Book Summary: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Book Summary: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Are you looking for a book summary of Atomic Habits By James Clear? You have come to the right place.

Last week, I finished reading this book and jotted down some key insights from James Clear.

You don’t have to read the whole book if you don’t have time. This summary will provide you with an overview of everything you can learn from this book.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

In this Atomic Habits summary, I’m going to cover the following topics:

What is Atomic Habits About?

Because you want to get your life back on track, Atomic Habits provides a simple framework for making minor improvements in your life daily. In addition, James Clear, one of the world’s foremost authorities on habit formation, discusses ways for forming good habits and breaking negative ones.

You’ll also gain an understanding of how seemingly insignificant everyday routines may have a significant impact on your life and your future. If you find that you have difficulty changing your behaviours, the problem is not with you but with your system. It turns out that your brain is hard-wired to execute simple tasks and deliver instant rewards.

Because of this, James Clear has created an effective technique that will assist you in changing your behaviours and reaching new heights in your life.

This book covers all topics of making time for new habits, overcoming a lack of desire and willpower, creating an atmosphere that supports achievement, and discovering an accountability partner.

Who is the Author of Atomic Habits?

James Clear is a self-help author and entrepreneur who explores habits and their potential to motivate self-improvement. 

Hundreds of thousands of people receive Clear’s weekly newsletter, where he shares stories from his own life and that of other top performers in the business, sports, the arts, etc.

Atomic Habits Summary

Introduction

Would you want to achieve all your New Year’s resolutions, and not just let them be another recycled chapter that surfaces only on the dawn of the next year?

In life, we often want to change our habits, whether it is trying to wean ourselves off that bad habit we may have picked up or simply to build up positive habits in order to improve ourselves. 

Yet, more often than not, we find the process to be quite an obstacle. We may have initial success but end up realizing that the positive momentum doesn’t last. Or we might simply just procrastinate and not even start. 

If the above sounds familiar, take heart, because this book, written by James Clear, will shed light on how habits can be built up or altered. No longer will we be forced to rely on sheer willpower alone but also on a step by step easy to follow blueprint that is scientifically backed to make developing good habits that much simpler.

For starters, it talks about the 4 main laws that can be used to develop positive habits and eliminate negative habits from your life. Moreover, things like habit stacking, habit contracts, and accountability partners help you stick to those habits in the long run. 

The book also homes in on the fact that it is not really the big major stuff that provides the biggest impact in our lives, but the little things. It places a lot of importance on the systems that govern your life instead of the goals that govern it. So if you want to change your habits, you will have to change your systems and your identity. Only then will you be able to create long-lasting changes in your life.

Chapter 1: The Power Of Atomic Habits

Small changes accumulate to make a massive difference. Replicating this seems hard for people who underestimate the importance of smaller changes. This is because we convince ourselves that only the biggest changes will achieve the biggest successes.

1% better every day

The math behind this is pretty simple. If you improve 1% each day, you will be able to become thirty-seven times better at the end of a year.

Time

Just like money multiples with compound interest, the effects of positive habits also multiply when you repeat them. In this way, your habits are the compound interest of the changes you make to yourself.

Positive Compounding

Productivity compounds. Doing one extra thing on any given day may seem extremely hard, but it counts for a lot. You will do much better if you master a new skill or automate a very old task.

Knowledge compounds. You may not learn much if you learn one new idea, however, if you commit to lifelong learning, you will most certainly see a transformation. Reading helps broaden the mind and enhances perspectives.

Relationships compound. Behaviours are always mirrored and reflected back to you. Behaving nicely with people and coming to their aid will help you develop healthy, long-term relationships.

Negative Compounding

Stress compounds. Things like traffic jams, parental responsibilities, and financial burdens can place a lot of strain on someone. These everyday stressors can accumulate and lead to serious health problems like high blood pressure.

Negative thoughts compound. Negative thoughts about yourself will lead you to interpret life negatively. Moreover, the more you perceive people as selfish, unjust, and angry, the more you will come across people like that.

Outrage Compounds. One event never tips the scales. Things like daily aggravations and micro-aggressions can slowly multiply and lead to massive outrage.

