Book Summary: The Key Ideas
#1: Focus on your systems, not your goals. Habits are the compound interest of continuous improvement. A focus on our processes and identity, rather than one-off achievements of goals, is what brings long-term improvement.
#2: The four laws of behaviour change. For each step of the habit loop, four laws can help us form good habits: make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying. The laws can be inverted to help break bad habits.
#3: The 1st law: make it obvious. To change, break or create new habits, we must become aware of our environmental cues using appropriate techniques. Simple re-designs of the framing of our habits, through techniques like habit stacking, can have profound effects on our behaviour.
#4: The 2nd law: make it attractive. Any habit can be made more enticing. Through techniques such as temptation bundling and using the psychology of social norms, we can help stimulate a greater sense of anticipation for a habit.
#5: The 3rd law: make it easy. Our brains are evolved to help us automate our habits and make them easier. But we can make them even easier by using techniques like the Two-Minute Rule and commitment devices.
#6: The 4th law: make it satisfying. We are more likely to repeat a behaviour when it’s immediately satisfying. Techniques like habit tracking can help foster this feeling, while accountability partners and habit contracts can create a force to keep at a habit.
Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail
Premise of the Book
The book is based on a simple idea: small changes can compound into remarkable results. James Clear sets out a wide range of principles for creating habits that drive these marginal gains – and eliminating habits that undermine them.
A central theme of the book is the idea that we must focus on our systems rather than our goals, recognising how our environment and processes can act as levers for positive change.
#1: Focus on Your Systems, Not Your Goals
The Compounding Power of Habits
Instead of looking for transformational leaps forward, we should focus our energies on the compounding power of small changes. A 1% improvement every day for a year leaves you 37 times better than when you started.
As James Clear puts it, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”
But habits can compound for or against you. For example, knowledge and productivity compound, but so do stress and outrage.
The Plateau of Latent Potential
To sustain these small improvements, we must recognise that success isn’t immediate. Time and results are seldom linear, and habits typically follow what Clear calls a Plateau of Latent Potential.
The early stages of a quest are often characterised by a valley of disappointment. Results eventually follow but are not immediate.
Systems > Goals
To maximise the compounding effect of habits, we must focus on our systems, and not our goals.
Goals have winners and losers and their achievement only brings momentary change.
Instead, commitment to processes brings long-term progress. One-off achievements of goals cannot have the same compounding effect on our behaviour.
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
There are three layers of behaviour change: (1) Outcomes, (2) Process and (3) Identity.
‘Identity-based habits’ are far stickier than ‘outcome-based habits’. Good habits can make rational sense, but if they conflict with our identity, they are unlikely to stick. Our habits, little by little, are also the force that forms our identity.
#2: The Four Laws of Behaviour Change
The Four Steps of Habit Building
Our habits follow a four-stage habit loop:
- Cue: Information that predicts a reward.
- Craving: The motivational force behind each habit.
- Response: the actual habit you perform.
- Reward: The end goal of each habit.
The Four Laws of Behaviour Change
At each stage of the habit loop, there are four important laws that can be applied to optimise our habits:
- Cue: Make it obvious.
- Craving: Make it attractive.
- Response: Make it easy.
- Reward: Make it satisfying.
The four laws can be inverted to break bad habits, i.e. make it invisible, unattractive, difficult and unsatisfying.
#3: The 1st Law – Make It Obvious
With enough practice, cues become automatic and subconscious. Once automatic, this means we pay less attention to what we are doing. To change behaviour, we must therefore foster awareness of our habits and their cues.
Techniques to Highlight Habits
Clear suggests two techniques to raise awareness of our habits:
- Pointing-and-Calling: Raises awareness of non-conscious habits by verbalising behaviours.
- Habits scorecards: Make a list of behaviours and score as + or – or = if positive, negative or neutral.
Implementation Intention and Habit Stacking
Time and location are the most common cues.
Implementation intention is a useful way of committing ourselves to a new habit, by pre-defining the time and location of the activity.
The formula is “I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
Alternatively, habit stacking can be used to pair a new habit with a current habit.
The formula is “I will [BEHAVIOUR] after [CURRENT HABIT]. Choosing the right current habit to pair with here is crucial.
“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour.”
Small changes in visual cues can lead to big shifts in habits and behaviour.
It’s easier to associate a new habit with a new environment or context than to build a new habit in the face of competing ones. But this needn’t be a different place entirely. Simple new cues can have a powerful influence over our habits.
The Myth of Self-Control
“The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least.”
