Atomic Habits

by James Clear

Non-Fiction
Mindset

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Book in 1 paragraph

James Clear teaches us how to build good habits and get rid of bad ones, in what is the most effective habit book I've read thus far!


5 Key ideas

  • While habits will form subconsciously, we can hack the process to build our own habits
  • Habit go through this flow: Cue - Craving - Response - Reward
  • It’s possible to alter the condition at each of the 4 stages to break old habits, or form new ones
  • Repetition is key to forming any new habits
  • Once a habit is formed, it takes conscious effort


How Habits are Triggered

  1. Cue: feel lonely
  2. Craving: sleep, togetherness, want to forget
  3. Response: watch porn & masturbate
  4. Reward: get high from watching porn and tired from masturbation. Go to sleep forgetting the loneliness

=> Brain associate PMO to loneliness


Brain does this to reduce load on conscious brain, which can only focus on one problem at a time. The more we can handball the subconscious, the easier it is for ourselves


3 layers of habit building

from inner to outer

  1. identity
  2. systems
  3. outcomes


True habit change is identity change. If we believe this is who we are, it’s a lot easier to change the habit e.g:

  • smoker A: I’m not a smoker.
  • smoker B: I’m trying to quit
  • Our pride will lock and force our behaviour to be congruent toward our identity


To change our identity, we need to cultivate the habit. e.g Each time I practice the guitar, I become more of the guitarist. Over time, that identity takes hold and the habit is formed, making the identity even stronger


4 steps of habit forming

1. Make it Obvious (Cue)


e.g. Put items like gym shoes, books I want to read, and notepad with my writing around the house so I do more of these things

  • This hacks the environment to our advantage. We’re subjected to our environment more than we know (we’re not really in control), so change our environment to foster the habit we want


2. Make it Attractive / Unattractive (Craving)

The more appealing an activity is, the higher the anticipation for it. The more likely we’ll do it

  • Use Temptation bundling & habit stacking to start associate things we need to do and get good vibes
  • e.g. after I put on slippers in the morning (stacking), I’ll do 20 pushes, and write for 30 minutes, then I can check Facebook for 10 minutes (bundling)

3. Make it Easy (Response)

Hacks:

  • Change environment
  • For good habits, remove all hurdles, automate the habit and master decessive decisions + make start of habit fall into 2 min rule
  • For bad habits, make it harder to do. Change environment, use tech barriers (eg flight now, website blockers)
  • e.g. Hang out with people who have the habit we want to foster (e.g. amateur musicians, book club)
  • Wire up routines for mood / state change, and affix to habit we want to develop


4. Make it Satisfying (Reward)

  1. Select rewards that reinforce our identity (or the identity we want)
  2. Provide immediate reward - we love instant gratification! (e.g. reward myself with gaming / movie right immediately after working 6 hours)
  3. Reward must be something we like
  4. mix it up - we love variety!
  5. Use habit tracking. Advantages: clear indication of progress + satisfying
  6. Habit Stacking for Habit Tracking formula: "After [current habit], I will [track my habit]"
  7. Keep up the chain, if missed one day, get back into it straight away!
  8. Have an accountability partner

Tactics

Implementation Intention


Use specific detail (time of day, place) when committing to a new habit ingrains in us a reminder when the we’re near the time/location

This is effective because people don’t lack motivation, we lack clarity on knowing when to take action.


e.g. At 9:30pm, everyday at home. I’ll clean up my desk


Habit stacking

Special form of Implementation Intention by anchoring a habit to another habit e.g. after Habit X, I’ll do Habit Y

Can even habit stack Cues, after I see my gym shoes by the door, I’ll put a towel in my bag



Temptation Bundling

Bundle something I want (e.g. watch Netflix) with something I want to do (e.g. exercise)

e.g. don’t allow (or outright block) Netflix on all devices in the house, except for the iPad mounted on the treadmill


"ABC Thursday Night” - advertise a TV show while enjoying red wine. People already drink wine. By associating relaxation (wine) with ABC and Thu, they are using Implementation Intention and Temptation Bundling. We’ll think about ABC next time we relax, or see wine.


