Atomic Habits Summary
11 min read ⌚
An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones
You are a creature of habits.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear offers an easy and proven way for you to build good habits and break bad ones.
We can sum it up in brief with him as: “tiny changes – remarkable results.”
Read ahead to find out more.
Who Should Read “Atomic Habits”? And Why?
We’ve written summaries of so many habit-related books that we’ve lost the count: The Power of Habit, Emotional Habits, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, Mini Habits, High Performance Habits, Millionaire Success Habits… and many more.
Atomic Habits more than belongs in this company – it’s probably one of the best books on habits you’ll ever read.
About James Clear
James Clear is an American author, speaker, and photographer.
He is one of the foremost authorities on habits and decision-making, having taught more than 10,000 leaders of today through the Habits Academy, “the premier training platform for individuals and organizations that are interested in building better habits in life and work.”
A critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits is his debut book.
Find out more at https://jamesclear.com.
“Atomic Habits PDF Summary”
Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference
“It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis,” writes James Clear in Atomic Habits.
Well, because of Hollywood and media and everything that’s so frighteningly bad with this world.
When you see a movie about an artist, you don’t really see him tirelessly working on his painting or poem for months and months, making small improvements to it day in day out.
What you see is him falling down in a trance at a certain moment (usually induced by some unimportant and trivial event) and having a revelatory vision which suddenly makes his work worthwhile.
“Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action,” Clear goes on. “Whether it is losing weight, building a business, writing a book, winning a championship, or achieving any other goal, we put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.”
But it doesn’t work that way!
Or, better yet, as Robert Maurer revealed in his guide to kaizen, it can work that way, but only sometimes; continuous improvement beats radical innovation 9 times out of ten!
And it’s pure and simple logic: even though improving by 1% isn’t particularly notable or even noticeable, in the long run, it is very, very meaningful.
Clear provides the math:
• 1% worse every day for one year: 0.99365 = 00.03
• 1% better every day for one year: 1.01365 = 37.78
Or to visualize that in a graph provided, once again, by Clear:
The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits
Now, what James Clear is actually talking about when he is talking about small improvements is something much bigger, something which actually makes you who you are and defines your identity.
Yes, habits, the bane of your existence.
Clear neatly defines habits as “the compound interest of self-improvement.” To make the definition even clearer, Clear (ha, pun unintended!) uses a financial analogy.
Namely, your habits work similarly to money: the same way money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.
You’ll notice no difference in terms of your physical condition if you spend 20 minutes of your morning working out; but do that for a few months, and suddenly you’ll spot the outline of that coveted six-pack.
Contrarywise, eating a single pizza will not make you fat or unhealthy; but eating pizza every day for a few months will definitely have negative effects.
The value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes apparent – and strikingly, too – only after a year, a few years, or even a decade.
So, improving 1 percent every day is not merely a good strategy: it’s the best one you’ll ever hear from anyone.
Especially if you think of your habits as being part of a system; hence the title of Clear’s book. It’s not “atomic” as in A-bomb powerful, earth-shattering events that will change everything in an instant, but “atomic” as in tiny, miniscule clogs of a result-oriented machine:
An atomic habit refers to a tiny change, a marginal gain, a 1 percent improvement. But atomic habits are not just any old habits, however small. They are little habits that are part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.
How Progress Works, aka Beware the Valley of Disappointment
That’s great, you say.
1% improvement overtime amounts to something more than 1%; but I really think, you add, that, in reality, it doesn’t exactly work this way.
I’ve tried this numerous times, and every time I end up disappointed: two months of working out for 20 minutes produces no results whatsoever in my case!
Well, of course it doesn’t: small changes often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold.
Imagine, says Clear, that you have an ice cube sitting at the table in front of you. In the beginning, the room is about twenty-five degrees, but it gradually heats up.
Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight degrees – nothing happens to the ice cube; twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one – still the same.
And suddenly, the ice begins to melt: “a one-degree shift, seemingly no different from the temperature increases before it, has unlocked a huge change!”
