A friend once told me they used set recurring daily reminder to read more. “Come on,” I responded, “that would be like putting having sex on your to-do list.” Paying your rent, filling out school applications and scheduling annual physicals are tasks. Making love, exercising, and sleeping more (maybe the three form a compelling bundle?) are habits that lie well outside the jurisdiction of the to-do list. In Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones James Clear gives us a playbook for durable and long-lasting habits. In this summary we’ll cover why habits don’t stick, the Four Laws of Behavior Change, and the challenge behind “habits of the mind.”
Atomic Habits Compound Like Crazy
The case for habit formation is a compelling one. Internalizing and automating these tiny (hence, Atomic) behaviors – sets our lives up for improved health, finances, and career growth. And better versions of ourselves. Clear qualifies these habits as Atomic Habits, because despite their tiny size, compounding them over long periods can have exponential impacts.
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement,” writes Clear. He uses the 1% Rule to illustrate how an Atomic Habit that drives a 1% improvement can logarithmically scale; and how the inverse, being 1% worse, can quickly decay towards a negative asymptote.
Habits are hard. Why?
But we already know that habits are good for you. Yet why do we fail spectacularly (80% of resolutions fail by February) when it comes to adding a new habit or removing a bad one? Clear thinks that we fail because we dream too big and do not have the right systems in place:
We start too big: Clear warns, “Your life goals are not your habits.” You’re unlikely to become a millionaire if you’re not saving in your 401k; You won’t run a marathon if you swap your morning run with the snooze button. It’s great to dream big, but dreaming big can be daunting and unrealistic.
In Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, Brad Sulberg points out the deceptive nature of “consistently heroic efforts:”
Stulberg argues that we make the mistake of aiming too high. Borrowing an analogy from Moneyball, we try to hit a home-run every time we step up to the plate. Not only is that unrealistic, it’s emotionally exhausting (and the perfect recipe for self-loathing). Instead (continuing the baseball analogy), we should focus being “heroically consistent” by getting on base by any means necessary (a walk or even a bunt).
Systems work better than goals: Being too outcome-oriented can distract from having the right processes in place to make habits effortless. Let’s take the example of a six-pack of abs. With beach season around the corner, you channel your GTL committing to 400 sit-ups a day. Come Speedo Season, you’re locked-in and ready to go.
But keeping those abs is going to require much more than brute force; relying on super-human willpower doesn’t work over long periods of time. You’ll need the right mix of exercise (abs vs. cardio), nutrition, and rest/recovery.
The habit formation feedback loop
In Atomic Habits, Clear explains breaks down the steps to building better habits in a framework: the Four Laws of Behavior change framework. He builds upon Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, which describes the feedback loop of habit formation: Cue, Craving, Reward, and Response.
Each stage can be summarized as follows:
- A cue (Step 1) sends a trigger to your brain to set off a specific behavior (an alarm, entering your bedroom, your phone buzzing)
- A craving (Step 2) for a certain feeling or emotion arises (the excitement of gambling, the calmness of alcohol)
- A response (Step 3), the habit itself (having a drink, checking your phone)
- A reward (Step 4), either temporary or permanent is unlocked (excitement, calmness)
Clear believes that Atomic Habits can be formed (or broken) by attacking each step of this pattern. He adds, “changing your behavior requires asking yourself” the following questions (and inverting them for bad habits):
- How can I make it obvious?
- How can I make it attractive?
- How can I make it easy?
- How can I make it satisfying?
In this summary of Atomic Habits, we’ll take you through these four laws using examples of habits (both good and bad) that I’ve incorporated (and am seeking to add) to my life.
1. Make it Obvious
That chain of events all starts with the cue. Cues can be highly visible (like your alarm going off) or subtle (you walk into your bathroom). The gateway to habit formation is identifying and using these cues to your advantage. In Atomic Habits, Clear describes the two most powerful cues: time and location.
Time: These include waking up, your afternoon coffee, when your child falls asleep. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson listed all the time-based cues that form the foundation of his habits (emphasis mine):
- I like to meditate first thing after I wake up.
- I like to handle personal financial matters on Saturday mornings (something I learned from my Dad).
- I need to blog before I leave home or I have a hard time getting that done.
- I work out before breakfast.
Location: Sitting down at your desk, the gym, the yoga corner in your bedroom, and dropping your kids off at school.
Another way to reinforce cues is by redesigning your environment to make habits more obvious:
- To remember your medication each night, place the pill bottle directly next to the faucet
- To practice the guitar more frequently, place the guitar stand in the middle of your living room
- To send more thank you notes, keep a stack of stationary (and stamps) on your desk
- To drink more water, fill up a few bottles each morning and place them across your home
2. Make it Attractive
Habits compound over the long term, yet our primal instincts motivate us for the short term. That’s why that afternoon cup of coffee is so hard to resist, even when you know you’ll pay the price by tossing and turning in bed that evening.
