Note: This Atomic Habits summary is part of an ongoing project to summarise The 70 Best Books on Productivity.
Atomic Habits Review
It’s not often I summarise books that were published in the last several years, but Atomic Habits is so good I decided to make an exception.
James Clear’s book is concise, thoughtful and well-researched. It’s accessible and inspiring. It’ll get you winning small victories, changing your beliefs and transforming your behaviour. It’ll help you take action no matter who you are or how much you’ve struggled to e.g., get healthier, learn new skills or become more productive in the past.
What follows is a quick book summary organised around 8 major questions:
- What are habits?
- Why is habit building important?
- What are some examples of good habits?
- What are some examples of bad habits?
- What habits should I build?
- How long does it take to build a new habit?
- How can I build and break habits effectively? and
- How can I stay motivated when building habits?
I’ve done my best to distil James’s ideas to their essence. And as always, that means losing a great deal of their character in the process.
What you’ll miss in particular are the wonderful stories, studies and analogies James uses to bring colour and life to his subject. If you haven’t already, they’re good enough reason by themselves to invest in a copy of the book.
Anyhow, whether you’re looking for an easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones or you’d like to discover how tiny changes can lead to remarkable results – Atomic Habits is a great place to start.
And whatever you do, don’t forget:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle.
Atomic Habits Summary
1 – What are habits?
A habit is a behaviour that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.
Every habit can be broken down into four simple steps:
- A cue – that indicates a possible change in state;
- A craving – a desire to reach or avoid that new state;
- A response – that increases the odds of satisfying the craving; and
- A reward – which satisfies the craving (and reinforces the cue).
As we discover and try new responses, we repeat those that trigger the reward most reliably and with the least effort.
With repetition, the response becomes a habit: an automatic response to a specific situation/cue.
2 – Why is habit building important?
Reason 1: Changing our beliefs is a powerful way to change outcomes.
- Our beliefs determine our identity;
- Our identity determines our actions:
- We act consistently with our identity; so
- Who we believe we are (“I am a smoker”)…
- Determines our actions (“I smoke”).
- And our actions determine our outcomes.
But you can’t just decide to change your beliefs, it takes proof.
And the only way to generate proof is to take lots of action.
But using conscious willpower to take action is hard and inconsistent.
- The conscious mind is the bottleneck of the brain.
Which is one reason habit building is important:
- Habits make taking action automatic and consistent; which
- Generates lots of proof; which
- Changes beliefs; which
- Alters identity; which
- Influences actions; which
- Change outcomes.
Conclusion: Changing one habit is all it takes to change a belief which can end up changing many new outcomes.
Reason 2: Some people fixate on goals (what; direction) when systems (how; inc. habits) are far more important:
- Goals are shared by winners and losers alike. Habits differentiate who becomes which.
- Goals lead to momentary change. Habits create changes that stick.
- Goals are about the destination; about winning. Habits are about enjoying the journey.
Other people fixate on current results when trajectory is far more important.
- Outcomes are a lagging measure of inputs;
- Inputs determine trajectory; and
- Trajectory determines outputs.
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
- Tiny changes in behaviours create big shifts in trajectory and future results.
- 1% improvement each day for a year → 37x better
- 1% impairment each day → zero
- This is true for both one habit pulling in one direction over time;
- AND many habits all pulling together in one direction.
Conclusion: You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your habits.
- Leaving those habits to chance can put us on on a sub-conscious path to disaster.
- Consciously changing our habits to optimise outcomes puts us back in control.
- And putting those outcomes on autopilot frees our minds to focus on other things.
3 – What are some examples of good habits?
ARTHUR: James doesn’t lay out a single list of good habits anywhere in the book. I’ve harvested these from the various examples he scatters through the chapters.
ARTHUR: I’ve organised these good habits according to the 8 areas of TAoL’s wheel of life.
- HV – Healthy eating, cooking, exercise, taking medication, drinking water, sleeping early;
- TE – Meditating, journaling, relaxing;
- FF – Sending thank you notes;
- GL – Practising a skill (e.g., drawing, playing an instrument);
- PP – Decluttering, waking up early; and
- WL – Saving money.
