Atomic Habits by James Clear

These notes aren't yet written. I may be writing them right now, or I might have decided this book either isn't worth taking notes for or isn't right for it.

In 2012, James Clear started a simple blog at Jamesclear.com. He began writing about habit formation and his blog soon exploded in popularity. 6 years later, he took what he learned about habits and turned it into this book.

Clear presents himself as a case study in the benefits of building good habits, and shares what he has learned through personal experience and extensive research so that the reader can build helpful habits of their own.

The Fundamentals - Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference

1. The Surprising Power Of Atomic Habits

"...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."

"Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement." Thus, the results of habits have the same effect as other compounding things: they are enormously powerful, grow exponentially over time, and are hard to see up front. They are too delayed to be visible up front, but too powerful to ignore.

"If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead." He has solid arguments for explaining why systems are better than habits, but I think he ignores that hitting or missing goals are a critical mechanism for feedback, and that it's feedback that shapes our future systems.

He uses the word atomic because atom has three definitions/connotations:

  • Something extremely small
  • Something containing lots of power
  • Something that is a building block of something larger (e.g., a molecule, a system)

2. How Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa)

You can make changes on three levels:

  • Outcomes
  • Process
  • Identify

Instead of focusing on what outcomes you want to change, Clear recommends starting with changing the kind of person you want to become. For example:

  • "The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader.
  • The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner.
  • The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician."

The idea is that ego, pride, and identify are more powerful ways of sustaining a change than willpower.

Yet, habits and identity exist in a circular relationship, each affirming the other. "Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become." "...habits are the path to changing your identity." "Your habits shape your identity, and your identify shapes your habits."

This is a powerful idea. If actions "cast votes" to yourself about what kind of person you are, and who you believe you are determines what actions you take, hacking into this cycle can cause a major identity and behavioral change.

3. How To Build Better Habits In 4 Simple Steps

"Habits do not restrict freedom. They create it. In fact, the people who don't have their habits handled are often the ones with the least amount of freedom."

"It's only by making the fundamentals of life easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity."

"The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward."

"In summary, the cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and ultimately, becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop--cue, craving, response, reward."

The Four Laws of Behavior Change

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.

The 1st Law - Make it Obvious

4. The Man Who Didn't Look Right

This process starts by recognizing your current habits. Clear recommends two systems for doing so:

The Habits Scorecard: Write down a list of all your current daily habits. Mark them with a positive symbol (+), negative (-), or neutral (=).

Pointing-and-Calling: "Say out loud the action that you are thinking of taking and what the outcome will be. If you want to cut back on your junk food habit but notice yourself grabbing another cookie, say out loud, 'I'm about to eat this cookie, but I don't need it. Eating it will cause me to gain weight and hurt my health.'"

5. The Best Way to Start a New Habit

Use an implementation intention:

"I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]."

This will help you plan out your good habits and say no to requests from life that will stop you from becoming the kind of person you want to become.

The Diderot Effect: "the tendency for one purchase to lead to another"

Behaviors are connected, so take advantage of this and build a new behavior on top of an existing one. Clear calls this habit stacking

The formula for habit stacking is: "After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]." Example: After I pour my coffee, I will sit in my reading chair.


Source


"The two most common cues are time and location."

6. Motivation is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More

"Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior...In this way, the most common form of change is not internal, but external: we are changed by the world around us. Every habit is context dependent."

How To Design Your Environment For Success

"If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment. The most persistent behaviors usually have multiple cues."

Visual cues are the most powerful. For example, having the guitar out in the living room makes it much more likely you'll play it than if it's in the case in the closet.

"Environment design is powerful not only because it influences how we engage with the world but also because we rarely do it. Most people live in a world others have created for them."

The Context Is The Cue

"You can train yourself to link a particular habit with a particular context. In one study, scientists instructed insomniacs to get into bed only when they were tired. If they couldn't fall asleep, they were told to sit in a different room until they became sleepy. Over time, subjects began to associate the context of their bed with the action of sleeping, and it became easier to quickly fall asleep when they climbed into bed."

