If you are the type of person interested in self-improvement, you've probably read or heard people talking about the importance of habits. Back in 2014, author Charles Duhigg released the New York Times Bestseller The Power of Habit. The book features an in-depth look into the science of habits and provides countless examples of how successful and effective people use habits.
Several years after the release of The Power of Habits, James Clear released a new book that builds on the lessons and findings of Duhigg. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones provides a proven framework to build small habits that can lead to remarkable results.
The main message of Atomic Habits is that small changes, when performed consistently, can lead to massive improvements. But Clear doesn't stop there, he also explains how to create a simple system to develop powerful habits (and destroy your bad habits on the way).
In this article, we're going to provide a quick summary and review of Atomic Habits to get you started on your habit-forming journey. If you're interested in the teachings of James Clear, we highly-recommend grabbing this useful book for yourself. It is jam-packed with lessons and insights, and we can only cover a fraction of what Atomic Habits covers.
What Are Atomic Habits?
First up, what are habits, and what makes them "atomic?" In short, habits are small decisions and actions that you make in your daily life without even thinking about it.
Habits can be "atomic" because they compound, meaning that the benefits of good habits (and the destructiveness of bad habits) start small, but over time, the effects of your habits grow exponentially.
How to Build Better Habits
Much of the book focuses on how to build and maintain new habits. And thanks to Clear's no-nonsense approach, he provides extremely actionable and simple steps that anyone can follow.
The basics of habit formation rely on manipulating a feedback loop. The traditional feedback loop that Duhigg uses when discussing habits is Cue → Response → Reward. In Atomic Habits, Clear adds another step: Cue → Craving → Response → Reward.
Clear dives into this feedback loop in great detail, but the quick and dirty summary is that a person receives a cue (like an alarm clock going off), the cue elicits a craving (wanting to get more sleep), the person responds to that craving (hitting the snooze button), and receives an award (more sleep). People can reverse engineer that feedback loop to make a behavior change and produce a desired behavior; here's how.
- Make it obvious. Step one in creating a new habit is to make the cue extremely obvious. The two most common cues are time and location. In other words, set a time and location for your new habit. For example: I will go for a run [behavior] at 6:00 am [time] around the park [location]. Another way to make it obvious is to design your environment to be full of cues. For instance, place your running shoes right by your bedroom door so you can't miss them when you wake up.
- Make it attractive. Strangely enough, scientists have discovered that in many instances, people receive a rush of dopamine when we crave something (not just when we receive the reward). And the stronger the dopamine hit, the more likely we are to act. In other words, the stronger the craving, the more likely we are to do something. This step is directly connecting to the reward, so if you want to start running, create an awesome reward (like lounging on the couch for an hour). When you receive your cue from step one, you will receive a hit of dopamine in anticipation of the reward. The dopamine hit will make it easier to go for a run.
- Make it easy. This one is pretty straightforward: don't make your new habit so hard that the difficulty outweighs the reward. One of the best ways to do this is to focus on starting the action. For instance, try to make it a habit to run for just five minutes a day (instead of 30 minutes). Results come from consistency, not intensity.
- Make it satisfying. Ah yes, the best part - the reward. The human brain is wired to value immediate gratification of delayed gratification. One great example that Clear uses is to transfer money into a vacation fund every time you complete your new habit. Not only will this provide some instant gratification, but it also is another positive habit (saving money). Another satisfying reward is marking your accomplishment in a habits scorecard. The simple act of checking a box and providing a ton of motivation.
How to Eliminate Bad Habits
Now that we've quickly gone through how to form a good habit let's go through how to eliminate a bad habit. Clear makes this equally as simple: just reverse the steps!
- Make it invisible. In order to make the cue invisible, you first need to identify the cue that triggers the feedback loop. After you identify the cue, put it out of sight, out of mind. Making a cue invisible eliminates the need for self-control since you won't even be tempted.
- Make it unattractive. When breaking a bad habit, the easiest way to make it unattractive is to focus on the benefits of NOT performing the habit.
- Make it difficult. When building a good habit, you want to reduce friction and make it as easy as possible. In this scenario, you want to increase friction. If you have a bad spending habit, try keeping your credit cards locked up in a safe and give the password to your best friend.
- Make it unsatisfying. In order to make a bad habit unsatisfying, create a punishment. Clear suggests that your punishment is "public and painful." One example of a public and painful punishment is having to give an accountability partner $100 if you perform the bad habit.
Key Concepts of Atomic Habits
A habit loop is a process the mind and body take when performing a habit. It starts with a cue that triggers a craving that triggers a response, which leads to an award. Building an environment that is full of obvious cues is the best way to create positive habits.
Habit stacking is the concept of using the completion of one habit as a cue for another. It's like saying, "After I complete one habit and will do this habit next."
Compound Interest of Self-Improvement
In Atomic Habits, Clear discusses the concept of compound interest and how it applies to daily habits. Clear uses the common example of improving 1% every day. Let's say that your current habit level is a 1. If you improve on that habit by 1% every day, your skill level will reach 37.78 after one year. Conversely, if your level decreases by 1% every day, your skill will drop to 0.03.
Why is this important? Because we shouldn't focus on massive growth after just a few practice sessions. Instead, we should aim for continuous improvement.
James Clear is kind of a motivation hater. Instead of motivation, Clear embraces the idea that our environment is more important than having the motivation to do something. Going back to the feedback loop, our environment provides cues to perform an action.
So, if you lack motivation, create an environment filled with cues that start a dopamine fueled feedback loop.
The two-minute rule is simple, "When starting a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do." This goes back to the concept of "make it easy." Too often people are too ambitious with their goals, the two-minute rule fights against that. Instead of starting a habit of reading for one hour every night you should set out to read one page every night.
Temptation bundling is the act of "linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do." The example used in the book is to exercise while watching Netflix. This makes the action that you need to do (exercising) more enjoyable by pairing it with an action you want to do (watching Netflix).
A habit contract is a great way of "punishing" yourself for performing a bad habit. The concept is simple: create an agreement with an accountability buddy; if you fail to meet that agreement, you must perform a punishment. The example that Clear uses is to pay your accountability buddy money.
Atomic Habits Review
Atomic Habits by James Clear is a great book that goes above and beyond to provide highly-actionable insights for every reader. I appreciate how straightforward Clear is with his guidance. He makes somewhat complex concepts easy to understand by using charts and stories that everyone can relate to. He also backs up with conclusions with scientific studies and anecdotes from real people.
If you just want to skim through, the book has chapter summaries with key takeaways as well. These summaries are great to revisit every couple of months after you've already read the book. In addition to the book, Clear also provides online resources like a habit tracker to hold yourself more accountable.
As far as self-help books go, this is one of the most actionable that I've come across. While many big authors in the genre focus on philosophy (no offense, Ryan Holiday or Mark Manson, I still love you), James Clear focuses on the concrete. He approaches self-improvement from a scientific standpoint to provide practical strategies that help readers develop tiny behaviors that can have atomic impacts.
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