Looking to make your life all amazing?
Perhaps you wanna work on the old beach body or receive that hallowed promotion…
But let’s face it, lacing up the running trainers or impressing the bossman can be pretty soul-sucking.
Which is why, instead of motivation, you need to work on your habits amigo.
Luckily, I have just the solution.
In this Atomic Habits summary, you’ll get easy, science-backed recipes for making your life tasty like a splendid sandwich.
Let’s dive in.
Atomic Habits Summary
James starts the book by recounting a life-threatening injury when he was struck by a baseball bat at high school.
After surviving a medically induced coma, it was a long road to recovery which ultimately revealed the true power of habits.
While his peers played video games and partied hard, James began cementing his routines.
From getting good sleep to keeping his room tidy, positive actions cross-pollinated the rest of his university performance, resulting in better grades.
Despite the myth of the big break or overnight success, results are actually derived from small wins and incremental process. It’s a gradual evolution.
Because of his habits, James was eventually named on the ESPN Academic All-America Team team and received the Presidents Medal for academia.
In the same way, if you’re willing to trust in the concept of compound interest, you can ultimately fulfil your potential.
The book draws from the psychological principle of operant conditioning:
“In total, the framework I offer is an integrated model of the cognitive and behavioral sciences. I believe it is one of the first models of human behavior to accurately account for both the influence of external stimuli and internal emotions on our habits.”
The definition of a habit, therefore, according to James…
“A habit is a routine or behaviour that is performed regularly—and, in many cases, automatically.”
This Atomic Habits summary will draw on the power of this automatic behaviour and help provide a field manual for life improvement.
Tiny Changes, Enormous Effect
The Atomic Habits book relies on the concept of marginal gains, or what the Japanese call Kaizen.
The mileage of improving by 1% can be astounding with the compound interest of self-improvement soon kicking in,
“Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero.”
While we’re generally drawn to the media portrayal of the overnight success, it’s rather the small, daily, often unnoticeable actions that really lead to progress.
Despite this, we often dismiss these moments as inconsequential and therefore never make the necessary changes in our lives.
And that’s the real shame, as our starting point matters little. If we’re putting in positive consistent repetitions, we’re on the right trajectory.
So, are you going up or down?
We simply have to maintain patience and know that in time, our efforts will be rewarded.
“Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.”
It’s the buildup of tiny actions that eventually burst the dam of success.
You have to know and be aware that progress towards your desired result is never linear and you frequently have to endure the “valley of disappointment”, where your current results don’t align with your expectations.
However, this is a completely normal process and it’s vital not to become discouraged. If we do persist, we can reach what James calls the “plateau of latent potential.”
Any delay in results, contrary to how it might feel, is not wasted effort. Your hard work is merely being stored, ready for release at some future date.
Like practising any new skill, if we persist for long enough, positive change can happen all at once.
The tough part is making the right tiny decision in every moment.
The Power of Habit
When you’re making the right decisions, it’s essential to simply follow the system and let results take care of themselves. In other words, don’t focus on the goals.
“Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”
Here’s the thing…
Winners and losers have the same goals. We only focus on the stories of the winners and forget about all the other losers. Therefore, it makes sense to optimise our systems instead.
Results are only a moment in time, a snapshot. They neglect the iceberg beneath the surface of change. Systems, in contrast, help us treat both symptoms and cause.
Solely focusing on goals places us on the hedonic treadmill of self-improvement where we’re always striving and never satisfied.
Or if we don’t achieve our goal, we’re disappointed.
In this way, goals can also make us narrow-minded, not allowing us to diverge from our imagined course, even when a better opportunity arises.
Goal-setting discourages long term progress. Such a mindset is reminiscent of David Goggins, who says that he is training for life. Systems become baked into your identity and permit happiness in the present.
Systems are for those of us playing the long game and are in it to win.
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
In conclusion, if you have trouble changing bad habits, it’s not that you lack a good goal, but rather a good system.
Habits and Identity
Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.
Often it’s so hard to change bad habits because we’re focusing on the wrong thing.
We either focus on outcomes, which are the goals we set or on the process, which is the system we construct.
What we should focus on is our identity, which are the core beliefs about ourselves.
Identity reconstruction is about the psychological onion of behaviour change.
If we try to instil habits which are incongruent with our self-image, they will be very hard to implement.
Wanting something is very different to being something – therefore you must ingrain any new habit into the very fibre of your being.
For example, don’t try to get complete a marathon, but become a runner.
Here’s the thing…
As humans, we dislike cognitive dissonance. That means we won’t engage in habits or behaviours that are at odds with our identity, and vice versa.
To strengthen the bond with our desired habits, involving pride in the process will improve our resolve.