The main point: make the environment such that cues for bad habits are hidden and cues for good habits are prominent. Design environments so that cues are associated with specific places and habits become easier.

7. The Secret to Self-Control

Clear relays an amazing story about heroin addiction among Vietnam veterans. Here are the facts:

  • 35% of service members in Vietnam had tried heroin
  • As many as 20% percent were addicted
  • When soldiers returned home, only 5% of them became re-addicted within a year, 12% within 3 years

Why were they able to break an addiction overnight? Their whole context and environment changed - all the cues for heroin use were gone (the opposite is the case when addicts return home from rehab).

People who have the best discipline are the ones who structure their lives and environment in such a way that extreme willpower isn't required.

Takeaway: reduce your exposure to bad cues.

The 2nd Law - Make It Attractive

8. How To Make A Habit Irresistible

The Dopamine-Driven Feedback Loop

"When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it."

How To Use Temptation Bundling to Make Your Habits More Attractive

Pair something you want to do with something you need to do (e.g., exercising while watching Netflix).

"The habit stacking + temptation bundling formula is:

  1. After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED].
  2. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT]."

9. The Role Of Family And Friends In Shaping Your Habits

The Seductive Pull Of Social Norms

Because it was needed from a survival standpoint, we've evolved to want to fit into the group. Really, to fit into 3 groups: 

  1. The close
  2. The many
  3. The powerful
1. Imitating the Close

"Another study found that if one person in a relationship lost weight, the other partner would also slim down about one third of the time."

"One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior."

Earlier, Clear had made the point that habit change is easier when habits as seen as part of your identity ("I'm the kind of person who runs daily."). He now makes the point that they're even more powerful when they're a part of your group/shared identity.

2. Imitating the Many

"When changing your habits means challenging the tribe, change is unattractive. When changing your habits means fitting in with the tribe, change is very attractive."

3. Imitating the Powerful

We replicate the habits of successful people.

10. How To Find And Fix The Causes Of Your Bad Habits

Where Cravings Come From

Cravings come from our deepest underlying motives (food, reproduction, social acceptance, meaning, etc.)

"Your habits are modern-day solutions to ancient desires."

How To Reprogram Your Brain To Enjoy Hard Habits

Learn to associate hard habits with a positive experience. Clear suggest reframing things in your mind, replacing phrases like "I have to go to work" with ones like "I get to go to work". Basically, replace your association of bad outcomes (depleted energy from exercising) with the good outcomes (stress relief, health, future energy from exercising) in your mind.

"The cause of your habits is actually the prediction that precedes them. The prediction leads to a feeling."

"Highlight the benefits of avoiding a bad habit to make it seem unattractive."

The 3rd Law - Make It Easy

11. Walk Slowly, But Never Backward

Clear tells an excellent story that shows that quantity is better than quality. Or, more accurately, quantity leads to better quality than a strict focus on quality does. A photography professor at the University of Florida, Jerry Uelsmann, split his class into two sides of the classroom. He told the left group that they would be graded on the amount of work they produced. He told the right group that they would be graded on the excellence of their work. At the end of the class, he was surprised to find that the best photos, those of the highest quality, were produced by the students told to focus on creating a large quantity of work. A possible explanation is that the "quality" group spent too much time thinking about how to make "excellent" work, and missed out on the feedback and ability to iterate that the group focused on quantity gained.

How Long Does It Actually Take To Form A New Habit

Hebb's Law: "Neurons that fire together wire together."

"...simply putting in the reps is one of the most critical steps you can take to encoding a new habit."

"...habits form based on frequency, not time."

"To build a habit, you need to practice it."

12. The Law Of Least Effort

Clear relays a theory, from Guns, Germs, and Steel, about why Asia and Europe developed so much more than the Americas and Africa by the 15th Century. Eurasia has a more narrow latitudinal range, existing primarily along a latitudinal axis. The opposite is true in the shape of the Americas and Africa. Why does this matter? Because climates remain more similar across similar latitudes. This means that Eurasian farmers were able to spread their successful crops to a much wider region than was possible in Africa and the Americas.

This effect compounded. It allowed for massive population growth, which led to better armies, better technologies, more wealth, etc. By the 15th Century AD, the difference was vast. All because of the orientation of the continents.


