How can you change your life? In Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that the key lies in your habits: the automatic behaviors that make up more than half of what you do every day. Clear contends that implementing the right habits will drastically improve your life—but to do so, you must understand how habits work and how to change yours.
In this guide, you’ll discover why habits matter and the three mindsets you can use to create them. You’ll then learn how habits form and the four keys to changing yours. Finally, you’ll learn how to continue improving habits you've implemented. Along the way, we’ll examine how other psychologists and experts approach habit formation, and we’ll explore how Clear’s theories either align with or differ from theirs.
Clear explains that implementing “atomic habits,” or small improvements in behavior, changes your life because behaviors compound—that is, they build on each other to create more and more changes. Performing one good behavior leads to another, then another—and soon, you’ve transformed your life.
(Shortform note: Clear focuses on how continuing the same behavior compounds: Saying one nice thing to your spouse won’t massively impact your relationship, but doing so every day will. In The Power of Habit, productivity expert Charles Duhigg adds that different habits can likewise compound upon each other: Changing one core habit can trigger a chain reaction that encourages you to change other habits.)
Clear identifies three levels of habits: goal-driven, system-driven, and identity-driven habits.
Clear explains that a goal-driven habit is a behavior you do in order to achieve a specific goal. This is the most common way people try to change their behavior: For example, you might choose to study two extra hours each day in order to ace a specific test.
(Shortform note: What kinds of goals should you shoot for? In Principles: Life and Work, billionaire Ray Dalio recommends that you be audacious: If you know with certainty you can achieve a goal, then you’re not aiming high enough.)
Clear contends that system-driven habits are those that focus on the systems, or processes, that will get you to your goal, instead of focusing on the goal itself. For example, developing a study routine is a system-driven habit because it focuses on the process of studying rather than the goal of acing a specific test or course.
(Shortform note: Like Clear, Indistractable author Nir Eyal suggests that some people fail to develop habits because they fail to focus on the processes. Eyal adds to the idea by arguing that you can only form a mindless habit by repeating processes that require effort—but that some people don’t put in this effort because they mistakenly think habits should be easy from the beginning.)
Clear explains that identity-driven habits are behaviors we perform because they match our beliefs about who we are—in other words, our identity. For example, if you believe you’re a good student, you have a study routine because that’s what good students do.
(Shortform note: Like Clear, motivational speaker Tony Robbins also argues in Awaken the Giant Within that your identity dictates your behavior. But Robbins’ definition of identity is broader than Clear’s: He argues that your identity also depends on factors like whether you define yourself by your past, present, or future.)
Now that you know the types of habits, which ones should you try to implement? For long-lasting behavior change, Clear recommends that you create identity-driven habits.
Clear explains that this strategy is unique because most of us try to change our behavior by building goal-driven habits. However, goal-driven habits don’t create long-term change because once you meet your goal, you stop performing the behavior. As Clear explains, if you adapt your actions to serve one finite purpose, your actions also become finite.
For example, say you ace the test for which you’ve spent two extra hours every day studying. Since you’ve achieved your goal, you’ll stop this behavior because there’s no reason to keep studying. But since you stop studying, you never develop the long-term habits you need to improve your overall academic performance.
(Shortform note: Letting goals drive your habits may also leave you vulnerable to the “arrival fallacy,” where you mistakenly think you’ll be happy as long as you achieve your goals. In reality, achieving the goal may bring temporary happiness—but that happiness will quickly fade, driving you to chase a different goal that you think will bring you happiness in a never-ending cycle. Further, if you constantly change your goals, you'll constantly stop and start different habits to support them, too, and therefore won’t develop long-term habits that can truly enhance your life.)
Instead of focusing on goal-driven habits, Clear recommends creating identity-driven habits because these, in turn, will dictate the system- and goal-driven habits you choose. Clear contends that **the beliefs of the person you want to be dictate what systems you...
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There was no way James Clear could have known that an accident as a teenager would lead to his future career. But after learning the power of tiny habits in his life, he decided to share his insights and help others do the same, and it all started with a bat.
When Clear was a sophomore in high school, he dreamed of playing professional baseball. Then, one day, a teammate lost control of a bat he was swinging, and it hit Clear in the face. Clear suffered skull fractures as a result and was placed in an induced coma at the hospital.
After waking up, Clear found that the damage from his injuries had hindered his ability to see and perform certain motor functions. After a year of rehabilitation, Clear was back on the field, but his ability to play baseball was diminished. Still, he wanted to reclaim his dream.
Clear went to a small college, where he...
The concept behind Atomic Habits relates to 1% improvements in behavior that lead to significant, lasting behavioral transformations. Often, when we want to change our lives, we get caught up in the belief that major change requires a massive expenditure of time and energy. However, by focusing on the system of behaviors, rather than the outcome of those behaviors, major shifts in who we are and what we do become easy and more sustainable.
In every facet of life, there are winners and losers. Whether it’s a game, a job, an award, or an achievement, there are always going to be those who succeed and those who fail. But both winners and losers start with the same goal, so what makes the difference between the two? The answer lies in the priority put on goals and systems.
