Atomic Habits: Summary & Review

atomic habits

Atomic Habits (2018) is a comprehensive overview of habits, including how to start new ones, how to stop bad habits, and how habits can revolutionize your life (in the long run).

Bullet Summary

  • Small (atomic) habits compound over time to lead to completely different lives
  • Make good habits easy to start and rewarding to finish…
  • … And make unhealthy habits hard to start and painful to finish
  • Habits are built on repetition, not time!

Summary

Atomic Habits start with the same concept as “The Slight Edge“: daily habits might seem small on a daily basis, but they compound to make big differences.

Small Daily Habits Make the Difference

James Clear says that it’s the small daily habits that compound over time to make the difference.

If you train today or not instead of binging on that chocolate cake it won’t make a difference in your lifetime.

But if you skip training and keep binge eating for months, it will make a huge difference.

This is a well-known concept in the self-help industry which is basically the main idea behind books such as:

If you don’t understand that it takes time though, you might be disappointed during the first period of a new habit. 
But you must have faith and stick through (also read Think and Grow Rich for more on faith).

You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems

Focus on Systems, Not Goals

I really really loved the idea behind “systems above goals” in Atomic Habits.

It’s not so much because systems will naturally take care of the goals, but it’s because of who you become with the systems.

Here is why you should focus on the systems:

  1. You will soon revert to your old self once you “achieve” your goal
  2. Winners and losers have the same goals: it’s the systems that make the difference
  3. Goals can lead to a warped approach to happiness (ie.: “I’ll be happy once I achieve it”)

In the words of James Clear:

Goals are good for setting directions. Systems are best for making progress.

Habits are not about getting something: they are about becoming someone

Change Identity First

James Clear differentiates between outcomes, processes, and identities:

  • Outcomes: what you get
  • Processes: your habits and actions
  • Identity: who you believe you are

To effectively change your processes and habits, you should strive to change your identity first. 

Once you choose an identity and then become that person, you naturally start acting in accordance with your identity. 
And the results will follow.

However, identity and actions are interlinked.
As a matter of fact, we often set our identities based on our actions. That’s why it’s important that we show up even when we’re not feeling it: because that will help build our identity.

Of course, it takes time. 
But every time you follow through, it’s a new vote of confidence in your identity. 

The 4 Steps of Habits Change

Atomic Habits revisits the same habit loops of The Power of Habit, such as:

  1. Cue: we see, hear, think or remember something
  2. Craving: we start looking forward to the reward we get
  3. Response: you act (the actual habit)
  4. Reward: you get your reward (good taste, filled stomach etc.)

However, what’s new in Atomic Habits and what’s one of the biggest added value is James Clear’s explanation on how to make your behavior change easier.

How to Make Habits Changes Easy

Here is how you can make it easier for yourself to change habits:

StepGood HabitBad Habit
CueMake it obviousMake it invisible
CravingMake it attractiveMake it unattractive
ResponseMake it easyMake it difficult
RewardMake it greatMake it terrible

To make the cue easy you can leave “reminders” around your house. To follow through with healthy eating, for example, you can find a restaurant that will deliver healthy and good food.

And to make a cue invisible you can make a rule to never have in your house any soda, for example. Then you won’t have a “drink the soda” cue.

#1. Make it Obvious

Making the habit obvious has several steps:

  1. Implementation Intention: decide on a time, place and location and say “I will (do X) at (X time) in (X location)
  2. Habit Stacking: do one good habit after another, and once you start with one it will be easier to keep going
  3. Environment Design: shape your environment in a way that it will help reinforce good habits and eliminate bad ones

The environment is key, says the author, because our willpower is limited. People who successfully master their habits focus more on making it easy for them than on fighting their own urges.

#2. Make it Attractive

And here are a few ways to make a non-inherently pleasurable habit easier to start and stick to:

  1. Temptation bundling: do something you like while you engage in an activity that is harder to stick to
  2. Reward yourself: do a pleasurable activity after your more difficult action and you will look forward to doing the hard task to get to the good stuff
  3. Pick right people: join people, groups and culture where your desired habit is the norm
  4. Habit swapping: there are many ways of addressing the underlying need and you can probably swap an unhealthy habit with a healthy one (example: go for a run to let go steam instead of drinking)

#3. Make it Easy

The easier it is to take action, the more likely the habit will stick. Remember, it’s not about willpower, it’s about developing a system that makes your habits easy.

  1. Drop Perfect: showing up consistently is more important than doing it perfectly 
  2. Law of Least Effort: always look and engineer the simplest way that you can start and act on the habit you want to build. Reduce friction by joining a gym on the way to work and only watch TV after you say the name of the TV program to increase friction and reduce thoughtless watching
  3. Two-minute rule: at the beginning your habits should be easy to follow through. Start small and built over time
  4. Extra friction: make it impossible to waste time on bad habits. Ask your partner, for example, to change the password on your social media and don’t get it back until the weekend

#4. Make it Rewarding

The first three steps increase the chances that you will perform the action. Increasing the reward instead will make it more likely that you will repeat the behavior and, hence, turn it into a habit.

James Clear recommends you use a habit tracker for a few reasons:

  1. They create a visual cue
  2. The progress you see is encouraging
  3. Checking boxes of “I did it” lists is satisfying
  4. They provide stronger proof that you are changing identity

And, finally:

  • Establish a punishment for skipping the habit

It’s possible you will skip a few beats and stop a streak. When that happens, start again ASAP.

Choose a Field You’re Good At

I really enjoyed James Clear’s reflection on nature VS nurture and hard work and genes.

Basically, he says that with hard work we can all advance, but if we choose a field where our natural abilities support us the most, then we will achieve success more easily and we will stick to our habits more easily.

Genes don’t determine your destiny: they determine your area of opportunity

Push Until The End

As habits become routines, they become less interesting and we get bored. That’s when you need to stick through them if you want to achieve high levels of success. 

The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom

atomic habits book cover

Real Life Applications

Focus on repetition, not on time!
In spite of what snake-oil salesman Tai Lopez says, habits are not built over time but over repetitions.

Focus on Identities
this is something I often also repeat. Focus on identity first and foremost. Also read The Antifragile Ego.

CONS

  • Constant references to the website

It’s OK to reference the website. Once or twice. But doing it so often makes people feel like they are missing a lot of they don’t follow the website. think 

  • Email required for add-ons

James Clear says he’s humbled and proud about the size of his… Mailing list.
And to get all the bonuses he mentions in the book, you need to sign up to, guess what? His mailing list.
I find it very annoying. I don’t want to sign up to no mailing list I am “forced” to sign up to and from which I’ll immediately unsubscribe from anyway.

  • Compound Effect Apply to Humans?

This idea that your effort combines over time the same way it applies to number seems bogus to me.

Obviously, I am not saying here you should not work on yourself on your business because that’s exactly what I do.
But I don’t think you can use a mathematical property of number on humans.

PROS

  • Best overview of habits

Atomic Habits is the best book on habits I have read so far.

  • Sensible author

I liked James Clear’s take on genes and hard work. He doesn’t push no silly “you can do anything” narrative and tells it how it is.

  • Helpful and Practical

Follow the ideas of this book, and.. You’re on your way to your new and more successful you.

Review

Atomic Habits is the best book on habits I have read.

It’s far more practical than the previously most popular book on habits, “The Power of Habits” -which I always found to be more theoretical than practical-.

It repeats a few well-known concepts for anyone who’s been around self-development, but it ties it all together wonderfully well within the topic of habits and success.

Check the best books collection or get the book on Amazon

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