Atomic Habits by James Clear

Buy Atomic Habits here.

🔑 Key ideas:

  • don’t focus on setting goals – focus on creating systems that will help you achieve your goals
  • good habits let you accumulate small wins and improve gradually, such that eventually you can become an “overnight success”
  • for changing habits it’s best to focus on changing your identity, e.g. convince yourself “I’m an entrepreneur/writer/runner”. This will cascade down to your behaviors

4 laws of behavior change

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying 

Notes and quotes:

To write a good book, you must first become the book.

This sentence, near the beginning of the book, really stood out to me. I found Atomic Habits to be full of insanely valuable ideas. Most business and self-improvement books that I’ve read could be summarized in a few pages. The rest is filler material, usually anecdotes or case studies, that can justify printing the main ideas as a 200-page book. But it is obvious that James Clear did a ton of research and managed to write one of the few books that, without exaggeration, changed my life.

Plateau of latent potential – often when you start a new habit, there’s a phase when you don’t see any obvious improvements or results. But you need to push through and persist, because eventually you will reach a turning point. This is what “overnight success” looks like. Think tectonic plates — they grind against each other constantly, but only when enough pressure builds up, they produce an earthquake.

Forget goals. Focus on systems.

Anybody can set a goal to run a marathon or to make a million dollars. The difference between winners and losers is that winners have systems (habits) in place that keep them working toward their goals consistently. An important part of that is to enjoy the process. You won’t run a marathon if you hate running. You have to find a way to enjoy it. This way you will be happy even before you’ve achieved your goal.

Atomic habits are small actions that over time produce massive results.

Why do we fail at changing habits?

  1. We try to change the wrong thing
  2. We try to change the wrong way

We can change 1. outcomes, 2. processes, 3. our identity. Changes to our identity are the deepest and will cascade down to our actions relatively easily. The prouder you are of some part of your identity, the more effort you will put into habits that maintain it.

Your identity emerges from your habits. When you change your habits, you change your identity. You don’t need to do it right every single time — if you miss a day of running, it won’t damage your identity as a runner, as long as you do run more often than not.

How to change your identity? Translate outcomes into identities. What kind of person is fit/wealthy/has good relationships…? Then start convincing yourself with small wins.

Habits are automatic behaviours. Almost always they start unintentionally, for instance I notice that playing video games relax me when I’m stressed, so the next time I’m stressed I automatically start playing.

Habits are:

  1. Cue — the trigger
  2. Craving — the feeling linked to a desire to change your mental state
  3. Response — can be thought or action
  4. Reward — relief of craving. Reinforces the habit in the future.

4 laws of behavior change are derived from attacking these steps individually.

  1. Cue — Make it (the new desired behavior) obvious
  2. Craving — Make it attractive
  3. Response — Make it easy
  4. Reward — Make it satisfying.

We can invert them to break bad habits:

  1. Make it invisible
  2. Make it unattractive
  3. Make it difficult
  4. Make it unsatisfying

Point and call is a technique of train operators in Japan. They say out loud all the obvious and standard things they do in order to prevent themselves from making mistakes. You can do it to point out to yourself when you’re about to give in to a bad habit.

A habit score card is when you write down all your daily habits and judge them to be positive, negative or neutral. This gives you a starting point for change.

To build a new habit, you first need a cue. The strongest cues are time and location. By creating an explicit plan for yourself you will be much more likely to follow through. To that end, fill out this sentence: I will (behavior) at (time) in (location).

You can chain habits together. Stack a new habit on top of an old one. For example, use mouthwash after brushing your teeth, meditate after getting out of the shower.

Our environments are extremely important. They should provide cues for good habits. Make sure the best decision is the most obvious one. You can design your environment to support your good habits.

To make a behavior attractive, you can use temptation bundling. Do something you want to while doing something you need to do. For example, you can watch Netflix on a treadmill. This reward from watching Netflix will reinforce the habit of running.

You can also “join a culture where the desired behavior is the normal behavior”. We will feel the peer pressure, the need to imitate others because we want to fit in with them. You can, for instance, join a running group or an entrepreneurship meetup.

Cravings are reflections of deep basic desires. Wanting pizza reflects desire for food, relief of anxiety. Wanting a cigarette reflects the need for social bonding, approval, stress release. You can replace those behaviors with healthier ones that fulfill the same desires.

Don’t wait for the perfect idea or the ideal plan. Take action. You will learn from experience more than from speculating. When starting a new habit, the key is repetition, not perfection. You shouldn’t think of building a habit as taking a certain number of days, but a certain number of repetitions.

People are lazy. That’s why you should make habits easy, to make sure you follow through even when you don’t feel like it.

A decision point is an instant which determines more behaviors down the road. For example, if I put on my sports clothes I’m much more likely to go out for a run, even if my commitment is to putting on clothes without necessarily running.

You can force your future self to behave a certain way with a commitment device. For instance, you can pay for something in advance (a personal trainer, a course, gym membership…), then the aversion to wasting money will ensure you follow through. The key is to make the pain of not doing the behavior higher than the reward of avoiding the behavior.

Condition yourself by rewards. Make the habit pleasant in some way and make not doing it somehow painful. That should be immediate.

When you can’t win by being better, you can win by being different

Invent your own sport. Find a combination of your skills, experiences and interests that you can leverage to be successful. Take Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. He’s not particularly good at drawing, humor or business individually. But when he created Dilbert at the intersection of the three, he became a massive success. What is fun for me but work for others? What makes me lose track of time?

The greatest threat to success is not failure, but boredom.

We can’t always rely on motivation. We get bored of good habits because they stop being exciting. Find a way to inject some novelty into good habits. For example, you can keep it interesting by only rewarding yourself some of the time.

The cost of good habits is that when things become automatic, you stop thinking how to do things better. You let mistakes slide. Counteract this by having a system of regular self-evaluation.

Keep your identity small. Don’t tie your identity too much to one thing. If you lose that you will have a crisis. Instead, tie identity to things you can control. For instance, don’t just be a senior software engineer at Google. Instead, be a person who loves solving difficult technical challenges.

380cookie-checkAtomic Habits by James Clear

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