Atomic Habits By James Clear – Book Summary

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Author James Clear wrote Atomic Habits to enables the readers to follow simple steps that can improve their lives and personalities by the passing day. The habits he describes in his book are termed as atomic habits which consist of small steps towards a glorious result.

He describes atomic habits are those which make us up to be a better person in a certain aspect. He compares them to the atoms which make up molecules and then ultimately, made up the entire universe. Just like the minute atoms compose something so enormous, the atomic habits can help us attain massive success.

It is a bestseller with more than two million copies and has been termed as the best book to read if one wants to inculcate good habits in themselves. It focuses on the way the world around us compels us to have bad habits and how it is not our personal limitation.

The author Clear alludes to biology, neuroscience, and psychology to explain the working of the habits and their consequences. Readers of Atomic Habits swear by the habits and see an indicative change in their lives.


1. The importance of tiny steps

One cannot expect success overnight. They need to work for success in steps that are so miniature that they are concealed from the world. However, these tiny steps ultimately place us at the doorstep of success. We should not measure our progress with the situation we are in currently, but instead, think forward in terms of the entire trajectory of the journey.

2. The difference between success and failure

Success and failure are separated by a distance which can only be calculated in terms of time. Clear believes a person striving for success will eventually attain it, but the time of the journey is determined by the habits they choose to cultivate. If we harbor bad habits, the time to reach success is elongated, and if we harbor good habits, the time decreases.

To decide what is a good or bad habit, we must track our progress (not measure) and see a graph that can depict the future. Next, we must estimate how these habits or decisions will have an impact on our lives decades later.

3. The Plateau of Latent Potential

Knowing all this, we may wish to develop a good habit or get rid of a bad one. However, a person who is unable to do either has not yet crossed ‘The Plateau of Latent Potential’ as postulated by Clear. It signifies a plateau in wanting to improve ourselves. When the plateau is crossed, success comes easier to us. It is thus at this exact point where Clear’s statements come to life. When we are susceptible to change, open to improvement, and want to attain success, we have crossed the plateau.

4. Changing habits

Often, the reason we are unable to change is because we either try to shed the wrong habit or try a wrong approach to getting rid of it. The correct way of getting rid of habits is to introspect and find three layers of behavior – outcomes, processes, and identity. Each layer must be treated as separate and a change must be brought in them.

Outcomes are the results we obtain. Processes are what we engage in. Lastly, our identity is what we believe. Habits associated with all the three layers correspond to one aspect of like. For instance, habits which have to do with our identity help us to develop our individualism. Habits based on outcomes display our goals.

Clear says that the best way to attain our goals is to instill the habit of our identity. If we associate the habit with our identity, it becomes a true part of ourselves and will remain so forever. It will not just change our actions but will change our personality – we just have to choose a good habit to transform us.

5. How to get rid of an unwanted habit

Clear says that the best habit requires the least time and effort but gives good results. To make or break a habit, we must follow the following steps –

  1. Let our brain pick on the cues of a habit
  2. Let it crave the outcome of the habit
  3. Let it respond to the habit
  4. Let it achieve reward from either breaking or making the habit

Clear describes this path as a feedback loop with reward encouraging more cues. On the other hand, the best way to build a habit is to make it obvious, appealing, easy, and satisfying.

While deciding which habit to break, we must keep asking our brain the benefits we gain from the specific habit. Once we get into the rhythm of asking our brain this, it will interpret and categorize it as a good or a bad habit. This is how we do the first step of ‘cue’. We enable our brain to pick up on the cues of the bad habit and initiate the loop.

6. How to start a new habit

Making a habit obvious is the way step to cultivating it. When it starts seeming obvious to harbor this habit, we gain clarity as to why it can be beneficial to us. Clear mentions an effect called the Diderot Effect, which states that a purchase can lead to a cascade of other purchases. We must apply the same principle but do it with habits – a thing clear refers to as habit stacking.

We must build a habit on top of a pre-existing, good habit. Since there is now a feedback loop, the reward system of the brain will encourage the brain to pick up on more cues. Training our mind to learn the first habit, then correlate it with the second one, learn that too – ultimately, we will have gained two habits.

The cues must be obvious in the environment as well. If someone is shifting to a new city, they forego the cues of habits which confined them in the old town. So, cues are more obvious in a new environment. However, if this is not possible, then we must train ourselves to focus on the cues which are required and let go of those which are not.

7. Have self-control

Once a certain habit is consciously made, it is difficult to get rid of it. Thus, we must impose self-control and only pick up the cues on the habit we truly require. Self-control also asserts dominance over temptation, making it easier to resist it. Self-control needs to be exercised only in the first steps of making or breaking a habit. We must control ourselves to understand the necessary cues and resist the temptation of the unnecessary ones.

8. Making a habit appealing

Our brains are associated with neurotransmitters – in particular, dopamine. The habit-stacking system is possible due to the presence of dopamine-driven machinery in the brain. By making a habit look attractive or appealing, we pump in dopamine. It makes us think about the opportunities that may come with the habit and thus, more dopamine is added.

