Atomic Habits is an international bestseller by James Clear, one of the world's leading experts on habit formation. So many people recommended the book to me over the last year, and it did not disappoint!
It's simple, easy to read and highly practical.
James managed to achieve a nice balance between psychology, science, recognisable examples and practical action items, delivering the kind of book that motivates you to start changing things straight away. I found myself thinking about it throughout the day, noticing certain automatic reactions that I had not been as conscious of - like immediately searching for my phone when I go to the bathroom. I also started to see how and why I struggled in the past to keep up with new habits or resolutions. (I think we can all relate to those new year resolutions not making it past January!). All pretty common sense stuff but packaged in a way that is actionable and relatable.
Below are my main takeaways from the book. It's by no means a comprehensive summary so definitely get the book if any of this speaks to you.
1. 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. This can be a difficult concept to appreciate in daily life when we've become so used to instant gratification. We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much at the moment.
Often, when planning our new habits, goals, or resolutions, we focus on BIG changes. We convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action—intense training schedules, new expensive equipment, weekly classes, strict diets, and so on. We feel super excited and motivated for about 3-4 days, but the results never seem to come quickly enough. Sounds familiar?
We expect to make progress in a linear fashion, and it’s frustrating how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months. It doesn’t feel like any of your efforts are making a difference.
Atomic Habits is all about making small improvements - unnoticeable on a day-to-day basis but far more meaningful in the long run. Little decisions and choices made over and over will start to add up and create significant results. A 10-minute walk around the block or reading 5 pages each day seems hardly worth it. Gradually though, you will notice an impact. It’s a hallmark of any compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed. You just need to stick around long enough to get to that point.
For me, this is one of the biggest takeaways from the book. It might sound pretty obvious, and intuitively we all know and understand this, yet it's a trap we keep falling into. Saving $4 on coffee each day won’t make a difference to your bank account after 1 week. Having the daily mini Snickers with your coffee (guilty) does not make me look or feel any worse. But how about after a year? Two years? Ten years? Keeping that in mind each time I feel like something is not worth the effort will help keep me on track.
2. Focus on who you wish to become versus on what you want to achieve
James outlines three layers to behaviour change:
- Outcomes (what you get): the results you are trying to achieve. Losing weight, running a marathon, making money from online writing.
- Processes (how you do it): your systems to achieve the results, like a new routine or a new training schedule.
- Identity (what you believe): your beliefs, values, self-image, judgement about yourself and others.
Most people try to change habits by focusing on the outcomes - on what they want to achieve. These are outcome-based habits.
Instead, we should aim for identity-based habits. Here we focus on who we wish to become.
James claims that true behaviour change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation (I want to run a marathon), but the only reason you’ll stick with one is when it becomes part of your identity (I am a runner). It's one thing to say ‘I'm the type of person who wants this’. It's something very different to say ‘I'm the type of person who does this’.
A great example in the book is for someone trying to quit smoking. When offered a cigarette, instead of saying, ‘No thanks, I am trying to quit smoking’, you say, ‘No thanks, I'm not a smoker’ It's a small but fundamental distinction between those two responses. It’s not about what you are or aren’t trying to do; it’s about who you are or trying to become.
He gives another example of a person who lost over 100 pounds by asking herself, ‘What would a healthy person do?’ All day long, she would use this question as a guide. ‘Would a healthy person walk or take a cab?’ or ‘Would a healthy person order a burrito or a salad?’ She figured if she acted like a healthy person long enough, eventually she would become that person.
I like this because, again, it is a very simple but effective mindset shift, and it can be applied to practically every situation. Call yourself a writer, a runner, a leader, a thoughtful friend who remembers birthdays and sends cards - and act accordingly. You could even think of a specific friend that you admire and ask yourself what he or she would do at that moment.
3. Consider the Habit Loop when reviewing your habits
Each habit can be broken down into four steps:
- Cue: the trigger for your brain to initiate the behaviour
- Craving: the motivational force behind the behaviour
- Response: the actual behaviour you will perform
- Reward: the end goal of every behaviour
The cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop - cue, craving, response, rewards; cue, craving, response, reward - that ultimately leads to an automatic habit.
Practically, this is what this loop looks like:
- Cue: I hit a stumbling block on a project at work
- Craving: I want to relieve my frustration
- Response: I pull out my phone and check social media
- Reward: I satisfy my craving to feel relieved. Checking social media becomes associated with feeling stalled at work.
