“Atomic Habits” by James Clear TLDR

“You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.”

James Clear does an exceptional job of taking goals that seem bigger than ourselves, and systematically breaks them down into daily improvements. In concise detail, he outlines the roadmap on how to pick up our momentum and get going in the right direction.

Productivity compounds: accomplishing one extra task is a small feat on any given day but it counts for a lot over an entire career. the effect of automation an old task or mastering a new skill can be even greater. the more tasks you can handle without thinking, the more your brain is free to focus on other areas.

Knowledge compounds: learning one new idea won’t make you a genius but a commitment to lifelong learning can be transformative. furthermore each book you read not only teaches you something new but also opens up different ways of thinking about old ideas. Warren Buffet says that’s how knowledge works, it builds like compound interest.

Relationships compound: people reflect your behavior back to you. the more you help others the more others want to help you; being a little nicer in each interaction can result in a network of broad connections over time.

Negative thoughts compound: the more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid or ugly the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. this creates a trapping thought loop. the same is true for how you think about others, once you fall into the habit of seeing people as selfish, unjust or angry you begin to see these people everywhere.

Goals restrict happiness: the implicit assumption behind any goal is that once it’s attained then you’ll be happy. this means you’re continuously putting off happiness until the next milestone. this is a trap seeing success as only your future self can enjoy.

Goals create an “either-or” conflict: either you achieve your goal or you fail and are a disappointment, this is mentally boxing yourself into a narrow version of happiness. the antidote to this is a systems-first mentality, when you fall in love with the process rather than the product. you can be satisfied anytime your system is running.

Goals are at odds with long term progress: a goal oriented mindset can creat a yo-yo effect. many runners train for months for a race, yet once the race is completed there’s nothing else to motivate them.

Habits are the compound interest of self improvement. get 1% better everyday.

Small changes appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold. the most powerful outcomes of any compounding process are delayed, so patience is necessary.

An atomic habit is apart of a larger system. just as atoms are building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.

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

3 layers of behavior change

A change in your processes: changing your habits and systems i.e. implementing a new routine at the gym, decluttering your desk, no carbs.

A change in your identity: changing your beliefs i.e. your worldview, self image, judgements about yourself and others.

Identity in latin is essentitas which means “being”, and identidem which means “repeatedly”. thus your identity is literally your “repeated beingness”: whatever your identity is right now, you only believe because you have proof of it. i.e. if you go to church for 20 years every sunday you have evidence that you’re religious. you didn’t start as religious, but as the weeks compounded you became a person of faith.

The real reason you fail to stick with habits: your self image gets in the way, this is why you can’t get too attached to one version of your identity. progress requires unlearning and continuously editing your beliefs in order to upgrade and expand your identity.

Identity emerges out of your habits: you’re not born with preset beliefs, each belief including those about yourself are learned and conditioned through experience. it’s how we embody our identity through daily doings such as working out embodies you as an athletic person, reading embodies you as a curious intellectual, working on cars makes you a mechanic etc. the more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity.

Each habit teaches you to trust yourself: you begin to believe you can actually accomplish things. when the votes mount up and the evidence begins to change, the story you tell yourself begins to change as well. of course this works in the opposite way too, each time you perform a negative habit, so too does that identity take its form.

New identities require new evidence, if you keep putting forth the same votes you’ve always cast you’re just going to get the same shitty results you’ve always gotten. start with: deciding the type of person you want to be, then prove it to yourself with small wins

Don’t focus on what you want to achieve, focus on what you wish to become. every action is a vote in that direction.

Thorndike describes the learning process as “behaviors followed by satisfying consequences tend to be repeated and those that produce unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated”.

The process of habit formation begins with trial and error, when faced with a new situation in life our brain has to decide how it will respond to it. if a behavior is repeated enough times to be automatic is becomes a habit.

Feedback loop of all human behavior: try, fail, learn, try differently. with practice the useless movement fade away and the useful actions get reinforced. that is habit forming.

Habits are simply reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment. as habits are created the level of brain activity decreases. you learn to lock in on cues that predict success and tune out everything else.

Your mind is continuously analyzing your internal and external environment for hints of where rewards are located. Because the cue is the first indication that we’re close to a reward, it naturally leads to a craving.

Cravings are the second step and they’re the motivational force behind every habit. without some level of motivation or desire with craving a change we have no ready to act. what you crave isn’t the habit itself but the change it state it delivers

You’re not motivated by brushing your teeth but rather by the feeling of a clean mouth.

You’re not motivated by smoking but rather by the feeling of relief it provides.

The four stages of habit are best described as a feedback loop. they form an endless cycle that is running every moment you’re alive. this habit loop is continually scanning the environment, predicting what will happen next, trying out different response and learning from the results.

We can split the habit feedback loop into two phases; the problem phase (cue & craving) and the solution phase (response & reward).

Create a good habit

1st law cue: make it obvious

2nd law craving: make it attractive

3rd law response: make it easy

4th law reward: make it satisfying

Break a bad habit

1st law cue inversion: make it invisible

2nd law craving inversion: make it unattractive

3rd law response inversion: make it difficult

4th law reward inversion: make it unsatisfying

Whenever you want to change a behavior, ask yourself: how can i make it obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.

