This is a comprehensive summary of the book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
Deluxe printable: Download this summary to read offline.
The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
Warning! This book can change your life. Atomic Habits by James Clear is now considered the go-to book for integrating ridiculously good habits in your life while at the same time getting rid of the bad ones. Forced to improve the quality of his life after a serious accident in high school, James Clear starts to implement small positive changes in his life that seem insignificant at first but have remarkable results over time. In this book, he shares everything he learned after years of experience in the field of habit formation in a surprisingly accessible and engaging way.
The Core Idea:
Scientifically speaking, habits are the automatic response of our body (and mind) to a particular situation. They literally shape how our lives are to evolve. If we tend to enter into an uncontrollable phase of consumption when we see a commercial, we’ll always have money problems. Conversely, if we train ourselves to resist the outside cues that try to unlock the spender inside, and learn to focus on doing daily improvements, we’ll reach top results. Big drastic changes in our behavior never work. To make a positive change in our lives, we need to concentrate on a long series of small triumphs without ever stopping.
- It’s not about making drastic changes, it’s about making small daily improvements. Over time, these tiny adjustments lead to the person you want to become – a.k.a. identity-based habits.
- Your environment plays a huge role in how you operate. Design your surroundings to reinforce the actions you want in your life, don’t be a slave of your environment.
- Regularly reviewing your habits, and tracking your habits – even if they are mostly good. Is a must in our ever-changing world.
Think Workbook #001:
This book summary comes with a Think Workbook included (previously available only for members – now free).
Inside, I explore some of the best concepts from the great work produced by James Clear – along with guided writing exercises.
Download the workbook by clicking here.
7 Key Lessons from Atomic Habits:
- Lesson #1: Small Seemingly Insignificant Changes But Done Consistently
- Lesson #2: The Score Takes Care Of Itself When You Have Good Systems
- Lesson #3: Understand How Habits Work To Adopt Good Behavior
- Lesson #4: There Are A Couple of Simple Rules For Behavior Change
- Lesson #5: Become The Architect of Your Environment
- Lesson #6: There is a Difference Between Motion and Action
- Lesson #7: Find Out The Baseline Level of Performance and Review It Periodically
Lesson #1: Small Seemingly Insignificant Changes But Done Consistently
The book starts with the inspiring story of how the fate of the British Cycling team seemingly magically improved when Dave Brailsford stepped as a coach.
Thanks to the instructions by the said person, the team transitioned from mediocre cyclists with a 100-year history of failures to a dominant team, which later set nine Olympic records and seven world records. And as further mentioned in the book, “the British cyclists won 178 world championships and sixty-six Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured.”
How was this possible?
It was all thanks to the implementation of a strategy called the aggregation of marginal gains.
Coach Brailsford did something other coaches thought was a waste of time. Instead of trying to make huge improvements in the daily lives of the cyclist, he focused on making small improvements in all the areas and daily routines of the athletes. This also included hiring a surgeon to teach the players how to properly wash their hands to reduce the chances of catching a cold.
Every action was intended to improve the riding experience by 1 percent. It seemed insignificant for someone observing from the outside, but the grand idea was that these small changes, when combined, make huge improvements – especially when these were practiced daily.
Or in other words, changes that seem small and unimportant, when done regularly, lead to outstanding results. This is the power of the compounding effect.
James Clear further backs this statement in the book by saying that, “if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.”
Remarkable things can happen to us. But we need to let go of the idea that impressive results require executing some sort of Herculean task. If we can master the art of showing up, making consistent daily improvements, then the rest is easy.
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous.” James Clear
Lesson #2: The Score Takes Care Of Itself When You Have Good Systems
We have all been given bad advice: set goals!
Goals, while surely important to get you on a particular path, are nothing more than just wishful thinking. Everybody can set a goal to become skinnier, or richer. But such changes won’t materialize unless you do something about this desired goal.
That’s why James Clear asks the following question in the book: “If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed? For example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results?”
The answer, while you might disagree at first, is a definite yes. Yes, you can win the game if you focus only on your game – the system.
The same thinking concept applies to everything we do in our lives.
If you’re a writer, do you think that focusing on finishing a book will help you actually finish the book? No, it will only stress you further and probably even prevent you from making substantial progress. What will work is actually writing. Systematically sitting, writing, and ignoring the actual outcome.
As humans, the reason we fall into the trap of only talking about our goals without actually doing progress is quite simple: it’s more complicated to do things than to think about doing them.
