What you will learn from reading Atomic Habits:
– The 4 elements of habits and how they play a crucial part in our ability to create good habits and get rid of bad ones.
– The three key steps to creating a habit.
– How to set up a system that caters for your habits so that you don’t find yourself running out of steam.
Atomic Habits Book Summary:
I can’t recommend this book enough. There are a few self help books out there that I think are the perfect bridge to cross into psychology and self improvement and this is definitely one of them.
We as a species love to improve at things but a lot of the time we don’t have immediate feedback which can be a problem. This book however acts as a saviour. It teaches you how to set up the perfect systems in which to measure your progress through the use of habits.
The book is broken into 5 main parts, the first being about the fundamentals of habits and how important they are, while the following 4 correspond to the 4 sections of what a habit is, that being the cue, craving, response and reward.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and if you feel like exploring habits further, check out our book summary on Tiny Habits.
The Fundamentals: Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference
Incremental improvements build-up over time to create a big change.
Our environments depict how we act. We take in external information, internalise it and then react in accordance.
Small changes are easy to ignore because we can’t see their full benefit of them straight away (they’re long-term). This is also true for bad habits. It’s very easy to say “it won’t do me any harm if I just have this doughnut,” but if you maintain this mindset, then it all adds up over time.
We rationalise our actions after the action is played out. Making it very easy for us to rationalise ourselves into a bad habit.
Results are a lagging measure of actions. When we do something, we see the outcomes much later on. So, therefore, our actions depict our future results. This means we have to take into consideration our future selves.
“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.”
Neuroplasticity suggests that our brains adapt and change in accordance with how we see the world and what we do with it. This is a feedback loop, when our brains change so does our view of the world. So, if we constantly self-sabotaging ourselves by thinking we are stupid, worthless, ugly, etc. then we are changing our brains which will then project these silly ideas onto how we see the world.
The more we specialise at something the harder it is to improve and because the benefits are lagging, it gives the illusion that we aren’t improving at all. The best gems are the ones deepest in the mines.
From an outside perspective, because results lag and are incremental, people are blind to the effort put in to make them. For example we see an athlete win the race but we don’t see how many hours they put in to get there.
Goals are the result we want, whereas the system is the process we use to get there
Instead of focusing on the goals, focus on the system, the system takes you to your goals and even further. In other words, focus on the process not the product. For example, you can’t say you want to be an actor because of the fame and everything but then not be up for applying yourself to get there.
The best systems are the ones that are adapted to oneself rather than taken from somebody else’s subjective point of view. You can very easily follow instructions from a book, but the best improvements come from combining this along with a following of your intuition.
Constantly tweak and refine your systems to make it more personalised and adapted to your lifestyle.
“If successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers. It must be their system, and how they go about it.”
“Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.”
When we focus just on the goals, we focus on the outcomes of success or failure rather than looking at whether our systems are working in the first place.
“Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.”
How to Change a Habit
- First, you need to change your outcome. This is to do with the results you want. So, for example write a book, lose weight, etc.
- Second, you need to change your process. This is to do with the system you use to achieve these results. So, for example writing a couple of pages every day, attending gym classes, etc.
- Third, you need to change your identity to match the direction you’re going in. So, for example, telling yourself ‘I am a writer,’ rather than ‘I write a little.’
Think of identity change in terms of a rubber band. If we try to achieve something without amending our identity, then we can only get so far before the rubber band becomes tight and soon starts to jeopardise our results.
When our habits match our identities, they become much easier to act out because they are so engrained. It just feels like being yourself.
“Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.”
By holding onto our identities rather than letting them flow, we risk not experiencing the benefits of something because “that’s not who I am”
“The more you repeat a behaviour, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behaviour.”
When we change our identities to match with our goals and systems, we are much more likely to stick with it because we now have to go back on ourselves to break the habit.
“Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
“The primary reason the brain remembers the past is to better predict what will work in the future.”
Habits are made up of four stages: Cue, craving, response and reward
“Your mind is continuously analysing your internal and external environment for hints of where rewards are located. Because the cue is the first indication that we’re close to a reward, it naturally leads to a craving.”
Our nervous systems are constantly scanning our environment to find cues that will lead to rewards that will satisfy our desires. Our internal state is constantly changing and therefore so are our desires. Our desires are always based on solving a problem, a problem simply being something we want to obtain for pleasure or something we want obtain for relief for pain.
The way we react to these cues determines whether it becomes a habit or not. The amount of thinking/ action we commit to the cue depends on the motivation to do so. If there is a lot of friction or we have to expend more energy than we want to give, we won’t do it.
Rewards satisfy and teach us. The more immediate this reward occurs (the less lag time until the result) the more attractive it is.
The four Laws of creating a Habit
- How can I make it obvious? (Cue)
- How can I make it attractive? (Craving)
- How can I make it easy? (Response)
- How can I make it satisfying? (Reward)
The 1st Law: Make It Obvious
A habit is automating an action until you act on a cue without having to apply conscious effort.
