Insights – Atomic Habits: Notes from the book

13th February 2022

Posted in: Insights

Atomic Habits by James Clear is a collection of research, theories and examples about the science of habit formation, behaviour change and continuous improvement.  He provides examples of the small changes made to help him recover from significant injury but also examples of sporting teams and businesses that have used these theories in their own success stories.

Below are some of the key points I have taken from the book and how I have applied to my own behaviour.


Why are habits important?  

The aggregation of marginal gains is the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do.   The effect of small habits will compound over time so If you can get 1% better each day for one year you will be 37 times better than when you started i.e., habits are the compound interest of self- improvement.

E.g. the British cycling team used the aggregation of margin gains to turn their underperforming team into Olympic and Tour de France champions.


Why building habits is hard.

Initial progress can be hard and slow and in order to make habits stick we need to persist long enough to break through the Plateau of Latent Potential.

The slow pace of transformation also makes it easy to let a bad habit slide in the short term.


Focusing on systems is more important than goals.

Goals are about the results you want to achieve- systems are the processes that lead to those results.  Goals are good for setting the direction but we also need the plan or system to actually make progress and to keep on playing the game.


Habits and Identity change

There are three levels of change, outcome change, process change and identity change. Identity change is the Focus on who you wish to become. The more deeply an action or idea is tied to your identity the more difficult it is to change so changing your mindset is important e.g. your goal should not be to read a book – it should be to become a reader.

The 2 step process is to

  1. Decide the type of person you want to be
  2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.


Four stages of habits – the habit loop.

Every habit goes through the same four stages and without all four stages a habit will not be repeated.

  1. Cue – what triggers our brain to initiate a behaviour by letting us know we are close to a reward. ie. noticing the reward
  2. Craving – the motivation or desire the cue triggers – a craving is a desire to change your internal state. ie. wanting the reward
  3. Response – the actual thought or action you perform. This will only be carried out if motivation is high enough and you are capable of doing it. ie. obtaining the reward
  4. Reward – the end goal of every habit. This serves 2 purposes; to satisfy and teach us.


Four Laws of Behaviour Change

Stage How to Create a Good Habit How to Break a Bad Habit
Cue Make it obvious Make it invisible
Craving Make it attractive Make it unattractive
Response Make it easy Make it difficult
Reward Make it satisfying Make it unsatisfying


Law 1 – Make it obvious

Many cues that spark our habits are so common they are invisible – we must start behaviour change with awareness.   Examples of how to do this include the following:

Pointing & Calling– this system was used in the Japanese railway system and can be used to trigger good habits. eg I use a similar system to check phone, wallet keys before leaving the house.

Habits scorecard – this is useful to help us to identify all of our habits and understand whether they are good or bad.

Implementation intention – identifies a cue and makes a specific plan for the action that will follow ie when something happens I will perform x. for example those that set a plan to “exercise for one hour at 5 pm at the gym” are more like to actually exercise than those that say I will exercise tomorrow. eg I have started to schedule my exercise in my calendar to lock in which helps me to stick to my plan.

Habit stacking– The Diderot effect shows that for when you make one purchase, it is more likely to lead to additional purchases i.e. you create a chain reaction. This suggest you can use an existing habit to help tag on a new habit. eg As soon as I get home from work, I will change into my workout clothes or when I clean my teeth I will then floss my teeth.

Environment Our surroundings are very important in habit setting. We can make cues for good habits visible and hide cues of bad habits in our environment i.e. to encourage yourself to eat more fruit- put it in a bowl on the table, rather than hidden in the fridge (and in contract high the chocolates from view).  If you have a habit of checking social media every time you pick up your phone at work you should separate your use of digital devices or remove the apps from your home screen. Out of sight, out of mind. People with high self control are actually just better at structuring their lives in a way that they spend less time in tempting situations – it is easier to avoid temptation than resist it.


Law 2 – Make it Attractive

Making the behaviour we are trying to encourage more enjoyable will help us to create recurring behaviours as follows:

Temptation bundling-  More probable behaviours will reinforce less probable behaviours. For example I am more likely to use my treadmill now as I am able to watch your favourite TV show at the same time as I am exercising.

Group influence -Our culture and social groups helps determine our behaviour as we need approval respect and praise i.e. we chose behaviours that help us fit in and adopt habits of our friends and family, our tribe and the powerful or influential. To improve chance of success join groups where your desired behaviour is the norm or you already have something in common with the group. eg I started attending Park run when I was training for the marathon as each of the group has the some motivations and interests.

Positive Mindset – Habits are about associations which determines if we want to repeat something. If we have a positive experience with a reaction we are likely to repeat it again. Mindset can be important i.e. reframing your habits to highlight their benefits will help reprogram you mind and make a habit more attractive. E.g. saving money is often associated with sacrifice which is negative but reframing to associate with freedom i.e. I have the freedom to buy something in the future will make it more positive association and encourage the behaviour.


Law 3 – Make it easy

Ensuring the behaviour is simple or easy will increase likelihood of developing the habit and conversely making something more difficult is likely to helping in shedding bad habits as follows:

Frequency tops duration- The amount of time you have been performing a habit is not as important as the number of times you have performed it. E.g. you are more likely to create a good habit by walking for 10 minutes for 6 days, than walking an hour just one day a week.

Law of Least Effort – create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible and doing the wrong thing is as difficult as possible. Reduce the friction or effort i.e. you are more likely to exercise if you set out your workout clothes and shoes ahead of time. l drink more water by having a bottle on my desk than If you need to walk to the kitchen to get a glass of water.

Two minute rule – start small e.g. to start a habit of reading – start by reading one page, to run a marathon – start by putting on your running shoes. Perfection stalls action- i.e. if we put off until everything is perfect, nothing will ever happen.

Commitment Devices and Onetime actions that lock in Good habits – to eat less, buy smaller portions.   To improve productivity – unsubscribe form emails, turn off notifications and delete games and apps on your phone. Technology can also help by setting time limits or locking you out of apps for certain time periods.


Law 4 – Make it Satisfying

Making the reward bigger and better will increase chance of a positive habit formation.

Cardinal rule of behaviour change – what is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided. Our delayed return environment means we sometimes must work at something long term before we receive our reward- but the brain tends to prioritise our short-term intentions. For long term habits create the feeling of immediate success by creating short term rewards to recognise progress.

Habit tracker – using a calendar to recording progress each day can make success more satisfying.

Accountability partner or habit contract– finding someone to report to or putting your habit intention in writing is more likely to help you stick to your habits. This is why personal trainers are important for many in helping with exercise habits.

Goldilocks rule – motivation peaks when working at the edge of your current abilities ie Not too easy, not too hard, just right – so picking the right habits will help make it easier. Natural abilities don’t eliminate the need for hard work they clarify it by telling us what things we should work on.

Author: Donna Bruce