A goal is the end result you desire. If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal may be to make the Fortune 500 list one day. Systems, on the other hand, are the processes that lead to the result. As an entrepreneur, your system might be to hire a competent staff, launch a major marketing campaign, and form high-profile partnerships. **If your processes are successful, you will...
An atomic habit requires fortitude, patience, and a good process for it to grow into a significant and permanent change in your life. Now that you know how small behaviors lead to big habits, how can this information help you achieve your goals?
What are one or two habits you have tried to develop or break recently? Were you successful?
The process of changing habits is really the process of changing who you are or becoming who you want to be. Your behaviors must match your sense of self for them to be lasting, but understanding who you are can be tricky and knowing which behaviors to change even trickier. Once you understand the connection between identity and habits, you’ll find the right path for your life and stick to it.
There are three ways, or layers, in which we think about change. The direction in which we think about them makes all the difference in our success.
The outer layer consists of outcomes. As stated, focusing on outcomes to prompt change is the most common approach. You have an end result in sight, so you adjust your behaviors to reach that goal.
The middle layer consists of processes. The behaviors involved in your system become the focus of your change. Most habits are associated with this layer.
The inner layer consists of your identity. This layer encompasses your opinions, beliefs, and assumptions about yourself and the world. Changes in behavior are motivated by the type of person you are or want to be.
Working from the outside in when...
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The relationship between identity and habits illuminates many factors that may be getting in the way of change in your life. How can this information help you to create better habits?
Look at three of your current habits. What do they say about the type of person you are?
Habits form when the brain processes the four stages of behavior: cue, craving, response, and reward. The brain is always actively taking in information from the outside world. When you are presented with a situation, the brain runs through a list of options to decide how best to respond. Through a process of trial and error, the brain deciphers which response elicits the best results. The response that delivers the most satisfaction is the one that will stick.
Each time you come across a similar situation, you will remember the satisfaction gained from that particular response and repeat it. Therefore, habits are nothing more than solutions found to manage life’s problems.
The Great Cat Escape
In an experiment, cats were placed in boxes and had to press a lever to be let out. This experiment exemplifies how the mind becomes conditioned to a certain response once doing it leads to a positive result.
At first, the cats sniffed each corner of the box and clawed at the walls. Finally, either by accident or persistence, they found the lever, and one side of the box slid open. The test was repeated with each cat, and each time, the cat found the lever...
Now that you know the stages through which habits are formed, let’s look at some of your current habits to determine how you got them.
What is a bad habit you currently have?
Habits can form from cues you aren’t even aware of. You are taking in information even when you don’t realize it. In the world of habits, this means you are reacting to cues and forming habits often without your knowledge. To be able to form a good habit or break a bad one, you must start with awareness of the habit and the cues that create them. Therefore, you need to find ways to make your cues and habits obvious.
Making a list of your daily activities helps bring your habits out of the unconscious to the surface. A habit scorecard is one way to keep track of the things you do regularly. Create a list of all the actions you make on a daily basis so your habits are brought into view.
Once you’ve filled out your scorecard, determine which habits serve you, hurt you, or neither in the long run. All habits are formed to address some issue or problem in your life, and only you can be the judge of which ones contribute to the person you want to be. There should be no judgments or criticisms about any...
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Now that you understand how to make cues more obvious, how can you use this knowledge to start new behaviors in your life?
What is one daily new habit you wish to form?
You’ve learned that sight is the most powerful cue, so how can this information help you create and break habits?
Using the new daily habit from the previous exercise, what is a visual object that relates to this habit? How can you use this object to create a visual cue for the habit?
Cravings are the brain’s way of signifying that something is missing inside. Your habits are the time-tested strategies used to create shifts in your physical or emotional state to fill the void. There are many ways to address satisfying either of these states, but you will use the one that satisfies them in the most pleasurable way. To ensure you are motivated to act in a positive way, you must make the right behavior a more attractive option for satisfying your craving. But first, you must understand where cravings come from and why they are so powerful.
Many of your current cravings are grounded in your ancestry. Humans have evolved significantly since the time of hunters and gatherers. Science and technology have increased your ability to live more efficiently and find a wealth of resources to address your needs. However, what hasn't changed are the underlying motivations that influence behaviors. Every behavior stems from some type of underlying motive. Your habits are contemporary solutions to address ancient motivations, which include the following:
Who you associate with and where you live play big roles in the behaviors you perform. Do your social circle and environment help motivate you to be the person you want to be?
What is a bad habit you currently have that was influenced by your social group?
You’ve learned that the way you think about your life can influence your motivation for life. How can you use temptation bundling and signal switching to improve your behaviors?
What is one habit you’d like to do daily? What is a different, current habit you enjoy doing?
Now that you understand how to create more positive cues and cravings, the time to act is upon you. The law governing the third stage of habit formation is to make the response easy. But making a habit easy doesn’t mean doing easy things. Making habits easy means creating pathways for behavior that are low in friction and high in follow-through. So, what does it mean to act, and how are these pathways created?