NOTE: Check out TAoL’s Ultimate Guide to Habit Tracking for more examples.
4 – What are some examples of bad habits?
ARTHUR: James doesn’t lay out a single list of bad habits anywhere in the book. I’ve harvested these from the various examples he scatters through the chapters.
ARTHUR: I’ve organised these bad habits according to the 8 areas of TAoL’s wheel of life.
- HV – Eating junk food, smoking;
- TE – Stressing, negative thinking, getting angry;
- PP – Watching too much TV, playing video games, procrastinating;
- BC – Overworking; and
- WL – Overspending.
5 – Which habits should I build?
You are who you are and you love what you love. Don’t fight that. Use it.
First, give yourself permission to explore habits and approaches that work for you. Ask:
- “What feels like fun?”
- “What makes me lose track of time?”
- “Where do I get greater returns than the average person?”
- “What comes naturally to me?”
Then, specialise; focus your effort on habits and approaches that excite you and align with your personality and strengths.
You still need to put in the work. But the easier and more enjoyable you find it to build habits, the greater your odds of success.
6 – How long does it take to build a new habit?
Every habit is different but all habits depend on building progressively stronger associations between response and reward.
It could take 1 repetition or thousands to build a habit, but behaviours that are…
- Simple – Easy to learn and repeat;
- Connected – Have a quick and clearer cause/effect relationship with the reward; and
- Strongly emotional – Trigger big rewards (either attaining or avoiding an outcome);
…require fewer repetitions to reach high levels of automaticity.
ARTHUR: James’s answer misses some important points here (frequency is NOT always the major determinant of memory/habit formation) so I’ve supplemented these notes from my neurophysiology major.
7 – How can I build and break habits effectively?
To change habits successfully, you must:
- Change the right habits; and
- Change habits the right way.
To change the right habits, focus on identity (who) and processes (how), not outcomes (what):
- Outcomes are what you get (What: “I want to read books”).
- Processes are what you do (How: “I’ll read every day”).
- Identity is what you believe about yourself (Who: “I am a reader”).
Every moment, every choice drives a powerful feedback loop where:
- Your habits shape your identity; and
- Your identity shapes your habits.
New identities require new evidence. To change yours, first ask:
- “What kind of outcomes do I want?” then
- “What kind of person do I want/need to become?” then
- “What quick wins/habits can I work on to reinforce those beliefs?”
Then get to work and correct your trajectory every day by asking:
- “Am I becoming the type of person I want to become?”; and
- “What would the kind of person I want to become do in this situation?”
To change habits the right way, make good/bad:
- Cues: Obvious/invisible;
- Cravings: Attractive/unattractive;
- Responses: Easy/hard;
- Rewards: Satisfying/unsatisfying
NOTE: Before you change anything, use a habits scorecard to build awareness of existing responses:
- Point-and-call – Write a granular list of your daily habits;
- Evaluate net long-term outcomes – Label each habit as good (+), bad (-) or neutral (=);
Then re-arrange, add to and design new, written plans of action by:
- Setting clear implementation intentions:
- “I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]”.
- Habit stacking:
- “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]”; or
- “When I [ACTION], I will [NEW HABIT]”.
TIP: Make your new habits as specific as possible (what, when, how, how much).
Then to maximise your odds of success…
1 – How to make habits obvious/invisible:
Pick existing cues that:
- Occur with the same frequency (daily, weekly, monthly) as your desired new habit; and
- Are highly specific and immediately actionable.
(Re-)design cues to be:
- Visual – Vision is our most powerful sense; and
- Obvious – Make it easy to spot them
Engineer your environment to minimise reliance on will-power and self-control:
- Move yourself someplace without competing/undesirable cues;
- Remove competing/undesirable cues from your environment;
- Fill your environment with your new/desirable cues; and
- Avoid creating contexts that trigger multiple habits.
