Atomic Habits is a four-step guide to breaking bad habits and adopting good ones, demonstrating how small, incremental daily routines add up to massive, positive change over time.
Lesson 1: Every habit is built on a four-step process that includes trigger, desire, reaction, and reward.
In his greatest opus, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, Adam Smith set the groundwork for contemporary economics. One of his most famous observations is that, in a free market system, all workers, even if acting solely in their own best interests, maximise their own society's welfare:
…he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.
When it comes to habits, James believes that the unseen hand that affects human behaviour is the environment. As a result, the initial step in practising any habit is always to use a cue. It may not always be external, but it will be the majority of the time. The four-step sequence is then completed by three more stages:
- Cue. A hint that there's a reward to be found, such as the fragrance of a cookie or a dark area waiting to be illuminated.
- Craving. The desire to modify something in order to obtain the desired result, such as eating a tasty cookie or being able to see.
- Response. Whatever thinking or action is required to reach the goal.
- Reward. The pleasurable sensation you receive from the shift, as well as the lesson of whether or not you should do it again.
There are several popular methodologies that try to predict how and why we do what we do, such as Charles Duhigg’s habit loop, Gretchen Rubins four tendencies, or BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits behaviour model. While all of these approaches are different, none of them are mutually exclusive. James offers a more refined version of what Duhigg described in The Power of Habit.
Lesson 2: In order to develop habits, you must make them visible, appealing, simple, and rewarding.
James then derives four laws of behaviour change from the four-step pattern he suggests, each of which corresponds to one part of the loop. Here they are, along with some suggestions on how to utilise them to encourage good behaviour and make poor behaviour more difficult:
- Make it clear. Instead of hiding your fruits in the fridge, put them on show.
- Make it appealing. Start with your favourite fruit so you'll want to eat one as soon as you see it.
- Make it simple. Avoid causing unnecessary friction by concentrating on difficult-to-peel fruits. Bananas and apples, for example, are quite simple to consume.
- Make it enjoyable. You'll like eating the fruit you choose if you like it, and you'll feel better as a result.
These principles can be applied to a variety of healthy habits, such as running, working on a side project, spending more time with family, and so on. In the case of harmful habits, do the polar opposite. Make them inconspicuous, unappealing, laborious, and unsatisfactory. You could, for example, hide your cigarettes, impose financial penalties, eliminate all lighters, and only smoke outside in the cold.
Lesson 3: Using a habit tracker to guarantee you keep to your new habits is a fun and simple approach to do so.
Making and breaking habits becomes enjoyable with this approach. You'll probably want to get started on numerous projects as soon as possible, but don't take on too much at once. Tracking your behaviours using a habit tracker is an easy method to hold yourself accountable without feeling overwhelmed.
The concept is simple: you keep track of all the behaviours you want to establish or abandon, and you mark which ones you succeeded with at the end of each day. A single piece of paper, a notebook, a calendar, or a digital tool, such as an app, can serve as this record.
This approach is based on the so-called "Seinfeld productivity hack." Every day that Jerry Seinfeld came up with a joke, he supposedly marked his calendar with a large 'X.' His objective quickly became not to break the chain. It's a straightforward yet powerful method for forming positive habits.
And, because habits are the compound interest of self-improvement, it's a process that we should all begin right now.