This can be a problem with bad habits as it means their cues can become invisible depending on how engrained the habit is. The cues become invisible. Therefore, we need to maintain awareness when acting on things.
To build new habits we need to be aware of our behaviour, this is the first step.
One way of becoming aware of our action is to speak them out loud, this alerts us to our subconscious behaviour.
When you plan ahead of time you are essentially preparing yourself for that task. Therefore, our plans require us to know where and when we are going to partake in this action.
When our plans are vague it is easy to rationalise excuses to get out of them, but implementing an intention allows us to be specific, getting rid of those excuses.
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
The Diderot Effect
When we act on something it normally determines what we do next. Knowing this, we can plan ahead of time and connect habits together in order to make the most of our following actions. E.g. brushing your teeth + washing your face.
When we connect two habits together, we call it habit stacking.
The habit stacking formula is: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
To really make this effective we can connect a desired behaviour with something we already do every day. This gives this new desired behaviour an anchor.
This only works if the desired action can be immediately actionable (think location or logical following). For example, you couldn’t workout just after you had a shower.
Be specific with your habits. Specificity doesn’t allow us to rationalise our way out of missing a habit. E.g. instead of ‘reading a book,’ try ‘read 10 pages.’
Our environment determines how we act. If you control your environment, you can control your behaviour.
Fill your environment with good productive cues. Same goes for friendship groups.
If your cues are subtle or hidden it is easy to overlook them, hence why we need to make them obvious, creating a bigger reason for us to act on them.
“Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it.”
“Our behaviour is not defined by the objects in the environment but by our relationship to them.”
An addiction is amplified if one is in the wrong environment.
“Bad habits are autocatalytic: the process feeds itself. They foster the feelings they try to numb.”
“You can break a habit, but you’re unlikely to forget it.”
So, to counteract this, instead of making the cues obvious, we need to make them invisible/ hidden.
Self-control is not a long-term option, we run out of it if we are constantly bombarded with tempting cues. Instead make the cues invisible so that we don’t have always rely on up our self-restraint.
The 2nd Law: Make It Attractive
The more attractive we can make a cue, the more likely we are going to act on it. In addition to this we want the reward to be more concentrated.
For us to want to experience something again, the desire has to be there. The desire for something is determined by whether or not the first experience was good or not. Dopamine (one of the molecules in our brain) is responsible for desire, meaning that habits are dopamine driven.
By making our habits attractive we increase the expectation of the reward and in turn the desire for it. This makes our dopamine increasing as well as the likelihood to act on it.
When we habit stack, we link an action we ‘need to do’ with the one we ‘want to do.’ This makes the ‘need to do action’ much more attractive because we get the added benefit of doing something we like and reaping its reward.
The habit stacking + temptation bundling formula is: After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED]. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].
Social Groups and Habits
Our environment isn’t just about objects, it also has to do with people and society. We tend to copy habits from people who are close to us, the majority and the powerful. We conform to fit in.
We do this for both bad and good habits. If you see someone close to you completing a habit, you’re more likely to do it as well.
“Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself.”
“The shared identity begins to reinforce your personal identity.”
If you belong to a group of people who are all striving to maintain a habit. Because of our competitive nature and our need to stay in the group we are likely to copy them, thus creating an environment of positive reinforcement.
“Most days, we’d rather be wrong with the crowd than be right by ourselves.”
To fit into certain groups, we have to change our behaviour, this makes change look attractive as the reward is an increase in popularity (social proof/ increase in social status).
We have numerous underlying motives such as sex, power, politics, etc. and if they match up with certain social groups, they can be very attractive.
The way we interpret events depicts how we predict things later on.
Therefore, we can condition ourselves to associate an action as either good or bad, this is done by applying emotions to them. We can look at something that highlights its bad points, or we can do the opposite. This means we can make habits look more attractive by applying positive emotions to them.
Because our current internal state is always changing, it means that cues that catch our attention are also changing because they may not supply what we want at that moment in time.
To get rid of bad habits, we need to make them unattractive.
The 3rd Law: Make It Easy
The easier it is to do something the better. If there is a lot of friction, We might be inclined to procrastinate.
Things get easier the more you do it (neuroplasticity). Likewise, they atrophy if abandoned.
Things don’t become easier by just thinking about doing them, they only get easier through literal action.
Learning a skill is hard at first because the neurons have to build a channel/ path. But the more repetition that occur the easier it is for neurons to fly through with ease. E.g. language learning or reading a book but not applying it.
Automaticity is the ability to perform an action without thinking about each step, the subconscious mind has taken it over.
The Law of least effort suggests that our brains don’t like to expend energy if it doesn’t have to. So, the less energy a task requires, the more attractive it looks.
“In a sense, every habit is just an obstacle to getting what you really want.”
