Atomic Habits by James Clear was an absolutely transformative book for me. Since this is a book that many people should read, I thought it was time to create a summary.
I enjoyed this book so much that I actually listened to it twice on Audible and read the book!
I love Audible and always have it on in the background while I’m doing daily chores, driving in the car, or walking the dog. This is a great way to learn something new while completing the boring daily tasks you have to do!
Then a friend bought me the book for my birthday, and I found myself absorbing it in a whole new way.
I skimmed through the book and highlighted interesting quotes and sections. It’s something I haven’t done since I was in college many months ago. It feels like there’s a lot of incredible advice out there that can have a huge impact on your life.
About James Clear
James Clear is an American author best known for his writings on self-help. In addition to writing Atomic Habits, he also writes the popular 3-2-1 Newsletter. This newsletter has grown to become one of the most popular newsletters in the world. (I just signed up, so I’ll let you know how it goes!) This service is available to over 1 million of his users, and you can read all past issues here.
These are short, thought-provoking newsletters with quotes and questions that inspire you to improve your life in simple ways.
Atomic Habits Summary
Atomic Habits is a self-help book by James Clear. It’s about simple rules that will help you develop good habits and stop bad ones. The book has sold over 5 million copies worldwide and has been described by many as “life-changing.” Including me!
I’ve read a lot of self-help books, but Atomic Habits is the best one I’ve ever read.
This book is easy to read and fun. There’s no jargon and the book is divided into small sections, making it easy to understand and a quick read.
Many of the tips are so simple and obvious that they are easily overlooked.
Some were things I had never thought of, and many were things I had already done, but it wasn’t until they were highlighted that I realized their power. I realized that I have many unconscious habits, and by being conscious of them I was able to harness their power and apply it to other things.
Every tip in this book is backed by scientific research and real-life stories, making it easy to relate to and remember.
My key takeaway from Atomic Habits – ‘Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results’
The main takeaway from Atomic Habits is that small things lead to big results.
The book’s tagline is:
‘Small changes, amazing results’
I’m more of a “go big or go home” type of person.
When I start something new, I like to throw everything into it and put everything I have into it. I love the excitement and energy of a new project, but I find it hard to maintain that momentum for long and burn out after a few days.
Start big…and go home! I’ve never liked the “little and often” mentality. It always felt a little pointless and like it wouldn’t lead to any great results.
I like instant results and I like seeing my efforts pay off quickly.
That’s why I love blogging. As soon as you write a blog post and click publish, you’ll see that other people are reading it. Instant gratification in the form of page views, comments, and emails!
I don’t like the idea of doing a little bit every day for years and years. I want to do it all right now.
But if there’s one thing you take away from this book, it’s the fact that “little by little and often” can have a big impact on your life.
“It’s easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of small daily improvements. We convince ourselves that big successes require big actions. We often put pressure on ourselves to make staggering improvements…’
At the beginning of the book, Clear talks about the improvements in the British Cycling Team. Until 2003, the British cycling team was quite mediocre, winning only one medal at the Olympics, their first since 1908. Then, in 2003, a new director was hired and a system began to be implemented with only minor changes aimed at improving the situation. 1%
For many of us, improving 1% every day may not be a big deal. It may even feel like a failure. But if you can improve everything by 1% every day, you’ll see great results.
The small changes were very small, such as improving hand hygiene to avoid the spread of viruses that could affect athletes’ training, and providing new pillows to help them sleep better. And slowly, slowly, slowly.. it all started to add up. In 2008, the British cycling team won 60% of the gold medals available at the Beijing Olympics!
Why are habits so important?
“Success is the product of daily habits, not once-in-a-lifetime transformation.”
The reason habits are so important is that they mean you start doing something automatically, or as close to it as possible.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could exercise automatically without spending an hour or overthinking it!
Wouldn’t it be great if you could automatically eat healthy foods without having to go on a diet.
Wouldn’t it be nice if good habits were as easy to form as collapsing on the sofa with a packet of biscuits and a bottle of wine in the evening!
The more things you can do without thinking, the more space you have in your head for the important things.
