Atomic Habits by James Clear: Notes & Summary

Front cover of the book Atomic Habits by James Clear.

In short

People tend to underestimate the value of the small, of the incremental things we do every day. But small things compound to massive results over time so each small improvement or upgrade can make a large difference over time.

In Atomic Habits shows that the outcomes of our lives are often the results of our habits. How we organize our lives, and what we repeatedly do, determines where we’ll end up.

And every time we improve one of our habits or our approach to something we take a ‘vote’ for our identity. The habits that we have are identity-shaping; every time we play an instrument, for example, we vote toe become a musician.

Atomic Habits is a great book on the value of habits and how small changes and improvements can have a big impact over time.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.

“Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years. We all deal with setbacks but in the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. With the same habits, you’ll end up with the same results. But with better habits, anything is possible.”

People tend to focus on the big remarkable things, and tend to underestimate how much better we will get with small improvements. If you get 1 percent better every day for a year, you’ll end up being 37 times better than you are today. Small increases compound over time.

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” Only over a long period of time can you see the impact of bad habits, or the value of good ones.

“Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits.” And time really intensifies these results, if you take good habits + time = success, bad habits + time = failure.

“It is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.” This is why it is essential to focus on an overall system, rather than a specific goal when trying to achieve something.

There’s an important difference between outcome-based habits (what you want to achieve) vs. identity-based habits (what you want to become). When someone is offered a cigarette it’s the difference between ‘no thanks, I’m trying to quit’ and ‘no thanks, I’m not a smoker’.  “Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last.”

Habits are identity shaping. With every action you take you ‘vote’ for the person you will become.

Habits are shortcuts that the brain has learned in order to save time and not occupy the conscious mind. In a way habits actually provide freedom: the more you can do unconsciously, the less you are being forced to make continuous decisions on small things.

Habits can be divided into a continuous four step cycle/feedback loop:

  1. Cue (e.g. your phone buzzes)
  2. Craving (e.g. you want to check the message you received)
  3. Response (e.g. you take out your phone and read the notification)
  4. Reward (e.g. you satisfied the craving)

One you go through this feedback loop you create a neural pathway that associates the different steps of the process. In the above example: buzzing phones are now linked to grabbing your phone and reading the notification.

Creating good habits, or breaking bad habits, is based on this feedback loop. For each step in the cycle there are things that you can do to promote good habits or discourage bad ones.

 To promote good habits:To stop bad habits:
CueMake it obviousMake it invisible
CravingMake it attractiveMake it unattractive
ResponseMake it easyMake it difficult
RewardMake it satisfyingMake it unsatisfying

You don’t necessarily need to be consciously aware of the cue in order to start the habit. This is what makes habits powerful. It also makes them dangerous, since it’s easy to fall back into old patterns.

One tactic that might help to make things more consciously is to apply the ‘point-and-call’ approach. By pointing out and calling what you are about to do, you bring the habit back to the conscious part of the mind (‘I’m about to eat this burger, which is not good for me since I’m on a diet’…)

When starting a new habit it’s not always a lack of motivation that stops us, it can also be a lack of clarity. To help against this make a plan where you combine the action with a time and a location. (e.g. I will study for my Spanish exam for 1 hour at 7 PM tonight)

Habit stacking: another tactic, but instead of specifying the plan, you combine it with a previous habit. So after you do X, then you do Y.

“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour.” In the supermarkets shelves are designed with this in mind since we often chose things because of where they are (rather than what they are). You can also use this as an advantage: shape your own environment to make your habits easier (for example: put the fruit bowl on the middle of the table, rather than is a closed cabinet). This makes the ‘cue’ easier to see.

This is the principle behind the ‘one space, on use’ mantra. If you use one space only for one thing (e.g. office for working, bedroom for sleeping) it becomes easier to stick with a habit because you’re not mixing cues.

The people with the most self-discipline and self-control are often those who need to use it the least. You can try to improve those qualities, but it can be more useful to create a disciplined environment where there’s no ‘cues’ that can take you off track. It’s easy to not consume any junk food if you don’t have any at home.