And whether it’s processed food or our iPhones, companies have become quite deft at making their products attractive – and sending us on wild dopamine goose hunts. All you need is to eat one Pringles potato chip (“Once you pop, you can’t stop”) to see this “Attractiveness” at play.
Behind these impulses lie cravings, deep existential needs that we feel compelled to soothe on a regular basis. The depth of these cravings was one of my favorite parts of Atomic Habits, with a few examples shown below:
- Conserving energy
- Obtaining food and water
- Finding love and reproduce
- Connecting and bonding with others
- Winning social acceptance and approval
- Reducing uncertainty
- Achieving status and prestige
“Your habits are modern-day solutions to ancient desires,” adds Clear. As an exercise in self-discovery, I mapped out my own cravings and deeper underlying motives:
- Achieving status and prestige motivates me to save and earn money
- Reducing uncertainty motivates me to read books and blog posts that give me “skills”
- Winning social acceptance motivates me to check unsubscribe rates for my newsletter
- Finding love and reproduce motivates me to exercise intensely and try to look good
To make a habit attractive (and reconcile a short-term craving with a lont-term desire) Clear recommends a strategy called temptation bundling. Temptation bundling “pairs an action you want to do with an action you need to do.”
The power of the first cup of coffee
Here’s where we introduce the most powerful incentive in the universe: the morning’s first cup of coffee. If there’s a habit you want to initiate, bundle it with the temptation of that first cup and see what ensues. For me, I drink my lemon water and do 30 pushups before I can take a sip of the magical elixir. That reward (which we’ll look at later) is so powerful that I’m working on making it a requisite for my morning meditation. Other temptation bundles could include:
- Only listening to the Hunger Games while you run on the treadmill
- Doing yoga while watching Netflix
- Doing burpees before reading TMZ (or Donald Trump articles)
- Clearing out your inbox while getting a pedicure
It’s also possible to use Temptation Bundling as a work strategy. Productivity blogger Tiago Forte combines projects he’s excited about with those that are more routine to tap into this momentum:
I’ve found that, by delaying working on something I’m extremely excited to work on, the energy behind it gathers, like a pot pressurizing the steam within. Delaying the start of such a task by a few days gives me a store of energy that I can unleash when I actually do get started.
3. Make it easy
The third rule is all about getting out of your own way. By removing friction for good habits (or adding friction for bad ones) you can “stack the deck” to work in your favor. As the name Atomic Habits implies, the small unit size is conducive to high amounts of repetition and Clear reminds us the “number of times you have performed a habit” is much more important than the “amount of time you have performed it.”
Our energy is precious and our brain is wired to take shortcuts whenever possible. It’s because of this tendency, known as the Law of Least Effort that when “faced with two similar options, people will naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work.”
Environments make things easy
In Own the Day, Own Your Life Aubrey Marcus described his morning routine of drinking a large glass of water with salt and lemon as soon you wake up. I always wanted to hydrate better, so here’s how I made it obvious (Rule 1). Each night, before going to sleep, I lay out all the tools and ingredients to make it as easy as possible (Rule 3). Here’s the set-up I wake up to each morning.
Conversely, two of my habits involve significantly decreasing my screen time. To achieve this goal, I inverted the rule and made it as hard as possible. I truly have gone overboard on the apps, extensions, and tricks that I use to focus and this includes:
- Blocking news sites using parental controls
- Disabling TouchID (or FaceID)
- Using grayscale mode and an all-black background
- Deleting all social media apps
- Removing Raise-to-wake
Clear also reminds us of how our surroundings affects our subconscious decisions and that we should “prime the environment for future use” including:
- Want to improve your diet? Chop up a ton of fruits and vegetables on weekends and pack them in containers, so you have easy access to healthy, ready-to-eat-options during the week.
- Want to read more? Move your Kindle app to the dock of your smartphone and take all your old tablets and iPads and scatter them around your home (and bathroom!).
- Want to draw more? Put your pencils, pens, notebooks, and drawing tools on top of your desk, within easy reach.
