Book cover art for Atomic Habits
Atomic Habits
James Clear

Boring and repetitive, it feels like it's incredibly practical and useful... but then it isn't. Trite productivity advice trotted out as wisdom, but feels largely derivative.

Small Improvements Add Up, But It's Not Linear

If you improve 1% a day, within one year you have multiplied something 37 times. The way we improve is through habits, the 'compound interest' of self improvement.

Success is the product of our habits. Have your habits, right now, got you on a path towards success? It is the trajectory you are on that matters most of all. The actual results you get are a 'lagging measure' of the trajectory that your habits have set you on. Ergo, you need to improve what goes on upstream to improve things downstream.

The habits we have every day will not improve us or what we are working on in a linear fashion - there will be a long period where our results (the lagging measure) will be happening under the surface. Once they are in motion, though, they accelerate.

Goals Are Good, But Systems Are Better

You can either hit a goal or miss it. But what's happening under the hood? If you hit a goal because of a system, the system can just keep on churning to produce more results for you. If you hit a goal without a system... what happens next? You simply don't know. But it's probably nothing.

There are four big problems with having goals and no systems:

  1. 'Winners' and 'losers' have the same goals
  2. Achieving your goal is a momentary change - what happens next?
  3. Goals restrict happiness/fulfilment because it is contingent on hitting the goal
  4. Goals are at odds with long term habits

Habits, though, are systems-based.

Don't Know Where to Start? Try Your Identity

Work outwards from the centre: our identities determine our likely behaviours and processes, and those processes drive our outcomes.

If we focus on our identities first we are more likely to build habits that stick, because we associate them with 'us' more deeply than otherwise.

'True behaviour change is identity change.'

The goal is not to write, the goal is to become a writer.

The goal is not to take photographs, the goal is to become a photographer.

The goal is not to code, the goal is to become a developer.

Progress always requires 'unlearning', to some extent. Our self image and associated self/narratives and plotlines are what drive a lot of our behaviours and daily habits. That is, whatever you say about yourself you're going to believe it... and act on it.

This works both ways, Clear argues, because if you do something regularly then this becomes part of your identity anyway.

The more evidence you have to point at that reinforces your identity, the better. It is hard to believe you are a sculptor if there are not sculptures in your studio.

'Every action you take is a vote for the person you want to become.'

So decide what person you want to be, then prove it to yourself with small wins.

Habits Are Automatic Scripts That the Mind Runs For Us

The more we do an action, the more easily it can be run automatically. Habits give way to lower brain activity, and they essentially act like scripts.

Scripts have to be 'called' by something, though - for habits, these are 'cues'. A cue predicts a reward in the future but heads there on the following path:

  • Cue
  • Craving
  • Response
  • Reward

We can engineer this system to work in our favour to both break and build habits, bad and good, to take us towards 'rewards' that are better for us in the long term.

Clear identifies four laws of habit change.

The First Law: Make It Obvious

If you don't know you have a certain habit, you can't change it, stop it, or improve it. The only problem is that, because of their automatic nature, once we form habits we are barely aware that they are even there.

Clear suggests that you keep a log of everything you do during a day so that you understand where the hidden habits - good and bad - might be.

Diderot Effect - one thing leads on to another, which leads on to another. Buy one nice thing, then everything else looks bad in comparison... so you need to buy more nice things!

Use this to 'daisy chain' good habits together, e.g. After I have done [X], I will [Y].

Especially if we write these things down or plan them out or state them somewhere, the effect of setting an intention increases our chances of actually doing the thing.

We can also engineer our environments to make certain things more or less obvious. Getting rid of booze from the house entirely, or putting a pull up bar in a doorway we regularly go through every day.

The Second Law: Make It Attractive

Habits are part of a dopamine-driven feedback loop. It hits when you experience and anticipate the reward, increasing our desire to act.

So if we are able to engineer the habit to be all-around more attractive then we are able to supercharge the process that is already in motion. We can do this by temptation bundling, to bundle together a habit and a 'treat' at the same time.

