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An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

In this summary, we are diving into James Clear’s bestselling book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, where he shows you how to create habits that stick. 

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What is the Book About?

In Atomic Habits the author makes it clear that goals shouldn’t be your main focus. What you need is frequent actions and systems for these actions to make them stick.

Have you considered that the big changes that you want to make in your life depend more on creating small habits? If you want to get in shape all you have to do is just to get into the practice of eating well, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep.

Instead of wasting your time setting yourself unachievable goals or trying all types of shortcuts to success, all you have to do is to make one small change every day.

The quality of your life depends on the quality of your habits and the book title itself already gives us an idea about the importance of habits. Some habits are so small like an atom and yet they’re capable of making a huge impact in our lives because these habits produce results that accumulate over time.

When it comes to changes that you want to see in your life it doesn’t really matter whether you see yourself or not as a successful achiever. What matters right now is whether or not you have the habits that are putting you in the direction to your goals.

You should be much more concerned about the trajectory that you have than the actual specific position of where you are. We’re always saying that we need to change our results but the truth is that the problems are not in our results. The problems are related to the habits that we have that are producing the results. Once we solve the cause, the consequence takes care of itself.

About the Author 

James Clear is an expert on habits and decision making. He made his name as the author of one of the fastest-growing email newsletters in history, which grew from zero to 100,000 subscribers in under two years.

Today, his newsletter has over 400,000 subscribers, and the articles on his website receive 10 million hits each year. His work frequently appears in publications including the New York TimesForbes and Business Insider.

Atomic habits summary

Atomic Habits Summary

Atomic habit is a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but it’s also the source of incredible power. A component of the system of compound growth. So forget about setting goals and focus on your systems first.

What are Habits?

Habits are behaviors that we perform automatically, with little or no thought. Habits are powerful so if repeated daily, even the smallest actions can have a huge effect.

But positive change requires patience. You can be confident that good habits are keeping you on the right trajectory, even if you don’t see immediate results

Making big changes in your life doesn’t require major upheaval – often, tiny changes to your behavior are enough to lead to the desired results.

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.” 

– James Clear

Why is it Hard to Build Habits?

Now the question is how are habits formed? Behaviors that result in satisfying consequences tend to get repeated until they become automatic.

It’s very easy to underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.

Why should we try and get a little better each day? Because if you can get just 1% better each day over the next year you will be 37 times better by the time you’re done.

Summary of Atomic habits

According to atomic habits, habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies to compound interest, the effect of your habits multiplies as you repeat them. They seem to make little or even no difference on any given day, but the impact they deliver over months or years can be enormous.

Bad habits compound too; putting off a project to tomorrow seems to make no difference, but when you repeat this type of 1% error day after day these tiny errors can be compounded into toxic results.

Success is the product of daily habits not once in a lifetime transformations. Would be aware that your outcomes will lag behind your habits.

Habits appear to make no difference until we cross a threshold and unlock a new level of performance. The plateau of latent potential shows us why it can be hard to build habits.

Habits need to persist long enough to break through this plateau and that’s going to take time.

“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement” 

– James Clear

Forget about Goals, Concentrate on Systems

Goals are the results that you want to achieve and systems are about the processes that lead to those results.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” 

– James Clear

Atomic habits states that if you focus on the system, the goal will take care of itself.  Why is this?

  1. Because winners and losers have the same goals; so every Olympian wants to win a gold medal and every entrepreneur wants to be successful. Thus it’s the system of the winners that gets them those results and not the goals, because everyone shares the same goal.
  2. Because achieving a goal is only a momentary change. Also, goals restrict your happiness. Our implicit assumption is once I reach my goal then I’ll be happy, but that sets us up to fail; because either you achieve your goal but you don’t feel fulfilled or you fail to achieve your goal and that makes you feel unhappy.
  3. Because goals are at odds with long-term progress.

If you were having trouble changing your habits the problem isn’t you, the problem is your system focusing on the overall system rather than a single goal.

It is one of the core themes of Atomic habits; you do not rise to the level of your goals instead you fall to the level of your system. So it’s all about the system, not goals.

The Three Layers of Behavior Change

You can think about outcomes as being about what you get, processes are about what you do and identity is about what you believe. So when people set out to improve, they’re thinking about the outcome and then thinking about the process they need to follow to achieve that outcome.

It’s hard to change your habits if you don’t change your underlying beliefs that led to your previous behavior.

You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.

Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become; no single instance will transform your beliefs. But as the votes build-up, does the evidence of your new identity.

Here’s a simple two-step process for change

  1. Besides the type of person, you want to be.
  2. Prove it to yourself with small wins small atomic habits.

“The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it. If you’re proud of how your hair looks, you’ll develop all sorts of habits to care for and maintain it. If you’re proud of the size of your biceps, you’ll make sure you never skip an upper-body workout. If you’re proud of the scarves you knit, you’ll be more likely to spend hours knitting each week. Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.” 

– James Clear

Habit Loops

Habits work like this:

First, there is the cue, the cue triggers your brain to initiate your behavior because it predicts a reward.

