Atomic Habits by James Clear

As the new year’s approaching, I thought this would be the perfect time to talk about habits. Specifically, about how you can finally keep the promises you will make to yourself in 2019. I will also explain to you what went wrong so many times in the past when you wanted to reach a new goal in terms of your health, career, social life and so on. So read this post of watch my animated book review on YouTube if you want to learn more.

James Clear is an expert in building habits and his new book Atomic Habits is already on the NY Times’ best sellers list for a good reason. The first thing that you need to know is that habits are mental shortcuts for a recurring problem that you repeated so many times that it became automatic. Think about it, do you ever make a conscious decision about which shoe you tie first or how you brush your teeth? I hope not, because that would mean that your energy is depleted by the time you reach breakfast.

And the second thing is that habits compound. James Clear argues that if you just improve 1% every day you’ll end up 37 times better by the end of the year. Forget about overnight success, success is the product of the small improvements that you make on a daily basis.

Four Stages of Habit Building

Okay, but how do we build those habits? There are 4 stages of every habit building process. Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward. Whenever you build a habit you go through these 4 stages.

Let me give you an example. I start every morning with coffee. How did that happen?

  • Cue: I woke up and I’m sleepy.
  • Craving: I want to feel awake.

This is the problem phase. And what is my solution?

  • Response: I make a cup of coffee.
  • Reward: The smell of freshly brewed coffee immediately signals to me that I can start the day now.

James Clear argues that without all of these steps the behavior will not occur. So we need to be aware of this process if we want a new habit to stick or if we want to break bad ones.

The only problem is that bad habits offer an outcome that feels good immediately but feels bad in the long long-run. While good ones have the opposite effect.

Problem with a Goal-oriented Mindset

Alright, now that we know this, I will tell you one more key insight before we get to the how. This is the part that really blew me away. So here it goes.

I mentioned in my previous video that goals are important, however, goals alone are not enough. Let’s assume you made a new year’s resolution to lose some weight next year by going to the gym. One month in, busting your ass, you don’t see any results. So you miss one day, and miss another. By the end of March, you only go every once in a while but not on a regular basis. So what happened?

This happened to me so many times, until my friend Sarah introduced me to the rule of showing up. Instead of setting weight loss as a goal, I should focus on showing up at the gym 3x/week.

The problem with a goal-oriented mindset is that it leads to a yo-yo effect. My goal was to lose weight, but since the result didn’t come immediately, I went back to my old habits.

James Clear brings up the example of marathon running. If running a marathon is the goal, what happens after you’ve finished? You either pick a new marathon to run or cross it off of your bucket list and hang up your running shoes.

As James Clear says

“You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems!”

-James Clear

Focus on Identity

Instead of focusing on the marathon which is the goal, we should focus on becoming a runner which is the identity. This is how we achieve long term change.

Three Layers of Behavior Change

James Clear identifies 3 layers of behavior change.

  1. Outcomes: This is when you decide to clean up your desk so that you can be more productive. But soon after you’ll end up with a messy desk again.
  2. Processes: This is about changing your processes and systems. This happens when you implement a new routine of cleaning up your desk every evening before going to bed. This one is much more effective than the first one but the aim is to reach the 3rd layer which is…
  3. Identity: This one is about changing your beliefs.

Focus on who you wish to become instead of who you are right now. True change happens when you change your beliefs about yourself.

For example, I used to drink at parties and social gatherings as a way for me to loosen up. But as my husband and I switched to the ketogenic diet, started exercising more, step by step, my belief changed. I identified as someone who pays attention to her health and drinking at all of the social gatherings -which for a college student is at least 3-4 times a week- didn’t fit into that picture. Also, I learned that I didn’t need to drink to relax and have fun. So the goal in my case wasn’t to resist drinking but to become someone who’s health conscious.

Or the goal is not to read but to become a reader.

Our identity is formed by our habits and conditioned through our experiences. Even the word identity comes from Latin which basically translates to repeated beingness. The key takeaway is that we change bit by bit, day by day, habit by habit. As Peter Drucker used to say:

“Tell me what you value and I might believe you, but show me your calendar and your bank statement, and I’ll show you what you really value”.

– Peter Drucker

Four Laws of Behavior Change

So now that you know all this, we can move on to the 4 laws of behavior change which will help you build those good habits for the new year.

  1. make it obvious
  2. make it attractive
  3. make it easy
  4. make it satisfying

Remember the 4 steps to building a habit? The 4 laws by James Clear apply to those steps. Make it obvious applies to the cue. Make is attractive to the craving. Make it easy to the response and make it obvious to the reward.

So let’s say you want to read more.

You can put the book on your bed in the morning. It is obvious as you see the book right before going to bed. It is attractive to cozy up in bed with a book in your hand. It is easy as you reduced the friction of going to the shelf first to take the book that you want to read. It is satisfying as every time you read, you see the progress as the bookmark is moving toward the end of the book.

My two Favorite Habit Building Strategies

My two favorite strategies from the book for building new habits are Habit stacking and Implementation Intention. Here’s how these work.

Habit stacking is the strategy of adding a new habit to an already existing habit. For example, you already have the habit of waking up, making a cup of coffee, getting ready for work. Now you can stack a new habit, for example, journaling, between waking up and making coffee to create a cue for the new habit.

Implementation Intention, on the other hand, is a plan that you make beforehand about when and where you’ll act. Here’s the formula:

“When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”

– James Clear

I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]

For example, I wanted to email James Clear about my intention to animate his book. But it’s a scary thing to do. So using the implementation intention, I wrote down the date, time and place for emailing him. It looked like this.

At 4 PM on November 4, 2018 I’ll send an email to James Clear at my desk. Using the 5 second rule when it was time to act, I actually did it and to my surprise he even wrote me back and gave me the green light.

Breaking Bad Habits

The last thing I want to talk about in this video is how to break a bad habit. Simple, invert the 4 laws of behavior change by

  1. Making it invisible
  2. Unattractive
  3. Difficult
  4. And unsatisfying

For example while writing his book, James Clear asked his assistant to reset his social media passwords every Monday and send him the new passwords on Friday, so he could work during the week without interruptions. You can ask a friend to do the same for you or you can use apps like to-do book, which blocks your news feed on Facebook, so you can still use your messages and groups without wasting a lot of time mindlessly scrolling down your news feed.

This book is packed with so much useful information and practical examples and I was barely able to scratch the surface with this video. So if you’d like to learn more about habit building definitely check out the book. You can find a link to on the right side of this page. If you’d like the audiobook version, which he reads himself, you can get it for free with an Audible trial (also on the right side).

I hope you enjoyed reading this post or watching my animation on making incremental changes in your life to make your desired habits stick. Don’t forget that without a good system, you’re set out for disaster. Let me know down in the comments below what habits you’re struggling with to break or which habits you’d like to build in the future. I’ll try to give you some advice but I’m not an expert.

Good luck with your goals and the systems that will help you to achieve them!



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