Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Getting 1 percent better every day counts for a lot in the long-run. Habits are a double-edged sword. They can work for you or against you, which is why understanding the details is essential. Small changes often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold. The most powerful outcomes of any compounding process are delayed. You need to be patient. An atomic habit is a little habit that is part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.
If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
The quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. With the same habits, you’ll end up with the same results. But with better habits, anything is possible.
The backbone of this book is my four-step model of habits—cue, craving, response, and reward
“The aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.
You want to predict where you’ll end up in life, all you have to do is follow the curve of tiny gains or tiny losses, and see how your daily choices will compound ten or twenty years down the line.
Forget about goals and focus on system instead because there are big four problems with the goals.
Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. Every candidate wants to get the job. And if successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers.
Imagine you have a messy room and you set a goal to clean it. If you summon the energy to tidy up, then you will have a clean room—for now. But if you maintain the same sloppy, pack-rat habits that led to a messy room in the first place, soon you’ll be looking at a new pile of clutter and hoping for another burst of motivation.
You’re left chasing the same outcome because you never changed the system behind it. You treated a symptom without addressing the cause.
Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment. That’s the counterintuitive thing about improvement. We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results. When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.
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. A systems-first mentality provides the antidote. 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.
Finally, a goal-oriented mind-set can create a “yo-yo” effect. Many runners work hard for months, but as soon as they cross the finish line, they stop training. The race is no longer there to motivate them. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it? This is why many people find themselves reverting to their old habits after accomplishing a goal.
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. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Atomic habit refers to a tiny change, a marginal gain, a 1 percent improvement. But atomic habits are not just any old habits, however small. They are little habits that are part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results. Regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth. Progress requires unlearning. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity. The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do. Each habit not only gets results but also teaches you something far more important: to trust yourself.
New identities require new evidence. If you keep casting the same votes you’ve always cast, you’re going to get the same results you’ve always had. If nothing changes, nothing is going to change.
It is a simple two-step process: Decide the type of person you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins.
Building better habits isn’t about littering your day with life hacks. It’s not about flossing one tooth each night or taking a cold shower each morning or wearing the same outfit each day. It’s not about achieving external measures of success like earning more money, losing weight, or reducing stress. Habits can help you achieve all of these things, but fundamentally they are not about having something. They are about becoming someone.
Quite literally, you become your habits.
As habits are created, the level of activity in the brain decreases. You learn to lock in on the cues that predict success and tune out everything else. When a similar situation arises in the future, you know exactly what to look for. There is no longer a need to analyse every angle of a situation. Your brain skips the process of trial and error and creates a mental rule: if this, then that.
I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into a lifestyle I don’t enjoy. Doesn’t so much routine take away the vibrancy and spontaneity of life? Hardly. Such questions set up a false dichotomy. They make you think that you have to choose between building habits and attaining freedom. In reality, the two complement each other. Habits do not restrict freedom. They create it. In fact, the people who don’t have their habits handled are often the ones with the least amount of freedom. Without good financial habits, you will always be struggling for the next dollar. Without good health habits, you will always seem to be short on energy. Without good learning habits, you will always feel like you’re behind the curve. If you’re always being forced to make decisions about simple tasks—when should I work out, where do I go to write, when do I pay the bills—then you have less time for freedom. It’s only by making the fundamentals of life easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity. When you have your habits dialled in and the basics of life are handled and done, your mind is free to focus on new challenges and master the next set of problems. Building habits in the present allows you to do more of what you want in the future.
Cravings are the second step, and they are the motivational force behind every habit. Without some level of motivation or desire—without craving a change—we have no reason to act. You do not crave smoking a cigarette, you crave the feeling of relief it provides. You are not motivated by brushing your teeth but rather by the feeling of a clean mouth. The thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the observer are what transform a cue into a craving.
The response is the actual habit you perform, which can take the form of a thought or an action. Whether a response occurs depends on how motivated you are and how much friction is associated with the behaviour. If a particular action requires more physical or mental effort than you are willing to expend, then you won’t do it.
Finally, the response delivers a reward. Rewards are the end goal of every habit. The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. We chase rewards because they serve two purposes:
- They satisfy us.
- They teach us.
How to Create a Good Habit The 1st law (Cue) Make it obvious. The 2nd law (Craving) Make it attractive. The 3rd law (Response) Make it easy. The 4th law (Reward) Make it satisfying.
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.
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
We tell ourselves, “I’m going to eat healthier” or “I’m going to write more,” but we never say when and where these habits are going to happen. We leave it up to chance and hope that we will “just remember to do it” or feel motivated at the right time.
Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity.
A fresh start feels motivating. When your dreams are vague, it’s easy to rationalise little exceptions all day long and never get around to the specific things you need to do to succeed.
