Atomic Habits Book Summary, by James Clear

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1-Page Summary of Atomic Habits

Overview

If you want to build a new habit, such as meditating, try adding it on top of an existing one. For example, if you drink coffee every morning anyway, commit to meditating after your cup of coffee. This way you can take advantage of the momentum from an existing habit and make meditation a part of your daily routine.

What are habits? They’re behaviors we carry out without thinking about them, such as making coffee in the morning or brushing our teeth at night. Our daily routines are guided by these habits.

As a result, you may not realize how much power there is in habits. Habits can have a huge effect on people’s lives if they are repeated every day. So understanding and embracing habits is a great way to take control of your life and achieve more.

In this article, I will explain what habits are and how they’re formed. In addition, you’ll learn how to use them to change your life for the better.

The author explains why modern life makes it hard for us to form habits, how a cat in a box helped scientists understand this process, and what soap sales can tell us about building habits that stick.

Big Idea #1: Small habits can have a big impact on your life.

Imagine a plane taking off from Los Angeles to New York. If the pilot decided to change course by 3.5 degrees, it would make no difference in the cockpit but over time, it would be noticeable and confused passengers wouldn’t land in New York as planned.

We tend to think that if we do something small, it won’t make a big difference. However, the opposite is true: If you eat one slice of pizza today and then another tomorrow, you will have eaten two slices in just two days. Likewise, if you jog for 20 minutes every day for a year, you’ll be fitter than before even though there might not be any noticeable change from day to day.

If you want to make a positive change in your life, be patient and confident that your habits are helping you achieve your goals—even if they aren’t producing immediate results.

If you’re not getting the results that you want, try to look at your trajectory and see if it’s on track. If you are saving money each month, then that’s a good sign. Even if your bank account balance isn’t increasing right now, keep going in this direction for a few months or years and things will improve. A person who spends more than he earns every month might not be worried about his bank statement from one month to the next but eventually those bad habits will catch up with him.

The key to making big changes in your life doesn’t have to involve a lot of effort. You don’t need to completely change who you are; just make small improvements, which will eventually become habits.

Big Idea #2: Habits are behaviors we have learned from experience.

When you enter a dark room, you instinctively turn on the light. That’s because it’s a habit that your brain has developed after repeated experiences of turning on lights in dark rooms. How do habits develop? Your brain learns how to respond to new situations by trial and error. In one famous experiment, cats were placed in a black box with no way out. They tried randomly pressing levers until they found one that opened the door and let them escape from the box.

Thorndike then put the cats back in the box and repeated the experiment. His findings? Well, after a few times getting out of the box, each cat learned to get out quickly by going straight for the lever. After 30 attempts or so, they could escape in just 6 seconds on average. In other words, getting out of boxes had become habitual.

Thorndike discovered that when behaviors are rewarded, they tend to be repeated until they become automatic.

Like cats in the nineteenth century, we also stumble across satisfying solutions to life’s difficulties and predicaments. Thankfully, we now understand a little more about how habits work. Habits begin with a cue or trigger that makes you do an action that will enable sight (walking into a dark room). Next comes craving for change (to be able to see), followed by your response (flicking the light switch). The final step is reward—the feeling of relief and comfort from being able to see your surroundings.

Every habit is subject to the same process. For example, if you’re a coffee drinker and you wake up in the morning with an urge for coffee, that’s your cue to get out of bed and make some coffee. Then when you feel alert after drinking it, that’s your reward.

Not all habits are good for us. However, the ones that we want to develop can be formed by understanding how habits work.

Big Idea #3: Building new habits requires a clear plan of action and cues to prompt the behavior.

We all have habits, some good and some bad. For example, you might check your phone every time it buzzes to see if you received a text message. You can break that habit by changing the environment around you so that there are fewer cues or triggers for your old habit. One great way to do this is with Dr. Anne Thorndike’s work in Boston at a hospital cafeteria where she wanted her patients to eat healthier meals. To encourage healthier eating, she changed what was available in the refrigerators near the cash registers because soda was always sold out first but water wasn’t as popular of an option when it came to making choices between drinks after paying for them at the register before leaving the cafeteria area of the hospital food court area (where they had both food options and drink options). She placed more bottles of water next to each register than any other beverage choice because people would buy soda whenever they were thirsty from walking around while visiting their loved ones who were hospitalized at this particular medical facility which provided patient care services inside this building complex which also housed multiple types of businesses including restaurants and stores like clothing outlets and electronics shops for instance right across from a college campus on one side and across from a public library branch on another side….

