Top Takeaways from Atomic Habits
Make this the year you start new habits and stick with them.
James Clear was a sophomore in high school when he suffered a traumatic brain injury after getting beamed in the face with a baseball bat. It would take months of physical therapy, battling vision problems and relearning basic motor skills, but he did return to the baseball field. However, his playing ability was never the same.
Finally, as a freshman in college, he learned and refined the power of habits to improve not only his athletic ability, but also his life overall. By the time he was a senior in college, he was named top male athlete at his university and selected to be part of the ESPN Academic All America Team — one of just 33 college baseball players across the country.
In 2012, he began publishing articles on jamesclear.com about his experiments in creating better habits, and quickly gained a following of loyal readers. Finally, in 2018, he published the book Atomic Habits, a comprehensive guide on forming new habits to reach your goals and breaking the bad habits that are working against you.
The book is really a great read no matter what area of your life you’re trying to improve: your health, your work, your relationships; just about anything can be improved if you’re willing to take it one tiny — atomic — change at a time.
But, if you only have time to read this article, here are the main points I took from Atomic Habits.
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement,” Clear says early on in the introduction to the book. In other words, tiny changes can have big, long-term effects if repeated consistently over time. Most people abandon their habits in the early stages because they are focused on improving too much in too little time. But if you focus on just getting 1% better every day, and maintain that over weeks and then months, you will see results.
The Plateau of Latent Potential. Visible progress results from consistent work that reaches a “critical threshold” and unlocks a huge change, which Clear refers to as the Plateau of Latent Potential. For instance, say you have a weekly newsletter where you suddenly gain 1,000 subscribers in a short amount of time. You didn’t just get lucky one day; you put in slow, steady work that created the right circumstances for you to gain a following, i.e., you wrote a bunch of articles. This is how small habits can create big change.
Systems are more important than goals. Your goals help you define the big picture, what you want to do and who you want to become. But they don’t tell you how to get there. Your systems are what actually propel you to your goals, day in and day out. If you want to become a great musician, what’s your system for practicing every day? If you want to speak a new language, what’s your system for studying vocabulary? Develop systems that get you to your goals, and stick to them every single day.
To make habits last, they have to become part of your identity. This, Clear says, is one of the main reasons people abandon their habits. They might repeat the new habit a few times, but they continue to think of themselves as a person who does not practice that habit, and they quit. A man who tries to start an exercise habit doesn’t think of himself as a healthy person; a woman who begins to create art doesn’t think of herself as an artist. Ask yourself who you are trying to become, center that identity in your mind, and your habits will be much easier to integrate into your life.
Environment matters more than motivation. Humans naturally take the path of least resistance to conserve energy and avoid hardship. So the trick is to work with your natural inclination toward laziness, and make it harder for yourself not to stick to your new habits. Trying to drink more water? Fill up water bottles and leave them in different rooms in your house so you don’t have to get up and refill. Trying to watch less TV? Physically move it to another room so that you have to get it out and set it up in order to watch something. It might seem drastic, but if you can change your environment to support your new habits, you’re far more likely to maintain those habits.
The Two-Minute Rule. When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do. This might seem ridiculous for some habits, like going to the gym, but you need to “[m]aster the art of showing up.” You’re looking for a low barrier to entry. Meditating for ten minutes seems daunting; meditating for two minutes seems easy. Make it easy to establish the habit, and then ramp up from there.
Automate whenever possible. Automating your habits also works with our natural tendency toward laziness rather than against it. It works particularly well with savings goals, when you can set up direct deposit so that a percentage of your income goes automatically to your emergency savings account, or an IRA, or the fund for that jet ski you’ve always wanted to buy. Set it, forget it, and watch yourself practice better habits without any follow through. Awesome!
Circumvent instant gratification. One of the major reasons we find it difficult to stick with new habits is that we have so many pleasing distractions available to us at any given moment. Netflix, YouTube, Reddit, your cat, this article. (I see you… but thanks for reading!) All of them provide instant gratification so we can avoid doing anything that feels like work. Fortunately, there are ways around it. Make your habit extremely easy to start with (two-minute rule), and schedule it for a specific day and time in your week. Once we overcome the friction of starting a habit, it’s often easier to continue from there.
Track it. Habit tracking can help you follow through on your habits just by having somewhere to write down whether you did or didn’t do that habit that day. It also allows you to collect data and modify your habits as needed. It provides a way to actually see the progress and the commitment you are making, giving you the satisfaction you need to continue with your habits. There’s a reason elementary school teachers everywhere use the good old gold star chart to track students good behavior — it works.
The habit contract. Another way you can force yourself to maintain new habits is by signing a habit contract that entails serious consequences if you don’t stick with your habit. For example, if you are trying to write 100 words every day, draw up a contract with your friend stating that if you do not text them a picture of what you have written each day, you will give them $100 per day missed. Then you both physically sign the contract (as well as a witness, if you feel you need one). Unless you have a few hundred dollars lying around, you’ll abide by the contract and make sure you write 100 words every day. Make the consequences as steep as you need to in order to follow through with your habit.
The most successful individuals find a way to deal with the boredom of maintaining their habits. This, to me, is a crucial aspect of maintaining good habits that not many people talk about. Once you’ve started the habit and you’re where you want to be with your practice, you’ll start to get bored. After a month or two or six, the novelty of keeping up with that habit wears off, and your motivation will lag. This is inevitable; it happens to all of us. So how do you counteract this? You… don’t, actually. The most successful people fall in love with the day in, day out, average routine of their habits. If you can do that, the results will come. And even if they don’t come as fast as you want them too, you’re still enjoying yourself along the way.
Get One Percent Better Every Day
This is just a fraction of the great advice and examples contained in Atomic Habits that I found useful. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to build new habits and actually stick to some of those new year’s resolutions after we’re two weeks into 2020. If I had to reduce this book down to one central message it would be this: never stop making improvements. Get one percent better each day, and those atomic changes will create lasting results.
Check out a habit tracker here.