Book Review: Atomic habits

5/5 ⭐

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Atomic habits builds on the sensational work of Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit by applying more new & groundbreaking research as well as the work of many others into this short textbook on habits. Note: all words past this paragraph are taken directly from the book. This is more of a summary than a review.

Fundamentally, a habit is something that you repeatedly do. Habits are not bad or good. All habits are created to make you happy, to get that dopamine hit. Because of this, habits can only provide good rewards.

You run every day because this habit provides you with good health & dopamine. You binge eat every night because this habit provides you with dopamine. Habits aren’t evil, or good. They’re neutral.

Atomic. Small or minute. Atomic habits. Small habits. These small habits snowball into something much, much larger.

Imagine you are an aeroplane. You’re flying from Los Angeles to New York. You shift your heading just 3.5 degrees south when you take off from LAX. You land in Washington D.C instead. A small change is barely noticeable at takeoff, but when marginalised across the entire United States you end up hundreds of miles off.

It doesn’t matter how successful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the right trajectory. You should be far more concerned with the trajectory than your current results.

Successful people and non-successful people set the same goals. So, why do successful people achieve them? Their systems. Their habits.

You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the levels of your habits.

Goals restrict your happiness. Once you achieve them, that’s it. What next?

You are what you identify as. Imagine 2 people resisting a cigarette. When offered one, the first person says “No thanks, I’m trying to quit”. This person still believes they are a smoker who is trying to be someone else. They are hoping their behaviour will change while carrying around the same beliefs. The second person declines, saying “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.” Small change, but this signifies a shift in identity.

The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this, it’s another to say I’m the type of person who is this.

The goal isn’t to run. It’s to become a runner. The goal isn’t to read books. It’s to become a reader.

When you’ve believed a story for so long, it is easy to slide into these mental grooves and accept them as fact. In time, you begin to resist certain actions because “that’s not who I am”.

Your habits embody your personality. You are your habits. Every action you take is a vote for the person you wish to become. Every fruit or veg you eat is a vote for a healthier you.

If you keep casting the same votes you’ve always cast, you’ll never change.

Decide the type of person you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins

The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps:

  1. Cue
  2. Crave
  3. Response
  4. Reward

If the behaviour is insufficient in any of these 4 steps, it will not become a habit.

We can create these rules to create habits:

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

In order to break a habit, invert these rules:

  1. Make it invisible
  2. Make it unattractive
  3. Make it difficult
  4. Make it unsatisfying
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate

Pointing and calling is a safety system designed to reduce mistakes. You point at something and say it out loud. The MTA subway system in New York City adopted a silent version of this and within 2 years of implementation, incidents of incorrectly berthed subways fell 57 percent.

Plans are what makes the world go round.  In a study, participants were asked to exercise and split up into 3 groups. In the first group with no plans, 35% of people exercised. In the second group 38% of people who made plans but with no definitive date exercised 38% of the time. In the third group 98% of the People who made plans with dates & times exercised.

One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a behaviour you do each day and build on top of that. You brush your teeth every day? Immediately after brushing your teeth meditate for 1 minute.

This allows you to take advantage of natural momentum that comes from one behaviour leading into the next.

Effectively, you can stack habits on top of each other in this way. Habit stacking is powerful.

The easiest way to stop a habit is to cut it off at the source.

Can’t seem to get any work done? Leave your phone in another room. If you’re continually feeling like you’re not enough, stop following social media. If you’re wasting too much time watching Netflix, log out on your work computer. Make it as hard as possible to log back in.

The anticipation of a habit releases just as much dopamine as performing the habit does. Your brain has far more neural circuitry allocated for wanting rewards than for liking the reward.

We can use this fact to our advantage by using something called temptation building. You link an action you want to do with an action you need to do. As an example,  you can watch Netflix (the thing you want to do) while riding a stationary bike (the thing you need to do).

We often pick up habits from the people around us. We copy the way our parents put on socks (left foot first or right foot first), the way our friends flirt, the way our coworkers get results. When your friends smoke, you’re more likely to smoke.

The closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to copy their habits.

The chances of becoming obese increase 57% when we have a friend who is obese.

You need to join a culture where your desired behaviour is the normal behaviour and you already have something in common with the group.

Do you want a first class degree? Become friends with the people who get firsts effortlessly. Do you want to become fit? Become friends with people who work out all the time.

You can make hard habits seem more attractive if you learn to associate them with a positive experience. Sometimes, all you need is a slight mindset shift. For instance, we often talk about everything we have to do on a given day. Now, imagine changing just one word. You don’t “have” to do it. You “get” to do it.

When starting to build a habit, don’t worry about the quality. A university professor of photography decided to test out the idea of quality vs quantity.

He split his classroom into two. On the left side is the quantity group. They would be graded on the amount of work they produced.

On the right is the quality group, they would be graded on the excellence of their work.

To his surprise, those in the quantity group took better quality photos than those in the quality group.

One of the most common questions relating to habits is the question “how long does it take to build a habit?” when really the question ought to be: “how many times does it take to form a new habit?” That is, how many repetitions of the habit before the habit becomes a habit.

Imagine you’re holding a garden hose that is bent in the middle. Some water can flow through, but not very much. If you want to increase the rate at which water passes through the hose, you have 2 options.

  1. Crank up the valve to force more water out
  2. Remove the bend in the hose

Trying to pump up your motivation with a hard habit is like trying to force more water through a bent hose.

If you look at the most habit-forming products (Facebook, Uber, Netflix) they all remove friction from your life. When building new habits it is important to make them as frictionless as possible.

If you need to do something such as go to the gym, try going to the gym for 5 minutes maximum. Do this until your habit forms where you only go for 5 minutes. After the habit has formed, you’ll want to stay there longer than 5 minutes.

The key is to change the task so it requires more work to get out of the good habit than to perform the habit.

If you reverse this - the best way to break a bad habit is to make it impractical to do. Increase the friction until you don’t even have the option to act.

Say, for instance, you want to lose weight. You can use smaller plates. Do you want to increase focus? Turn off notifications.

In modern society, many of the choices you make will not affect you immediately.

The brain’s tendency to prioritise the present moment means you can’t rely on good intentions. When you make a plan to lose weight, write a book or learn a language - you’re making a plan for your future self.

However, when the moment of decision arrives, instant gratification usually wins.

People who are better at delaying gratification have higher university grades, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress and superior social skills.

At some point, success in nearly every field requires you to ignore an immediate reward in favour of a delayed reward.

The most effective form of motivation is progress.

You don’t realise how valuable it is to show up on your bad (or busy) days. Lost days hurt you more than successful days help you. If you start with £100, a 50% increase will take you to £150. However, you only need a 33 percent loss to take you back to £100. In other words, avoiding a 33% loss is just as valuable as achieving a 50% gain. As Charlie Munger says:

The first rule of compounding: never interrupt it unnecessarily