I’ve tried dieting in the past and know how much headspace it can take up. Pondering each decision about what to eat and when to eat can consume all your thoughts. I’m tired!
But when eating healthy becomes a natural habit, it creates extra space in your head.
I think headspace is a topic that isn’t discussed enough. We all have a lot of little things going on in our heads that take up our headspace, but habits free up a little headspace so you’re free to think about other things.
“Habits reduce cognitive load and create mental space, so you can focus your attention on other tasks.”
James Clear “Atomic Habits
Don’t habits make life boring?
To be honest, I’ve always been one of those people who thought habits and routines made life a little boring. Do you do the same thing every day? yawn!
But in reality, having a set routine allows for more creativity and spontaneity.
“Habits create freedom, not restrict it. In fact, those who don’t change their habits are often the ones with the least freedom.”
I fully vouch for this!
Since reading this book, I’ve developed a really productive morning routine. That means you can get a lot of work done in the first place. This means you can do everything you need to do early and have free time every night.
Don’t focus on the goal, focus on the system
At the beginning of the book, Clear talks about why it’s better to think about systems rather than goals.
Let’s say your goal is to run a marathon. You booked him a marathon in 6 months. Because marathons encourage and intimidate training. But this goal shouldn’t be what motivates you, as you’ll probably stop training once you reach it.
“Even if you achieve your goal, your life will only change in that moment.”
On the other hand, if you’re focusing on a system to become a runner, you’ll be doing it every day. You are a runner and will always be a runner for the rest of your life. You may not be able to enjoy being a runner and run a marathon every month, but you’ll probably end up running a lot more in the long run!
“The implicit assumption behind every goal is: “If I achieve my goal, I will be happy.” The problem with goal-first thinking is that it postpones happiness until the next milestone. It’s about continuing…..
When you fall in love with the process, not the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy.”
Focusing on “systems” leads to long-term thinking. This system simply aims to make him progress continuously rather than achieving one specific goal.
The habit needs to become part of your identity
I found this section of the book very interesting as it was something I had never thought of before.
Let’s use the goal of running a marathon again. I know it’s a simplistic goal, but it’s one that everyone can relate to and adapt to their own goals.
Instead of having a goal of running a marathon, your goal should be to become a runner. I want to be the kind of person who runs every day you are a runner You are dressed like a runner. Eat like a runner. Sleep like a runner. Being a runner is part of who you are. Your friends know you’re a runner. You are part of a running club. Do you read running magazines? Listen to running podcasts.
You’re not running a one-time marathon. You are a runner.
“It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s quite another thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this.”
You need to be proud of every aspect of your identity and truly believe in yourself.
However, keep in mind that changing parts of your identity is not easy. We often don’t even realize what parts of our identity we’re clinging to, and it’s really hard to add new things.
I had to overcome this as I recently started exercising every day. It took me a while to get used to it, but I’ve been training for 30 minutes almost every day since the beginning of this year!
When my friends and family started noticing and recognizing me as the type of person who works out, I started believing that myself, and it became a strong part of my identity.
Exercise hasn’t been a part of my identity for a long time, but it was when I was younger. I was a sports fan and worked out regularly until I had kids. I stopped for a few years because the kids were really young, but this used to be part of my identity so maybe that’s why it was easier to start again.
“We don’t just snap our fingers and decide to become a completely new person. We change little by little, day by day, from habit to habit. We undergo micro-evolution of ourselves. It’s an ongoing experience.”
The easiest way to change yourself is to change your behavior.
It sounds simple when you think about it. But that’s not the case!
You need to change your behavior and continue to do so to prove to yourself and those around you that you are this type of person.
There’s also an element of “fake it until you make it’.
This isn’t the word Clear uses, but he talks about a woman who wanted to lose weight but kept asking herself, “What would a healthy person do?” She kept asking herself this for a long time and she finally became a healthy person!
I think this is another point that has not been discussed enough. Most people just do it and don’t really know what they’re doing. But you keep flapping your wings, over and over again, until one day you realize you know what you’re doing!
The four laws to create good habits
You may be thinking about what habits you want to develop or what kind of person you want to become. But how do you actually create new habits!?
According to Clear, there are four rules for creating good habits.
