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Atomic Habits Summary: the 8 best lessons I learned from James Clear

Quick Summary: Atomic Habits shows how each of our habits, good or bad, follow the 4 steps of The Habit Loop: Cue, Craving, Response and Reward. More importantly, this book shows how we can hack these 4 steps using practical techniques backed by scientific studies and colorful anecdotes.
4.8 on Amazon 2018 319 pages

In November 2012, James Clear began a small blog about productivity. By publishing an article every Monday and Thursday like clockwork, he soon attracted an audience. Within a year, his number of email subscribers topped 30,000 which is unusually good. Today, he has a huge readership of over 450,000 subscribers. Most authors would kill to have that kind of audience.

What makes his writing resonate with so many people? Well, James’s articles are written in a clear and engaging way, while talking about practical life situations and interesting historical examples or scientific studies. For example, his most popular article is about intermittent fasting, which is a health and weight loss strategy. In this article he shares his own story trying the strategy, and backs up any claims with links to studies. It just illustrates how he focuses on practical strategies to get us closer to specific goals related to health, money, relationships and productivity. No airy-fairy positive thinking will be found here.

And after hundreds of well researched self-help articles, James Clear believes the most important key to achieving most of our goals are habits. Habits are those automatic routines we follow every day, day after day after day. If we make small changes to these automatic daily routines we all have, then we will see huge changes in our life quality over the months and years, which is why this book is called “Atomic Habits.” It’s about small changes that lead to powerful explosive progress. Now let’s look at the first big lesson in this book.

lifting weights deadlifting

1. Delayed Results: Why You Shouldn’t Judge Your Progress Too Often

What happens if the trajectory of a huge airplane changes by 2 degrees? At first, nothing. But after a few hours, the airplane will be flying thousands of miles away from where it was headed before.

People underestimate habits because the effects are delayed. If we join a gym, we won’t see results in a week or two. Yet if we keep going consistently for a couple years, we can look like a totally new person to people who haven’t seen us in a while. As James puts it:

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.

In most of the areas of life that matter, the results of our actions are not immediately apparent. James mentions the example of bamboo. After bamboo is planted, it spends 3-5 years underground, developing a large root system. Then one day (just as you’re probably wondering if you bought some expired bamboo seeds) it suddenly shoots out of the ground, growing up to 25 meters / 80 feet in the air within a short space of 5 weeks. The bamboo wasn’t resting all those years, it was steadily building up a hidden potential for future growth, but the results of all those years of work only became visible at the very end.

Just like bamboo takes years of hidden work before shooting up from the ground, the results of our habits often take time to show up in the physical world. So don’t step on the scale too often, rather just measure that you’re eating right and exercising.

2. Goals vs. Systems: “Winners and Losers Have the Same Goals”

This idea was made popular by Scott Adams, the enormously successful cartoonist behind the Dilbert comics. In a nutshell, this idea says you’ll be far happier and more successful by ignoring goals and focusing on building great systems in your life.

So what’s the problem with goals? Well, for the last few decades, self improvement has had a sick obsession with them. Endless authors and speakers have repeated advice to write down your goals, set bigger goals, S.M.A.R.T. goals, to dream bigger and on and on.

Yet few people stopped to consider the many problems inherent in goals. The first and biggest problem, as James points out, is that “winners and losers have the same goals.”

  • When 20 writers submit a book to a publisher, they all have the goal of being published, yet only 1 will be successful.
  • When 10 runners line up at the Olympics, they all have the goal of finishing first, yet only 1 will win the gold medal.
  • When 50 people sign up to the gym on January 2nd, they all have the goal of losing weight, yet most won’t.

And since winners and losers have the same goals, then your goals cannot make the difference between success and failure.

Instead of goals, it’s much better to focus on systems. Systems are the processes by which we achieve our goals. For example, if you have the goal of being a published author, then your systems may be writing 2 hours every evening and contacting 5 agents/publishers every week. If you have the goal of being a professional artist, then your systems could be producing one new painting every week and taking two art classes per year to improve your skills.

A goal centred approach has many people imagining happiness and fulfillment after some future finish line, like after they’ve sold their first manuscript or painting. As a result, they feel unsuccessful and miserable right now. In contrast, a systems-centred approach puts our focus on the process or daily habits rather than the end goal. It’s about finding ways to improve our skill of writing or painting, and most importantly finding enjoyment in the activity itself as our driving motivation.

The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking.

This highlights another problem with goals: Goals can sabotage long-term progress. Why is it so common for someone to go on a diet to lose weight, only to end up putting the weight back on a few months after they’ve hit their goal? Because the main motivation was to hit a certain number on the scale. Once that number is hit, the motivation to continue the diet goes away too.

