Flicking Through 'Atomic Habits'

A summary of the things that I took away from James Clear's productivity best-seller

Should You Read This Book?

When I read non-fiction books, I like to take highlights, synthesise the major ideas into notes and turn those notes into these articles. When you like to read this way, Atomic Habits becomes an absolute nightmare.
Because every other line could be a standalone quote.
Do you know how hard it is to take notes on a book when every single page is crammed with wisdom?
James Clear is a wonderful writer and this book has so much re-readability. I’d consider adding this to the short list of books on my annual re-read list. Clear describes an approach to productivity that’s slow and steady. He doesn’t tell you how to push yourself to your limits. He tells you how to adapt your environment and your mindset, to expand your limits instead. He describes a step-by-step approach to build yourself into a monolith of productive output. And not just that; Clear also writes extensively on how to break bad habits, in a way that’s compassionate to yourself. I’d say this book was… exhaustive. I can’t think of much more that you’d ever need to know to build good habits and break bad ones. Clear helps you to see the power in the small things that you do every day. This book will teach you to believe in yourself, but trust in your systems.
Anybody who wants to change should read this book. If you want to get better at studying, fitness, learning an instrument- absolutely anything in which you can hold expertise, you’ll get something great out of this book.

Major Themes and Ideas

When we see other people’s success, it often seems like it happened overnight. That’s because ‘success’ works a little bit like melting an ice cube. You can increase the temperature by one degree at a time and it will seem like nothing is happening for quite a while, but as soon as the temperature rises above 0C things start to happen and quickly thereafter, the cube is melted.
At a glance, it looks like only one of the degree increases actually made a difference- the one that pushed it above 0C. But if we really think about it, was that single increase in temperature any more critical to the process than any of the incremental increases before it? No, each increase was the same- none was more impactful than any other. What really mattered was consistently turning up the heat, one step at a time.
That’s the unseen story of success. Each little step that you take every day is just as important as those momentous last few. Through the power of habits, you’ll be able to make those little steps happen almost on autopilot. It will be easy… it will be ‘default’. Then, success becomes default.
This is the message that forms the roots of the book, and the rest of it is discussing various methods for building good habits and breaking bad ones. One idea that resonated with me is the idea of making affirmations of your identity to change your decision making process. Let’s say you’re trying to quit smoking; it’s one thing to say to yourself “I will not smoke any more cigarettes” but it’s quite another to affirm to yourself “I’m not the type of person who smokes”. When you’re offered a cigarette at a party and you say “No thanks, I’m trying to quit” you’re operating from the position of a smoker trying to quit. Your identity is that of a smoker, albeit one who’s trying to stop. If instead you respond with “No thanks, I don’t smoke” or “No thanks, I’m not a smoker” you’re affirming to yourself that your identity is that of someone who doesn’t smoke. It’s a lot easier for a non-smoker to reject a cigarette than a smoker-who’s-trying-to-quit, you see?
You can make affirmations to build good habits too. Rather than thinking “I’m going to go for a run because I want to be more athletic”, say “I’m going to go for a run because I’m an athletic person, and that’s what an athletic person would do”. It’s surprising how often and how easily we’ll put ourselves in a box like this, and making affirmations in this way, helps you break that mould. We live in a world where we have the privilege to choose our own identity. Who do you choose to be?

Another major theme in the book which I found to be particularly noteworthy is approach that Clear takes towards goal-setting. We often take it for granted that having big goals is a good thing. “Aim for the moon and even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars” and whatnot. The problem with this is that if you have a big goal that you remind yourself of every day, you’re constantly working from a perspective of failure.
Let’s say you set a goal like “I want to run a marathon”- well, every time you go for a run, if you don’t run 26 miles, you’re failing (or at least, you’re not succeeding). That feeling of operating from a position of failure makes it so much harder to stay motivated for long enough to achieve your goal. What’s more, even if you do achieve it, it will quickly be replaced with a new, loftier goal (2 marathons!). You’ll be operating from a position of failure for your whole life.
Clear recommends setting up a system of habits to supplement your major goals. Something like “I’m going to go for a 30 minute run every other day, as soon as I get home from work”. Each day that you do this, you’re operating from a mindset of success- you’ve ticked the box. You’ve taken a necessary step towards your goals. You’ve turned up the temperature by one degree. If goals are the compass that points you in the direction that you want to go, then your system of habits is the ship. The reliable, robust machine that carries you to your destination through hell and high water.
Self-improvement should be about getting better every day, not constantly trying to catch up to your own expectations.