I can daydream about becoming a famous TEDx speaker all day long and do little progress on the matter. These illusionary thoughts will give me some false sense of accomplishment but won’t mean anything.
Real progress happens when you stop staring at the scoreboard – the goal, the final result – and start doing daily work. If we create a system for ourselves to follow, daily practices that are aimed to help us become [what you want], the score will take care of itself.
“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems.” James Clear
Lesson #3: Understand How Habits Work To Adopt Good Behavior
Those who really want to equip themselves with positive daily activities should first understand the science of how habits work.
Not that you should hire professors and attend laboratory tests, but at the very least, you should get a good understanding of how your brain and body are hardwired to move automatically.
Fortunately, James Clear breaks down the fundamental parts of habit formation in a very accessible way.
In short, this is how the habit loop (what happens when a habit is executed) looks like:
- Cue: The cue is something visible (or something you can smell) that acts as a hook for the brain. It invites you to do something. For example, a buzzing sound, a commercial, an email notification, etc.
- Craving: The inner urge that builds in you after the cue. Different cues affect us in different ways. One can go crazy once he sees a commercial for a new gadget while someone else may simply yawn.
- Response: How you react to the above two is the actual habit. Your responses to the outside circumstances are based on your motivation and the associated steps. If something requires a lot of steps – traveling to a physical store to get a new phone – it will probably be avoided. If something is easy – ordering something online – it will quickly become a habit.
- Reward: Internally, we want to be happy. And the purpose of the 4th step of the habit loop is to satisfy our craving. Drinking water when you see someone else doing it will satisfy your thirst. Getting more likes on social media will satisfy your self-worth.
So what’s the conclusion? How can we adopt more good habits and cleanse the ones that are sabotaging us?
If you’re following along, and you can successfully imagine a situation where a simple beep sound coming from your phone was responsible for hour-long online surfing with no clear purpose, you can probably conclude that if you remove the cue, you’ll save yourself a lot of time.
Eliminate the bad cues, and the bad habits will never start. Make cravings that lead to damaging behavior less rewarding, and you’ll have no reason to do these activities.
Conversely, if we purposefully “plant” more cues that can trigger positive actions – for example, books and exercise equipment are all around the apartment – you’ll make the desired behavior more likely to occur.
“Eliminate the cue and your habit will never start. Reduce the craving and you won’t experience enough motivation to act. Make the behavior difficult and you won’t be able to do it. And if the reward fails to satisfy your desire, then you’ll have no reason to do it again in the future. Without the first three steps, a behavior will not occur.” James Clear
Lesson #4: There Are A Couple of Simple Rules For Behavior Change
Ultimately, you want good habits to be effortless while bad ones to be extremely difficult to follow.
But just about every reader going through the above will ask the critical question: “How exactly you do this?”
The answer lies in a framework called, “The Four Laws of Behavior Change.”
According to James Clear, you can easily mold your behavior to match the lifestyle of a professional bodybuilder if you obey the following laws as presented in the book:
How to create a good habit:
The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.
And to distant yourself from the irresponsible deeds that are wasting your time and costing you money, you should adopt the following things:
How to Break a Bad Habit:
Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible.
Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive.
Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult.
Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.
And as simple as it might sound, doing these things is no picnic. It requires a lot of planning and a lot of resistance.
To give a simple example: If you want to stop constantly checking your phone, you should either stop all notifications or don’t place it right next to you when you’re doing important work (this is the make it invisible part combined with the make it difficult). In contrast, if you want to read more books, you can tell yourself that you’ll only read one page of a book (this is the make it easy part).
Or if we can generalize, we can conclude the following: Design your environment so that good manners are easy to follow while bad ones are hard to execute and actually feel like they are corrupting you.
“The key to creating good habits and breaking bad ones is to understand these fundamental laws and how to alter them to your specifications. Every goal is doomed to fail if it goes against the grain of human nature.” James Clear
Lesson #5: Become The Architect of Your Environment
The cues that trigger longings and make us do things we are not particularly proud of are often our fault.
We allow others to design our surrounding environment, or we pay little attention to the things and the people we allow in our lives.
Your location, the items around, the people in your social circle, these things trigger certain habits and routines. More often than not, these are things we don’t want to do, but we do them because of others or because the bad behavior is the most obvious thing.
Think about it for a moment. Why do you watch so much TV?
Most people will say that it’s because it’s fun, entertaining, informative, but actually, you’re glued to the TV because every piece of furniture in your apartment is facing the television.
By design, we are prone to turn on the TV.
