In “Atomic Habits,” James Clear shows how changing your habits can transform your life. This guide covers why habits are important, the three mindsets for creating them, how habits are formed, the four keys to changing them, and ways to continue improving. We’ll also compare Clear’s approach with other expert methods.
Small Adjustments Lead to Massive Transformations
Clear believes that small changes in behavior, called “atomic habits,” can transform your life because behaviors compound over time. One good behavior leads to another and creates a ripple effect of positive changes. Clear categorizes habits into three levels: goal-driven, system-driven, and identity-driven habits.
According to Clear, a goal-driven habit is a behavior done to achieve a specific objective. Many people try to change their behavior this way, such as studying two extra hours a day to ace a test.
Clear suggests that system-driven habits focus on processes that lead to achieving goals, instead of focusing solely on the goal itself. An example of a system-driven habit is developing a study routine, which emphasizes the process of studying rather than just aiming for a good test score.
Identity-driven habits are behaviors that align with our beliefs about ourselves, or our identity. Clear suggests that we perform these habits because they match our identity. For instance, if you see yourself as a good student, you develop a study routine because that’s what good students do.
How to Change Your Habits: Start With Your Identity
Clear recommends creating identity-driven habits instead of goal-driven habits for lasting behavior change. By embodying the person you want to be, you reinforce that identity with evidence and make performing the corresponding habits easier.
Your desired identity should guide the systems and goals you choose. For instance, if you aim to be a conscientious person who excels in tests, you might prioritize getting enough sleep. These habits lead to achieving your goals and are sustained even after you reach them.
How Habits Form: The Four Stages
Clear describes the four stages of habit formation: cue, craving, response, and reward. The cue prompts the brain to notice a reward, leading to a craving and a behavior that satisfies that craving, resulting in a reward.
Over time, this pathway becomes stronger, forming a habit. For example, coming home stressed from work (cue) prompts the craving for relaxation, leading to the response of drinking a beer, which satisfies the craving and reduces stress (reward).
Four Keys to Creating Habits
To create new, beneficial habits, Clear recommends altering each stage of the habit-forming process. He provides four keys for doing so, one for each stage: cues, cravings, responses, and rewards.
Key 1: Cues: Identify and Use Them to Your Advantage
To create positive habits, Clear advises identifying cues by making a list of daily habits and noting which actions precede and follow them. This helps to cue new desired behaviors, such as drinking water right after turning off your alarm.
Use Awareness to Your Advantage
Clear recommends planning in advance using the formula “When X occurs, I will do Y” to make cues noticeable and increase the likelihood of performing a new behavior. For example, schedule studying for 6 pm if that time is currently vacant on your habit list.
Clear’s “habit stacking” technique links a desired behavior to an existing habit by using the formula “After I do X, I will do Y.” For example, “After I put my dinner dishes in the sink, I will study for one hour.”
Be specific about the behavior that follows a cue to make it effective. Ensure the cue is feasible, as logistics can hinder new habits. For example, “I’ll study at my desk for an hour after putting dishes in the sink” is more effective than “I’ll study after dinner.”
Key 2: Craving: Increase the Appeal of a New Habit
Clear recommends two techniques to make creating habits easier by affecting the second stage of habit formation, the craving. Firstly, associate the new habit with other positive behaviors. Secondly, reframe the struggle of a new habit in a positive light to maximize the appeal of the desired behavior.
1) Connect Habits You Should Do to Things You Want to Do
Clear’s first strategy for increasing the appeal of a new habit is to link it to something positive by sandwiching it between an existing habit and a desired activity. This can be done by using the formula, “After X, I will do Y. After I do Y, I get to do Z.”
2) Reframe actions as opportunities rather than obligations.
To change your attitude and perceive obligations as possibilities is Clear’s second tip for attracting a new habit. By focusing on the positive elements of the behavior and the reward that comes with it, you can view your struggles as steps towards your goal, which increases motivation to do the behavior.
Key 3: Response: Decrease the Difficulty
At the third stage of habit building, Clear advises concentrating on the act itself to strengthen habits. Making the behavior effortless is what Clear advocates doing in order to keep your preferred identity, build confidence, and advance.
Make Behaviors Easier
Clear advises simplifying behaviors by removing obstacles and breaking them down into smaller, two-minute steps. Doing so increases the chances of taking action and maintaining the behavior. Instead of large changes, committing to small actions leads to small successes that boost motivation. Breaking down tasks, such as cooking dinner, into smaller steps, like opening the fridge or pulling out a vegetable, makes it easier to achieve.
Key 4: Reward: Make It Fulfilling
Clear suggests that for a habit to form successfully, the rewards must be satisfying. However, since many rewards are delayed, it’s essential to find ways to create immediate rewards that keep you motivated to continue.
End New Habits With Rewards
Clear suggests adding immediate positive reinforcement at the end of a desired behavior to create fulfilling rewards that keep you motivated. You can maintain motivation in a manner that delayed incentives cannot by engaging in an activity that is instantly gratifying after the action. The incentive of a higher mark next month may not be enough to motivate you to study, but concluding each study session with a cookie can.
Record Your Habits
Clear suggests using a visual representation to track progress and increase motivation. By marking a calendar or tracking sheet, you can see your accomplishments and feel rewarded for each successful completion. This act of tracking can be satisfying and motivating, creating a cue to continue the habit.
Breaking Bad Habits
To break a bad habit, disrupt one of the four stages of habit formation:
- Make the cue unnoticeable.
- Decrease the appeal of the habit.
- Increase the effort required to perform the habit.
- Make the reward unfulfilling.
To break the habit of shopping at the mall, change your route to avoid the cue, add a reminder of how much money you can save, increase the effort required to get there, and pay only in cash to decrease the reward.
Finding the Right Habits
Clear suggests focusing on developing habits that align with your strengths and interests as they are more enjoyable and easier to maintain due to your genetic makeup and predispositions.
The Big Five Personality Traits
To identify ideal habits, understand your personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. While not determinative, traits can guide toward habits more likely to succeed. Clear advises finding the version of a habit that aligns with your personality, rather than copying others. For example, if you dislike crowds, daily walks may work better than gym visits.
Continuing to Show Up
To maintain the effectiveness of a habit, it’s crucial to address its potential downsides. Clear offers strategies for tackling these issues, which include:
Make actions more difficult to avoid boredom
Clear suggests making habits challenging to combat boredom but not too difficult to discourage you. It’s important to ensure some level of success and failure to maintain motivation. This intermittent reward system reduces boredom by making each attempt novel.
How to Keep Progressing: Build on Momentum
Clear warns that creating habits can lead to stagnation, as automation may cause you to miss mistakes and hinder progress. For example, playing the same piano scales every day without noticing small mistakes can reinforce bad habits and impede progress.
How to Keep Changing: Develop an Adaptable Identity
Clear warns of a third downside of habit formation: becoming too attached to the identity that the habit represents. This can make it challenging to evolve beyond that identity because losing the habit means losing a part of yourself and your motivation. For instance, if you identify as a “good student” due to your habit of studying every day, graduating and losing the habit can lead to an identity crisis.
Looking Forward: Continue to Reflect and Adjust
Clear suggests that habit formation is an ongoing process that requires continual evaluation of your identity and behaviors. Your brain is always seeking ways to automate behavior based on environmental cues, so it’s crucial to reflect on your habits regularly.
By making small adjustments, you can promote growth and refine your actions to stay on the path to your goals. With hard work and awareness, you can become anyone you want and achieve anything you desire.