Systems, on the other hand, encourage both long term progress and allow us to feel satisfied as we make progress toward a certain direction. A focus on systems means putting in place the habits that allow us to feel successful, content and growing each and every day.

Goals have many built-in problems. They make us believe happiness is found in the future and sabotage lifelong progress. Focusing on systems, which are the processes and daily habits of our lives, will make us both more happier and more successful.

hands up movement

3. Identity: Change Your Inner WHO, Not Just What You Do

Why do so many of our attempts at personal change fail to stick? James says one big reason is we’re all focused on the most outer superficial layer of ourselves, which is our actions. Yet far deeper than our actions is a core part of us called our identity, which is like your sense of who you really are. We can almost imagine it like layers of an onion. Your daily actions are the outer layer, your identity is at the centre.

Our identity is the sum total of our beliefs, world views and judgements about ourselves and others. It’s about who we wish to be seen as and what groups we claim to be part of. Most importantly, it’s the source of many of our actions.

Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief. For example, people who identified as “being a voter” were more likely to vote than those who simply claimed “voting” was an action they wanted to perform.

Anecdotally, one common thread I’ve noticed with many weight loss success stories I’ve read online is that the person having some change in their identity. They didn’t just start eating less, instead they began identifying as a vegetarian, vegan, hiker, marathoner, paleo, gluten-free or part of one of the other hundreds of subcultures that exist around health. And once this shift in identity happens, I believe people gain a lot of satisfaction living up to this new identity and the principles that come with it.

For example, rather than exercising feeling like a chore, it can inspire enthusiasm when the activity reinforces a desired empowering identity as a bodybuilder, powerlifter or boxer. There is often a hint of pride attached to the new identity which is also addictive. And just think of it this way: what’s a more powerful motivation for eating vegetables: To look a little thinner? Or to join a global movement of vegan crusaders determined to lift the suffering of millions of living beings? You can guess which one of those is a deeper and more meaningful motivation.

So, the first step is to get clear on what your desired future identity looks like and feels like. It can be useful to write down your answers to questions like:

  • What are my values?
  • What do I stand for? Who or what do I stand against?
  • Who do I admire and why?

This shift in identity is very powerful because we humans love to act congruent with our identity. When you identify as a runner, then it’s only natural you’ll love putting on your shoes every day, rather than being someone forcing themselves to run in order to lose weight. To borrow another example from the book, there’s a big difference when someone declines a cigarette by saying “No thanks, I’m trying to quit” versus saying “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.” The first no implies resistance and willpower, the second no is easy.

Our actions are just the outermost layer of us, our identity is at the core, driving most of our actions. That’s why real change must usually start from inside. For example, the goal is not to write more, but to see oneself as a writer. Humans love to act congruent with their identity.

staircase loop

4. The Habit Loop: Cue, Craving, Response and Reward

1n 1898, a psychologist named Edward Thorndike created an experiment. He put cats inside a “puzzle box” and they couldn’t get out of the box unless they pressed a specific lever. Just outside the puzzle box were some tasty fish, so the cats were very motivated to get out.

At first, Thorndike didn’t see many signs of reasoning or logical thinking in his test cats. They poked around the box in a random way and would inevitably hit the lever, allowing them to escape.

Now here’s where things get interesting. After a cat had “found” the escape lever inside the puzzle box the first time, it seemed to “remember” its technique for escaping the box in future attempts. So the more times a cat was put in the same puzzle box, the faster and faster it would be able to escape. For example, in one of his experiments, Thorndike wrote, “Cat 12 took the following times to perform the act. 160 seconds, 30 seconds, 90 seconds, 60, 15, 28, 20, 30, 22, 11, 15, 20, 12, 10, 14, 10, 8, 8, 5, 10, 8, 6, 6, 7.”

This leads to a novel way of thinking about habits. Habits are mental shortcuts. Just like cats escaping a box by pushing the same lever, we humans also learn mental shortcuts to the problems we encounter. For example, someone is feeling stressed and find that smoking a cigarette calms their nerves. Well, the next time they feel stressed, what do you think they’re gonna do? That’s right, their hand will reach automatically for the cigarette box and lighter, because that’s the action that relieved the bad feeling last time. Habits are mental shortcuts, they are a reliable road to a certain destination.

Habit Loops

The model at the core of this book is The Habit Loop, this is a four step process we all follow when we repeat habits. The four steps are: cue, craving, response and reward.

