Book Summary: Atomic Habits – An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

Habit expert James Clear believes small changes in human behavior have a more profound impact on habits over time than singular, large shifts. He calls for coupling a desired new behavior with a usual behavior. He warns against boredom and self-satisfaction, which, he asserts, impede the formation of new habits built on frequent repetition of the behavior. To change bad habits, Clear maintains, you first must develop an awareness of your daily routines. He urges taking continuous, small steps toward forming new habits that will eventually replace old ones. Frequent repetition automates behaviors and turns them into habits. Rewards and incentives, such as enjoyable activities, nurture the effort of instilling good habits. Your identity aligns with your habitual behavior. Clear cautions against complacency – a drawback to cultivating good habits – and recommends refining your behavior continues to achieve lasting change. To that end, he provides simple, actionable steps. Those seeking to switch bad habits for good ones will benefit from his guidance.

Atomic Habits - An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear
Atomic Habits – An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

Content Summary

Small Steps
Changing a Habit
Building Habits
“The Four Laws of Behavior Change”
The First Law: “Make It Obvious”
The Second Law: “Make It Attractive”
The Third Law: “Make It Easy”
The Fourth Law: “Make It Satisfying”
The Right Balance
Good Habits
The Little Things Count
About the Authors

Small Steps

Habit expert James Clear believes frequent repetition automates behaviors and turns them into habits. Most people undervalue applying little changes to their routines but, over time, a minuscule adjustment can create “atomic habits,” the foundation for extraordinary outcomes.

These atomic habits function, Clear maintains, as part of a methodical system that does a better job of helping you achieve progress than setting a goal without outlining a process for attaining it. Atomic habits interconnect like building blocks to provoke remarkable adaptations to behavior. Clear is adamant that achieving long-lasting results requires establishing a path for permanent change.

A person’s actions arise from a belief system based on a set of assumptions that form his or her identity. Normally, individuals try to change their habits by listing “what” they want. This produces an “outcome-based” goal. An alternative to this approach centers on “who” the person wants to become through creating “identity-based habits.” For example, people who take pride in their athletic skills will carry out the habits affiliated with maintaining their physical ability and their identity as athletes.

Changing a Habit

To change a habit, first, identify the underlying beliefs that created it. Since behavior reflects a person’s identity, altering behavior, or a habit in a lasting way requires making sure the alteration aligns with your identity. You can see the ancient roots of the relationship between identity and habits in the Latin translation of “identity” as “repeated beingness.” Clear believes that daily routines represent an individual’s identity precisely because he or she repeats them.

He reminds you that the quest to change revolves around who you wish to be. Self-improvement requires deciding what type of person you want to become and making small changes to achieve that identity. Define your desired identity, then begin the effort to achieve it. The process of honing and improving your identity calls for continuous corrections and improvements to your beliefs and, thus, to your habits.

Building Habits

When you encounter a specific situation, your brain determines how to react. Clear says that when it decides to enact the same behavior repeatedly, the behavior becomes a habit: the standard solution in that situation. Habits decrease your level of stress and “cognitive load” because their automated performance derives from memories of your reactions to past situations. Habits perform a twofold purpose: They solve life’s problems and they expend as little energy as possible while doing so.

Habits follow a four-step process: “Cue, craving, response, and reward.” Cues are the activators; cravings are the motivators. Responses are the answers which yield a reward.

“The Four Laws of Behavior Change”

To construct desired habits, Clear teaches, follow the Four Laws of Behavior Change. They are integral to the design function of good habits and to the process of eliminating bad habits.

The First Law: “Make It Obvious”

Clear describes how the brain operates by continually absorbing information and analyzing it. Its operations run in a clerical manner, highlighting pertinent items and dismissing irrelevant ones. The brain acknowledges repetitive experiences, cataloging them for future use. Through practice, it recognizes the “cues” which initiate certain patterns. Consequently, repeated experiences culminate in a habit, because the brain identifies a recurring situation and reacts in a standardized way. For the brain to be able to alter an automatic action, it first needs to raise its level of consciousness about that action.

Clear suggests “pointing-and-calling:” Before taking an action, verbalize its predicted outcome. Hearing about the consequence of a good or a bad habit requires the brain to think about your behavior and helps you change it.

“Habit stacking” is another effective tactic for behavioral adjustments. This strategy marries a new habit with a current one. For a positive outcome, select a specific time to insert a fresh pattern into an established routine. In effect, habit stacking creates a chain effect by linking small new habits together one-by-one.

Your environment provides a context around your habits. Stable settings promote habit formation and alteration. Each habit is initiated by a cue and promulgated under certain conditions. To eliminate a bad habit, Clear instructions, remove the cues that trigger it. He explains, “It’s easier to avoid temptation than resist it.” More numerous cues prompt predominant behaviors, and the most blatant, visual cues trigger the greatest behavior change. This reaction is natural because humans react most strongly to their most obvious option. The positive habit-forming cues in your environment need to be large and clear to influence your patterns. While a single cue may be sufficient to trigger a behavior initially, the entire context may eventually turn into a cue. Build new habits in new environments to prevent known cues from interfering.

The Second Law: “Make It Attractive”

When you experience pleasure, the brain’s reward system releases dopamine. And, you are likely to repeat a rewarding experience. But, Clear explains, when you simply plan to repeat a specific behavior that you found pleasant, the release of dopamine occurs. That is, it happens when you merely expect the reward. Thus, the expectation becomes rewarding in itself. That’s why it’s easier to form a habit if an opportunity is attractive. Then, “habits turn into a dopamine-driven feedback loop.” To increase the attractiveness of a habit, couple an activity “you want to do” with an activity “you need to do” – this is called “temptation bundling.”

