15 Things I learned from Atomic Habits by James Clear

My Book of the Month, August 2020: Atomic Habits – James Clear

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He caught me since page one, his story about the brain injury and how he had to learn everything again was incredible, if someone can recover from a comma, start from zero and be so successful, there is definitely something I can learn from them. 

This book deconstructed everything I think I knew about habits and how to build them, I am more patient with myself and I’ve learned to look at the big picture the right way. Here’s a summary of the most relevant points I learned from this book.

Right now you can get this hardcover for only $11.98 it’s 56% off, that’s cheaper than the paperback option! It is also available on Kindle, but I always prefer my favorite books on paper, and this one is definitely worth having on the shelf.

1. What is an atomic habit?

As atoms are the fundamental bricks of all matter, tiny habits are the bricks of every individual. The things that you do consistently every day are what define you, whether they are good or bad habits. 

Therefore an atomic habit is that behavior you reproduce daily without you putting much thought on it.

2. Build habits to become the person you want to be, not for the goals you want to reach

We focus so much on the goals that we miss the whole point, and by focusing on the goals we lose motivation very easily. Instead, we should ask ourselves who is the person that constantly achieves those goals and what would that person do every day.

To me this is actually seeing the big picture, not focusing on the accomplishments at the top of the mountain, but becoming the person who successfully climbs and reaches the top of the mountain.

He gives a pretty clear example, if a basketball team wants to win a game, it would be absurd if they only focus on the score chart and not on the things the players do while in the game.

3. Pointing and calling to raise self-awareness of your bad habits.

This may sound silly but I spent a whole day pointing and calling every action I made through the day, as recommended by James and giving each action a score to tell if this particular action was taking me closer to the person I wanted to be, pulling me back, or made no difference. 

I found that most of the actions were bad habits, I check my phone way too often for my productivity goals to be reached for example.

This is a golden piece of advice, pointing out every action you do in autopilot will give yourself a sense of awareness, write it down on paper and evaluate whether it is good or bad, better said, does it take you closer to the person you want to become or does it pull you back?

4. Stacking new habits on top of current ones.

If you find yourself having a hard time building a particular habit, commit yourself to do it after you finish doing something you do every day on autopilot. Make it as specific as possible, for example, the smell of coffee could be the trigger to sit and study.

If every morning you make yourself a cup of coffee, right after you pour the coffee on the cup and feel that delicious smell, go with the cup in hand to your desk and start studying at least for 30 minutes, you can make it longer with time.

5. Environment shapes your behavior

If you live in an unhealthy environment and this doesn’t have to be obvious, you will have a hard time having healthy habits. For example, the more visible a jar of cookies is, the more you’ll choose them for a snack instead of the apples laying in the bottom of the refrigerator, if you can see them easily you’ll probably choose it.

Same goes for every habit you want to build, you can modify your environment in order to have more access to this new habit. Want to drink more water? Have a bottle in the common places of your house. Want to watch less TV? Have the remote away from the bed or take the TV out of your bedroom.

You can link yourself to a particular habit in a particular context, set a little corner of your room with a comfy arm chair, and a shelf with the books you want to read daily, eventually you’ll associate that corner with reading.

6. Temptation bundling to make habits more attractive.

While exercise doesn’t seem as enjoyable as scrolling through social media for some; if you really want to build a habit that brings you out of your comfort zone, place it before something you enjoy doing.

This way the anticipation of that thing you enjoy doing will give you the spike of dopamine needed to get you on track and start doing what you need to do. It’s pretty simple, the temptation of that thing you want to do will push you to do what you need to do in order to get what you want.

So, if you are an Instagram junkie, and want to exercise more, put yourself the challenge to only be able to check out Instagram after you’ve completed a quick 5-minute work out session, start small, and keep on moving forward. 

7. Surround yourself by people who have your desired habit as normal

We internally and unconsciously want to fit in, it’s very difficult to avoid the crowd. But, what if you found a tribe that had all your desired behaviors, the habits you want to implement in your life are normal to them? You’ll push yourself to reach the same level or become even better to be recognized and praised.

Even if you don’t do it to be recognized, you can always find a tribe, a support group, people with similar goals and interests; this is another way to make the habits attractive and you’ll find it easier to stick to them. 