What Progress is Really Like

If there is an ice cube sitting in front of you in a cold room, it won’t melt even if you gradually increase the temperature from twenty-five to thirty-one degrees Celcius. However, as soon as the temperature hits thirty-two degrees, the ice cube will start to melt. 

This is similar to how changes occur in our lives too. We might not see any progress in the beginning, but we will see it at one point or another.

In the early stages of any task, you are often met with a valley of disappointment. People make a few small changes and when they don’t see any substantial result in a few days, they give up. This is why building good habits that last is hard.

The Plateau of Latent Potential

People who find it hard to build good habits are the ones who have not crossed the Plateau of Latent Potential. Just like with the ice cube, the progress will be shown immediately once you cross this plateau, but you will have to give yourself time until you do that. 

Similarly, two tectonic plates will experience the slow buildup of tension for decades due to the constant grinding of plates, and then one day, they finally rub against each other and result in a huge earthquake. This proves that mastery requires a lot of patience.

Disappointment

One reason why people give up is that they expect progress to be linear. In reality, the results of efforts are often delayed. The ‘valley of disappointment’ occurs when people feel discouraged after doing something for days or even months without getting results. 

However, the work that you did was only being accumulated and not wasted. When people feel disappointed, they slide into unwanted habits that hinder progress.

The best way to achieve anything in life is to set actionable and specific goals. But when embarking on the journey, James realized that his progress had to do more with the systems he followed rather than the goals he set for himself. 

The major distinction between the two is that the goals are the results and the systems are the processes that lead to those results you want to achieve. As a coach, your goal is to win, your system is how you win.

But if you only focus on systems and ignore goals, would you succeed still? You would. This is because goals give you a direction only but systems ensure progress.

In conclusion, if you aren’t developing long-term habits, it’s because you aren’t focusing on the systems. Focusing only on goals, and overlooking systems will lead you to revert back to old habits. Like many tiny atoms which build molecules, small habits make up remarkable systems. 

Developing them will hence allow you to stack up building blocks of incredible power and achieve compound growth sooner than you expected.

Chapter 2: Habits Shape Who You Are

It is relatively harder to develop good habits than develop bad ones, which is why it is likely that you will continue repeating bad habits for the foreseeable future. Keeping up with good habits like meditation as well as cooking is difficult; however, once they are established, they tend to stay with you forever. 

The main reason for bad habits sticking with us is that we try to make the wrong changes. Let’s understand the three layers of behavioural change.

Change can occur in your processes, your outcomes, or your identity. Outcomes are related to results, processes are related to habits and systems while identity is related to your beliefs. Many people fail because they don’t follow a particular direction when it comes to making changes. The best way is to make changes to identity.

With this, the focus is not on goals, but on who you wish you become in the future. Most people want to be skinny and they will follow the systems but they refuse to acknowledge who they want to be or how they want to feel. This is problematic because there are important assumptions that are associated with the system that you want to adopt. Any change that you make that is not in line with your identity will hence not last.

This is also because it is extremely hard to change any habits without changing who you are at your core. The story of Brian Clark is worth mentioning here. He had a terrible habit of chewing which he overcame by developing an interest in his nails. He started taking care of them and feeling proud of them. 

This is linked with intrinsic motivation which ensures that a habit is aligned with your identity. Because once pride gets involved, it is very hard to not take habits seriously.

Chapter 3: Building Habits In 4 Easy Steps

Developing habits require four simple processes. Cues (1) that trigger the brain, cravings (2) that act as the motivational force behind your habits, the responses (3), the actual habits that we perform that leads to a reward (4). 

This is the end goal of your habits. In this way, the cue allows you to notice the reward and the craving is the idea that you look forward to the reward. The response then becomes the way through which you get the reward.

Rewards are important because they either teach us or satisfy us. They either satisfy our needs, like food, water, relationships, etc. or they teach us important lessons.

For instance, through rewards, we learn which actions are more important and beneficial for us and which aren’t. The feedback mechanism assesses feelings of disappointment and pleasure. 

In this way, the rewards also complete the cycle and help you develop a habit. It is hence imperative that all four steps are followed. If even one of them is missing, the behaviour will not be repeated.

