Atomic Habits

An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

by James Clear

320 pages, ★★★★☆
Finished on 4th of June, buy here.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Habits are the most basic feedback loop of human behavior. We can use them to our advantage if we remember the delayed gratification and the way that compound interest applies. Getting 1 percent better per day makes you 37 times better in a year.
  2. Our real motivation is to do what’s convenient and lazy. The idea is to make it easy for us to do the things which have a big payoff in the long run.
  3. Habits are strongly connected to identity. You see yourself as a healthy person, therefore you do workouts every day. You decide who you want to be.

🎨 Impressions

This book has been on my list for years and crossed my radar again and again. As you might be aware, with my public intention setting blog posts and yearly reviews, I have made the trial and application of habits in the areas of health, sports, and nutrition a big part of my routine. Often, these are tied to goals, which set the direction for me.

As I am interested in this field, the author James Clear and his ideas about habits reached my bubble a lot, so reading the book felt like finally being reunited with it. And there’s a lot in it which speaks directly to me.

As often the case with books in the self-improvement category, the first criticism is that this could have been a short blog post or a video. But in this case, I disagree. Yes, you can make a blog post or a video out of it, and many have, but reading the whole thing offers a lot more to every different way of thinking in this case. I had watched a few of the reviews of this book, but reading still opened my mind to many more ideas of his.

I especially liked is clear (no pun intended) and reduced style of writing. Very rarely there’s a word or sentence you could have omitted. It’s precise. The chapter summaries are useful and act as a TL;DR area.

In my opinion, it’s a book for everyone. It’s a book about better understanding the human mind and its behavioral mechanisms and using that knowledge to our own advantage.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • As I already am on the habit train, I didn’t need the nudge it provides that much, but it was still great to see and retroactively learn about the ways with which I got myself into making positive habits part of my identity and life.
  • The realization that the main driver behind maintaining a habit is to make your identity connected to it or move your identity in that direction is a powerful one but it also coins the question of “who do I want to be?”
  • I’ve been long doing annual personal reviews, but James Clear goes about it more consciously and makes more use of them by directing the underlying questioning to finding out more about his own identity and shift in that. I’ll try and copy that.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  1. 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.
  2. When a habit is truly important to you, you have to be willing to stick to it in any mood. Professionals take action even when the mood isn’t right.
  3. An accountability partner can create an immediate cost to inaction. We care deeply about what others think of us, and we do not want others to have a lesser opinion of us.

📔 Highlights & Notes

The Fundamentals: Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference

  • Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. But it’s often the tiny changes we just need to consistently apply.
  • If you can get 1 percent better each day for a year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done – thanks to the power of compounding.
  • Similarly, getting one percent worse per day leaves you at just 0.03 of what you started with at the beginning of a year.
  • The slow pace of transformation makes it easy to let a bad habit slide. But when repeating 1 percent errors, day after day, duplicating tiny mistakes, rationalizing excuses, our small choices compound into toxic results.
  • Success is the product of daily habits – not once-in-a-lifetime transformations. Daily habits which lagging outcomes. Time magnifies both outcomes, success and failure. Good habits make time your ally, bad ones make time your enemy.
  • Knowledge compounds: each book you read not only teaches you something new but also opens up different ways of thinking about old ideas.
  • Relationships compound: people reflect your behavior back to you. The more you help others, the more they’ll help you.
  • After going with a healthy new habit for a while, you’ll reach a plateau in improvements. In order to make a meaningful difference, habits need to persist long enough to break through this plateau.
  • Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.
  • 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.
  • 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. Don’t wish to do something, be the person who does it.
  • Pride is a booster: when it gets involved, you’ll more likely maintain your habits.
  • When behavior and identity are aligned, you’re not pursuing behavior change anymore. You are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be.
  • It doesn’t matter if you cast a few votes for bad behavior or an unproductive habit. Your goal is simply to win the majority of the time.
  • Ask yourself: “what would a healthy person do?”, “what would a creative person do?”, “what would a successful person do?”
  • The main feedback loop behind all human behavior is: try, fail, learn, try differently. With practice, the useless movements fade away and the useful action get reinforced. That’s habit forming.
  • Today, we spend most of our time learning cues that predict secondary rewards like money and fame, power and status, praise and approval, love and friendships, or a sense of personal satisfaction. This indirectly improves our odds of survival, which still is the deeper motive behind everything we do.
  • Without some level of motivation or desire, we have no reason to act.
  • The four laws of behavior change are: 1) make it obvious, 2) make it attractive, 3) make it easy, 4) make it satisfying.