"Netflix and Chill” was a great campaign, and why people naturally pop on Netflix when they’re on the couch or in bed.


Environment control

Change environment for the habit I want to foster. Use visual cues to trigger the habit I want (e.g. gym shoes, books I want to read, guitar etc)


Join a Tribe

Join a group of people who have the habit we want (e.g. amateur musicians, book club)



Conscious Mental State Change [Super hack]

We associate actions with mood / mental state when doing something.

e.g. we can consciously associate happiness with habit we want to foster by setting up a (facial feedback) routine. THEN, attach the routine (which generates the mood) to a habit we find difficult


First:

  1. Find an action we enjoy. e.g. pet the dog, throw a ball
  2. small action so easier to wire this up
  3. Before the action, set up a routine e.g. 3 deep breath and a smile (smile is useful because of Facial Feedback effect for Happiness)
  4. Do the action
  5. Wire this up - Do this routine and action 5 ~ 10 times
  6. Now the routine is associated with being happy


Now, we can use the routine even to get into the mood for something unpleasant e.g. do routine before cleaning up house


The first 2 minutes

The first 2 minutes of a habit should be easy (e.g. put on the gym shoes), This starts the snowball rolling. Use habit stacking to keep things going till we hit the goal we want



Breaking a Habit

To prevent a habit. Set up hurdles eg want to limit tv time?

From light to extreme:

  1. Unplug tv after each use. Only plug in and watch after saying out the show I want to watch
  2. Unplug tv and take out remote batteries after each use
  3. Put tv in a closet after each use


Every habit has an underlying psychological need it tries to fulfil. The habit isn't the best way to fulfil it, it's what we've LEARNT over the years

Eg check Facebook = need for social belonging.

Play games = want challenges


Our brain is actually constantly looking at Cues and predicting what will happen so we choose the best action to meet or underlying psychological response

Eg just finished long hard day of work at 10pm. The right thing is to go to bed. But we feel the need to unwind to feel like 'we have control of our lives', so stay up watching movies, play games or go on Facebook.

To break this habit. We find the psychological reason of WHY we do something - what need does it fulfil in us. Then:

  • Substitute an alternate action to fulfil the same need eg play guitar instead of games to fulfil same need for challenges (same reason desire to play games lessen once I started doing startups)
  • AND: break the association that the action will fulfil the needs eg tell ourselves smoking doesn't relieve stress, the need to quit adds stress



Commitment Device

A current action to lock in lock in a commitment of a future action


To avoid bad habits, usually restriction placed in self to avoid doing something eg Victor Hugo asking his assistant to lock away his cloth so he could stay indoors to finish hunchback of Notre Dame.

Or Ulysses asking his sailors to tie him to the mast so he can't steer ship toward the sirens