Chapter 4: Spotting The Subtle Difference

Gary Klein, a famous psychologist, told a story about a female paramedic who saw her father-in-law at a family gathering and pointed out that he didn’t look right. 

As a result, the man was rushed to the hospital and he narrowly escaped death. Now the main question is “how could that paramedic see that the man didn’t look right?” In reality, she had worked with people with similar conditions for so many years that she was able to tell the condition just by looking at someone’s face only.

Similarly, curators have been able to tell the difference between a fake and an authentic piece of art just by looking. Just like the paramedic and the curator, you too can compel your brain to pick up cues and predict outcomes. 

The brain will also pick up lessons from experiences. This is why the actions come under the authority of your unconscious and automatic mind. 

These actions then lead to you forming habits. So over time, these habits become extremely common and hence appear to be invisible. Another important thing to note is that before we establish new habits, we need to first assess the current and old ones.

We fail at many things because we lack self-awareness. You can use the concept of a Habits scorecard to keep a more detailed note of all of your behaviours.

Once you do that, evaluate whether these are good, bad, or neutral habits. You can rewrite your list and then add good, bad, or neutral after them.

Chapter 5: Starting Positive Habits

Many people simply assume that they lack motivation. In reality, they only lack clarity. Some people waste their lives because they always wait for the right time to start an action. You don’t have to wait, you simply have to follow a plan. This is a good example of what you can do.

  • Meditation. I will do it at 8 a.m. in the lounge
  • Studying. I will study French for 30 minutes in my study room.
  • Exercise. I will exercise for half an hour at 7 p.m. in the park
  • Marriage. I will make my husband/wife breakfast at 8 a.m. in the kitchen.

If you don’t know when to start, you can always pick the first day of the month of the year. A fresh start always elevates your motivation levels.

A great way to develop a habit is to identify one that you are doing already and then stack the other on the top. So instead of pairing your habit with a location and time, you can simply pair it with something that you are already doing. The habit stacking formula is hence “after the current habit, I will do a new habit.” So for example:

  • Meditation: after pouring coffee, I will meditate for 5 minutes.
  • Exercise: after coming home from work, I will do some stretches.
  • Gratitude: after eating dinner, I will say something I am grateful for.
  • Marriage: after changing into my nightgown, I will kiss my partner.

The key here is to pair the desired behaviour with something that you already do. Once you have done the basic part, you can build on larger habits by stacking them together.

Chapter 6: The Environment Impact

We often don’t progress because the environments are not strong enough to trigger us. A person wanting to learn music will not because the instrument is tucked away in the closet. You need to create clear visual cues to attract you to do something. 

Here are some ways you can redesign your environment:

  • If you want to take your medicines every night, make sure the pill bottle is next to the bathroom counter.
  • If you want to practice your music, make sure the instrument is within your reach.
  • You can also keep multiple cues for the same thing to reinforce the behaviour. You can hence redesign your environment so that you are able to exercise more control over your life.

Your behaviours may be the result of smaller changes, but as they develop, you will realize that the context behind every habit and behaviour matters a lot. 

In this way, our behaviour is influenced by our relationship to the objects not merely by their existence. So you need to start thinking about how you interact with all these objects. This way you can also train yourself to think of certain things and make good associations in the way you want.

Chapter 7: Discipline

In reality, people who restrict bad habits are usually the ones who are better at structuring their lives in a better way. In short, these people spend very little time in the presence of triggering or tempting situations. It is easier to practice restraint when you aren’t always faced with the same triggering situations. 

There is also strong evidence to suggest that habits and behaviours reappear when the subsequent cues reappear again. So shaming people who are obese tend to often backfire. This is because such people will relapse back into things like overeating.

So resisting temptations is not going to give you perfect results, you also need to make an active effort to eliminate cues that trigger old habits. In short, sticking to positive habits in a negative environment and vice versa is almost impossible. You should try to cut bad habits at their core. Here are some examples of how:

  • If you are unable to work, try to leave your phone in a separate room for some time.
  • If you don’t feel confident in your own skin, then stop following any Instagram accounts that make you feel jealous.
  • If you are spending too much time on the internet, sign out from your Netflix account.

