James Clear - “Atomic Habits”

This is a short and to-the-point book sprinkled with anecdotal information to keep things relatable. If you’re looking for hard peer-reviewed science, this ain’t it. That being said, its core tenet and particular pieces of advice sound sensible. Many you have probably heard before communicated in less coherent fashion. I’d say, worth a read!

In my view, his biggest idea in the book is that habits aren’t about reaching particular goals but about establishing successful systems. As one of Clear’s quoted gurus says: “the score takes care of itself”. Or, to use a different example, it’s amazing how fit you can get if you never stop training. Clear says that habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Each habitual action is like the “coin” that made you rich.

The habit loop

Habits are reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment. Clear describes the behavioral loop that is ruling much of our waking life: continually scanning the environment, predicting what will happen next, trying out different responses, and learning from the results. He splits it into four distinct components:

  1. Cue - a hint of proximity of a reward
    • verb: “notice”
    • note: it’s meaningless itself until interpreted
    • how to use it: make it obvious
  2. Craving - motivation/desire to change internal state
    • verb: “want”
    • note: there is always an underlying motive to a craving
    • how to use it: make it attractive
  3. Response - action needed
    • verb: “obtain”
    • note: the more friction, the less likely it is to be executed
    • how to use it: make it easy
  4. Reward - immediately satisfies the craving, teaches us which actions are worth remembering
    • verb: “satisfy”
    • note: eventually becomes associated with the cue, enforcing the process
    • how to use it: make it satisfying

I am a beginner guitarist vs. I’m trying to learn guitar

James notes that there are three levels of depth of change:

  1. Changing your outcome (what you get)
  2. Changing your process (what you do)
  3. Changing your identity (what you believe)

He stresses that it’s important to go at the third, deepest, level:

  1. Decide who you want to be.
  2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.

This provides the strongest core for change because it changes your default. He later reinforces this idea with the advice to create an environment where the behavior you want is the normal behavior. In other words, to join a culture that naturally engages in behavior that you desire. It helps if you already have something common with them since linked identity is a strong reinforcement of a forming habit and helps it be maintained. James points out that we tend to do a lot to imitate those who we respect or admire. We imitate the close (family), the many (society), and the powerful (celebrity).

Motion vs. action

Clear spends a lot of attention in the book to talk about the importance of practical doing over romantic planning. I agree with this: quantity leads to quality. Clear himself quotes the famous example from “Art & Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland. 1

To make sure that you end up doing the action, Clear provides a set of suggestions. The core one is the “atomic habit”, a 2-minute variant of a habit that is so easy to start that it doesn’t present any cognitive load. Apparently, one-time actions kickstart habits and more often than not it’s harder to stop doing what you’re already doing than to keep doing it. Clear says to first standardize, then to optimize.

The important thing in introducing a new habit is the environment around it that provides an inescapable cue to doing it. Time and location are the most popular cues. Being explicit about them provides implementation intention, making the habit concrete and easy to execute instead of a vague plan that doesn’t have a time or place. A concrete plan of action gives clarity. It looks like motivation or inspiration because it removes the need to decide. Just do what you already decided.

The implementation intention can be expressed in the form of “I will [DO X] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]”.

Clear’s advice is to make cues for habits you want obvious, and the ones you want to break invisible. Similarly, he tells us to turn instant gratification to our advantage. What is immediately rewarded gets repeated, what is immediately punished gets avoided. Both form the habit loop. The cue is there to start doing the thing, the reward is there to want to repeat the thing in the future.

James suggests stacking habits: “after [CURRENT HABIT], I will [DO X]”. Natural momentum of one behavior will carry another. Similarly, pairing actions you want to do with actions you need to do also works, either as a pre-chore ritual (the good precedes the difficult) or as a post-chore reward.

Clear provides a one-page cheat sheet on his website that summarizes those ideas in the form of “Four Laws of Habit Formation":

  • make it obvious,
  • make it attractive,
  • make it easy,
  • make it satisfying.

As you can see, those are directly mapped to the four stages in the habit loop.

Life isn’t perfect

One thing I particularly enjoyed in the book is the author’s embrace of the idea that it’s impossible to achieve ideal results. He openly admits people are lazy and fallible, and life happens to throw you off. Fortunately, he provides advice about how to deal with that as well.

Most importantly, never miss twice. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is a start of a new habit. Don’t fall for an “all or nothing” mentality. A poorly executed instance of a habit is much better than dropping it altogether.

To ensure you’re less likely to drop a developing habit, Clear suggests decreasing the number of steps between you and your good habits. He gives some examples where preparing the environment, including investing in equipment, software, and even human assistants, pays off.

In some cases this sounded a little extreme, like his assistant’s role to change Clear’s social network passwords each Monday morning to ensure he doesn’t waste time on social media during the week, and only does on the weekends. Another one I found somewhat strange was literal “pointing and calling” (like in Japanese railways) to make you more aware of what you’re doing.

But in general I found most of the advice good. For instance, to treat habit tracking as a tangible record of previous success that will help when life interferes. And even the pointing and calling idea makes sense when you think about it in the context of awareness. It increases likelihood of keeping good habits and giving up bad habits if you see them happen. So again, tracking your progress, especially automatically, seems to be an important part of making the habit stick.

Why do we want things?

This is a secondary theme across the book, and although not directly linked with habits themselves, I found it quite fascinating. Clear identifies some basic underlying motives in people:

  • to fuel the body through food,
  • to fuel the soul through recognition and approval,
  • to find social connection,
  • to find a mate and reproduce,
  • to reduce stress.

He writes there are many possible ways to address a single motive. Modern habits are just the modern solutions to those timeless motives. He points that desires aren’t truly about the action itself but are always addressing the underlying motive. The craving to feel different is about the motive.

The book ends on an important realization that there are natural strengths that each of us has. True success builds on those biologically determined traits, instead of trying to overcome them. Clear’s advice is to work hard on the things that come easy.

  1. Students of Beginning Photography at University of Florida where split into two groups: the Quantity group and the Quality group. The first group would be graded purely on the number of photos they took over a period in time. The second group would be graded based on a single photo submitted at the end of the period. Long story short, the group that took more photos ended up producing much better photos in the end, compared to the group that focused on a single perfect photo.