Atomic Habits by James Clear: Summary + Study Notes

Akshay Circle Out Final

Atomic Habits by James Clear has been one of the best books on the psychology of habits I’ve ever read.

In this blog post, I’ll be presenting you the summary of this book and also I’ve embedded a mindmap explainer video for visual learners.

I hope you’ll love this.

The fundamentals

The power of atomic habits

Aggregation of marginal gains: If you get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up 37 times better at the end of the year (also inverse is true).

Habits are the compound interest of self-development.

Your outcome is a lagging measure of your habits.

Valley of disppointment

You need to break through the plateau of latent Potential or the valley of disappointment.

Focus on systems:

  • Goals are about the results you want to achieve, systems are the processes that lead to those results.
  • Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress
  • When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy.

How habits shape your identity?

Behind every system of actions is a system of beliefs. Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last.

True behavioral change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.

Identity shift

With outcome-based habits, the focus is on what you want to achieve. With identity-based habits, the focus is on who you wish to become.

Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity. What you believe is an indication of the type of person you believe that you are. There is an internal pressure to maintain your self-image and behave in a certain way that is consistent with your beliefs.

If habits contradict with your identity, you will fail to put them into action. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs and to upgrade or expand your identity.

The two-step process to change your identity

The more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior.

New identities require new evidence.

A 2-step process for identity shift:

  1. Decide the type of person you want to be
    • What do you stand for?
    • Who do you wish to become?
    • What are your principles and values?
  2. Prove it to yourself with small wins
    • Once you decide you want to be a type of person, perform small actions congruent with it
    • If your desired identity is a “healthy individual”. For every action you perform ask yourself “Would a healthy individual performs this?”
    • Does this behavior help me to become the person I wish to be?
    • Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?
    • Habits that reinforce your desired identity are usually good

How to build better habits?

Why does your brain build habits?

A habit is a behavior, that’s been repeated enough times to become automatic.

Habits are mental shortcuts learned from the experience of solving problems. It is just a memory of the steps you previously followed to solve a problem in the past.

The science of how habits work

It’s a 4-step process:

  1. Cue: The mind is analyzing your internal and external environment for hints where the rewards are located. Cue is the first indication that we are close to a reward, it naturally leads to a craving.
  2. Craving: Motivational force or desire behind every habit. Every craving is linked to a desire to change your internal state
  3. Response: The response is the actual habit you perform, which can take the form of a thought or an action. If a particular action requires more physical or mental effort you are willing to expend, then you won’t do it. It also depends upon your ability. The response delivers a reward.
  4. Reward: The purpose of rewards is to satisfy the cravings and become associated with the cue. Rewards teach us which actions are worth remembering in the future. Your brain is a reward-detector.

How to create good habits?

  • Cue – Make it obvious
  • Craving – Make it attractive
  • Response – Make it easy
  • Reward – Make it satisfying

How to break bad habits?

  • Cue – Make it invisible
  • Craving – Make it unattractive
  • Response – Make it difficult
  • Reward – Make it unsatisfying

1st law: Make it obvious

If a habit remains mindless, you can’t expect to improve it. Carl Jung says – “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you call it fate”.

Two most common cues are time and location.

I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

Habit stacking

Tie your desired behavior to something you already do each day.

This allows you to take advantage of the natural momentum that comes from one behavior leading into the next.

Here are some examples:

  • After I take my bath, I will meditate for 10 minutes
  • After I meditate for 10 minutes, I will write my to-do list for the day
  • After writing my to-do list, I’ll immediately start working on my first task

Motivation is overrated; Environment often matters more

People often choose products not because of what they are, but because of where they are.

If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment. The most persistent behaviors usually have multiple cues.

The context is the cue: The cues that trigger a habit can start out very specific, but over time your habits become associated not with a single trigger but with the entire context surrounding that behavior.

One space one use. Whenever possible avoid mixing the context of one habit with another.

The secret to self-control

Disciplined people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. They spend less time in tempting situations.

The most effective way to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it.

Make the cues to your good habits, visible and cues to your bad habits invisible.

2nd law: Make it attractive

How to make a habit irresistible?

If you want to increase the odds that a behavior will occur, then you need to make it attractive.

Dopamine is not only released when you experience pleasure but also when you anticipate it.

Temptation Bundling: Create a heightened version of any habit by connecting it with something you already want.

You’re more likely to find a behavior attractive if you get to do one of your favorite things at the same time.


  • After I pull out my phone, I will do ten burpees (need)
  • After I do ten burpees, I will check Facebook (want)

The role of family and friends

  1. The close
    • We don’t choose our earliest habits, we imitate them.
    • The closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to imitate some of their habits
  2. The many
    • Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself, you’ll rise together.
    • Growth and change are no longer an individual pursuit. We are readers, we are musicians, we are cyclists.
    • The normal behavior of the tribe often overpowers the desired behavior of the individual
    • When changing your habits means challenging the tribe, change is unattractive. When changing your habits means fitting in with the tribe, change is very attractive.
  3. The powerful are those whom you admire and respect

How to find and fix bad habits?

Understand the underlying motives of human beings

  • Conserve energy
  • Obtain food and water
  • Find love and reproduce
  • Connect and bond with each other
  • Win social acceptance and approval
  • Reduce uncertainty
  • Achieve status and pride

A craving is just a specific manifestation of a deeper underlying motive.