The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption that leads to additional purchases. Each action becomes a cue that triggers the next behaviour. Why is this important? When it comes to building new habits, you can use the connectedness of behaviour to your advantage. One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behaviour on top. This is called habit stacking. People often choose products not because of what they are, but because of where they are.
If I walk into the kitchen and see a plate of cookies on the counter, I’ll pick up half a dozen and start eating, Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour. The most powerful of all human sensory abilities, however, is vision. The human body has about eleven million sensory receptors.7 Approximately ten million of those are dedicated to sight. Some experts estimate that half of the brain’s resources are used on vision.8 Given that we are more dependent on vision than on any other sense, it should come as no surprise that visual cues are the greatest catalyst of our behaviour. For this reason, a small change in what you see can lead to a big shift in what you do. As a result, you can imagine how important it is to live and work in environments that are filled with productive cues and devoid of unproductive ones. Thankfully, there is good news in this respect. You don’t have to be the victim of your environment. You can also be the architect of it.
DESIGN YOUR ENVIRONMENT FOR SUCCESS
If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment. Persistent behaviours usually have multiple cues. Consider how many different ways a smoker could be prompted to pull out a cigarette: driving in the car, seeing a friend smoke, feeling stressed at work, and so on. The same strategy can be employed for good habits. Most people live in a world others have created for them.
But you can alter the spaces where you live and work to increase your exposure to positive cues and reduce your exposure to negative ones. Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your life. When you can’t manage to get to an entirely new environment, redefine or rearrange your current one. Create a separate space for work, study, exercise, entertainment, and cooking. The mantra I find useful is “One space, one use.”
When I started my career as an entrepreneur, I would often work from my couch or at the kitchen table. In the evenings, I found it very difficult to stop working. There was no clear division between the end of work time and the beginning of personal time. Yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment. Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. You may be able to resist temptation once or twice, but it’s unlikely you can muster the willpower to override your desires every time.
Instead of summoning a new dose of willpower whenever you want to do the right thing, your energy would be better spent optimising your environment. This is the secret to self-control. Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.
The 1st Law Make It Obvious :
- Fill out the Habits Scorecard. Write down your current habits to become aware of them.
- Use implementation intentions: “I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].”
- Use habit stacking: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
- Design your environment.
You can download a printable version of this habits cheat sheet at: atomichabits.com/cheatsheet
Food is abundant, but your brain continues to crave it like it is scarce. Foods that are high in dynamic contrast keep the experience novel and interesting, encouraging you to eat more.
Make it attractive: The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming. Implanting electrodes in the brains of rats, the researchers blocked the release of dopamine. To the surprise of the scientists, the rats lost all will to live. They wouldn’t eat. They wouldn’t have sex. They didn’t crave anything. Within a few days, the animals died of thirst.
As Charles Darwin noted, “In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
We don’t choose our earliest habits, we imitate them. We follow the script handed down by our friends and family, our church or school, our local community and society at large.
We imitate the habits of three groups in particular: The close. The many. The powerful. Each group offers an opportunity to leverage the 2nd Law of Behaviour Change and make our habits more attractive. Join a culture where your desired behaviour is the normal behaviour and you already have something in common with the group. Create a motivation ritual. Do something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit. The 3rd Law Make It Easy The 4th Law Make It Satisfying
Want to draw more? Put your pencils, pens, notebooks, and drawing tools on top of your desk, within easy reach. Want to exercise? Set out your workout clothes, shoes, gym bag, and water bottle ahead of time. Want to improve your diet? Chop up a ton of fruits and vegetables on weekends and pack them in containers, so you have easy access to healthy, ready-to-eat options during the week. Two-Minute Rule, which states, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” You want to play a game where the odds are in your favour.
One of the most satisfying feelings is the feeling of making progress. A habit tracker is a simple way to measure whether you did a habit—like marking an X on a calendar. Habit trackers and other visual forms of measurement can make your habits satisfying by providing clear evidence of your progress. Don’t break the chain. Try to keep your habit streak alive. Never miss twice. If you miss one day, try to get back on track as quickly as possible. Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing.
The secret to maximising your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition. Pick the right habit and progress is easy. Pick the wrong habit and life is a struggle. Genes cannot be easily changed, which means they provide a powerful advantage in favourable circumstances and a serious disadvantage in unfavourable circumstances. Habits are easier when they align with your natural abilities. Choose the habits that best suit you. Play a game that favours your strengths. If you can’t find a game that favours you, create one. Genes do not eliminate the need for hard work. They clarify it. They tell us what to work hard on.
The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities.
The upside of habits is that we can do things without thinking. The downside is that we stop paying attention to little errors. Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery. Reflection and review is a process that allows you to remain conscious of your performance over time. The tighter we cling to an identity, the harder it becomes to grow beyond it.
Small habits don’t add up. They compound. That’s the power of atomic habits. Tiny changes. Remarkable results.