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Atomic Habits by James Clear

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Rating: 9 / 10

Thoughts

I've read this book twice now. There is a lot to be learned from it — and not just about habits. I believe it was this book that taught me about systems thinking, which I have benefited from countless times by now. Although this is a book about habits — and perhaps one of the best on the topic — you'll learn much more than that.


Summary of Key Points

The 4 Laws of Behavior Change - How to Create a Good Habit

  1. Cue: Make It Obvious

    1. To change a habit, become aware of it
    2. The Best Way to Start a New Habit

      1. Create a specific plan for how, when, and where you'll perform a desired habit.
    3. Motivation Is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More
    4. The Secret to Self-Control is designing an environment in which you don't need it
  2. Craving: Make It Attractive

    1. How to Make a Habit Irresistible

      1. Dopamine spikes in anticipation of a reward. It is the expectation that matters.
      2. You adopt the habits of those around you. If you see a behavior performed by others often, you're more likely to do it yourself.
    2. How to Find and Fix the Causes of Your Bad Habits

      1. Cravings come from associations. We have some motive (i.e. avoid fear), and if a habit addresses that, we'll develop a craving to do it again.
  3. Routine: Make it Easy

    1. The Law of Least Effort

      1. Motivation is not the key. We take the path of least effort (most often).
      2. So you want to minimize friction. Make it as easy as possible in the moment to do things that compound.
    2. How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the Two-Minute Rule

      1. Two minute rule: new habits should take less than 2 minutes to do.
    3. We want immediate rewards, so reward good habits.
    4. If you can, automate your habits. Technology works well for this.

      1. Example: setting up an automatic transfer to a savings account.
  4. Reward: Make It Satisfying

    1. The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change

      1. Question actions that give instant gratification. Seek to minimize instant gratification.

        1. "The best way to do this is to add a little bit of immediate pleasure to the habits that pay off in the long-run and a little bit of immediate pain to ones that don’t."
      2. The actual habit action needs to be satisfying, not just the consequences of it.
    2. How to Stick with Good Habits Every Day

      1. Track your habits.
      2. Don't miss twice.
    3. How an Accountability Partner Can Change Everything

      1. You can use an accountability partner to help yourself change. We care deeply about what others think of us. We especially do not want people to have a lesser opinion of us.

        1. Therefore you could create a habit contract. Then someone will be watching you - there's a social cost. If you disappoint, it is public and painful. Because of that, you'll be less likely to do so.

Inversion - How to Break a Bad Habit

  1. Cue: Make it invisible.
  2. Craving: Make it unattractive.
  3. Routine: Make it difficult.
  4. Reward: Make it unsatisfying.

Advanced tactics

  • On talent and genes

    • Choose the right habit and progress is easy. Choose those that best suit you. Choose those that favors your strengths.
  • The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and Work

    • Clear coins 'The Goldilocks Rule' here. However, it is just a new name slapped on Flow. Flow is how you maintain motivation. You achieve flow by walking the edge between 'too hard' and 'too easy'.
    • Yerkes-Dodson Law: Optimal arousal is right between boredom and anxiety
    • Pros feel the boredom from doing the same over and over again for a long time, too. But they don't stop.
    • Going autopilot and not improving your habits leads to a decline in skill
  • The formula for mastery

    • The formula for mastery: Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery.

      • Simply: getting reps on deliberate practice.
  • Review and reflect. This is critical for improvement.

Highlights & Notes

To write a great book, you must first become the book. - Naval Ravikant

You need skin in the game.

Getting 1% better repeatedly will, over time, compound into massive results.

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement

The slow returns on our efforts makes it harder for us to stick to them. We want immediate results. Usually, that's what we get from 'bad' habits. Eating something unhealthy gives you immediate positive feedback - but there's a long term consequence. These actions are easy to justify because 'just this one time'. However, the 1% decline is just as negatively powerful as the 1% improvement is positively powerful.

Habits and Systems Thinking

Summary

  • Think in terms of processes rather than goals.

    • Goals are 1. a one-time thing, and 2. they are binary; either you achieve, or you don't.
    • Optimize for the long term and not just one-offs.
    • Focusing on process allows you to judge your success in a healthier manner. If you fail a goal, say, a tennis match, are you then a failure? You can't go back and change the outcome of the match. But if you had focused on the process of getting better at tennis, then the loss could be seen as a learning experience. That's a success. A success which will naturally lead to more victories later.
  • Where you are doesn't matter as much as where you're going.

Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.

It does not matter how successful (or unsuccessful) you are now. Your trajectory matters. Are you getting better, or are you getting worse? Even if you're a millionaire, spending more than you earn will leave you broke.

FORGET ABOUT GOALS, FOCUS ON SYSTEMS INSTEAD

Goals are desired results. Systems are the processes that lead to those. We think that setting goals is how we achieve what we want. What results in achievement is action. Sure, have a direction. But focus on the process.

Winners and losers have the same goals.

Achieving a goal is a temporary win. If you keep the same habits that lead to you wanting to change your situation in the first place, you'll end up right back there again, hoping for another burst of motivation to change. This is treating a symptom without addressing the cause.

