Start Small with the Summary of Atomic Habits 

Not sure how to change your habits or build new ones? We have the perfect book summary for you. In Atomic Habits, James Clear shows us how to build habits that stick.
Natalia Rossingol
August 17, 2022

There is an ice cube sitting on the table; it’s so cold in the room you can see your breath. The cube will not melt at this temperature, of course. But if you start heating the room up, degree by degree? At first, nothing will change – but at some point, the ice will turn into water. And then, if you keep turning up the heat, the water will evaporate.

This is exactly how our habits work. We often don’t notice how they impact us, and this is a huge mistake – because if we’re more aware of our habits, we can substantially change the quality of our lives.

“Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones” by James Clear explains the cognitive and behavioral nature of habit mechanisms, at the same time providing detailed instruction on how to build good habits – and get rid of bad ones. Recovering from a heavy injury, making a career, and, as he says, simply becoming a responsible adult, Clear relied on habits, so the advice he gives in the book is not merely theoretical – it has been practically applied.

Here you can read our “Atomic Habits” summary by chapter:

The Fundamentals: Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference

Big changes require big efforts, right? And that’s why you’re so hesitant to start something new. But think about this: if you want to write a book, and write 1 page a day, you’ll end up writing 365 pages by the end of the year. That might seem like an overwhelming task at first glance, but if you just do one page a day, it becomes much more manageable—and much more likely!

You might have a vision for your life that seems impossible to accomplish. But if you break down your goals into smaller pieces and make them part of your daily routine, you’ll see them come to fruition before you know it.

Small changes are not noticeable and, unfortunately, very often we quit after long weeks or even months of hard work. But this work is never wasted – it’s just stored: getting into “the valley of disappointment”, we need to keep going till we reach a so-called “plateau of latent potential” - a place where changes become possible.   

You get what you repeat, says Clear: habits multiply everything you do. But a problem with habits is that they are like a double-edged sword: while good habits can help you improve any sphere of your life, bad habits can keep you stuck in the same swamp.

Focus on Systems, Not on Goals

Goals concern results; systems concern the process. While goals are good for setting a direction, without a system, you won’t be able to make progress. After all, winners and losers have the same goals.

This is why Clear suggests using systems – in particular, a system of atomic habits. “Atomic” refers to a tiny, 1 percent change which is a source of incredible power: 

Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.

Habits and Identity

Usually we try to change habits to achieve a specific outcome. According to Clear, there is a more productive alternative: we can try to change our identity.

Consider this example. Two people are resisting a cigarette. One person says, “I’m trying to quit.” He believes he is still a smoker, and that makes him struggle with himself. The other person says, “I’m not a smoker.” That creates a totally different attitude to the problem.

Your identity is not set in stone. You can choose to stop being who you are and become one of the people you look up to. There is a very simple way to do it: 1. decide who you want to be and 2. make small wins. So think who you want to be – and then pick the right habits. And remember that the habit and identity are interrelated: a habit that’s incongruent with the self will not last.

The Science of How Habits Work

To build a habit, we should first understand its nature. It all starts with a habit loop. A habit loop is a three-step process that starts with cue, then leads to a routine, and ends with reward. The cue is what triggers your brain to start the habit loop—it could be something as simple as seeing your alarm clock go off in the morning (cue) and knowing that you need to get up and start getting ready for work (routine). The reward might be getting dressed, eating breakfast, and feeling productive (reward). When you do this over and over again, it becomes a habit—you don't even have to think about it anymore!

Thus, building a habit can be divided into four steps:

  1. Cue. A cue is a trigger that initiates a behavior – it’s some information that predicts a reward. For our prehistoric ancestors, rewards were simple, like food and water, while today these are money and fame, status and approval, and so on.
  2. Cravings. This is the motivation behind a habit: you don’t want to turn a TV on, you want to get entertained.
  3. Response. That’s the actual habit which can take the form of either a thought or an action.
  4. Reward. It satisfies your craving. The mechanisms that help your brain distinguish if this habit is useful or not is pleasure or disappointment.

If any of these stages is missing, a behavior will not become a habit.    

So how does this work in real life?

Cue: you smell a donut on your way home.

Craving: you start craving a donut.

Response: you buy a donut.

Reward: you satisfy your craving. Buying a donut becomes associated with walking down the street on your way home. 

Clear says that these steps can be transformed into a practical framework which he calls the Four Laws of Behavior Change. This framework covers two processes: how to create a good habit and how to break a bad one. So let’s take a closer look at these Four Laws.

The First Law: Make It Obvious

Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. It is not always obvious when and where to take action. Some people spend their entire lives waiting for the time to be right to make an improvement.

How to Create a Good Habit

Fill out the Habits Scoreboard

We underestimate how much our body can do without thinking. Our responses to cues are deeply encoded, and we don’t often realize why we act this or that way. This is why it makes sense to start paying more attention to our habits.

