Summary of Atomic Habits by James Clear

  • Post category:Summaries
  • Post last modified:February 26, 2024


  • Your identity is your biggest motivator to develop (or break) new habits.
  • A habit is something you do because you enjoy it.
  • To break a habit, make it non-enjoyable.
  • People who succeed in building and keeping good habits have great processes in place. They don’t focus too much on the end goal.

Short summary: 3 min

Long summary: 24 min

Book reading time: 3h57

Score: 8/10

Book published in: 2018

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Table of Contents

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What Atomic Habits Talks About and Is It Worth Reading?

Atomic Habits is a book written by James Clear. It gives a series of tools to make tough habits enjoyable and bad habits annoying, explains how habits form in the brain, and why good habits inevitably lead to success.

Atomic Habits is one of the most popular modern self-development books (along with The One Thing) despite being recent (2018).

Like most books, the most important piece of information is at the beginning. The rest is a variation of principles that have already been outlined.

I enjoyed the book but disagreed with a few stuff. Since I don’t want to spoil it, I added a section “Things I Disagree With” at the end of the summary.

Reading the book is not necessary as it’s not very deep, special, or complicated. This summary will tell you everything you need to know about it. enough.

Get the book here.

Short Summary of Atomic Habits

We become what we repeatedly do. What we repeatedly do is called a habit. By building good habits, we can become who we want to become.

The best way to build habits without quitting them is to build habits that support the person you want to become.

Indeed, we need to remain congruent with who we think we are – desires and wishes come second.

Eg: if you define yourself as a non-smoker, it will be easier to quit smoking.

-> your habits shouldn’t be established because you want something, but because you want to become someone.

Your identity -> influences and forms your habits.

Habits work in four phases.

  1. Cue: smell of waffle
  2. Craving: you get hungry
  3. Response: you buy the waffle
  4. Reward: you feel good eating it

As a result, the four laws to forming good habits follow these four steps.

  1. Cue: make it obvious.
    1. Fill out the Habit Scorecard
    2. Use implementation intention (a calendar to say what you will do and when).
    3. Use habit stacking: link one habit to another
    4. Make the cues for good habits visible and the ones for bad habits invisible.
  2. Craving: make it attractive.
    1. Use temptation bundling. Pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do.
    2. Join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.
    3. Create a motivation ritual. Do something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit.
  3. Response: make it easy.
    1. Reduce friction to start the habit.
    2. Design the environment to make the habit easy.
    3. Analyze and use the decisive moment.
    4. Use the Two-Minute Rule.
    5. Automate the habit.
  4. Reward: make it satisfying.
    1. Give yourself a reward for completing a habit.
    2. Understand the benefit behind not practicing a bad habit.
    3. Use a habit tracker not to break the chain.
    4. Don’t miss more than once on your habit.

The four laws to breaking bad habits follow these four steps.

  1. Cue: make it invisible.
    1. Make the cues invisible
  2. Craving: make it repulsive.
    1. Highlight the benefits of avoiding bad habits.
  3. Response: make it difficult.
    1. Increase friction between the bad habit and you.
    2. Get committed to your future good habits.
  4. Reward: make it painful.
    1. Find an accountability partner.

We will explore each of these in the long-form summary.

Summary of Atomic Habits Written by James Clear


“Atomic” means small. Atomic Habits is about small habits.

The author had a baseball accident in high school that left him almost dead. When he went to university, he rebuilt himself using habits. He began sharing his work on his blog and after a few months, had thousands of email subscribers.

He was invited to conferences to talk about habits and is now a worldwide expert on the topic.

1. The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits

There is this idea that the only way to be better is through power moves.

Eg: Fasting for three days instead of reducing sugar. Working out once for 10 hours instead of 10 times for one hour.

It’s wrong.

The way to improve is to do small changes regularly to become “1% better every day.”

Progressing by 1% every day for a year -> 1.01365 = 37.78.

Regressing by 1% every day for a year -> 0.99365= 0.03.

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Progressing VS regressing

The 1% is the habit. On a daily basis, progress due to habits is invisible. Over the long term, the difference is enormous.

Eg: if you go to the gym for 1 hour you won’t see the difference. If you do it 1000 times, you will.

Habit is a bit like the direction of an airplane. In the beginning, changing a few degrees won’t impact the direction much. But in the long term, you end up in a completely different location.

image 36
In the long term, a few degrees of difference make a HUGE difference.

As a result, whether you are successful now or not does not matter. What matters is whether your habits will make you successful in the long term.

Your life reflects your habits. Your bank account reflects your financial habits, your mirror reflects your health habits, etc.

If you want to know whether you will be successful, have a look at your current habits. Will they compound into something great in 10 years, or not?

Going to the gym, reading a book, and spending less than you earn is how you become successful in the long term.

Time acts as a multiplier. It will 10X your results if your habits are great. But it will do the same if your habits are bad.

It’s a double-edged sword.

Positive compounding

  • Productivity compounds: automation frees a little bit more of your time every day.
  • Knowledge compounds: knowledge compounds over time.
  • Relationships compound: being nicer and helping people more every day will help you get more connections over time.

Negative compounds

  • Stress compounds: when stress stays, it gives you catastrophic health results.
  • Negative thoughts compound: the more you think of yourself as worthless or unworthy, the more your life will reflect that reality. It also applies to other people.
  • Outrage compounds: protests are often the results of small events that eventually explode.

