us an easy way to obfuscate cues, and break bad habits.
The Second Law
Now we can tackle the 2nd law, the problem of making a habit attractive.
Clear touches upon the 1954 neurological experiment that demonstrated the role of dopamine in controlling desire in mammals.
Subsequent research has shown that the brain creates a dopamine surge when it experiences a reward from some behavior.
With repetition, the brain begins to experience pleasure even before it achieves the reward. The anticipation becomes as pleasurable as the outcome.
Clear has derived his concept of temptation bundling from these observations.
This is a process of linking an action that needs to be performed to one that you want to perform. You can leverage temptation bundling to make good habits irresistible.
Temptation bundling is one way to create a heightened version of any habit by connecting it with something you already want
Example time — let’s say Peggy wants to workout in the morning, but finds that she wastes time looking at social media. Her workout is a want and the exercise is a need. Peggy can bundle her temptations as –
- After I get up in the morning, I will work out.
- After I’m done working out, I’ll look at my phone.
The Third Law
It is natural for humans to be more inclined to do things that require little to no effort.
This is what makes bad habits linger: it’s much easier to order a burger than to make a healthy meal; and it’s so much more comforting to just consume social media than to create your own content.
Bad habits are always easy to sustain and give quick satisfaction. The Third Law of Behavior Change in action here — people are inclined to keep doing things that are easy.
This brings us to the basic idea behind breaking a bad habit: make it difficult. And if you want to start a good habit, you have to make it easy to do. Here’s a few strategies —
The two-minute rule
When forming a new habit, it is important to start small, and scale up gradually. A big goal should be atomized into smaller steps.
You start with the very easy step and make your way to the very hard. The initial stages of a new habit should take less than two minutes to do.
Suppose your goal is to workout. The very easy first step will be to put on workout clothes. Next step is to warm-up.
And finally you can do a hundred push-ups, which is the hard part. The small two-minute rituals that lead to a big behavior change are known as gateway habits.
The commitment device
Now that we know how to make good habits easy, let’s discuss some ways of making bad habits hard. Clear suggests using the commitment device — a choice made in the present to lock in some future behavior. It helps us make a commitment to a good habit.
Commitment devices are useful because they enable you to take advantage of good intentions before you can fall victim to temptations
In Peggy’s case, she can schedule and pay for a Yoga session ahead of time, as soon as she gets the urge to exercise. There’s other ways of automating your life —
- Save for your retirement by taking a voluntary automatic wage deduction. Wasting money on frivolities will get difficult
- Create very complex passwords for your social media, then log out of all platforms. Getting back will become more trouble than it’s worth
- Control your caloric intake by switching to smaller plates
- Buy a good mattress to sleep better
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The Fourth Law
We are now ready to discuss the fourth law — making the reward satisfying. This is the final step that completes the feedback loop.
While the first three laws contribute to making sure a behavior is performed this time, the final law ensures that the behavior will be repeated the next time.
In the initial stages of habit formation, one has to find a way to reward oneself immediately. This reinforces the sought after behavior change.
You need an incentive to start a habit. When that habit becomes a part of your identity, you can sustain it on your own.
The habit tracker
You need to develop a way to visually mark your progress each day. This is known as the habit tracker.
The simplest way to do this is to mark your calendar each day you stick to the habit you’re trying to form.
You build a streak this way. It’s a strategy to provide some visual feedback on your progress, thereby making the rewards seem more real and immediate.
It also appeals to your pride — the streak you’ve built through so much effort becomes something you need to protect.
Of course, it’s not possible to maintain a streak forever. Life happens.
An emergency at work means you can’t stick to your workout routine, or your friends visit and you go out drinking. In cases like this, your habit tracker lets you get back to your routine much quicker.
The broken streak will stick out like a sore thumb, beckoning you towards the habit you were trying to form. And you can look forward to building a new streak. In short, the habit tracker lets you:
Stick with good habits every day
A perspective shift is required is you want to break a bad habit. You need to find a way to replace the rewards you normally expect from your negative traits.
How to do that? Let’s go back to Peggy. Suppose she has managed to workout daily for a week. A good reward for her might be to take a massage.
Similarly, someone trying to save money should set up a weekly savings quota. Once their quota is met, they can reward themselves by splurging a little.
The generalized strategy to do this would be set up some easily achievable weekly goal. When you have reached said goal, you can take a quick reward.
In short, you need to reward yourself for avoiding your bad habit — thereby making it unappealing.
Note that the short-term reward should match the long-term identity you are trying to build. Eating ice-cream after exercise would be counterproductive if you’re trying to lose weight, after all.
Atomic Habits Summary – Conclusion
This is the end of our Atomic Habits summary.
Achieving great results is a very slow process.
Results will not be visible for years. It’s important to not lose hope. And to keep making small improvements wherever possible.
Tiny changes compound to make something profound. This is the ultimate message of the book —
The secret of getting results that last is to never stop making improvements
Atomic habits allow us to take control of our lives.
There’s no need to tunnel in on a big, vague goal. What we can do is make small adjustments to way we approach things, thereby creating a reliable system of operation.
When we have a handle on our behavior, we get the power to manifest our own destiny. The focus should be on making tiny, sustainable and unrelenting changes.
Good habits will be built and we’ll find success along the way.
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