Atomic Habits Summary + Review: James Clear On Habits

Atomic Habits Summary + Review: James Clear On Habits

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Atomic Habits is the best book I’ve read about habits yet.

Why is it so incredible? James Clear, the writer of Atomic Habits, lays out a blueprint for creating and keeping great habits.

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. – James Clear

I love the concept of automation. If you can create a blueprint, write an algorithm for it, and set it aside, that is passive work right there.

That’s what a habit is. Passive thinking so that you can live your best life with less mental energy.

I’m going to go over my favorite concepts in Atomic Habits. These won’t include every single thing, because obviously I can’t fit a 300 page book into a blog post, so check out the book if the topic of habits interests you.

Print | Kindle | Audible

Why Habits Are So Powerful: Get 1 Percent Better Each Day

Atomic Habits: The Power of Tiny Gains

Habits allow you to automate your behavior so you can get 1 percent better each day.

One percent is a crazy increase. When you get one percent better each day, it takes 70 days to get twice as good at something. It takes 41 more days to get 3 times as good.

In a year, you’ll be 38 times a good if you get one percent better each day. That seems like a such a crazy number — it’s just to illustrate the power of compounding.

Positive habits that compound: Productivity, knowledge, positive affirmations, relationships, etc.

Negative habits that compound: Stress, negative thoughts, outrage/anger, unresolved feelings/emotions, etc.

Because you see, the results of habits aren’t linear. Like compound interest, they’re exponential. You won’t notice for a long time, but when it does, you’ll see the results increase by larger and larger margins as time goes on.

One day, sooner than you think, you’ll be an expert, and you won’t even remember what it was like to be a beginner.

Why Are They Called Atomic Habits?

Trying to lose weight? Become healthy? Gain some muscle? Get more time in the day? All of the above?

Everyone is, all the time, it seems.

One of the main reasons why so many people fail at this is they haven’t set up systems to conquer their goals. The other issue is they are looking to accomplish their goal ASAP. They burn out quickly and soon go back to their old habits, exacerbating their problem.

Once you set up a system in which you only need to do one tiny thing per day in order to get ahead, it’ll make self growth much easier.

Why You Need To Focus On Systems, Not Goals

Clear gives 4 reasons for focusing on systems instead of goals:

  • Winners + Losers have the same goals.
  • A goal is a one-time accomplishment. Stick with an infinite habit instead.
  • Goals make you put off happiness until you achieve them.
  • Goals make you stop working when you reach them.

Now, to be clear, Atomic Habits isn’t advocating for not having goals. He’s arguing for focusing on your habits instead of your goals.

The #1 Issue With Your Goals: Mindset

You internalize your beliefs, whether you say it to yourself or someone else keeps saying something to you.

As a personal example, society has this stereotype that Asians are terrible at driving and directions. If I’m going to be honest, I’ve internalized that into my personal mindset.

Because I’ve internalized this: as an Asian, no longer do I have to hold myself accountable whenever I take the wrong subway or give bad directions as the passenger in a car.

I’m Asian! We’re just bad at directions. It’s ok.

No, It’s not ok. It’s just an excuse so I don’t have to actually figure out how to navigate anywhere.

Now, I’m not saying you can do absolutely anything in the world if you have the right mindset. You alone know what is reasonable and what isn’t. If you start saying positive affirmations that make no sense to your subconscious, you’re not going to get very far.

Atomic Habits gives some great tips on how to better your mindset so that you can start believing you can reach your goals and maintain your habits.

A Real Life Example Of Changing Your Mindset With Positive Affirmations

I recently did tested this theory out in real life.

Every morning, after I’ve brushed my teeth and finished my morning skincare routine, I’ll say the below mantra:

I’m a healthy person. I enjoy eating nutritious food. And I like the burn from the gym. I enjoy getting stronger.

Same mantra every night.

I’ve done this for the past 30 days and I can feel my mindset about food, exercise, and strength changing. When you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and saying a mantra twice each day, it really starts to define you as a person.

Now when I see unhealthy food, I think to myself, “I’m a healthy person. Do I really want to eat this and have it in my body?”