8. Reprogramming yourself to enjoy hard habits

This is another way to make habits attractive, as a way to motivate yourself to do hard stuff, change the perspective on how you see it, instead of saying “I have to study” change it for “I get to study what I love” it is a privilege that not many people have. 

Have a little motivational routine before having your hard habit done. Whether it is listening to your favorite music or having a big cup of tea, do it before starting to work on the hard stuff and it will be more enjoyable with time.

9. Being in Motion is different from taking action

We spend way too much time in motion, preparing ourselves, researching to make things perfect, and eventually, this search for perfection becomes procrastination. 

We feel like achieving something when doing this, but the actual progress is made when we take action, even if it’s a little step you take further, it won’t be perfect but it will be progress.

10. Making the right little choices

James says that any habit can start with 2 minutes, you have to make it super simple to take the first step. Even if it is just writing one sentence, if you do it every day consistently, you’ll soon find yourself writing more; one good action can lead to a succession of good actions towards the good habits you want to build.

11. Choosing long term gratification over short term gratification is not in our brains’ nature

We are biologically built to prefer the instant gratification, is a survival instinct, for our ancestors the food was scarce they had to look for it constantly and it felt satisfying, they had to be running from predators and looking for places to hide the instant gratification was the safe place, and so on.

In modern life, the choices we make for long term gratification are not as satisfying but are the ones that’ll get us where we want to be. Therefore, to make a habit stick it has to feel like a little victory every time you repeat it. An example, if you want to stop buying fast food and start cooking at home, every time you avoid buying fast food put the money you would’ve spent there in a savings account for something nice you want to buy.

12. Habit trackers are super effective:

They give us that sense of instant gratification, checking off a little square for one more day of consistently working out, practicing a language, or writing 300 words are great ways to see the progress made on a certain amount of time.

Habit tracking can be done as journals of exercise, for example, it doesn’t matter how small the amount, of exercise you did one day, if it’s only 5 squats, that already counts, 5 is more than 0. Showing up for your habit, going to the gym for 5 minutes, it builds up to the person you want to become.

In those days when you’re feeling demotivated look at your habit journal, is it really worth it to break your streak?

13. The Habit Contract

Making a commitment to stick to a habit with stated consequences if you fail to do so will help you stay motivated; there has to be a punishment of some sort involved and someone else willing to be a part of the punishment. 

He gives the example of Thomas Frank, who wakes up every morning at 5:55 a.m. and he has a scheduled tweet that says: “It’s 6:10 and I’m not up because I’m lazy! Reply to this for $5 via PayPal (limit 5), assuming my alarm didn’t malfunction.” 

If you have an instant punishment for not maintaining your habit you’ll avoid the punishment by sticking to the habit as most as you can.

14. The Goldilocks Zone

This is the right spot where a challenge is not easy enough to be boring or difficult enough to be disappointing. It’s the exact amount of hard work you need to make some progress and feel motivated by the small victories you can achieve without forgetting there’s so much more to grow.

While your brain is working on the right challenge you might experience being in a flow state, time flies and you are completely immersed in the activity you’re performing, this is when real progress is made. Get small new challenges achievable but not so easy not to improve your skills, this will keep you motivated.

15. Why is reviewing your habits important

Once we establish the desired habit and we act on autopilot is very easy to forget to keep challenging ourselves to become better at something greater. 

To actually master a habit we need to reflect from time to time how our habits are taking us to where we want to be, who we want to become, and if we haven’t made progress more than being good at something, try and challenge ourselves to become better, to specialize, find new things to learn from our field of expertise, this way the habits stay interesting and satisfying, it’s a never-ending cycle.

Final Thoughts 

This book opened my mind to a whole new level, I used to take on so many habits at the same time and pushed myself so hard, that the impulse lasted short, I got tired in a week or less when trying to build most habits, I needed those instant results, and when I didn’t get them… the disappointment, the failure.

Now I have the techniques to trick my mind into making hard habits instantly satisfying and I’m definitely going to apply some of this into my life, to become the person I want to be.

I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to improve and grow, develop new skills and habits but getting frustrated everytime they try, it will open your understanding on human behavior and how to control it in your favor to build new habits.