An Action Guide to Atomic Habits by James Clear

CHAPTER 1: THE SURPRISING POWER OF ATOMIC HABITS

  • Small habits compound over time to make big differences – positive or negative.
    • If you improve just 1% every day, you will be 37 times better after a year!
  • However, we often do not see changes early in the process even though we expect to. This is called the valley of disappointment.
    • This is why it is hard to build new habits. People make small changes, fail to see results, and decide it is not working out.
    • To make a meaningful difference, you need to break through the “plateau of latent potential”.
    • You want to cross the critical threshold – the moment when all the outcomes of habits compound to reach a tipping point.
  • Focus on systems instead of goals. Systems are less restrictive, lead to enduring change, and can be successful in different forms
  • It is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress; we rise only as far to the level of our systems

CHAPTER 2: HOW YOUR HABITS SHAPE YOUR IDENTITY (AND VICE VERSA)

  • Behavioural change should go in this direction: identity -> processes -> outcomes.
  • True behaviour change is identity change. Your habits reflect your identity. Every time you practice a habit and engage in an action, you are reasserting your identity.
  • The two-step process to behavioural change:
    1. Decide the type of person you want to be
    2. Prove it to yourself with small wins
  • You can also start with goals and work backwards – what kind of person would try to achieve those goals?

Exercise 2.1: Consider your ideal identity, and the goals and actions associated with this identity. Respond to the questions in the headings of the box.

Who do I want to become?What kind of goals would this person have?What kind of actions would this person do?
A successful graduate studentTo make an original and innovative contribution to scientific literatureRead literature widely and critically analyse them. Practice running studies and writing a lot. Expose oneself to more ideas via conferences and networking.
 To get good gradesBe consistent in work. Revise regularly. Learn from mistakes and actively seek feedback from teachers.
 To teach wellPay attention in class. Take up TA opportunities.  
 To have a wide network of collaboratorsBe knowledgeable about the work of experts in their research area. Regularly reach out to other researchers to connect and exchange ideas.
My own example.

Now you should have a clearer idea of the identity you are building towards as well as an idea of the actions that will bring you closer to your goals.


CHAPTER 3: HOW TO BUILD BETTER HABITS IN 4 STEPS

  • Thorndike’s law: behaviours that produce satisfying consequences tend to be repeated, while behaviours that produce unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated
  • All habits follow this pattern: Cue -> Craving -> Response -> Reward (CCRR)
    • Cue: something in the environment that triggers behaviour on our part; a bit of information that predicts a reward
    • Craving: stimulated by the cue; the motivational force behind any habit or action
    • Response: the actual habit you perform; depends on 1) how motivated you are and 2) how much friction is associated with the behaviour
    • Reward: the outcome of performing the response. They 1) satisfy us and 2) teach us what is worth repeating in the future

Exercise 3.1: Apply this CCRR framework to 1-2 habits you have in your life, preferably related to those you wish to change.

1. Cue2. Craving3. Response4. Reward Evaluation
BoredWant some stimulationCheck InstagramSatisfied craving for stimulation. Checking Instagram becomes associated with boredom.
See academic journal lying on tableDesire to succeed in academia/workRead articleFeel accomplished in terms of taking steps towards succeeding at work.+*
Personal comment: for me it seems to be harder to apply this pattern sequence to a habit you want to build. It’s effective for identifying bad habits you want to break, though.
  • The four laws of behavioural change: whenever you want to change your behaviour/form a new habit, ask yourself:
    1. How can I make it obvious?
    2. How can I make it attractive?
    3. How can I make it easy?
    4. How can I make it satisfying?
  • To break a habit, invert the laws:
    1. Make it invisible
    2. Make it unattractive
    3. Make it difficult
    4. Make it unsatisfying

