Atomic Habits, by James Clear

Introduction: Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference 

Have you ever thought about how the big changes you want to make in your life depend more on creating small habits, than on having big attitudes?

For example, if you want to get in shape, all you have to do is get into the practice of eating well, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. 

To learn a new language, you need to take part in a course, sit specific exams, and you need to develop the habit of studying every day.

If you want to be financially independent, you need to get into the habit of spending less than you earn every month, and investing the difference. 

Instead of wasting time setting yourself unachievable goals or trying all the shortcuts to success, all you have to do is make a small change every day. 

At the end of this video, I’ll show you a series of tools that you can use to help you create habits a lot more easily. 

In today’s Arata Academy Summary, we’ll be looking at the ideas put forward by James Clear, one of the great believers that your quality of life depends on the quality of your habits. 

He wrote a book called Atomic Habits, and the title itself already gives us an idea of the importance of small habits. A habit as small as an atom is capable of having a huge impact on your life, because it accumulates a yield over time. 

When it comes to the changes that you want to see in your life, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you consider yourself to be successful in achieving them. What really matters is whether or not your habits are putting you on the path to your goals. 

In other words, you should be much more concerned about your trajectory than about your current results. 

We always think that we need to change our results, but the truth is that the problems aren’t in our results. What we really need to change is the habits that are creating those results. Solve the cause, and the consequence resolves itself. 

Think of it this way: your goals are the results that you want to achieve. Your habits are the processes that lead to those results. Goals are good for giving you direction, but habits are essential to making steady progress. 

For example, everyone that goes on a diet has the same goal: to lose weight. The difference between the people that lose weight and those who don’t are the daily eating habits of each person. 

The purpose of the goal is to win the game. The purpose of the habits is to play the game. 

We often fail to give importance to these small, menial tasks, because they have practically no impact on us at the present moment. It’s only when we look back and see the accumulated result of their repetition that we understand the true power of small habits. 

This leads us to yet another problem: if you’re only happy when you’ve achieved your goals, you’ll spend a lot of time feeling sorry for yourself. If you can find a way to be content just knowing that you’re on the right path, you’ll be able to find happiness every day. 

To see things this way, you need to change your notion of identity. I talk a lot about this topic in our courses. The best way to change your identity is to change what you do. 

This is when the real change happens: instead of saying that you’re a person that would like to do something, you become the person that does it. Every time you practice a little habit, it’s as if you’re one step closer to your new identity. 

The opposite also happens: every time you fail to practice the habit, it’s like taking a step back from your goal. 

It’s important that you understand the four steps that make up any habit: cue, craving, response, and reward. You need to apply the four laws of behaviour change, that involve these steps. 

Let’s have a look at each of them. 

1st Law: Make it obvious

A habit is a behaviour that has been repeated so many times that it’s become automatic. 

If this behaviour isn’t practiced enough in each of the four steps (cue, craving, response, and reward), it won’t turn into a habit. 

This is how it works: the cue triggers a craving, which motivates an answer, which generates a reward. 

If you paid attention, everything starts with a cue. What’s the easiest way of triggering a habit? Making the cue obvious! 

The two most common cues are time and place. When it’s noon, you have lunch. When you’re home alone, you watch TV. When you get home from work, you go to the gym. When you go to a bar, you drink beer. 

A lot of people say that they don’t have the motivation to create a habit, but generally it’s not motivation that they lack, but rather having a clear plan for each cue. 

A simple and efficient model for plotting a cue is the formula: I’m going to do this behaviour at this time, in this place. 

For example, I will exercise when I pass the gym on my way home from work. I’m going to read a book when I go into my room at night. I’m going to study for half an hour on the train home from work. Just remember the formula. I’m going to do this behaviour at this time, in this place.

Habit Stacking

One trick to creating new cues is to identify a habit you already have, and putting the new habit right after it. This technique is called habit stacking.

For example, you could use the habit of brushing your teeth in the morning as a cue for doing 10 minutes of stretching. Brushing your teeth, a habit that you already have, serves as a cue for stretching. 

This link can have as many habits as you want, the previous action always serving as the cue for the next. The secret is to carefully choose the first action, which will set off the other actions. 

Another effective technique is to change your environment to make the cue so obvious that it’s impossible to ignore it. For example, if you’re learning to play guitar, leave the instrument positioned in the middle of the room, and not hidden away in a cupboard. 