In the same regard, we are drinking more when we are outside with friends. If everybody drinks and smokes, you’ll feel like a traitor if you resist doing the same things.
The author suggests considering the things and the people around us as more than simply “things and people”. Instead, start thinking more about our relationships with them.
What’s your relationship with your best friends? How do they make you feel? What type of behavior do they ignite when you’re around them?
Then, consider your affair with your phone, computer, the console, the books in your home. For some, books are just decoration. Nice to have and they look good on Instagram. For others, they are worlds full of wisdom and a way to grow as a person.
The context in your environment is everything.
Associate different rooms with different empowering activities. This simple activity will help you with your habit transformation.
“Think in terms of how you interact with the spaces around you. For one person, her couch is the place where she reads for an hour each night. For someone else, the couch is where he watches television and eats a bowl of ice cream after work.” James Clear
Lesson #6: There is a Difference Between Motion and Action
A common question in the field of habit change is this one: How long does it actually take to form a new habit?
But that’s the wrong way to look at adopting new habits in your life.
The problem with the question from above is twofold: First, the person asking it is probably not so interested in making lasting changes in his lifestyle – he’s simply looking for a shortcut to overcome a particular challenge in his life. The second problem is that it leads to motion, not action. For example, if you want to calm your mind and you’ve heard that meditating is a good way to relax, you will most probably start reading about this practice but never actually try it.
Motion, as said in the book, “makes you feel like you’re getting things done.”
If we continue with the example from above, the person who wants to feel calm will probably: download a meditating app, read about meditating, listen to podcasts about meditating, purchase a mat that he’d hope to use for meditating… the list goes on. All of these things give a false sense of action. You think that you’re making progress while in reality, you’re simply preparing to take action.
So, the initial question shouldn’t be, “how long does it take to form a new habit?” Instead, we should ask the following: “How many repetitions does it take to form a new habit?” Along, of course, with actually acting based on the habit you want to adopt.
The scientific researchers in the book point out that, if you want to make a change, you need to practice the desired habit, daily, for at least 80 days.
This effortful daily practice leads to a process referred to as automaticity. In short, this is the ability to perform some sort of action without thinking about all the steps involved in the process.
After weeks of daily repetition, you cross an invisible line in your consciousness. This means that when there is a cue suggesting a certain act, our mind basically plays a set of rules that are executed from us without having to consider all the little steps involved. That’s how you learn to ride a bicycle, a car, perform complex physical exercises effortlessly.
So, if we are to answer the question asked at the beginning of this lesson, we should say that adopting a new habit takes as long as the desired behavior becomes automatic.
“There is nothing magical about time passing with regard to habit formation. It doesn’t matter if it’s been twenty-one days or thirty days or three hundred days. What matters is the rate at which you perform the behavior. You could do something twice in thirty days, or two hundred times. It’s the frequency that makes the difference.” James Clear
Lesson #7: Find Out The Baseline Level of Performance and Review It Periodically
In 1986, the Los Angeles Lakers, after several years of outstanding performance, found themselves in the back seat after a season-ending defeat.
The team was full of great players, but obviously, something was missing. Tired of seeing how the performance of his players gradually declined, Pat Riley, the coach, created a system called the Career Best Effort program.
The idea was simple: score your players based on their previous statistics. Once the baseline is measured, create a personalized plan for the players to follow, so they can improve their scores.
But the kicker was this: Ask the players to improve their output by at least 1 percent over the course of the season. The strategy wasn’t intended to make drastic changes, it was all about getting slightly better each day.
And while the above is vital, there is another breakthrough idea in the context: regularly review your performance.
Even people who are leaders, overachievers, etc., reach a state of boredom.
We lose focus, motivation, we start to want new and different sensations. After all, we are not machines. We can’t program ourselves to do the same tasks, over and over again, and expect to feel always motivated by them. A state of depression is an inevitable condition when we want to continuously progress.
To continue our upward trajectory, we need to factor in the feeling of boredom that will emerge at some point.
One way to overcome this motivation-sucking condition is by regularly reflecting on your progress. Creating a personal schedule where you take the time to see what activities you should change, what new actions you should introduce, and what you need to completely ignore.
As the world is constantly changing, so are we. Reflecting and reviewing your actions will cure you from entering a downward spiral.