- To clarify
- make it attractive
- make it easy
- make it satisfying
If you want to quit a bad habit, you need to do the opposite.
- You want to hide
- make unattractive
- make it difficult
- make something unsatisfactory
The 1st Law: Make it obvious
“Many failures in performance are largely due to a lack of self-awareness.’
How many times have you seen someone on a diet absentmindedly eating out of the cookie jar or refilling their cake?
We do so much on autopilot that we often don’t realize what our habits are. If you want to change your behavior, you need to be aware of your behavior.
Clear suggests using a process called “pointing and calling,” which essentially involves recognizing habits verbally.
If you’re trying to lose weight and you’re about to eat a cookie, you should say out loud, “I’m about to eat a cookie.” I don’t want this cookie.’
To be honest, I don’t really like this part, but I think the next part will be helpful when it comes to building habits (more on that later).
Make yourself an obvious plan
If you want to start a new habit, you need to make a plan yourself. However, your plan needs to be specific. It should not be hopeful and vague, nor should it have too many loopholes and uncertainties.
My plan was to start exercising every morning, but I quickly realized I needed to be thorough about it.
Most people’s plans are highly dependent on time and location.
My plan is:
practice every day
Exercise for 30 minutes at 7:30 a.m every day. We start with the moment Sam leaves for work at 7:30 each morning. He makes sure he’s dressed and ready for training by 7:15 a.m and drinks strong coffee. Plan your morning workout the night before. I feed the kids breakfast at 7:20 a.m to make sure they’re happy and don’t interrupt my training.’
As you can see, my training plan is very clear and leaves no room for manipulation!
There’s a quote in this book that struck a chord with me:
“Many people think they lack motivation, but what they actually lack is clarity.”
This was me!
For years I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find the motivation to do this. I thought I was weak. I thought other people were better than me.
But once I got clear on the rules of my new habit, I suddenly found myself able to stick with it.
I can follow rules, even if they are rules I have set for myself. But the rules must be clear. Otherwise, there is too much twisting space and room to maneuver.
Starting a new habit with a young family
Not only does the new habit need to be obvious to me, but it needs to be obvious to the whole family.
Anyone who has small children knows how much everyone depends on you. The moment you sit down, you know you need someone’s help to do something!
Working out at home with three young children has never been easy, but now that my routine is so clear, I feel much easier. My whole family knows exactly when, where and for how long I exercise. They know they can’t interrupt me, and they know it won’t last long, so they wait until I’m done.
I also found that my new routine helped theirs as well.
Basically, I get Sam out the door at 7:30 a.m so I can work out. That way Sam will never be late for work. My kids know that they have to eat breakfast while I work out, and that they have to brush their teeth and get dressed by the time I’m done working out. So they also know that once I’m done with work it’s time to walk to school, so the whole morning routine really helps!
As you can see from my new habits and routines above, one habit can lead to another just fine.
Habit stacking is taking one established habit and building a new habit on top of it.
Most of us are already doing things like:
- get up
- use the bathroom
- please brush your teeth
- let the dog out
- I’ll have a drink
- post the news
Suppose you wanted to eat more fruit. Adding “grab an apple” while you have a drink and turn on the news will make it a habit to sit down and eat an apple while watching the news.
You can see that my morning workout routine starts when Sam leaves for work.
“Once Sam leaves for work at 7:30 a.m., I’m going to start working out.’
For habit stacking to work, you have to start with the perfect cue. For this to work, the queue must be reliable, solid, and established. The clues should be very specific and easy to follow.
It’s probably better not to have a queue that depends on someone else. In my case, it works out fine because Sam goes to work every weekday and is rarely late, but if you live with someone who works shifts or leaves work at different times each day, it probably won’t work out. I also feel like the atmosphere in the house changes when Sam goes to work. You go from feeling sleepy and cozy and warm to, “Okay, let’s get dressed and start the day!’
Environment is more important than motivation
This was also a chapter that I was very happy to read. I felt like a complete failure when I couldn’t find the motivation to exercise, but what made all the difference was realizing that environment is actually much more important than motivation!
You are much more likely to succeed if your environment is filled with positive cues.