The culture you belong to determines the attractiveness of behaviors. Humans strive to fit in with others in their “herd” to earn “approval, respect, and praise.” They imitate social groups, especially “the close,” like family and friends, “the many,” who provide the wisdom of the crowd, and “the powerful,” who act as role models for becoming successful. One way to build a habit is to identify the desired behavior and assimilate into the culture or social group that practices it. By doing this, you embrace the concept that a “shared identity” bolsters a personal one. Being embedded in a community guarantees that your new, community-supported behaviors will last.

Behaviors work on two operational levels: they satisfy “surface” or “superficial” cravings or they address “underlying” or “deep” motives. Your habits are manifestations of an essential purpose originating from ancient desires. Feelings and emotions can alter habit-triggering cues, so how you feel about a given situation matters.

The Third Law: “Make It Easy”

Clearly defines a habit as a repetitive behavior you perform so often it becomes automatic. And, he notes, the more frequently you repeat an action, the more automatic that action becomes. This process is mediated by strengthening the connections between neurons, that is, by physical changes in the brain. Neuroscientists call the enduring strengthening of neuronal synapses due to current patterns of activity “long-term potentiation” (LTP).

“Automaticity” means that an individual “performs a behavior without thinking” (exercising cognition) about it. Because the brain seeks to conserve energy, it selects options that require the least effort. To acquire a new behavior you should thus choose the path of least resistance. One way to trick the brain into a new habit is to incorporate the desired activity into an already established routine. Your learning is effective, when you practice (“take action”) instead of just planning. To bring about change, Clear instructions, you need to “be in motion.”

You can improve a habit only after it is established. To establish a new habit, start small by engaging in the relevant activity for only two minutes. This “showing up” helps to “ritualize the beginning of a process.” Once you start, it’s easier to focus and perform a routine.

To break a bad habit, make it more difficult to perform; increase the “friction” you experience carrying it out. Use helpmates or “commitment devices” to adjust your current choices to affect your future behavior. Clear offers the example that paying for a yoga session in advance means committing to attend it. Such devices help you capitalize on and actualize your good intentions. They make it harder for you to select a bad habit, and they pave the way for good habits to develop. Technology can function as a helpmate. For example, to help you focus on important tasks, and not get distracted by social media-related activities, delete your social media apps or reset their passwords to make it harder for you to use them again.

The Fourth Law: “Make It Satisfying”

Behavioral change works through repeating behavior that is “immediately rewarded” and by avoiding behavior that is “immediately punished.” The brain craves quick success, even in small increments. It evolved to value and prioritize “the present more than the future.” Habits change when people find the alternatives “attractive, easy and obvious.” Given that understanding, Clear says, choose a reward that fortifies the habit stacks that fit your identity. Such a selection reinforces your personality, makes the activity enjoyable, and leads to lasting results.

If you find a new habit difficult to stick to, remind yourself that one failure does not break a new habit, especially if you notice the failure quickly and adjust your activities back to the path you want to follow. Bad habits won’t form if they turn out to be unsatisfying or painful.

Clear suggests tracking your embrace of good habits. Use a log to gauge your progress and maintain focus. This tracking process monitors your good efforts and helps you adjust your behavior. Seeing that you are making progress is deeply satisfying.

To add an element of accountability in making good habits stick, you also can make a “habit contract.” This tactic is based on the premise that if you build in and sustain a positive, direct consequence, good habits will grow. Habit contracts are like attaching a painful penalty to laws and regulations. You can make your habit contract public as a value-added incentive. An upfront contract and an accountability partner can be mainstays to your habit-change success. Enlist someone you trust who supports and shares your desire to improve your habits. Tell your partner about your contract, and ask him or her to call you out when you fail to reinforce your new worthy habit or slip back into bad habits.

The Right Balance

Your genes, Clear says, also sway your habits and shape your personality and behaviors. Your assessment of your inherent abilities plays a crucial role.218, Selecting habits that complement your personality also enhances your ability to achieve change. To help ensure your success, engage in activities that match your innate abilities, inclinations, or competency level.

Challenges motivate you only if they are attainable. Clear warns that the tasks you take on must balance a degree of difficulty against your abilities by being neither too easy or too hard. This principle applies to habits as well. Starting small and continually practicing a new habit of assures mastery. Boredom is a dangerous pitfall. People won’t practice activities that become too routine because those activities no longer interest or delight them.

Good Habits

Every behavior requires a modicum of mastery exercised in small, continuous steps until the activity blossoms into a good habit. This is the bedrock of Clear’s system. Over time, good habits become mindless, everyday practices. Self-reflection and a sense of perspective are necessary to detect unnoticed errors and to improve or change behavior. Continuously practiced good habits incorporated in tiny, sustainable steps compound into powerful conduct. Developing good habits builds your authentic identity.

The Little Things Count

James Clear provides practical guidance on how to change your habits or build new habits. While perhaps not offering a lot of innovation, he succeeds in delivering a great pep talk. His enthusiasm makes you want to start right away and put his recipes into practice. Although Clear refers to some of the science underlying the nature of habits, his book focuses on practical guidance and presents lots of useful examples to illustrate its key concepts. He links to further resources available on his websites, offering templates and bonus chapters. Anyone who has the intention to change something in his or her life – but who has struggled to get started – should read Clear’s counsel. It’s good to hear that an investment of as little as two minutes can be the starting point for achieving a remarkable change in the long run. And even if you knew this already, it’s reassuring to learn that the little, “atomic” things in life count.

About the Authors

James Clear writes about habits and self-improvement at his popular website, jamesclear.com. He speaks on habits and decision-making to Fortune 500 companies.