Habits are the cornerstone of our lives. Think about it. We all repeat basically the same routines every day, every week, and every month.
Imagine a woman named Sarah who recently graduated college is working at her first real job. She brushes her teeth, eats oatmeal for breakfast, checks her phone, drives to work, comes home, watches some Youtube videos, and finally goes to bed at 11PM. Then she wakes up tomorrow and repeats it all over again. We all do something similar.
So if we have good habits, then our lives will tend to move in a positive direction. But if we have bad habits, then we will feel stuck, out of control, or falling behind in life. Often we blame ourselves for being lazy, when the real culprit is… our habits! Our habits make our lives.
Through simple daily repetition, people have accomplished incredible things. That’s why you’re here, right? You want to become the best version of yourself. Maybe you want to:
- Write a book
- Learn martial arts
- Eat less sweets
- Declutter your apartment
- Learn to code
- Play guitar
- Meditate every morning
Whatever changes you want to make in your life, I believe habits are the best place to start. And good news! On this page you’ll read a summary of James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. It’s a fantastic book! It’s full of practical steps and based on proven psychology and science. So I hope you’re excited to begin installing productive new habits in your life!
Who is James Clear?
James Clear (author website) is an author, speaker and blogger. He writes on a wide variety of topics related to self improvement, from procrastination to intermittent fasting.
In November 2012, he began publishing two articles every week on his new productivity blog. Over time and with consistent effort, James attracted a devoted audience. Today he has over 1 million email subscribers. (Most authors would kill to launch their first book with such a large fan base!)
In 2018, Atomic Habits was published. It quickly became a bestseller, selling over 3 million copies worldwide. Also, it is probably the most well-reviewed book on habits ever, with over 22,000 reviews on Amazon and an average rating of 4.8 stars.
1. The Compound Effect: Don’t judge your progress too soon or too often
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 finance, there’s an incredibly powerful idea called compound interest. You see, when you save some money in the bank, they pay you interest. Interest is the money you make for allowing the bank to borrow your money. Now, if you continue investing for 5, 10, 20 years or longer, then each year you will earn more of this interest. In fact, you will start to earn interest on your past interest! This phenomenon is called compound interest.
At first, the effects of compound interest look small. Maybe it’ll give you a few extra dollars in your first years of investing. But year after year the effects of compound interest become stronger and stronger. The bottom line is: over a long term, compound interest has the power to multiply your net worth. It can make you literally twice as rich… compared to simply stuffing your money under your mattress.
So, what does this have to do with habits? Everything!
- Habits are incredibly powerful, yet small. Life changes happen not through dramatic transformations, but tiny daily habits. (That is why this book is named “atomic habits.”) It’s like how a small river can cut through rock and create a grand canyon if you give it enough time.
- Habits give benefits that are huge, yet delayed. People underestimate how great the benefits of positive habits can be in the future, because the benefits of habits are delayed. We usually have to work a long time without much visible payoff. Then, after weeks or months of repetition, our results suddenly explode.
- Habits must not be judged by our current outcome. What is important is not where we are today, but the direction we are heading. And the direction we are heading is determined by our daily actions.
For example, if we start eating healthy and working out at a gym, we won’t see our body change much in a week or two. Yet if we keep going consistently for a couple years, then we may look like a totally new person to an old friend who hasn’t seen us in a while. That’s why it’s important for us not to step on the scale too often (both literally and figuratively!). We simply need to keep repeating the right actions.
Just like compound interest, positive habits provide huge benefits, but it can take longer than we expect to see those results. That is why James Clear says it’s critical for us not to judge our results too soon or too often.
2. Goals vs. Systems: Focus on processes of continuous improvement
For decades, the self improvement world has had a sick obsession with goals. Endless self help authors have repeated the same advice. They say we should set goals, write them down, have bigger goals, set smarter goals, and so on.
However, the idea of goals has many hidden problems:
- “Winners and losers have the same goals,” as James Clear says. For example, when 100 swimmer compete at the Olympics, they all have the same goal of winning the gold medal. This means simply having a goal does not make the difference between winners and losers.
