How to Build Habits That Last – Takeaways from Atomic Habits

I read every day—It's a habit. Generally, I aim to read a chapter of a book a day, if not more, and usually do this after dinner, while having some fragrant caffeine-free tea and a small piece of delicious single-origin chocolate.

One of the books I've read in the past year is Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear, a fast favorite among those who are trying to build better habits in life. Being such a key book in the literature about habit-building, I thought I would share my quick notes and takeaways from the book so you can benefit from it today too! As you read on, you'll see my short description above, about my reading habit, builds upon some of the principles mentioned in the book.

1. Make sure you are changing the right thing

First, the basics: There are three layers of behavior change, from the visible to the fundamental:

  • Changing outcomes - Results or goals you can observe and set

  • Changing process - Habits and systems you can develop and maintain

  • Changing identity - Beliefs, worldview, self-image, judgments, assumptions, biases that you have

To effective build long-lasting habits, start to examine each piece, down to your core beliefs and identity. Saying "I'm someone who wants this" is very different from "I'm someone who is this". Once your pride gets involved, you start fighting tooth and nail to maintain your habits.

For example:

  • The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader/learner.

  • The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner.

2. How to build better habits

Now, we get to the heart of the system: How do we apply it to build better habits? The book shares the four laws of behavior change:

  • #1 (Cue): Make it obvious

  • #2 (Craving): Make it attractive

  • #3 (Response): Make it easy

  • #4 (Reward): Make it satisfying

#1: Make it obvious

To make a habit concrete, make sure you start with an implementation intention - A plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. Basically: "When situation X arises, I will perform response Y." Make it concrete: For example, "I will meditate for 10 minutes at 7am in my kitchen."

Make this intention very specific so you say no to things that will derail progress.

Remember that no behavior happens in isolation. Each action becomes a cue for the next behavior. Hence, this can be used advantageously for habit stacking: "After [curent habit], I will [new habit]."

As an example, you can see that I've described my reading schedule at the start of the post: After dinner, once I've eaten the last bite, I will make a cup of tea, break off a piece of chocolate, and open my reading app. I will read for one chapter or at least 15-20 minutes. It's specific, and it stacks on top of each action.

#2: Make it attractive

Next, you can think about how to use temptation bundling to build good habits. By bundling something you need to do to something you already like doing, you are making that habit more attractive to yourself.

  • "After [current habit], I will [habit I need]. After [habit I need], I will [habit I want]."

This is basically conditioning, where hopefully you will eventually associate a behavior with a reward.

Think about it this way: Humans, being social animals, want to fit in; behaviors that help with that are attractive. In particular, we want to imitate three groups:

  • The close: Surround yourself with people whose habits you want to have yourself.

  • The many: Going against the grain requires effort, but think about how your habits may adhere or deviate from what everyone else is doing.

  • The powerful: High-status people enjoy the approval, respect, and praise of others, and we often want to build ourselves to achieve similar success.

With this understanding, frame the habits you want to build and understand deeply why the habit you are trying to build will be attractive to you.

Finally, don't think of things as things that you "have" to do. Think of them as something that you "get" to do. They are opportunities—Reframe habits to highlight their benefits.

#3: Make it easy

To master a habit, start with repetition, not perfection.

To be fair, The Law of Least Effort states that for humans, our real motivation is to be lazy and do what is convenient since energy is precious, and the brain is wired to conserve it whenever possible.

However, to excel, it's not about doing easy things, but rather making it easy to do things that pay off in the long run. Every day, there are a handful of decisive moments, like choosing to start work or to grab the TV controller; putting on workout clothes or sitting on the couch; and so forth. They deliver an outsized impact on the next parts of the day. These choices shape the options available next. Once you start doing the right thing, it's easier to continue doing it.

To make sure you adhere to your plan, the first two minutes should be easy, while the rest of it can be hard. The point is to master the habit of showing up. Do the easy things on a consistent basis.

Another way to think about it is that sometimes, it's less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard. You can do this by creating a commitment device, a choice you make that locks in your future behavior. For example, you can set up a smart plug that turns the router off at 10pm, or pay for a gym session beforehand.

#4: Make it satisfying

Humans live in a delayed-return environment, but the human hardware craves instant gratification. What is (immediately) rewarded is repeated. What is (immediately) punished is avoided.

As a general rule, the more immediate pleasure you get from an action, the more strongly you should question whether it aligns with your long-term goals!

You can choose to make bad habit avoidance visible. For example, for every item that you wanted to purchase that you ended up not purchasing, transfer that money into another account and watch that pile of money grow. Obviously, this should align with long-term goals: In this case, if your goal is financial independence, then you would get pleasure from watching the pile of money grow.

Another way is to measure your progress visually. The book cites an example where a man has two jars: One empty jar and another jar with 120 paper clips in it. His goal was to consistently make sales calls every single day. Each time he made a call, he would put one paper clip in the empty jar. At the end of each day, all the paper clips would have made it into the originally empty jar—He made 120 sales calls per day, measured visually and satisfyingly, and it accelerated his progress into the future.

Another way is to use a habit tracker. We have a powerful motivation not to "break the streak", something that addictive games tend to use against us! Habit tracking is obvious, attractive and satisfying. The only caveat is that you have to make sure to measure the right things: The dark side of tracking is that you focus on the numbers and not the intention behind it.

Remember: Never miss a habit twice in a row! If you do that, you are building a new habit to break the habit. Just show up, even on bad days that you don't feel like it. It will pay off.

3. To sum it up

Small habits don't add up—They compound. Remember that the costs of your good habits are in the present, but the costs of your bad habits are in the future; your future self is paying for the bad habits you have today, while your future self is also benefiting from the great habits you have right now. Choose wisely!