[Book Notes] 20 insights: Atomic Habits

Atomic Habits by James Clear focuses on techniques that can help people develop good habits and get rid of bad habits. Atomic Habits (link to book here) is full of various insights that are very practical in nature. Some of the key insights from this book are as follows.


#1:

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement

Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.

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Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous.

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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. You get what you repeat.

Atomic Habits: Plateau of Latent potential

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. Change can take years—before it happens all at once.

 

#2:

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

What’s the difference between systems and goals? Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.

Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.

  1. Goal setting suffers from a serious case of survivorship bias. We concentrate on the people who end up winning—the survivors—and mistakenly assume that ambitious goals led to their success while overlooking all of the people who had the same objective but didn’t succeed.

  2. When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level.

  3. The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone. 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.

The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.

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

 

#3:

Build identity based habits and not outcome based habits

Changing our habits is challenging for two reasons: (1) we try to change the wrong thing and (2) we try to change our habits in the wrong way.

Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.

Atomic Habits: outcomes, processes and identity

Behind every system of actions are a system of beliefs. The system of a democracy is founded on beliefs like freedom, majority rule, and social equality.


Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. You may want more money, but if your identity is someone who consumes rather than creates, then you’ll continue to be pulled toward spending rather than earning.


The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. For example, people who identified as “being a voter” were more likely to vote than those who simply claimed “voting” was an action they wanted to perform.


Your identity emerges out of your habits. You are not born with preset beliefs. Every belief, including those about yourself, is learned and conditioned through experience. The more evidence you have for a belief, the more strongly you will believe it.

 

#4:

Habit formation is incredibly useful because the conscious mind is the bottleneck of the brain

A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.


Habit formation is incredibly useful because the conscious mind is the bottleneck of the brain. Your brain is always working to preserve your conscious attention for whatever task is most essential. Whenever possible, the conscious mind likes to pawn off tasks to the non-conscious mind to do automatically. This is precisely what happens when a habit is formed. Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks.

 

#5:

All habits proceed through four stages in the same order: cue, craving, response, and reward

Rewards are the end goal of every habit. The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. We chase rewards because they serve two purposes: (1) they satisfy us and (2) they teach us.

Atomic Habits: 4 stages of habit

The first purpose of rewards is to satisfy your craving. Yes, rewards provide benefits on their own. Food and water deliver the energy you need to survive. Getting a promotion brings more money and respect. But the more immediate benefit is that rewards satisfy your craving to eat or to gain status or to win approval. At least for a moment, rewards deliver contentment and relief from craving. Second, rewards teach us which actions are worth remembering in the future. Your brain is a reward detector.


In summary, the cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop—cue, craving, response, reward; cue, craving, response, reward—that ultimately allows you to create automatic habits. This cycle is known as the habit loop.


We can split these four steps into two phases: the problem phase and the solution phase. The problem phase includes the cue and the craving, and it is when you realize that something needs to change. The solution phase includes the response and the reward, and it is when you take action and achieve the change you desire.

 

#6:

The 1st Law of Behavior Change is to make it obvious. This can be done by strategies like implementation intentions and habit stacking

Over time, the cues that spark our habits become so common that they are essentially invisible: the treats on the kitchen counter, the remote control next to the couch, the phone in our pocket. Our responses to these cues are so deeply encoded that it may feel like the urge to act comes from nowhere. For this reason, we must begin the process of behavior change with awareness.


“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

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In Japan, before each train departs, staff members will point along the edge of the platform and declare, “All clear!” Every detail is identified, pointed at, and named aloud. This process is known as Pointing-and-Calling. It seems silly, but it works incredibly well. Pointing-and-Calling reduces errors by up to 85 percent and cuts accidents by 30 percent. Pointing-and-Calling is so effective because it raises the level of awareness from a non-conscious habit to a more conscious level.


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Implementation intention is a plan that you make beforehand about when and where to act. That is, how you intend to implement a particular habit.


The cues that can trigger a habit come in a wide range of forms—the feel of your phone buzzing in your pocket, the smell of chocolate chip cookies, the sound of ambulance sirens—but the two most common cues are time and location. Implementation intentions leverage both of these cues. For e.g. researchers have  found that voter turnout increases when people are forced to create implementation intentions by answering questions like: “What route are you taking to the polling station? At what time are you planning to go? What bus will get you there?”

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One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. This is called habit stacking.

The secret to creating a successful habit stack is selecting the right cue to kick things off. Your cue should also have the same frequency as your desired habit. If you want to do a habit every day, but you stack it on top of a habit that only happens on Mondays, that’s not a good choice.


