Atomic Habits

Tiny changes, remarkable results

By James Clear



Originally published

Oct 16, 2018




Jan 2, 2020


Jan 17, 2020

PurchaseExternal link
Core philosophy
There is a duality to the term "atomic":
"an extremely small amount of a thing; the single irreducible unit of a larger system"
"the source of immense energy or power"
"We all deal with setbacks but in the long run, the quality of our ives often depends on the quality of our habits." (7)
"the aggregation of marginal gains" (13); a bad habit → aggregation of marginal losses; "It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent." (16)
"when we repeat 1 percent errors, day after day, by replicating poor decisions, duplicating tiny mistakes, and rationalizing little excuses, our small choices compound into toxic results" (17)
"Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits." (18) We are programmed to prefer things with immediate outcomes and feedback loops, but things that are hard to earn rarely have this property
Four step model—"If a behavior is insufficient in any of the four stages, it will not become a habit" (49)
Cue: what sparks this loop in the brain (sometimes this is subconscious)
Craving: driven by a change in state
Response: action
Perception: thoughts + feelings + beliefs → behaviors → identity
Good habits increase our freedom: "it's only by making the fundamentals of easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity" (47)
Think of your actions as that of a third party observer. It shouldn’t be about willpower, it should be about environments. It should be about systems.
Learning and growing
I see many similarities to James Clear's story and my own: sports, injuries, some disease in the family—these sets of pivots and lows teach us a lot about who we are and the activities and behaviors we hold near and dear
"It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis." (15) We fall prey to this paradox all the time. Big announcements and reveals, turning points, etc.—the real results are product of the days and nights of focus and aggregating small wins
Jacob Riis: "When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—bit all that had gone before" (21); there is effectively an action potential to our habits; for a while the results will lag behind our expectations eventually compounding returns and the fact that we are dulled to the past will lead to results beyond our expectations
Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are. The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader. The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician.
On baseball, his sport of choice, "I never ended up playing professionally. However, looking back on those years, I believe I accomplished something just as rare: I fulfilled my potential" (6)
This is all about the individual, about growth within yourself
Do not focus on goals:
"my results had very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed" (23)
"You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems."
"Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress" (24)
"If successful and unsuccessful people have the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers." (25)
"The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you're continually putting happiness off until the next milestone...goals create an either-or conflict...You mentally box yourself into a narrow version of happiness" (26)
"If your wants outpace your likes, you'll always be unsatisfied" (263)
→ design systems to optimize for making progress
"Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves." (25)
"When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don't have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running." (26)
"Happiness is not about the achievement of pleasure (which is joy or satisfaction), but about the lack of desire. It arrives when you have no urge to feel differently. Happiness is the state you enter when you no longer want to change your state...suffering is the space between craving a change in state and getting it." (260)
"The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game": we always want to play "the game" regardless of what phase of life we are in, there is no reason to fix how we evaluate ourselves to high school or college or a first job...
The worst habits feel the hardest to break; letting anything hold you hostage can be dangerous for your trajectory
Identity-based habits: fueled by changing who we want to be; not just what our process is and certainly not just what our outcomes are
Take a step back and understand what motivates you
"Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last" (32)
"The more pride you have in a particular aspect if your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it." (33) Sure, you want to eat healthier, but how much does this actually factor into how you see yourself?
"you can't get too attached to one version of your identity. Progress requires unlearning." (36)
Powerful impartial way of evaluating your habits: "If you go to the gym even when it's snowing, you have evidence that you are committed to fitness. The more evidence you have for a belief, the more strongly you will believe it." (37) It's just data. Build a body of evidence for yourself.
"work backward from the results you want to the type of person who could get those results." (39)
Ties into framing: "Reframing your habits to highlight their benefits rather than their drawbacks is a fast and lightweight way to reprogram your mind and make a habit seem more attractive." (131)
Brain chemicals
Processed food producers take advantage of our tendencies: "With natural, unprocessed foods, you tend to experience the same sensations over and over again...your brain loses interest and you begin to feel full. But foods that are high in dynamic contrast keep the experience novel and interesting, encouraging you to eat more." (103)
"Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation." "It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action." (106); the delta between a reward and what we expect is what causes learning
Activities with variable rewards like sports, circuit training, etc. which cut out repetition and are not fully predictable often stick better and we continue to learn from them
"Desire is an engine that drives behavior." (108)
Certain dopamine spikes are so engrained with our day to day (like checking social media); we can channel this to, for example, force ourselves to exercise before checking Instagram (111)
Awareness and habits
"After you stumble upon an unexpected reward, you alter your strategy for next time. Your brain immediately begins to catalog the events that preceded the reward" → muscle memory: "with practice, the useless movements fade away and the useful actions get reinforced" → "As habits are created, the level of activity in the brain decreases" (45); heuristics
→ subconscious habits; "the more you repeat these patterns, the less likely you become to question what you're doing and why you're doing it" (61)
"If a habit remains mindless, you can't expect to improve it" (62)

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