That is, instead of being a victim of your environment, you can change it to suit the habits that you want to create. This works in both your physical and virtual environments. 

The better your environment, the less will power you’ll need to carry out good habits and avoid negative behaviour. 

By the way, if your goal is to get rid of bad habits, all you have to do is reverse the first law. Instead of making the cue obvious, make it invisible. 

If every time you go on your phone you end up spending hours on social media, just delete the apps. If you’re watching too much TV, unplug the TV and hide the remote in a drawer. 

In fact, all four of the habit-forming laws that we’ll look at today can be reversed to get rid of bad habits. 

Well, now that we’ve looked at the trigger, let’s get to the second law: making the habit attractive. 

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2nd law: Make it attractive

The cue triggers the second of four steps of a habit: craving. 

When you smell food in the oven, you have an urge to eat. When you get a notification on your phone, you have the desire to read it. When you lie on the sofa in front of the TV, you want to eat snacks. 

Before even performing that action, your body releases dopamine, decreasing the motivation to act. In other words, desire leads to action.

That’s why, to create new habits, the second law says that you need to make this habit attractive. Our goal is to create an irresistible desire to fulfill the new habit. 

The key to this is to associate the habit you want to create with a positive experience. 

For example, let’s say that you’re a massive fan of a specific TV series. You could decide that you’ll only watch episodes when you’re exercising on a treadmill or an exercise bike. Or you could sit and watch them as soon as you’ve finished exercising. 

The goal is to create the desire to watch the TV show, but in order to achieve this, you have to do some exercise. The idea here is that the habit that you enjoy is being placed alongside or directly after the new habit that you need to do. 

Another way to make the habit appealing is to do it alongside other people that have the same goals as you. If you want to be a healthier person, it’s better to walk with people who also have the goal of becoming fitter, than with people who are only walking to the nearest fast food joint. 

If you go against your social group’s routines to create a new habit, you’ll come across resistance. This will make the desired habit unappealing, because of the judgement of the people around you. 

The opposite is also true. If you want to get rid of any bad eating habits and start walking with a group of healthy people. Maybe this healthy team will be  judging your eating choices and that could be something that will make you stop eating bad food. 

Therefore, to get rid of bad habits, you can reverse the law to be: make the habit unappealing If it isn’t appealing to you, it won’t generate desire and you’ll have no reason to act. 

Let’s move on to the third law: making the habit easy. 

3rd Law: Making it easy

We are more likely to carry out actions that take the least amount of effort. So the easier it is for you to make a habit, the easier it’ll be to maintain it. 

Who do you think is more likely to create the habit of exercising: someone who has a good gym just a short walk away from the home, or someone who has to sit in traffic for an hour to get to their nearest gym?

Who is more likely to stick to a diet, someone who has all of their meals prepared, frozen, and separated into pots for the week, or someone who decides what they’re going to eat on the day?

Who will waste more time on social media, someone who has all of the apps downloaded and passwords for the social media accounts pre-registered on their phone, or someone that has to turn on a computer and log in every time they want to use these networks?

As we’ve seen before, the cue triggers a desire that leads us to take action. This response is the behaviour itself, which we usually call a habit. 

Going to the gym, following a diet, going on social media, these are all responses to cravings that are started by a trigger. The easier it is to carry out these actions, the greater the chances of the habit being created and maintained. 

The key to creating any habit is repetition, not perfection. You don’t have to do your best every time you make a habit, you just have to practice it over and over again. 

The more you practice a habit, however small, your brain will begin to do this task on auto pilot, just as a muscle adapts to exercise the more often it’s done. 

This is why you can create habits from extremely easy tasks. 

For example, read a single page of a book a day to fall into the habit of reading. Go to the gym and do one form of exercise to get into the habit of exercising. Floss a single tooth to get into the habit of flossing. 

Of course, these small actions won’t generate the outcome that you’d initially expect. You have to keep in mind that in the beginning, your goal isn’t the result. All you want to do at this point is create the habit. 

Once you’ve established this new behaviour, it can be improved. 

The Two-Minute Rule

One technique for applying the 3rd Law is the Two-Minute rule. When you start to create a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do it. 

Two minutes of reading. Two minutes of exercising. Two minutes of flossing your teeth. 