CHAPTER 4: THE MAN WHO DIDN’T LOOK RIGHT

  • We don’t need to be aware of a cue for a habit to begin. This can be a good or bad thing, since we engage in habits unconsciously
  • Pointing-and-calling strategy: identify steps in a sequence of events (i.e. habit) and call it out. This makes you mindful of what you are doing and allows you to change it.
  • The habits scorecard – create a list of your daily habits
    • Once you have a full list, indicate each as a good habit, bad habit, or neutral habit. Ask yourself “does this behaviour support or contradict my desired identity”?
    • There is no need to change anything for now. Just use it to notice how you respond to your environment.  
  • The first step to changing habits is to look out for them. You can try pointing and calling: say out loud the action that you are thinking of taking and what the outcome will be
    • E.g. “I want to drink bubble tea, but I don’t need it. Drinking will cause me to increase my risk of diabetes and hurt my health.”
    • E.g. “I am resisting exercising because I find it tiring. However, doing so will improve my health long-term.”
  • Getting yourself to reiterate the “why” + the need for action can lead to motivation.

Exercise 4.1: Your Daily Habit Scorecard

The following table is a modification of James’s habit scorecard.

What is the identity you’re building towards?: Successful student researcher

Current habitsHabits I want to addValue (does this contribute to my desired identities?)Time spent (usually)Comments
Wake up, turn off alarm =10m 
Check phone 5m 
Wash up =10m 
 Read journal articles+30mHabit I want to build long-term. Identity: researcher
Turn on computer =  
Check emails =15m 
Work on thesis + Fundamental to succeeding as a student researcher.
Comments: Your list should be longer – I truncated the above example for the sake of brevity and privacy. The second column “habits I want to add” is optional for now; we’ll get to it again later (Chapter 5). Instead, focus on your existing current habits and whether they’re useful for you.

You can also think about what habits you’d like to add to your existing schedule.

  • For me: Exercise

CHAPTER 5: THE BEST WAY TO START A NEW HABIT

Implementation intentions

  • Implementation intentions: a plan made beforehand about when and where to act (note: time and location are essential components)
    • Once an implementation intention is set, you don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike
  • Format: I will [behaviour] at [time] in [location]

Habit stacking

  • The Diderot effect: the tendency for one action to lead to a similar one, creating a domino effect
  • The habit stacking formula: After [current habit], I will [new habit].
  • Habit stacking pairs an old habit with a new habit. You can use this strategy to add new habits before or after old ones or insert them in-between.

Exercise 5.1: Create your own implementation intention

  • I will [read a journal article] at [11am] in [the study] (+)

Exercise 5.2: Now habit stack by putting your new habit intention with existing habits

  • After I [brush my teeth], I will [read a journal article] at [11am] in [the study] (+)
    • After I [read a journal article], I will [open my laptop]. (=)

Comments: the time requirement in the format was tricky for me as a person who doesn’t operate on a regular schedule (I don’t sleep well). I find it easier to insert a habit into an existing sequence of habits. Example: for the habit of reading journal articles, I slotted it between waking up in the morning and before I turn on my laptop – making it the first productive work activity I do in the day.  

Practicing habit stacking will help you develop more general rules that will be useful later. Examples:

  • Shopping: When I want to make a new purchase on Shopee ($), I will sleep on the decision before I decide whether to buy it again the next day.
  • Cleanliness: when I leave a room, I will reset things to their original positions before I used them.

Other notes on habit stacking

  • Habit stacking works best with an appropriate cue that is highly specific and immediately actionable.
  • Unlike implementation intentions, a habit stack implicitly has time and location built into it
  • Consider when the best time is to insert a new habit; choosing a time when you will be distracted/busy with something else will not be useful
  • Your cue should also occur on the same frequency as your habit

Exercise 5.3: Finding the right trigger for your habit stack

  • Create a list with two columns
    • The habits that you do everyday without fail (refer to your habit scorecard for this)
    • All the things that happen to you everyday without fail
The habits i do everyday without fail (ref habit scorecard)Add action hereAll the things that happen to me everyday without fail
Wake up The sun rises
Wash up  
Enter my study  
Check my planner+ read journal article 
Open my computer  
Check my emails  
Open the fridge  
Check Telegram and Instagram I receive text messages
Eat lunch  
Watch videos/youtube  
Listen to music on youtube  
Eat dinner The sun sets
Use computer+ exercise 
Shower+ read book 
Sleep  
As you can tell, perhaps my life is in need of some excitement.

Now incorporate where you want to insert your new habit into the table you made in Exercise 4.1. The things you’ve identified that happen can serve as triggers for your new habit.


