April 24, 2019 · book review habits systems development ·

Atomic Habits Book Review

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James Clear has fast become one of my favorite writers. I signed up for his newsletter a few weeks before Atomic Habits came out after hearing about it on Twitter.

Atomic Habits in the book I wished "The Power of Habits" by Charles Duhigg would have been. Instead, I got a lot out of Duhigg's first section on personal habits, but got lost as it scaled up to organizational habits (not something I could directly control).

Instead, Atomic Habits laid out a simple mental model for how to view any habit. Expanding from Duhigg's model, Clear says the basic habit loop looks like:

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

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Knowing this, we can use each of these steps to form the backbone of the book, known as the "Four Laws of Behavior Change":

  1. Make it Obvious (Cue)
  2. Make it Attractive (Craving)
  3. Make it Easy (Response)
  4. Make it Satisfying (Reward)

I tried coming up with a mnemonic for this - OAES - "One Atom, Every Situation", "Once Atomic, Eventually Successful"? I have yet to come up with one that I like.


Make it Obvious

(Is this where some of those Gen Z'ers want a "trigger warning" 😛)

The first part of the habit loop kicks off the whole process: the cue. It may seem silly at first, but purposefully putting things at the forefront of your attention can and will alter your behavior.

I have a bad habit of picking at my cuticles. Like really bad - to the point they start to bleed. I've been embarrassed and ashamed of this for a long time, but I can't seem to stop. Recently, I noticed that if I keep my fingernails trimmed, I'm less likely to pick and tear at my poor fingertips.

Using Law #1, I moved my nail clipper and file out of my vanity drawer and next to my toothbrush. A small, simple change that has had dramatic effects: Every time I reach for my toothbrush, I see my nail clippers. It's purposefully in my line of sight and not hidden away.

The other thing at play here is a technique Clear calls "habit stacking": linking one habit with another. In my example, by putting the clippers next to my toothbrush, I'm associating one already established habit with one I'm trying to cultivate: brushing my teeth --> trimming my nails.


The other side of the coin is how to stop a behavior you don't like. Using the inverse of the first law means you'd want to "make it invisible".

I've used this to great effect in my kitchen. I take any sweets we have in the house and put them in a bucket on the top shelf of one of my cabinets. This has multiple layers of defense: it's not visible from any point in the kitchen (behind the cabinet), and it's not visible when I open the cabinet for something else (top shelf, and in another opaque container).

Of course I know those sweets are still there, but by adding these minor roadblocks, I prevent a craving from happening unintentionally when I'm just passing by or doing something else.

Environment Design

Because of the great effect that things you see have on your behavior, your surroundings can have a massive effect on you. If you are deliberate with how you structure you room (Clear calls this "environment design"), you can entice yourself toward good or bad habits.

For example, if you put a TV in your office, you're much more likely to turn it on during the work day and get distracted by whatever is on. Remove the TV and that option isn't even on the table.

One more example is what I did when I knew I wanted to write this book review: I know that I procrastinate and get distracted easily, so I took a Chromebook with me to Starbucks to get started on this post. The new environment doesn't contain any of my normal cues, and thus I can write distraction-free.


Make it Attractive

The second law is associated with craving. The author deftly describes this as the "desire to change your internal state."

This part of the habit loop is driven by our lowest, most basic, emotional part of the brain.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), we've developed a fantastic understanding of how to push our own emotional buttons. Scientists call these "supernormal stimuli" - and you see it everywhere these days: junk food, social media notifications, porn, etc. All of these are supercharged versions of things we're emotionally drawn to: tasty food, status, sex, etc.

"We have the brains of our ancestors but temptations they never had to face."

One of the main brain chemicals at play here is dopamine (the subject of another book I hope to cover at a later date). Studies show that during the first few iterations of a new habit, dopamine is released at the end of the process: it's your reward. Eventually, though, dopamine gets released as you anticipate getting that reward.

Dopamine-Spike


The inverse of the second law states that to break a bad habit, you need to make it unattractive.

Reframing your associations with your habits is one way to tackle this. I'd estimate this is one of the harder things to implement from this book.

One example Clear states is when trying to stop smoking. Rather than stating to yourself "I'm going to try to stop smoking," you reframe your assertion to "I am not a smoker." This reframing puts the emphasis more at the core of our identity.

Layers-of-behavior-change


Make it Easy

The third law of behavior change is make it easy.

Why do you think so many people sign up for a gym membership in January, go for a week or two, then never visit again?

I'd wager that they do too much, too fast.

I know I've done that many times before. I get so excited to try something new that I end up overdoing it and getting sore. And being sore is not a good feeling (nor a good reward), so I'm discouraged from doing that same behavior again.

BJ Fogg is a big proponent of starting small. Very small. Like "floss only one tooth" small.

One of the main things I got from these chapters is that you must master the art of showing up. Even if what you're doing is really easy at first, you're showing up. Only once a habit has been established can it be optimized.

After an hour of writing, maybe I should follow my own advice here - If I'm trying to establish a writing habit, I should start by writing short, small posts. Only then should I work on longer pieces, like this one, where I have lots of things to say, but don't quite know how to say them succinctly.


The opposite side of the third law is to "make it difficult." Lets say you want to stop watching so much TV. One way to "make it difficult" is to simply unplug the TV after each use. A minor roadblock like that may discourage you from mindlessly turning on the TV when you're bored, and remind you that you're trying to break a habit. You could even go as far as to put the TV in a closet and only when you really want to watch something do you pull it out and hook it up.


Make it Satisfying

Finally, the part of the habit loop that probably started the habit in the first place is the eventual reward.

Clear clarifies in the first part of this section that our brains overvalue rewards that come sooner rather than later, so he states that this law really should be called "Make it immediately satisfying."

The evidence for this isn't hard to find: We eat a chocolate, we get a sugar rush. Drink some coffee, and get a caffeine high. It's easy to get hooked on these because you're rewarded shortly after a behavior.

So to establish a new, good habit, you need to design it such that you're rewarded shortly afterwards, even if it's a small reward.

One example stated in the book is the Paper Clip Strategy: Start with two containers - one filled with paper clips, and one empty - and move one paper clip from the full jar to the empty jar each time the desired behavior is done. (This probably works best with something that is done repeatedly throughout the day, for example, making sales calls.)

"The more a habit becomes part of your life, the less you need outside encouragement to follow through. Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit."

Another simple way to implement this strategy is with a dedicated calendar for your habit. Each day you complete your workout/chores/desired behavior, you get to mark it in the calendar. Eventually, you see a streak forming, and (ideally) you'd like to continue that streak unbroken. It's a small reward, but it builds and builds until the behavior becomes part of your core identity.


Lastly, the inverse of the 4th law is to "make it unsatisfying." As with the clarification above, we can modify this to be "make it immediately unsatisfying."

In general, "good" habits have immediate consequences, but longer term rewards. "Bad" habits, on the other hand have a immediate reward, but longer term consequences. This makes bad habits really hard to abandon.

"The best way I know to overcome this predicament is to increase the speed of punishment associated with this behavior. There can't be a gap between actions and consequences."


Final words

This synopsis only scratched the surface of the wisdom in this book. James Clear is an excellent writer, and this work is no exception. I've found the four laws of behavior change to be an excellent model for understanding my own behaviors. More so, I've successfully used these lessons to influence other people's behavior.