Even with such little time, just the fact that you’re doing it will reinforce the identity you want to create. In the end, you’ll see that once you start doing something, it’s much easier to keep up. 

The opposite also applies here. If you want to get rid of a bad habit, make it difficult to perform. 

Throw all the treats in your house into the bin. Block websites that you no longer want to visit. Move the TV out of your bedroom. 

In short, make it very easy to do the habits you want to create. And make it very difficult to practice the bad habits that you want to give up. 

Now, you must be wondering: what comes after the action? What is the last of the four steps when creating a habit? It’s the reward. 

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4th Law: Make it satisfying

So far, we’ve seen that a cue triggers a craving, which leads us to taking action. This creates the habit. What comes immediately after carrying out the action is the reward. 

The most important point for creating and maintaining a habit is to feel good, even if it’s only a momentary satisfaction. The feeling of success is a sign that what you just did really paid off. 

No one wants to be in the habit of doing something that they hate. The 4th Law fixes this by helping you to make the habit satisfying. 

The more satisfying your experience with the new behaviour, the more likely you are to repeat it until it becomes a habit. Satisfaction is like a message that reaches your brain, saying: “Hey! That was good! Let’s do it again!” Changing your life is easy when it makes you feel satisfied. 

Now, you need to make sure that the reward is immediate. Our brain hasn’t evolved in an environment where the reward takes ages to appear. For the brain to make the association, the reward has to come soon after the action has been carried out, not minutes, hours, or even days later. 

This is why habits can be formed so easily. The reward is immediate, while we don’t suffer the downsides until a while later. 

Eating a pizza can provide us with immediate satisfaction, but it can be harmful if we eat it every day for a long period of time. Smoking can provide immediate pleasure, but it can be detrimental to your health over a few years. Not studying today might allow you to relax for a few hours, but it’ll make you feel stressed when the time of the exam comes around. 

It doesn’t matter how detailed your plans for the future are, when it comes to making a practical decision, instant gratification almost always wins. 

The sweet taste of that dessert is right there in front of you, while diabetes seems like someone far off in the distance, something that might not even affect you. There aren’t many people that can give up instant pleasure for future benefit. 

That’s why actions that give us an immediate reward tend to be repeated. We tend to avoid sacrificing this. 

If you’re able to have a long-term vision, if you can exchange instant gratification for a future benefit, you’ll stand out from the crowd. You’ll struggle less and have bigger rewards in the long term. Hard choices today will make your life easier tomorrow. Easy choices today will make your life harder tomorrow. You’re the only person that can decide. 

This is a skill that can be practiced, but it takes a lot of energy, a resource that is quite limited. To train this ability, you have to work with human nature, not against it. 

This is done with the 4th Law: making the habit satisfying. Finding at least a little bit of immediate satisfaction in the habits that bring long-term benefits. And feeling a lot of dissatisfaction with those that bring future problems. 

For example, if you think that doing exercise is a sacrifice even knowing the health benefits, one way to apply the 4th Law is to change the type of exercise that you do to make it satisfying to you. Swap the gym for a game of tennis, football, dance classes… anything that brings you immediate pleasure. 

This way, you’re creating a reward that keeps you motivated at the time, so that you can pile-up those long term benefits. 

The reverse also works. Create an immediate punishment after you carry out a habit that you want to give up. 

For example, you could commit to immediately donating $20 to the political party that you hate after having a cigarette, as a kind of fine for practicing the habit that you want to quit. 

The important thing to remember is that the reward, whether it’s positive or negative, should be felt at the end of carrying out the action. 

We tend to remember the end of an experience rather than the whole experience. If something went well, we’ll remember this something as good. If it went badly, we’ll consider the whole experience as bad.

For some habits, there are invisible rewards. Some specific behaviours can improve your mood, give you more energy, make you feel relaxed. When you begin to identify these invisible rewards, you may no longer need to create secondary rewards. You start to create the habit simply because it makes you feel good. 

The habit tracker

One of the things that can bring you the most satisfaction is seeing that you’ve made progress. When you notice that you’re playing better, this reinforces your habit of playing the guitar. When you see your body changing, it reinforces the habit of eating well. When you see the numbers in your bank account growing, your habit of saving gets stronger. 

The only problem is that we don’t get to see progress with all habits every day. A technique you could use to overcome this and to bring you immediate satisfaction is to create a visual way to measure and show your progress. 

