Imperishable Takeaways From Atomic Habits

Mentalcodex | Julfi
10 min readSep 27, 2020

⬇️ Skip this part if my comments do not interest you ⬇️

Maybe you are here because you hesitate to read the book in its entirety.

Maybe you are here because you’ve read Atomic Habits a long time ago. You remember nothing, and you want to recall what are the best insights without going through its entirety.

I’m not going to deliver to you the “5 LIFE-CHANGING IDEAS IN ATOMIC HABITS.” What you will read are my unique personal gems of knowledge. This article should not have been in public. But I have decided to publish it anyway for two reasons :

  1. It forces me to really dig into my understanding. Complete what’s missing. Remove what’s unnecessary to keep an overall imperishable piece of the work of James Clear.
  2. I am sure some of you will not find themselves in these notes. And I am sure others will like it and find it helpful. I have made it for you!

Also, I decided not to quote all the time. Many sentences you will read are mine but grandly inspired by the book. Some of them are identical. Other contains just a few words in common. In other words, I give all the credit to James Clear (the author) for the excellent ideas.

Enjoy your reading!

1. You are your habits

What is a habit?

Habits are routines or behavior performed regularly. Whatever you do, if you do it regularly, it is a habit. They define us because what we do is what we are.

It is precisely for this reason that habits are so important. They are the essential components of our lives.

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

The power of habits

Habits are small changes in the present that can compound and allow you to reach remarkable results — or not — in the future.

Compound is the magic word. You don’t need to move mountains to achieve great things. If you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero.

Compounding is progressing

We all have habits. So we all progress, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Insignificant behavior or thoughts, repeated, compound, and makes us progress toward desirable goals.

  • Stress compounds, little stresses compound into serious health issues.
  • Negative thoughts compound. If you think you are worthless, stupid, or ugly, you will interpret life that way.

Sometimes small changes lead to incredible results. The bias is that we commonly see the outcomes, not the process.

2. The overall process to establish Habits

Systems > goals

Goals are the results we want to achieve. They are great to set direction, but not to solve a problem other than temporarily.

Systems are the process that leads to those results. Changing a problem at the system level is changing the cause of the awful results you obtain.

To beat bad habits and adopt good ones, focus on getting better each day. Adopt an authentic long-term thinking that passes through endless refinement and continuous improvement and is, by definition, goal-less thinking.

Why we fail to change our habits :

  1. We change the wrong thing
  2. We change our habits in the wrong way.

The right way to change habits

Every behavior changes rely on three layers. If you want to change, act on one of them.

  • Outcome: Your results.
  • Process: The system of beliefs behind the scheme of actions.
  • Identity: Who you are.

Changing your identity is the smartest choice. Becoming the type of person you wish to become is a better sustainable than getting a particular outcome or changing a process.

Two steps to change your identity:

  • Focus on who you want to be
  • Prove it to yourself with small wins.

On the one hand, you can create Identity-based habits by repeating a behavior.

On the other hand, removing identity-based habits is hard. The more deeply a thought or action is tied to your identity, the more difficult it is to change it. So you can break a habit, but you are unlikely to forget it.

How to change your behavior

“behaviors followed by satisfying consequences tend to be repeated and those that produce unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated” — Edward Thorndike

The art of habit-forming is closely related to the fundamental principle that makes the Human so reliable. Try, Fail, Learn, Try differently. We repeat a behavior when the experience is satisfying and won’t repeat when it’s not.

On the contrary, changing habits require a particular awareness of your actions. Any new situations in life draw our attention until we’re used to it. When it’s the case, the conscious mind pawn off the task to the nonconscious mind. We’ve created a habit.

Habits stand for creating mental rules that we can apply in similar situations, so we no longer need to analyze it. But there is a trick.

All habits proceed through four stages in the same order: cue, craving, response, and reward. You can notice and break bad habits or create good ones by mastering the uses of these four.

  1. Cue: triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. Cue is about noticing the reward. A cue is an indication that you’re close to a reward, which leads to a craving.
  2. Cravings: motivational force behind every habit. The desire to change your internal state.
  3. Response: actual habit you perform.
  4. Rewards: the end goal of every habit.

“Eliminate the cue and your habit will never start. Reduce the craving and you won’t experience enough motivation to act. Make the behavior difficult and you won’t be able to do it. And if the reward fails to satisfy your desire, then you’ll have no reason to do it again in the future.”

In the following, we will see how we can make the most of these four stages.

  • The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
  • The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
  • The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
  • The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.

3. The 1st law: Make it obvious

Make undesirable habits visible

Most of the time, we operate in automatic mode. For instance, unless someone points it out, you may not notice that you cover your mouth with your hand whenever you laugh.

As I’ve written above, changing your habits start by being aware of what we are actually doing.

Pointing-and-Calling raises the level of awareness from a nonconscious habit to a more conscious level by engaging our senses. In a word, habits are invisible because they are internal. If we manage to formulate orally and physically what we do, we force any habit to show up at the conscious level.

For instance: The Japanese railway operators proceed through a ritual of pointing at different objects and calling out commands. This method keeps them aware of what they are doing, which reduces errors by up to 85 percent and cuts accidents by 30 percent.

The Habits Scorecard comes next. It describes the process of writing down and rating every habit. For each, ask you the question: Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity? Then, make your conclusions.

How to start a new habit

First, you can create a specific plan: I will BEHAVIOR at TIME in LOCATION

Next, you can use the habit stacking technique. Like the Diderot Effect — the social phenomenon where one purchase entails others — , you can pair a new habit with a current one.

