Atomic Habits

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Atomic Habits is another one of those self-help books, but one I rather appreciated due to having specific, actionable ways to improve one’s life rather than just descriptions of behavior. His model for habits is essentially four steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.

His four laws of behavior change our based on these steps:

  • Cue: Make it obvious (for good habits) or make it invisible (for bad habits)
  • Craving: Make it attractive (for good) or unattractive (for bad)
  • Response: Make it easy (for good) or difficult (for bad)
  • Reward: Make it satisfying (for good) or unsatisfying (for bad)

This is essentially the outline for his chapters, and each chapter gives useful examples to affect change in each domain.

Personal Takeaways:


  • Good and bad habits are physically formed. Reference Hebb’s Law: “Neurons that fire together wire together.”
  • Prioritize systems over goals. Processes makes progress. “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
  • Make identity changes. “The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader. The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician. Each time you write a page, you are a writer. Each time you practice the violin, you are a musician. Each time you start a workout, you are an athlete.”
    • I noticed that recommendations on how to achieve action is counterposed to standard moral compulsions. When I was in the White House, President Obama told us “do not focus on becoming someone, but on doing something.” Interestingly, the best way to accomplish change is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become.
  • We imitate the habits of three groups in particular: The close. The many. The powerful.
  • Outcomes lag actions. “Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.”
  • Being curious is better than being smart. Curiosity leads to action.

Action Models

  • Use visual cues of habit progress, i.e. the paperclip strategy. One exmaple in the book was of a salesman who filled a jar on his desk with 120 paper clips. Every sales call he would move one over to anothr jar. He could leave after all paperclips had shifted jars. “One woman shifted a hairpin from one container to another whenever she wrote a page of her book. Another man moved a marble from one bin to the next after each set of push-ups.
  • Use pointing-and-calling to reduce mistakes and move subconscious processes into conscious ones. Literally point and verbalize what you are seeing or doing. He gave examples of how train operators used this to dramatically reduce accident rates.
  • Use implementation intentions. “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.” 
  • Use habit stacking and temptation bundling. “After I [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED]. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].”
  • Use very specific cues. Don’t say “I will do ten push-ups.” Instead, say “I will do ten push-ups next to my desk.” Ambiguity gone.
  • Use the two-minute rule. Start habits short and small. “Standardize before you optimize. You can’t improve a habit that doesn’t exist.”
  • Addition by subtraction – make more by reducing friction. “The Japanese companies looked for every point of friction in the manufacturing process and eliminated it. As they subtracted wasted effort, they added customers and revenue. If you look at the most habit-forming products, you’ll notice that one of the things these goods and services do best is remove little bits of friction from your life. Meal delivery services reduce the friction of shopping for groceries. Dating apps reduce the friction of making social introductions. Ride-sharing services reduce the friction of getting across town.”
  • Use grateful reframing. You don’t “have” to do something. You “get” to. “You get to wake up early for work. You get to make another sales call for your business. You get to cook dinner for your family. By simply changing one word, you shift the way you view each event. You transition from seeing these behaviors as burdens and turn them into opportunities.”
  • Make avoidance visible. Open a savings account and label it for something you want. Whenever you pass on a purchase, put the same amount of money in the account.
  • Never miss a habit twice. “The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”
  • Use commitment devices. Victor Hugo had an assistant lock all his outside clothes away. “Lacking any suitable clothing to go outdoors, he remained in his study and wrote furiously during the fall and winter of 1830. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was published two weeks early on January 14, 1831.”
    • Clear tested having his assistant change his passwords weekly. “Every Monday, my assistant would reset the passwords on all my social media accounts, which logged me out on each device. All week I worked without distraction. On Friday, she would send me the new passwords.”
  • Use time-based reviews.
    • Each December, Clear performs an Annual Review, in which he reflects on the previous year. “I tally my habits for the year by counting up how many articles I published, how many workouts I put in, how many new places I visited, and more. Then, I reflect on my progress (or lack thereof) by answering three questions:”
      • What went well this year?
      • What didn’t go so well this year?
      • What did I learn?
    • In summer, Clear conducts an Integrity Report. “This is when I reflect on my identity and how I can work toward being the type of person I wish to become. My yearly Integrity Report answers three questions:”
      • What are the core values that drive my life and work?
      • How am I living and working with integrity right now?
      • How can I set a higher standard in the future?

Mental Models + Descriptive Observations

  • Law of Least Effort – humans are lazy. “We will naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work. Create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Reduce the friction associated with good behaviors. When friction is low, habits are easy. Increase the friction associated with bad behaviors. When friction is high, habits are difficult.”
    • This can affect ethical questions. “Create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible… The brilliance of the cash register was that it automated ethical behavior by making stealing practically impossible. Rather than trying to change the employees, it made the preferred behavior automatic.”
  • Goodhart’s Law – “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
  • The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.
  • The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us.
  • Quantity can create quality. He gave an example of a photography class, where one test group was to be graded purely on the quality of a single photograph. The other test group was to be graded on the quantity of photos they took. It turns out the latter group also had higher quality because the process of taking hundreds of photos honed their skills.

Useful Techniques

  • Use outlet timers for internet or television. “At 10 p.m. each night, the outlet timer cuts off the power to the router. When the internet goes off, everyone knows it is time to go to bed.”
  • Onetime actions that lock in good “habits:”
    • Buy a water filter to clean your drinking water.
    • Use smaller plates to reduce caloric intake.
    • Buy a good mattress.
    • Get blackout curtains.
    • Remove your television from your bedroom.
    • Unsubscribe from emails.
    • Turn off notifications and mute group chats.
    • Set your phone to silent.
    • Use email filters to clear up your inbox.
    • Delete games and social media apps on your phone.
    • Get a dog.
    • Move to a friendly, social neighborhood.
    • Get vaccinated.
    • Buy good shoes to avoid back pain.
    • Buy a supportive chair or standing desk.
    • Enroll in an automatic savings plan.
    • Set up automatic bill pay.
    • Cut cable service.
    • Ask service providers to lower your bills.
  • Interesting method to make presidents aware of the lives they were taking. “Fisher was focused on designing strategies that could prevent nuclear war, and he had noticed a troubling fact. Any sitting president would have access to launch codes that could kill millions of people but would never actually see anyone die because he would always be thousands of miles away. “My suggestion was quite simple,” he wrote in 1981. “Put that [nuclear] code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, ‘George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.’ He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.”

Published by Jasper

Aspiring polymath. I do my best to understand all sides of an issue. I read primary sources and opposing viewpoints to get to the truth. I enjoy debate and can change my mind given sufficient reason.

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