Atomic Habits by James Clear is the holy grail when it comes to guides on habit and behavior change. In this book, he provides a highly effective, practical, and step-by-step framework to embrace new good habits and break free from bad ones. This framework is based on the best techniques from behavioral science and the book is filled with tons of examples backing it up. A must-read if you’re looking to upgrade yourself and move towards becoming the best version of yourself. In this post, we will take a look at 10 key lessons from the book Atomic Habits.
Table of Contents
Lesson 1: The Power of Compounding
Tiny changes in our habits can change the trajectory of our lives in ways that we can’t even notice until many years into the future looking back. In both good ways and bad. You are your habits. Far too often, we convince ourselves of one-night miracles or that massive success is only possible through massive actions. However, it is the tiny improvements, that aren’t even noticeable at first, that create incredible change.
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.
1% better every day for a year will compound to nearly 38 times better.
Lesson 2: Goals vs System
The way we in general look at goals is slightly flawed. We want to achieve something and hence go ahead and set a goal for ourselves, but we don’t think beyond. We are so tunnel-visioned at the goal we forget how to set up steps to achieve it and sometimes when we do reach our goals we don’t know what to do next.
Another fundamental argument why goals are not enough is pretty simple …. Both successful and unsuccessful people have the same goals but only a select few achieve them. So then the question is what’s the difference between them and how important is setting up the right goals??
Fundamentally goals are about the results you want but systems are about the process that leads to it.
“ FORGET ABOUT GOALS, FOCUS ON SYSTEMS INSTEAD”James Clear
Lesson 3: Change Your Identity
The Three Layers of Behavior Change:
- Outcomes: changing your results, e.g. losing weight. Most of the goals you set are at this level
- Process: changing your habits and systems, e.g. developing a meditation practice. Most of the habits you build live at this level
- Identity: changing your beliefs, e.g. your worldview or self-image. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level
The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become.
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. True behavior change is identity change. The ultimate aim for any habit is to change your identity into something you want to become. So instead of an outcome-driven habit or action, you need to shift towards an identity-driven habit system
Lesson 4: The Habit Loop
A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic. Their ultimate purpose is to solve problems on an auto-pilot mode (with as little energy and thought as possible).
Any habit is essentially a feedback loop of four phases:
- Cue: The starting poinit or simply, what triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. The bit of information that predicts a reward.
- Craving: the motivational force behind every habit. You don’t crave the habit itself, but the change in state it leads to or the pleasure associated with it(e.g. you do not crave smoking a cigarette, you crave the feeling of relief it provides).
- Response: the actual habit/action you perform, as a thought or action. Whether a response occurs depends on how motivated you are and the amount of friction associated with the behavior. If the motivation is greater than the friction you need to overcome to perform the action this phase will be initiated.
- Reward: the end goal of every habit. We chase rewards because they satisfy our cravings and teach us which actions are worth remembering in the future.
More about the habit loop in Lesson 7.
Lesson 5: Make It Obvious
The Implementation intention is a plan that you make beforehand about when and where to act. This basically acts as a blueprint of how you want to execute a habit or new behavior. The most common cues for any action are basically the Time and Location and these are exactly what to target while creating the implementation intention. Often it is the lack of clarity that gets confused with the lack of motivation, holding us back from our new habits. Once we have a precise plan of how we are going to execute a certain action, we don’t have to wait around for inspiration or motivation to strike.
The Implementation intention formula:
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
A simple example for the book for this is, I will meditate for 2 minutes at 7:00 am in the living room.
Lesson 6: Habit Stacking
No behavior happens in isolation. you often decide what you are going to do next based on what you just finished. Each action becomes a cue that triggers the next action. So why not apply the same while forming new habits?
we can look at actions/habits that we usually do and simply stack the cue to start our new habit on top of it. This is referred to as habit stacking. The idea is to utilize the momentum from the previous action into launching new behaviors. You can potentially have endless stacking.
The habit stacking formula becomes.
“After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
Based on what new habit you are looking to form, study your daily habits and pick appropriate cues to trigger the new behavior based on the frequency and the time of day you want to form the new habit.
A simple habit stack example mentioned in the book:
- After I pour my morning coffee, I will meditate for sixty seconds.
- After I meditate for sixty seconds, I will write my to-do list for the day.
- After I write my to-do list for the day, I will immediately begin my first task.
Lesson 7: Temptation Bundling
The brain’s desires and cravings are slaves to neurotransmitters called dopamine. Habits are just dopamine-driven feedback loops, the more dopamine we get from a certain action the higher the chance of it becoming a habit. Upon study of the human brain and its relationship with dopamine, it was found that dopamine is not only released when we get pleasure but also when we anticipate it. The dopamine spikes at the point when a gambler places the bet and not when they win the reward. In other words, it is the anticipation of the reward that motivates us to take any action and not the reward itself.
This is key information while trying to form habits. Temptation bundling. also known as Premack’s principle states that “more probable behaviors will enforce less probable behaviors”. In simple words, it is easier to enforce something you “need” to do once you pair it with something you “want” to do.
Once we combine habit stacking with temptation bundling, we get something like this:
1. After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED].
2. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].
Lesson 8: The Law of Least Effort
Human behavior always follows the law of least effort which states that when deciding between similar options, people will naturally gravitate towards the option that requires the least amount of work. In order to form new habits, we need to reduce the friction associated with good behavior and likewise increase friction for bad habits.
The best way to push yourself towards successful habit formation is to “prime the environment for future use”. This essentially means already preparing your environment for your future actions for example:
- Want to exercise? Set out your workout clothes, shoes, gym bag, and water bottle ahead of time
- Want to improve your diet? Chop up a ton of fruits and vegetables and pack them in containers so you have easy access to healthy snacks
Lesson 9: The 2-minutes Rule (Habit Shaping)
The starting part of any new habit should take only 2 minutes. If a new habit feels like a challenge it will add more friction in being consistent. The action that follows these first 2 minutes can be as challenging as you want but the first 2 minutes are important to get going. As you grow the first 2 minutes become a ritual at the beginning of a larger routine.
Improving a habit can only happen once it is established so instead of planning out the habit in the most advanced and optimized steps, plan it in a way that is easier to establish and then focus on improving. Perfection will then follow.
Lesson 10: The Goldilocks Rule
It is important for us to not get carried away when setting goals and targets. Human motivation peaks right at the edge of comfort, just slightly challenging from their present abilities, neither too hard nor too easy. Therefore it is important that whenever you are starting a new habit, the set expectations are not too insane, the mantra here is to “Start small, be consistent and keep moving”. Build up slowly so that these new challenges keep you engaged and motivated.
In my opinion, this is a must-read book and deserves a special place on everyone’s bookshelves. A quote among many good ones that stuck with me after reading this book is
“Success is the product of daily habits not once-in-a lifetime transformations”James Clear
Here is an amazing infographic covering. a lot of ideas in the book Atomic Habits and can be used as a fancy cheat sheet. Check out Atomic Habits at:Atomic Habits: The life-changing million copy bestseller
PS: The above diagrams unless stated otherwise are from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear