First Published: July 19, 2021 | Last Updated: July 19, 2021

The gist: Atomic Habits is probably the most popular book on habit building out there. If you haven't read it yet, here's what you need to know.

If you've ever researched habit building and habit building books, you've probably come across Atomic Habits.

It's one of those rare cases of productivity books that totally breaks through to the mainstream, to the point that even my IRL friends end up knowing about it.

(And not from me! 🤣)

If you read it, it's not hard to see why!

I've probably read every habit building book out there...Atomic Habits, Tiny Habits, The Power of Habit, Hooked, Drive...

And I can confidently say that Atomic Habits and Tiny Habits were the two that really transformed my own behavior change skills the most. The ones that that taught me how to build habits, in addition to the science of them.

Atomic Habits got me so excited the first time I read it that I sent my partner my progressive summarization notes of it for us to do a pseudo book club where we brainstormed habit plans together. 🤓

Here's some of what those notes included...

Note: Some of these links are affiliate links. So if you decide to buy anything, I'll receive a commission. Most creators say something like "100% of this goes back into the business," but I'm not most creators. Some months it goes into the business, others it will be used to buy inappropriate amounts of chocolate. Remember, working brighter is about balance!

Introduction to Atomic Habits

The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits

"Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement"

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement - James Clear, Atomic Habits

James Clear's approach to habit building is based on the idea, similar to Tiny Habits, that we tend to underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis, forgetting about "the aggregation of marginal gains rule," aka the law of compounding returns.

The aggregation of marginal gains rule says that if you can get 1% better each day for one year, you improve by 37x in that year.

These marginal gains are the compound interest of self-improvement, and you reach it through building atomic habits.

"Atomic habits are not just any old habits, however small. They are little habits that are part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results."

What are Atomic Habits?

Atomic habits are regular practices or activities that's not just small and easy to do, but also a source of incredible power as a component of a larger system of compounding growth.

With atomic habits, instead of focusing on big goals in the distance, you focus on your systems and habits - the inputs required for the goals.

This backs up my own theories and writing about tools vs. systems and hacks vs. strategies. How focusing on apps and tools only makes your systems worse. And what I say about why productivity without self-care and a balance mindset just leads to burnout.

Atomic Habits Shape Your Identity

In Clear's Atomic Habits theory, there are 3 levels of behavior change: outcomes, process, and identity.

Atomic Habits Theory of Behavior Change

Since identity is at the core, it's most effective to build identity-based habits that focus on who we want to be.

So the easiest way to change who you are is to change what you do, and letting the effects radiate out to the processes you do and the outcomes you achieve.

Atomic Habits is about deciding who you want to be, and proving it to yourself with small wins.

As Clear says, "Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become."

Building Identity-Based Habits

You might wonder how habits are tied to identity. It has to do with how automatic they are.

Habits are "mental shortcuts learned from experience," because your brain starts automating the process of solving a problem or completing a task. This frees your mind up to focus on different challenges.

Clear builds on Charles Duhigg's original habit loop (cue, craving, response) and adds a reward phase (again similar to Tiny Habits).

The Atomic Habit Loop

You can apply the loop to either "good" or "bad" habits (language I don't love).

  • To create a good habit, you want to make the cue obvious, the craving attractive, the response easy, and the reward satisfying.
  • To break a bad habit, you want to make the cue more invisible, the craving less attractive, the response more difficult, and the reward less satisfying.

The rest of the book looks at each of those rules or laws in depth.

Law 1: Make It Obvious

It's easier to get a handle on your current habits before you build new ones. And to do either, behavior change starts with awareness. Both of what you want to do and what you're currently doing.

So the first step of changing "bad" habits is being on the lookout for them.

You can do this with a "point-and-call system" for your personal life (which I call checklisting my day).

It's effective because it helps you be more mindful of your daily actions.

Another method is creating a habits scorecard. This is where you list out all your daily habits to become more aware of them, and ask yourself whether each is a good, bad, or neutral habit.

You can make habits more obvious through strategies like implementation intentions, habit stacking, and environment architecture.

Implementation Intentions

An implementation intention is a plan you make about when and where to act, like the time and location.

It helps because often when we think we lack motivation, we actually lack clarity. We haven't actually made the decisions necessary to get started on the habit.

A statement like "I will ___________ at _________ in _________" written down somewhere you can see is all it takes. You want to make it obvious to yourself.

Implementation intentions are so effective that I have all students of courses in the Work Brighter Resource Shop set implementation intentions for taking action on what they learn.

Habit Stacking

Another helpful trick for starting a new habit is habit stacking: identifying a current habit and stacking a new behavior on top.

These chains of habits can become routines, and work best when the original cue is highly specific and immediately actionable.

This original cue is what the habit stack's success depends on, so it should be one that you've already established. The original habit should also have the same frequency as the new desired one.

Environment Architecture

Also consider when and how you're most likely to be successful, which is where my energy management resources come in.

They can help you rely on motivation less, because motivation doesn't work.

Your habits change depending on the choices around you, the room you're in and the cues in front of you. Visual cues are also a huge catalyst of behavior.

This means a small change in your surroundings and what you see can lead to a big shift in what you do.

