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Every New Year, millions of people make promises to themselves that they will form new habits or break bad habits in the year to come. But famously, most of these promises are soon broken. Why is it so hard to form habits? Why is it so hard to break bad ones?

Atomic Habits by James Clear posits that the reason is that most people fail to understand what really makes a habit stick. Atomic Habits explores the psychology behind habit formation and demonstrates the mechanisms in the human brain that cause us to create habits. Then, it gives practical advice for how those mechanisms can be leveraged and manipulated for a person to stick to the habits they want to keep and avoid the ones they want to abandon.

Top 20 insights

  1. From 1908 to 2003, the British professional cycling team performed notoriously poorly. However, beginning in 2003, when it hired Dave Brailsford, its luck changed. Brailsford made small but consistent changes to the team's procedures. Changes like a change to the shape of bike seats, the application of alcohol to tires, or the transformation of the inside of their van white. Soon the team won Olympic gold medals and Tours de France. Like interest that compounds, major changes to results are often brought about by many small changes that work together. This story is elaborated on below.
  2. When people focus on goals, they run into four problems: 1) Winners and losers often have the same goals, and so it's not a good indicator of why some win and some lose. 2) The achievement of a goal is only a momentary change, then you begin to want something else. 3) You will inevitably not meet all your goals, so too much preoccupation with them can be mentally disastrous. 4) Goals aim for a specific accomplishment, not a sustained change. This means goals are at odds with long-term progress. Don't become too preoccupied with goals. Instead, focus on sustained systems of change.
  3. Human brains make decisions with a four-step process. 1) It receives a cue to perform a particular action. 2) It creates a craving to perform that action. 3) It responds to that craving. 4) It receives a reward or consequence for that action, either internally or externally. When it receives a reward, it is inclined to repeat the cycle, when it receives a consequence, not to. This cycle, repeated, is what forms a habit. An example would be: 1) Wake up. 2) want to feel alert. 3) Drink coffee. 4) Satisfy the craving to feel alert.
  4. Human brains are hardwired to take the path of least resistance and to exert the least energy necessary. That makes the adoption of new habits hard. In order to make good habits easier: 1) Make it obvious, 2) make it attractive, 3) make it easy, and 4) make it satisfactory. This can be inverted to break a bad habit to 1) make it invisible, 2) make it unattractive, 3) make it difficult, and 4) make it unsatisfactory
  5. Employees of the Tokyo Metro system are trained to "point and call." When they see a signal or perform an action, they are trained to point to it and say it aloud. For example, "signal is green" or "apply breaks." This system prevents employees from accidentally missed details, reduced errors by 85% and accidents by 30%. To form a new habit or break a bad one requires the unconscious to become conscious. This is necessary to overcome the current loop that runs in the brain automatically.
  6. In 2001 British researchers conducted a study of 248 people to explore exercise habits. One-third, the control group, were asked only to track their exercise. One-third were asked to track their exercise and read materials about the benefits of exercise. One-third were asked to read said materials and track their exercise, but also to make a plan for when and where they would exercise in the next week. In the first two groups, 35% and 38% of people exercised at least once per week. In the third group, 91% exercised at least once per week. This method is called an "implementation intention" and triggers a cue that begins the habit cycle described in insight 3. "When X happens, I will Y."
  7. The environment is one of the most important factors that determine our habits. It provides cues that start a habit loop in the brain and subtly encourage people to pursue particular habits, whether good or bad. Anne Thorndike, a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, once did an experiment to encourage more people to drink water in the hospital cafeteria. Previously, water had been available, but only in two places in the cafeteria and not in the refrigerators next to the cashier. Thorndike added water to those refrigerators and six new locations in the cafeteria. Despite the fact that soda is equally available as it had been before, over the next three months, soda sales dropped by 11.4%, while water sales increased 25.8%.
  8. Dr. William G Allyn says, "More than 50 percent of the cortex, the surface of the brain, is devoted to processing visual information." This makes vision the most stimulating sense in humans and the one most likely to elicit a response. Therefore, visual cues are more likely to prompt a reaction than other forms of cues.
  9. Charles Darwin says, "In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed." Human evolution has predisposed people to act as a collective. Therefore, humans are predisposed to imitate the habits of other humans. Principally, there are three groups that are instinctively most likely to be imitated. 1) The close: those who a person makes close contact with regularly. 2) The many: those whose collective habits create a standard of "normalcy." 3) The powerful: those who have something that is commonly desired, whose success or possession encourages others to imitate them out of hopes to achieve the same.