“Habits deliver numerous benefits, but the downside is that they can lock us into our previous patterns of thinking and acting—even when the world is shifting around us. Everything is impermanent. Life is constantly changing, so you need to periodically check in to see if your old habits and beliefs are still serving you.” James Clear
- Focus on good systems: “Winners and losers have the same goals,” says James Clear. For example, all athletes want to win the gold medal. But what type of people actually get the gold medal? That’s right, people who focus on doing regular work. Think about it, if the desktop of your PC is full of files and folders, you can force yourself to clean it once. But will that single change remove the problem for good? No. It will be a momentary change. To have a clutter-free laptop, you need to change the way you download and store information. Create a system that helps you better arrange your files. Create a system that helps you become a better writer, parent, or business owner. By doing this, you are addressing the cause of the problem, not simply applying a patch.
- Change your identity: Every time you go to the gym, you are collecting evidence that you are a person who regularly exercises, a person committed to fitness. In the same respect, every time you smoke, you tell to yourself and as well to others around, that you’re a smoker. Therefore, to make a transformation, you need more votes towards the person you want to become. James Clear uses the term identity-based habits. Want to transition to a designer? Take design classes and create art regularly. The first step is to know what type of person you want to become and also, something equally important, what type of person you don’t want to be. If you don’t want to smoke, every time someone offers you a cigarette, stand firm behind your words that you’re not a smoker.
- Find groups that support your desired behavior: The most effective thing you can do to create better daily routines is by joining a culture where, as James Clear writes, “your desired behavior is the normal behavior.” Find a coding bootcamp if you want to learn how to code. Join a book club if you want to read more books. Want to write more? Get involved in writing communities. This strategy is extremely effective if you’re someone who needs guidance and hand-holding. Someone who needs support and empowerment. In addition, you should also think about your current relationships and the current groups you participate in. If you’re part of a group where people talk about traveling, but you’re not in a good financial situation, this group will only make you feel bad about yourself – or force you to spend money you currently don’t have. Change your environment if you want to change your habits.
- Good habits should be easy to start: Make the desired behavior extremely easy to start. Your equipment, if you want to exercise more should be within arm’s reach. Your water bottle, if you want to drink more water, should be, quite literally, in front of your eyes. You don’t want huge gaps between the goods things that you want to turn into habits. Respectfully, you do want huge gaps between the habits you want to remove – throw away the alcohol, the chocolate puddings, hide your remote control, etc. If you’re still struggling, simply follow the 2-minute rule as explained by James Clear: “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” In this situation, if you want to read more, you won’t say: “I will read more.” You’ll tell yourself, “I will just read one sentence.” Of course, one sentence will easily lead to two, then three, etc.
- Measure your baseline: Similar to what coach Riley did with the Lakers, measuring your baseline performance is a good way to start your journey towards improvement. It’s a good way to determine “where you currently stand.” Like GPS navigation, there is a starting point and an ending point. Determine where you are now, so you can take yourself to the place you want to be. “Calculate” what you currently know and what you currently do, then, plan to make small improvements in the areas you desire. Remember, if you buy into the idea that habits are things you adopt and never have to worry about later, you’ll quickly return to your previous unfavorable situation. Regularly review and reflect on your progress. What went well? What did you learn? And how I can make it better? These are all questions that will help you stay on top of your game.
Commentary And My Personal Takeaway
Changing your habits can be intimidating. After all, these are regular activities that we’ve done for years. But if you’re not quite thrilled by your current lifestyle, you often end up eating more than you have to or spending money after just watching a random ad online, then you probably need to reconsider some of your automatic behaviors.
I was sold on the book long before the book hit the shelves. Not because I had some sort of backstage pass to the publisher, but because I’m a regular reader of James’ site. In case you’re not familiar, you can check it here: jamesclear.com.
The first time I’ve read the book – two years ago – it immediately reminded me of the other best-seller in the field of habit change: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. And while the just-announced title is foundational, there is a key difference between The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits – James’s style of writing is more attractive, plus highly actionable.
Atomic Habits is full of practical steps that will give you a lot of things to consider and change in your life. It’s not a book that you’ll want to read and forget. It’s a book that you’ll want to fully digest and play with.
That’s why I’ve completely updated my book summary – this one. I’ve re-written the whole post to share what new I’ve learned after my second read and how it can be better applied in our lives.
To be honest, I can’t think of someone who won’t benefit from Atomic Habits. Even if you consider yourself extraordinary in your field, it’s still worth reading and therefore reevaluating your habits based on the text.
Life is constantly changing. And with it, we are changing as well. To stay on top of your game, and to stay afloat, you need to adopt an objective view of yourself as a person. Regularly assess what you do and change your position based on your desires and the person you want to become. There is no finish line. The final goal is never reached.
“At some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.” James Clear
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.” James Clear
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” James Clear