atomic habits

5 Key Lessons From Atomic Habits (Book Summary)

Over the last decade, I’ve spent thousands of hours coaching people to transform their bodies.

I’ve learned that human behavior and psychology has a massive impact on the ability of these men and women to achieve their goals while enjoying the journey.

One of the key components to help men and women make health improvements is understanding behavior change.

Why do people do what they do? How can I help people to achieve their health & fitness goals more seamlessly?

Atomic Habits is a step-by-step system for creating good habits and breaking bad habits. The purpose is to help you achieve remarkable results more efficiently and methodically.

While James covers a lot of information in his book, I cherry-picked 5 key lessons that I think can help you the most to achieve the results you desire.

Lesson #1 – Get 1% Better Every Day

Most people believe that you must swing for the fences in order to achieve your true potential in any given area.

James says the precise opposite is actually true; improving just 1% every day leads to dramatic results. In fact, he uses mathematics to prove his point.

Just a 1% increase every day yields a 37x improvement by the end of the year. He writes, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement” and “You are what you repeat”.

You don’t have to be perfect every day to make progress. And James even thinks big goals can even be counter-productive. The focus should be on the process, not on the goals.

At one point James writes, “Forget about goals, focus on systems instead”. I don’t want to take that line out of context, but from my perspective, how important having the right goals or a vision is to your results is ambiguous as laid out in the book. James uses the word “vision” on a few pages to mean what you see, not foresight.

Either way, the entire concept of getting 1% better daily, or hitting singles and doubles consistently vs. grand slams occasionally is profound.

Lesson #2 – Change Your Identity To Change Your Habits

I chose this lesson because not only is this fundamental, but it directly relates to the company I started Coach JayC Fitness

In other words, a simple identity shift from “I want to” to “I am” makes all the difference in the world. If you already have the potential built within you, you only need to apply habits that reveal your lean body. Simple, but not easy.

James proposes 3 layers of behavior change; (1) Outcomes, (2) Process, and (3) Identity.

In order to have six-pack abs (1 Outcome), you need to workout consistently and eat well (2 Process), to become a man who has a six-pack (3. Identity).

James flips this model on its head. He writes, “The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but who you want to become.”

He believes you first establish the identity, and then the process and outcomes will follow much easier.

Another way to think about this is the “Be => Do => Have” model.

Lesson #3 – The 4 Laws Of Behavior Change

There are many models and philosophies that attempt to understand human behavior that go back thousands of years. James took on this momentous challenge.

He offers a step-by-step framework for not only understanding human behavior but also how to change it.

Here are the 4 steps, which he refers to as laws:

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Response
  4. Reward

Here’s an example of a coffee drinking habit using this model:

  1. Cue – you wake up
  2. Craving – you want to feel alert
  3. Response – you drink a cup of coffee
  4. Reward – you satisfy your craving to feel alert. Drinking coffee becomes associated with waking up.

This completes a “habit loop” so that you continue this habit over and over again. In the book, he has a section dedicated to each law.

Without going too deep, there are many possible cues and cravings, which elicit the response of drinking a cup of coffee. Maybe the cue is seeing your coffee machine or passing a coffee shop on your way to work. The craving could be the taste of coffee or the smell.

The cue and the craving are the “problem” and the response and reward are the “solution”.

Lesson #4 – How To Workout Consistently

So we’ve seen the model in action to describe a coffee drinking habit, but how do you use the model to create a good habit?

Using his model, James offers some simple and powerful tips to create habits that stick.

How to Create Good Habits

  1. Cue – Make it obvious
  2. Craving – Make it attractive
  3. Response – Make it easy
  4. Reward – Make it satisfying

Let’s see how to apply these tips to workout consistently:

  1. Cue – Make it obvious => Put your gym clothes where they are clearly visible in your closet.
  2. Craving – Make it attractive => Follow a simple workout routine that’s fun and efficient that fits within your schedule.
  3. Response – Make it easy => Train at home, or choose a gym that is as close to the driving path from work to home as possible.
  4. Reward – Make it satisfying => Log the workout in your journal or calendar. Progress makes you feel good, it’s a reward.

Of course, there are more strategies that can be explored within each tip, but this is just an overview.

Lesson #5 – How To Avoid Snacking

You’ve seen how to create a good habit, so let’s see how to break a bad habit.

Using the same model, you just invert the tips to create a step-by-step system for avoiding bad habits.

How to Break Bad Habits

  1. Cue – Make it invisible
  2. Craving – Make it unattractive
  3. Response – Make it difficult
  4. Reward – Make it unsatisfying

Applying this to snacking, let’s see an example of how to snack less:

  1. Cue – Make it invisible => Get rid of all snacks in your house or apartment. Out of sight out of mind. This may not be possible, but that’s the idea.
  2. Craving – Make it unattractive => 99% of these snacks have little nutritional value and are made by food scientists in a lab to hook you to eat more than you need. They belong in the garbage, not your stomach.
  3. Response – Make it difficult => On your way to work, take a different route so you don’t pass the convenience store every time.
  4. Reward – Make it unsatisfying => Every time you eat an unhealthy snack, you must log it in a journal.

As with the workout example, these are just ideas that can be explored. While I really enjoyed the book and learned a lot, I had trouble learning and applying some of the information. I think the main reason is that there are many new definitions and concepts offered like habit stacking, habit shaping, temptation bundling, and automaticity to name just a few examples. Another reason is that applying 4 steps is more difficult than 3. The book is like a reference on habit changing. You learn in-depth how the 4-step model works and some of the insights and lessons that can be drawn from it. It does not offer you a specific plan on let’s say how to become better at chess, but that was the point of the book. It is offering a system that can be used to achieve results.

I certainly learned many valuable insights and I hope you learned some with this article.

If you want to dive deeper, definitely read his book => Atomic Habits.