2 – How to make habits attractive/unattractive:
Combine habit stacking with temptation bundling to pair actions you want with actions you need:
- “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED].“
- “After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].“
Proactively manage band-wagon effect:
- Be aware that you have a strong natural desire to conform with:
- The close – the people directly around you;
- The many – the culture/society you immerse yourself in; and
- The powerful – the successful people you look up to.
- Use this to your advantage. Proactively join groups where:
- Your desired behaviour is already a norm; and
- You have something in common with the group.
- Good habits – to highlight benefits (“I get to”) instead of drawbacks (“I have to”).
- Bad habits – to highlight drawbacks instead of benefits.
Use motivation rituals:
- Practice doing something enjoyable before a difficult habit; then later
- Use the enjoyable action to trigger cravings for the difficult habit.
3 – How to make taking action easy:
Show up and get started.
- The best way to start, is to start;
- Don’t get caught up in planning or perfectionism;
- Identify and start with the easy, 2-minute version, then build on those wins.
Engineer your environment to make it easy to perform good habits:
- List and take any one-time actions that will pay-off again and again;
- Schedule habits for times and places that fit easily into your existing routine;
- Organise and lay out what you need in advance so it’s easy to access;
- Use technology to automate/incentivise good behaviour.
(Do the opposite to make it harder to perform bad habits)
Examples of decreasing (↓) and increasing (↑) friction:
- ↓ Lay your gym clothes out the night before;
- ↓ Prep healthy foods/snacks on the weekend;
- ↓ Pay for a gym session ahead of time;
- ↓ Automate e.g., prescriptions, savings, meal delivery;
- ↑ Leave your phone in a different room;
- ↑ Delete social media apps and games;
- ↑ Take the batteries out of your remote control;
- ↑ Put your WiFi router on an outlet timer.
4 – How to make habits satisfying:
Reinforce good behaviour with instant and pleasurable rewards.
- EITHER make the action itself satisfying and pleasurable e.g.,
- Invest in tools that are satisfying to use;
- Make progress satisfying and visual (e.g., with habit trackers); or
- Design the habit so it’s satisfying to perform.
- OR instantly reward yourself for taking the desired action e.g.,
- Transfer money towards buying something you want; or
- Treat yourself to something you enjoy.
(Note: Be sure the reward doesn’t conflict with your identity or another habit e.g., getting a bowl of ice-cream when you’re trying to lose weight)
Use accountability partners to create immediate social rewards/costs for taking action.
Use a formal habit contract to strengthen (dis)incentives:
- Set (e.g., financial) penalties for performing bad habits/missing targets;
- Put the criteria and penalties down in writing; and
- Find a judge to co-sign and hold you accountable to the contract.
Keep streaks alive by rebounding quickly when your habits break down:
- Don’t think “all or nothing” – something is always better than nothing;
- Never miss twice – make a commitment to never miss two repetitions in a row.
8 – How can I stay motivated when building habits?
When you start a new habit, make it easy so you’re more likely to stick with it.
As you start learning a habit, get into flow by aiming for The Goldilocks Zone.
- Review and adjust the challenge so it sits on the perimeter of your ability;
- Aim for a 50/50 ratio between failure and reward.
As you approach habit mastery:
- Show up and keep going even when the work isn’t exciting.
- Don’t be an amateur – don’t let “life” get in the way of your progress.
- Be a professional – show up and stick to the schedule even if your don’t feel like it.
- Reflect and review regularly; ask:
- “What went well?”
- “What didn’t go well?”
- “What did I learn?”
Once you’ve mastered a habit:
- Master the next one; practice new habits deliberately until you master the field;
- Redefine and expand your sense of identity:
- “I am an athlete” → “I’m the type of person who is mentally tough and loves physical challenges.”
- “I am a CEO” → “I’m the type of person who builds and creates things.”
And finally, manage your expectations:
- Habits take compounding effort and produce compounding results;
- The most powerful outcomes in compounding are delayed;
- Accept that noticeable change can take years, until you cross a critical threshold…
- …before it happens all at once.
Wish There Was a Faster/Easier Way?
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Enjoyed this Atomic Habits summary? You might enjoy the rest of the books on this list of The 70 Best Productivity Books of All Time.