Atomic Habits Overview

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Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear is a cross between the theory presented in The Power of Habit and the step-by-step instructions of Tiny Habits and Essential Zen Habits. An admitted extension of The Power of Habit, Clear clearly (bet he’s never heard that one before) sets out why we do what we do, and mostly how we can affect it. With great stories and specific directions, Clear leads the reader through how they can change their behavior. If you want to change your habits, read this book!

What’s In This Book?

Clear states there are four laws to change nearly any behavior, and those laws follow the steps laid out in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: cue → craving → response → reward. (You can read more about those basics in my overview of The Power Of Habit.)

What Are Habits?

Habits are automatic routines. Your brain likes to take shortcuts, and these automatic routines are one of the many ways the brain tries to work less. In short, habits are a simple “if this, then that” routine. If I’m hungry, then I’ll eat. If I’m bored, then I’ll scroll on my phone. If I see cookies, I’ll eat more than I should. But creating habits is a little more complicated. “If this then that” is the what, but it’s the why that most people have trouble with. Why should your brain make exercise a habit? Well, if you read this article, you know it’s because of craving. You crave the reward you get from doing the behavior. Sure, exercise in itself can be a reward, but for most people, it’s really not, especially at the beginning. So if you don’t like exercise, don’t expect it to magically become a habit.

But There’s Hope!

You can create habits even of things you don’t like to do (no magic involved). You just need the right reward (at the right time), which cues the craving… see where I’m going with this? If you only allow yourself to watch your favorite TV show while you’re on the treadmill, you may not like exercising, but you’ll start to look forward to the time on that treadmill. Of course, that assumes your like of the show outweighs your dislike of the treadmill, but more on that in another post.

James Clear’s Four Laws

Cue – The First Law – Make It Obvious

Craving – The Second Law – Make It Attractive

Response – The Third Law – Make It Easy

Reward – The Fourth Law – Make It Satisfying

Clear’s book goes through each of these in detail of course, but here are the basics.

The First Law – Make It Obvious

If you don’t have a reliable cue to do something, you’ll likely forget. I wanted to do five push-ups after brushing my teeth, but I kept forgetting until I put a sticky note on the mirror behind my toothbrush. While it’s not automatic yet, I feel weird if I brush my teeth and don’t do the push-ups. It’s starting to become routine.

If you want to remember to go to the gym, put a reminder in your phone. Put your gym bag in your passenger seat. Put your sneakers in front of your couch. Whatever it takes to remind you to complete the behavior, even if your thinking brain chooses not to do the behavior. For this law, you’re looking to avoid the bedtime “oops, I meant to do X.”

The Second Law – Make It Attractive

This is connected to the fourth law – Make It Satisfying. You want to pick a reward that you want, so that you’ll do the behavior to earn that reward. In other word, you’ll crave it. I alluded to this earlier – if you dislike the treadmill more than you like the show you’ve decided to watch, you’re likely to prefer skipping the show altogether just to avoid the treadmill.

I tried to make a habit of doing wall sits while I brushed my teeth-but every time I went to do the wall sit, all I could think of was falling (read: collapsing) with a toothbrush in my mouth and hurting myself. The behavior wasn’t attractive, so I rarely did the wall sits.

The Third Law – Make It Easy

Let’s say you’ve decided to work on a running habit. Things are going alright so far – you’ve made it obvious: there’s a note next to the coffee maker reminding you to run. You’ve made it attractive – you’ll listen to a favorite podcast only while you run. But you’re still struggling to get around to running each day. Take a look at what needs to happen before you run. If you’re anything like me, you have to find your shoes, change into something appropriate for running, figure out where you left your headphones… the list (of excuses) goes on. You may enjoy the run once you get started, but it’s just so hard to get started. That’s where the third law comes in. If I’m already in my running gear (because I put it on before I went to bed, or if you’re more normal it’s laying out next to your bed), my shoes and socks are by the door, and my headphones are charged and waiting in an obvious spot… well, I’m more likely to go on that run.

Make it easy applies to everything. If you want to cook more, have the stuff you use often in an easy spot to get at. If you want to call a loved one regularly, add a reminder in your phone, and put their phone number in the reminder, so all you have to do is click the number when the reminder comes up. If you want to journal each day, leave your journal and pen(s) where you drink your morning coffee. When you have the motivation, take a few extra minutes to make things easier for future you.

The Fourth Law – Make It Satisfying

BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, calls it Shine. Many others, including Clear, just call it a reward. But they all agree that, without a reason to do a behavior, it’s unlikely to repeat itself. (And intrinsic motivation doesn’t last very long, so pick an external reward until the behavior becomes a reward in and of itself.) Reward yourself with something that fits into the narrative you’re trying to create for yourself. Don’t reward your gym workout with a pint of ice cream. It may feel great in the moment, but you’re working at cross purposes. Maybe you’re trying to get into shape-would an in-shape person eat an entire pint in one sitting? Probably not. But they might allow themselves a square of chocolate (for those with more self-control than me), or an episode of a great tv show.

Timing matters, too. If you reward your morning run with a night on the couch, for most, that won’t work. It’s not immediate enough. The more immediately the reward follows the behavior, the more likely it is that you’ll start to associate the two in an “if this then that” manner, and the quicker you’ll create the habit.

Summary

With Clear’s four Laws, you can break down a behavior you want to make a habit into steps towards success. Will it be an easy road? Probably not. Behavior change is rarely easy. But it can be relatively simple. Do I think this article provides this simple path? Nope. That’s what Atomic Habits does, in detail. If this structure seems like it would work for you, then you should absolutely read Atomic Habits.



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