The process of behavior change always starts with awareness. you need to be aware of your habits before changing them. “pointing and calling” raises your level of awareness from a non-conscious habit to a more conscious level by verbalizing you’re actions.

Habit stacking: identify a current habit you already do daily and then stack your new habit on top. it’s a form of implementation intention, rather then pairing your new habit with a particular time and location you pair it with a current habit. this method was created by BJ Fogg can be used to design an obvious cue for nearly any habit.

Habit stacking formula: after [current habit], I will [new habit]

The two most common cues are time and location. the implementation intention formula is: I will [behavior] at [time] in [location].

Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior: people often choose products not because of what they are but bc of where the are. when we walk into the kitchen and see a plate of cookies on the counter you’ll likely pick up more than you wanted to before you even asked yourself if you were hungry.

Items at eye level tend to be purchased more than those near the floor, for this reason you’ll find expensive brands featured in the easy to reach shelf location bc they drove the most profit, while the cheaper alt’s are tucked away in the harder to reach areas. end caps are money making machines for retailers bc they’re obvious locations that encounter a lot of foot traffic. i.e. 45% of coca cola sales come specifically from end of the aisle racks.

Many of the actions we take are shaped not by purposeful drive and choice but by the most obvious option. i.e. coffee? starbs. beer? bud light, they’re both everywhere.

Its easier to build new habits in a new environment bc you’re not fighting against old cues. gradually your habits become associated not with a single trigger but with the entire context surrounding the behavior: the context becomes the cue, so make the cues of good habit obvious in your environment.

Self control is a short term strategy not a long term one: you might be able to resist temptation once or twice but it’s unlikely you’ll have the willpower to override your desires everytime. instead try to optimize your environment to make the cues of positive habits obvious and the cues of the negative habits invisible.

A habit is formed it’s unlikely to be forgotten. one of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it

Dopamine driven feedback loop: scientists can track the precise moment a craving occurs by measuring a neurotransmitter called dopamine. in 1954 james olds and peter milner implanted electrodes in the brains of rats, the researchers blocked the release of dopamine. to their surprise the rats lost all will to live; they wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t have sex, no cravings and died of thirst within a few days. once the scientists followed up and dropped sugar droplets into the mouths of the dopamine depleted rats and their little faces lit up with pleasurable grins from their tasty substance. even though dopamine was blocked they liked the sugar just as much as before, they just didn’t want it anymore. the ability to experience pleasure remained but without dopamine the desire died. when other researchers reversed this process and flooded the reward system with dopamine, animals performed habits at breakneck speed.

Primary goals of food science include additional flavoring and orosensations aka how foods feel in your mouth while enhancing dynamic contrast (crunchy + creamy = melted cheese on pizza or an oreo’s crunch on the outside and creamy inside filling) kale generally tastes the same after the seventeenth bite and our brain quickly loses interest as you start to feel full. foods with dynamic contrast keep the eating process novel and encourages you to eat more.

Once a habit is formed, it’s unlikely to be forgotten. manage cues by making them invisible so that your will power isn’t tested. People who rig high self control tend to spend less time in tempting situations. it’s easier to avoid temptation than resist it.

One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it. self control is a short term strategy, not a long term one.

Habits are a dopamine driven feedback loop. every behavior that’s highly habit forming; taking drugs, eating junk food, playing video games, browsing social media are all associated with higher levels of dopamine. The same can be said for our most basic habitual behaviors like eating food, drinking water, having sex, and interacting socially.

When it comes to habit the key takeaway is dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure but also when you anticipate it. gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. cocaine addicts get a dopamine surge when they see the powder, not after they take it. same goes for junk food, the process of going to the store is the addict in me. i recognize the adrenaline and dopamine pick up in the process.

When your dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act. the reward system that’s activated in the brain when you receive a reward is the same system activated when you anticipate a reward.

The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to becoming habit forming. temptation bundling is one way to make your habits more attractive, just pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do.

A craving is just a specific manifestation of a deeper underlying motive. our brain did not evolve with a desire to smoke or check twitter, at a deep level you simply want to reduce uncertainty and relive anxiety, to win social acceptance and approval, or to achieve status.

Your habits are modern day solutions to ancient desires. new versions of old vices. the underlying motives behind human behavior remain the same. the specific habits we perform differ based on the period of history.

Habits are all about associations. they determine whether we predict a habit to be worth repeating or not bc your brain is continuously absorbing into and noticing environmental cues. each time you receive a cue, your brain runs a simulation and makes a prediction about what to do in the next moment. cue: you notice the stove is hot

Prediction: if i touch i’ll get burned, so i shouldn’t

Cue: you see the traffic light turned green

Prediction: if i step on the gas i’ll continue through the intersection

Whether you binge eat, browse twitter or smoke, what you really want isn’t to binge but to feel different

Pregame jitters: people get anxious before delivering a presentation or competitive event, maybe experiencing quicker breathing, faster heart rate, heightened arousal etc. if we interpret these feelings negatively then we’ll feel threatened and tense up. however if we interpret these feelings positively we can respond with fluidity by reframing “i’m nervous” to “i’m excited and i’m getting an adrenaline rush to help me concentrate”.