Habits are built slowly and don’t seem to give any results at first…until one day, results seem to explode overnight.

Eg: the bamboo spends the first five years growing roots under the ground. Then grows very fast.

This period when you get no results is called the Valley of Disappointment, or the Valley of Despair.

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The Valley of Despair.

The Valley is why people often quit their habits. They practice for a month, see no results, and quit.

The author calls this phase the Plateau of Latent Potential. Once you break through this plateau, the media will call you an overnight success.

image 32
The green line shows how people expect linear results while in reality, results are exponential.

Everything that is big started small. This is why creating a new habit is like nurturing a new, delicate flower. Breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a tree.

Forget About Goals, Focus on Systems Instead

Conventional wisdom will tell you to fix goals and reach them.

The goals depend on the system.

Systems are simply the processes that lead to the goals.

If you want to succeed, set a goal, then forget about it, and focus on the best system to reach the goal.

Many problems arise out of focusing too much on the goals and not enough on the problem.

Problem 1: Winners and losers have the same goal.

Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. What sets them apart is their processes.

Problem 2: Achieving a goal is momentary.

If your goal is to clean your room and you clean it, congrats! You succeeded. Now the important part is not to make it dirty again. And for that, you need a system. Results themselves don’t matter. What matters is the process that led to the results.

Problem 3: Goals restrict your happiness.

“When I reach this goal, I’ll be happy” means that you are not happy now. If you never reach the goal, it is assumed that you’ll never be happy.

When you enjoy the process you’re doing now, you don’t need to wait for the goal to be happy. You already are.

Problem 4: Goals don’t suit long term visions

People that are goal-oriented often “stop” once they reach their goals and slide back into their bad habits.

Goals help you win the game; systems keep you in the game.

True long-term thinking is process thinking. It is continuous, endless improvement.

Your process -> your progress.

A System of Atomic Habits

You fail to break bad habits due to the quality of your system.

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

We will now learn how to design good systems.

2. How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa)

Changing habits is hard for two reasons:

  1. We try to change the wrong thing.
  2. In the wrong way.

Let’s first speak about changing the wrong things. Change happens at three levels:

  1. Outcomes: changing the result (if you set goals, these are it), what you get.
  2. Processes: the habit itself, what you do.
  3. Identity: your beliefs, worldview, what you believe.

Most people, when building habits, focus on the outcome.

It’s wrong.

You should start with the identity.

You should build a habit based on who you want to become.

The reason why is that beliefs are what lead us to our habits. A “smoker trying to quit” still considers himself a smoker.

A “former smoker” is not “trying to quit”. He’s done it.

Any habits that go against your “self” will not last.

There is a HUGE difference between being someone that wants a result and being someone that is the person that gets the results.

The prouder you are about something part of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain it through habit.

True behavior change goes through an identity change.

Read a book -> become a reader.
Run a marathon -> become a runner.

Once you identify with something, you will enact these traits.

Eg: Self-identified voters…vote.

When the identity is positive (“I am a good learner”), it’s great! When it’s negative (“I am dumb”), it’s a curse. Many people don’t change as change simply goes against their identity.

  • “I am always late”
  • “I am not a morning person”

Your mind strives for congruence, so you avoid the things that go against your identity.

The more attached a habit is to your identity, the harder it will be to change it.

Over the long term, the reason why you fail in your habits is that they are not congruent with your identity. This is why you should be flexible in how you define yourself.

Let’s have a look at how you can influence your identity to form better habits.

The Two-Step Process to Changing Your Identity

Your identity comes from your life experience and habits. By looking at your habits, we can see who you are (or at least, how you define yourself).

The more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity trait that enacts the behavior.

Your identity is the sum of the things you believe about yourself. If you go to the gym even when you are tired, you know you are a committed person.

-> your habits make your identity.

image 38
Your habits make your identity.

Write one sentence, you can’t call yourself a writer. Write a series of books and you can.

This is how small habits can drive identity change.

As you practice, you get results and confidence you can trust yourself. The opposite is true for bad habits.

To summarize, here’s how you can change your identity with habits.

  1. Decide who you want to be.
  2. Prove it to yourself with small victories.

If you don’t know in terms of identity, but in terms of results, then start from the results and reverse-engineer it all the way to the identity.

Let’s say you want more money. Then you may need to create a company -> to become an entrepreneur.

What type of people are entrepreneurs? Entrepreneurs:

  • Work hard
  • Are patient
  • Solve what is difficult
  • Are reliable

-> you need to become “a hard-working and patient person that solved difficult problems”.

Sometimes, when you don’t know what to do, it’s worth asking yourself what would the person that you want to become do.

“What would Elon Musk do”, for example.

These habits are called identity-based habits. They provide you with feedback loops.

Your habits shape your identity and your identity shape your habits.

image 39
Your habits shape your identity and your identity shape your habits.

However, it’s your identity that is driving the loop – not the results of the habits.

Become the person first -> get the result.

The Reason Habits Matter

The most important question is “are you becoming who you want to become”?

Who > what/how.

If you don’t know who you want to be, you won’t know which habit to pick up.

Habits are not about having something, but becoming someone.

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