In-depth review of Atomic Habits by James Clear.
Getting 1 percent better every day counts for a lot in the long-run
One chapter of this book can undoubtedly change your life. Now imagine what an entire book can offer you. People try to build many habits every other day but it is difficult to keep up with it. Clear has an apt and pragmatic answer to habit formation.
James starts by sharing personal strategies he implemented to recover from a serious accident in High school. That event forced him to improve the quality of his routine to get his life in order, coming to the conclusion that “we all deal with setbacks, but in the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. With the same habits, you will end up with the same results. But with better habits, anything is possible.”
[Section 1: The Fundamentals]
[Chapter 1] Here we learn the power of compounding effect: changes that seem small and unimportant at any given day will compound into remarkable results. If we are willing to stick with them for months and years. James explains that “breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change.” Comparing to habits, he shows that bamboo can barely be seen during the first couple of years while the roots grow underground before exploding for almost 100 feet into the air in a few weeks. From that perspective, we come to understand the best outcomes are generally delayed.
[Chapter 2] Based on a 3-layer concentric circle behavior change model—divided into outcome change, process change, and identity change. James explains that we should pay attention to our inner identity by focusing on beliefs, assumptions, and values. “Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.” The strongest changes, then, happen from inside out, starting from our identity, passing through the process, and ultimately changing the outcome.
[Chapter 3] In this chapter we are introduced to a 4-step framework, which is composed of cue, craving, response, and reward. James calls it ‘The 4 Laws of Behavior Change’. He then explains that we can think of each law as a lever that influences our behavior—when the levers are in the right positions, they create good habits effortless whereas when they are in the wrong position, it is nearly impossible. Through examples, he explains that “the cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue.” Together they create a habit loop that, when repeated many times, habits become automatic.
[Section 2: Make It Obvious]
[Chapter 4] A primer on how cues play a crucial role in predicting habit formation without consciously thinking about the outcomes. Once our habits become so common, the cues associated with them become essentially invisible because they are deeply encoded. If we want to create better habits, a good idea is to be aware of the cues. James finishes up by sharing a strategy called ‘Habits Scorecard’—a simple exercise to become more aware of our behavior on a daily basis. We first write down a chronological list of our daily habits and, once we have a full list, we score each habit as an effective, ineffective, or neutral habit. Besides noticing what is actually going on, we can notice if certain behaviors help us become the type of person we wish to be.
[Chapter 5] The cues that can trigger a habit come in a wide range of forms, and the 2 most common cues are time and location. When we make a specific plan for when and where we will perform a new habit, we are more likely to follow through. Stacking our habits by pairing a new habit with a current habit is a form to connect our behavior to our own advantage. An example when building a daily journaling habit would be: “after I pour my cup of coffee each morning, I will journal for 5 minutes.”
[Chapter 6] This chapter shows how our environment plays a crucial role in defining habit behaviors. “Given that we are more dependent on vision than any other sense, it should come as no surprise that visual cues are the greatest catalyst of our behavior.” To build good habits, then, we should either make desirable cues obvious in our environment or build new habits in a new environment to avoid fighting against old ones.
[Chapter 7] One of the most practical ways to break a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it. As James points out, “it is easier to avoid temptation than resist it.”
[Section 3: Make It Attractive]
[Chapter 8] James explains how the modern food industry has created products that are more attractive and addictive to consumers, and by doing so he shows that the more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming. Every behavior that is highly habit-forming tends to be associated with higher levels of dopamine. It is the anticipation of a reward that motivates us to take action. “Temptation bundling is one way to make your habits more attractive. The strategy is to pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do.”
[Chapter 9] “We tend to adopt habits that are praised and approved of by our culture because we have a strong desire to fit in and belong to the tribe.” That said, it is common to pick up habits and behaviors from our parents, peers, and colleagues. There is also a tremendous internal pressure to comply with the norms of the tribe. And, finally, we try to copy the behavior of successful people because we desire success ourselves. One of the best strategies to build better habits is to join a culture where the desired behavior is normal behavior.
[Chapter 10] To avoid unnecessary and detrimental cravings, we should highlight the benefits of avoiding a bad habit by making it seem unattractive. “Habits are unattractive when we associate them with negative feelings.”
