Atomic Habits Summary: How to make small changes that achieve massive results

I wrote about my goals earlier this year. For 2020, I wanted to set up systems that help me achieve more. It’s hard. I’m still falling behind, and we’re already half-way through 2020. How are you doing with your goals? 

 

I read Atomic Habits by James Clear in order to help me get better at achieving success. This book is a good one. It helps you understand that big improvements usually aren’t the result of massive changes. Instead, big improvements are the result of small actions repeated over a long period of time. Think about your life. What accomplishments are you most proud of? Now, can you identify a single change that contributed to your accomplishment? Probably not, right? 

Instead, you made progress by showing up, putting in the work, and getting results over time. 

The main theme of atomic habits is this: You can fulfill your potential through good habits. Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years. We all deal with setbacks but in the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. With the same habits, you’ll end up with the same results. But with better habits, anything is possible.

Below are my notes from the book, broken down by chapters:

drawing that shows the habit loop: cue, craving, response, reward.

The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits

Focus on small habits

Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. 

Dave Brailsford, a cyclist coach, proved this to be false. What made him different from previous coaches was his relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains.” This is  the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do.

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. 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.

Just as your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits, your success is a lagging indicator of your habits. 

Why it’s hard to build habits that last? 

People decide to stop because they fail to see tangible results. This is true with the working out. For example, someone will start working out for a week. They’ll see little results because physical results take months to notice. And they give up. Look past the short-term results and stay dedicated to the long-term gains. 

Follow systems not goals

Society preaches for us to set goals and work at achieving those goals. But don’t do this. 

Goals are about the results that you want to achieve. Since we’re now focusing on the long-term, goals don’t help us understand what it takes in the short-term to get there. Goals are about the outputs. 

Instead, focus on your systems: the processes that lead to achieving the outcomes. Aka, your inputs. If you fix your inputs, the outputs will fix themselves. 

Goals are about winning the game (short-term). Systems are about continuing to play the game (long-term). You should try to fall in love with the process. 

Start by changing your identity

Intrinsic motivation comes when your habit becomes part of your identity. For example, you want to say “I’m the type of person who is this” instead of “I’m the type of person who wants this.” Use pride and ego to your advantage in forming habits. 

Behavior change starts with an identity change. For example, the goal is not to work out, the goal is to become a meathead (or insert your fitness stereotype). If you surprise your partner with weekly words of affirmation, you’re a romantic lover. 

To do this, you need to edit your beliefs (unlearn), and upgrade your identity. To change who you are you must change what you do. 

  1. Decide who you want to be. 
  2. Prove that you’re that person with small wins. 

The 4 step formula for building better habits

 If you do something automatically, it’s a habit. Your brain is weird for you to repeat things that feel good. 

Good habits are hard to build because the benefits aren’t seen until the long-term. You’d rather pay for something now to get that reward, rather than save for better financial well being. If you can’t control your good habits now, you’ll have less freedom. So, make the fundamentals easy to follow. 

How are habits formed?

We chase rewards. They fill our craving for something. We don’t turn on Netflix to watch shows and pass time; you want to be entertained. 

  • 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.

The 1st Law (Cue): Make it obvious

How to start a new habit: I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]

Make the action of the habit easy by knowing what you want to do and when you want to do it. Remove uncertainty about what you want to do. For example, “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.” This helps you take action without needing the inspiration to strike. Create a plan to follow so that you’ve already made the decision to do something. You won’t have to ask: “Do I meditate this morning or at lunch?”

After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]

Stack new habits on top of your old habits. For example, after I wake up, I will make my bed. After I make my bed, I will brush my teeth. After I brush my teeth, I will wash my face. 

Design your environment to help you see the cue

Don’t rely on motivation. Instead, change your environment. Every habit is initiated by a cue. And you do things if that cue is easier to notice. For example, if you’re working near your phone, it’s easy to get distracted when your phone vibrates. To focus, you should turn your phone off and throw it across the room. 

My roommate is learning how to play the guitar. He practices EVERY SINGLE DAY. It’s loud and annoying at times, but I admire his ability to stick with it. The reason he’s able to? His guitar is set up right near his bed for easy access. If it was tucked in his closet, he probably wouldn’t be playing it every day. 