This isn’t a brand new idea, by the way. An influential psychologist named B.F. Skinner was talking about animals being conditioned through “stimulus, response and reward” 70 years ago. You’ve probably heard of his experiments with dogs and bells. Every time Skinner fed his dogs, he rang a bell, his theory was that over time he could “condition” his dogs to feel hungry just at the sound of the bell. And sure enough, soon just by ringing the bell, even with no food around, he observed his dogs began to drool. More recently Charles Duhigg popularized a similar idea in his bestselling self help book The Power of Habit.

Very quickly, let’s define the 4 steps of The Habit Loop in more detail:

  1. Cue. This is the signal or trigger that begins every habit loop. It could be a sound, object, location, time, your phone buzzing or almost anything else.
  2. Craving. This is the feeling, the itch, that motivates us to act. For example, scientists have found that gamblers experience a huge surge of dopamine BEFORE they place a bet, rather than after they win.
  3. Response. This is the action or behavior we do. It can be pulling our phone out of our pocket or putting a coin in a slot machine.
  4. Reward. The pleasurable sensations that follow a habit. Just like the cats escaping the puzzle boxes to eat tasty fish, we generally follow these habit loops because we are trying to get to a reward. This is the dopamine spike of social media likes, enjoying a delicious meal, experiencing orgasm, a rush of sugar, etc.

The rest of the book goes through these 4 steps of the habit loop again, but showing practical techniques we can use to “hack” our habits every step of the way. This means we can learn how to form good habits so we can stop procrastinating and do what we know is best for us in the long term, from eating healthy to saving money and working towards our dreams. We’ll also see how to more easily eliminate our worst habits and addictions. So let’s begin!

Habits are mental shortcuts, reliable roads to a certain destination. For example, smoking a cigarette may be a reliable way to relieve stress, at least for a few minutes. The habit loop is 4 steps we all follow with any habit, and for the rest of this note we’ll explore how to “hack” these steps to more easily form good habits and break bad ones.

sand timer

5. Cues: Make the Right Ones Obvious

Like we just said, a cue is the signal that triggers a habit. Potential cues are all around us. When our phone buzzes, that vibration can be a cue to begin our “check phone” habit. When we feel bored in the evening, that can be a cue to begin our “watch pornography” habit. But even constructive habits have cues. Seeing our running shoes beside the front door can be the cue to put them on and go for a run. Saturday can be our cue to relax after a hard workweek and let the stress hormones like cortisol flush out of our system.

The first challenge with habits is maintaining awareness. Since we do habits almost automatically by definition, a lot of them can slip under our radar. To overcome this challenge, James mentions a really useful exercise called writing a habits scorecard. This is a simple list of all the things you do every day, in order. For example, waking up, turning off your alarm, going to pee, brushing your teeth, checking your phone, making breakfast, putting on pants, and so on. Make this list, then beside each item put a plus, minus or equals sign to show whether it’s a good, bad or neutral habit. Also pay attention to the cues that may trigger each habit. For example, if your morning alarm is on your phone, does that make you immediately check your social media when you wake up?

Implementation Intentions

Now the first strategy for hacking our habits is called implementation intentions. Numerous studies have shown that creating implementation intentions made people more likely to do what they said they were going to do when it came to voting, getting a flu shot, following a weight loss plan and more.

For example, there was a 2007 study on women 18-76 years old who wanted to lose weight. The study split them up into 2 groups, the first group was shown how to create implementation intentions about what, when and how they will eat and exercise. The second group followed a different strategy, attending supportive group meetings related to health and dieting. After 2 months, they found the first group lost about twice as much weight, 4.2kg compared to the second group’s 2.1kg.

So what is an implementation intention? It’s just a statement of exactly what you will do in the future and exactly when you will do it. For example, “WHEN I come home from work, THEN I will make a green smoothie.”

Sounds simple, but the results of doing this are powerful. And I think the power of implementation intentions comes from them forcing people to design CUEs for their positive habits. What I mean is, if we say we want to lose weight in a general and abstract way, then we’re likely to forget that goal because we’re often busy or tired. But if we make a specific intention of what we will do, complete with time or location, then it will almost impossible to forget that.

A CUE is a signal that triggers a habit. Cues come in all shapes and sizes, from time of day, location or even a buzzing phone. Implementation intentions are a powerful way to construct cues for our desired habits. Remember to use the WHEN-THEN formula: “When this happens, then I will do this.”

herring gull red spot

6. Craving: Make Good Habits More Attractive

In the 1940s, Dutch scientist Niko Tinbergen was studying herring gulls, birds which have a small red dot on their beaks. He noticed the baby chicks pecked this red dot on their parent’s beaks when they wanted food. So, he tried an experiment. He painted a small red spot on a fake bird and showed this to the chicks. Surprisingly, they were fooled and pecked the red spot on the fake bird as well. Then he got creative. He painted a much bigger red spot and the chicks pecked even harder! He kept painting the red spot bigger and bigger, eventually painting multiple red spots on one fake bird and the pattern continued. The chicks went crazy for the unrealistically large and bright red spots.

