February 3, 2022

Atomic Habits: a personal summary

Here is my summary of Atomic Habits based on each chapter, and I hope this information can give you an idea of what the book is about, so you can read it yourself and get all of the benefits.

Atomic Habits: a personal summary

Last year I subscribed to James Clear's newsletter called 3-2-1, and after getting lots of good weekly advice I decided to read his book Atomic Habits.

The fact this book is a best-seller makes all sense to me, its content is current, the principles are great, and the way the book is formatted makes a very pleasant read.

Here is my summary of the book based on each chapter, and I hope this information can give you an idea of what the book is about, so you can read it yourself and get all of the benefits.


These first chapters set some interesting points that are the foundations for the remaining of the book.

1: The Surprising Power of Atomic Habits

  • Small increments of improvement make a lot of difference in the end. If you can get better 1% each day for one year, you will get 37 times better at the end;
  • Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement;
  • The opposite is also true, you can compound negative things such as stress, bad thoughts, and outrage. So habits can compound for you or against you;
  • A breakthrough moment, the noticeable portion, is a result of many previous actions, the most of the time, small ones that are performed over and over;
  • Forget about goals and focus on systems instead. Goals are about the results you want to achieve but systems are about the process that will make those goals possible;
  • Problems with a goal mindset: winners and losers have the same goals; achieving a goal is momentary; goals restrict your happiness; once you reach a goal you stop doing what made you grow;
  • The purpose of setting goals is to win the game, the purpose of building a system is to continue playing the game;
  • If you have problems building a habit, the issue is not you, it is your system;

2: How Your Habits Shape Your Identity

  • There are two main reasons changing habits is challenging: change the wrong thing and change in the wrong way;
  • There are 3 layers of behavior change: outcomes (the outer layer), processes (the mid-layer), and identity (the inner layer);
  • All layers are important for changing habits, however, the direction of change should be Identity -> Processes -> Outcomes, and usually, people lean towards the opposite, which brings no long-term results as they don't change their identity, what they want to become;
  • Instead of "my goal is to read a book", you should go for "I want to become a reader" and start doing things that will prove your new identity. Behaviors are a reflection of your identity;
  • The practical way to change who you are is to change what you do;
  • Two steps to change your identity: decide the type of person you want to be; prove it to yourself with small wins;

3: How to Build Better Habits in 4 Simple Steps

  • A habit is a behavior that has been repeated over and over until it is automatic;
  • The way habits work can be divided into 4 stages: cue, craving, response, and reward;
  • Our brain runs these stages in the same other for all habits;
  • Cue: the piece of information that triggers the brain for the behavior, predicting a reward;
  • Craving: the motivational force behind every habit;
  • Response: the habit you perform, as action or thought. Your response will be based on the level of motivation and how much friction is associated;
  • Reward: the end goal of every habit, the thing that satisfies your craving;
  • The cue is about noticing, the craving is about wanting, the response is about obtaining the reward;
  • Based on these stages, there are 4 laws of behavior change: make it obvious; make it attractive; make it easy; make it satisfying;

The 1st Law - Make it Obvious

The following chapters will describe how the 1st Law works.

4: The Man Who Didn't Look Right

  • If practiced the brain can predict outcomes based on cues;
  • Awareness is the first thing to happen for changing behavior;
  • Building a list of your current habits and marking each one as positive, neutral, or negative moves your mind from the unconscious to the conscious level. This is called Habit Scorecard;
  • Each of those habits in the scorecard will vote for or against the type of person you want to be;
  • The Habit Scorecard is for awareness, not a celebration or blaming;

5: The Best Way to Start a New Habit

  • You are more likely to act if you formulate an implementation intention;
  • Simple as "I will [behavior] at [time] in [location]";
  • Another strategy is Habit Stacking which defines the completion of one habit as the cue for a new one;
  • Simple as "After I [current habit], I will [new habit]";
  • Because the current habit is already under control, the chances are higher to stick with the new one because there will be a cue that will trigger;
  • You can stack multiple habits;

6: Motivation is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More

  • In a store or grocery, we often buy products because of where they were and not because of what they are;
  • The environment is directly related to awareness, we notice cues that stand out;
  • If you wanna play a musical instrument more, put it in a visible place;
  • Initially, your habits are triggered by a single cue, later on, they will associate with the entire context, where the context becomes the cue;

7: The Secret to Self-Control

  • When habits are formed it is hard to forget them;
  • Fighting temptation and exercising self-control is a short-term strategy that often fails;
  • If you want to get rid of a bad habit, start by reducing the exposure to the cue that triggers it;
  • This is called the inversion of the 1st Law, make it invisible;

The 2nd Law - Make it Attractive

The following chapters will describe how the 2nd Law works.

