Before we begin
So why a book club, and why now? It’s simple: I love to read a great book with a warm drink on a cold snowy day. There’s just something about the idea of rejuvenation during the rest and quiet of winter (especially since hibernation is frowned upon in our species) that inspires me to take a little “internal” action and improve myself for the year ahead, and hopefully, beyond.
That’s where I got this idea for the Winter Book Club. It’s created to give you a taste and a summary of three great books each winter that I believe have incredible potential to improve your life, so that you can either (A) see that this book is worth investing the time to read in its entirety, or (B) glean at least some of the benefits of reading it, even if all you read is this overview. There’s a lot to unpack, so I’ll break it down into bite-sized sections so you can come back to and re-read if needed. If you’re not a reader, I suggest you start with the YouTube videos at the very end of this overview.
This month’s book and author
James Clear is an author and public speaker. Speaking of himself, he said, “Most of the concepts I write about aren’t my own. They are ideas I discover and build upon after many hours of reading and research…I don’t claim to have all the answers and I still have a lot to learn, but I’m happy to share what I’ve discovered so far.”
The book is Clear’s #1 NY Times Best-Selling book, Atomic Habits, which has sold over 15 million copies. In short, the book promises to “Packed with self-improvement strategies, Atomic Habits will teach you how to make the small changes that will transform your habits and deliver remarkable results.”
You can find tons of information about the book and author at jamesclear.com.
My favorite takeaways
If you only get so far as the end of this little section, I want you to come away with something. When I look back over this book, this is what struck me most:
- Just as the splitting of the tiniest form of matter (the atom) can create an enormous explosion (the atomic bomb), tiny changes can accumulate into amazing changes, if applied appropriately. You don’t have to start with the bomb; you start with the atom.
- Creating (or breaking) habits isn’t as much about discipline as it is about creating an environment that serves the habits we’re trying to make.
- The strategies in the book are simple and straight-forward, so learning the system doesn’t take a lot of intellect or focus. You can start implementing the advice right away.
- Some of the advice in this book will seem familiar, some will seem completely different than any you’ve heard, but all of it will make sense and empower you to make positive changes to your life.
Basic Summary, from the Author
Lesson 1: Small habits make a big difference
It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable— sometimes it isn’t even noticeable—but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.
It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success. Focus on getting 1 percent better every day.
Lesson 2: Forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.
Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.
If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change.
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
Atomic Habits presents a proven system for building good habits and breaking bad ones.
Lesson 3: Build identity-based habits
The key to building lasting habits is focusing on creating a new identity first. Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously).
To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself. You need to build identity-based habits.
Changing your beliefs isn’t nearly as hard as you might think. There are two steps.
- Decide the type of person you want to be.
- Prove it to yourself with small wins.
Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
So how do you do it?
How it works: the habit loop
The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. The cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop—cue, craving, response, reward; cue, craving, response, reward—that ultimately allows you to create automatic habits. This cycle is known as the habit loop.
We can transform these four steps into a practical framework that we can use to design good habits and eliminate bad ones.
How it works: the four laws
The framework is called the Four Laws of Behavior Change, and it provides a simple set of rules for creating good habits and breaking bad ones.
How to create a good habit:
- The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
- The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
- The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
- The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.
How to break a bad habit:
- Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible.
- Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive.
- Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult.
- Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.
What to do about it: creating the system
Clear explains that our environment plays a crucial role in shaping our habits. Therefore, shaping our habits means shaping our environment AROUND the habit, rather than just depending on motivation and discipline.
- Start by identifying a habit you want to build or break. Choose something specific and measurable, such as “exercise for 30 minutes a day” or “stop checking my phone before bed.”
- Identify the Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward currently in play.
- Use the Four Laws of Behavior Change as a framework for designing your habit system.
(Remember: To build a habit, make it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying; to break a habit, make it invisible, unattractive, difficult, and unsatisfying)
- Focus on the process rather than the outcome. Instead of setting a specific goal, such as “lose 10 pounds,” focus on the habits that will lead you there, such as exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet, AND by looking at what obstacles and challenges will make it hard for you (such as a lack of fitness equipment or a lack of knowledge of healthy recipes). By tracking your progress and celebrating your small wins, you’ll build momentum and stay motivated.
- Use the power of identity to reinforce your habits. For example, if you want to become someone who exercises regularly, start thinking of yourself as a “fit” or “active” person. This can help you stay committed to your habits and overcome setbacks.
- Use practical strategies such as habit stacking, temptation bundling, and habit tracking to make your habits easier to stick to. For example:
- Habit stacking: Pair a new habit with an existing one, such as doing push-ups while waiting for your coffee to brew.
- Temptation bundling: Combine a habit you want to build with a reward you enjoy, such as listening to an audiobook only while exercising.