You can make simple changes to your environment that will help you change the way you behave. For example, if you want to practice guitar more often, leave it out in the open instead of putting it away. If you want to eat healthier snacks, keep them on a countertop or table and not inside a drawer. The easier it is for you to do something, the more likely you are to do it!

A second way to strengthen cues is with implementation intentions. Most of us tend to be too vague about our habits, and we need a specific plan for when and where we’ll carry out that habit. Research shows that this works.

A study of voters in the United States found that those people who were asked specific questions about when and how they would vote were more likely to actually turn out than those who weren’t. So, don’t just say “I’ll run more often.” Say, “On Monday, Wednesday and Friday when my alarm goes off at 6:00 AM I will immediately put on my running shoes and jog two miles.” Then leave your running shoes by the door where you will see them every day. This strategy may surprise you with its effectiveness in helping you build a positive habit of running regularly.

Big Idea #4: Humans are motivated by rewards, so making habits attractive will help you stick to them.

In 1954, neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran an experiment to test the neurology of desire. They blocked the release of dopamine in rats using electrodes. Surprisingly, they found that the rats lost all motivation to do anything and soon died from dehydration.

A hormone called dopamine is released in the brain when we do pleasurable things such as eating or having sex. But we also get a hit of feel-good dopamine when we simply anticipate those pleasurable activities. It’s the brain’s way of driving us onward and encouraging us to actually do things, which explains why children enjoy Christmas so much and why daydreaming about your hot date is enjoyable.

We can also use what we’ve learned from this knowledge to our advantage. If you want to form a habit, make it something that’s fun or enjoyable so that you’ll be more likely to do it. A good way of doing that is by temptation bundling, which involves pairing the new behavior with an activity that you’re already drawn towards and enjoy.

An Irish engineering student knew he should exercise more, but he didn’t enjoy it. So he connected his laptop to an exercise bike and programmed it so that only when the speed was right could Netflix be streamed. This way, exercising became a pleasurable activity for him.

You don’t need to be an engineer to apply this. If you want to work out, but you have other things that need your attention, promise yourself a reward for doing those tasks. This will make the task more enjoyable and less of a chore.

Big Idea #5: To build a new habit, make it as easy to adopt as possible.

We often spend a lot of time on behaviors that are easy. For example, scrolling through social media takes no effort at all and it can fill up lots of our time. Doing push-ups or studying Mandarin Chinese requires more work, so we have to be deliberate about doing them every day until they become habits. To turn any behavior into a habit, we need to make it as easy as possible by reducing friction in the process. We should focus on making things easier for ourselves by removing obstacles in our way and setting up systems that make us less likely to fail when trying to do something new.

You can also use this approach to reduce the friction for good habits. If you want to read more books, get a library card and check out some of your favorite titles from there. This will make it easier for you to read more books because it’s so convenient.

There are two tricks to make a habit easier in the long term. One is the two-minute rule, where you can break down any new activity into something that takes just two minutes to do. If you want to read more, commit only to reading two pages per night instead of one book per week. If you want to run a marathon, just put on your running gear after work every day instead of committing yourself to training for months and months before the race.

The Two-Minute Rule is a simple way to build habits. Once you get started, you’re more likely to continue that action. For example, once you put your running shoes on, it’s easier to go for a run than if you didn’t have them with you or even in the same room. The rule recognizes that simply getting started is the first and most important step toward doing something.

Now, let’s look at the last rule for improving your life with habits.

Big Idea #6: To change your habits, you should make them immediately satisfying.

In the 1990s, Stephen Luby worked in Karachi, Pakistan. He discovered that a premium soap could help people wash their hands more often and reduce illness as a result. The locals understood the importance of handwashing but weren’t doing it regularly because it was unpleasant to do so with inferior soap. Once they had good-smelling, easy-to-use soap, however, everyone started washing their hands on a regular basis.

The most important rule for changing behavior is to make habits rewarding.

It’s hard to be patient, because we’re wired for instant rewards. We live in a world where you work today and get paid at the end of the month. You go to the gym every morning and don’t lose weight overnight.