Fill your space with the cues that you need to become a master of your environment. Make sure the best choice is the most obvious one, create separate spaces for separate habits (where possible).

Try to avoid mixing habits and their contexts, because the easiest one will win out. So create "zones" in both your physical and digital world.

If you want to be more disciplined, create a more disciplined environment. "Disciplined" people are usually just better at structuring their lives in ways that require less willpower.

Law 2: Make It Attractive

The second law of Atomic Habits is that the more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become a habit.

This is because you get a hit of dopamine not just when you experience the reward, but also when you anticipate it.

You can use that to your advantage with tactics like temptation bundling and strategic peer pressure.

Temptation Bundling

You can take advantage of this law with temptation bundling, where you bundle something you want to do with something you need to do:

"After [current habit], I will [habit I need]. After [habit I need], I will [habit I want]."

(You can add that sentence into your implementation intention.)

Peer Pressure

Peer pressure also impacts our behavior, with both good and bad habits. Our parents warned us about this lol, but it doesn't have to be a bad thing.

You can make sure this works for you by joining a culture where your desired behavior is considered normal and you have something in common with the group. Something like an online community, meetup group, or accountability program.

Then to stop bad habits, you can reverse the 2nd law to make the activity less attractive by reframing the associations you have about them.

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Law 3: Make It Easy

The key to building new habits is starting with repetition, not perfection.

Just putting in the reps encodes the habit, and you can work on improvement later.

Some things that will help you with that are the concepts of activation energy, keystone habits, and commitment devices.

the habit line chart

Activation Energy

Activation energy is how much energy it takes for you to do or "activate" a certain activity.

The less energy a habit requires, the more likely it is to occur. It's not about motivation, it's about energy conservation. You want as many things working in your favor as possible to make your habit possible on challenging days.

Make it easy in the moment to do things that pay off in the long run.

Do things like practice environment design, reduce friction wherever possible, and resetting the room for your desired habits.

It's about being what I personally call strategically lazy: "People think I work hard but I'm actually really lazy. I'm just proactively lazy. It gives you so much time back."

Keystone Habits

You also want to pay attention to keystone habits, or actions that create other actions.

Clear explains that habits aren't necessarily the entire action or task, just the automatic choice that sets the rest in motion.

"Habits are the entry point, not the endpoint."

For Twyla Tharp, the keystone habit is not going to the gym, it's hailing a cab to get there.

(Fun fact: through the descriptions in this book, I realized that the Yorkville/Upper East Side gym I was going to at the time was where her gym used to be! Different owners/company though. Still, as a dancer, it was exciting!)

The habit itself should take less than two minutes. Then combine that 2-minute rule with habit shaping, the idea of starting small and scaling it as the habit becomes automatic.

Commitment Devices

It's as important to make bad habits hard as it is to make good habits easy. One thing that works for both is a commitment device, a choice or commitment in the present that controls your actions in the future, like a timer for your TV or internet.

They let you take advantage of good intentions before temptation kicks in.

Law 4: Make It Satisfying

"What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided."

The fourth rule is to make habits you want to continue as satisfying as possible.

Try to add immediate pleasure to habits that pay off in the long run, and immediate pain or annoyance to ones that don't. This makes them more aligned with the long-term outcomes.

Also make sure you choose short-term rewards that reinforce your identity, instead of conflicting with it.

Because making progress is satisfying, create visuals evidence of it.

The best way to do this is a habit tracker, since it leverages multiple laws of behavior change by making a habit obvious, attractive, and satisfying. 

The act of tracking itself can also keep you motivated as it becomes its own form of reward and keeps you focused on the process over the result.

And with your new habit and tracking, your goal will be to never miss twice.

Once is a slip-up, twice is the start of a new habit. Even if you show up for your habit imperfectly, try to show up.

You also want to make sure you're tracking the right habits, since you optimize for what you measure.

And having an accountability partner can help.

Advanced Tactics for Building Atomic Habits

The book ends off with some tips for "mastering" atomic habit building, once you have the basics down.

Choose the Right Habits

Habits are easier and more satisfying when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities.

"You don't have to build the habits everyone tells you to build. Choose the habit that best suits you, not the one that is most popular."

Or, as our happy habit building approach recommends, ones you just like. There doesn't need to be a deeper reason.

"There is a version of every habit that can bring you joy and satisfaction. Find it."

Think about what feels like fun to you but work to others, what makes you lose track of time, where you get greater returns than the average person, and what comes naturally to you.

Find the Right Difficulty Level

You also want to find the right level of difficulty for your habit, because your brain likes a little bit but not too much of a challenge. For more on that, see my take on comfort zones.

The Goldilocks Rule says that our motivation is highest with tasks right on the edge of our current abilities. Like I've said before, stretching your comfort zone instead of leaving it.

This is important because as a habit is built, you become less sensitive to feedback around it. This can lead to a slight decline in performance over time if you're not practicing deliberately.

Once a habit is mastered, begin building the next one and practicing the existing one. A system for reflection and review can also help.

Start Atomic Habit Building

Atomic Habits help you improve 1 percent at a time, but not in one single way.

It's a bunch of atomic habits stacking up into an overall system for tiny changes that lead to remarkable results.