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Atomic Habits book summary

Atomic Habits book cover

I was dubious about how much new material there could be on habits but having now read this, I'd definitely say that this is THE book to read for anyone wanting to create new habits or break bad ones. It is a short read, and goes to the point which I really liked. It's also written in a way that gives you clear takeaway points and tries to encourage you to actually take action, which again is refreshing. Pair this book with the downloadable materials from the <%= link_to( 'author's website', 'https://jamesclear.com/media', target: '_blank' ) %>.

Key takeaways

  • Habits have a 4-step pattern: cue, craving, response, reward.
  • Therefore, to create new good habits, we need to make them: obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying (the 4 laws of behavior change). Turning it around, to break bad habits, we should make them hidden, non-attractive, difficult and unsatisfying.

The 4-Step Pattern of Habits

  • Cue - the trigger that signifies a potential reward.
  • Craving - the motivation to get the reward.
  • Response - your actions to get the reward.
  • Reward - satisfaction of your feelings and feedback on what to do if the situation repeats itself in the future.

Summarised notes

Chapter 1: The surprising power of atomic habits

  • The aggregation of marginal gains: searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. These add up. This is what the British cycling team did to become world champions.
  • It's easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Massive success is rarely the result of a single massive action.
  • Get 1 percent better each day for one year, and you’ll end up thirty-seven times better (compounding effect).
  • Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
  • We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment. e.g. eating a chocolate bar doesn't change the scale immediately. Going to the gym doesn't immediately give you more muscle definition etc.
  • Choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be.
  • Don't worry about where you are now or the point you're starting at. You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.
  • Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. You get what you repeat.
  • How will your daily habits compound over 10 to 20 years time?
  • Positive compounds: productivity, knowledge, relationships
  • Negative compounds: stress, negative thoughts, outrage
  • Breakthrough moments are often a result of many previous actions, which build up the potential to create change. Bamboo can barely be seen for the first five years as it builds extensive root systems underground before exploding ninety feet into the air within six weeks. Habits work similarly, you need to cross a critical threshold before breaking through. This is a key feature of compounding systems - the most powerful outcomes are delayed.
  • Survive the plateau of latent potential. Mastery requires patience.
  • Forget about setting goals, focus on your system instead. Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.
  • Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.
  • A systems-first mentality is better than focusing on goals. Fall in love with the process, rather than the product. Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment. What you need to change are the systems - this allows you to fix the results permanently.
  • The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long term thinking is goalless thinking - a continuous cycle.
  • You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
  • Atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.

Chapter 2: How your habits shape your identity and vice versa

  • There a 3 levels of change that can happen:
    • Changing your outcomes - changing results
    • Changing your process - changing habits and systems
    • Changing your identity - changing beliefs and world views
  • Build identity-based habits. Go from identity change to outcome change rather than the other way round. Change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior.
  • True behavior change is identity change. Your behaviors are a reflection of your identity.
  • Progress requires unlearning, constantly editing your self-identity.
  • Your habits are how you embody your identity. Your become your habits.
  • Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. Your cumulative actions provide evidence of your identity.
  • To start thinking about the type of identity you want, think about 'Who is the type of person that could get the outcome I want?'.
  • The power of habits is that they can make you change your beliefs about yourself.

Chapter 3: How to build better habits in 4 simple steps

  • A habit is just a memory of the steps you previously followed to solve a problem in the past.
  • The ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible.
  • Habits reduce cognitive load. When you have your habits dialed in and the basics of life are handled and done, your mind is free to focus on new challenges and master your next set of problems.
  • The cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue.
  • If a behavior is insufficient in any of the four stages, it will not become a habit. Eliminate the cue and your habit will never start. Reduce the craving and you won’t experience enough motivation to act. Make the behavior difficult and you won’t be able to do it. And if the reward fails to satisfy your desire, then you’ll have no reason to do it again in the future. Without the first three steps, a behavior will not occur. Without all four, a behavior will not be repeated.
  • How to create a good habit:
    • 1 Cue: Make it obvious
    • 2 Craving: Make it attractive
    • 3 Response: Make it easy
    • 4 Reward: Make it satisfying

The 1st Law: Make it obvious

  • The process of behavior change starts with awareness. Make a list of your daily habits so you can become more aware of them.
  • The first law of behavior change is make is obvious. The most common cues are time and location.
  • Create an implementation intention: "When situation X arises, I will perform response Y".
  • Use habit stacking to pair habits: "After X, I will Y".
  • Small changes in context can lead to large changes in behavior over time. Make cues really obvious so they stand out. Gradually, habits become triggers by the entire context - the context becomes the cue.
  • Reduce exposure to cues of bad habits.
  • It is easier to associate a new habit with a new context than to build a new habit in the face of competing cues.

The 2nd Law: Make it attractive

  • The more attractive a behavior is, the more likely it is to become habit forming.
  • Habits are dopamine driven feedback loop. It is the anticipation of a reward - not the fulfillment of it - that gets us to take action.
  • Use temptation bundling - pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do.
  • Whatever habits are normal in your culture are among the most attractive behaviors you’ll find (humans have an innate need to want to fit into the tribe).
  • We tend to imitate the habits of three social groups: the close (family and friends), the many (the tribe), the powerful (those with status and prestige).
  • Join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior, and you already have something in common with the group.
  • Create a motivation ritual by doing something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit.
  • Reframe your mindset - highlight benefits of avoiding your bad habits.

The 3rd Law: Make it easy

  • The most effective form of learning is practice, not planning. Focus on taking action not being "in motion". (Motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure.)
  • The amount of time you've spent is not as important as the number of times you've spent performing the habit. To master a habit, start with repetition, not perfection.
  • Human behavior falls the law of least effort. Create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Create friction associated with bad behavior.
  • Prime your environment to make future actions easier.
  • When you start a new habit, it should take less than 2 minutes to do.
  • Master the habit of showing up. The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely it becomes that you can slip into the state of deep focus that is required to do great things.
  • Standardise before you optimise - you can't improve a habit that doesn't exist.
  • The costs of your good habits are in the present. The costs of your bad habits are in the future.
  • Automate your habits - use tech that lock in future behavior.
  • Use a commitment device that restrict future choices to the ones that benefit you.

The 4th Law: Make it satisfying

  • Use reinforcement. What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.
  • Make sure the reward does not conflict with your intended identity. e.g. if your reward for exercising is chocolate, does this really tie in with the person you're trying to become?
  • The first 3 laws of behavior change increase the odds that a behavior will be performed this time. This last law increases the odds that this behavior will be repeated next time.
  • The ending of any experience is vital because we tend to remember it more than other phases. You want the ending of your habit to be satisfying.
  • One of the most satisfying feelings is seeing progress. One of the best ways to do this is with a habit tracker. Visual measures also provide clear evidence of progress. Try to keep your habit streak alive.
  • Never miss twice. Make sure you get on track immediately. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.
  • Get an accountability partner to monitor your behavior.
  • Create a habit contract. Make the cost of your bad habits public and painful.

Advanced tactics

  • Habits are easier when they align with your natural abilities. Genes tell you where the odds are in your favor.
  • Humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks right on the edge of their abilities - roughly 4 percent beyond your current ability.
  • Anyone can work hard when they feel motivated. Really successful people feel the same lack of motivation as everyone else. The difference is that they still find a way to show up despite the feelings of boredom.
  • Habits + deliberate practice = mastery.
  • Mastery is the process of narrowing your focus to a tiny element of success, repeating it until you have internalized the skill, and then using this new habit as the foundation to advance to the next frontier of your development.

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