Write down your habits and think if they are positive, negative, or neutral; mark them with +,-, or =, accordingly. Keep in mind that the mark will depend on the situation: eating bread with peanut butter can be a good habit for someone who tries to add muscle, and a bad habit for someone who tries to lose weight.

To raise awareness of bad habits, you can use a Pointing-and-Calling technique. It consists of identifying, pointing out, and naming aloud things you are doing. For example, if you’re trying to stop eating junk food, before grabbing a cookie, verbalize your action: “I’m about to eat this cookie but I don’t need it. It will make me gain weight.”

Use Implementation Intentions

The two most common cues are time and location. In other words, if you clearly know when and where you will perform a new habit, you’re more likely to follow through. Saying “I’m going to work out more” doesn’t specify these details, and won’t be very practical.

There is a simple formula you can use:

I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]: I will meditate for 1 minute at 7 am in my kitchen.

Habit Stacking

Have you heard of the Diderot Effect? The French philosopher Denis Diderot was poor – so poor he couldn’t pay for his daughter’s wedding. He sold his personal library, and the money he got was enough to not only make a wedding but also to buy a beautiful scarlet robe. Realizing that there is no unity and coordination between his robe and the rest of his possessions, Diderot started upgrading his environment, buying new expensive things.  

The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new thing leads to additional purchases. This effect can be applied to habits: to build a new habit, identify one you already have, and stack a new one to it. For example:

After I pour my cup of coffee each morning, I will meditate for one minute.

Design Your Environment

According to Clear, environment is “the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.” To build a habit, you should create an environment that would benefit it, making the cues more obvious. For example, if you want to take pills each night, place your pill bottle next to the faucet in the bathroom.

It’s also very useful to build new habits in a new environment because we’re used to associating spaces with specific actions. Use a chair for reading, a table for eating, and so on.

How to reduce a bad habit

It’s easier to avoid temptation than resist it. Self-control is a short-term strategy: you can use it once or twice but no more. The inversion of the Fourth Law says that rather than making a cue obvious, we should make it invisible.

The Second Law: Make It Attractive

The trend is for rewards to become more concentrated and stimuli to become more enticing. Junk food is a more concentrated form of calories than natural foods. Hard liquor is a more concentrated form of alcohol than beer… If you want to increase the odds that a behavior will occur, then you need to make it attractive.

How to Build a Good Habit

Use Temptation Building

The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it will become a habit. The reason is dopamine, a hormone that is released when we experience and – what’s even more important – anticipate pleasure (this is why anticipating a vacation is often even more pleasant than a vacation itself.) Desire drives behavior. That's why habits we want to build must be attractive to us.

One way to make them attractive is temptation building: pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do. For example, get a pedicure only while checking overdue work emails. When we anticipate a reward, our dopamine level rises, and when it rises, we get motivated to act.

Join a Culture Where Your Desired Behavior Is a Norm

Humans are social creatures – our ancestors lived in tribes, and separation from a tribe meant death. This is why it’s so important to feel that we fit in – we still have it encoded in our memory. And a desire to belong to a group can be used to build habits, says Clear.

We imitate people who surround us, in particular these three groups: the close, the many, and the powerful. Each group presents opportunities to form habits:

  1. The close. It’s easier to get a new habit if you see others doing it every day.
  2. The many. We constantly check if we comply with the norms of the group. We see what everyone else is doing and try to do the same.
  3. The powerful. High-status people have respect and money – so we try to do what they do, as their habits seem attractive.

This is why it’s so important to surround yourself with the right people – we will subconsciously imitate their behavior.

Create a Motivational Ritual

A hard habit can start to seem easier if you do something pleasant before. For example, before going to the gym, do something that makes you feel better – pet a dog, or even take a hot bubble bath. Eventually, you’ll begin associating petting a dog with a gym, and petting a dog will motivate you to work out.

How to Break a Bad Habit

An inversion of the Second Law is “Make It Unattractive.”  Basically, all you have to do is to look for the benefits of avoiding a bad habit.

The Third Law: Make It Easy

Whether we are approaching behavior change as an individual, a parent, a coach, or a leader, we should ask ourselves the same question: “How can we design a world where it’s easy to do what’s right?

How to Create a Good Habit

Reduce Friction

The Law of Least Effort states that when people have to choose between two options, they will choose the one that requires the least amount of work. This is why we adopt habits like scrolling our phones so fast – they are very convenient and don’t require too much energy.

So how can we achieve more with less energy? An effective technique is reducing friction – decreasing the number of steps between you and your habit. A good example is Japanese electronics manufacturers: back in the 1970-s, they eliminated every point of friction in the manufacturing process so that workers didn’t have to waste their effort (like turning to get their tools.) As a result, by the end of 1979, it took Americans three times as long to assemble their devices as compared to the Japanese.

Instead of wasting time and effort, we should remove the points of friction. This is how we can make a habit easier for us.

Prime the Environment

Organizing your space for a specific purpose, do it in a way that makes your life easier. If you want to remember to send greeting cards to your loved ones, keep the cards somewhere in a visible spot and have them presorted by occasion – birthday, graduation, etc. This way, you will reduce friction. 

Master the Decisive Moment

Every day we make small choices that lead to outsized outcomes. These are decisive moments: for example, the moment you choose to drive a car or to walk, to order food, or to go buy groceries and cook dinner at home. These moments are like a fork in the road – you have to pick one option.

Many habits happen at decisive moments. We need to be careful to make the right choice – the one that would take us in the direction we want to. Sometimes it means breaking the habit.

The Two-Minute Rule

Starting a new habit, don’t let it take more than two minutes. Don’t “read before going to bed” – read one page a night. The point is not to do so little, or course: it’s about creating a ritual:

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.

Automate Your Habits

A good instrument of automating your habits is technology: you can use services like meal delivery to free time for things that cannot be automated.

You also can make one-time choices that will have a lasting effect on your life – and habits: for example, to increase productivity, you can turn off notifications and group chats. You do it one time, then it works for you.

How to Break a Bad Habit

The inversion of the Third Law is to make it difficult: increase friction between you and your bad habits and make choices that would restrict you in the future, including one-time ones.

The Fourth Law: Make It Satisfying

With our bad habits, the immediate outcome usually feels good, but the ultimate outcome feels bad. With good habits, it is the reverse: the immediate outcome is unenjoyable, but the ultimate outcome feels good.

How to Create a Good Habit

Use Reinforcement

We’re more likely to repeat something that is satisfying. For example, toothpaste flavors don’t improve the effectiveness of toothpaste – but they create a feeling of a “clean mouth”, which makes the process of brushing your teeth more enjoyable. It was after manufacturers added flavors like spearmint and cinnamon that they found great success.

But we are not looking for any satisfaction – we’re looking for immediate satisfaction. For the most part of human evolution, people lived in an immediate-return environment. Their actions had immediate results: you avoid a predator, you survive. It was only 500 years ago when our society started shifting to a delay-return environment (you work the whole month to get a paycheck.) The problem is, our brain didn’t evolve to live in this environment. It wants immediate rewards.

Reinforcement means using immediate rewards – in other words, reward yourself every time you try to stick to a new habit.

Make “Doing Nothing” Enjoyable

An interesting technique is designing a way to see how avoiding a habit can be beneficial. Make avoidance visible: open a savings account to save money for something you want to buy (for example, leather jacket) and transfer money every time you skip the habit.

Use a Habit Tracker

Research has shown that people who track their progress tend to achieve better results than those who don’t. The easiest way to track your habits is to get a calendar and cross out days when you stick with your routine. Most of us have a distorted idea of our own progress, and habit tracking can help us see the real picture.

Many people resist tracking their habits because it seems like another habit to stick to. But as Clear points out, “It’s always interesting to see how you’ve actually been spending your time.”

Never Miss Twice

There will always be days when you’ll fail to do your habit. You will eat ice cream even if you’re on a diet because you’re just human and have your weaknesses. And it’s okay. But don’t let this single situation become a tendency.

How to Break a Bad Habit

The inversion of the Fourth Law is “Make It Unsatisfying”: make the consequences of your bad habits very unpleasant. The more immediate the pain, the less likely the behavior.

Advanced Tactics: How to Go from Being Merely Good to Being Truly Great

There are areas where you’re genetically predisposed to success. These are areas where habits will be more satisfying. Being tall is useful at basketball, but not at gymnastics. Genes cannot be easily changed. But they do not determine your destiny – they determine opportunities:

The key is to direct your effort toward areas that both excite you and match your natural skills, to align your ambition with your ability.

But how do we know we pick the direction – and, consequently, the right habit? Clear says there are a series of questions you can ask yourself to figure out what exactly are the areas and habits that will be the most satisfying for you:

  1. What feels like fun to me, but work to others?
  2. What makes me lose track of time?
  3. What comes naturally to me? 
  4. When have I felt alive?

Get the most of your genes. Remember the Goldilocks Rule: you experience peak motivation when you work on tasks that are neither too hard nor too easy – but rather just at the edge of your abilities. Search for challenges, but make progress to stay motivated.

Lasting results require continuous improvement. Making small changes every day, you can make miracles happen. How much money can you save if you don’t stop saving? How much knowledge can you get if you don’t stop learning? Don’t get frustrated too early if you don’t see progress: you could be just one step away from your dream.

📚 Read other book summaries on management and productivity from Runn:

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