- Habit tracking: Use a calendar or habit-tracking app to keep track of your progress and hold yourself accountable.
What to do about it: examples
Example 1: You want to become more active.
(Cue) Make it obvious: Put your gym clothes out the night before as a visual reminder to exercise in the morning.
(Craving) Make it attractive: Choose a form of exercise you enjoy or listen to your favorite music while doing it.
(Response) Make it easy: Start with a small goal, such as exercising for just 5 minutes a day, and gradually increase it over time.
(Reward) Make it satisfying: Celebrate your progress, whether it’s by checking off your habit on a calendar or rewarding yourself with something you enjoy.
Example 2: You want to consistently reach out leads.
(Cue) Make it obvious: Put your booking calendar, leads, contact tracking, and scripts in the same binder, and put on the center of your desk the night before.
(Craving) Make it attractive: Have your favorite morning beverage and your favorite pens at the ready. Use specific pretty stickers or post-it-notes for only the purpose of booking.
(Response) Make it easy: Start with a small goal, such as reaching out to 5 leads each day (or whatever seems “easy” to you), and gradually increase it over time.
(Reward) Make it satisfying: Celebrate your progress! Tell your accountability partner that you did it so she can cheer for you. Check off (use a sticker if you love stickers) that you did it on your habit on a calendar. Reward yourself with something you enjoy, like dancing to a favorite song, or pet your dog for a few minutes, or put your makeup on.
Example 3: You want to STOP eating M&Ms at your desk. (Remember, when eliminating a bad habit, do the inverse of the four laws)
(Cue) Make it invisible: Reduce exposure to the cue (in this case, the desk) by working in a different location (if possible) for a while, or during a different time (when you’re full). Remove the candy dish from the desk and put a water bottle there instead.
(Craving) Make it unattractive: Reframe your mindset and the identity you associate with the habit. The M&M-eating person or the healthy, hydrated person. Remind yourself why you wish to stop eating the M&Ms (Read the ingredients of M&Ms or the health risks of sugar consumption). Make the alternative (water) more appealing by putting it in your favorite cup.
(Response) Make it difficult: If you can’t take M&Ms completely out of your house, put them outside in the trunk of your car. In order to get them you have to go all the way out there in the elements to get your fix. Have healthy alternatives (like the water) much easier to access.
(Reward) Make it unsatisfying: Have an accountability partner or group, and make the costs of your bad habit public and painful. Make sure people understand that the small habit of eating M&Ms at your desk costs you greatly—it’s not “just a few M&Ms” it’s a part of a larger habit of absent-minded eating, so it’s important to you to stick to it. Make the alternative (water) extra appealing with ice and a slice of lemon.
Notice that replacing the bad habits with good ones can be easier than just eliminating a bad habit by itself, especially when the cue (in this case, working at the desk) isn’t something you can just toss out of your life.
How you do it, in a nutshell:
Do what you can to make the experience around the bad habit unpleasant, and the experience around the good habit more pleasant. If there isn’t a direct environmental consequence or link between the habit and the outcome, focus on identity: The person you want to be, the best version of yourself, does this, and not that.
Some notable quotes:
“When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, ‘disciplined’ people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control.”
“People get so caught up in the fact that they have limits that they rarely exert the effort required to get close to them.”
“Conventional wisdom holds that motivation is the key to habit change. Maybe if you really wanted it, you’d actually do it. But the truth is, our real motivation is to be lazy and to do what is convenient. And despite what the latest productivity best seller will tell you, this is a smart strategy, not a dumb one.”
“It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change: the fastest way to lose weight, the best program to build muscle, the perfect idea for a side hustle. We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action. As Voltaire once wrote, ‘The best is the enemy of the good.'”
“It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.”
“When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running. And a system can be successful in many different forms, not just the one you first envision.”
“The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.” The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone.”
“In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.”
“The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. And as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty.”
“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.”
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”
“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”
“You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity. This is one reason why meaningful change does not require radical change. Small habits can make a meaningful difference by providing evidence of a new identity. And if a change is meaningful, it is actually big. That’s the paradox of making small improvements.”
Further resources available:
If you like what you’ve read so far, there are a TON of resources on James Clear’s website, https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits/resources. The book is available wherever books are sold, and probably available at your local library. If you order the book from this Amazon Affiliate link (https://amzn.to/3RxAfH2) I’ll receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. You can also submit a picture of your purchase receipt to email@example.com to be granted access to some bonus pieces for free.
You can also watch him in these videos:
This is a presentation that is 24 minutes long done by James Clear. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNeXuCYiE0U
I’d love to know what your thoughts are about this book and this overview! Please add a comment below! I hope this blesses your business and your personal life as well. Stay tuned for next month’s book, “Walking with Purpose” by Lisa Breninkmeyer.