Science of Habit

  1. Diderot effect - Buying one thing, leads us to buy other things related to this new item (that we may not need) e.g. buy a couch may make us question our home layout, so we buy other furniture
  2. Environmentally driven action
  3. behaviour = function of person in their environment
  4. It’s also the whole context around our environment. Not jus the time & location e.g. drinking at a bar - friends drinking, music blasting, beer flowing from tap, the smell of alcohol. The brain takes in thousands of these cues
  5. Often the Cue is too fast for the conscious mind to over-ride. The Cue triggers immediate desire and release of brain chemicals. That’s why 50mg of cocaine (or flour!!) is enough the desire in addicts
  6. proof: experiments with mice in cage with cocaine. Control Set in cage with toys, food, other mice to play & procreate. Experiment Set in cage with nothing but the cocaine. Mice in cage with activities didn’t even touch cocaine
  7. empirical: impulse buying. Supermarket & Malls put high margin items at eye level near check out, or end of isles (45% of Coca Cola sales comes from end of isle placement)
  8. Visual cues are highly effective
  9. 10 million of our 19 million neurons are dedicated to vision. Scientists theorize half of our brain activity is dedicated to processing visual information
  10. Super normal stimuli are things light up our cues like a Christmas Tree. They’ve been artificially created in society to get us addicted faster
  11. junk food - lots of salt & sugar. Our body isn’t wired to get lots of it. So we crave it after having it
  12. porn - abundance, free, and instantly available. Mix of high def resolution & stereo sound. Plays on human mind’s ability to put ourselves in other people’s roles. Our craving for more abnormal, extreme versions of it goes up the more we consume
  13. drugs - over abundance release of brain chemicals (e.g. cocaine = our next months of dopamine). Brain is over stimulated, and crashes later, craving the same experience
  14. Variable reward produces novelty. Maximising dopamine production, accelerating habit formation.
  15. Eg porn - sexual variety, junk food - taste variety, slot machine - reward varience (timing)
  16. 100% of the brain’s sensors are activated for Wanting. Only 10% for Liking
  17. Dopamine is released in ANTICIPATION of reward
  18. we release more dopamine in anticipation of a reward than getting the reward itself
  19. means, if we can control ourselves during the anticipation phase, that’s the worst of it.
  20. How we pick up a habits (evolutionary)
  21. Imitate the Close (by)
  22. Driver: Wanting to fit in, we automatically pick up habits of our tribe - those we hang out with / close by, imitating accents, IQ, weight etc (e.g how our parents handle arguments, what our friends do etc).
  23. Imitate the Powerful
  24. Driver: Wanting to have better social status & find a better mate. We automatically look to those with more power than us and try to copy what they do. Conversely, we don’t want to be judged, so we pick up habits to be up standing citizens (mow our lawn, clean our house before guests get there)
  25. Habits are constructed as a prediction to a Cue so we Feel a certain way
  26. The feeling is something deep rooted human e.g. want to be part of a tribe. The cue is are surface level triggers
  27. e.g. Cue = feeling lonely. Habit = check Facebook. Feeling = some feeling of connectivity and relief
  28. At the start of habit forming, it’s about getting repetition to change our brain and body.
  29. e.g. mathematicians will have bigger grey matter in areas of logic. Tax drivers has bigger hippocampus for spatial mapping, which shrinks again after they retire
  30. our malleable mind & body changes this way so we can repeat the action easier without load on our body or conscious mind
  31. Frequency (of action) not duration determines the habit
  32. that’s why could be hooked on a mobile game after minutes of downloading it
  33. The Principle of Least Action - when presented with 2 actions, we will choose the easier one
  34. Humans are wired to conserve energy
  35. Our world has evolved to favor those with long term focus & ability for delayed gratification. There is a Timing Inconsistency that our our brain hasn’t evolved...
  36. Our ancestors lived in an Instant Return Environment - avoid predators, you live. Eat food now, you survive for another few days.
  37. However now-days,  actions today won't generate results for days, even years.
  38. Don’t use a measurement as a target.
  39. Human mind optimises for wins. If we set low target we'll meet it. If we set quarterly earnings goals, we lose long term goal. So think about real meaning of progress. Don't blindly prioritise quantitive metrics. Instead focus on the Process over the Goal
  40. The Goldilocks zone is where task performed is just beyond reach of the person. This is the best way to keep motivation up while song work (too easy or too hard, and we'd fine up).
  41. Being in the Goldilock zone will prompt Flow (scientists quantify at 4% harder than current level of ability)
  42. Economic theory:  Good habits will give short term cost and long term benefit.  Bad habits will give short term benefit and long term cost
  43. We should manually reinforce good habits with rewards at the end of the behaviour and reinforce it
  44. Trying to get rid of bad habits because there is no reward for avoidance.
  45. Use a tactic like this:
  46. Set up a savings account named for something that we want. Eg overseas trip. Everytime we avoid going out we put in $50.
  47. Best to choose reward that aligns with identity eg reward exercise with ice cream will cause identity conflict. Better to reward with something like a massage. Relaxing and a luxury


