Atomic Habits (James Clear) - Book Summary & Notes

Atomic Habits is the most comprehensive guide on how to create good habits, break bad ones and get 1 percent better every day. James Clear, one of the world's leading experts on habit formation, distills a proven framework about habit formation, so you can accomplish more by focusing on less.

The strategies to produce remarkable results based on tiny changes that can be executed daily can be implemented immediately.

Adopting new habits is a gradual evolution. You don’t change just by deciding to be someone entirely new. A system needs to be in place to take daily actions to form a new habit. Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.

If you're having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn't you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat when you have the wrong system in place.  

Success is the product of daily habits—not an overnight transformation.

In this summary, you'll learn a proven system that can take you to new heights.

What are habits?

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement - it’s the good and bad things that you do every day that compound over time to create real change. Specifically, an atomic habit is a regular practice or routine that is small and easy to do.

To make a new habit stick, you need to use cues, cravings, responses, and rewards to create the system that help you to achieve your goals.

According to the 4 laws of behavior change, these are the components to create good habits and break the bad ones

  • Make it obvious - the habit needs to be executed effortlessly and requires no active thinking.  
  • Make it attractive - if the habit is unattractive, we may not have enough willpower to do it repeatedly. Therefore, you should come up with some ways to make the habit attractive.
  • Make it easy - the less friction there is between the habit and yourself, the higher the chances are that you will do it.  
  • Make it immediately satisfying - our brain rewards immediate returns so it’s good to come up with something simple that brings us joy right after we perform our habit.  

Associate good habits with positive feelings. Associate bad habits with negative feelings

How to create a new habit?

The short answer: Use systems

Real change comes from the compound effects of hundreds of small decisions or habits that over time accumulate to produce remarkable results.

Adopt a systems-first approach that is made up of processes and habits, instead of focusing on your goals single-mindedly.

The more you ritualise the beginning of a process, the more likely you can slip into the state of deep focus that is required to do great things.

Goals are the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. If you want better results, focus on your system instead.

Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. Problems may arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems.

Using a system is effective as it enables you to fall in love with the process, allowing you to play the game continuously. An effective system involves a cycle of continuous refinement and improvement. To make sure you succeed, you need to commit to the process that will determine your progress.

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

Habits & identity

Habits help you to be the type of person you wish to be. Through the habits, you develop your deepest beliefs about yourself. That’s why there is a saying: you become your habits.

Habits that reinforce your desired identity are usually good. Habits that conflict with your desired identity are usually bad.

First, decide the type of person you want to be. Next, reinforce the identity with the habits that shape our actions. 

To become the best version of yourself, you need to edit your beliefs, upgrade and expand your identity. Change belief about yourself, if you must. Progress requires unlearning.

To form good habits and make the changes sustainable, make them a part of your identity. When a habit comes from who you are, the changes in you will have a lasting impact.

Potential pitfall

Most of us start with outcomes and work backwards towards our identity. This is not recommended. For example, your goal is to lose weight (outcome)so you follow a diet plan to be a healthy person (identity)

You should consider an identity-based approach. See yourself as a healthy person, so you will eat well and exercise regularly.

Your identity emerges out of your habits.

Every belief, including those about yourself, is learned and conditioned through experience.

Your habits are how you embody your identity. When you eat nutritional food daily, you embody the identity of a healthy person. When you read each day, you embody the identity of a knowledgeable person.

How to succeed

Before you set goals and determine the actions you need to take to achieve those goals, you have to consider the beliefs that drive your actions. So that your old identity will not sabotage your new plans to change. You need to shift the way you look at yourself.

Behind every system of actions is a system of beliefs.

  • The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader.
  • The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner.
  • The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician.

Action vs Motion

Be careful if you find yourself spending too much time in finding the optimal plan for change. You may be so focused in figuring out the best approach that you end up not taking action.

Don’t let motion mislead you to think that you’re making progress  

It’s easy to be in motion and convince yourself that you’re getting things done. The preparation to get something done is not progress. You don’t want to merely be planning. You want to be taking action.

How this applies to mastering a new habit

The key is to start with repetition, not perfection. Keep practicing and focus by taking action (active practice).

Don’t fall into the trap of being in motion (passive learning). Example: planning/ learning/ preparing to get something done that deliver outcome

Motion: Search, save and read diet book.

Action: Meal preparation for the upcoming meals

Design your environment to make success easier

It's not wise to use motivation to fuel a habit, as it is temporary and based on a feeling.

To make the adoption of new habit easier, create the environment where doing the right things is as easy as possible.

Increase friction within the environment associated with bad habits

Decrease friction within the environment associated with good habits

Priming your environment helps to make future actions easier.

The less friction you face, the easier it is to adopt a habit. This is why it is crucial to make your habits easily doable so that you’ll do them even when you don’t feel like it. If you can make your good habits more convenient, you’ll be more likely to follow through on them.

How to overcome a lack of motivation and willpower

There will be days when you feel like quitting, don’t feel like showing up or don’t feel like finishing. But stepping up when it’s tiring makes the difference between a professional and an amateur.

Professionals stick to the schedule, know what is important to them and work toward their goals with purpose. Most importantly, they take action and show up consistently even when the mood isn’t right. 