Motivation rituals are often prescribed for pregame jitters, you simply practice associating your habits with something you enjoy, then you can use that cue whenever you need a bit of motivation. e.g. if you play the same song before having sex then you’ll begin to link the music with the act.

Motion and taking action, these two ideas sound similar but they’re not the same. when you’re in motion you’re planning, strategizing and learning. those are all good things but they don’t produce a result. action on the other hand is a type of behavior that will deliver an outcome. if i outline twenty ideas for articles i want to write, that’s motion. if i actually sit down and write the article, that’s action. if i search for a better diet approach and read a few books on the topic, that’s motion. if i actually eat a healthy meal, that’s action.

Most of us are experts at avoiding criticism. it doesn’t feel good to fail or be judged publicly, so we tend to avoid situations where that might happen. and that’s the biggest reason you slip into motion rather than taking action: you want to delay failure.

Its easy to be in motion and convince yourself that you’re still making progress and getting things done. but really you’re just preparing to get something done. when preparation becomes a form of procrastination you need to change something. you don’t want to merely be planning, you want to be practicing.

Both common sense and scientific evidence agree that repetition is a form of change. in 1860 english philosopher george h. lewis noted “in learning a new language, play a musical instrument or perform unaccustomed movements, great difficulty is felt bc channels through which sensation had to pass have not become established. but no sooner has frequent repetition cut a pathway than thus difficulty vanishes, the actions become so automatic that they can be performed while the mind is otherwise engaged.”

Human behavior follows the law of least effort. we naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work. create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.

The two minute rule is when you start a new habit it’s should take less than two minutes to do. you’ll find nearly any habit can be scaled down into a two minute version. e.g. read before bed each night = read one page. do 30 minutes of yoga = take out your yoga mat. study for class = open your notes. go running = get your shoes out. start small and work in progressive phases.

Many habits occur at fork in the road, decisive moments. either you go into a productive day or an unproductive day.

In 1830 Victor Hugo was facing an impossible deadline. twelve months earlier the french author promised his publisher a new book, but instead of writing he spent that year pursuing other projects until it was 6 months until the deadline. hugo concocted a plan to beat his procrastination, he collected his clothes and asked an assistant to lock them away in a large chest. he was left with nothing the wear but a large shaw lacking any suitable clothing to go outdoors, he remained in his study and wrote furiously during the fall & winter of 1830. the hunchback of notre dame was published two weeks early on january 14th 1831. victor made his bad habits more difficult by creating what psychologists call a commitment device.

Commitment devices are choices you make in the present locks in better behavior in the future. this is useful bc it enables you take advantage of good intentions before you can fall victim to temptation. e.g. don’t want to be tempted to eat junk? leave your wallet at home.

The human brain evolved to prioritize immediate rewards over delayed rewards, therefore we’re more likely to repeat a behavior when the experience is satisfying.

Learn to never miss twice. if i miss a day of non negotiables, don’t miss two. if i binge eat one day, don’t make it two consecutively. as soon as the positive streak ends get started on the next one.

The first mistake never ruins you, it’s the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. missing once is an accident, missing twice is the start of a new habit.

You don’t realize how valuable it is to show up on your bad days because lost days hurt you more than successful days help you. if you start with $100 then a 50% gain will take you to $150, but you only need a 33% loss to take you back to $100.

As you explore different options, in order to narrow in on the habits and areas that’ll satisfy you most, ask yourself; what feels like fun to me but work to others? what makes me lose track of time? where do I get greater returns than the average person?

The goldilocks rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working in tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. not too hard, not too easy. just right.

Flow state is being in the zone and fully immersed in an activity. scientists have tried to quantify this feeling and found to achieve flow a task must be roughly 4% beyond your current ability. in reality it’s typically not feasibly to quantify the difficulty of an action in this way, but the core idea of the goldilocks rule remains; working on challenges of just manageable difficulty is crucial for maintaining motivation.

The greatest threat to success isn’t failure but boredom. we get bored with habits bc they stop delighting us due to expected outcome, we tend to derail progress to seek novelty bc the process becomes ordinary.

Machiavelli said men desire novelty to such an extent that those who are doing well wish for a change as much as those who are doing badly.

The sweet spot of desire occurs at a 50/50 split between success and failure. half the time you get what you want, half the time you don’t. you need just enough winning to experience satisfaction can’t just enough wanting to experience desire.

The key to mitigating a loss of identity is to redefine yourself such they you get to keep important aspects of your identity even if your particular role changes. “im an athlete” becomes “i’m the type of person who is mentally tough and loves physical challenges”.

Habits deliver numerous benefits, but the downside is that they lock us into our previous patterns of thinking and acting, even when the world is constantly changing and shifting. you need to periodically check in to see if your old habits and beliefs are still serving you.

The tighter we cling to an identity, the harder it becomes to grow beyond it.