Preparing for change is an effective way to trick yourself into thinking you’re forming better habits when all you’re really doing is procrastinating. You research the latest diet trends, seek out the best get-rich-quick scheme, or look for the most optimal side hustle. When you get trapped in the process of looking for the best solution, you never move beyond the act of looking to actual action.
Motion is what happens when you take time to plan, research, and design the process of changing. When working for you, motion helps you gather your thoughts and determine what your first steps will be to change your system. When working against you, motion gives you the illusion of making progress. You feel the forward movement of action...
Trying to tackle a new habit all at once can lead to disappointment and reduced activity. How can you incorporate the two-minute rule into your desired habits to help you stay motivated?
Name one habit you wish to begin this year.
Both commitment devices and one-time actions require foresight to keep you moving in the right direction. What are some ways these strategies can help improve your habits?
What is one current task or behavior in your life that could benefit from a commitment device?
The cardinal rule of habits is “what is rewarded is repeated; what is punished is avoided.” So far, you’ve learned the necessary steps to help motivate you to begin a new habit or break a bad one. The first three stages of habit formation—cue, craving, and response—all work to help you create a new behavior. The final stage—reward—helps you duplicate the behavior.
All habits are based on anticipated pleasure because pleasure triggers the brain to remember what happened to create it. Satisfaction is the final link in the habit loop, which is why the fourth law of habit formation is “make it satisfying.” However, for satisfaction to impact behavior, the sensation must be experienced immediately.
Modern society is structured as a “delayed-return environment,” in which the rewards for many actions come at a later point in the future.
However, human nature is embedded in an “immediate-return environment” inherited from early humans and the animal kingdom,...
We all have habits we want to start or break. But willpower is often not enough of a motivator. How can the tips from this chapter help you stick to good habits and leave bad ones behind?
What is one habit you wish to start that falls into the category of habits of avoidance? (These are habits that involve not doing something, like not drinking alcohol for a month or not spending money on unnecessary items.)
If you want to develop habits that are easy to maintain and lead to success, choose habits that align with your capabilities. Behaviors that highlight your strengths and interests will be more enjoyable and easier to stick with.
Everyone has different talents, abilities, and interests, and your genetic make-up has a lot to do with what yours are. Your genes encompass characteristics that create your personality. Although genes are immutable, they are flexible in how they support your life choices. Put your energy toward things that excite you, and your genes will give you a successful edge.
When working for you, genetic predispositions give you an advantage. When working against you, they give you a disadvantage. Genes do not determine your destiny, but they do determine which opportunities will benefit you the most.
Environment has a lot to do with whether your genes work for or against you. This is why selecting the right behaviors and environment is crucial for your success.
Do you know what your genetic predispositions say about what habits are right for you?
What is fun for you but hard for others?
Losing motivation is one of the biggest killers of habit formation. You lose motivation for several reasons, including choosing the wrong habits to start, not seeing progress fast enough, and failing to allow small changes to lead to others. However, one of the biggest killers of motivation is boredom.
We tend to believe that successful people work from a supercharged place of eagerness and fortitude. Because of this, you likely believe that you must get “amped up” to accomplish a difficult task. You take any signs of boredom as evidence that you need a new challenge. These ideas promote quitting a positive behavior simply because it’s not exciting anymore.
To really succeed at forming positive habits, you must accept that boredom is inevitable. You must also acknowledge that feeling bored doesn’t mean the behavior is no longer valid.
Boredom is the state experienced when something stops being novel or entertaining. Regarding habits, boredom occurs when new habits become automatic and easy.
Mastery requires practice, but the more you practice one behavior, the more mundane that behavior becomes. When habits become...
Keeping your behaviors moving in a direction of variable rewards is a good way to keep them challenging and interesting. How can you improve your good-enough behaviors to keep moving forward?
What is one habit you currently do well? What identity does this habit support?
When you define your identity through the lens of a single action, behavior, or aspect, your identity becomes fragile. Redefine your identity to focus on a system of characteristics.
What is your current identity or desired identity? Is it flexible (e.g. “I’m a person who eats conscientiously and healthily”) or fragile (e.g. “I’m a vegan”)?
It’s hard to fathom that one small change in behavior can truly transform your entire life. But through the processes described in Atomic Habits, you’ve learned that small adjustments in the right behavior systems can lead to long-term success. Knowing this, is there any reason to think that one small change can’t snowball into a different mode of living?
If you’re still dubious, think about the example of a self-made millionaire. This person didn’t start out with a pile of money and simply add more to it. They started with nothing and made small gains financially. They built upon those gains one by one until they’d amassed a large sum of money, or their first million. The processes by which they did this varied.
They have all the money they could need now because of the success of these actions, but they had to start with that first dollar before any of it could have happened.
That first dollar is no different...
You might be wondering why it’s better to manage expectations than shoot for the moon. Now that you understand the relationship between satisfaction and expectations, how can you apply this relationship to previous pain experienced due to failure?
When was the last time you felt pained by failing to achieve what you wanted?
Throughout this summary, you’ve learned about different ways of thinking about habits and how to address behaviors in your life. How has the information in Atomic Habits helped you view your behavioral trajectory now and in the future?
What aspect of habit formation resonated the most with you?