And even better is the fact that we have a lot of control over our environment.
I’ll say it again. You are in control of your environment.
“Environmental design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your own life. Don’t just consume the world, be the designer of your world.”
If you’re out for lunch with friends and you’re health conscious, tell them you’d like to eat at a particular restaurant that you know has a healthy menu.
If you want to read more books and watch less TV, cancel your Netflix subscription and fill your books with books!
Making cues visible
Another very important thing to start a new habit is to make the cues visible.
A big environmental change I made to exercise more was to bring all my exercise equipment into the house. It used to be easy to ignore when it was outside in the summerhouse, but it’s hard to ignore when your stationary bike is behind your desk or your yoga mat is spread out on your bedroom floor!
I’ve even noticed that if I roll up my yoga mat and put it under my bed, I use it less often than if I leave it rolled up!
“Avoid mixing the context of one habit with another whenever possible. When you start mixing contexts, you start mixing habits, and the easier usually wins.”
This is interesting and I thought it was true. If you want to read more, don’t read on the couch where you usually sit and watch TV. It’s so easy to sit down and have the TV automatically turn on.
Motivation is overrated – environment often matters more
This was an interesting section of the book that looked at research on “self-controlled people.” People who appear to have great self-control are actually likely just better at controlling their environments and avoiding situations that require self-control.
I do this myself with food.
When I shop online for food, I’m very particular about only choosing healthy foods. So when I’m at home, eating healthy food is my only option.
The main reason is that if there is unhealthy food in your house, you will eat it all!
Sam and I just eat and drink so we don’t buy alcohol or chocolate in the middle of the week.
It’s not that we’re super healthy or disciplined, it’s just that we don’t have anything in the house.
The 2nd Law of Atomic Habits: Make it attractive
The book’s second law is about how to make a habit hard to break, and Clear begins by looking at the causes of dopamine spikes in the brain. After all, we are animals, and many of our decisions are driven by neurological processes.
That surge of dopamine is a pleasurable experience, so we want to recreate it. Experience can lead to a surge of dopamine, but so can the anticipation of that experience. Studies have shown that cocaine addicts experience a surge of dopamine when they see the drug, rather than when they actually ingest it. And while we obviously don’t want to become addicted to cocaine, we do want to be in the dopamine surge stage before committing to a new habit. Because with this surge, your motivation to do it will skyrocket.
I can already feel it when I exercise. When I start putting on my workout clothes, I get a little excited!
But how do you make a habit irresistible?
The first trick to making a habit unbreakable is to “control temptation.” This is very effective if you are trying to build undesirable habits!
It’s a bit like habit stacking, but you take the fun habits you already have and build new ones on top of them. If you can’t do two habits at the same time, it’s best to do the new habit before the fun one. If you do that, you will be rewarded afterwards. Eventually, you’ll come to associate your new habit with a reward (and possibly a surge of dopamine).
A common example is working hard at your computer for 20 minutes, then taking a 5-minute break to check social media.
An example that Clear gives in his book is a man who was watching Netflix while riding a stationary bike. He had a bike equipped that would turn off the TV if he rode too slowly, so he had to keep pedaling quickly to do whatever he wanted.
How can family and friends help change your habits?
Family and friends can have a huge influence on our habits.
“One of the deepest human needs is to belong, and this ancient preference has a powerful influence on our behavior today.”
I really like this section of the book. Because it emphasizes the importance of surrounding yourself with people who have similar goals as you. As humans, all we really want is to fit in, so it’s all about finding a group of people whose habits you want to fit in with.
What’s even better is that it’s very easy to join online communities and surround yourself with these people.
I’m part of a Facebook group of moms who want to be healthy, and I can’t tell you how much of a motivator it is. This is not just aimed at mothers, but the group is full of mothers who regularly share their progress and training routines. It really inspires me and reminds me that daily training is the norm for many people.
While it’s definitely better to join a “real life” group if possible, I think online groups are a great introduction to something new and a little scary.