The 1st Law: Make It Obvious

  • First, you have to become conscious of your habits. Carl Jung said: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
  • There are only effective habits. That is, effective at solving problems. All habits serve you in some way – even the bad ones – which is why you repeat them.
  • Ask yourself: “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?”
  • Use all your senses to increase awareness. For example, say out loud “I’m about to eat this cookie, but I don’t need it. Eating it will cause me to gain weight and hurt my health.” Hearing your bad habits spoken aloud makes the consequences seem more real.
  • Use the benefits of creating a “implementation intention”, for example make a rule like “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”
  • Subconsciously letting one thing lead to another can also be a downward spiral, for example when one purchase requires or triggers another one and so on. That’s called the Diderot Effect.
  • The key is to tie your desires behavior into something you already do each day, for example: “When I close my laptop for lunch, I will do ten push-ups next to my desk.”
  • Make it more convenient for yourself to do the thing you want to do. Consider the positioning of products – people often choose them not because of what they are, but because of where they are. Many of the action we take each day are shaped not by purposeful drive and choice but by the most obvious option. You don’t have to be the victim of your environment, you can also be the architect of it.
  • If you want to practice the guitar more often, place it in the middle of your living room.
  • Perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment.
  • Bad habits are autocatalytic. The process feeds itself. You feel bad, so you eat junk food. Because you eat junk food, you feel bad.
  • The secret to self-control is to make the cues of you good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.

The 2nd Law: Make It Attractive

  • Dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it.
  • As a child, thinking about Christmas morning can be better than opening the gifts. As an adult, daydreaming about an upcoming vacation can be more enjoyable than actually being on vacation.
  • The strategy is to pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do.
  • Be aware of the seductive pull of social norms. Becoming separated from the tribe used to be a death-sentence in human evolutionary history. Montaigne wrote, “The customs and practices of life in society sweep us along.”
  • Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. You’ll rise together.
  • Create a motivation ritual. Do something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit.
  • Whenever we’re unsure about how to act, we look to the group to guide or behavior. The reward of being accepted is often greater than the reward of winning an argument, looking smart, or finding truth.
  • We try to copy the behavior of successful people because we desire success ourselves.
  • Reprogram your brain to enjoy hard habits by changing just one word: You don’t have to do something, you get to do it. For example, don’t say “I need to go run in the morning”, say “It’s time to build endurance and get fast.” You can reframe “I am nervous” to “I am excited and I’m getting an adrenaline rush to help me concentrate.”

The 3rd Law: Make It Easy

  • Long-term potentiation is when you repeat an activity so often that your brain changes its structure in order to become more efficient at performing it.
  • Our real motivation is to do what’s convenient and lazy. The idea is to make it easy to do the things which have a big payoff in the long run.
  • The question to ask ourselves is therefore, “how can we design a world where it’s easy to do what’s right?”
  • For example, set the bar very low in the beginning. Everyone can go for a 1 mile run oder meditate for 1 minute, read 1 page of a book. But this is how you will slide into it and automatically go for longer.
  • Use a commitment device to your advantage. That’s when you make a choice in the present that controls your actions in the future. For example, leaving your wallet at home in order to avoid buying snacks if you would like to stop yourself from doing that.
  • Try to automate your habits. It frees up time and energy to pour into the next stage of growth. When working in your favor, automation can make your good habits inevitable and your bad habits impossible.