CHAPTER 6: ENVIRONMENT > MOTIVATION

Environment is the invisible hand that shapes behaviour.

THE 1ST LAW: MAKING IT OBVIOUS – designing your environment for success

  • Creating obvious visual cues can draw your attention toward a desired habit.
  • If you want to make the habit a big part of your life, make it a big part of your environment

Exercise 6.1: plan and implement one change to your existing environment to facilitate a habit.

  • Intention: I want to take my vitamin pills every morning.
    • Action: put the vitamin bottle beside my laptop so it is the first thing I see before I begin work. After taking them, put the bottle aside. At night before I sleep, put the bottle back beside my laptop.
    • Action 2: set a phone reminder every day at 12pm to take vitamins.
  • Intention: I want to read a journal article everyday before I start work.
    • Action: Put the journal on top of my closed laptop so I am reminded to read it before I turn on my laptop and begin work. Also, I put a bookmark in the journal so I can quickly resume where I stopped the day before.  
    • Action 2: Stack this habit with vitamin taking. Take vitamins -> read journal article -> turn on my laptop and check emails.

The context is the cue

  • Habits start off with a cue but soon become generalised to the entire context
  • We assign habits to the locations they occur. We develop relationships between items, locations, and habits. A place is loaded with cues that prime action.
  • You can train yourself to link a particular habit to a particular context
  • Habits can be easier to change in a new environment, where you can escape the cues that sustained the old habits
    • If you can’t get a new environment, rearrange the current one
    • Create a separate space for work, study, exercise, entertainment
  • Avoid mixing the context of one habit with another. If they contradict, the easier habit will win out
    • If space is limited, divide the room into activity zones instead
  • The goal is to individuate contexts to specific habits and modes of thought. A stable environment promotes the formation of effective habits.

Exercise 6.2: Consider how you interact with the spaces around you. Identify the places where you currently mix activities.

The main areas which I operate:

  • My study: where I do work (but I also play games, sometimes eat/watch videos, and read there)
  • Dinner table: where I eat (but I also watch videos there)
  • My bed: where I sleep (but I use my phone and read books/manga there)

Exercise 6.3: List and implement changes to separate your habits into specific spaces

  • Continue to do work in my study area
  • Don’t eat in the study – eat at the dinner table
  • Play CoD in living room instead of in the study
  • Blog on iPad instead of laptop. Read online books on iPad instead of phone (“digital space”)
    • This will help me to associate the iPad with blogging and reading, which are both knowledge-productive activities. 
  • Continue reading journal articles in the study, but sit in a different location. I sit on the other side of the table where I face a wall clock and cannot see my laptop screen. So that orientation becomes a special “zone” where the only thing I do is read journal articles. I also get to track how much time I have spent reading that day.

Exercise 6.4: How do I encourage myself to do my habit? (Summarised)

In my case it is reading academic articles every day.

  • Environmental cue: I will set the book on top of my computer after I reset the room every night. This gives me an immediate cue when i enter the room that reminds me to read.
  • Habit stacking: I will read academic articles after I eat my vitamins and before I turn on my laptop to check my emails.
  • Start with 5 minutes
  • Activity zone: instead of reading in front of the computer, sit behind the computer to read (facing the clock)

CHAPTER 7: THE SECRET TO SELF-CONTROL

… Is in the environment

  • Disciplined people do not necessarily have more self-control. Rather, they are better at structuring their environment to reduce temptation.
  • Once a habit has been encoded, the urge to act follows whenever the environmental cues reappear.
    • You can break a habit, but you’re unlikely to forget it
    • Because of this, resisting habits is an ineffective strategy
  • Noticing cues leads to cue-induced wanting – simply noticing something is enough for us to want it, which can lead to the beginning of a habit sequence.

INVERSION OF 1ST LAW: MAKE IT INVISIBLE

  • Therefore, we should eliminate cues that stimulate bad habits. Examples:
    • If you find yourself unproductive and distracted by your phone, leave it in another room for a few hours
      • Or buy the timer locker that you can put your phone in
    • If you’re continually feeling not good enough, stop following accounts that trigger jealousy and envy
      • If you want to get off social media, delete the app

Exercise 7.1: MAKING IT INVISIBLE – How can I remove cues for negative habits?