Amateurs let life get in the way, get pulled off course and take a break when there’s no motivation.

When a habit is truly important to you, you are willing to see through it even if the mood isn’t right.  

The only way to be excellent is to be endlessly suck into process of doing it repeatedly. You have to learn how to fall in love with boredom.

As habits become a routine, they become less interesting and satisfying. So, you may get bored. So, learn to manage boredom and show up despite feelings of boredom. Reframe your perspective – say I get to do this instead of I have to do this. Show up everyday.

Anyone can work hard when they feel motivated. It’s the ability to keep going, even when the work isn’t exciting, that makes the difference.

Tips

Working on challenges of just manageable difficulty keep things interesting. Stay below the point where it feels like work.

 Goldilocks rule: human experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities

A note on passion and motivation

Some talk about being passionate or getting fueled up to work on your goals. This is misleading because it motivation will run out gradually. So when you lose your focus or motivation, don't feel helpless.

Successful people feel the same lack of motivation as everyone else and they do not have infinite amount of passion. The difference is that they still find a way to show up despite the feelings of boredom/ lack of motivation.

Make it a point to get back on track when you fall off course;

Some people quit halfway as it takes time to build a good habit or break a bad one.

“Don’t break the chain” means don’t break the chain of putting in your effort everyday. Show up everyday, even on your bad days.

The first mistake is not a fatal flow. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that’s the case. As Charlie Munger says, “The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessarily.”

The compound gains you accrued from previous good days are precious. Don’t let losses eat into your compounding.

It’s easy to put in the work when you feel good, but it’s crucial to show up even if you don’t feel like it. Even if it is for 5 minutes which may be insignificant, it will still reaffirm your identity.

Focus on showing up and adding your streak of progress. Pick the right habit & progress is easy

Maximizing your success

The secret to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field. Habits are easier to perform and more satisfying to stick with when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities. You want to play a game where the odds are in your favor.

If you can’t win by being better, you can win by being different. By combining your various skillset, you can stand out with less competition. Rewrite the rules to your advantage.

A wise player creates a game that favors their strengths and avoids their weaknesses.

Present vs Future

The immediate outcome of  a bad habit usually feels good (snacking), but the ultimate outcome feels bad (feeling bloated). With good habits, it is the reverse: the immediate outcome is unenjoyable, but the ultimate outcome feels good.  

The cost of your good habits are in the present, but the cost of your bad habits are in the future.

Your brain’s tendency to prioritize the present moment means you shouldn't rely on your good intentions. When you make a plan to achieve your desired goals, they are meant for your future self to reap the benefits. It is easy to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits, as you envision what you want your life to be like.

But when the moment arrives, instant gratification usually wins. Because you are representing the Present You, who wants immediate satisfaction. You are no longer acting for the Future You, who has a goal to fulfill in the present. So when you get the pleasure from a current action, you need to question it moves to towards your long-term goals.

Delaying gratification takes practice and you need to work with your unique nature.

The recommendation is to add some immediate pleasure to the habits that pay off in the long run and add some immediate pain to ones that don’t.

To make a habit stick, you should feel some sense of satisfaction, no matter how small it is. The feeling of success is a signal that this new habit is beneficial even though it’s not obvious currently. It takes a long time for you to reap the benefits of the habit. So you should add some immediate rewards for you to have a reason to stay on track. This keeps you motivated while the delayed rewards accumulate in the background.

Resisting temptation (no desserts for a month) when you want to stop a bad habit brings no satisfaction. To make this habit stick, you need to make the rewards of avoidance visible. Add in some rewards (make your own healthy desserts) to make it satisfying when you stop your usual actions.

It is worth noting that it is important to select short-term rewards (enjoy a healthy dessert as a food lover) that reinforce your identity rather than ones that conflict with it (putting the savings into an external purchase as a minimalist). Make sure that the short-term reward is aligned with your long-term vision of being a healthy person.

Eventually, as intrinsic rewards like feeling healthy kick in, the identity itself becomes the reinforcer. You practise the habits because it’s who you are and it is aligned to your identity. The more a habit becomes part of your life, the easier it is to follow through. Incentives can start a habit, then identity sustains a habit. In summary, a habit needs to be enjoyable for it to last. Simple bits of reinforcement can offer the immediate pleasure you need to enjoy a habit. And change is easy when it is enjoyable.

Things that stunt recovery

  • Personalization: belief that you are at fault
  • Pervasiveness: belief that an event will affect all areas of my life-       
  • Permanence: belief that aftershock of an event will last forever

In summary

  • Understand the aggregation of marginal gains. Make small improvements consistently and be 1% better everyday.
  • Forget goals. Focus on systems (processes) that lead to results that you want to achieve (goals)
  • Fall in love with the process instead of getting the goal. The commitment to the process determines your progress
  • Outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Be patient until you cross the critical threshold
  • Let habits become part of your identity

When you are starting a new habit, keep the behavior as easy as possible so you can stick with it even when the conditions aren’t perfect

  • Habit + deliberate practice = mastery
  • After one habit has been mastered, you need to return to the effortful part of the work and begin building the next habit

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