This was one of the studies that started the idea of supernormal stimuli. In short, an animal’s instincts can be hijacked by extreme versions of what they are naturally wired to be attracted to.

For example, over millions of years humans evolved to love eating sweet things. Well, in nature sweetness is very hard to find. Ripe fruits are the main place wild animals might find sweetness, and those are mostly only available once a year. So when humans thousands of years ago found a banana tree, it made sense to gorge, to stock up calories for the winter. Fast forward to today, and not only are fruit found all year long in our local supermarket, but so are foods like candy, cookies and ice cream—all far sweeter than anything found on a tree branch. Our modern world is full of supernormal stimuli, from fast food to social media (approval) to porn (sexual variety) to magazine models (beauty).

Supernormal stimuli are incredibly irresistible because they highjack dopamine, the source of our motivation. You probably heard of dopamine before, it’s one of the brain chemicals that make us feel good. Recently, scientists have found that dopamine is released not only when we get a reward, but even more so the moment we anticipate a reward. For example, gamblers experience a huge hit of dopamine when they make a bet, not when they win.

The importance of dopamine became apparent in 1954 when the neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran an experiment that revealed the neurological processes behind craving and desire. By implanting electrodes in the brains of rats, the researchers blocked the release of dopamine. To the surprise of the scientists, the rats lost all will to live. They wouldn’t eat. They wouldn’t have sex. They didn’t crave anything. Within a few days, the animals died of thirst.

So, to make all this practical, how can we take advantage of super stimuli and dopamine cravings to motivate ourselves to accomplish our habits?

One way is the strategy of temptation bundling. This means combining something you get pleasure from or want to do with something you need to do. For example, many people go for a run and listen to music or podcasts while they do it. Ronan Byrne went one step further and invented Cycflix, a way to connect a stationary bike to Netflix. As long as he keeps pedalling fast enough, the shows keep playing. If he stops exercising, then Netflix stops too. A brilliant solution.

Dopamine is a brain chemical that is the source of motivation, take it away and rats lose the will to live. If we want to pursue good habits, it’s important they are attractive, which means they spike dopamine. One good way to accomplish this is temptation bundling, combining something you want to do with something you need to do, like cycling on a stationary bike while binging Netflix.

7. Response: Make Good Habits Easy, and Bad Ones Difficult

At the University of Florida, a photography professor named Jerry Uelsmann had a bright idea. As an experiment, he divided his film photography students that year into two groups. He told the first group they would be graded solely based on the quantity of photos they produced, in other words the more the better. And he told the second group they would be graded solely on the quality of their one best photo.

And to his surprise, at the end of the year, ALL the best photos from that class came from the group told they would be judged on quantity, not quality. Why? Well, the students, feeling free of the burden of needing to make anything good, got their hands dirty, experimenting with all kinds of creative ideas and film techniques. Meanwhile, the other group of students sat around thinking of abstract ideas of what makes a perfect photo, gained little practice or experience, so their final photos were mediocre.

With any new habit, repetition is far more important than perfection. As Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “everything is reps, reps, reps.” And he would know. Whether Arnold was lifting weights hours every day or tirelessly rehearsing movie scripts and political speeches, he knew that repetition makes people wildly successful. (Check out our note on Arnold’s autobiography ‘Total Recall’ also.)

Small Habits and Getting Started

Studies have shown the first 10-20 days of starting a new habit require the most willpower. That’s when you have to push yourself with every fibre of your being to get out of bed early and put on your running shoes. But after a couple weeks, scientists can actually measure more “automaticity” in our habits. This means we start to repeat them without much thinking or willpower. And after a couple months, the new habit becomes as automatic and natural as brushing our teeth, we actually feel wrong if something prevents us from doing it.

The neurons in our brains are actually able to reshape their connections based on what we do, through a mechanism called “neuroplasticity.” It’s like we have grooves in our brain, and the more we do something, the deeper the grooves for that behavior become, making it easier to repeat in the future. Remember when you learned to drive? The first few times were probably awkward, but now you can drive for hours without much thought. In fact, scientists have measured that mathematicians have more gray matter in the part of their brain called the inferior parietal lobule, which has to do with logic and calculations. An even weirder example: London taxi drivers (who have to memorize the confusing London streets) have an enlarged hippocampus region which is critical for spatial memory, but when they retire this region shrinks again to the size of an average person’s. In short, the brain can rewire itself based on our habits, just like doing certain exercises repeatedly in the gym can make your muscles grow over time.