The Premarck Principle: “more probable behaviours will reinforce less probable behaviours.” So if you want something, plan it after doing a habit you need to do.

We tend to imitate three social groups: close friends and family, the tribe, and the powerful. So one effective strategy is to join groups where your desired behaviour is the normal behaviour.

Habits are a way to satisfy some underlying motive – you can deal with stress (the motive) by smoking a cigarette or by going for a run. If we can break the association between the problem and the solution, we can substitute it for a better habit.

The difference between motion and action. The former is planning, learning, and strategizing – but they don’t produce any results. The latter is a behaviour that will deliver an outcome. Motion can be good but we have to remember it doesn’t deliver an outcome by itself, and many people tend to substitute motion for action (potentially because they want to delay some imagined failure).

People follow Law of Least Effort: we tend to choose options that expand the least energy (meaning the least amount of work). Reducing friction in the environment is key to actually doing the habit (meaning priming the environment for future behaviour). Or, if you want to break a habit, you can increase friction: for example unplug and store you game console away after every time you use it.

The two-minute rule: when starting with a new habit it should take less than 2 minutes to do so. The entire goal behind this is to show up: it takes a while to establish a new habit and that’s the critical part (habits can always be improved afterwards).

Another good strategy is to stay below the point where it feels like work. Most people stop because the effort is simply too much compared to the base scenario. But every time you do a habit you vote for a new identity – you don’t necessarily want to be in shape (= hard) but you want to be a person who doesn’t miss workouts (= easy, since a workout can be 2 minutes long).

“Standardize before you optimize. You can’t improve a habit that doesn’t exist.”

There’s a time inconsistency in how we evaluate rewards, since the brain values rewards now higher than potential rewards in the future. But this instant gratification causes issues, because why would we stop bad habits (that feel good) today, when the potential rewards are long way into the future? You can also say that: “the costs of your good habits are in the present. The costs of your bad habits are in the future.” A good question to ask yourself is: if I get immediate pleasure from an action, does it fit with my long-term goals?

Sticking with habits can be made easier by using visual measurements (the book has an example of a sales person moving 1 out of a 120 paperclips from one jar to another for every sales call he made) or using a habit tracker. By using a simple habit tracker you can see that you’re making progress even if you don’t feel so yourself. Another good example is ‘never break the chain’ from Jerry Seinfeld: it doesn’t matter what the quality is of your daily habit, as long as you show up and do the work.

“The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”

Charlie Munger: “The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessarily.”

Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” People tend to optimize for the things they can measure, but measurements are not the end-all, it should not be the goal.

Bad habits can be discouraged by making them immediately painful or unsatisfying. We usually try to avoid even a little bit of pain (e.g. late fees when returning books to the library).

In order to find areas where you can excel at, or that will be most satisfying to you personally, you can ask the following questions: What feels like fun to me, but work to others? What makes me lose track of time? Where do I get greater returns than the average person? What comes naturally to me?

The Goldilocks rule: peak motivation is reached when things are at the edge of your ability – not too hard, not too easy.

“Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.” You have to keep doing the same things again and again to become better – “you have to fall in love with boredom”

While building an identity through habits is good (“taking votes”), sometimes the build up beliefs can hold us back. Beliefs can create pride and ego, and stop us from seeing our weak spots. This is why it’s good not to let a single piece of identity define who you are. As Paul Graham said: ‘Keep your identity small’.

Small changes can give big results over time. So make habits obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. Over time all these small improvements will yield massive results.

Caed Budris: “Happiness is the space between one desire being fulfilled and a new desire forming.” So suffering can be defined between wanting something and getting something.

“Peace occurs when you don’t turn your observations into problems.” This means that when you see a cue or you observe something, you don’t act on it – you don’t create the desire.

Interested in Atomic Habits? Get the book on Amazon.

Or, browse all book notes here.