  10. Behaviors have base-level motives that are more deeply ingrained than the behavior themselves. Motives like: "conserve energy," "obtain food and water," "find love and reproduce," or "connect and bond with others." For example, a person may scroll Facebook because of an acute desire at the moment, but more deeply, out of a desire to connect and bond with others. Attach habits to these motivations to make yourself more likely to trigger a craving to perform that habit.
  11. One way to make habits attractive is to reframe them in terms of their benefits instead of drawbacks. For example, associate saving money with its future bounty instead of its present sacrifice. One easy way to do this is to speak it aloud. Like the point and call method, say the benefits that a habit provides. Another psychological trick is to refer to habits as something that a person "gets to do" instead of as something that they "have to do."
  12. Habits don't form based on time; they form based on frequency. A behavior will become automatic when the aforementioned habit loop is completed a certain number of times (which differs across people and habits). This is when a habit is formed. It doesn't matter if it takes a week to complete the necessary number of repetitions or a year.
  13. In the 1970s, Japanese firms optimized their factories to remove as much unnecessary work as possible in order to make the accurate assembly of products as easy as possible. For example, they arranged workspaces to avoid wasted time from twists and turns for tools. As a result, Japanese products were assembled faster and more reliably than their American counterparts. Brains are hardwired to choose the option that requires the least effort. Therefore, make a habit as easy as possible helps it win out over alternatives.
  14. An effective way to start a habit is to begin with a simplified, easier version — something that can be done in two minutes or less. For example, instead of a two-hour workout, try ten pushups. This is an easy-to-do entry point, which can be added onto to build bigger habits.
  15. In the Summer of 1829, Victor Hugo promised his publisher a new book. He had spent the year in pursuit of other projects and failed to seriously start work on the book a year later. His publisher then set a seemingly impossible deadline to have the book finished six months later, by February 1831. To complete this, Hugo asked his assistant to lock away all his clothes except a large shawl until he finished the book. Without the ability to leave home, Hugo was forced to focus and write. This is called a commitment device and is an inversion of the trick to make a habit easy. It makes it difficult not to do a habit. Commitment devices ensure a habit will be stuck to with a decision now that determines what actions must be taken in the future.
  16. In the 1990's Karachi, Pakistan was one of the most populous cities in the world but one of the least livable. Most people lived in squatter settlements with little access to running water or hygiene supplies. In an effort to reduce the spread of disease, aid workers attempted to encourage more people to wash their hands in the city. However, they discovered that despite commonly haphazard practices, most people already knew the benefits when they wash their hands. An aid worker named Stephen Luby distributed Safeguard Soap. This soap, which smelled pleasant and foamed easily, was considered premium in Pakistan. But Luby discovered that the more pleasurable experience of Safeguard soap led to higher retention of the habit. The cardinal rule of behavior change is that behaviors that are rewarded are repeated, and behaviors that are punished are avoided.
  17. One trick to develop habits is to set up systems that automatically reward desired behaviors or punish those that are not. For example, if one wants to break a habit of daily Starbucks visits, set up a savings account and set automatic deposits for the amount that would be spent on coffee each day that's skipped. When they see the money hit the account, it will create a psychological reward that encourages the brain to repeat the behavior.
  18. One way to evoke several of the factors that make habits easier to repeat is to track the habit. For example, mark every time a habit is repeated on a calendar. This makes it obvious whether a habit has been completed. If it is incomplete, it offers a reminder to complete it. This makes habits attractive through the invocation of a psychological desire to continue streaks of behavior. It makes the habit satisfactory through the creation of an accomplishment for each time a habit is completed.
  19. Self-improvement should be a combination of new habit exploration and new habit exploitation, or the improvement of habits that are already developed. Aim for roughly 80% of time devoted to exploits, with 20% devoted to exploration. Google asks its employees to spend about 80% of their time on their actual job and 20% on side projects. This method has resulted in products like Google AdWords and Gmail.
  20. Human brains are hardwired to appreciate challenges, but to avoid those that are too difficult. This means that people will get bored of habits that are too easy and give up on habits that are too hard. Therefore, it's optimal to form habits based on tasks in the "Goldilocks zone" of difficulty that is just manageable. For example, most adults will not have fun in a one-on-one basketball game against a four-year-old. But most adults would also give up if they had to play against Lebron James. To make the game enjoyable and repeatable, play against an equally skilled peer.