When we anticipate a reward – or an opportunity – we are compelled to go above and beyond for more of them. Associating a habit with an action we like to perform will help in gaining the habit as well as achieving the dopamine spike.

To stop the feedback loop on a bad habit, we must make it unattractive. When the brain starts to dislike a certain habit, it will reject it and try to overcome it.

9. The cultural aspect of building a habit

The cultural upbringing of a person determines what they find attractive and unattractive. If a certain action is deemed appealing in a culture, the individual will be more susceptible to cultivating that habit. Over time, the habit can be detrimental or beneficial – and we need to consciously determine this.

The cultural environment of the person has three groups – the core, the tribe, and the influential. The core group contains the family and close friends. The tribe includes the society and the people we interact with daily. Thirdly, the influential are those who are powerful in the society. Each of these groups may have vastly different habits and its crucial to align ourselves with the group which can appreciate and motivates our habits.

Looking for appreciation for hard work in a group that tends to while away their time is barking up at the wrong tree. If we join a group with the same drive for hard work, it is a motivator like no other. The cultural aspect of having a habit is a crucial one for our social health.

10. Making the habit easy

An easy habit is much more attractive than a difficult one. Importance must be attributed to taking the action, instead of how long it takes. Easier things tend to happen quickly and thus, even though it may take a little longer to achieve something, it will be effortless. The motion of the journey must be ignored, instead, the process of the journey must be appreciated.

At a point, our threshold will also increase. A habit that seemed difficult will now come easier to us since we have taken all the preceding steps. We just have to ensure that the habit we are following takes us forward and not backward.

11. The Two-Minute Rule

We often encounter a moment which can cause an impact later in the future – called ‘decisive moments’. Decisive moments often constitute a crossroads, at which we must choose our path. The path we choose must be beneficial to us in the future.

Clear says that a habit may be short, but its change can have a lasting effect on our behavior. So, he dictates that a habit should be done in less than two minutes – called the Two-Minute Rule. As two minutes is a short time in the grand scheme of things, we will be susceptible to doing it without objections. Thus, it has a higher chance of getting included in our daily schedule. Over time, it will become easier to spend longer at it.

12. Make bad habits impossible

Since we must plan ahead, we should start making our bad habits difficult for ourselves so it can benefit us in the long run. We must build a ‘commitment device’ in our minds, which can propose the future implications of our decision (during a decisive moment). The commitment device would emphasize the negative effects of a bad habit, and thus, make it impossible for us to engage in it.

13. Make good habits satisfying

The reward system compliments us with dopamine and feelings of satisfaction upon fulfilling a good habit. Since our brain now craves this feeling, the action is repeated. Clear says this is the ‘cardinal rule’ of behavior change – which suggests that something rewarding is repeated and something punishable is prevented. Thus, since good habits are rewarding, our minds will gravitate towards them. On the other hand, since bad habits can be punished, our minds will drive away from them.

14. How to keep the good habits going

Sticking with our plans is not as easy as planning. So, there has to be a way in which we can hold on to good habits. The Goodhart Law suggests that when something becomes a target, it is no longer good. Similarly, when a habit ceases to be satisfying, it may be let go. To avoid this from happening, visual intervention is essential.

Clear suggests marking the habits with several denotations – such as ticking or crossing. These techniques help us track our habits and keep our mind organized. Instead of the habit being satisfying, it is now the visual effect that makes it satisfying.

15. How to make a bad habit unsatisfying

Chances are if we are engaged in a bad habit, it satisfies us. Since we are biased in this approach, Clear suggests external intervention. Thus, he suggests installing an ‘accountability partner’ – A person, important to us, who can frown upon us when we engage in a bad habit. Since we crave social validation, the appeal of the bad habit will decrease over time. Eventually, the habit will seem unsatisfying since we are receiving a bad response socially.

16. Talents

To be successful, we must not choose something we will fail. One cannot immediately decide what they can be good at, hence small steps must be taken to check the waters. More often than not, the things we are good at will be our talent. Since it is supposedly a part of us, habits associated with it will be easier to pick up.

Most attribute talents with genes and genes cannot be changed. However, our habits can. Once we pick up the cues on the right habits, the road to success is not that far. The relevance of genes in this aspect is minimal.

Lastly, if there seems to be no opportunity to be good at something, make it. A game that does not favor us need not be played. Instead, create one tailored to our needs.

17. The Goldilocks Rule

The Goldilocks Rule states that people experience the highest form of motivation when working on tasks that suit their abilities. Basically, people tend to succeed when they do well in that domain.

Clear mentions that the reason why success is not attained is that people may get bored with their habits and get demotivated, and failure is not the leading cause. It is one’s choice to continue with the habits when they feel bored. This is one of the most defining decisive moments which can determine how far success is.

18. The limitation of good habits

Once a habit is stuck to our personality, we can carry it forward without putting in conscious effort. However, we also tend to skim over the fine details and are prone to errors. To avoid this, we must reflect and review our work. So, in a way, we must cultivate the habit and the habit of reflection to avoid errors.

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