Next, you have the craving. What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in the stage it delivers. The response is the actual habit you perform, and this can be a thought or an action and finally, the response delivers a reward.

For Example about the Morning coffee, here is the habit loop:

  • Cue = waking up
  • Craving = feeling alert
  • Action = drinking coffee
  • Reward = feeling alert
Summary of Atomic habits
The Habit Loop

The four steps together form a neurological feedback loop cue – craving – response – reward ultimately allows you to create automatic habits.

The more you practice this habit loop with any particular habits the more it becomes automatic.

Step 1: The Cue – Make it Obvious

For good habits, we want to make the cue obvious and for bad habits we want them to be invisible. For example, if you want to get better at playing guitar we need something that triggers us to remind us to play guitar. One way of doing this is by putting the guitar in the middle of the living room so that your brain gets triggered more often.

Another great way to introduce new cues is by creating a habit stack. Habit stack is simply the act of adding habits before and after each other.

“The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. It is a bit of information that predicts a reward.”

– James Clear

Step 2: The Craving – Make it Attractive

To make the habit stick, it is good to get positive feedback, a good way of doing this is by temptation bundling.

Temptation bundling basically says that you’re more likely to find a behavior attractive if you get to do one of your favorite things at the same time.

The second method you could use to make craving more attractive is by joining a culture, where your desired behavior is normal behavior.

If you want to become more well-read and you could join a book club this will hold you accountable and it will be way more fun and of course if you want to break bad habits you want to do the inverse by joining a culture that doesn’t endorse your bad habits.

“A craving is the sense that something is missing. It is a desire to change your internal state. This gap between your current state and your desired state provides a reason to act.” 

– James Clear

Step 3: The Response – Make it Easy

Conventional wisdom holds that motivation is the key to change a habit. If we just want it enough then we will change but the truth is that human behavior follows the law of the lease efforts. We naturally gravitate towards the option that requires the least amount of work, we can use this to our advantage by creating an environment we are doing the right thing is as easy as possible.

For good behaviors you should reduce friction, if you want to get fit you could join a gym that is on your route to work. You can also get your gym bag organized and ready the night before.

For bad behaviors, you should increase friction. If you want to watch less television only turn on the TV as you say out loud the name of the program you want to watch. This will stop mindless viewing and switching channels.

Step 4: The Rewards – Make it Satisfying

As humans, it can be hard to pick up new habits. This is because the beginning of a new habit is mostly sacrificing without any rewards. You go to the gym a few times in a week and nothing really changes, it takes months to see real results.

So if you want to get the habit to stick you need to figure out a way to give yourself an immediate reward. One technique you can use when the reward is long term is to set up a loyalty system for yourself.

For example imagine if you want to give up alcohol, on its own, there is no satisfaction in simply abstaining; but what if you transfer $25 to your holiday bank accounts every week it went without alcohol? You’ll be immediately rewarding yourself for your new habit.

“The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward.” 

– James Clear

How to Form Good Habits

Certain stimuli can trigger habitual behavior. Once you understand that, you can use this knowledge to change your habits.

  1. Encourage better habits by changing your environment. Make your cues as obvious as possible, and you’ll be more likely to respond to them! For example, you want to eat healthier snacks? Leave them out on the counter, rather than hiding them in the salad drawer.
  2. Use implementation intentions. Don’t make vague statements such as “I will eat better”. Instead, create a clear plan of action, and set out when and where you will carry out the habit you want to cultivate.
  3. Build temptation. Humans are motivated by the ANTICIPATION of reward. Our brain not only releases dopamine (the feel-good hormone) when we do pleasurable things but also when we anticipate them. Note that making habits attractive will help you stick to them. Link the habit you want to form (but are not enjoying) with a behavior that you’re drawn to. For example, allow yourself to watch episodes of your favorite show while you’re cycling at the gym.
  4. Make the habit as easy to adopt as possible. Reduce friction for good habits, increase friction for bad habits.
  5. Use the two-minute rule. Make any new activity feel manageable by only committing to two-minutes of it. This is a way to build easily achievable habits, and those can lead you on to greater things.  Simply getting started is the most important step!
  6. Make your habits immediately satisfying. When you’re pursuing habits with a delayed return, try to attach an immediate gratification to them.

How to Keep Your Habits on Track

Option 1: Habit Tracker

For example: Use a calendar or diary to create a habit tracker. Also, cross off every day that you manage to stick to your good habit. Habit tracking itself is an attractive, satisfying habit, which is why it is so effective.

Option 2: Contract

Develop a habit contract that imposes negative consequences if you fail to stay on track. Try to involve other people, so simply knowing that someone is watching you can be a powerful incentive to keep going.

What did you learn from the book summary of Atomic Habits? What was your favorite takeaway? What do you disagree with? Comment below or tweet to us @storyshots.

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Atomic habits book summary
Book Summary of Atomic habits

Text shot is adapted from Hannah Hill mindmap, EPM, Lifelong Learner and Arata Academy English YouTube channels.

Atomic habits summary
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