These are some examples in which you can invert the 1st law of behaviour change and hence try to escape a bad habit. You can sometimes eliminate just one cue and see how the entire habit goes away. So instead of trying to resist temptation all the time, you can instead work towards reforming the environment you live in.

Chapter 8: Making It Easy For You

This chapter aims to tell us the ways in which we can make our habits seem irresistible. It is not possible to transform every habit, but it is possible to make behaviours and triggers very enticing.

Dopamine is one of the most widely studied neurotransmitters in the world. A scientist can identify the moment a craving occurs by simply measuring the dopamine levels in the brain. 

Two scientists implanted electrodes in rat brains and restricted their release of dopamine. They found out that these rats lost any desire to live. They neither ate nor indulged in intercourse. In similar studies, the rats were given small amounts of sugar and their face lit up. 

Their dopamine-releasing receptors were still blocked. This meant that the pleasure area of the brain was activated, but the rats no longer experienced any desire. In the absence of desire, the need for action also stopped. 

This meant that whilst the rats enjoyed the sugar, they did not have any urge to seek it out for continued consumption. In studies that reversed the process, it was found that an increase in the levels of dopamine resulted in the animals performing certain actions at unmatched speeds.

Habits can hence be interpreted as a dopamine-driver feedback loop. Previously, dopamine was associated with pleasure only. Now it is also associated with things like motivation, learning, punishment, memory, and aversion. 

So with dopamine, it is not only released when you experience feelings of pleasure but is also released when you think about pleasure or subtly anticipate it.

In conclusion, it is actually the feeling of acquiring pleasure that compels you to act and not pleasure itself. This is also why you will feel better when you are thinking of an experience rather than when you are actually doing it.

Chapter 9: Family And Friends

We imitate the behaviours that are performed by the ones who are close to us, the ones adopted by a large number of people, and lastly, the ones performed by powerful people.

1. Imitating the Close

When it comes to behaviour, proximity needs to be taken into consideration. We not only pick up habits from our home but we also pick them up from our peers, our colleagues, and people who are in close proximity to us.

A study found out that if in a relationship, one partner slims down, the other would also be inclined to lose weight. So in this way, peer pressure is not bad when you are surrounded by good influences.

2. Imitating the Many

Solomon Asch, a well-known psychologist, conducted an experiment where he emphasized human beings’ tendency to imitate the many. The results of the experiment suggested that one individual is likely to change his behaviour if he thinks that his behaviour is not in line with other people in the group.

So if you are part of a good tribe or community, you will want to change your habits to conform. For instance, if you are part of a book club, you will want to read more books so you can fit in with the crowd.

3. Imitating the Powerful

Achieving status, prestige, and power have always been the prime goals of humans all around the world. We want to be popular and win awards. We also want to be recognized and praised for our efforts. 

The tendency to become relevant and popular in the current world is actually positive for us. Historically, anyone who succeeds in doing all these will end up with more access to resources. 

We also try to be the best one out there because that helps to set us apart from the crowd. So imitating powerful people is a smart move because it allows you to adapt strategies and adopt habits that the famous and powerful people already possess.

Chapter 10: Correcting Bad Habits

In this chapter, James narrates an incident where he was sitting in one of Istanbul’s most famous streets. He visited some of his friends who had all been heavy smokers at one point or another. 

Upon inquiry, he found out that some of them had quit smoking after they read a book by Allen Carr. That book made people look at themselves as having more control over cigarettes and not as mere victims. 

It also pointed out that people often don’t smoke because they want to but because they have to. This made quitting smoking easier because the book convinced people that they weren’t letting go of something that meant a lot to them.

At a deeper level, the motives that guide us remain more or less the same. Both a smoker and a person going to the gym want to get rid of anxious thoughts, but the way they do it is different. 

So in short, habits are more about associations than anything else. You want to solve a particular problem and any habit that lets you do that seems worth doing.

Chapter 11: Always Progress Forward

You need to make your good habits seem more automatic and repetitive with time. This can only be done when you repeat a good habit so many times, that your mind no longer has to think in order to execute the task. 

The idea behind long-term potentiation also allows you to improve the connections between your neurons. So in this way, any behaviour that you repeat will end up leading to a clear physical change. 

This also means that by just putting in repetitions, you are wiring your brain to maintain the good habit that you want to develop. This is why all behaviours will follow a very similar trajectory.

They will begin as effortful practices and transition to automatic behaviours. So in much a similar way, we can concede that habits will form based on how frequently you do something, and not on how long you do it. In short, it is the frequency that matters and not the length of time.

Chapter 12: The Principle Of Least Resistance

We often try to follow very strict diets while we are living in very high-friction environments. This is why you shouldn’t expect yourself to follow a tight regime if you are frequently out to dinner with your friends. 

It is hence not recommended that you rely on motivation factors and willpower alone. You will also have to transform your environment so you face as little friction as possible. The central idea is to create such an environment where you find doing hard things easy.

So whether we are a parent, a leader, or a coach looking to change behavior, we need to ask a crucial question ‘how can we shift the world and our environment so that doing what is right also seems easy.

Chapter 13: 2 Minutes To Stop Procrastination

The idea behind the two-minute rule is that you have to stop the habit as soon as your two minutes are up. So if you are exercising, you need to stop after 2 minutes at all costs. 

This will gradually help you build up on your activity time and will compel you to complete difficult tasks because you want to do them and not because you have to do them.

Ernest Hemingway also gave similar advice in terms of writing. He believed that people should stop writing while they are still feeling good about a particular thing. This will compel them to do it again with equal vigour. 

The idea is not to focus so much on the actual act of writing, but to train your spotlight on envisaging who you want to be; because as mentioned earlier, habits can shape who we become. You need to also realize that practising music for two minutes is still better than not practising it at all. 

Once you start following the two-minute rule, you can also combine it with the technique of habit shaping. This will allow you to build on your habits without losing focus.

Chapter 14: Breed Positive & Drop Bad Habits

You can automate a large proportion of your life so you can focus on the things that matter more. Each habit that we delegate to a machine or a piece of tech helps us free our time and energy.

We can easily write off smaller habits as a one-time thing but gradually, they build up and end up becoming major issues in your life. So rather than trusting your willpower to come through and help you adopt a new habit, you can simply make good habits seem inevitable. 

This is also a good way for you to lock in your future behaviours and hence have more free time for your pleasures.

The 1st Law: Make It Obvious

  • Write down all of your current habits on a piece of paper known as the habits scorecard
  • Write, I will do this behaviour at this time and in this location. This is the implementation intention.
  • Write, after my current habit, I will do this new habit. This is called habit stacking
  • Ensure that the cues of habits are both visible and obvious. This is you design your environment.

The 2nd Law: Make It Attractive

  • Pair the action that you want to take to the one that you have to do. This is called temptation bundling.
  • Be part of a culture or an environment where your desired behaviour equals normal behaviour.
  • Do something you thoroughly enjoy each time you do a difficult habit. This will create a motivational ritual.

The 3rd Law: Make It Easy

  • Decrease the conflicts between your desired habits and your environment. This is called reduced friction.
  • Prepare for your future by preparing for your environment beforehand. This is priming the environment.
  • Optimize any small choices that will deliver meaningful impacts. This is mastering your decisive moments.
  • Downscale your habits so you can do them in less than 2 minutes. Use the two-minute rule.
  • Invest in one time purchases and technologies that lock your future behaviour. This is automating your habits.

Chapter 15: Key Principle For Behavioral Change

So we see how the first three laws of behaviour change will increase the likelihood of you adopting a behaviour. This includes making a cue obvious, making it attractive, and then making it easy. 

However, the fourth law ensures that the action will be repeated. This helps complete the habit loop. There is still a catch. We are not looking for satisfaction in the future, rather we want immediate satisfaction.

One of the best ways to do it is to ensure that you get some level of immediate benefits as soon as you do something. So for example, after half an hour of exercise, you can allow yourself to watch an episode of your favourite show. This will curb your need for immediate gratification. You getting physically fit will hence provide you with delayed gratification.