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Every New Year, millions of people make promises to themselves that they will form new habits or break bad habits in the year to come. But famously, most of these promises are soon broken. Why? Why is it so hard to form habits? Why is it so hard to break bad ones? The answer is "atomic."

When you multiply 100 times 1.01, the answer is only 101. If you multiple 100 times 1.01 ten times, the answer is only 110.5. But if you multiple it fifty times, the answer scales to 164.5. And when you multiply it 100 times, the answer grows to over 270. Now multiply 100 times 1.01 over 500 times, and the answer becomes over 14,477. Like interest that compounds, when you make a small improvement, over and over again, it adds up into a massive change. This is the idea behind "atomic" habits. Atomic habits are minor improvements to the systems of your life, on their own insignificant, which together change the course of it.

How do we form habits?

In 1898, a scientist named Edward Thorndike conducted an experiment whereby he placed cats into a box designed so the cats could escape if they performed the right task. These Tasks could be to pull a lever or step on a plate. Once the cats discovered the correct action, a door would open and let them run to a bowl of food. When he first placed the cats into the box, they would experiment, and after a few minutes, they would discover how to escape the box.

In the beginning, the cats experimented randomly, but as Thorndike repeated the experiment, the cats would learn how to escape and become faster and faster each time. During the first three trials, it took an average of 1.5 minutes for the cats to escape. During the final three trials, it took them only 6.3 seconds. Thorndike describes the pattern of learning displayed by the cats as this: "behaviors followed by satisfying consequences tend to be repeated and those that produce unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated." If one wants to read a book or exercise as part of their daily routine, it is often viewed as a task of willpower. Many think that it requires mental and moral fortitude to do something that we don't actually want to do. But this is an inefficient way to form new habits which are, more often than not, destined to fall apart.

Four-step framework to habit formation

The process to develop a habit can be divided into a four-step process. First, the brain receives a cue to perform a certain action, or which is associated with a particular action. Then the cue triggers the brain to generate a craving to perform that action. Third, we respond to that craving through the performance of the action. Finally, we receive either a reward or consequence. If it is a reward, our brain is prompted to repeat the loop in the future and a habit begins to form.

Four steps can make a habit more likely to trigger this reward loop in the brain and, therefore, more likely to become a habit that endures. (1) Make it obvious. (2) Make it attractive. (3) Make it easy. (4) Make it satisfy. Each of these addresses one step of the loop mentioned above. People often glorify the achievement of hard tasks, but the reality is that the harder a task is to do, the harder it is to form a habit out of it.

This is exactly what the Japanese manufacturers of cars and electronics did. They made it as easy as possible for their workers to form habits and complete each task they needed to do as efficiently and accurately as possible. As a result, by 1974 American televisions received five times as many service calls as their Japanese counterparts. And by 1979 Japanese manufacturers assembled their sets three times as quickly as American manufacturers. Conversely, a bad habit can be broken if one inverts these four steps:

  1. Make a habit invisible so that no cue is ever received.
  2. Make a habit unattractive to undermine any craving.
  3. Make a habit difficult to make a response harder.
  4. Make a habit unsatisfactory so the brain is prompted not to repeat it.

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Here are some tricks that can be employed to fulfill these four steps: Design your environment to create as many cues for good habits as possible and make those cues obvious and impossible to miss. Pair a "want to do" with a "need to do." "I'm only allowed to watch Netflix after I run on the treadmill." Automate as many of your habits as possible. Invest in technology which makes it easier to do what would usually be difficult. Use reinforcement. Use an immediate reward after a habit is completed. "I'll organize my computer files at the end of the day, and when I'm done, I'll have a beer."

A case study on atomic habits in action

From 1908 to 2003, the British national cycling team was one of the worst in Europe. In nearly 100 years, they won only a single Gold Medal at the Olympics and never won the Tour de France, considered the greatest of all bicycle races, a single time. Then, in 2003, the team hired David Brailsford as performance director. The strategy Brailsford committed to was what he called "the aggregation of marginal gains" to make tiny, 1% improvements to everything the team did.

Brailsford's team slightly redesigned the seats of their bikes to make them more comfortable. They applied alcohol to their tires to slightly improve grip with the track. They asked riders to wear heated overshorts to maintain the ideal temperature in their thighs. They tested fabrics in wind tunnels to find the ones that were slightly more aerodynamic. They switched their outfits and wore indoor race suits outdoors because they were slightly lighter and more aerodynamic. They wore biosensors and tested different massage gels. They hired a surgeon to teach them how to wash their hands better to prevent illness. They tested pillows and mattresses that gave riders a better night's sleep. They even painted the inside of their van white to make it easier to see dust which would decrease the aerodynamics of their bikes.

Any of these changes, on their own, would not change the performance of the team in any meaningful way. But in aggregate, they made a dramatic change. By the 2008 Olympics, the British team won eight gold medals, four times more than any other team. In 2012 they repeated this feat with the added bonus of several world records and their first-ever Tour de France win. They then went on to win the Tour de France again in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

The true trick to self-improvement

Self-improvement is often framed as a function of motivation and goals. But goals and motivation are only a small part of the bigger picture. A much more significant part of self-improvement is the systems that are put in place in a person's daily life.

When people focus on goals, they run into four problems: Winners and losers have the same goals, so it's not a good indicator of why some win and some lose. To achieve a goal is only a momentary change, and then you begin to want something else. You will inevitably not meet all your goals, so too much preoccupation with them can be mentally disastrous. Goals aim for a specific thing, not sustained change, and are at odds with long-term progress. Don't become preoccupied with goals — instead, focus on sustained systems of change. Think of it like this: it's nearly impossible to go from zero to 100% improvement, but it's much easier to go from zero to 1% to 2.1%, then 3.3%, and so on.

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