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The 1st Law of Behavior Change is to make it obvious. Strategies like implementation intentions and habit stacking are among the most practical ways to create obvious cues for your habits and design a clear plan for when and where to take action.

 

#7:

A small change in what you see can lead to a big shift in what you do.

Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. In church, people tend to talk in whispers. On a dark street, people act wary and guarded. In this way, the most common form of change is not internal, but external: we are changed by the world around us. Every habit is context dependent.


Kurt Lewin wrote a simple equation that makes a powerful statement: Behavior is a function of the Person in their Environment, or B = f (P,E). We are more dependent on vision than on any other sense. Therefore, visual cues are the greatest catalyst of our behavior. For this reason, a small change in what you see can lead to a big shift in what you do.


During world war, Dutch researchers began to pay close attention to the country’s energy usage. In one suburb near Amsterdam, they found that some homeowners used 30 percent less energy than their neighbors. It turned out the houses in this neighborhood were nearly identical except for one feature: the location of the electrical meter. Some had one in the basement. Others had the electrical meter upstairs in the main hallway. As you may guess, the homes with the meters located in the main hallway used less electricity.

 

#8:

Habits can be easier to change in a new environment

The power of context also reveals an important strategy: habits can be easier to change in a new environment. It helps to escape the subtle triggers and cues that nudge you toward your current habits. Go to a new place—a different coffee shop, a bench in the park, a corner of your room you seldom use—and create a new routine there.


Whenever possible, avoid mixing the context of one habit with another. When you start mixing contexts, you’ll start mixing habits—and the easier ones will usually win out. This is one reason why the versatility of modern technology is both a strength and a weakness. You can use your phone for all sorts of tasks, which makes it a powerful device. But when you can use your phone to do nearly anything, it becomes hard to associate it with one task. You want to be productive, but you’re also conditioned to browse social media, check email, and play video games whenever you open your phone. It’s a mishmash of cues.

 

#9:

Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one

The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often. So, yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment.


Bad habits are autocatalytic: the process feeds itself. They foster the feelings they try to numb. You feel bad, so you eat junk food. Because you eat junk food, you feel bad. Watching television makes you feel sluggish, so you watch more television because you don’t have the energy to do anything else.


Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. You may be able to resist temptation once or twice, but it’s unlikely you can muster the willpower to override your desires every time. Instead of summoning a new dose of willpower whenever you want to do the right thing, your energy would be better spent optimizing your environment. This is the secret to self-control. Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.


The inversion of the 1st Law of Behavior Change is to make it invisible.

 

#10:

Anticipation of an experience can often feel better than the attainment of it

Habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop. Every behavior that is highly habit-forming—taking drugs, eating junk food, playing video games, browsing social media—is associated with higher levels of dopamine. The same can be said for our most basic habitual behaviors like eating food, drinking water, having sex, and interacting socially.


Interestingly, the reward system that is activated in the brain when you receive a reward is the same system that is activated when you anticipate a reward. This is one reason the anticipation of an experience can often feel better than the attainment of it.


Dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. Your brain has far more neural circuitry allocated for wanting rewards than for liking them.

 

#11:

More probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors

Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do.


Temptation bundling is one way to apply a psychology theory known as Premack’s Principle. Named after the work of professor David Premack, the principle states that “more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.” In other words, even if you don’t really want to process overdue work emails, you’ll become conditioned to do it if it means you get to do something you really want to do along the way.

Atomic Habits: Temptation buulding
 

#12:

Behaviors are attractive when they help us fit in. We imitate the habits of three groups in particular: The close. The many. The powerful.

One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.

When changing your habits means challenging the tribe, change is unattractive. When changing your habits means fitting in with the tribe, change is very attractive. The normal behavior of the tribe often overpowers the desired behavior of the individual. Most days, we’d rather be wrong with the crowd than be right by ourselves.

Atomic Habits: Impact of groups
 

#13:

If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection.

Voltaire once wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.”


There is a difference between being in motion and taking action. When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce a result.


If motion doesn’t lead to results, why do we do it? Sometimes we do it because we actually need to plan or learn more. But more often than not, we do it because motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure.

 

#14:

Habits form based on frequency, not time

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. With each repetition, cell-to-cell signaling improves and the neural connections tighten. First described by neuropsychologist Donald Hebb in 1949, this phenomenon is commonly known as Hebb’s Law: “Neurons that fire together wire together.”


