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Atomic Habits
Ash RoyNov 19, 2022 7:20:07 PM8 min read

James Clear Atomic habits summary (book insights)

I had the pleasure of speaking to James Clear on my YouTube channel, and on the Productive Insights podcast. 

James Clear is the author of the great book Atomic Habits — a New York Times bestseller and has sold several million copies at the time of this writing. 

He's often sought out by business leaders and award-winning artists to help them stay at the top of their field. 

The book seeks to assemble the most proven ideas around how to cultivate healthy habits using simple steps that can be incorporate into your daily life.

I'd read the book before our conversation, and my expectations were pretty high.

James did not disappoint!

We had a good old riff (as Seth Godin would say) and really dug deep into some key ideas that help with habit creation. One of them was the importance of creating the right environment. 

Your environment is more likely to contribute to your success when it comes to habit creation and sustenance than most other factors.

According to researchers at Duke University, our habits account for approximately 40% of our behaviors on any given day. 

Our lives are the sum of our habits and determine how happy or unhappy we are for the most part. 

This blog post aims to compile a few insights, practical strategies and simple behaviors which will help you transform your life. 

Here are my insights from James' book — Atomic Habits. 

My Key Insights from Atomic Habits

  • Tiny changes compound over time and lead to massive transformations.
  • Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement
  • There are three main kinds of habits:
    • Goal-driven: Habits you perform to achieve a specific goal
    • System-driven: Habits focused on systems, and processes that will get you to your goal
    • Identity-driven: Behaviors we perform because they match our beliefs. This is the most effective form because it's most likely to lead to lasting behavior change. These habits are often referred to as identity-based habits. 

Forming a habit is simple, but not easy

Forming a habit is a challenge in and of itself. But it's even more challenging to stick to a habit over the long term.

It is possible though.

One of the biggest obstacles to actually sticking to a habit is what you do when you miss a day. What happens then? Most people fold and throw it all away. That's a tragic mistake. 

Developing habits involve a lot of "falling off the horse and getting back on". In many ways, habits are about re-committing to the process. 

So at the outset, I'd say it's critical to approach habit creation with a flexible (but firm) mindset. An all-or-nothing approach is almost certainly going to fail.

But it's important to be committed to the process and resolute in your approach.

Why being completely goal-focused can be a problem

Goals are good motivators and are certainly capable of rallying our efforts toward one thing. But the joy that comes with having achieved the goal is fleeting. 

If we think of it in terms of a journey, then the goal we're aiming for is the destination. And the (arrival at the) destination is a tiny part of the journey. 

The process of achieving the goal, on the other hand, is the biggest part of the journey and this is where you spend the majority of your time. So it makes sense to really enjoy the journey (not just the destination).

Unfortunately, our goal-obsessed culture doesn't serve us well because goal attainment is momentary and doesn't create lasting satisfaction. 

Being focused on enjoying the process, however, does increase levels of happiness because it's about enjoying the majority of your journey.  

Focusing on the journey/habit that gets you to the goal and extracting joy from the day-to-day aspects is a far wiser approach.

If you adopt an approach of continuous improvement and goal-less thinking you have the makings of a proven framework that ironically enough leads to goal attainment.

This is true for a few reasons:

  • The feelings of joy associated with accomplishing a goal, by definition, are fleeting. Any joy or satisfaction is going to be short-lived.
  • Once you've achieved the goal or "won the game", you're immediately onto the next goal. This means that almost all of your satisfaction is relegated to some point in the future. When you marry the process and invest yourself in improving the process, you're likely to experience joy and satisfaction all the way through.

The habit formation process

James explains that habits are formed in four phases:


Your brain gets triggered and recognizes an opportunity for a possible reward.

Ever smelt cookies and suddenly found yourself craving for grandma's cookies she lovingly baked for you when you were a kid?

That's a cue. It creates a craving.


The cue gives rise to a craving (desire) to achieve the reward and you feel motivated to act. Based on your past experience, your brain registers that positive change is afoot.

It knows there's going to be a desirable change in your emotional or physical state. It craves the satisfaction the change will deliver.


