Book Summary: Atomic Habits

One of the initial goals of this blog was to write summaries of books I read. This way, I can reinforce the concepts I learned and have a place where I can look for topic refreshers. Also, this can be useful to other people.

Here is the first post in this regard, and I will start with Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Introduction

The main book idea is that small habits compound over time and lead to great results. You shouldn’t focus on the goal, but on the system that leads you to the goal itself.

Specifically, the process of building a habit is divided into four steps:

  • Cue: the trigger that initiates the behaviour
  • Craving: the motivation behind the behaviour
  • Response: the habit you perform
  • Reward: the end goal of every habit

These four phases lay down the foundation for the Four Laws of Behaviour Change, simple rules we can use to build better habits.

1. Make it obvious

To start a new habit we need to introduce an automatism that makes us think the least possible about what we are doing.

This is difficult at the beginning, but with the right strategies it will become easier over time.

The first strategy to use is called implementation intentions. This is a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act so that you don’t have to think about it when it’s time. For example, if you want to start running in the morning, you can say to yourself: “I will run for 30 minutes at 8 AM in the nearby park”.

If it comes easier to you, habit stacking provides another valuable way to get started. You can chain a new habit to an existing one, exploiting the already in-place habit as a cue. For example, you can state: “After I brush my teeth, I will meditate for 5 minutes”.

In the process of making it obvious, it’s really important to understand that we can use the surrounding environment to our advantage too. For example, to make more obvious the cue of reading, I keep the Kindle on my nightstand, so that I can read before going to sleep.

At this point, you may ask yourself: what about the bad habits I want to dismantle? Well, one of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that triggers it, because self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. For example, I uninstall Instagram from my phone during the weekdays, so that I don’t get distracted while working and I don’t waste time scrolling through the feed when I’m bored.

In a nutshell, you make your bad habits cues invisible.

2. Make it attractive

In general, the more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming. This happens because habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop. When dopamine rises, so does our motivation to act.

One of the interesting strategies the book mentions is a technique called temptation bundling. This means that you pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do. For example, I suggested to my mother to practice her back gymnastics (which she was constantly skipping) just before something she likes and it’s working pretty well.

Also, as the environment plays a big role in the formation of habits, people around us can be a great source of motivation too. This is why we should join a culture where our desired behaviour is considered the normal one. For example, I joined a workout group and this helped me to be much more consistent with my training.

On the other hand, to stop bad habits we should make them unattractive by highlighting the benefits of avoiding them. One popular example is Allen Carr’s book The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, where he makes smoking the least attractive thing we can do and that helped millions of people to quit smoking.

3. Make it easy

The Law of Least Effort states that when deciding between two similar options, people will naturally choose the option that requires the least amount of work.

From the previous law, we can understand that the easier a habit is, the more likely it is to be performed. This is why we should reduce friction associated with good behaviours and increase friction associated with bad ones. For example, I put my phone in another room when I want to focus on something.

Another strategy that helps us in this regard is to prime the environment. This means that we should prepare our environment to make future actions easier. For example, I started to put on the kitchen table all the necessary for breakfast the night before, so that I get ready faster in the morning, despite being sleepy.

One more thing to keep in mind when you start a new habit is the two-minute rule: the new habit should take less than two minutes to do. The point here is to make it as easy as possible to get started and then trust that the momentum will carry you further. For example, “read before bed” becomes “read one page before bed”.

Last, but not least resource we can use is a commitment device: a choice you make in the present that locks in better behaviour in the future. The book brings as an example the case of Odysseus, who tied himself to the mast of his ship to avoid the temptation of the Sirens. Or the use of an outlet timer to automatically switch off the internet connection at a certain time in the evening.

Whatever plan you choose to follow, the important thing you must remember is to focus on taking action, not just being in motion because the most effective form of learning is practice, not planning.

4. Make it satisfying

We are now at the last step of the habit formation process, the most important one: the reward.

At this point, we must say that: the first three steps increase the odds that a behaviour will be performed this time, while the fourth one increases the odds that a behaviour will be repeated over time.

This leads us to the cardinal rule of behaviour change: what is rewarded is repeated and what is punished is avoided.

So to be sure that you get satisfaction and feel rewarded out of what you repeat, you should find a way to feel you are making progress. This is why habit trackers and other visual forms of measurement are so popular. They provide evidence of your progress and give you a satisfying feeling of completion each time you record a new entry.

This works very well with good habits, but you can also find a way to track the avoidance of bad habits. For example, you can keep a calendar where you can mark the days you avoid eating sugar. Or you can use a digital moneybox where you put the money you save whenever you DON’T smoke a cigarette.

The possibilities are endless, you just need to get started!

Conclusion

This marks the end of the first book summary. If you’re interested in the topic, I highly recommend you to read the book, as it contains many more examples of how to apply the concepts I’ve just described.

The author also has a newsletter where he sends every Thursday 3 ideas of his, 2 quotes from others and 1 question for you to ponder.

I hope you enjoyed it and that you will find it useful.