Atomic “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”James Clear, author of Atomic Habits
In the book, Atomic Habits, James Clear provides practical strategies to create good habits, break bad habits, and master the small actions that will lead to amazing results. Since 2012, James Clear has written many articles on habit formation, which has led him to become one of the world’s renowned experts on establishing habits.
Over time, small habits can make a huge difference and create extraordinary results. If you get 1% better each day, you will become 37% times better in a year. In contracts, if you become 1% worse each day, you will decrease close to nothing (zero). Like a double-edged sword, good habits can work for you while bad ones go against you.
Often, there is a gap between what we expect to happen and what actually happens. Until you reach a critical threshold, your small changes will seem to make no difference. Typically, we expect progress to be linear; however, the results of our habits are delayed. We can get discouraged and fall into the “Valley of Disappointment,” but you are not wasting your time and need to be patient with your outcomes.
What are Atomic Habits?
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” James Clear tells us to forget about setting goals and focus on the systems, with the building block being:
Atomic Habits – “a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth.”
Habits Shape Your Identity
There are three levels of change:
- Outcome Change – concerned with changing your results
- Process Change – concerned with changing your habits and systems
- Identity Change – concerted with changing your beliefs
Your habits shape your identity:
Identify – what you believe; emerges out of your habits with every action being a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
Change your habits by focusing on who you want to be (identify) and not on what you wish to accomplish (outcome). There is a two-step process for changing your identity:
- Decide the type of person you want to be.
- Prove it to yourself with small wins.
You need to challenge your beliefs and grow your identity to be the best version of yourself. In these transformations, your habits can change your personal beliefs while creating extraordinary results.
The 4 Steps to Building Atomic Habits
What is a habit and why is it useful?
Habit – “a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.”
Habits help us solve issues in our lives using as little of our limited personal resources of energy and attention as possible. The process of building a habit is captured by:
The Habit Loop – the feedback loop to describe the four steps of habit formation:
- Cue – the trigger in your brain that initiates a behavior
- Craving – the motivational force behind each habit
- Response – the actual habit that you performed in thought or action
- Reward – the end goal of every habit that satisfies and teaches you
The “cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and ultimately, becomes associated with the cue.” Clear reframes the four steps into the following laws:
Four Laws of Behavior Change – the simple set of rules to build better habits:
- Make It Obvious (Cue)
- Make It Attractive (Craving)
- Make It Easy (Response)
- Make It Satisfying (Reward)
Also, he inverts the four laws:
Inversion of the Four Laws – the opposite of the Four Laws to break bad habits:
- Make It Invisible (Cue)
- Make It Unattractive (Craving)
- Make It Difficult (Response)
- Make It Unsatisfying (Reward)
1st Law: Make It Obvious
First, the Cue triggers your brain to start a behavior. This stage provides the law to “Make it obvious” to create a good habit. Inversely, it gives the rule to “Make it invisible” to break a bad habit.
Becoming Aware of Habits
Over time with consistent practice, your brain will detect cues without much thought. Eventually, your habits become automatic, and you stop noticing the behavior.
Thus, to change your behavior, you need to become aware of your habits. You can use the following two strategies:
- Habits Scorecard – a simple exercise to become more aware of your behavior by writing down and tracking your current habits
- Pointing-and-Calling – a method to raise awareness of a nonconscious habit by verbalizing your actions, such that one is conscious of performing the behavior
Starting a New Habit
You can make it obvious to create a new atomic habit with the following two strategies:
- Implementation Intention – a strategy to pair a new habit with the two most common cues: “I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].”
- Behavior – the habit that you want to do
- Time – when you will perform the habit
- Location – where you will perform the habit
- Habit Stacking – an implementation intention strategy used to pair two or more habits together: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
- Current Habit – the habit that is already automatic
- New Habit(s) – the habit or set of habits that you will perform after the current habit
Role of Your Environment
Your environment has a significant impact on your behavior. Since cues initiate every habit, our minds notice the signals that stand out. A decluttered space where every object has a place and purpose can lend itself to simply forming great habits. We want to redesign our surroundings to build great habits, make good habits obvious, and evade poor cues.
Inversion of the 1st Law: Make It Invisible
As habits become automatic, it is tough to forget them once established. Many people use self-control to avoid bad habits; however, this strategy does not work in the long run. Thus, it is better to avoid tempting situations rather than resisting them.
- Use the Habits Scorecard to gain awareness and track your current habits.
- Create new habits using implementation intentions and habit stacking.
- Redesign your environment such that the good cues become obvious and visible.
- Reduce your exposure to the cues that cause your bad habits.