Mindset

  1. Be consistent, put in the work day in and day out, focus & trust the system. Progress is not linear. It’s more bamboo growing - 9 years of putting root into the ground. Once it sprouts, 6 weeks to grow to 20 meters
  2. Don’t just plan. Do it. “Perfect is the enemy of done"
  3. "Motion” is planning for an action. “Action” is actually doing it. Motion will never lead to results but will fool us into thinking we’re making progress.  No one wants to be judged for our failures so motion gives perception we're doing something without having to do it.
  4. We only need to make the right decision a few times a day
  5. only a few corner stone decisions each day determines if it’s a good or bad day. Ideally we habitalise these key decisions like taking a cold shower in the morning. Having a bad day? Make sure we bend our whole will to making the right decision. Everything else should be easier.
  6. Fall in love with BOREDOM
  7. Mastery requires repetitive practice. Successful people experience the same boredom as we do. But they power through that.  
  8. We can use all the tactics here, apply variable reward for us to be in the goldilock zone etc. But eventually we'll hit a plateau of excitement.  that's why it's so important to develop good habits. It removes the need for conscious decision and effort. Reserving those for the truly difficult decisions / tasks (use energy for continued reflection & upward progress. don’t stagnate!)
  9. "Professionals stick to the schedule, amateurs let life get in the way"
  10. "successful people are those who can handle the boredom of showing up everyday and doing the work"
  11. The trick is to find the right way of improving by 1% everyday, develop the habit for that growth and stick with it



Which Habit to cultivate?

  1. While Genetics (in physical characteristics and personality) may play a huge role guiding us toward opportunities and fields where we'll excel. Improves our odds out of the gate, it doesn't not guarantee success. Genetics pre dispose, not pre determine.
  2. How do we know where to our efforts? Use Explore - exploit:
  3. Cast net wide at the start. Explore until we find something that comes naturally to us. Or we really enjoy, then Exploit (train hard, double down and become super good).
  4. Still explore opportunities within the field.
  5. If losing, explore more and repeat cycle.
  6. How to find work we're uniquely suited for?   Ask ourselves these questions:
  7. What feels like fun to me and work for others (it's all about what pain we can endure easier than others)?
  8. What gives me Flow?
  9. Where do I get better ROI compared to others (faster, easier progress)?
  10. What comes naturally to me?
  11. Can't find a game where we have natural advantage?   Invent one!
  12. best way to stand out is to create a unique field that combine your skills in ways that produce something that people want. Eg Scott Adams (Dilbert) is:
  13. Slightly better than average person who draws (not an artist)
  14. Slightly more funnier than average person (not a comedian)
  15. Unique insights into business world
  16. There wasn't a work place cartoon that was funny and people could relate to. It was rare to find a person who can draw, is funny and had workplace insights = massive advantage for Scott


How to break down activity for Habit

  1. Eg break down a goal to 2 min rule
  2. Goal: want to live longer
  3. Break down to I should exercise
  4. Break down to 2 min rule to put on gym cloth

Tips

  • Don't focus on the end goal.
  • Focus on just showing up everyday and use Habit Shaping technique to build up progress of habit toward end goal, till we get to a 2 min rule
  • Showing up everyday reinforces the identity that I'm someone who: works out everyday, and gets up early everyday, etc


How to avoid Plateauing

Review our progress

  1. Olympic athletes do this to squeeze every drop of performance gain they could or of nutrition, sleep / recovery, training. Being good enough on an action by relying on a habit isn't good enough
  2. e.g. Keep decision journal and track progress. Review every week to see if improving
  3. e.g. Integrity report  - what went wrong and how to improve.
  4. Help determine if new habits should begin developed to be the person we want to become
  5. e.g. Yearly integrity report
  6. What are the core values that drive work
  7. How am I living with integrity right now
  8. How can I set higher standard in the future