8: How to Make a Habit Irresistible

  • The craving for something occurs when dopamine spikes, but dopamine is not the only ingredient in the equation;
  • Dopamine is not only associated with pleasure but also with motivation, memory, punishment, and voluntary movement;
  • In the 4 habit stages, dopamine is present in the craving (anticipating the reward) and in the reward itself, as pleasure;
  • The anticipation of the reward, not the reward itself, is that makes us perform something;
  • Combining Habit Stacking with Temptation Bundling is a good way to make your habit more attractive;
  • Simple as "After I [current habit], I will [habit I need], then I will [habit I want]";

9: The Role of Family and Friends in Shaping Your Habits

  • Humans are herd animals, we want to fit in, bond, earn respect and approval;
  • We imitate habits of 3 groups: the close (family, friends), the many (tribe), the powerful (with status);
  • People close to us influence our habit creation;
  • Joining a culture in which the behavior you want to start or improve is normal, makes the habit more attractive;
  • There is an internal pressure to comply with the norms of a big group, oftentimes people prefer to be wrong with the crowd than right by themselves;
  • The habit is attractive when fitting in with the tribe;
  • We copy the behavior of successful people because we want the same success;
  • The habit is attractive when giving us some sort of approval or status;

10: How to Find and Fix the Causes of Your Bad Habits

  • Cravings are specific manifestations of a deeper underlying motive;
  • A habit is unattractive when associated with a negative feeling or it is clear the benefits of avoiding it;
  • If you want to get rid of a bad habit, make it unattractive;
  • This is called the inversion of the 2nd Law;

The 3rd Law - Make it Easy

The following chapters will describe how the 3rd Law works.

11: Walk Slowly, but Never Backward

  • The more you repeat something more automatic it becomes;
  • Focus on taking action;
  • More important than the number of days you are doing a habit is the frequency you perform it;

12: The Law of Least Effort

  • We lean toward the option that will require less effort, the least resistance;
  • Friction reduction is a proven key for successful products, of any kind;
  • Reducing friction is a great way to make a habit easier;
  • Prepare your environment in a way that will reduce friction so you can perform the habit you want in the future;

13: How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the Two-Minute Rule

  • Our days are full of decisive moments that will require us a good or bad choice, having a good simple choice will push us toward progress;
  • The Two-Minute Rule says "when you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do";
  • The idea is progressing over time in terms of time spent and/or complexity for the habit, so each phase does not feel overwhelming at the start;
  • This is called Habit Shaping and can be applied to almost anything, there is always a short version of any habit;
  • Optimization should come after standardization, so the frequency of action on each phase will allow phase progression;

14: How to Make Good Habits Inevitable and Bad Habits Impossible

  • The inversion of the 3rd Law is to make it difficult;
  • A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future. As an example, you can buy food in individual packages if you want better eating control;
  • Another strategy is Onetime Actions for automation. For example, if you unsubscribe from many of the unuseful email newsletters you receive will give you less noise and distraction in the future. Same for automated savings plan;
  • Technology is great to have things automated so you don't need to think about it;

The 4th Law - Make it Satisfying

The following chapters will describe how the 4th Law works.

15: The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change

  • We are more likely to repeat a behavior when it is satisfying;
  • The 3 first laws increase the odds of behavior to be done once, the 4th law makes the behavior to be repeated many times;
  • There are two types of satisfaction, immediate and delayed satisfaction;
  • The way our brain evaluates satisfaction or reward is inconsistent across time, and we value present much more than future;
  • Usually, the cost of good habits is in the present, the cost of bad habits is in the future;
  • The cardinal rule is "what is immediately rewarded is repeated, which is immediately punished is avoided";
  • Even small wins will give immediate gratification, what will help make habits stick;

16: How to Stick with Good Habits Every Day

  • Knowing that progress is being made brings immediate satisfaction, and having a visual indication of the progress increases the good feeling;
  • Habit Tracking is a great way to measure progress in a visual form;
  • Marking a habit done helps on many fronts, it can be a trigger for the next action, and it keeps honesty in place as it shows what is happening;
  • Motivation comes when progress is visually clear so don't break the chain or streak;
  • Tracking is a form of reward in itself, you cast a vote for the type of person you want to be;
  • When habits start to break down and you start missing things, remember a simple rule of "never miss twice";
  • When people give up on anything, it is a sequence of misses, not a single occurrence. A habit tracker will help identify the issue;

17: How an Accountability Partner Can Change Everything

  • Habits that are painful or unsatisfying we are unlikely to repeat;
  • The inversion of the 4th Law is to make it unsatisfying;
  • Because we care about what people close to us will say or think, having an accountability partner helps when getting rid of bad habits;
  • A habit contract can be created to add a social cost when a bad habit is done;

Advanced Tactics

In this section of the book, James Clear shows interesting points on how to exceed the basics.

18: The Truth About Talent (When Genes Matter and When They Don't)

  • You have more chances of success if you choose the right field for your strengths;
  • Habits are easier when they are aligned with your natural abilities;
  • In case you can't find a game you are strong, create one;
  • Genes don't remove the need for hard work, they tell what area you should work hard;

19: The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and Work

  • If the challenge is too easy it becomes boring, if it is too difficult, it brings discouragement;
  • The Goldilocks Rule states that "maximum motivation comes when we face a challenge of just manageable difficulty";
  • When a habit becomes routine, it becomes boring and less satisfying;
  • Professionals stick to the plan, amateurs let life git in the way;

20: The Downside of Creating Good Habits

  • Deliberate practice and habits are the doors to mastery;
  • Mastery is when your focus narrows to specific parts for improvement;
  • Reviewing your habits will bring you close to mastery and remove boredom as you add more difficulty to them;
  • Seek for broader identities, instead of seeking to be an athlete, seek for something like "I am the type of person who loves mental and physical challenges";


Atomic Habits is a great book, one of those that re-reading it becomes useful as a form of reviewing the principles and making sure we adjust.

There is a lot of practical ways to apply one or many principles from the book, at any time and level, which makes it a very balanced theory and practice set.

I hope you enjoyed this summary, and if you haven't read the book yet, do yourself a favor.