The lesson? Make things easier to notice if you want to repeat them. Make things harder to notice if you don’t want to repeat them. Put your vitamins near your bedside table.

2nd Law (Craving): Make it Attractive

How to make the habit irresistible

Desire is the engine that drives behavior. Every action is taken because of the anticipation that precedes it. It is the craving that leads to the response. Dopamine is released when you anticipate something and get it. 

Pair habits that you want to do with habits that you need to do. 

After [current habit], I will [habit I need]. 

After [habit I need], I will [habit I want].

Join a culture or group that supports your desired habit

Cultures help reaffirm your identity. For example, we are cyclists or we are musicians. This is especially important for habits that you maintain in the long run. When we are unsure how to act, we look to the group to guide our behavior. 

Reframe your habits to highlight their benefits rather than their drawbacks

Imagine changing just one word: You don’t “have” to. You “get” to. You get to wake up early for work. You get to make another sales call for your business. You get to cook dinner for your family. This is a way of making hard habits more attractive by associating them with a positive experience. 

3rd Law (Response): Make it Easy

Focus on taking action, not being in motion. 

Motion: Planning, strategizing, and learning. Ex: Outlining articles. We feel like we’re making progress. You’re delaying failure. 

Action: Behavior that delivers an outcome. Ex: Write the article. 

Stop worrying about taking the best approach. Start with repetition, not perfection. This means you’ll never start until you’ve found it. In reality, taking action is better than waiting for the right moment. For example, I had a friend who talks about investing and is waiting for the market to fall. But instead of taking action, he’s been waiting on the sidelines without putting his skin in the game. Guess the return he’s seen? It’s negative. Inflation is eating him up and he’s not letting the market increase his net worth.  Remember, the idea of small habits compounded is that you start, repeat, and learn and tweak your approach over time. 

Make your habit so easy to do

Reduce friction for good habits. Increase friction for bad habits. 

New habits should take less than 2 minutes to do

If you want to start reading each night, your goal should be to read only 1 page before bed. Start slow. And focus on showing up. 

Build automatic systems that repeat good habits

For example, if you want to save more money, transfer money to a savings account as soon as you get your paycheck. Find ways of using technology to automate good habits.

4th Law (Reward): Make it Satisfying

What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided. 

We did not evolve for delayed-benefits. Do you think my dog would ever think about saving food for the week? Hell no. She’d eat whatever was in her food bowl. It’s hard because we value short-term benefits more than long-term benefits! We are always looking for immediate satisfaction. 

Good habits: 

  • Costs are in the present
  • Benefits are in the future

Bad habits: 

  • Costs are in the future
  • Benefits are in the present

Look for ways to delay gratification. You can do this by rewarding yourself for practicing good habits in the short-term. For example, if you work out every day, maybe that means you get to buy a new shirt after a few weeks. 

How to stick with good habits every day?

Remember Snapchat? Remember how you wanted to keep your photo-sharing streak going with your friends? If you didn’t send a snap, your steak would be broken and you’d have to start at 0. Think about that with your habits. 

Track your habits by noting when you showed up. If you miss one day, get back on track. But never miss twice. One 0 can bring down your average. Many 0s can ruin your average. 

Get an accountability partner 

Straight up ask your friend to hold you accountable. Form a habit contract that can be used to add a social cost to any behavior. Knowing that someone else is watching you can be a powerful motivator. 

Be careful with being too ambitious

Habits are more satisfying when we are better equipped to do them. Easier habits are more satisfying to stick with when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities. What comes naturally to you but is hard for others? What is fun for you but work for others? The point is: use your strengths to work on things that come easy. 

You have to fall in love with boredom

Think about Michael Jordan. He became one of the best basketball players because he put himself in challenging situations in practice. He did the boring training every day. Think about how many 3-point shots he took during practice. That’s probably boring for most people. But to him, it was everything. 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.

The Pros stick to a schedule, know what’s important to them, and work with purpose. They take action even when they don’t feel like it. 

Amateurs let life get in the way. They wait for the right time to take action. 

The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. 

Tiny changes. Remarkable results. 

Do you keep saying that you want something but never act on it? Your actions reveal who you really are. Take action!

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