By James Clear
James Clear believes that the traditional method of breaking old habits and building new habits rarely works. This is evidenced by the sheer number of people who sign up to join a gym every January, only to have given up going by the middle of the month. Plans to make dramatic changes revolve around the belief that sticking with something for 21 days will make the new pattern of behaviour stick, but dramatic changes of any sort are rarely sustainable for any effective length of time. His message is that struggling to change your habits is not your fault, and it’s not because of any character flaw that’s unique to you – there are many others just like you. The fault is a flawed system, or as James writes: “Bad habits repeat themselves not because you don’t want to change but because you have the wrong system for change.”
In this book, the author details a different approach to the traditional method – his easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones. He comments that most people approach change from the perspective of what they need to stop doing or give up, whereas his system is all about the realisation of potential, and focusing on what can be gained through change. Success is not about quick fixes or overnight transformations – quit smoking instantly or lose 10 pounds in 10 days, for example – it’s about managing expectations and taking consistent, incremental, and positive steps towards achieving a measurable goal.
My Top 3 Takes from the Summary
A tiny change in a person’s behaviour has the power to transform – for good or for bad.
The Four Laws of Behaviour Change are to make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying.
Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit.
Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results
The author shares his story of a baseball injury he suffered at high school. It resulted in a broken nose, multiple skull fractures, and two shattered eye sockets, leaving him facing a long road back to recovery and his dream of a professional playing career in tatters. His experience of that journey, the patience he had to develop, and the systematic repetition required to regain full physical capabilities sparked his interest in human behaviour, resulting in the knowledge he shares with the reader. He knows first-hand the power of tiny changes and the remarkable results they can bring.
In using the word “atomic” in the book’s title, the author points out that something very small, almost unnoticeable, can in fact be a source of immense energy. A tiny change in a person’s behaviour has the power to transform – and this could be for good or for bad. Choosing to eat an unhealthy meal on occasion is a manageable behaviour change if a person’s diet is healthy overall, but allowing poor food choices to become a frequent occurrence can lead to catastrophic damage in terms of long-term health.
An example of tiny changes bringing remarkable results is given in the story of Dave Brailsford’s transformation of Team GB’s elite cyclists. Hired as the new performance director at British Cycling in 2003, he inherited a team that had only bagged one Olympic gold medal since 1908 and had never won a Tour de France. His approach was to play the long game, or what he described as “the aggregation of marginal gains.” This was a process of breaking down every aspect of cycling into its smallest component and then rebuilding each one of those components to its maximum potential. Some changes made instant sense such as redesigning the bike seats to make riding more comfortable and introducing more aerodynamic cyclewear for the riders, but others raised a few eyebrows.
He brought in a surgeon to demonstrate correct handwashing techniques, thereby limiting the potential for the team to get sick; he researched pillows and mattresses to ensure each rider had the right combination to promote optimal sleep, and he had the inside of the team truck painted white so that any potentially performance-compromising specks of dust would be easier to spot. This fastidious attention to detail may have been considered overkill by many, but the aggregated marginal gains resulted in Team GB cyclists winning 178 world championships, 66 Olympic/Paralympic gold medals, and the Tour de France five times between 2007 and 2017.
Building Better Habits
The author provides a four-step model of habits. These steps are cue, craving, response, and reward. He believes that all habits are built with these four steps and that they recur in the same order in “an endless feedback loop that is running and active during every moment you are alive.” He points out that it’s this repetitive mental programming that makes us fall into automatic patterns of thinking and acting, giving the following example:
The Cue: You wake up.
The Craving: You want to feel alert.
The Response: You drink a cup of coffee.
The Reward: You satisfy your craving to feel alert. Drinking coffee becomes associated with waking up.
This habit loop is explained by the author: “The cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and ultimately becomes associated with the cue.”
Four Laws of Behaviour
To break unwanted habits and to create new and better ones, the author provides his Four Laws of Behaviour Change. They are:
1) Make It Obvious
Making it obvious is making yourself aware of your habits. You need to recognise what they are before you can change them, and you also need to become aware of the triggers, so that you can find the best ways to respond to them.
Making it obvious also applies to building new habits in that having a clear plan of when and where you’ll do the new thing increases the chances of actually doing it. For example, if you intend to walk a mile each day, you need a plan in place that sets out what time and where this will take place. As the author words it: “Give your habits a time and a space to live in the world. The goal is to make the time and location so obvious that, with enough repetition, you get an urge to do the right thing at the right time, even if you can’t say why.”
Another suggestion made by the author is to make the habit you want to build an obvious part of your environment. He tells of wanting to eat an apple a day but somehow always managing to forget about the apples he’d buy because they were hidden away in the fridge. By placing the apples in a bowl and keeping them on the kitchen counter instead of the fridge, he found himself eating more than one a day because they were now clearly visible. Making the apples obvious provided a cue to eat them.