Habits help create our identity and change our self-image. If you write every day, you become a writer.
The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do.
As Annie Dillard famously said, “Show me your days and I’ll show you your life.” The more we do something, the more we trust ourselves and our new story.
And we don’t have to be like robots – as long as we maintain our habit the majority of the time, we can gather evidence for our new self-image.
Building better habits isn’t about the external measure of success or the quick life hack, it’s about becoming the person we want to be.
Building Better Habits
“Behaviors followed by satisfying consequences tend to be repeated and those that produce unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated.”
Whenever we try something new, it begins with trial and error. We process the data received and iterate our actions according to favourable outcomes.
As we improve at predicting the actions that lead to our desired results, habits form to reduce the cognitive load. Our brains can then free up capacity for other tasks.
Rather than robbing us of spontaneity, habits actually reduce the headache of making constant daily decisions, thereby providing more freedom.
“The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.”
We need all four stages of this feedback loop for habits to form.
1. The cue is a piece of information that indicates a reward.
Our ancestors’ rewards were food, shelter and sex or basically anything that ensured survival. Now we have illusory rewards that mirror these elemental substances, like money.
2. Cravings are the impulses that encourage us to act to change our internal state. Often this involves avoiding pain and chasing pleasure.
3. The response is our actual behaviour, and whether we initiate it depends on the friction involved or our ability to actually complete the task. I would love to beat Roger Federer at tennis for example, but unfortunately, I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon.
4. The reward should be satisfying and also teach our brain the actions worth repeating.
This software program is running on autopilot in our brains all day.
So how can we change our programming?
James refers to it as the Four Laws of Behaviour Change.
“How can I make it obvious? How can I make it attractive? How can I make it easy? How can I make it satisfying?”
1st Law – Make It Obvious
We are “prediction machines”, constantly identifying noticing cues in our environment.
As Malcolm Gladwell intimates in his book Blink, we’re excellent at intuiting our surroundings on a subconscious level.
Because we’ve become so adept at this, the wheels of negative habits are often set in motion before we know anything about it.
As the psychologist, Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Therefore, the first step to changing our automatic behaviours is through awareness. James recommends a habits scorecard for this.
List all your daily actions and add a + or – next to it to decide if it is worth keeping or eliminating. For neutral habits, write =.
Starting a New Habit
To start a new habit, setting an implementation intention is essential, such as when and where we will act.
Research shows that having a specific plan will help us follow through on our goals.
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
We can also use current behaviours as a reminder to perform our new habit, in what James calls “habit stacking.”
“After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
I personally use habit stacking to great effect with my morning routine, where one action automatically flows into the next without conscious planning.
Our behaviour is dependent to a large extent on our environment. From supermarkets manipulating our minds with product placement to drinking more socially with friends, we can become victims to our surroundings.
But it’s not simply the structure of our environment that guides us, rather our relationship to its contents. If we associate a particular part of our surroundings with a certain behaviour, it can be harder to break that link.
That’s why it’s often easier to start a new habit in a new location.
It’s a bit like having a separate office when you work from home and being able to compartmentalise your job and leisure.
In this way, we can consciously re-design our environment.
When we remove the cues and associations from our environment, we can also remove the habits.
Therefore, we can structure our lives in a way that doesn’t require huge self-control (like not drooling over cookies on our desk.)
Bad habits feed into themselves, creating a negative vortex of emotions and the repetition of the bad habit we’re trying to break. Researchers call it “cue-induced wanting”.
“You feel bad, so you eat junk food. Because you eat junk food, you feel bad.”
The worrying fact is, we can’t forget a habit. Once it’s encoded, those pathways will always be there, ready to be re-activated when we experience the correct cue
Therefore, we must guard our environment carefully and hide any potentially triggering cues.
2nd Law – Make It Attractive
“A supernormal stimulus is a heightened version of reality and it elicits a stronger response than usual.”
We’ve already established that our brains are hugely sensitive to our environment, identifying cues to initiate our behaviours.
That sensitivity is only too observable when there’s a heightened stimulus to initiate a craving.
If you already have problems with alcohol and other addictions, these stimuli may seem constantly exaggerated, guiding your desires…
But the fact is, big business and the media are constantly tapping into our atavistic instincts.
From food companies spending millions to discover the most excitable flavours of crisps to the bright, colourful adverts on TV, we’re constantly bombarded with marketing experiments.
Such forms of exaggerated reality only serve to fuel our bad habits.
Consumerism is predicated on finding our psychological levers and pulling them, one after another. To instil good habits, we need to make their stimulus as supernormal as possible to compete with these other distractions.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter behind desire and is central to our formation of habits. When dopamine is withheld from rats, for example, they lose the will to live because they have no motivation to act.