The 2nd Law: Make It Attractive
Second, the Craving is the underlying motivation for each habit. This stage provides the rule to “Make it attractive” to create a good habit. Inversely, it gives the rule to “Make it unattractive” to break a bad habit.
The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming.
Making Atomic Habits Irresistible
The attractiveness of an event correlates with the likeliness that it will become a habit. We can understand our cravings by measuring:
Dopamine – a neurotransmitter released when your brain is expecting a reward.
The habits are encompassed by a:
Dopamine-Driven Feedback Loop – a self-perpetuating circuit that gets one to take action from the anticipation of the reward.
Thus, when your dopamine levels spikes, you are more likely to take action. So, you can make habits more attractive with the following:
Temptation Bundling – a strategy of pairing a desired action (want) with a necessary action (need).
Role of Friends and Family
Previously, we discussed the rule of your environment in habit formation. Similarly, our social culture heavily influences our actions and habits. We have a strong need to conform and be part of the group, so we will adopt habits that our culture accepts and celebrates.
We tend to imitate the habits of three social groups:
- Close – our Family and Friends
- Many – our Tribe
- Powerful – those with Status and Prestidge
As the tribe’s behavior can be more powerful than that of the individual, you can build better habits by joining a culture in which:
- Your desired behavior is the standard behavior and
- You already have similarities with the social group.
Inversion of the 2nd Law: Make It Unattractive
Even though every habit has a craving on the surface, there is an underlying cause linked to an ancient desire. When your habit addresses the cause, you will develop a craving to repeat the behavior. Over time, you will learn to predict the artificial positive feeling that your brain associates to performing that bad habit.
Using this insight, we want to associate positive feelings with attractive good atomic habits and vise versa. With unattractive bad habits, we can use these strategies:
- Cons Sheet – a strategy to list the cons of the bad habit or the reasons to avoid it and make it seem unattractive.
- Motivation Ritual – a strategy to perform an enjoyable activity to inspire you to perform the difficult habit.
- Use Temptation Bundling to pair an action that you want to do with one that you need to do.
- Join and embrace a community in which your desired behaviors are the norm.
- List out the advantages of avoiding your bad habits.
- Establish Motivation Rituals to inspire you to perform a difficult habit.
The 3rd Law: Make It Easy
Third, the Response is the actual habit that you perform. This stage provides the rule to “Make it easy” to create a good habit. Inversely, it gives the rule to “Make it difficult” to break a bad habit.
Making Progress on Atomic Habits
The best way to learn is to practice, not plan. The quantity of repetitions is more critical than the amount of time spent performing the habit, as shown in this process:
Habit Formation – the process by which a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through reputation:
- Start: The habit requires a lot of energy and attention to perform.
- Motion: After a few repetitions, the habit gets easier but still requires some energy and attention.
- Automation: The habit eventually becomes more automatic than conscious.
To make a habit automatic, we have to push past the few reps and take consistent action on the habit.
Law of Least Effort
Human behavior follows this law:
Law of Least Effort – the tendency to move toward the option that requires the least amount of work.
We can declutter and create an environment where performing good behaviors are as easy as possible:
- Reduce Friction: Make good habits easy.
- Increase Friction: Make bad habits difficult.
Additionally, you can set up your surroundings to make future actions easy and improve results.
The shortest of habits can affect your behavior for hours to come. Also, many habits happen at:
Decisive Moments – the choices that you make to go in the direction of a productive day or an unproductive one.
Thus, we need to master the decisive moment by mastering the small decisions that deliver amazing results (see 80/20 rule).
Sometimes we start too big, so the best way to counterbalance this tendency is to use the:
Two-Minute Rule – the principle to downscale your habit to less than two minutes when you first start it
Just show up and get started. When you continuously begin a good habit for two minutes, it will be more likely to stick and become automatic. After establishing a small atomic habit, then you can work to optimize it.
Inversion of the 3rd Law: Make It Difficult
You can make bad habits difficult and achieve a better future by using:
Commitment Device – a one-time choice to restrict your options and lock in better behavior in the future:
- Purchase – buying good or service, such as a getting mattress for better sleep
- Automation – investing in technology, such as enrolling in an automated savings plan
- Reduce the friction between performing good habits.
- Increase the friction between performing bad habits
- Set up your environment to make good habits easier.
- Make small decisions that have significant results.
- Use the Two-Minute Rule to scale down your habits to just get started.
- Use commitment devices to lock in better behavior in the future.
The 4th Law: Make It Satisfying
Last, the Reward is the end result of the habit. This stage provides the rule to “Make it satisfying” to create a good habit. Inversely, it gives the rule to “Make it unsatisfying” to break a bad habit.
Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change
We all have heard that we need to delay gratification if we want to be successful. However, the human brain has evolved to prioritize immediate rewards over delayed gratification, which is embodied by this rule:
Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: “What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.”
Thus, when a habit is satisfying, we are way more likely to repeat that behavior. So we need to find a way to seek some success or give yourself an immediate reward to get a habit to stick.
The previous three laws increase the chance that we perform a specific habit in the present, while this law increases the chance that we repeat the habit in the future.
Making Progress Every Day
Making progress is satisfying, which you can see on a:
Habit Tracker – a visual system to measure when you performed a habit or chain of habits
Habit Trackers can make your atomic habits satisfying by providing clear evidence of your progress. It reminds you to keep your habit streak alive and avoid breaking the chain. If you forget or selectively miss a habit, you should immediately get back on track and never miss twice.
Inversion of the 4th Law: Make It Unsatisfying
We are less likely to repeat a bad habit if it is painful or unsatisfying. We can create a powerful motivator and an immediate cost to inaction using the following strategies:
- Accountability Partner – another person that watches your behavior and holds you responsible for it.
- Habit Contract – a self-imposed social cost to any behavior with the cost of violation being public and painful.
As we genuinely care about what other people think about us, we are motivated to avoid bad habits.
- When you complete your habit, reward yourself immediately.
- Use a habit tracker to measure your streak and avoid breaking the chain.
- When you forget or selectively miss a habit, get back on track, and never miss twice.
- Get an accountability partner for someone to watch your behavior.
- Create a social control to incentivize against bad behavior.
Advanced Tactics of Atomic Habits
Talent vs. Hard Work
You can maximize your chances of succeeding by picking the right habits and field of competition for you:
- Pick the right habit and progress is easy.
- Pick the wrong habit, and life is a struggle.
You have genes that influence your habits and behavior. They can be advantageous in favorable circumstances and a severe disadvantage in unfavorable situations. The most proven personality breakdown is as follows:
Big Five – a scientific analysis of personality traits broken down into five spectrums of behavior:
- Openness to Experience: Curious/Inventive to Cautious/Consistent.
- Conscientiousness: Organized/Efficient to Easygoing/Spontaneous.
- Extroversion: Outgoing/Energetic (Extroverts) to Solitary/Reserved (Introverts).
- Agreeableness: Friendly/Compassionate to Challenging/Detached.
- Neuroticism: Anxious/Sensitive to Confident/Calm/Stable.
Thus, you should build good habits that work with your personality and natural strengths. These questions can help you pick habits and interests for you:
- What is fun for me, but work to others?
- What causes me to lose track of time?
- Where do I get higher returns than the average person?
- What things come naturally to me?
If you can’t find a field that aligns with your abilities, create your own niche, or combine other interests.
Hard work still matters to be successful, as “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Thus, your genes provide clarity and can influence what you choose to work hard on.
The Goldilocks Rule
In the fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” Goldilocks chooses Baby Bear’s chair, porridge, and bed (over Papa and Mama Bear’s) because it is “just right.” This tale eludes to the following rule:
Goldilocks Rule – states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities.
You need to take on habits at a manageable difficult that is not too hard, not too easy, but just right.
We all get bored and struggle to stay motivated. Boredom is actually the greatest threat to success is not failure. Routine habits become less exciting, engaging, and gratifying.
Thus, we need to fight bored, as when one is motivated, they are willing to work hard. You should embrace boredom and doing nothing enjoyable to push through to be successful. The people that are professionals stick to their schedule, while amateurs don’t make it very far.
Downside to Creating Atomic Habits
Habits have amazing benefits; however, they can come at a cost:
- Upside – allows us to do things without thinking
- Downside – causes us to stop paying attention to little errors
Your goal should be to maximize your potential and achieve Mastery:
Mastery = Habits + Deliberate Practice
We achieve Mastery by using our habits with deliberate practice to grow and build on that growth. It is a continuous cycle to work hard, gain success, and repeat to overcome the next challenge.
You can learn habits, but you also need to reflect and review to grow:
Reflection and Review – the process that allows you to remain conscious of your performance over time
Lastly, we need to be careful of holding onto an identity as it limits our growth beyond that identity.
When you use the power of atomic habits, you can create great habits and break bad ones. I hope this post will help you create habits to help you change your identity and achieve your goals. Also, I hope you are inspired to get your own copy of Atomic Habits.
If you have any further questions or need additional help, feel free to comment below or send me an email. Also, if you want more Process Hacker content, you should subscribe to our weekly newsletter on Productivity, Habits, and Resources.