2) Make It Attractive
Using the food industry as an example, the author points out that high-sugar and high-fat products have become irresistible to most of the world’s population, perpetuating diet-related poor health. The makers of junk food know how to make it attractive, so much so that it’s often craved and even used as a reward. Delving into the science behind it, he explains that highly habit-forming behaviours such as eating junk food, taking drugs, or playing video games are all associated with higher levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This is released when experiencing something pleasurable, but it’s also released in anticipation of something pleasurable. In fact, thoughts surrounding a much looked forward to holiday or event can create more pleasure than the actual holiday or event itself.
The author explains that the anticipation of good things is really what motivates us to act in the first place, and dopamine levels increase as the craving for whatever it is we’re anticipating builds. The more attractive something is in our minds, the more likely it is to become habit-forming – thereby something we’re going to keep doing.
It's also pointed out that certain behaviours can be attractive. It’s a known fact that wanting to belong is human nature, and this can lead to imitating the behaviours of others to fit in, or as the author comments: “I find that I often imitate the behaviour of those around me without realising it. In conversation, I’ll automatically assume the body posture of the other person. In college, I began to talk like my roommates. When travelling to other countries, I unconsciously imitate the local accent despite reminding myself to stop.” Identifying with a group is another way that change and growth can become linked to others around you. For example, seeing yourself as belonging to a group of musicians or a group of cyclists helps to embed identity and sustain behaviours associated with that identity.
3) Make It Easy
Repetition is key to establishing a new habit, so keeping it simple makes it more likely you’ll do it often. The author explains that repetition activates a neural circuit associated with the activity, making it essential in terms of encoding a new habit. The more often a habit is practised, the more solidified and automatic it becomes, and doing something automatically makes it easy to keep doing. It’s not a case of only doing easy things, it’s making the new habit as easy as possible to do – and therefore keep doing.
The Two-Minute Rule is suggested by the author as a way of getting started, pointing out that just about any habit can be trimmed down to a two-minute version. As an example, if the new habit you want to establish is to read before bed each night, begin by reading just one page; or, if it’s your goal to walk 10,000 steps every day, start by putting your walking shoes on each day. He calls this a “gateway habit” that will lead to doing it more, commenting that “the point is to master the habit of showing up.” Improvements can’t be made unless you begin, so showing up for the first two minutes gives you a routine you can build on in small increments to keep moving towards your ultimate goal.
4) Make It Satisfying
“Pleasure teaches your brain that a behaviour is worth remembering and repeating,” so any new habit you want to establish needs to be satisfying. The author passes on a warning that the cost of a good habit is in the present, but the cost of a bad habit is in the future. Picturing who you want to be and the life you want to live can make adopting a new habit easier as you are able to see the long-term benefits of everything you need to do to get there, but while most people recognise this, they’ll often give in to instant gratification. He asks, “Why would someone smoke if they know it increases the risk of lung cancer; why would someone overeat when they know it increases their risk of obesity?” The answer lies in the way the brain prioritises rewards. Smoking or overeating is satisfying in the moment.
To make a new habit satisfying, the reward must become the habit itself, but this can take time. Until you can see the benefits, a new habit may not feel worthwhile, so getting it to stick means getting it to provide a sense of success. When you feel successful, it creates a feeling of satisfaction in that your hard work is paying off and it’s all worth it. The author writes: “Mastery is the process of narrowing your focus to a tiny element of success, repeating it until you have internalised the skill, and then using this habit as the foundation to advance to the next frontier of your development.
Each habit unlocks the next level of performance. It’s an endless cycle.” He believes in using reinforcement, meaning giving yourself an immediate reward to encourage more of the new behaviour, but this must always be a reward that reinforces the identity you’re trying to build. For example, if being a healthy person is the long-term vision you have for yourself, the short-term reward you give yourself must be aligned with that vision – in other words, not rewarding yourself with a bar of chocolate after exercising, but perhaps a relaxing spa bath instead. As the author puts it: “Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit.”
The author’s message is that small habits compound. In the pages of this book, he provides practical and proven strategies to help the reader build systems that will lead to ditching old habits and developing new, better habits. Most importantly of all, he encourages everyone to find the identity they want for themselves in the long term and to work towards achieving the behaviours that will let them fit that identity for life.
The author writes from personal experience and shares his findings in an open, understanding way that encourages the reader to look honestly at themselves and their behaviour, and get to the heart of what habits they like and dislike. The depth of scientific knowledge shared along with anecdotal evidence gives the reader all they need to believe that change is possible, and the step-by-step systems set out by the author provide a means of starting and sustaining a new habit, thereby bringing about genuine transformation.
Bio of the Author
James Clear is a writer, speaker, and world-renowned habits expert. He is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies and his work has been featured in Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and on CBS This Morning.