You can do this with a diary of what you ate, with a report of the exercises you did, with how many pages of a book you read per day.

But the easiest way is with a habit tracker, a technique that was popularised by Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century.

Franklin wanted to have 13 virtues, 13 behaviours that he valued as a person. For this, he created a kind of calendar: in the columns were the days of the month, and in the lines the 13 virtues that he wanted to acquire.

Each day that he fulfilled virtue, he marked an X on the table. That visual identification of the progress he was making kept him motivated not to break the X sequence. His focus was on the process, not the end result.

Nowadays, you can find several applications that do the same thing. With these habit trackers, you just have to carry out your habit and then mark the X. When the sequence of X is forming, you will find it increasingly easier to fulfill the habit.

At the end of this video, I’ll give you a list of some habit tracker apps, commenting on the advantages and disadvantages of each.

With these applications, you can even use marking a habit that you just completed as a trigger for the next habit, using the habit-chaining technique I taught you in the first law, remember?

You will always have the list of habits you want for your life in the palm of your hand, tracing exactly how your journey is toward these habits.

Tracking your habits also brings integrity. We often complain about the lack of results. But the truth is that we usually have a pretty distorted view of what we are really doing to get to these results.

A habits tracker clearly shows how our behaviour has been in practice, and makes us understand why we are getting the results we have. It’s a testament to how many steps closer we are to the person we want to be. When the evidence is right in front of us, it becomes difficult to lie to ourselves.

Some people consider measuring progress in this way to be a sacrifice. They think they have to create two habits: the behaviour itself, and the habit of marking progress.

If you’re one of these people, you can think of automating as much as possible the record of your habits. A workout application can record your workout sessions. Your phone automatically records how many steps you take. Your bank statement records how much you spend. You can simply take this data and do an analysis once a week or month.

With this, you can leave the manual register of habits as a back-up. For these, the sequence of X marked over time will simply serve as the satisfaction that you need to continue making progress.

Never miss twice

Now, however consistent you are, it’s inevitable that one day the sequence will be broken. Nobody’s perfect.

When that happens, what you must do to recover quickly is to create a motto for yourself: never miss twice.

If one day you break your sequence, do your best to resume the habit the very next day.

The truth is that losing a day rarely brings great trouble. The danger of truth lies in repetition. In other words, losing a day is an accident. Losing two is the beginning of a new bad habit.

One trick to getting back on track is to take the 3rd Law to the extreme. Make the habit very, very easy. Do a push-up. Read a page. Floss tone tooth. But do your best to never miss two days in a row. Such small actions won’t bring immediate results, but they will reinforce the identity you want to create.

The Habit Contract

If the habit tracker doesn’t work for you, you could use an advanced tactic: create a habit agreement with others.

It works like this: you choose a person you trust to be accountable for how your journey is in creating a new habit. Or in abandoning a bad habit, whatever.

You make a contract, an agreement, with this accountability partner, determining what will happen when you don’t fulfill your new habit. Or when you make the habit you want to leave. The idea here is to create an immediate punishment whenever you break the sequence.

You don’t have to have a formal contract if you don’t  want to. A verbal agreement works just as well, because just knowing that someone else is watching you already changes your behaviour.

In the list of apps you’ll receive for free at the end of this video, I’ll introduce you to an app that lets you easily create engagement contracts with other people.

We’re nearing the end of this video, and I wanted to ask you a question: what would your life be like if you applied these 4 laws and created the habit of being the person you always wanted to be?

What would your body look like if you could create the habit of eating well, exercising, and resting? How much would you have in the bank if you made the habit of spending less than you earn and investing the difference? What would your career look like if you were in the habit of studying and continually improving?

If you intend to do any of these things but aren’t doing them, all you have to do now is identify which of the steps you’re missing. Is the trigger of the habit obvious? Is the habit appealing enough to arouse the desire for action? Is the habit easy to carry out? Is the immediate reward satisfying?

This type of question can bring small changes to your life. But they are small changes that, over time, accumulate and bring benefits in a progression that will change your life completely.

And now, as I promised, I have a gift for you. Go to this link here and download a free commented list of the best apps for you to track your habits. I made a list with options for iOS and Android, commenting on the positives and negatives of each app.

Using one of these apps and applying the 4 laws you’ve learned in this video, your journey to creating new habits is virtually guaranteed.