- Goals make us less happy. A big list of ambitious goals often makes us imagine that happiness lies after some imaginary future finish line. Unfortunately, this can make us feel like a failure for most of our lives, since we will always have unfulfilled goals.
- Goals can sabotage long-term success. Goals can be great for providing short-term motivation, but what happens after we achieve our goal? Then we can often lose our drive and our lives get off track again.
So forget goals, and focus on systems. A system is the process we must follow to make progress in any area of our lives. For example, if our goal is to be a published author, then our system may include: writing 2 hours every evening, contacting 5 publishers every week, and taking two writing courses every year at the local university.
With a focus on systems, you will be continuously improving. There is a Japanese business concept called Kaizen (Investopedia), which means never-ending gradual improvement. If you become just 1% better at something every day (like playing the piano), that will translate into a huge leap in ability after a few years. Soon you’ll be playing Beethoven with ease. Plus, with systems we can find more enjoyment in doing the activity itself. That’s the best way to maintain our motivation in the long term.
This idea of systems comes from Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon. Scott says focusing on systems helped him achieve his wildest dream of becoming a successful cartoonist. It’s also how he stays healthy and in shape.
Most people find eating well and exercising to be difficult, unpleasant, and almost a form of punishment. On the other hand, Scott has set up systems in his life that make healthy living fun, easy and enjoyable. For example, he only does exercise he likes such as tennis, he only eats healthy foods he actually enjoys, and he always makes sure healthy snacks are ready to eat in the fridge.
Forget goals and focus on systems instead. A system is the process we must follow daily to move forward in any area. Systems help us improve continuously the rest of our lives and even enjoy the journey.
3. Identity: Create lasting change from the inside out
On January 1st, at the beginning of every year, many people try to change something about themselves. Maybe they want to quit smoking, lose weight or be a better parent. But why do so many of these New Year’s Resolutions fail to stick? Why does it feel so hard to continue a new positive habit? Maybe it’s because we start at the wrong place…
James Clear says there are 3 layers to personal change:
- Outcome. This is where most of us usually start when creating a new habit. We use our willpower to throw away the cigarettes, buy some broccoli or read a book to our child. Yet over time, our motivation seems to fade and we return to our old bad habits.
- Process. One layer deeper, this is about HOW we achieve the outcomes we want. If we are clever enough, then we may be able to maneuver ourselves into continuing a positive habit for a longer time.
- Identity. This is the deepest layer of personal development. It’s about who you believe that you are or at least who you want to be seen as. It includes your values, beliefs and group identifications. The most powerful new habits start here, from the inside out.
The business author Simon Sinek shares a similar idea in his book Start With Why. He says the most influential people, companies and organizations all start from the inside out with a powerful WHY. On the other hand, those who are mediocre are always talking only about WHAT they do or HOW they do it.
Simon wrote, “Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. When I say WHY, I don’t mean to make money—that’s a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed in the morning? And WHY should anyone care?”
Here are 3 examples of new identity-based habits:
- Quitting smoking. James Clear says someone can decline a cigarette either by saying “I’m trying to quit” or by saying “I’m not a smoker.” There’s a huge difference in feeling between these two. The first no implies self-discipline, the second no is easy.
- Exercise and diet. I’ve noticed many weight loss success stories are connected to a change in identity. They became part of some passionate community. There are hundred of subcultures that exist related to health and fitness including: vegetarian, vegan, keto, paleo, gluten-free, powerlifting, cycling, hiking, jujitsu, etc.
- Creative work…
Do you wish you had a career doing something creative like writing, drawing or making music? Many people do. However, it can often be difficult for us to do what we claim to “love” to do. Isn’t that strange?
The successful author Steven Pressfield wrote about how all creative people must fight a battle every day against their inner enemy of Resistance. Resistance is the fear, procrastination or “lack of inspiration” that stops us from creating.
Well, one of the most powerful weapons against Resistance is adopting the identity of being a “Pro”—a professional rather than an amateur. By definition, a Professional shows up to work regardless how they feel that day.