Goals are binary. Either you achieve them, or you don't. If you achieve them, you are a success. If you fail, you are a disappointment. Systems allow you to judge your success by whether your system is working or not. They can be seen as experiments. If it doesn't work, you change it until it does.

And when you've achieved your goal, what then? Do you just stop? One and done? By focusing on the process, you know what's next.

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

If you want better results, get better systems.

Habits shape your identity (and vice versa)

Summary

  • Your identity shapes your habits. Your habits shape your identity.
  • If you want an outcome, you have to be the type of person who gets that outcome.

    • Then act accordingly.
  • You vote for an identity through your actions. Each execution of a habit is therefore a vote.

If you believe that you are the type of person who does something, you are much more likely to do it. "The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner".

Your identity highly influenced by your actions and therefore also your habits. If you write every day, then you put in a vote every day for being a writer. It reinforces that personality of yours. You can't just suddenly say "I'm a writer." You have to 'elect' being a writer through votes.

So the question really becomes, "Who do I want to be?". And this is no easy question. But you have to figure out your values - how else would you judge that you're going in the right direction? Thinking about outcomes here is fine. 'Double my salary' is not a value, it's an outcome. You can transfer this to values, though. Which values and habits would you have to adopt in order to achieve that outcome? So figure out which type of person achieves the outcomes you want. What is that person like? What does that person do?

When you've figured that out, you can start acting like that person. Through your day, you could ask 'would a healthy person do this?' - replacing 'healthy' with whichever value you want to act in accordance with.

You have the power to change your beliefs about yourself. Your identity is not set in stone. You have a choice in every moment. You can choose the identity you want to reinforce today with the habits you choose today.

Building better habits isn’t about littering your day with life hacks. It’s not about flossing one tooth each night or taking a cold shower each morning or wearing the same outfit each day. It’s not about achieving external measures of success like earning more money, losing weight, or reducing stress. Habits can help you achieve all of these things, but fundamentally they are not about having something. They are about becoming someone.

Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you develop your deepest beliefs about yourself. Quite literally, you become your habits.

How to Build Better Habits in 4 Simple Steps

Summary

  • Habits are built through a 4-step process: cue, craving, response, reward.
  • All these must be satisfied to build a habit. Without reward, it won't be repeated. Without cue, craving, or response, it won't be performed at all.

How habits work

In a new situation, your brain is going crazy trying to analyze it and make conscious decisions about how to act. Suddenly, you might encounter a solution. A reward. When that happens, your brain starts to piece the pattern together - "how did I end up getting the reward?" it asks. "Whenever you face a problem repeatedly, your brain begins to automate the process of solving it. Your habits are just a series of automatic solutions that solve the problems and stresses you face regularly"

Habits are mental shortcuts learned from experience. In a sense, a habit is just a memory of the steps you previously followed to solve a problem in the past. Whenever the conditions are right, you can draw on this memory and automatically apply the same solution. The primary reason the brain remembers the past is to better predict what will work in the future.

How to build habits

There are four steps

  • Cue

    • Triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. A prediction of a future reward.
  • Craving

    • We do not crave the habit, we crave the reward.
    • We crave to change our internal state.
  • Response

    • Execution of the habit.
    • If this requires too much effort (physical or mental), you won't do it.
    • If you can't do it, you won't. This seems obvious, but it's an important note. You can manually set cues (i.e. reminders), and if you get one for 'Yoga' while stuck in traffic, it obviously won't work.
  • Reward

    • The end goal. We chase them because they satisfy us and because they teach us. It delivers contentment. It also teaches us which actions we should remember to perform in the future. "This felt good! I'll should do it again, when -cue- occurs!" our brains think.

If a behavior is insufficient in any of the four stages, it will not become a habit. 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. Without all four, a behavior will not be repeated.

To change a habit, become aware of it

  • Habits can occur without thinking about them; habits can be automatic. This is a double-edged sword.
  • Each repetition makes you question the habit less. The habit fades to invisibility, and you no longer question it. Like reaching for your phone when it rings.
  • If you wish to change a habit, you have to become mindful of when you perform it. The process starts with awareness.

    • A good exercise is to write down your habits. Then ask yourself if it's a good, bad, or neutral habit. Denoted by a plus, minus, or equals sign, respectively. Below are some questions you can use to figure this out.

      • "Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be?"
      • "Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?"
    • After the exercise, simply notice what's going on. Observe your thoughts and actions without judgment or internal criticism. Don't blame nor praise.

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate. — Carl Jung

The Best Way to Start a New Habit

  • Those who create a specific plan for when and where they'll perform a given habit are more likely to follow through.

    • It is too common to say "I'll eat healthier". When? How? This can't be left up to motivation.
    • Having a plan makes following through much easier. You don't have to 'decide' to do something - you already decided. Just follow the plan.
    • A simple formula: "I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]"
  • By having a plan, you're also better suited to say no to things that derail progress, distract you, and pull you off course. We say yes to too many little requests because we aren't clear enough about what we should be doing. "When your dreams are vague, it’s easy to rationalize little exceptions all day long and never get around to the specific things you need to do to succeed."