The 4th Law: Make It Satisfying

  • It is a lot easier for people to adopt a product that provides a strong positive sensory signal, for example the mint taste of toothpaste.
  • Pleasure teaches your brain that a behavior is worth remembering and repeating.
  • In our modern times, the pleasure is often delayed. That shift has happened during the last five hundred years or so. Now the tasks we have to perform don’t feel satisfying in and of itself at those moments, but further down the line. We work so we can enjoy retirement. It’s called a delayed-return environment and our brains have trouble with it.
  • We all want better lives for our future selves. However, when the moment of decision arrives, instant gratification usually wins.
  • When beginning a new habit, you need reason to stay on track. This is why immediate rewards are essential. They keep you excited while the delayed rewards accumulate in the background.
  • It can be challenging to stick with habits like “no frivolous purchases” or “no alcohol this month” because nothing happens when you skip happy hour drinks or don’t buy that pair of shoes.
  • Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit.
  • Research has shown that people who track their progress on goals like losing weight, quitting smoking, and lowering blood pressure are all more likely to improve than those who don’t.
  • The most effective form of motivation is progress. We need to see that we are moving forward. Each small win feeds our desire, made visible by tracking a habit. That’s what makes it satisfying if the task itself isn’t immediately, but in the long run.
  • How to recover quickly when you habits break down: remind yourself of the made up rule to never miss twice. If you miss once, get back into it as soon as possible. Rebound quickly.
  • The problem isn’t slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can’t do something perfectly, then you shouldn’t do it at all.
  • If you want to prevent bad habits and eliminate unhealthy behaviors, then adding an instant cost to the action is a great way to reduce their odds. For example, customers pay their bills on time when they are charged a late fee.
  • An accountability partner can create an immediate cost to inaction. We care deeply about what others think of us, and we do not want others to have a lesser opinion of us.

Advanced Tactics: How to Go From Being Merely Good to Being Truly Great

  • Genes can predispose, but they don’t predetermine. The areas where you are genetically predisposed to success are the areas where habits are more likely to be satisfying.
  • Your personality is a set of characteristics that is consistent from situation to situation.
    • Openness to experience: curious and inventive or cautious and consistent.
    • Conscientiousness: organized and efficient or easygoing and spontaneous.
    • Extroversion: outgoing and energetic or solitary and reserved.
    • Agreeableness: friendly and compassionate or challenging and detached.
    • Neuroticism: anxious and sensitive or confident and calm.
  • The takeaway is that you should build habits that work for your personality. You don’t have to build the habits everyone tells you to build. Choose the habit that best suit you, not the one that is most popular.
  • Ask, what feels like fun to me, but like work to others? 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.
  • When you can’t win by being better, you can win by being different. By combining your skills, you reduce the level of competition, which makes it easier to stand out.
  • 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.
  • Really successful people feel the same lack of motivation as everyone else. The difference is that they still find a way to show up despite the feelings of boredom.
  • When a habit is truly important to you, you have to be willing to stick to it in any mood. Professionals take action even when the mood isn’t right.
  • Some executives and investors keep a decision journal in which they record the major decisions they made each week along with reasons and expected outcomes and then review the actual outcomes later.
  • Perform a personal annual review: write down in December what went well during the year, what didn’t, what you learned. Contemplate what your core values are which drive your life and work. Reflection and review will help you find the biggest driver of behavior change: identity.
  • Paul Graham said to keep your identity small. The more you let a single belief define you, the less capable you are of adapting when life challenges you.
  • When you’re a CEO, try to see yourself not as that but as a person who builds and creates things. When you’re an athlete, see yourself as a person who is mentally tough and loves a physical challenge.
  • 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.
  • We can only be rational and logical after we have been emotional. The primary mode of the brain is to feel; the secondary mode is to think. Your action reveal how badly you want something. If you keep saying one thing but never act on it, it’s time to have an honest conversation with yourself.
  • Success is not a goal to reach or a finish line to cross. It is a system to improve, and endless process to refine.
  • Happiness is not about the achievement of pleasure (which is joy or satisfaction), but about the lack of desire. The trick to doing anything is first cultivating a desire for it.

Back

loading