But this can’t happen if your habit never gets off the ground! That’s why James says it’s critical to make our habits easy, especially in the beginning.

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

So if you want to read more, set a daily goal of one page. Why? Because then you’ll never have the excuse of no time or energy! And once you’ve read one page, there’s a good chance you’ll keep going. When humans are in motion, we often like to stay in motion. It’s getting started that’s the hard part, most of the time. So make your habits easy in the beginning. Read one page, do one push up, meditate for one minute. Once your habits are started you can increase the difficulty every couple weeks.

Making Bad Habits Difficult

Another important technique is shaping our environment. The power of our environment to drive our habits is huge. During the Vietnam War, a very high percentage of US soldiers began using heroin, perhaps to escape the brutality and violence of war. Yet when they came home, 90% immediately stopped using heroin. Why? Well, they came home and were in a totally different environment than where their addiction started. They were back among friends and family and left behind all the cues that were tied to heroin use overseas. Contrast that to drug addicts who go to rehab and after getting clean, most of them come home and relapse. What’s the difference? Well, they came back to the same environment that formed their addiction, with all the cues that triggered their past drug use, from drug addict friends to a depressing job.

Let me share with you a personal example that drastically improved my health. A few years ago, I decided that I wouldn’t buy anything unhealthy at the supermarket, even mildly unhealthy. I’d learned that if I have any junk food in the cupboard, then I will eat it sooner or later, and probably sooner. So removing anything unhealthy from my immediate environment forced me to settle for snacks like almonds and dark chocolate when I was craving something sweet. (Don’t worry, I still have a designated “cheat day” where I pig out occasionally.) But the point is, changing my environment, eating healthy requires very little willpower during the week. I just need willpower for the short time I go food shopping.

So think about some ways you can reshape your environment to support your desired habits. How about blocking certain websites or disabling your wifi automatically during certain times of the day to get rid of the “mental candy” in your environment? Or if you want to practice guitar more often, leave your guitar where you always see it. On the other hand, if you want to play video games less often, hide the console in a closet after each time you play. It’s all about increasing exposure to cues for the habits we want and hiding cues for the habits we don’t want.

Making good habits easier in the beginning will allow them to take off, like if you want to read more, then start reading one page per day. Eventually when the habit’s in place, you can increase your standards. Also reshape your environment to make bad habits more difficult, like removing wifi at certain hours so there’s less temptation to procrastinate.

clean premium coffee

8. Rewards: Make Good Habits Immediately Satisfying and Punish Bad Ones

In the late 1990s a public health worker named Stephen Luby when to the densely populated slums of Karachi Pakistan. The neighbourhood had poor sanitation and constant spread of bacteria and disease. Stephen focused on one specific problem: many residents knew that hand washing was important for health, but they weren’t doing it. So he partnered with Proctor and Gamble to supple a premium kind of soap to the slum residents. This soap lathered more easily and smelled great, it was pleasurable to use. There was soon a rapid shift in the health of the neighbourhood. Diarrhea rates fell by 52 percent. Best of all, six years later, he came back and found over 95% of households in the experiment still washed their hands regularly.

Humans evolved to prefer rewards right now than later. This conflicts with the fact that many good habits we want to do only pay off weeks, months or years later. Saving money for retirement may not pay off for 40 years. Who can wait that long?! That’s why it’s a good idea to build immediate rewards into our habits. Just like the nice smelling soap introduced to the slums, how can we make our habits more immediately pleasurable so we’re more likely to do them?

One classic way is through rewards. You can reward yourself as you start a habit or right when you finish. Just make sure the reward is consistent with your values and identity. If you’re exercising to lose weight, for example, then candy might be an inconsistent reward and the better choice might be a relaxing massage at the spa.

On the flip side, we can also make a bad habit immediately less pleasurable through punishments. For example, productivity expert Thomas Frank found a great method to ensure he always wakes up at 5AM. So, if he doesn’t wake up, an app on his phone automatically tweets to thousands of followers that Frank is lazy and the first 3 people to respond to the message will get money. Ouch! So if he oversleeps, then not only does he get publicly embarrassed, but also loses money! This is exactly how government laws work too, by the way. And it was a stupidly low percentage of people who actually wore seat belts before the laws were in place to immediately punish people for not wearing them.

Humans have a short term bias, we much prefer gratification now than later. Rewards are a well-known strategy that take advantage of this. The flip side is punishments, like how one productivity expert found a way to avoid oversleeping, by having an automatic tweet go out to his thousands of followers calling himself lazy if he does it.