It’s released both in anticipation of pleasure and as a reward for performing an action, using the same circuitry in the brain.
That’s why fantasising about our upcoming holiday (wanting) can be so enjoyable is frequently better than the satisfaction we derive from the activity itself (liking).
That’s because more neural pathways are allocated to wanting than liking:
Liking centres of the brain often referred to as hedonic hotspots. Wanting centres of the brain are activated 10 times more than liking centres during studies.
Desire creates the motivation needed to initiate habits, and James recommends using a principle called temptation bundling, or “linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do.”
This might be watching tv at the gym or listening to podcasts while you clean.
[Joel’s note – In my mind, the one drawback to temptation bundling is that you’re dismissing mindfulness in order to distract yourself. Therefore we might not learn the inherent enjoyment in tackling tough tasks. However, perhaps we can use the principle to create a new habit before gradually removing the reward.]
James also suggests combining this approach with habit stacking, which I think I prefer:
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED]. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].
Need to start stretching? After dinner, limber up for 10 mins before allowing yourself to watch your favourite boxset.
Family and Friends
We often imitate the habits of those closest to us, with three groups, in particular, having the most influence on our behaviour: “The close, the many, the powerful.”
Actually, the invisible roles played by those around us is pretty astonishing,
“One groundbreaking study tracked twelve thousand people for thirty-two years and found that a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese.”
One of the best ways to change our habits is to associate with a group where good behaviours are considered normal.
From a primitive standpoint, we yearn for tribal acceptance and will whatever’s necessary to conform to the expectations of the group.
Indeed, the shared community identity will also help reinforce our personal self-image and serve to keep us more compliant and accountable.
From AA meetings to entrepreneurial masterminds, this principle is evident all around us.
Fixing Bad Habits
From a prehistoric perspective, we have particular drivers of human nature, such as feeding, reproducing, gaining status…
Essentially, all the elements that allow us to survive and thrive as a species.
So, most habits, rather than creating new motivations, simple channel these ancient desires.
Habits, at their core, are about changing our state in order to survive. We do this by moving from less desirable to more desirable states.
Why do you reach for the cookie? Because a craving for sugar is desired to provide more fuel for survival.
These wants are initiated by cravings.
Associations, cues and cravings are derived through emotions and our desire to feel different.
Neurologists have discovered that when emotions and feelings are impaired, we actually lose the ability to make decisions.
In this way, James says, we can learn to master hard habits by associating them with positive emotions.
This is a form of psychological reframing, which seems to draw upon the methods used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
One way to do this is to regard the habit as a positive challenge or opportunity by changing the way we think about the task.
James suggests telling ourselves that we “get to” do something, instead of “have to” do it. This new association can completely alter our perception of the activity.
Another way is to bake our habit into a motivation ritual, much like a pre-game routine, in which our tasks are mentally paired with enjoyable activities.
“Find something that makes you truly happy—like petting your dog or taking a bubble bath—and then create a short routine that you perform every time before you do the thing you love. Maybe you take three deep breaths and smile.”
Now, whenever you need an extra dose of happiness in day to day life, you just need to take three deep breaths and smile to re-activate the same neural happiness program.
Like training a pet, we’re training our minds for certain cues and rewards.
It’s important to note, however, that our habits rely on associations and different cues mean different cravings for different people.
Scanning our environment, we see cues and make predictions all day, but these interpretations are entirely subjective. Therefore, the tasks you choose to associate with pleasurable activities will likely differ from mine.
3rd Law: Make It Easy
We can never be perfect when we try to learn a new habit or skill. Therefore, the key is to start with consistency, or “putting your reps in” as James calls it.
Our cognitive machinery is neuroplastic.
That’s to say, by practising an activity we change the structure of our brain (called long-term potention). Such an effect is shown with London taxi drivers, who display a larger hippocampus from memorising the road layout.
Many of us have heard that “neurons that fire together, wire together” Donald Hebb.
Even though we generally lack aptitude in a new skill, like learning to drive, our progress slowly becomes smoother with practice, in a process known as automaticity.
At this point we can hold a reasonable conversation and still drive safely, our subconscious brains placing us on autopilot.
Many people ask how long it takes to form a habit, while James says they should really be concerned with how many reps it takes for the behaviour to become automatic.
When that new behaviour is firmly entrenched, you’ll have crossed the “habit line.”
Reduce the Effort
Again, from an evolutionary standpoint, we’ve been designed to conserve energy wherever possible, a mindset which is often incompatible with positive habit formation.
Therefore, we have to make it as easy as possible to do the right thing and reduce any friction associated with the new task.