Identify a current habit you already do each day and stack your new behavior on top to take advantage of the natural momentum. After CURRENT HABIT, I will NEW HABIT.

Finally, you can act on your environment. The most common form of change isn’t necessarily internal, but external. A stable environment where everything has a place and a purpose is an environment where habits can quickly form.

“I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.”

How to change my environment?

Manage visual cues in your environment. Half of the brain’s resources are used on vision. If you can suppress visual cues of the bad habits and add visual cues for the great habits, you’re more likely to get the good ones done.

There is plenty of external triggers that cause compulsive cravings to repeat bad habits, make them invisible. On the contrary, create external events that make good habits inevitable.

In a word, try to create a more disciplined environment. Disciplined people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control.

Example: By adding a small sticker that looked like a fly near the center of each urinal, the cleaning service of the Amsterdam Airport’s cleaning service has reduced toilet cleaning costs by 8% per year.

4. The 2nd law: Make it attractive

Why should we make habits irresistible?

The all point of why we perform habits is that we anticipate a reward in the first place. Habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop. Moreover, we know that more neural circuitry is allocated for wanting recompenses than for liking them. Thus, making a behavior attractive naturally increases the odds of achieving it.

How to make our habits irresistible?

The temptation bundling method consists of connecting something that is not particularly pleasant to something you already want.

Example: Work out and listening audiobooks. Running and taking a bath.

The other way comes from our natural tendency to conform socially. Our social environment has three levels of influence on us.

Our closer circle: The closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to imitate his behaviors. It’s paramount to join a culture where (1) your desired behavior is the normal behavior, and (2) you already have something in common with the group.

Our broader circle: The natural behavior of the tribe often overpowers the desired behavior of the individual. The reward of being accepted is superior to the one of winning an argument. You can choose to ignore the group or to stop caring what other people think — but it takes work — or find a tribe that fits to your needs.

The powerful: Many of our daily habits are imitations of people we admire. Find the models that correspond to your identity.

Where cravings come from?

Desire, or the difference between where we are now and where we want to be, is what’s behind craving. There is always a surface level and a profound, underlying motive of what we do, and craving is just a specific manifestation of this underlying motive.

It’s all about the prediction we make. We see a cue, categorize it based on our past experience, our desire, and determine the appropriate response.

How to enjoy hard habits?

First, you can reprogram your predictions and transform a hard habit into an attractive one by playing with your natural craving desire. For instance, create a short routine that you perform every time before you do the thing you love.

And, you can reframe your habits to highlight their benefits rather than their drawbacks.

5. The 3rd law: Make it easy

Repetition > perfection

The key to master a habit is repetition, not perfection. Just do it!

How to form habits?

In neuroscience, long-term potentiation is a persistent strengthening of synapses based on recent patterns of activity. Behavior repetition is a form of change, and the finish line of it is automatization. The moment when the nonconscious mind takes over is where we perform a behavior without thinking.

The keystone to repeat a behavior is to make things that pay off in the long run easy at the moment. Unfortunately, actions that matter less are also the ones that are the easiest to do. Mindlessly scrolling on our phones is a great example.

Techniques to make your habits easy to do

In addition to making the right actions obvious, environment design can also make them easier to perform. Relying on your willpower is not sufficient. What you need is an environment where it requires more work to get out of a good habit than to get started on it. An environment where bad habits are impractical to do.

To create an environment of inevitability, reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.

You can also make your habits as easy as possible to start. The two-minute rule is the art of showing up. If you can break down a big routine into a two-minute ritual, then mastering this early-stage before moving forward, you will increase the odds of going on.

Example: If you want a healthy and long life, you need to stay in shape, so exercise, so change into your workout clothes (2 minutes).

6. The 4th law: Make it Satisfying

We are double-edged swords

If an experience is not satisfying, we have little reason to repeat it. That is why immediate-return reward behavior is more popular. It instantly delivers clear and immediate outcomes.

Sadly, success ignores immediate rewards and instead favor delayed-return reward. You can work for years before your actions deliver the intended payoff. Furthermore, the great trap is that the consequences of bad habits are delayed while the rewards are immediate.

Still, habits need to be enjoyable for it to last. The trick is so to use an immediate reward to increase the rate of a behavior.

Example: The refreshing mint flavor in toothpaste makes brushing our teeth a relatively easy habit to adopt.

Rules and techniques for keeping good habits

Making your progress visible is the first trick. For instance, you can move paper clips from one jar to another each time you complete a delayed-return type of behavior. It’s what Trent Dyrsmid did to boost his number of sales call.

Track your habits is a simple way to measure whether you did a habit. It simultaneously make a behavior obvious, attractive, and satisfying.

  1. Obvious: Recording your last action creates a trigger that can initiate your next one.
  2. Attractive: Exhibit the progress to signal that you are moving forward.
  3. Satisfying: Focused on the process rather than the result.

Never miss two in a row. You can miss one workout, but not two. Even in Sluggish days, maintain the compound gains you accrued from previous good days. Remember the two-minutes rule, even showing off reaffirms your identity.

Create a habit contract and, or recruit an accountability partner. We care deeply about what others think of us, and we do not want others to have a lesser opinion of us.

The idea is to create a local, tangible, concrete, and immediate consequence to make you realize quickly how costly your mistake is. Include an accountability partner that add a social pressure.

Example: Announce on Facebook that you stop smoking and offer 50$ to each of your friends that catch you smoking.

This concludes what I’ve decided to keep from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. No more, no less. I hope you liked it!

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Mentalcodex | Julfi

Power dynamics expert. I share essays and historical case studies about Human nature and its relationship with power.