When I first started “properly blogging” all of my closest friends were bloggers. I worked on Flight Center’s social media and content team alongside Vicky Flip Flop, Jayne from Girl Tweets World, and Macca from An Adventurous World. And it’s no coincidence that we all became full-time bloggers and content creators. We eat, sleep, and breathe travel content. We regularly attended events and traveled together, talked about blogging during lunch breaks, and planned blogging ventures during coffee breaks. During those years, our lives revolved around blogging and we all encouraged each other to do more.
If I hadn’t surrounded myself with like-minded people when I first started blogging, I’m almost certain I wouldn’t be blogging today.
Why it’s important to develop good habits for our children
“We don’t choose our first habits; we copy them.”
James Clear “Atomic Habits
Although this quote is from the book, Mr. Clear doesn’t actually mention the importance of developing good habits for the benefit of children. This is just what I picked up.
If most of our habits are to be imitated, I feel it is very important to inculcate good habits in our children from the beginning.
Habits like eating healthy, exercising, spending time outdoors, not spending too much time on social media, avoiding excessive screen time, setting aside time to be creative, and setting aside time to study All very important. And if we can make sure that these are natural habits for our children, we can set them on a good path!
Many of the good habits I try to adopt are immediately useful. But one long-term benefit is that these will become habits that my kids will emulate when they grow up.
Bad habits and human nature
One of the key parts of this book examines why we develop bad habits in the first place. It is important to realize that bad habits are usually the result of human nature and our primal instincts to stay alive and thriving.
Many of our desires come from a basic desire to conserve energy, fit into a tribe, and reproduce.
My desire to eat chocolate on the couch and watch Netflix all night with Sam is pure caveman instinct!
“Your habits are modern solutions to ancient desires.”
Sometimes all it takes is a small mindset shift to reframe these desires and turn them into more desirable habits. (Although, there’s nothing wrong with spending the evening on the couch watching Netflix!)
The 3rd Law: Make it easy
“The idea behind make it easy is that it’s not just about doing the easy thing, it’s about making it as easy as possible in the moment to do something that will pay off in the long run.”
“Habits are easier to build when they fit into your lifestyle. If you go to the gym on your way to work, you’re more likely to go because it won’t put a huge strain on your lifestyle if you stop going.”
It’s not mentioned in the book, but if you’re having trouble forming new habits, sit down and write a list of all the things that are making it difficult to adopt. Then think about how to overcome each of these obstacles that make it difficult.
If you want to read more, but you are too tired in the evening, you need to overcome this in the following ways:
- read first thing in the morning
- Please go to bed early so you don’t get tired
- Switching to audiobooks reduces effort
- Read more interesting books that won’t make you sleepy!
- Change your daily routine to read earlier in the day
When we think of practical solutions, we often find that they are just excuses!
In my case, I wanted to exercise in the morning, but I didn’t have the energy to get up any earlier. So I asked myself how to overcome this. Eventually, I realized that I didn’t have to wake up early and that I could free up my morning time to exercise by doing my regular morning tasks the night before.
The two-minute rule
One of my favorite things about this book is the mention of the two-minute rule. This rule stipulates that a new habit initially takes him no more than two minutes.
And I know what you’re thinking. “You can’t do anything in two minutes!’
While this is true, the first two minutes are often the hardest, so simply getting into the routine of starting a new habit can help you fully develop it.
Clear calls this a “gateway habit.” This is the first part of the habit before the real hard part begins.
For me, my gateway ritual to working out in the morning is putting on my workout clothes and drinking coffee. You need to do this before you start, and just getting into the routine of doing this every morning will naturally lead to actually working out.
And this fun entrance ritual ties in nicely to the fourth law.
The 4th Law: Make it satisfying
As I mentioned earlier, my entryway habit to exercise is to put on my workout clothes and have a cup of coffee, which for me is really satisfying.
I invested in some really nice workout clothes. I love wearing buttery soft leggings and bright tops in the morning because they make me feel good.
And I love good coffee, so once again, I drink my favorite coffee. Sam and I really enjoy choosing our coffee each month and enjoy quietly making and drinking coffee in the kitchen.
This part of my morning routine is satisfying in many ways.
“But there’s a trick: We’re not looking for every kind of gratification. We’re looking for instant gratification.”