There are four guiding principles to building good habits. Ensuring that your habits stick to these principles will make it easier for your to do them with consistency. They’re as follows:
  • Make it obvious
Identify your good and bad habits. The first step to dealing with a bad habit is admitting that it’s there, and it’s a problem for you. James Clear has developed the habit scorecard to help you to do this. As Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said:
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”
  • Make it attractive
Find ways to make your good habits enjoyable. Surround yourself with people who enjoy the habits that you want to reinforce within yourself- join a book club, get a gym membership with a friend. Only watch Netflix when you’re on your exercise bike.
  • Make it easy
Habits aren’t conscious decision. They happen on autopilot and they align with the law of least effort. Make it so that the person that you want to be is on the path of least resistance by reducing friction for your good habits and increasing friction for your bad ones. Store sweets in the cupboard, and fruit in a bowl on your desk. I personally, have recently started packing up and storing away my gaming consoles whenever I’m done playing. It helps me stop videogames from becoming my ‘default activity’.
  • Make it satisfying
You can reinforce good habits by giving yourself some immediate gratification, like by passing on Netflix one month and putting the money into a pot for something else that you want, like a new jacket. Visualising your successes can provide immediate reward, but this doesn’t just happen- you have to find a way to show yourself this. It feels good to see your progress, and if it feels good, you’re more likely to endure.

The final major idea in the book which I just can’t pass up talking about (because it’s the one that’s had the biggest impact on my routine) is habit-stacking.
Habit-stacking is a method of chaining your good habits together to make it easier to go straight from one to another. All habits consist of a cue, a craving, a response and a reward. For example:
Cue: Your co-worker asks you if you want to step out for a smoke break.
Craving: You suddenly want a cigarette.
Response: You oblige, and step out for a smoke break.
Reward: Your craving is satiated.
The key to habit stacking is to build good habits and link the reward of one habit to the cue of another. For example:
Cue: You wake up. Your mouth tastes gross.
Craving: You want your mouth to feel clean and fresh.
Response: You get out of bed and brush your teeth.
Reward: Mouth feels fresh!
Cue: Mouth feels fresh!
Craving: You want to drink a glass of cold water.
Response: You drink a glass of water.
Reward: You pat yourself on the back for rehydrating yourself first thing in the morning.
It sounds a little bit arduous in the long-form, but this is the process that our minds go through whenever we do something without thinking about it- but our brains make shortcuts in the thinking process to save brain-power. Clear calls this process Synaptic Pruning.
James Clear himself has a really comprehensive blog post about Habit Stacking that I’d strongly recommend checking out if you want to know more about the psychology behind this process.

How The Book Changed Me

Atomic Habits has been one of the most impactful books on my life, that I’ve read. The biggest change that I made after reading this book was in implementing long habit-stacks to form my morning and evening routines. They look something like this:
Wake up > Mobility Stretches > Brush Teeth > Cleanse > Tone > Skincare Application> Dress > Breakfast > Journal > Focus on today’s most important task > Emails & Coffee > Meditation
This abbreviated morning routine takes me from 7am right through to about 11am. My day is usually pretty dynamic after that, until about 7pm when I get hungry (cue) and I get dinner started (response), which kicks off this habit-stack:
Dinner > Shower > Cleanse > Tone > Skincare > Read > Bed.
By linking my bedtime to my dinner habits, I have a much easier time getting to bed on time, because it’s all triggered by my getting hungry in the evening which is a cue that I can consistently rely on.
I also make affirmations in my journaling about my identity. I am a writer. I am a developer. I am the kind of person who works out at lunchtime. When I can’t operate on autopilot and I have to actually think about what I’m doing, these affirmations help me to make the right decisions about what to spend my time doing.
Finally, I don’t get so stressed out by my absurdly lofty goals. By focusing on my daily habit system instead, I’m able to sit back and enjoy the process of improving. I find the beauty and power in every day of honest work.