"The spread of agriculture provides an example of the 3rd Law of Behavior Change on a global scale."

"It is human nature to follow the Law of Least Effort, which states that when deciding between two similar options, people will naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work."

"...the less energy a habit requires, the more likely it is to occur."

How To Achieve More With Less Effort

Design your environment so that good habits are nearly frictionless and bad habits are full of friction.

Prime the Environment For Future Use

Examples

  • Running --> Put your running clothes out the night before
  • Working with focus --> Put your phone in another room, or in a lockbox
  • Staying hydrated --> Put a pitcher of water at your work station

13. How To Stop Procrastinating By Using The Two-Minute Rule

Decisive moments are the small decisions that direct you down a path. For instance, putting on your running shoes vs. turning on the tv. Each actual action (lacing up or pressing the 'on' button) are small. But, they determine your future choices.

"We are limited by where our habits lead us. This is why mastering the decisive moments throughout your day is so important."

The Two Minute Rule

Every habit can be reduced to a starting action that takes less than two minutes. 

"

  • "read before bed each night" becomes "Read one page."
  • "Do thirty minutes of yoga" becomes "Take out my yoga mat."

"

"A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy. What you want is a 'gateway habit' that naturally leads you down a more productive path."

"The point is to master the habit of showing up."

"Instead of trying to engineer a perfect habit from the start, do the easy thing on a more consistent basis. You have to standardize before you can optimize" (emphasis mine).

The takeaway: ritualize the beginning of a habit process, and make the first step of the habit the thing you commit to doing. That way, it feels smaller and easier.

14. How To Make Good Habits Inevitable And Bad Habits Impossible

Victor Hugo came up with a great way to force himself to write a book quickly. A year before, he had promised a French publisher a new book. Instead of writing, he pursued distractions for the next twelve months. Then, the publisher demanded the book within 6 months. Hugo knew he had to get serious. He told an assistant to lock away all of his clothes but a shawl so that he had no clothes for going outside in. Instead, all he could do was write. In under 6 months, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was published.

A commitment device is a psychological tool to force your future self to do things. Make some kind of promise or immutable decision (like Ulysses telling his crew to chain him to the mast before they got near the sirens) that constrains your future behavior in such a way that acting in an unproductive way is impossible.

How To Automate A Habit And Never Think About It Again

"The brilliance of the cash register was that it automated ethical behavior by making stealing practically impossible." In other words, it's often more productive to change a system than to try to change your motivation or behavior directly.

Takeaway: Look for one-time decisions that pay off again and again. Clear's examples:

  • "Nutrition: Use smaller plates to reduce caloric intake.
  • Sleep: Remove your television from your bedroom.
  • Productivity: Delete games and social media apps from your phone.
  • Focus: Permanently set your phone in Do Not Disturb mode.
  • Happiness: Get a dog.
  • Health: Buy better shoes to avoid back pain.
  • Finance: Call your service providers (cable, electric, etc.) and ask for a lower rate."

"Each habit that we hand over to the authority of technology frees up time and energy to pour into the next stage of growth."

"The average person spends over two hours per day on social media. What could you do with an extra six hundred hours per year?"

Another commitment device: For a preset time period, have someone else change your passwords to sites that waste your time so you don't even have to fight the temptation to not use them.

"By utilizing commitment devices, strategic onetime decisions, and technology, you can create an environment of inevitability--a space where good habits are not just an outcome you hope for but an outcome that is virtually guaranteed."

The 4th Law - Make It Satisfying

15. The Cardinal Rule Of Behavior Change

"We are more likely to repeat a behavior when the experience is satisfying."

"The human brain did not evolve for life in a delayed-return environment." Instead, humans had to seize every opportunity for food, reproduction, or any advantage that presented itself. Clear suggests that the shift to a delayed-return environment may have emerged around the advent of agriculture, ten thousand years ago. In modernity, those who succeed are those who are able to subvert the natural inclination for immediate reward, and instead optimize for delayed returns.

Good habits are often immediately unpleasant, but the outcome is good. And vice versa.

"The road less traveled is the road of delayed gratification."