Finding balance in reflection

  1. Not enough - we don't grow
  2. Too much - we focus on every little imperfection and loose the big picture


Tips

  1. Focus on the System. Not the goal. Winners and losers both set goals. Winners focus on the repetition & work of putting system to get there.
  2. System focus allows faster happiness (I’ve done the work today). Goals makes us feel less successful as they they are harder to achieve, and what happens when we finish them?
  3. To break the habit, we must make the subconscious.
  4. once a habit is ingrained it’s near impossible to break it. That’s why Point and Speak (as used by Japanese Train Conductors as safety point checks) is so effective, we’re focused to use our eyes (see), mouth (speak) and hands (point) to break the subconscious routine of thinking everything is safe
  5. Do an activity I want in the same place, same time of day, with the same equipment, and even same cloth (e.g. workout) if I can. Will easier foster the habit
  6. e.g. use a specific chair for working. One just for playing games. Easier to get into the swing of activity once that chair is brought in
  7. This is why it takes mental effort to focus on work when we use the same laptop for work, movies, games.
  8. So having Windows on Mac for games, movies etc is a good idea. i.e. I’m in Mac OSX. This is for work.
  9. No zero days - Don’t interrupt a habit. Just show up is enough to reinforce our identity (e.g. do 1 min of a 10 min habit is better than nothing). By not breaking the chain, we reinforce this as our identity
  10. Equating it to investing. $100 to $150. 50% gain. But only need 33% loss to take it to back to $100. Don't ever interrupt compounding. Let it continue
  11. Adopt a consistent warm up routine (e.g. meditation or other creative practice) to optimise us for best performance, and a warm down routine for bed
  12. Get an accountability partner - we care deeply what others think about us
  13. A commitment partner + penalties will give us social pressure to follow through. The more public we can make the bet. The more shame we'll suffer and higher stages the habit will be
  14. Stop when going is good, to keep up the habit
  15. Be fluid in our identity
  16. 'keep our identity small’ - Paul Graham
  17. Holding too strongly into an identity: I'm a vegan, I'm an entrepreneur, I'm a partner at a law firm etc will wreck is when we lose that role in life.
  18. Move with the fluidity of life and cultivate different hobbies - it's possible to be a partner at a laser firm,a writer, a musician and all these roles at once and none of roles
  19. Redefine the role into characteristics
  20. I'm a CEO -> I'm mentally tough, I am a good leader
  21. I'm an elite athlete -> i am consistent in my daily practice

Quotes

“There wasn’t one defining moment on my journey from medically induced coma to Academic All-American; there were many. It was a gradual evolution, a long series of small wins and tiny breakthroughs. The only way I made progress—the only choice I had—was to start small.”
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.”
"whatever work we do that we feel authentic and genuine. We're headed in the right direction"
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
“You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”
“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. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.”
“The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.” The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone.”
“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.”
“When you can’t win by being better, you can win by being different.”
“We imitate the habits of three groups in particular: The close. The many. The powerful.”
“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”
“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.”
“Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks"
“The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward.”
“Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit. This is a distinguishing feature between winners and losers. Anyone can have a bad performance, a bad workout, or a bad day at work. But when successful people fail, they rebound quickly. The breaking of a habit doesn’t matter if the reclaiming of it is fast. I think this principle is so important that I’ll stick to it even if I can’t do a habit as well or as completely as I would like. Too often, we fall into an all-or-nothing cycle with our habits. The problem is not slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can’t do something perfectly, then you shouldn’t do it at all.”
“How to Break a Bad Habit Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible. Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive. Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult. Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.”
“Complaining about not achieving success despite working hard is like complaining about an ice cube not melting when you heated it from 25 to 31 degrees. All the action happens at 32 degrees.”
“A craving is the sense that something is missing. It is a desire to change your internal state. This gap between your current state and your desired state provides a reason to act. Desire is the difference between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. Even the tiniest action is tinged with the motivation to feel differently than you do in the moment. When you binge eat or browse social media, what you really want is not a potato chip or a bunch of likes. What you really want is to feel different.”
“Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.”
“If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”