    • This is a major point in Indistractable.
  • Habit stacking: a great way to build new habits by identifying current habits and stacking your new behaviors on top.

    • Formula: "After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]."
    • A morning routine could be a bunch of habits stacked upon each other. Coffee -> Meditation -> Write tasks for the day -> Immediately begin first task.
    • It's important that you select the right cue to kick things off. The current habit already has a time and location. Only stack a task on top of it if you know you can do it. The habits should also have the same frequency - you wouldn't stack a weekly habit on a daily habit.
  • Being specific is key. Doing something 'more' or 'better' is not specific.

Motivation Is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More

  • Environment shapes behavior.
  • Our most powerful sensory ability is our vision. That's what we depend most on. So visual cues are the greatest catalysts of our behavior. Therefore it's important to live and work in environments filled with productive cues and without unproductive ones.
  • Make what you're trying to do obvious. If you want to eat more apples, don't hide them away. Put them out in the open! Where they're visible.

    • This reverse also counts for breaking bad habits.
  • In general, what you see shapes your behavior. If there are no things to snack on, you're less likely to snack. And if you want to do something more, make it readily available.

The Secret to Self-Control is designing an environment in which you don't need it

  • Those who are 'disciplined' aren't much different from those that aren't. They're just better at structuring their lives such that it doesn't require heroic willpower and self-control. They spend less time in tempting situations.
  • Self-control is just as much about designing an environment in which you don't have to exercise it as it is actually having it
  • Bad habits feed on themselves. Watching TV makes you feel sluggish, so you watch even more TV because you are sluggish - you don't have the energy for anything else.

    • And the reverse counts, too. Things in motion tend to stay in motion. Starting is the hardest part - it's much easier to keep going once you get the ball rolling.
  • A useful way to cut bad habits is to cut them at the source. You reduce exposure to the cue that caused it.
  • You can break a habit, but it doesn't go away. It can easily be re-forged. You can't consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.

    • This is also why you run straight back to your 'old habits' sometimes. You have to design your environment to prevent them.
  • In summary: make the cues of unwanted habits invisible. Make the cues of desired habits very visible.

How to Find and Fix the Causes of Your Bad Habits

  • You can make hard habits enjoyable by reframing them in your mind. You don't "have"to run, you "get" to run.
  • Cravings come from associations. We have some motive (i.e. avoid fear), and if a habit addresses that, we'll develop a craving to do it again.
  • Motion vs. action:

    • Motion is planning, preparing, strategizing. Action is actually doing the actions that advance you towards your goal.
    • There is a big difference. Both useful, but only motion will never get you anywhere.
    • You can read as much about running as you'd like; that won't run the race for you.
    • Motion is action in disguise. Don't be fooled by it. You think you are taking action, when you really are not.
  • Just getting your reps in is important to master a habit. Start with repetition. Just get your reps in.
  • "Habit formation is the process by which a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through repetition. The more you repeat an activity, the more the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at that activity"

The Law of Least Effort

  • Motivation is not the key. We take the path of least effort (most often).
  • Sticking to a habit that takes a lot of energy is hard. We can do it for a few days, and then it usually fails. But sticking to the same habit, but scaled way down, we might just stick to it.
  • You can do hard things, but you don't always want to. On those days, you want to have as much working in your favor as possible. Minimize friction. Make it as easy as possible in the moment to do things that compound.

How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the Two-Minute Rule

  • Two minute rule: new habits should take less than 2 minutes to do.

    • We do this to make it as easy as possible to start. It's easier to continue, then.
  • Reading "just one page" or meditating for one minute might seem weird. But it's to master the habit of showing up. A habit must be established before it can be improved. It's just about becoming consistent.
  • With the two minute rule, you can only do the thing for two minutes. No more.
  • Everyone is too focused on the end goal. Doing something is better than doing nothing.
  • Start with two minutes. When the habit is established, then you can advance.
  • "Sometimes success is less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard"

The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change

  • Most of our returns are delayed. The immediate is valued higher than what's in the future. This is not always good for us. Eating unhealthy food is satisfying now but we risk obesity.
  • Question actions that give instant gratification. Seek to minimize instant gratification.

    • "The best way to do this is to add a little bit of immediate pleasure to the habits that pay off in the long-run and a little bit of immediate pain to ones that don’t."
  • The actual habit action needs to be satisfying, not just the consequences of it

It almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. . . . Often, the sweeter the first fruit of a habit, the more bitter are its later fruits. - Frédéric Bastiat

The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessarily. - Charlie Munger

How to Stick with Good Habits Every Day

  • Those who track their habits are more likely to achieve success with what they're tracking.

    • It creates a visual cue that can remind you to act
    • It is motivating to see progress, and you don't want to lose it
    • It feels satisfying to record another successful instance of your habit
    • It provides visual proof that you're casting votes for the type of person you wish to become
  • "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."
  • "Don't break the chain" habit tracking.

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