We often fail to continue new habits because we start with our desired outcomes. The deepest layer of change starts from the inside out, with our identity. So first adopt the identity of a non-smoker, a runner, a writer, etc.
4. The Habit Loop: All our habits have a cue, craving, response and reward
At the core of this book is The 4-Step Habit Loop:
All our habits repeat these four steps every single time. For example, every morning John wakes up, picks up his phone and responds to a some new messages from his friends.
- The cue that begins the habit is John waking up. Every day he wakes up and thinks of checking his phone almost automatically.
- Then he feels a craving to see if his friends have contacted him.
- Then he responds by picking up the phone and typing some messages.
- Finally, his reward is the feeling of social connection or belonging. That slight increase in mood ensures John will continue repeating this habit every morning.
So in the rest of this book, we’ll be learning practical tips to “hack” each of the four steps of our habits.
By the way, this model of habit loops is not a totally original idea, James Clear is building on the work of previous thinkers. In 2012, a bestselling self development book was published called The Power of Habit (Amazon). This book broke down our habits into a loop of 3 steps including: Cue, Response and Reward.
But even 70 years ago, the psychologist B.F. Skinner had written about animal behaviors following a sequence of “stimulus, response and reward.” (SimplyPsychology.org) And even before that, in 1898 a psychologist named Edward Thorndike was forming the foundation of this idea, by putting cats in puzzle boxes and watching them learn how to escape faster and faster.
All our habits follow a 4-step feedback loop that includes: a cue, a craving, a response and a reward. By attacking each step separately, we can more effectively create positive new habits or break bad old habits.
5. Cues: Trigger good habits more often and discourage bad ones
The first step of any habit is a cue. A cue is anything that triggers a habit loop for us. It may be a thing, an environment, a specific time of day, a person, etc. For example, keeping a bowl of washed fruits on our kitchen counter can be a visible cue that helps us remember to eat fruits more often.
How can we take control of the cues that trigger our habits? In Atomic Habits, James Clear shares a few effective tactics:
- Make a Habits Scorecard. Our habits tend to be automatic, which means they can often be invisible to us. So the first step is to become aware of what all our daily habits are by making a Habits Scorecard. Just make a list of everything you usually do in a day, then rate whether each habit is positive, negative or neutral. Think about which cue may trigger each habit.
- Reconstruct Your Environment. This is about make the right cues very visible, and the wrong ones invisible. For example, if you find that checking your phone in the morning makes you less productive, then hide your phone in another room where it’s out of reach. Or if you want to become a better artist, then keep your sketchbook somewhere you will see it daily and not hidden in a drawer.
- Write Implementation Intentions. This is a concrete statement that lets us design a cue for each positive new habit we want to adopt. Many studies have demonstrated this technique is very effective. Implementation intentions follow the formula of “When-Then.” For example, you may write “WHEN I come home from work, THEN I will put on my running shoes and begin stretching.”
The technology consultant Nir Eyal recently wrote a book called Hooked. His book reveals many of the tricks that big tech companies use to keep our eyes glued to their apps. One of these tricks is designing cues that nudge us to visit their app.
The cues can be external like a notification, email or advertisement. But they can also be internal like our own feelings, moods and thoughts. For example, if someone feels bored waiting in a line, they automatically pull out their phone and begin scrolling to relieve that feeling of boredom. The most successful apps deliberately try to create these internal cues in us so we will form the habit of using their app.
Cues are the first step of every habit, they trigger a habit loop. Become aware of all your habits and cues with a Habits Scorecard. Then design your environment to make cues for good habits more obvious and cues for bad habits invisible. Create cues for positive new habits by writing down “When this happens, then I’ll do that.”
6. Cravings: Connect good habits with enjoyment
It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action.
A craving is the expectation that we will feel something good or pleasurable after we complete an action. For example, we sometimes crave ice cream because eating sugary foods causes chemical reactions to take place inside us like dopamine flooding our brain.
How can we leverage our cravings to help us create positive new habits? James Clear offers these pointers:
- Connect Incentives to Difficult Tasks. An incentive is something you find easy, enjoyable or pleasant to do. You can use incentives to help you accomplish the difficult or painful tasks that you need to do. When you use an incentive during or after a task, James calls it “Temptation Bundling.” When you use an incentive just before a task, he calls it a “Motivation Ritual.”