  • I want to check my phone less. When doing work, I can put my phone in a bag, and then place it in a location that is out of sight and out of reach.
  • Turn off notifications for email and social media on my laptop when I am trying to engage in deep work.
  • I want to spend less time reading manga at night. Unfollow relevant pages on Instagram so I don’t get reminded.
    • More extreme: blacklist manga websites so it becomes a hassle to even assess the website (this is really ideal, but I do not have the mental strength to do this, unfortunately)
  • Move out of study room when playing CoD so I don’t associate it with work context. (Goodbye Legendary status, you were an admirable goal while you lasted)

CHAPTER 8: MAKING A HABIT IRRESISTIBLE

Context

  • Supernormal stimulus: an exaggerated cue that stimulates more vigorous reactions (from existing responses)
  • Cravings are associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. It is released when we experience a reward, but even more so when we anticipate a reward following the development of a habit.
  • Most of our brain is allocated to wanting (a reward) rather than liking (an activity).
  • It is the craving that leads to the response.

THE 2ND LAW: MAKING IT ATTRACTIVE

  • We can hack this tendency via temptation bundling: making a habit more attractive by bundling it with pleasurable outcomes.
  • We do this by linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do.
    • Based on Premack’s principle: more probable behaviours reinforce less probable behaviours
    • Example: running on treadmill (exercise) while watching netflix

Habit stacking + temptation bundling formula

  1. After [current habit], I will [habit I need]
  2. After [habit I need], I will [habit I want]

Exercise 8.1: Create your own temptation building formula

Tie your current habits – habit you want to build – thing you want to do

I want to get into a habit of exercising, so:

  1. After I finish work for the day, I will exercise
  2. After exercise, I will play CoD
  1. After showering and drying my hair, I will do 10 sit-ups
  2. After 10 sit-ups, I will read a book before sleeping

In conclusion: the more attractive an event is, the more useful it will be in forming a habit.


CHAPTER 9: THE ROLE OF OTHERS IN SHAPING OUR HABITS

Social norms are powerful. We tend to adopt habits from people in the following 3 groups:

  • People we are close to (family and friends)
    • Peer pressure
    • These people set the expectation and culture of what is normal
  • Those in large numbers (the tribe)
    • Shared identities reinforce habits. We are motivated to reinforce our habits to maintain group belonging if the action is seen as important.
    • There is a downside – we may uncritically accept and copy the behaviours of the groups we are part of simply because it’s the popular thing to do.
  • The powerful (lured by status and prestige)
    • We are drawn to behaviours that provide us self-esteem and approval from others
    • We strive to emulate people who are better than us or who we want to become

To develop a habit, join a culture where:

  1. Your desired behaviour is the normal behaviour
  2. You already have something in common with the group

Exercise 9.1: Brainstorm what groups or platforms you can join to promote a habit that you want but may find difficult to work on individually.

Examples:

  • I want to read more journal articles. I can join/create a reading club where I post reflections on the articles that I’ve read and encourage others to do the same. (Anyone interested in joining me, by the way? I might actually make this if I can’t find an existing one.)
  • I want to write more on my blog. I can follow other people on WordPress (especially popular writers – imitating the powerful right) so that I regularly receive updates on new content others are posting. If there are online groups, I can join those too.
    • I’ll follow any fellow WordPress user who likes this post.
    • I also want to work on my thesis more. I can also look for postgraduate writing groups so i can be motivated to work on my thesis while gaining social support from other struggling students like me, lol.
  • I want to exercise. I can sign up for group classes where I learn a new skill with others (e.g. Spin class, or quad skating, which is what I’m currently looking at).
    • This is doubly beneficial because I must commit via payment, which further incentivises me to attend lessons even if I may lack motivation.

CHAPTER 10: HOW TO FIND AND FIX THE CAUSES OF YOUR BAD HABITS

To undo your bad habits, you want to make them unattractive.