Habits that are normal to our culture or those that are around us - friends, family, colleagues - appear the most attractive to us because they are the 'done thing'. Part of making some habits more attractive may be about who you spend time with, not just what you choose to do.

'We don't choose habits, we imitate them. We follow the script handed down by our friends and family, our church or school, our local community and society at large.'

We tend, most of all, to imitate three groups of people:

  • The close
  • The many
  • The powerful

One of the best things we can do is leave communities/cultures that have habits we wish to avoid and join others that have habits we would prefer to gain.

Another, simpler way to make things more attractive is to change how we speak about our habits. Instead of we have to do something we can instead say we get to do something.

The Third Law: Make It Easy

Walk slowly, but never backwards.

'It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change: the fastest way to lose weight, the best program to build muscle, the perfect idea for a side hustle. We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action.'

The important thing is getting your reps in - just thinking about doing something will get you nowhere. If you want to get your reps in, it pays for it to be as easy as possible.

Hobb's law: neurons that fire together, wire together. That is, the habits we form are the ones we do more frequently than others - not for how long we do them.

We are wired to conserve energy, so motivation doesn't count for much when the task at hand is monumentally hard. Therefore, to make our long term goals possible we must reduce our friction in the present.

So we must aim to:

  • Make good habits as easy as possible
  • Make bad habits as hard as possible

We can do this by 'priming the environment' - making our surroundings as conducive as possible to enabling our preferred habits and removing the ones we dislike.

The habit choices we make each day set our trajectory like a set of forking paths. We can make only good choices, we can make only bad ones, or we can be somewhere in between. The sum total of which sets our trajectory for that day.

All of this is to say that showing up is the most important thing we can do. We cannot optimise a habit if we have not established it, after all.

'Better to do less than you hoped than to do nothing at all.'

If you ritualise the beginning of the habit then the rest will follow along after it. Similarly, if you are in any way able to automate any part or the whole of the habit, then more so the better.

The Fourth Law: Make It Satisfying

If it doesn't feel good, you're less likely to do it. So make it feel good, make it feel satisfying. What is rewarded is repeated, what is punished is avoided.

It is important to realise that we live in a delayed return environment, not an immediate one. So anything we do that does not have an immediate benefit (e.g. we do not sprout muscles after working out) we have to find some other way of gaming it so that we feel immediately rewarded.

This is the reason the last mile is always the least crowded.

Never 'break the chain' - always do your habit every day. Things will happen faster than you expect when you do this.

If you can find a way to record the chain, then it will be harder to break it. This gives you real evidence for what you have or have not done.

Better to consistently track one thing than sporadically track ten at the same time.

You will miss, from time to time. Just don't miss twice. Even a 'bad' workout is worth it if it stops the loss of compound accrual/performance.

Advanced Tactic 1 - Play Games You Can Win

If you play games you stand a better chance of winning you'll achieve far more than if you play games where you are at a disadvantage.

Have you seen success somewhere? Exploit that area even further. Work hard on the things that come easy.

80/20 - exploit/explore: spend most of your time exploiting the area in which you've seen success, and the rest of it exploring other options.

Here's how to test whether it's something you should exploit:

  1. What's fun to me, and work for others?
  2. What makes me lose track of time?
  3. Where do I get greater returns than the average person?
  4. What comes naturally to me?

If you can answer 'yes' to all of the above then you're onto a winner.

Advanced Tactic 2 - Work Outside Your Comfort Zone (But Not Too Far)

If you constantly spend all your time doing things that are too easy for you then we get bored and don't grow. Likewise, if we do things that are far too hard for us then we get discouraged.

But we love a challenge. Something that isn't a cakewalk but also isn't impossible really gets us going.

However, mastery of something needs practice. And practice can get boring. Stepping up to the plate when it's annoying or painful or boring is the difference between a professional and an amateur.

Sustaining and effort done in the right way is the most important thing of all. You can't just establish your habit and forget it - you have to fine-tune them once they're established to make sure you are doing them in the right way all the while.

More of this, but in your inbox.

I write a newsletter about the internet. It's called Internet Connection. There's a few hundred of us that fall down the rabbit hole every other week. Want to come along for the ride? Drop your email below.

Let me read it first