You know those athletes that say things like “I enjoy the burn and working hard in the gym”? I used to be like ugh, I go to the gym to try and lose weight and be healthy, but honestly I don’t enjoy it. Maybe I’m genetically not inclined.

Now I go and bask in the dopamine chemical that gets released after exercise.

Give it a try for 30 days, twice a day. There’s really no harm.

Actually Act On those Positive Affirmations To Create Atomic Habits

It’s not enough to just say those positive affirmations. Make your brain believe they are really true by doing small actions that align with your words.

Want to be healthy? Just walk to the gym. Get on an elliptical for 5 minutes. Go for 5 more minutes each day.

Start small. Really really small. That way you can’t get overwhelmed.

Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. You’re busy living your life and making it the best you can make it. If anyone else is judging you, they have too much time on their hands.

You focus on you.

Life is long. It’s not a competition to run the fastest for 26 miles. It’s a competition with yourself to run on a slow pace, forever. Eventually your tiny habits become atomic habits.

Habits: It’s a Lifestyle Change, Not A Thing To Endure

One of the reasons we fail to complete a task is we don’t build a habit. We want to do it for a short period of time, then stop doing it.

Habits are meant to exist forever. None of this “I’ll do it for 3 months, then be set for the rest of my life!”.

Once you start doing the habit, believing in it, and want to do it for the rest of your life, it’ll get easier.

Once you start practicing frugality, DIY, healthy choices, etc, you’ll realize they get easier with time.

Even if you have a tough day, your habit will guide you through it by making you better on autopilot.

What Is The Habit Loop?

James Clear's Habit Loop from Atomic Habits
James Clear’s Habit Loop from Atomic Habits

James Clear builds upon Duhigg’s Cue->Craving->Reward progression by adding one further piece:


How To Build A Good Habit

In Atomic Habits, Clear spends a chapter on each of the below 4 steps:

1). Make your cues to start a habit obvious.

Point and say out loud what the cue is. Write down everything you do for a day and judge if they are good, bad, or neutral.

Write down exactly what you will do to enforce your habit: I will do [THING] at [TIME] at [PLACE] at [INTERVAL OF DAYS].

Stack your new good habit in your existing habits.

Design your environment to make your habit easier.

2). Make your cravings attractive.

Stack your new habit in the middle of old ones:

  • Habit you already do, then
  • Habit you’re trying to build, then
  • Fun thing you actually love to do

For example: Craving new TV show episodes, then go to the gym, and watch them while on the treadmill.

3). Make your responses easy.

Think of all the steps you need to do before you actually start doing something and do all those tiny steps the day before as part of your nightly habit.

Want to eat healthier? Prep healthy snacks and put them in the fridge and carry a little container with you to work so that you can eat healthier more easily.

Want to exercise? Set up your exercise clothes for the week, put a post-it note on them for the day they are for. Put your socks on your shoes each night before going to the gym the next day.

Incorporate the two minute rule. Make sure each new habit you start only takes 2 minutes to get into.

Want to read 20 min a day? Tell yourself you’ll start by reading a page each night.

Trying to get a new certification for your job? Start by opening your book each day to study.

It’s much harder to stop momentum once you’ve gotten started, so figure out how to get that two minute head start.

4). Make your rewards satisfying.

Once you complete a habit, think of a way to make it satisfying immediately so you can have instant gratification.

If you’re exercising and want some nice new gym clothes:

Transfer $5 into a high-yield savings account every time you finish a workout. Use that money for new gym clothes.

If you love food and are trying to eliminate take out from your behavior:

Transfer $5 every time you don’t order take out and use that for a splurge fine-dining meal.

Love lattes every morning?

Transfer the money you would’ve spent instead and use it for a nice vacation.

Other helpful tips:

You are the mix of the 5 people you spend the most time with. If you’re looking to cultivate a good habit, try spending time with some people who already have those habits.

Your family, friends, tribe, and people you look up to are those who are going to affect your habits.

How to Erase A Bad Habit

Clear also explains the 4 steps to erase a bad habit in Atomic Habits, just in reverse.

1). Erase your cues by making them invisible.

Spending too much time on your phone? Move it into another room.

Eating unhealthy? Throw out all your unhealthy foods so it’ll be harder for you to eat it.