INVERSION OF THE 2ND LAW: MAKE IT UNATTRACTIVE

Underlying motives and cravings: all habits function to fulfil the underlying motives of human nature. Examples of motives:

  • Obtain food and water
  • Find love and approval
  • Achieve status and prestige

Habits are modern-day solutions to ancient desires

  • Observe the products that are habit-forming around you and you’ll realise that they do not create new motivations, but are just ways to address old motives
    • Win social approval and connect with others -> use Instagram
    • Wanting to feel powerful and in control -> play mobile fps games (until you lose)
  • When a habit successfully addresses a motive, you will develop a craving to do it again.
  • In time, you form associations between the fulfilment of the motive and the activity.

Importantly: there are many ways to address the same underlying motive

  • Your habits are not necessarily the best way to solve the problems you face; they are just the methods you learned to use.

Habits are attractive when we associate them with positive feelings and consequences

Exercise 10.1: Hopefully by this point you have identified some (bad) habits that you personally engage in. Identify the underlying motive that the habit you want to change meets. Then brainstorm other ways that you can meet the same motive.

My habitsUnderlying motiveOther ways to meet the same motive
Use social mediaGain social recognition and approval (lol); distractionWrite and post blog; read books
Go on YoutubeAlleviate boredom, destress, learn new thingsRead books
Drink bubble teaSugar rushEat fruit; drink fruit juice (natural sugars!)
yes I am very determined to read

Reprogramming your brain to enjoy hard habits

  • Engage in cognitive reframing. You don’t “have” to; you “get” to!
  • Reframing to highlight benefits of an activity is a great way to reprogram your mind to make habits appear more attractive.

Exercise 10.2: Reframe things that you are reluctant to do/hard habits into positive things that you can look forward to!

  • I have to wake up early to work -> I get to wake up early to achieve more
  • I have to exercise -> I get to build my endurance and improve my health playing just dance
  • I have to work on my thesis -> I get to work towards my goals and improve my skills to contribute to the world (lol)
  • I have to read academic articles -> I get to improve my psychological knowledge and learn new concepts that will benefit my master’s journey!

Create motivational rituals to cue positive states of mind 

  • The aim is to associate a positive outcome with a ritual (a set of actions), and then when the ritual is done alone, it can by itself create positive anticipation/feelings
  • Create a short routine that you perform every time before you do the thing that you love.
  • Example given in text: putting earpieces on to listen to music before engaging in deep, focused work. Soon, the act of putting earpieces on became a cue automatically associated with increased focus.
    • My comments: this is an ideal situation, but I think it requires that the cue (putting earpieces in this case) needs to be consistently linked to the act of focused work. This might be quite difficult for most of us who often listen to earpieces in other situations.
    • Instead, the ritual should be unique and ideally only used in the specific situation/habit you want to build.
  • You can adapt this strategy for almost any purpose
    • Find something that makes you happy, then create a short routine that you perform every time before you do the thing that you like.
    • Happy thing —> happiness (you can also sub this emotion for anything else)
      • E.g. Petting dog or taking a nice shower
    • Do routine before happy thing. Now routine becomes associated with happiness.
    • Now you can inject the specific routine into any part of the day to cue happiness, e.g. Before engaging in a difficult habit.

Exercise 10.3: Create a routine to prime an emotion!

Example:

  • Stretch before a warm shower
  • Do the same stretch before starting work

Congratulations on coming to the end of the first half of my Atomic Habits guide. This first half has covered the 1st and 2nd laws and their inversions – making it obvious (invisible) and making it attractive (unattractive). Now put all your responses to the exercises together, and they should set you off to a good start on changing your mentality and your environment to build your new habit (or break an old one).

The second part of the guide will cover the remaining 10 chapters. It includes the 3rd and 4th laws and their inversions – making it easy (difficult) and making it satisfying (unsatisfying). I’ll be posting it in about a week or so. To receive updates the moment I post, you can subscribe to my blog! Laptop users can do this by clicking the “follow” button on the bottom right-hand corner. For phone users, you should be able to find an option to enter your email and subscribe at the bottom of this post.

If you appreciated this post, you’re invited to follow/contact me. Alternatively, if you want to show some love, you can buy my candy and share it with your friends, it’ll make my day ( ・‿・)♡. See you guys in the next post. Also, again: support James Clear by buying his book.

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