In other words, small changes often appear to have no effect whatsoever until a critical threshold is passed; afterward, the magic happens; the effects may be delayed, but afterward they are pretty powerful; mastery requires patience.
Don’t believe us?
Take it from the San Antonio Spurs, one of the most successful NBA teams in history. This Jacob Riis quote hangs in their locker room for a reason:
When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.
Remember: incremental progress is never linear; and hard work is always stored until its effects are suddenly revealed.
Trust the process.
How to Build Better Habits in 4 Simple Steps
In 1898, a psychologist by the name of Edward Thorndike conducted an experiment that, once and for all, revealed to the world how habits work and which rules guide our behavior.
Ever interested in animal behavior, Thorndike decided to put some cats in a puzzle box, designed in such a way that one could escape from it by pressing a certain lever.
Of course, nobody wants to be locked in a box, so every cat that was put there did its best to find a way out; eventually, each of them did find the magical lever and successfully escaped the box.
Thorndike repeated the experiment many times over; with each trial, the cats got better at finding the lever.
For example, 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.
In other words, during the first three trials, the cat escaped in an average of 1.5 minutes; during the last three trials, it took Cat 12 no more than 7 seconds to do the same.
Obviously, because it learned to repeat those behaviors which resulted in satisfying consequences and not to repeat those which produced unpleasant consequences.
Afterward, it let its brain work on autopilot.
And that’s how you form habits as well.
The Habit Loop
In other words, the feedback loop behind all human behavior is pretty simple: try, fail, learn, try differently. With practice, the useless movements peter out, and the useful actions get reinforced.
Habits are – to quote Clear yet again – mental shortcuts learned from experience.
As you know full well from Charles Duhigg’s great, great book (Clear shares our opinion) The Power of Habit, each habit is actually a four-step pattern:
You can find more about each of them by reading Duhigg’s book – or our summary of it – but, here are brief explanations which should make this summary self-contained as well:
• Cue: the trigger which predicts a reward: the buzzing of your phone with a new SMS;
• Craving: the motivational force behind every habit; what makes you act; in the case above, you want to learn the content of the message;
• Response: the actual habit you perform: you grab your phone and read the text;
• Reward: the end goal of every habit: the cue is all about noticing the reward, the craving about wanting it, and the response about obtaining it; once the reward comes your way, your craving is satisfied;
Your brain wants your cravings satisfied (it is “a reward detector”); so, it memorizes the steps which lead to this; in our case, phone buzzing becomes associated with phone grabbing, and this creates a neurological feedback loop, aka an automatic habit:
Habits are created only when everything works on all four stages; if the reward fails to satisfy your craving, the response asks a lot of energy from you, or you never ever happen upon the initial cue in the future, the habit loop will never start or complete.
Without the first three steps, a behavior will not occur; without all four, a behavior will never evolve into a habit.
Tricking the Habit Loop
Now, the key to changing your life for the better is simple: create good habits and eliminate bad ones.
Knowing the four-step habit pattern helps a lot – because it makes it very clear what you should do at each step if you want to break a bad habit or, even better, create a good one.
Clear calls his method – or, rather, framework – the Four Laws of Behavior Change and he describes it thus:
The Four Laws of Behavior Change [provide] a simple set of rules for creating good habits and breaking bad ones. You can think of each law as a lever that influences human behavior. When the levers are in the right positions, creating good habits is effortless. When they are in the wrong positions, it is nearly impossible.
In practice, this framework looks like this:
|How to Create a Good Habit|
|The 1st Law (Cue): Make it obvious.|
|The 2nd Law (Craving): Make it attractive.|
|The 3rd Law (Response): Make it easy.|
|The 4th Law (Reward): Make it satisfying.|
|How to Break a Bad Habit|
|Inversion of the 1st Law (Cue): Make it invisible.|
|Inversion of the 2nd Law (Craving): Make it unattractive.|
|Inversion of the 3rd Law (Response): Make it difficult.|
|Inversion of the 4th Law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.|
Now, the bulk of Atomic Habits is dedicated to explaining in detail these Four Laws of Behavior Change. We’ve summarized them as the Key Lessons one should take from James Clear’s book.