For example, many people listen to music or podcasts while they exercise. An engineering student named Ronan Byrne went one step further and connected his stationary bike to his television, so he could only watch Netflix while he kept cycling.
- Become Part of a Community. One of our most powerful psychological drives is to be accepted by the tribe around us. If you surround yourself with a community that already finds certain behaviors normal, then you are more likely to do those behaviors too. For example, if you are spending more time with health nuts who are drinking green smoothies every day, then you will naturally be more likely to do that too.
- List the Costs of Bad Habits. If there are any habits you want to break, then you should list all the downsides of the habit. Keep this list somewhere you can see it often. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, then list all the short, medium and long term downsides of it. Including the yearly cost of the cigarettes, the potential smell on your breath and clothes, the feeling of being tired or out-of-breath, etc.
A craving is the expectation of a reward we will get after doing something. To hack our cravings we can: combine things we enjoy with difficult tasks, join a community with a certain culture, and list all the costs of our bad habits.
7. Responses: Make positive habits easier to do and bad ones harder
A response is the action you perform during the habit. It comes after the cue and craving, but before the reward. How can we make good habits easier to perform and bad habits more difficult? Here are some ways:
- Make Habits Easy to Start. The most important thing is to keep practicing your new habits daily so you can benefit from long-term improvement. So try having very easy minimum goals for each daily habit. For example, you only need to read one page, do one pushup or meditate for one minute. One secret of motivation is that getting started can be 90% of the battle. Once you’ve begun, then you’ll probably keep going well beyond that minimum daily target.
- Value Quantity Over Quality. This is about valuing continuous output over perfectionism. A famous writer once said his secret to success was to write 500 poor quality words every day. Of course, the secret was that by keeping his daily expectations low and writing every day, the writer produced a lot of very good writing over the long term.
- Add More Steps to Bad Habits. Can you add some friction that makes it harder for you to do bad habits? Maybe add more steps in the process. For example, if someone was trying to eat healthier, then they may avoid keeping unhealthy snacks anywhere in their house. They would be forced to go out of the house and buy some snacks. And that’s probably too much work!
A response is the action we perform during the habit. We want to make responses for good habits easier through setting very tiny goals. Read one page per day or write 50 words per day. Also discourage bad habits by adding more friction or steps.
8. Rewards: Immediately reinforce good habits and punish bad ones
A reward is what we get for doing a habit, such as money, social approval, pleasure, etc. Building positive habits is challenging because the human brain has been designed to be more motivated by immediate gratification. On the other hand, good habit are often about long-term payoffs.
- Create Instant Rewards or Punishments. As we’ve talked about before, this is about connecting something you like with a good habit. You can also set up a painful punishment for bad habits. For example, donate $5 to a charity you hate when you miss a day at the gym.
(A punishment where we lose money is very powerful because humans have a Loss Aversion Bias, according to Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. This means we are 2-3 times more motivated by the desire to avoid losing something we have than by our desires to gain something new. Learn more about this in our summary of his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.)
- Set Up Social Accountability. Find a friend that is also on the journey of personal development. Daily or weekly, update each other about your recent activities. The simple knowledge that someone else you respect will know about your performance can be powerful motivation to keep up a good habit.
- Visually Track Your Progress. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld became incredibly successful through doing this. He would write one joke every day, mark a big satisfying X on his calendar, and try to keep this “chain” of X’s going for as many days as possible.
Our brains are designed more for immediate gratification, while good habits often pay off only in the long-term. We can make good habits more motivating by creating instant rewards, setting up social accountability and keeping a visual measurement of our actions.
Personally, what I loved most about this book were the sections about systems and identity-based habits. Those ideas are a major breakthrough compared to the traditional focus of self-development books on goals and sheer self-discipline.
So I hope you’ll be successful in creating your next positive habit. Make sure to check out the author’s website at JamesClear.com—lots of great articles there! And I’ll see you in the next one.