Ordering too much takeout? Uninstall the apps on your phone. Change the password to something random so you need to reset it every time.

2). Make your cravings unattractive. Highlight the benefits of not performing your bad habits.

3). Introduce frictions so it’s difficult to respond.

If you’re trying to eat healthy, stop buying junk food.

If you’re watching too much TV hide the remote in a safe.

4). Make your old habit rewards unsatisfying.

Get an accountability partner to ask you whether you’ve done your habit that day.

If your friend keeps asking you if you’ve worked out like you said you would, then you might feel uncomfortable knowing he might ask and you might be motivated to go to the gym more.

Even better, make a bet with a friend on if you’ll accomplish a certain habit or goal. When there is money on the line, you’re more likely to work hard. Make it an amount that would be very painful to lose.

Physical Vs Intangible Self-Improvement

Atomic Habits doesn’t go through this a ton, but I felt it was relevant for the topic of Habits.

This concept comes from the beginning of The Black Swan.

The exponential growth you seek from self-improvement is always in intangible skills.

For physical self-improvement, you’re always going to see the largest gains in the beginning of your habit.

You’ll get great results from implementing habits in physical goals as well, but you’ll reach a natural asymptote as a stopping point. Examples:

  • You can only lose so much weight. Eventually you reach a bottom floor. When you first start losing weight, you’ll lose a ton as you flush out water weight first. Since your body is heavier at the beginning of your weight loss, it’ll have to carry around more weight, so you’ll lose less weight as your body becomes lighter.
  • The human musculoskeletal system can only hold so much weight. Eventually your muscular gains become tiny. When you start out, they’re huge gains.

For intangible self-improvement, you’ll see the largest gains at the end of your habit, and they’ll keep compounding.

  • Putting your money in the market and gaining 7 percent a year is not much. Fast forward 40 years at 7 percent a year will mean your money will have returned 42 times your original investment.
  • Learning how to code or blog is hard, and you don’t feel it getting easier for ages. But as you go on, you start to begin outsourcing tasks you’ve already learned to do, find cool apps that can help you with code shortcuts, and eventually go on to automate most of your work. Once you get started, you can get that snowball rolling down the hill.
  • Building spreadsheets is hard at first, but once you learn about formulas and VBA and start automating your spreadsheets, you’ll have much more free time. You’ll be able to do what multiple people had to do manually.

Mental Energy Is Limited: Don’t Waste It

It’s easy to see a limit for calories each day. Go to a calorie calculator that tells you how many calories you need to maintain your weight based on your exercise, height, gender, etc.

Once you have that number, you can easily track your food calories and make sure you don’t go over it.

But mental energy is a different beast. How do you track it to make sure you’re keeping good mental health?

It’s difficult. One way to minimize your mental energy is to create good habits. Once a habit is ingrained, you’re on autopilot with a good habit.

Some other things to consider:

  • Focus on your internal locus of control. There are things you can and can’t control, but focus on the things you can control. You can’t do anything about some things. Why get agitated over it?
  • Reach out to friends and family. Sometimes you just need to a good talk to get things off your chest. Internalizing it isn’t the best way to go about this. It might build up and compound into a volcanic eruption.
  • Practice self care. Release your frustrations by getting a massage, taking a nice hot bath, etc.
  • In Atomic Habits, scientists say we spend 40-50 percent of our day on habits.

Imagine if you could automate your mind to create good habits for most of the day. You’d free up so much mental space to be more productive, earn more money, develop deeper relationships with your friends and family, and anything else you desire.

It’s currently November, and 2019 is only a month away.

Start creating good habits so you can roll into 2019 full of momentum.

Get The Atomic Habits Book


Other books on the topic of habits and self-improvement:

The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg

Slight Edge – Jeff Olson and John David Mann

Check out our 50 favorite books on money, self growth, productivity, and more.

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5 thoughts on “Atomic Habits Summary + Review: James Clear On Habits

  1. This is one of the books that came highly recommended for my New Year’s self-improvement reading – thanks for the summary, I’ll be sure to pick it up!

  2. This book has been on my to read list for forever! I really need to pick it up. It reminds be a little bit of Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin, another fantastic read if this is your genre.

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