Following on from the craving you take action. If the action is easy to do, you'll follow through with it (this is why optimizing your environment to promote (or inhibit) action-taking is extremely valuable)


You get the payoff for having taken the action. You've successfully satisfied your craving and "trained" your brain to perform that same habit again because it's now registered the positive change or payoff.

This essentially closes the loop and creates the virtuous cycle. 

It re-enforces that pathway in the brain and you're now more likely to perform the same action when you experience that same cue in the future.

And that's how your habit is created. 


Why systems matter more than goals

James explains that winners and losers start with the same goals.

Most athletes want to be an olympic gold medalists, job applicant want to be successful in their careers, and entrepreneurs wants to financial freedom while making an impact on the world.

Not everyone who has a goal achieves it though. 

Why is that?

Because it's the systems (habits) and processes you put in place and the small changes you make along the way to improve those systems that lead to remakrable results.

Systems enable you to play the game for long enough to win the game (achieve your goals) and then beyond even after you've succeeded. 

The other reason it's important to focus on systems rather than goals is that goals are fleeting. You experience achievement for a short period of time and the satisfaction passes. 

Focusing on creating and maintaining a proven system, however, creates lasting satisfaction and an ongoing feeling of achievement (provided you keep making small changes that benefit your future self)



You don't rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems

James Clear and I spoke about the idea that motivation is overrated and we're more influenced by our environment than most of us would care to admit. 

If you want to cultivate better habits then you need to build the systems to increase the likelihood of your doing those habits on a daily basis. 

For example, if you lay out your workout clothes right next to your bed and make it impossible not to notice them when you wake up in the morning, you're more likely to workout on a daily basis. 

This is an example of creating a system (setting up your environment) that means you're more likely to workout. 

Creating practical frameworks like this one is the fastest way to achieve remarkable results. 

And this is the true purpose of building systems. 


The four laws of behavior change 

The four laws of behavior change (for cultivating good habits) are:

  • Make it obvious
  • Make it attractive
  • Make it easy
  • Make it satisfying

If you want better results, then don't focus on setting goals, focus on building systems instead.

Let's say you want to maintain a daily journal (something I recommend highly), then you want to make the journal easily accessible, and make the process attractive and satisfying. 

Ideally, you'd want to place the journal next to your bed or in a very visible location (e.g. on your desk) with the journal open to the next days page.

After you've completed your journal entry, you might reward yourself with something you love e.g. listening to your favorite song or going for a relaxing walk. 

If you want to get rid of bad habits, you reverse those four laws:

  • Make it less obvious
  • Make it unattractive
  • Make it difficult (increase friction)
  • Make it dissatisfying


Identity-based habits

The most effective way to build better habits is to adopt an identity that's consistent with the habit and then see each habit as a vote for that identity. 

You're voting for the type of person you want to become. 

Let's say you want to build a writing habit. 

Rather than thinking "I'm going to write everyday", you're better off thinking "I'm a writer". 

Each day you write, you're casting a vote for that new identity you're cultivating of being 'a writer'.

Choosing to write every day if you identify as a writer doesn't seem like hard work because you already see your self as a writer. 

A writer writes right? 

Let's say you want to develop a daily meditation practice. Identify as a meditator. 

This means you don't have to make small decisions each day around meditation. You're less likely to ask yourself "Should I meditate today?"

You're going to meditate because you're a meditator. And a meditator meditates everyday. 

Each day you meditate your further reenforce that identity of being a meditator.  

This is the best way to cultivate good habits and to reduce the number of daily choices you have to make.

An added benefit is less decision fatigue. 



Ash Roy

Ash Roy has spent over 15 years working in the corporate world as a financial and strategic analyst and advisor to large multinational banks and telecommunications companies. He suffered through a CPA in 1997 and completed it despite not liking it at all because he believed it was a valuable skill to have. He sacrificed his personality in the process. In 2004 he finished his MBA (Masters In Business Administration) from the Australian Graduate School of Management and loved it! He scored a distinction (average) and got his personality back too!