All businesses operate on the principle of making our lives more convenient (and humans lazier) in some way, home delivery being a prime example.
“Business is a never-ending quest to deliver the same result in an easier fashion.”
So, how can we use this principle to our own advantage?
The best place to start is environment design.
- Picking a gym on the way home from work
- Laying out exercise clothes the night before
- Disposing of junk food from your fridge and replacing them with healthy snacks
The Two-Minute Rule
“Researchers estimate that 40 to 50% of our actions on any given day are done out of habit.”
There are numerous tiny moments throughout the day which are decisive in creating the type of person we want to become.
Rather than relying on motivation to instil our habits, which will inevitably wane over time, we can utilise the two-minute rule instead.
Simply setting ourselves the task of performing an activity for two minutes will act as a gateway to slip into a more productive mindset.
This could even start with reading one page of a book or writing one sentence.
Rather than focusing on the results of these actions, instead we’re simply mastering the art of showing up and forging a new identity.
“Instead of trying to engineer a perfect habit from the start, do the easy thing on a more consistent basis. You have to standardize before you can optimize. As you master the art of showing up, the first two minutes simply become a ritual at the beginning of a larger routine.”
Cementing Good Habits
We can use commitment devices to help schedule our preferred actions ahead of time.
This might include arranging a run with a friend to encourage us to show up.
We can also use “strategic, one time decisions” like setting up an automatic savings transfer as soon as we’re paid each month.
The rise of technology now allows us to automate many previously undesireable tasks allowing us to set and forget the correct behaviour.
We can forget about willpower and make the desired behaviour inevitable.
This could involve signing up for a healthy veg box scheme to provide regular access to nutritious food or a credit card which saves money each time we make a purchase.
4th Law: Make It Satisfying
The Main Rule
“What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided.”
Rewards are essential, but the main caveat is that the satisfaction we derive from the activity has to be immediate.
Animals exist in what’s known as an immediate return environment in that they’re very focused on the present moment, to both stay alive and thrive.
For millennia, humans were the same, but despite our programming, society has been constructed around delayed return principles.
That’s to say…
“You can work for years before your actions deliver the intended payoff.”
However, we didn’t evolve to fully appreciate this mindset, as evidenced by a concept that scientists call time inconsistency.
Time inconsistency shows that we value rewards received immediately more than ones which are delayed.
Although this has served us well, when it comes to creating good habits, the effect can backfire.
“With our bad habits, the immediate outcome usually feels good, but the ultimate outcome feels bad. With good habits, it is the reverse: the immediate outcome is unenjoyable, but the ultimate outcome feels good.”
So, the takeaway is that that the more pleasure we get from an activity, the more we have to question whether it will lead to our desired outcome.
Good habits often don’t feel as good in the moment, even though the long term rewards can be enormous.
That’s why it’s essential to tap into our primitive psychology and pair good habits with immediate rewards to ensure we continue with our preferred behaviour.
Much like giving a dog a treat when they behave, what reward can you give yourself for completing the correct action?
Sticking to the System
It’s vital to make our daily actions obvious and trackable.
James recounts the story of a successful salesperson who moved a paper clip from one jar to another to track his sales calls.
“Making progress is satisfying, and visual measures—like moving paper clips or hairpins or marbles—provide clear evidence of your progress.”
However, perhaps the easiest way of measuring our progress is through a habit tracker.
[Note from Joel – I personally use a habit tracking app, which allows me to record when I perform the correct behaviour.]
Apparently, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld employed a similar method for writing daily jokes, which has been popularised as The Seinfeld Strategy.
Habit tracking serves many purposes, making behaviour “obvious, attractive, and satisfying.”
- Obvious – research shows that simply by maintaining food or spending logs, we change our behaviour more effectively. It also keeps us honest about our habits.
- Attractive – visual progress provides extra motivation, especially on bad days.
- Satisfying – tracking becomes its own reward in that we begin to focus on the system, and maintaining our action-taking streak, instead of the reward.
James finishes the book by covering some advanced tactics in “how to go from being merely good to truly great.”
He also provides bonus chapters on using these techniques in business and parenting.
However, I haven’t included them in this Atomic Habits summary, as I encourage you to read the full book for maximum return.
This Atomic habits summary was a pleasure to write, mainly because I enjoyed the book so much.
For years, I was hit and miss with my habits and the results spoke for themselves. I learned the hard way that relying on motivation alone just isn’t enough to get the job done.
Since then, I’ve become obsessed with the notion of mini habits and compound interest as they apply to personal and professional development.
If you have a clear vision for your life, becoming a master of your habits is absolutely inherent to making progress.
James Clear lays out a structured, yet digestable method for achieving this.