The “two minute rule”
And the best way to combat procrastination and start a new habit is to use the “two minute rule.” Recalling one of the main reasons habits fail, we find that the goals were set way too ambitiously. And so the Atomic Habit starts with the smallest unit possible to build up the muscle memory and momentum. “Doing thirty minutes of stretching” becomes “Take out my yoga mat” and “Reading before bed” starts with “Reading one page.” And by showing up each day, you begin to internalize a rhythm that lets the habit flourish (and stick). Clear calls this “habit shaping” and gives three examples of this incremental approach:
4. Make it satisfying
As a parent to two young kids, getting them both fed, cleaned, and asleep is (the cue) an accomplishment that rivals running a 10k. And once I’ve done my share, all my brain wants is the satisfaction of a stiff cocktail: the reward. And even though the cocktail serves as an impediment to other habits I’m looking to build (reading, stretching) my brain is not enlightened enough to prioritize these delayed rewards over the immediate gratification of alcohol.
The first three laws of behavior change (obvious, attractive, and easy) increase the odds that you perform the action; the fourth law increases the odds that the behavior sticks.
My favorite story from Atomic Habits is about a cold-calling strategy that perfectly capture the satisfying nature of building habits. Trent Dyrsmid was a rookie stockbroker, looking grow his roster of clients using the “Paper Clip Strategy:”
Dyrsmid began each morning with two jars on his desk. One was filled with 120 paper clips. The other was empty. As soon as he settled in each day, he would make a sales call. Immediately after, he would move one paper clip from the full jar to the empty jar and the process would begin again. “Every morning I would start with 120 paper clips in one jar and I would keep dialing the phone until I had moved them all to the second jar.”
This strategy shows the power of habit tracking, whether it’s in a journal, an app, or a jar on your desk. The management guru Peter Drucker once said “What gets measured, gets mastered” and habit tracking works for the following reasons:
- Creates a visual cue that can remind you to act
- Is inherently motivating because you see the progress and don’t want to lose it (think Snapchat streaks)
- Feels satisfying whenever you record a successful instance
Gamification (and streaks) are incredibly powerful ways to build up and sustain the momentum to habit formation. Clear recommends a simple, yet powerful trick to keep them going: “never miss twice.” If you miss one day, keeping that momentum by getting back on track as soon as possible.
Finally, to break a bad habit, Clear inverts the 4th law: Make it unsatisfying. And to do so, he suggests tapping into our core human desire: avoiding social rejection. This includes getting an accountability partner, whose presence will be a “powerful motivator” and can create an “immediate cost to inaction.” Being even more public about your habits (via, Social Media) can make the costs of violating your promises “public and painful.”
What’s missing in Atomic Habits
I went into Atomic Habits skeptical of what more I could learn; after all, I’m a 39 year old dude who’s been reading productivity porn on the Internet since I was in college.
I was positively surprised and it has (thus far) helped me with specific action-based habits like drinking less alcohol or doing more yoga. But what about habits of the mind? So much of our happiness comes from our emotional well being which includes how we manage our scarcity mindset, negative self-talk, and envy. In his 2010 paper deconstructing happiness and money, Daniel Kahneman expressed this collection of feelings as emotional well-being:
Emotional well-being (sometimes called hedonic well-being or experienced happiness) refers to the emotional quality of an individual’s everyday experience—the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, fascination, anxiety, sadness, anger, and affection that make one’s life pleasant or unpleasant.
I stumbled upon the following subreddit about “lesser known things to avoid” and found that so many of these were habits of the mind, such as:
- Approval addiction (i.e. saying yes too much)
- Being defensive (and finding excuses)
- Office gossip and sh*t talking
- Tolerating people who suck away your energy
- Automatically having negative thoughts about people
Admittedly, breaking out of these negative thought patterns probably falls under the jurisdiction of a life coach or a therapist, but Atomic Habits left me yearning to see if the Four Rules could easily translate to these more hidden behaviors.
- A habit is an “atomic habit” when it’s broken down to it’s smallest component
- Compounding small Atomic Habits over time can lead to spectacular growth
- Habits fail because we aim too big and don’t have the right systems
- The habit feedback loop consists of: Cue → Craving → Response → Reward
- The 4 rules of behavior change are make it: Obvious, Attractive, Easy, Satisfying
- #1 Make it obvious: Time and Location are powerful cues
- #2 Make it attractive: Understand the impulses behind your cravings
- #3 Make it easy: When faced with similar options, we gravitate #4 towards the one with the least amount of work.
- #4 Make it satisfying: Use a habit tracker or accountability partner
I help entrepreneurs and executives on building durable habits, robust workflows, and with career introspection. Should we be talking? If so, hit me at khe [at] radreads [dot] co.
Support our community by buying Atomic Habits ❤️
- Atomic Habits, James Clear – The inability to launch new habits is a systems failure, not a willpower failure
- Own the Day, Own Your Life, Aubrey Marcus – A pragmatic (and sometimes a bit inspirational-cheesy) playbook on getting the most out of our body and mind each day.
- Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, Brad Stulberg: