This book is the ultimate guide to massively improving your life
by taking small, consistent steps as part of a planned system to break bad habits and embrace good ones.
His four step process to make it obvious, then attractive, easy, and satisfying will, if followed lead to remarkable results through tiny changes. Key insights:
Tiny changes consistently implemented lead to remarkable results
Understand the Four Laws of Behavior Change – cue, craving, response, reward
Identify as the change you want to become – the importance of identity in habit formation
Goals are not nearly as important as the systems required to achieve them
Your actions reveal your true motivations (you are serious about dieting if you eat chocolate)
Bundle things you want to do (stretches) with things you have to do (brewing coffee)
Stack a desired habit you want, with something you already do
Commit to never missing a habit twice
Start so small you can’t say no (I’ll exercise 1 minute today, then 2 minutes tomorrow)
Join with like-minded people in pursuing the habits you want (weekend bicycling club)
Full title: Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. By James Clear.
Length: 320 pages, or 5 hours and 35 mins on Audible
Key insight 1: Tiny changes consistently implemented lead to remarkable results
A core concept in the book is the power of small simple changes in your life being implemented consistently. Here’s how James puts it:
“It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. 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.
Meanwhile, improving 1 percent isn’t particularly notable—sometimes it isn’t even noticeable— but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. 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. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.”
For those that prefer a picture, here’s what the ‘exponential growth’ concept looks like.
Habits are to success, as compound interest is to investment returns. More from James:
“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.”
James says we should be more concerned with our current trajectory than with our current results.
“If you want to predict where you’ll end up in life, all you have to do is follow the curve of tiny gains or tiny losses, and see how your daily choices will compound ten or twenty years down the line."
James isn’t being simple and idealistic here either. He introduces the concept of a Valley of Disappointment which contrasts our human expectations for linear/straight line growth, with the reality of exponential growth as described above.
“We often expect progress to be linear. At the very least, we hope it will come quickly. In reality, the results of our efforts are often delayed. It is not until months or years later that we realize the true value of the previous work we have done. This can result in a ‘valley of disappointment’ where people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work without experiencing any results. However, this work was not wasted. It was simply being stored. It is not until much later that the full value of previous efforts are revealed.”
Again, for those that prefer a picture, here’s what the ‘valley of disappointment’ concept looks like.
Key insight 2: The Four Laws of Behavior Change – cue, craving, response, reward (CCRR)
James introduces the four sequential steps associated with our daily habits as shown in the graphic below.
Going through them in turn:
Cue. Sensory information that suggests there is a reward to be had; like the sight of a chocolate, the smell of fresh cake baking, or the sound of the ice-cream truck driving up the street.
Craving. The motivation to take action to get the reward, specifically to initiate the response mechanism. This is where the dopamine hit occurs such that the craving itself is itself reward-like.
Response. Whatever specific action is required to get the reward; such as buying and eating the chocolate, cake or ice cream above.
Reward. Literally, the pleasant or ‘rewarding’ feeling you get from performing the response. In this example the sweet sensation associated with eating the sweet foods.
So knowing this is the process that habits work on we can develop strategies to create good habits and break bad ones as show in the table below:
So if we want to swap chocolate bars (bad habit) for fruit (good habit) then the above table looks like:
James advocates being very specific here. Document the habits you want to create or break, then identify the cues, cravings, responses, and rewards associated with each. He provides a templates to assist with this in his book and on his website.
Key insight 3: The importance of identity – let identity guide your change activities
In the above key insight we discussed a better way to change habits, in this section we discuss a more important issue – changing how we individually identify with ourselves, our vision of our self. Consider the three layers of behavior change model James provides, followed by a description from James:
“The first layer is changing your outcomes. This level is concerned with changing your results: losing weight, publishing a book, winning a championship. Most of the goals you set are associated with this level of change.
The second layer is changing your process. This level is concerned with changing you habits and systems: implementing a new routine at the gym, decluttering your desk for better workflow, developing a meditation practice. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level.
“The third and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is concerned with changing your beliefs: your worldview, your self image, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level.”
Powerful stuff. This may explain the success of daily practices where one states the person they want to be. But James takes it further, he posits that when we try to make changes we go about it the wrong way.
We usually start with a focus on the outcome, when we should be prioritizing identity. We should start with a focus on who we want to be, not the outcome we want to achieve. James’ diagrams below, and then an example:
“Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke, the first person says, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.” It sounds like a reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker who is trying to be something else. They are hoping their behavior will change while carrying around the same beliefs.
The second person declines by saying, “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.” It’s a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes.
“Most people don’t even consider identity change when they set out to improve. They just think, “I want to be skinny (outcome) and if I stick to this diet (process), then I’ll be skinny.” They set goals and determine the actions they should take to achieve those goals without considering the beliefs that drive their actions. They never shift the way they look at themselves, and they don’t realize that their old identity can sabotage their new plans for change.”
This is key. Without a change in identity, your old (and continued) identity as a smoker, sweet-eater, or lazy-person undermines the actions you take to quit smoking, stop eating sweets, or be more productive. You might achieve your goals in the short-term, but ultimately without an identity change you will eventually revert to your old behaviors (processes) and regress to your old outcomes. Start with changing your identity.
Other insights from Atomic Habits
4. Systems not goals. You do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems.
5. Actions reveal motivation. If you keep saying something is a priority but you never act on it, then you don’t really want it. It’s time to have an honest conversation with yourself. You actions reveal your true motivations.
6. Temptation bundling. Linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do. Perhaps doing your daily stretches while your first morning coffee is brewing.
7. Habit stacking. Identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. So after completing [current habit], commit to completing [new habit].
8. Never miss twice. It doesn’t matter if you miss a new daily habit once, it matters if your ‘miss streak’ becomes very large (i.e. you don’t do it). A way to avoid starting a ‘miss streak’ is to commit to never miss twice in a row.
9. Start so small you can’t say no. Want to start exercising, set a goal of 1 minute per day. Want to write a book, set a goal of 1 sentence per day. Want to eat healthy, set a goal of one healthy meal this week. Then build from there (2 minutes per day, 2 sentences per week, 2 healthy meals per week).
10. Join like-minded people. Join a group where your desired identity and behavior/habit is the norm. Want to exercise more, join the gym or a cycling club. Want to write more, join a book writers group.
Why you should read this book if you’re under 30
Do you think you have what it takes – right now – to lead a Fortune 500 company? If you’re under 30 and hones the answer is ‘no’. So how do these older CEOs get there? They become much more capable and competent versions of themselves through continuous improvement. The same is true of professional athletes, musicians, writers, actors and so on. So if you’re looking to improve some aspect of your life (which is pretty much all of us), this is an excellent and motivating place to start. If you genuinely want change, read Atomic Habits and implement the ideas contained therein. The last word goes to James:
“Habits are like the atoms of our lives. Each one is a fundamental unit that contributes to your overall improvement. At first, these tiny routines seem insignificant, but soon they build on each other and fuel bigger wins that multiply to a degree that far outweighs the cost of their initial investment. They are both small and mighty. This is the meaning of the phrase atomic habits—a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth.”
Relationship to other Eruditeable books
#1 – The Algebra of Happiness. While James talks about habit change, Scott in this book talks about ‘getting the easy stuff right’ so you can focus on the hard stuff. There’s lots of overlap here.
#2 – The Defining Decade. Starting productive habits in your 20s aligns with the key points in this book of making your 20s literally the Defining Decade that powers the remainder of your life.
#5US – Set for Life (American readers). Spend less than you earn, and save the rest. Spending, earning, saving and investing the rest are all strongly influenced by your habits. Use James’ approach to improve your finances.
#5AUS – The Barefoot Investor (Australian readers). Spend less than you earn, and save the rest. Spending, earning, saving and invest the rest are all strongly influenced by your habits. Use James’ approach to improve your finances.
#14 – Peak. Become truly excellent in any profession or sport will require many hours of deliberate practice. The secret to getting these hours done is my making practice a habit – this book tells you how.
#15 – 50 Essential Etiquette lessons. If your etiquette habits are holding you back (smartphone addict anyone?), then James’ approach to habit change could be useful.
#21 – Leaders Eat Last. Looking to improve leadership habits? Combining James’ approach to habit change with best practices from this book should do the trick.
#24 – The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. There’s no doubt that good and bad relationship habits are key in making or breaking relationships. Embedding best practices can help lead to a better married life.
About the author
James Clear is an author and speaker focused on habits, decision-making, and continuous improvement. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Time, and on CBS This Morning. His website receives millions of visitors each month and hundreds of thousands subscribe to his popular email newsletter at jamesclear.com. He is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies and his work is used by teams in the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Through his online course, The Habits Academy, Clear has taught more than 10,000 leaders, managers, coaches, and teachers. The Habits Academy is the premier training platform for individuals and organizations that are interested in building better habits in life and work.