[Section 4: Make It Easy]
[Chapter 11] “All habits follow a similar trajectory from effort practice to automatic behavior, a process known as automaticity. Automaticity is the ability to perform a behavior without thinking about each step, which occurs when the nonconscious mind takes over.” The key component is to pay close attention to the frequency we perform a habit, not much for how long we have been practicing it.
[Chapter 12] Since every action requires a certain amount of energy, we are motivated to do what is easy. By contrast, the more energy required, the less likely it is to occur. “You don’t actually want the habit itself. What you really want is the outcome the habit delivers. The greater the obstacle, the more friction there is between you and your desired end state.” That is why we should reduce the friction associated with our habits by creating a prosperous environment to make future actions easier.
[Chapter 13] There are decisive moments that deliver an outsized impact every single day. As James puts, these decisive moments are a fork in the road, sending us in the direction of a productive path or an unproductive one. To avoid procrastination, the skill of ‘Showing Up’ says that we should start a new habit by taking baby steps, making it as easy as possible to take action. “A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first 2 minutes should be easy. What you want is a gateway habit that naturally leads you down a more productive path.” He calls it the ‘Two-Minute Rule’, meaning that new habits should take less than 2 minutes to do in the beginning. Once the habit is established we can improve and master the finer details.
[Chapter 14] In order to keep bad habits away is to make them difficult in the first place. There are 2 interesting strategies to improve our future behavior.  Make good choices in advance before we can fall victim to temptation in the future. James gives a personal example by sharing that whenever he is looking to cut calories he will ask the waiter to split his meal and box half of it to go before the meal is served. If, however, he waits for the meal to be served and tries to eat just half, that would never happen.  Make onetime actions that can automate our future habits and deliver increasing returns over time such as buying a good water filter, unsubscribing from unwanted emails, moving to a friendlier neighborhood, buying a standing desk, or setting up automatic bill pay.
[Section 5 : Make It Satisfying]
[Chapter 15] We should make sure to feel immediately satisfied after performing a new habit to increase the odds that the behavior will be repeated next time. “The human brain has evolved to prioritize immediate rewards over delayed rewards.” For that, we can add a little bit of immediate pleasure to the habits that pay off in the long-run.
[Chapter 16] Here we learn how to measure our progress by tracking our habits. The immediate satisfaction it delivers—as mentioned earlier in Chapter 15—is one of the many benefits that standout. Besides that, James says, “when we get a signal that we are moving forward, we become more motivated to continue down that path.” The most basic format to track our habits is to get a calendar and mark an X each time we stick with our routine. One of the most important passages of the entire book is as follows: “If you miss one day, try to get back into it as quickly as possible. The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit. This is a distinguishing feature between winners and losers. Anyone can have a bad performance, a bad workout, or a bad day at work. But when successful people fail, they rebound quickly.”
[Chapter 17] In order to prevent bad habits and/or eliminate unhealthy behaviors, James says that we could either add an instant cost to the action or make it painful. A habit contract is also another strategy to hold our accountability: “It is a verbal or written agreement in which you state your commitment to a particular habit and the punishment that will occur if you don’t follow through. Then you find one to two people to act as your accountability partners and sign off on the contract with you.”
[Section 6: Advanced Techniques]
[Chapter 18] We learn how to distinguish habits when genes may or may not influence our performance especially for competitive activities. “One of the best ways to ensure your habits remain satisfying over the long-run is to pick behaviors that align with your personality and skills.” James proposes us to set some time apart to explore new activities in the beginning, before shifting our focus to exploit them thoroughly.
[Chapter 19] When we find the sweet spot of our ability we tend to learn best and fastest. The ‘Goldilocks Rule’ states that “humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.”
[Chapter 20] One downside of certain habits, James explains, is that we may stop paying attention to the little details and errors. To counterbalance that we should review and reflect on the process over time to remain conscious of our own performance. Using a simple chart to convey his message, we learn that “the process of mastery requires that you progressively layer improvements on top of one another, each habit-building upon the last until a new level of performance has been reached and a higher range of skills has been internalized.”