How To Turn Instant Gratification To Your Advantage

"The ending of any experience is vital because we tend to remember it more than other phases. You want the ending to be satisfying." So, find a way to immediately reward yourself for good habits (including habits of avoidance) and to attach some immediate punishment to bad habits. This "hacks" our inclination toward instant gratification and aligns it with our long-term goals.

Don't make the rewards something that conflicts with your goals or identity (don't give yourself a donut as a reward for working out).

"Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit."

16. How To Stick With Good Habits Every Day

Track your habits because it makes your habits obvious, attractive, and satisfying.

Suggested methods for tracking habits:

  • Don't break the chain (put an X on your calendar every day you do the habit)
  • Paperclip strategy (move paperclips from one jar to another when you do habits)

Never miss twice. If you mess up a habit, don't let it affect your identity. Just don't miss consecutively.

Tracking is good, but...

Goodhart's Law - "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." Examples: daily step count, GDP.

17. How An Accountability Partner Can Change Everything

Fun idea from Roger Fisher on how to disincentivize the President from pulling the trigger on nukes: put the nuclear codes in a capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer who accompanies the President. Then, if the President wants to use the nukes, he has to kill one person and see what it looks like to take an innocent life firsthand, before doing it to many more with the nukes. (Skin in the game)

A habit contract "is a verbal or written agreement in which you state your commitment to a particular habit and the punishment that will occur if you don't follow through." You use it with an accountability partner in order to add a heavy cost to failing to do a good habit or doing a bad habit.

You could put money on the line, or other negative punishments that are easily enforced. 

Knowing that your failure will be known is a helpful motivator. The key here is to make failing at good habits (or avoiding bad habits) extremely unsatisfying.

Advanced Tactics - How To Go From Being Merely Good to Being Truly Great

18. The Truth About Talent (When Genes Matter And When They Don't)

"The secret to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition." No matter how bad you want it, you're not going to make the NBA if you're less than 5 foot 8, are slow, and can't jump.

Personal note: James Clear gets a bit deterministic here, excusing long hours of TV watching and divorce as something you can be genetically predisposed to do.

Clear says that genetic traits predispose you to a certain personality, and that personality nudges us toward certain habits. So, you should find habits, and a game, that's in your wheelhouse.

How do you pick your game?

  • "In the long-run it is probably most effective to work on the strategy that seems to deliver the best results about 80 to 90 percent of the time and keep exploring with the remaining 10 to 20 percent." This is a long-term version of the explore/exploit trade-off, in which you explore first, and then exploit the best opportunity you find (true in dating, finding a major, finding a career, digging for gold, etc.)
  • What feels like fun to me, but work to others?
  • What makes me lose track of time?
  • Where do I get greater returns than the average person?
  • What comes naturally to me?

The Scott Adams Skill Stack:

"Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I'm hardly an artist. And I'm not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I'm funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It's the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it." - Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

If you can't win by being better, win by being different. Reinvent the game, like Steph Curry did with basketball.

"Boiling water will soften a potato but harden an egg. You can't control whether you're a potato or an egg, but you can decide to play a game where it's better to be hard or soft."

"Until you work as hard as those you admire, don't explain away their success as luck."

Basically, our predispositions limit us in a way that is helpful. They can direct us toward what to work on. 

19. The Goldilocks Rule: How To Stay Motivated In Life And Work

"The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right."

To keep progressing, you have to be able to handle the boredom of repetition, and keep showing up.

"When a habit is truly important to you, you have to be willing to stick to it in any mood."

20. The Downside of Creating Good Habits

Habits automate our actions, removing thinking from the process. This has positives (less willpower, repetition that will lead to improvement), but also allows for errors to be ignored. 

Some habits don't need to be constantly improved (e.g. tying your shoes), but others should be.

"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."

Because you don't want to be complacent when practicing habits for the sake of mastery, it's important to have a system for reflection and review.

In order to keep growing, don't let any one thing constitute too large a part of your identity. Habits flow from identity, so believing yourself to be one thing only can determine a lot, and limit you.

Conclusion

"Small habits don't add up. They compound."




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Brian Dawson
@btsdawson