Our brains, however, evolved to deal with immediate concerns. They’re not equipped to handle long-term problems like saving for retirement or sticking to a diet. Our ancestors were concerned with finding their next meal and staying alert enough to escape lions in the area.

If you want to change your habits, try to attach some short-term gratification to them. For example, a couple the author knows wanted to eat out less and cook more because it would save money and be healthier for them. To do so, they opened a savings account called “Trip to Europe” every time they avoided eating out or saved money by cooking at home. This way, they could see the immediate gratification of seeing $50 land in their savings account each time they changed their habit of eating out too much.

Habits make a big difference in our lives. Some habits are easy to maintain and others aren’t. We still need to figure out how we can stick with good habits if they’re hard to maintain.

Big Idea #7: Create a framework to keep your habits on track. Trackers and contracts help you do this.

If you’re trying to quit smoking or write in your journal, it can be hard to stay motivated. Fortunately, there are a few simple things you can do that will help. One of the most well-known is keeping a record of your habits, which Benjamin Franklin did when he was young by writing down his adherence to 13 virtues like avoiding frivolous conversation and always being doing something useful. He noted each night whether he had done what he intended for the day.

You can develop a habit tracker by using a simple calendar or diary and crossing off each day that you stick with your chosen behaviors. This will help because the anticipation of crossing it off and seeing how many days in a row you’ve stuck to your habits will feel good, which will keep you motivated.

A second technique is to develop a habit contract, which can be used to impose penalties if you fail to stay on track. For example, Bryan Harris made a deal with his wife and personal trainer that he would lose weight. He identified specific habits that would help him meet his goal, including tracking food intake each day and weighing himself each week. If he failed to do these things, he had to pay $100 or $500 respectively. The strategy worked because it was driven not just by the fear of losing money but also by the fear of losing face in front of two people who mattered most to him—his wife and trainer. Humans are social animals; we care about what others think about us so simply knowing someone is watching us can be a powerful motivator for success.

So why not make a habit contract? You can do this with your partner, best friend or coworker. If you agree upon consequences for failing to follow through on the habits, you’ll be more likely to stick with them. And as we’ve seen, sticking with even one positive habit will lead to big things in life.

Full Summary of Atomic Habits

Small Steps

The more you repeat a behavior, the more it becomes a habit. Most people don’t think about how small adjustments in their routines can have long-term effects on their lives. Eventually, these changes become habits that help them achieve better results. The author suggests creating “atomic habits” to change your life permanently for the better by changing your behaviors and actions over time.

A person’s actions are based on their beliefs, which form their identity. To change your habits, you need to figure out what you want and how to get it.

Another approach is to focus on the person and their identity. For example, a prideful athlete will carry out habits that maintain physical ability as well as athletic identity.

Changing a Habit

To change a habit, first understand why you have that habit in the first place. People’s habits are influenced by their identity. If you want to change your behavior for the long term, make sure it aligns with who you really are. You can learn more about this idea from ancient Romans, who translated “identity” as “repeated beingness.” Habits represent our individual identities because we repeat them every day.

The quest to change revolves around who you want to be. You should decide what kind of person you want to become and then make small changes in order to achieve that identity.

The process of improving and perfecting your identity requires continuous corrections to your beliefs, as well as adjustments to the way you act.

Building Habits

When you encounter a specific situation, your brain determines how to react. When it decides that the same reaction is the best option for similar situations in the future, it becomes a habit. Habits decrease stress because they’re automated and require minimal energy. They follow four steps: cues trigger cravings; responses provide rewards.

“The Four Laws of Behavior Change”

To create or break a habit, follow the Four Laws of Behavior Change. These laws are integral to good habits and bad habits.

The First Law: “Make It Obvious”

The brain is constantly taking in information, analyzing it and sorting out what’s important. It also recognizes repetitive experiences so that we can use them again later on. When the brain has had enough repetition of a certain event or action, then it becomes a habit because the brain knows how to react when that situation arises. The only way to change a bad habit is to make sure you’re aware of your actions beforehand and think about why they are good or bad for you before doing them.

Another method for creating a new habit is to combine it with an existing one. For example, if you want to start exercising every day, you can make that the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning. That way, it becomes part of your routine and will be easier to keep up.