This felt highly relatable and made me reflect on one of my habits that I am trying to break, which is taking my phone with me to the bathroom. This is what my loop looks like:
- Cue: I need to go to the bathroom
- Craving: I want to avoid feeling bored
- Response: I grab my phone and spend 15-20 minutes scrolling through social media
Reward: I satisfy my craving to feel entertained. Grabbing my phone and scrolling social media becomes associated with needing to go to the bathroom.
To design good habits and eliminate bad habits, James lays out a framework called The Four Laws of Behaviour Change built around these four steps:
- The 1st Law (Cue): make it obvious (or invisible)
- The 2nd Law (Craving): make it attractive (or unattractive)
- The 3rd Law (Response): make it easy (or difficult)
- The 4th Law (Reward): make it satisfying (or unsatisfying)
Sometimes a habit will be hard to remember, so you need to make it obvious.
Other times you won't feel like starting, so you'll need to make it attractive.
In many cases, you may find that a habit will be too difficult, so you'll need to make it easy.
And sometimes, you won't feel like sticking with it, so you'll need to make it satisfying.
For each habit you are trying to build and each habit you are trying to break, look for the bottleneck. Where are you tripping up? What can you do or change to ensure a smooth loop? The book is structured around these four laws, and for each one, James offers practical suggestions and tactics that you can easily implement.
4. Motivation is overrated; environment matters more
Real estate is all about location, location, location. Well, habits are all about environment, environment, environment. The goal is to design your life and surroundings in a way that the cues of your good habits are visible (think of the 1st Law) and doing the right thing is the easiest option (think of the 3rd Law).
It's naive to think you can rely only on discipline, motivation and willpower. That might work for a little while, but it is not sustainable in the long term.
- Want to start eating more fruit? Have a bowl of your favourite fruit on the kitchen counter (→ visible)
- Want to start doing yoga every morning? Lay down your yoga mat right next to your bed and have workout clothes ready (→ visible and easy)
- Want to stop eating snacks and crisps every day? Don't have it in your house (→ invisible)
- Want to stop grabbing your phone first thing in the morning? Charge your phone outside of your bedroom (→ invisible and difficult)
I will be moving countries soon, from Singapore to the UK, and will first spend some time at my parent's home in Belgium. My daily routines will be disrupted, so it will be an interesting experiment to apply some of the principles from the book to design my new environment and build new habits from scratch. (Obviously taking the Post-It with me).
5. Curb Your Enthusiasm
There are two concepts in the book that particularly resonated with me. Whenever I would try to do something new, I would set my goals and expectations very high from the start, making it almost impossible to keep it up on a daily basis. Rationally I understood that this was causing me to fail, but excitement would always take over and I'd end up trying to do too much too soon.
James discusses two strategies to help with that:
The 2-minutes Rule
Whenever you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do. A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy.
A habit must be established before it can be improved. Instead of trying to engineer a perfect habit from the start, do the easy thing on a more consistent basis. Then worry about increasing the difficulty.
I had bought weights last year and had created a daily schedule of exercises and reps, taking up at least 20 minutes each morning. I did that for about a week, and every day was a mental struggle, pushing myself to do it. The weights have been collecting dust ever since. I'm now giving it another try, but I am forcing myself to stick to 20 overhead presses per day. This takes me less than 2 minutes, and so far, I've done it every morning.
The Goldilocks Rule
Humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right. When you're starting a new habit, you need to avoid getting carried away and setting insanely high targets or expectations. Start small and allow the habit to get established. Build up slowly. These little improvements and new challenges will keep you engaged and motivated.
Another habit that I want to build into my life is daily writing - hence this blog. Before this book, I would have set myself a target of posting a blog post every week. Going from zero writing to a blog post every week would be too difficult and would probably lead me to give up. Instead, I have set myself a target of writing 15 minutes every day. That's a very low threshold that I can easily meet on most days, even when I am busy, tired or distracted.
If there's anything in here that felt relatable and piqued your interest, you should definitely read the book as it is filled with great examples and suggestions. James also has a weekly newsletter that I'm really enjoying, called 3-2-1: 3 ideas from James, 2 quotes he found inspiring, and 1 question to consider.