External triggers can cause a compulsive craving to repeat a bad habit (sometimes even after years). This is known as cue-induced wanting.
Clear believes self-control is a short-term approach. Reducing bad habits in reality requires an inversion of the 1st law of behaviour change: i.e. to make the cue invisible.
#4: The 2nd Law – Make It Attractive
Our attraction to habits is often underpinned by a dopamine-driven feedback loop. When we predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, dopamine levels spike in anticipation. The anticipation – not the fulfilment – drives the action.
A useful technique to make habits more appealing is temptation bundling. This is where we link the action we want to do with an action we need to do.
It can be combined with habit stacking as follows:
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]
After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT]
“We don’t choose our earliest habits, we imitate them.”
Behaviours are attractive when they help us fit in. Clear suggests we imitate the habits of three groups:
- The close: When our desired behaviour is the norm and where you already have something in common.
- The many: When changing habits means fitting in with the tribe.
- The powerful: When we are motivated to enhance our status.
#5: The 3rd Law – Make It Easy
The Power of Automaticity
All habits follow a similar trajectory from effortful practice through to automatic behaviour – known as automaticity.
This is supported by our brain’s physiological adjustment through processes such as long-term potentiation (more on that here).
The amount of time is not as important as the number of times we perform a behaviour.
The Law of Least Effort
Human behaviour follows the Law of Least Effort, where we gravitate towards options that require the least work.
Our environments can help us achieve habits with less effort, by fitting them into the daily flow of our lives.
As a general principle, we should focus on reducing friction for good behaviours (e.g. distractions) and increasing friction for bad behaviours.
‘Priming’ our environments is an effective strategy to reduce friction, setting up our environments to make future actions easier.
The Two-Minute Rule
The ‘Two Minute Rule’: When starting a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.”
Clear gives some examples: “Read before bed” becomes “Read one page”. “Run three miles” becomes “Put on my running shoes”.
The idea is that these smaller habits act as gateways to the bigger goals.
The Two-Minute Rule can be combined with ‘habit shaping’, mastering the first two minutes and progressively mastering phases towards a final goal.
To break bad habits, we can also invert the 3rd Law of Behaviour Change to “make it difficult”.
A good way of containing bad habits and provoking good habits is to use a commitment device. This is a choice you make now that controls your actions later, e.g. paying for a gym membership upfront.
But the ultimate way to commit to future behaviour is to automate habits. Using technology to automate is a reliable way to guarantee a behaviour.
#6: The 4th Law – Make It Satisfying
We are more likely to repeat a behaviour when it’s immediately satisfying.
Our brains are evolved to prioritise immediate rewards over long-term rewards. Psychologists call this hyperbolic discounting.
One way to counter this bias is to use reinforcement, tying a habit to a near-term reward.
Habit tracking can also be an effective tool for increasing immediate gratification.
First, it is obvious, providing a simple, prominent visual method. Second, it is attractive, offering visual cues as an effective motivator (and deterrent). And third it is satisfying, with the tracking becoming a form of reward in itself.
Never Miss Twice
Clear then sets out one of his golden rules: Never miss twice.
If you miss a repetition, get back on track as soon as possible.
Clear believes that maintaining the streak is crucial. Even if you’re just showing up, the action of the habit is a vote for your new identity.
Accountability Partners and Habit Contracts
An accountability partner can also create an immediate cost to action, as we don’t want to let people down.
Habit contracts can be used to add a social cost to a behaviour, making missing our habits more public and painful. The sense of observation of your habit by someone else can be a powerful motivator.
On the science of habits: Stretch, Sleep, Repeat: The Neuroscience of Habits
On conquering procrastination: The Psychology of Procrastination (And How to Flip It)
On prioritisation: How to Use the Eisenhower Matrix to Optimise Your Time
Grit by Angela Duckworth
View from the Blog:
At the heart of Atomic Habits is a simple premise: habits, over the long-run, are a consequence of our systems and our identity. If we appropriately design our environments and use effective tools, we can radically improve our habits. But perhaps most importantly, in the long run, these habits must be aligned with our identities.
Authenticity in our habits is as important as the systems that surround them. James Clear highlights this point in multiple sections of the book, and this stood out alongside some of the techniques and theories I hadn’t encountered before.
It’s clear that Atomic Habits has become a global bestseller with good reason. Clear has a simple way of communicating practical ideas, relevant to every human being.
If you’re interested in exploring some of the science behind habits, as well learning of a wide range of techniques to optimise your habits, I thoroughly recommend this book. And of course, there is far more in its almost 300 pages than any book summary could do justice.