Your environment can influence your habits. If you want to form a new habit, change the environmental cues that trigger it. To eliminate an old bad habit, remove all of the cues in your environment that cause you to do it. The more obvious and visual cues there are in your environment, the stronger they will affect your behavior. People react most strongly to their most visible options; therefore, when trying to build a new good habit into your routine, put large and clear reminders everywhere so you’ll notice them easily every time you’re about to do something else instead of what’s healthy for you.

The Second Law: “Make It Attractive”

When we experience pleasure, the brain releases dopamine. We are likely to repeat that behavior because of the pleasurable feeling it gave us. If you do something and it feels good, then you want to do more of it in a looping cycle. You can also make your habits more attractive by pairing them with things that you need to be doing anyway (like brushing your teeth).

Culture and social groups determine what we think is attractive. We want to be part of a group, so we imitate them to gain their approval and respect. We look up to the powerful as role models for success. By identifying our desired behavior and joining a community that practices it, we can build new habits because they’re more likely to last when embedded in communities.

Behaviors work on two levels. They either satisfy surface or superficial cravings, or they address underlying or deep motives. Habits are a manifestation of an essential purpose originating from ancient desires and feelings can alter habit-triggering cues.

The Third Law: “Make It Easy”

Habits are repetitive behaviors that you do so often they become automatic. The more frequently you repeat an action, the more automatic it becomes. This process is mediated by physical changes in your brain, which neuroscientists call long-term potentiation.

A good way to get a new behavior into your routine is to make it part of an already established habit. For example, if you want to start exercising more, try doing pushups every time you brush your teeth.

“Automaticity” means that the brain will perform a task without thinking about it. This is because the brain tries conserve energy by selecting tasks which require little effort or thought. The less work required in order for something to happen, the more likely it will occur again and again. In order for someone to learn something new, they should practice (take action) instead of just planning what they are going to do. If you don’t take action, then nothing changes.

It is easier to change a habit that has already been established, rather than trying to create one from scratch. To establish a new habit, you have to show up for only two minutes at first and then it will be easier to perform the activity. To break a bad habit, make it harder by increasing friction or making things more difficult when performing the activity; use helpmates or “commitment devices” such as paying in advance for something so you can’t back out of it later on.

Technology can help you focus on important tasks. For example, if you want to stop using social media apps, delete them or change their passwords so that it’s harder for you to use them again.

The Fourth Law: “Make It Satisfying”

Habits are developed through repetition of behavior that is rewarded, and by avoiding behaviors that are punished. The brain craves quick success, even in small increments. It evolved to value the present over the future. Habits can be changed when people find alternatives attractive, easy and obvious. Choose rewards for habits that reinforce your personality and make you enjoy what you’re doing while leading to lasting results.

If you find a new habit difficult to stick to, remind yourself that one failure does not break the habit. You can still adjust your activities and try again. Bad habits won’t form if they turn out to be unsatisfying or painful.

To improve your habits, keep a log of what you’re doing. Track the good things that you do and use it to stay focused on those behaviors. Seeing that you are making progress will help motivate you to continue working on improving yourself.

To make your habits stick, you can create a contract with yourself and an accountability partner. The contract will specify what you are going to do and how you are going to measure that habit. It should also include a penalty if the habit is not performed as specified in the contract. If you have someone who cares about your success, they can help keep you accountable for doing what needs to be done each day or week.

The Right Balance

Your genes also affect your habits. Your personality and behaviors are shaped by your assessment of what you can do, as well as how much effort it takes to change a habit. You should select activities that complement your innate abilities or competency level in order to achieve success more easily.

If you want to be motivated, the task has to be challenging. If it’s too easy or hard, then you won’t feel like doing it. It has to be something in between that challenges you but is still doable. This applies to habits as well. If you start small and work your way up gradually, then eventually the new habit will become a part of your daily routine and lifestyle.

Boredom is dangerous. If people become bored with a routine activity, they may stop doing it altogether because they no longer find it interesting or exciting.

Good Habits

Every behavior requires a certain level of mastery and effort. It is achieved by taking small steps, which eventually turn into good habits. With time, these good habits become part of everyday life and one does not even notice them anymore. However, it is important to be aware of your actions in order to find out whether you are making any mistakes or need to change something about yourself.

Good habits, if practiced continuously, can be powerful. Those habits help you form your identity.

Atomic Habits Book Summary, by James Clear
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