Book notes: Atomic Habits

September 16, 2020

Atomic Habits by James Clear collects and distills much of the latest psychology research around habits and behavior change. It’s an excellent resource to use when planning a change in your behavior, or thinking about the behavioral habits of users.

Most of it feels a little obvious, and many of the principles are things I’ve sensed or experienced before. The real value of this book comes from the way all the principles are gathered and organized into a single framework that makes it easy to choose and apply the appropriate technique.

Below I’ve collected a short cliff-notes style summary of the major points for future reference. Overall, a quick and worthwhile read.

Rating: ★★★★
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Mechanics of habits

Clear describes habits as consisting of four phases, each of which can be targeted and influenced by various techniques. They are:

  1. Cue (Noticing the behavior)
  2. Craving (Desiring the behavior)
  3. Response (Acting out the behavior)
  4. Reward (Being satisfied by the behavior)

These phases are targeted by the four laws of behavior change.


1. Make it obvious/invisible

Planning a trigger

You want to trigger the new behavior. One of the most effective ways to do this is to plan out a specific time and location for it. You can also stack the new habit onto an old one.

  • I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]
  • After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]

Designing the environment

Your environment is full of cues. Another strategy is to fill it with cues for positive habits. E.g. set out the book I’m reading or move my phone away from my bed.


2. Make it attractive/unattractive

Temptation bundling

Builds on habit stacking by adding a rewarding behavior on the end.

  • After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT], then [REWARDING HABIT]

Cultural influence

The people around us have a strong influence on our behavior. We tend to imitate (1) the close, (2) the many, and (3) the powerful.

Join a culture where (1) your desired behavior is the normal cultural behavior, and (2) you have something in common with the culture.

Inversion

Highlight the benefits of avoiding a bad habit to make it seem attractive.

Motivation rituals

Do something you enjoy immediately before starting a difficult habit.


3. Make it easy

What makes a habit?

Habits become automatic through repetition. This means the number of times you perform a habit is more important than the amount of time spent.

  • Focus on taking action, not being in motion.
  • The most effective form of learning is practice, not planning.

Law of least effort

Create an environment where it is easy to do the right thing. Reduce the number of steps, reduce the friction necessary.

Increase friction for bad habits.

Two minute rule

Habits should begin as two minute tasks (read one page, instead of a chapter). Make it easy to choose the better behavior in decisive moments.

The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the easier you can slip into a state of deep focus.

It’s more important to start a habit than to optimize one that doesn’t exist.

Lock in behavior

A commitment device is a choice in the present that locks in better behavior in the future.

You can also try to automate your behavior as much as possible (auto saving deduction or social media timer lockout).


4. Make it satisfying

Immediate satisfaction promotes future repetition

Humans will repeat satisfying behaviors. We prioritize immediate satisfaction over delayed gratification.

Make “doing nothing” enjoyable when avoiding bad habits. Find the benefit of avoidance and enjoy it.

Cardinal rule of behavior change

What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.

Tracking habits

Making progress is a satisfying feeling. Tracking habits can capture this satisfaction.

Don’t break the chain, or at least never miss twice in a row.

Make sure you are measuring the right thing, though.

Inversion: Accountability partner

Create a social cost to make behavior unsatisfying and undesirable. (Either inaction or active negative action.)

A full habit contract makes this real and effective.


Extra tidbits

Choosing what to be good at

Maximize success by choosing the best field of competition. Play a game that favors your strengths. Genes don’t eliminate the need for hard work, they clarify what to work hard on.

Beating boredom and staying motivated

Human motivation is greatest when we are just on the edge of our capabilities. The greatest threat to success isn’t failure, but boredom. Habits can become routine and boring. Anyone can work hard when they’re motivated.

Downsides of habits

Habits mean you can do things without thinking about them, but you can also miss little errors. Full mastery also requires deliberate practice. Reflection and review is a key part of maintaining mastery over time.

The more we cling to an identity, the harder it is to grow beyond it.

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