The best way to ensure that a habit sticks with you for the longest time possible is to ensure you feel successful. This will not only ensure that you feel content but will also make you feel like your habit paid off.

Like with exercise, you don’t get to enjoy any immediate perks. It is only after months of exercise that you will feel sufficiently motivated to continue that action without any proper reward. Good incentives can start a habit successfully. The change in your identity will help you stay on that habit.

Chapter 16: Good Habits Consistency

There was a woman who used to shift a hairpin from one container to the other every time she completed writing a page. There was another man who used to place a marble in a bin every time he did a push-up.

When there are clear cut visual measures, making progress seems very easy. These visual rewards or incentives not only help you focus but also act as a means of immediate satisfaction. Another great way to measure your progress is by keeping a habit tracker.

As the name suggests, a habit tracker helps you track and ensures you keep all your habits. You can note down all the habits you want to follow and place the list somewhere where it’s easily accessible. 

Every time you complete a task, you can simply cross it off the list. This not only makes a behaviour obvious but also makes a behavior seem more satisfying and attractive.

Chapter 17: Being Accountable

It is very easy to fall by the wayside and divert from your goals if you aren’t going to be held accountable to anybody. The more concrete and tangible the consequences are, the more they end up making a better impact on human behaviour. 

This is why in most cases, behaviours only shift when there is a punishment that is adequately painful and properly enforced. There is actually a very good way that can add immediate cost to a bad habit. You simply have to create a habit contract.

Chapter 18: Do Genes Matter?

It is common knowledge that genes also impact behaviour and sometimes your genetic makeup makes it almost impossible for you to succeed at a particular sport or career. 

For instance, a person having shorter legs and a longer torso is perfect for swimming and a person having longer legs and a shorter upper body is more suited to running.

If these people were to switch their sports, they would be at a huge disadvantage. This is why it’s important to pick something that is in line with your genetic makeup and your body dispositions. You could be the best person to play cricket, but if you are handicapped, then you can’t do it.

Many trait theorists have emphasized the importance of traits in shaping our behaviour. Every individual comes with a distinct personality and that is what determines the actions they take. 

There are stronger predispositions that determine how much disobedience an individual shows towards authority. There are many trait theorists that have introduced their own theories. However, the most common five personality traits according to most of them are these.

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Neuroticism
  • Agreeableness

Our personalities are not the only driving force behind our habits; however, there is significant proof that our personalities push us towards certain tendencies. An extroverted person will find it hard to sit home all day and write a book. This is also a core idea of the 4th law. You need to tailor your habits so they are more and more in sync with your personality.

Chapter 19: Staying Motivated

Many scientists have tried to answer the question of how to maintain optimal motivation. The best answer so far comes from the finding that the way to stay motivated is to work on things that don’t seem too hard or too easy. 

They fall under the category of ‘just manageable difficulty’. Our brains love to be challenged, but if the task is too hard or beyond one’s capability, then the brain will soon lose motivation. 

So the goldilocks rule states that human beings can experience the highest level of motivation when they are doing the tasks that challenge them yet still manage to fall within the range of their current abilities.

Chapter 20: No Resting On Laurels

In any situation, every new piece of information gives you more room for improvement. You cannot excel at a chess game if you have not played it frequently. 

Only when you can follow the basics without thinking can you reach a higher level. This is also true in the case of any endeavour. When you can perform the basics automatically, you can pay attention to advanced details. 

This will allow your brain to always have a challenge around and hence keep you intrigued. Once you unlock a habit, you will move to an advanced level. This creates an endless cycle that keeps you hooked.

So far, you have already learned ways to adapt a habit, stick to it, and make it automatic, however, you still need to learn ways to master it. This process requires you to stack improvements on top of one other.

Each new habit will be stacked on the other and this will allow you to continue enhancing your skills. You will also need to establish a system that lets you review your skills and habits.

Final Words

Your life will not be transformed overnight by a tiny change in your behaviour. But if you make it a habit, it can lead to significant changes in your life. You don’t have to make huge breakthroughs or plan a revolution in your life to change your life. 

In fact, it’s about building a system of positive habits that, when combined, yield remarkable results.

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