Mr. Clear talks about the difference between immediate and delayed rewards. Unfortunately, the benefits of many of the good habits we try to adopt are delayed. It could be losing weight, getting healthy, or learning something new. For most of us, it takes several months before we begin to see the fruits of our labor. It’s very difficult to stick to a new habit if you don’t get instant gratification, so you need to find another way to get instant gratification.
If the actual habit itself isn’t satisfying, do something fun before or after. For me, that means having a nice cup of coffee right before I start and putting on some nice workout clothes. And as soon as I’m done, I jump in the shower and douse myself with all the lovely suds and soaps and lotions and potions!
I don’t always enjoy working out, but I do enjoy my pre- and post-workout routines.
Motion Vs Action
Atomic Habits has an interesting section on motion and action.
Movement begins with planning. Action is where you actually do things.
Movement is important, but don’t assume you’re making progress just because you’re creating movement. Movement is often a form of procrastination.
We all remember the days when we were students and had to make a “study plan.” I would spend more time planning revisions than revising them. Color coded with flashy highlights to ensure every moment is perfectly planned.
It feels like I’m starting a review even though I haven’t actually done any work!
Don’t kid yourself that plans are in the works. You need to take action on your plan!
How to stop your bad habits
This book has a lot to say about breaking bad habits, but it’s basically just all the rules reversed.
- You want to hide
- make unattractive
- make it difficult
- make something unsatisfactory
It’s all about making bad habits impossible or so difficult and unappealing that you don’t want to do them/don’t care!
Using our genes to our advantage
There’s a whole section in this book that tries to incorporate habits that come naturally to you. People are often reluctant to admit that genes play a huge role in our lives and can determine what we can and cannot do. Don’t fight it, just live with it.
We are often given the idea that we can do anything and be anything we want. Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu, that can’t be true, can it?
Focus on what you’re good at and what comes naturally to you.
If you want to be healthy but hate running, you don’t even need to try to become a runner. Try a dance class or take up yoga. I want to run, but my knees, hips, and shins hurt. I quickly realized that this was not the sport for me because every time I ran I was in pain!
The Goldilocks rule to stay motivated
Have you ever heard of the Goldilocks Rule? It’s a simple rule that says things should be just the right level of difficulty in order to stay motivated. When something is too easy, we get bored. If it’s too difficult, you’ll lose motivation and give up.
Our habits need to be “just right” in terms of difficulty.
We need to continually adjust our habits to stay on the hard side. That’s why it’s important to monitor and track your habits.
And this is also a good way to stop our bad habits. If you make it harder to perform a bad habit, you’ll eventually break it!
Is there a downside to creating good habits?
I think we can all agree that there’s no downside to having good habits, but Clear warns that if you start implementing your habits on autopilot, you can start making mistakes.
That’s by no means a reason not to create good habits, just something to be aware of.
This is why it is so important to keep track of our habits, using things like diaries, reports, reviews, photos, and good old spreadsheets with stats!
One important thing to remember is that habit tracking shouldn’t be a timely task. If possible, habit tracking should be automated or very simple. Otherwise, you’ll have to adopt a whole new habit to track the original habit you wanted to start!
As someone who likes to document things, I wish there was more information in the book about how other people track their habits. I would be happy to read a new book on this!
I’m not going to go on about my Peloton bike any further, but it’s been very useful for tracking my fitness progress. You get an overall score for each ride, and it’s really fun to watch your score gradually increase over the weeks and months. I could see that my physical condition was actually improving, which gave me a lot of motivation!
Final summary and review of Atomic Habits
I think readers of Atomic Habits will get more out of this book if they already have specific habits they want to develop. When I first heard about this book, I had no specific goals. I knew I wanted to change something in my life, but I didn’t know what.
I found this book interesting and got some valuable tips, but I didn’t have an immediate plan of action.
The second time I listened to this book was a few months later when I wanted to get into the habit of exercising in the morning. And this book had a very different feel! It felt like James Clear was speaking directly to me and giving me specific advice that was easy to follow. I was able to picture myself adopting these new habits and how I would perform each step.
And when I read this book for the third time, I realized that I had actually used this advice a lot!