In the beginning (point A), a habit requires a good deal of effort and concentration to perform. After a few repetitions (point B), it gets easier, but still requires some conscious attention. With enough practice (point C), the habit becomes more automatic than conscious. Beyond this threshold—the habit line—the behavior can be done more or less without thinking. A new habit has been formed.

Atomic Habits: Habit line

On the following page, you’ll see what it looks like when researchers track the level of automaticity for an actual habit like walking for ten minutes each day. The shape of these charts, which scientists call learning curves, reveals an important truth about behavior change: habits form based on frequency, not time.


How long does it take to build a new habit? People really should be asking , “How many does it take to form a new habit?” That is, how many repetitions are required to make a habit automatic?


The most effective form of learning is practice, not planning.

 

#15:

What is rewarded is repeated

“It is a lot easier for people to adopt a product that provides a strong positive sensory signal, for example the mint taste of toothpaste, than it is to adopt a habit that does not provide pleasurable sensory feedback, like flossing one’s teeth.”


Toothpaste had a similar trajectory. Manufacturers enjoyed great success when they added flavors like spearmint, peppermint, and cinnamon to their products. These flavors don’t improve the effectiveness of toothpaste. They simply create a “clean mouth” feel and make the experience of brushing your teeth more pleasurable.


What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided. Positive emotions cultivate habits. Negative emotions destroy them.

 

#16:

A habit must be established before it can be improved.

If you can’t learn the basic skill of showing up, then you have little hope of mastering the finer details. Instead of trying to engineer a perfect habit from the start, do the easy thing on a more consistent basis. You have to standardize before you can optimize. The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely it becomes that you can slip into the state of deep focus that is required to do great things.


If you find yourself continually struggling to follow through on your plans, then you can take a page from Victor Hugo and make your bad habits more difficult by creating what psychologists call a commitment device. A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future. It is a way to lock in future behavior, bind you to good habits, and restrict you from bad ones.

 

#17:

The human brain did not evolve for life in a delayed-return environment

The first three laws of behavior change—make it obvious, make it attractive, and make it easy—increase the odds that a behavior will be performed this time. The fourth law of behavior change—make it satisfying—increases the odds that a behavior will be repeated next time. It completes the habit loop.


But there is a trick. We are not looking for just any type of satisfaction. We are looking for immediate satisfaction. You live in what scientists call a delayed-return environment because you can work for years before your actions deliver the intended payoff.


The human brain did not evolve for life in a delayed-return environment. The ending of any experience is vital because we tend to remember it more than other phases. You want the ending of your habit to be satisfying. The best approach is to use reinforcement, which refers to the process of using an immediate reward to increase the rate of a behavior. The more a habit becomes part of your life, the less you need outside encouragement to follow through. Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit.

It takes time for the evidence to accumulate and a new identity to emerge. Immediate reinforcement helps maintain motivation in the short term while you’re waiting for the long-term rewards to arrive.

 

#18:

Missing twice is the start of a new habit

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.

Too often, we fall into an all-or-nothing cycle with our habits. The problem is not slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can’t do something perfectly, then you shouldn’t do it at all.

You don’t realize how valuable it is to just show up on your bad (or busy) days. Lost days hurt you more than successful days help you. As Charlie Munger says, “The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessarily.”

 

#19:

The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom

The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.

Atomic Habits: Goldilocks rule

Mastery requires practice. But the more you practice something, the more boring and routine it becomes. The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. And as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty. Machiavelli noted, “Men desire novelty to such an extent that those who are doing well wish for a change as much as those who are doing badly.”

 

#20:

Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way.

Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.

The upside of habits is that we can do things without thinking. The downside of habits is that you get used to doing things a certain way and stop paying attention to little errors.

 

Others:

The tendency for one purchase to lead to another one has a name: the Diderot Effect. The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption that leads to additional purchases.

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Named after the economist Charles Goodhart, Goodhart’s law states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Measurement is only useful when it guides you and adds context to a larger picture, not when it consumes you.

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If you can’t find a game where the odds are stacked in your favor, create one. Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind Dilbert, says, “Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.”

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Happiness is simply the absence of desire. When you observe a cue, but do not desire to change your state, you are content with the current situation. 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.

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With a big enough why you can overcome any how. Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher and poet, famously wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” This phrase harbors an important truth about human behavior. If your motivation and desire are great enough (that is, why you are acting), you’ll take action even when it is quite difficult. Great craving can power great action—even when friction is high.

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