Key Lessons from “Atomic Habits”
1. The 1st Law (Cue): Make It Obvious
2. The 2nd Law (Craving): Make It Attractive
3. The 3rd Law (Response): Make It Easy
4. The 4th Law (Reward): Make It Satisfying
The 1st Law (Cue): Make It Obvious
Anne Thorndike is a Boston-based doctor who wanted to improve her patients’ dietary habits, starting with eliminating sodas from their menu and introducing more water.
And – believe it or not – she did it!
How, you wonder?
Well, instead of telling them what your doctor has told you numerous times (“Drinking soda is not healthy”), she merely rearranged the hospital cafeteria, so that the refrigerators next to the cash registers contain mainly water (as opposed to exclusively soda).
In three months’ time, water sales shot up by 25 percent, and soda sales dropped by 11.
In other words, if you want to learn to play an instrument, put the instrument in the middle of your room; want to eat healthier food – put the salads on the counters, and the snacks all the way back in the drawers.
Because sometimes all you need is just a little nudge in the right direction.
The 2nd Law (Craving): Make It Attractive
In 1954, James Olds and Peter Milner did some Frankenstein-like experiments with rats so that they uncover the real nature of desire.
Using electrodes, they blocked the release of dopamine, which is called the “I can get it” hormone for a reason: it’s the hormone your body releases when you either do or think about pleasurable activities.
The second is more interesting: as (we guess) you know full well, sometimes thinking – or even dreaming – about sex can result in the same physical pleasure as actually having it.
Dopamine is what drives you to do things, what makes you look forward to them.
Use this to create habits the same way Ronan Byrne, an Irish engineering student did. Namely, to make himself exercise, he hacked an exercise bike so that it would only allow him to watch Netflix if he is cycling at a certain speed.
Don’t want to do the dishes?
Play your favorite music while you do them; after a year or so, you’ll forget that you don’t want to do them.
Oh, what happened to the rats?
They died, of course. Bereaved of dopamine, they stopped eating, drinking, and reproducing, utterly losing the will to go on living.
The 3rd Law (Response): Make It Easy
The reason why you scroll so often through your phone is that that’s a lot easier than reading or studying a new language.
Your brain is not interested in tiring itself needlessly and would do anything to get its reward through minimum effort.
So, allow your brain that pleasure.
In other words, make the actions which lead to the reward as easy as possible if you want to create a good habit; quite the opposite, if you want to eliminate a bad one, increase the friction between the cue and the reward difficult one.
Watch a lot of TV?
Then unplug it and take the batteries out of the remote.
Want to read some more?
Then start by forcing yourself to read just two pages a day; you’ll likely continue reading because getting started is the most difficult step toward doing something.
The 4th Law (Reward): Make It Satisfying
This is the most difficult part of creating a good habit or breaking a bad one.
Because the whole of evolution works against you.
Namely, we evolved in an immediate-return environment, and now we live in a delayed-return one.
Our ancestors couldn’t care less about long-term plans, because they had much more immediate concerns, like finding a shelter for the night or hunting the next meal.
Oh, and also because nobody could guarantee them that they’ll live to see tomorrow, let alone the next decade.
However, nowadays, you know that you will; unfortunately, your body is still used to this ancient immediate-return framework of living.
Attach some immediate gratification to all of your delayed-return habits; otherwise, it’d be a bit difficult for you to persevere.
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“Atomic Habits Quotes”Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity. Click To Tweet You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Click To Tweet You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results. Click To Tweet Some people spend their entire lives waiting for the time to be right to make an improvement. Click To Tweet Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
One of Fast Company’s 7 “Best Business Books of 2018,” Atomic Habits is everything you’d expect from a book about habits written after Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.
Mark Manson describes it as “supremely practical and useful,” Adam Grant as “engaging, hands-on [guide] to break bad routines and make good ones,” and Ryan Holiday deems it “a special book.”As often, we have nothing to add: Atomic Habits is all of this and more; you should definitely have a look.
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