Don’t confuse making a habit easy with only doing easy habits. The idea is to make the process of the habit as easy as possible.
“The greater the friction, the less likely the habit.”
By getting into the habit of creating a system that makes the next action as easy as possible (habit stacking), through the use of repetition we are able to habitualise it and in turn create an efficient routine.
We all have decisive moments throughout the day, so we want our thinking to be the best it can be when making those decisions. Obviously, you can’t plan for everything, but you can create the lead up to these moments by designing a well thought out habit system. This will end up providing you with the perfect environment for making these decisions.
If habits look daunting it creates friction which makes us less likely to act on them, so by making them smaller we can make them more attractive and therefore easier. E.g. instead of ‘meditate,’ try ‘meditate for 2 minutes.’ Most of the time when we actually follow through and are partaking in it, we will continue past just 2 minutes.
“Habits can be completed in a few seconds but continue to impact your behavior for minutes or hours afterward.”
To get out of bad habits, try making them hard, one of the best ways of doing this is by making them impractical.
The 4th Law: Make It Satisfying
When we experience something, our brains save the sensation until we come across the cue again. The quality of the pleasure then determines whether it is worth acting on the cue or not.
“What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided.”
The previous 3 laws; make it obvious, make it attractive and make it easy, all contribute to whether we take action, whereas the law make it satisfying determines whether it is to be repeated.
The more immediate the reward is the more likely we are to repeat it. This can be hard considering a lot of good rewards can be long-term. E.g. you work for years before it pays off. This is called a delayed-return environment.
Evolutionary speaking, we would’ve looked for immediate responses to see if something was a threat or not, but considering we have a lot of that on lockdown now, we are in a system where rewards are long-term.
“The way your brain evaluates rewards is inconsistent across time.fn2 You value the present more than the future. Usually, this tendency serves us well. A reward that is certain right now is typically worth more than one that is merely possible in the future. But occasionally, our bias toward instant gratification causes problems.”
This can prove a problem because bad habits normally have long term consequences but short-term rewards. This enables us to rationalise it later on.
Rewards can be split into two categories though. Instant and overall. Bad habits usually incur good instant rewards but bad overall, while good habits incur good instant and overall rewards.
“The costs of your good habits are in the present. The costs of your bad habits are in the future.”
Technically when following a good habit we are receiving a good reward, the only thing is it’s incremental, it’s invisible to us, but if we change that and realise we are improving just through repetition alone, it can be enough for us to be satisfied and return to do it again. Digital feedback in the form of habit tracking apps allows us to do this.
So, the idea is to provide ourselves with a quick reward (the notion that we are improving) to keep us excited while the delayed reward accumulates in the background.
Visual Measure are incredibly important for us to visualise how much we have improved.
Tracking behaviour and being aware of it allows us to see where in a system there may be a fault and then correct it. Measuring shows us whether or not the habit is working.
Recording measurement becomes a habit in itself, so the more automated you can make it the better. However, like any habit, if you start to miss it then it can have an effect on all your other habits. Never miss more than twice as a bad habit can start to form.
It’s better to do something towards a habit than nothing at all. E.g. doing a tiny bit of a workout is better than doing nothing. It’s the initial stage of the habit that’s the hardest, so even if you only work on the beginning part, you’re still improving at your habit.
Don’t make the tracking of measurements the goal. As soon as that becomes the case, we don’t focus on the system anymore and we are just trying to do something for the sake of doing it. We become blind to the quality in which we act out our habits and whether there is any room to improve on them.
“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.”
To get rid of a bad habit, make it unsatisfying. If we make it costly or painful, we reduce our likelihood of doing it again.
Accountability can be a great way of maintaining a habit, as people don’t like to let people down as it tarnishes their reputation.
Advanced Tactics: How To Go From Being Merely Good To Being Truly Great
“Genes do not determine your destiny. They determine your areas of opportunity.”
If something works, then stay at it. Over time as you change your systems will need to change too. Always try to maintain awareness of your systems and personalise them in the way that best suits you.
By maintaining awareness of our systems/ habits, we are able to notice when something gets too easy. Once it’s too easy it becomes familiar and our brains don’t pay much attention to it, so to remedy this we need to increase the difficulty just beyond our skill level in order to grab our attentions and make us intentionally improve.
Novelty increases dopamine and therefore spurs us on to act on a habit.
“Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery”
Progressive overload (increasing the difficulty of something as soon as it becomes tolerable) need to be used when partaking in a habit in order to improve at a skill.
One should have a check-in period after a good amount of time to see whether ones identity has changed. If so, then adaptations to your habits are needed. Our identities are constantly changing, we are not set to a static rule.
“Make your values more generalised so that it can cover numerous things and can’t be taken away from you. E.g. I’m an athlete, or I like physical challenges”
Emotions drive everything. We tend to layer facts on top of our emotions, but in reality, our behaviour towards things stems from our emotions towards them.