Your habits are modern-day solutions to ancient desires.

  • Win social acceptance and approval = Posting on Instagram
  • Reduce uncertainty = Searching on Google
  • Achieve status or pride = Playing video games

Habits are all associations. These associations determine whether the habits are worth repeating or not.

Whenever a habit successfully addresses a motive, you develop a craving to do it again. Habits are attractive when we associate them with positive feelings.

You simply practice associating your habits with something you enjoy.

The key to finding and fixing the causes of your bad habits is to reframe the associations you have about them.

3rd law: Make it easy

How long to form a new habit?

Long-term potentiation: Strengthening of connection between neurons in the brain based on recent patterns of activities.

In learning a brand new skill, great difficulty in felt, because the channels through which each sensation has to pass have not become established.

Automaticity is the ability to perform a behavior without thinking about each step. This comes in when the non-conscious mind takes over after effortful conscious practice.

Habits form on frequency, not time. It’s not “How long it takes to build a new habit?” but “How many it takes to build a new habit?”

The law of least effort

The brain is hardwired to conserve energy whenever possible. When presented with two options, people will naturally gravitate towards the option that requires the least amount of work.

One of the most effective ways to reduce friction associated with your habits is to practice environment design.

Prime your environment by setting up the essential things you need for executing the habit ahead of time. It reduces friction.

If you see most of the habit-forming products, they are good at reducing friction from your life.

It is also remarkable how little friction is required to prevent unwanted behaviors. Like app uninstalling, math problems instead of snooze, etc.

2-minute rule

Habits can be completed in just a few seconds, but they can shape the actions you take for minutes or hours afterward. These little choices stack up setting the trajectory for how you spend the rest of the time.

Scale every difficult habit to their 2-minute versions and be consistent.

Even if it’s two minutes, you’re casting votes to your new identity.

How to make good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible?

A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future. It is a way of locking in future behavior to encourage good habits and restrict you from bad ones.

Examples of commitment devices:

  • Outlet timer that plugs off the router when it’s 10p.m
  • Blackout curtains for bedroom
  • Getting a week’s worth of veggies ahead of time

The best way to break bad habits is to make it impractical to do it by adding frictions to a point where you don’t even have the option to act.

4th law: Make it satisfying

Immediate and delayed rewards

We now live in the delayed-return environment because you can work for years before your actions deliver the intended payoffs.

The human brain was evolved in an instant-gratification era – the Paleolithic age.

The consequences of bad habits are delayed while the rewards are immediate. The costs of your good habits are in the present, and the cost of your bad habits is in the future.

The road less-traveled is the road of delayed-gratification.

Reinforcement refers to the process of using an immediate reward to increase the rate of that behavior. It ties your habit to an immediate reward.

They labeled their savings account as “Trip to Europe” when they skipped eating outside, they saved that money in their account this reinforcing their behavior of not eating outside.

How to stick with good habits?

Track your habits, cross off each day as you perform the habits. With habit tracking, you’ll be focused on the process rather than the result.

Recording your last action creates a trigger that can initiate your next one.

It is not the first mistake that ruins you, it’s the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Don’t miss executing your habits twice in a row. Too often, we fall into an all-or-nothing cycle with our habits.

Charlie Munger says – “The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessarily”.

Don’t be driven by the numbers while tracking the habits, forgetting the purpose.

How an accountability partner can change everything?

Adding an instant cost to action is a great way to reduce their odds.

Consider creating a habit contract.

Advanced tactics

The truth about talent

Habits are easier to practice and stick with when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities.

5 spectrums of behavior:

  1. Openness to experience
  2. Conscientiousness: Organized and easy going
  3. Extroversion
  4. Agreeableness
  5. Neuroticism: Anxious and sensitive to confident, calm, and stable

Questions to ask to find a game where odds are in your favor:

  • What feels like fun to me, but work to others?
  • What makes me lose track of time?
  • Where do I get greater returns than the average person?
  • What comes naturally to me?

Once you master a specific skill, the harder it becomes for others to compete with you.

Goldilocks rule

Humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard, Not too easy. Just right.

Goldilocks rule

To achieve a state of flow, a task must be roughly 4% beyond our current ability.

How to stay focused when you get bored with your habits?

The greatest threat to success to not failure but boredom. We get bored with habits when they stop delighting us (the novelty factor).

As soon we experience the slightest dip in motivation, we seek out new diets, workouts, business ideas – even if the old one was still working.

Machiavelli – “Men desire novelty to such an extent that those who are doing well, wish for a change as much as those who are doing badly.”

The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.

Some pitfalls to consider

Habits + Deliberate practice = MASTERY

Mastery is the process of narrowing your focus to a tiny element of success, repeating it until you have internalized that skill, and then using this new habit as a foundation to advance to the next frontier of your development.

When a skill is mastered there’s usually a slight decline in performance over time

Improvement is not just about learning new skills, it’s also about fine-tuning them. Reflection and reviewing enable the long-term improvement of all habits.

Your identity creates a kind of “pride” that encourage you to deny your weak spots and prevents you from truly growing.

The solution is to avoid making any single aspect of your identity an overwhelming portion of how you are. You need to adapt as life throws new challenges at you.

Constantly check if the old habits and beliefs are still serving you.