Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

by James Clear
8 min read

The Fundamentals

A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly—and in many cases, automatically.

  • Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.

Important thing to remember:

  • Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.
  • Improving by 1% isn’t particularly notable—sometimes it isn’t even noticeable—but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. Don’t overestimate the importance of one moment but underestimate the importance of multiple small improvements.
  • If you don’t feel like you’re improving, it’s probably because you haven’t crossed the Plateau of Latent Potential. Complaining about not achieving success despite working hard is like complaining about an ice cube not melting when you heated it from 25F to 31F.


Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the process that leads those results.

  • Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.
  • Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment. That’s the counterintuitive thing about improvement. We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results. When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level.
  • The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.
  • You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.

  • 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.
    • The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader.
    • The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner.
    • The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician.
  • The word identity was originally derived from the Latin words essentitas, which means being, and identidem, which means repeatedly. Your identity is literally your “repeated beingness.”
  • Every time you choose to perform a bad habit, it’s a vote for that identity. The good news is that you don’t need to be perfect. In any election, there are going to be votes for both sides. You don’t need a unanimous vote to win an election; you just need a majority. It doesn’t matter if you cast a few votes for a bad behavior or an unproductive habit. Your goal is simply to win the majority of the time.
  • New identities require a two-step process:
    1. Decide the type of person you want to be.
    2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.

The problem with goals:

  1. Winners and losers have the same goals.
  2. Achieving a goal is only a momentary change.
  3. Goals restrict your happiness.
  4. Goals are at odds with long-term progress.

Changing our habits is challenging for two reasons:

  1. We try to change the wrong thing
  2. We try to change our habits in the wrong way

Three layers of behavior change

  1. The first layer is changing your outcomes. e.g. losing weight, publishing a book, winning a championship
  2. The second layer is changing your process. e.g. implementing a new routine at the gym, decluttering your desk for better workflow
  3. The third and deepest layer is changing your identity. e.g. your worldview, your self-image, your judgements about yourself and others

The Four Laws of Behavior Change

How to create a good habit

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

Invert the above to break a bad habit

How to break a bad habit

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

The 1st Law: Make It Obvious

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. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.

  • Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one.

One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it.

  • If you can’t seem to get any work done, leave your phone in another room for a few hours.
  • If you’re continually feeling like you’re not enough, stop following social media accounts that trigger jealousy and envy.

The 2nd Law: Make It Attractive

When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it.

  • It’s the anticipation of a reward — not the fulfillment of it — that gets us to take action.
  • We need to make our habits attractive because it is the expectation of a rewarding experience that motivates us to act in the first place.

Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do.

  • In one case, you can bundle watching Netflix (the thing you want to do) with riding your stationery bike (the thing you needed to you).
  • This is one way to apply a psychology theory known as Premack’s Principle. Named after the work of professor David Premack, the principle states that “more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.” In other words, even if you don’t really want to process overdue work emails, you’ll become conditioned to do it if it means you get to do something you really want to do along the way.

We don’t choose our earliest habits, we imitate them. We follow the script handed down by our friends and family, our church or school, our local community and society at large.

  • As a general rule, the closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to imitate some of their habits. One groundbreaking study tracked twelve thousand people for thirty-two years and found that “a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese.”
  • The reward of being accepted is often greater than the reward of winning an argument, looking smart, or finding truth. Most days, we’d rather be wrong with the crowd than be right by ourselves.
    • It’s hard to develop a habit that contradicts the habits of others in your tribe. It’s much easier to build a habit that the rest of your tribe already conforms to.

The 3rd Law: Make It Easy

If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. You don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it. This is the first takeaway of the 3rd Law: you just need to get your reps in.

  • Focus on taking action, not being in motion.
  • All habits follow a similar trajectory from effortful practice to automatic behavior, a process known as automaticity. Automaticity is the ability to perform a behavior without thinking about each step, which occurs when the non-conscious mind takes over.

An important truth about behavior change: habits form based on frequency, not time.

  • The amount of time you have been performing a habit is not as important as the number of times you have performed it.

Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.

  • Researchers estimate that 40-50% of our actions on any given day are done out of habit.

The two minute rule: when you dream about making a chance, excitement inevitably takes over and you end up trying to do too much too soon. The most effective way I know to counteract this tendency is to use the Two-Minute Rule, which states, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.”

The inversion of the 3rd Law of Behavior Change: make it difficult.

  • Sometimes success is less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard.
  • Try a commitment device: A choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future. It is a way to lock in future behavior, bind you to good habits, and restrict you to bad ones.
    • For example, you can reduce overeating by purchasing food in individual packages than in bulk size.
  • The best way to break a bad habit is to make it impractical to do. Increase the friction until you don’t even have the option to act.

The 4th Law: Make It Satisfying

The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided.

In modern society, many of the choices you make today will not benefit you immediately. You live in what scientists call a delayed-return environment because you can work for years before your actions deliver the intended payoff.

  • Behavioral economists refer to this tendency as time inconsistency. That is, the way your brain evaluates rewards is inconsistent across time. You value the present more than the future.
  • Every habit produces multiple outcomes across time. Unfortunately, these outcomes are often misaligned. With our bad habits, the immediate outcome usually feels good, but the ultimate outcome usually feels good, but the ultimate outcome feels bad. With good habits, it is the reverse: the immediate outcome is unenjoyable, but the ultimate outcome feels good.
  • The brain’s tendency to prioritize the present moment means you can’t rely on good intentions. When you make a plan—to lose weight, write a book, or learn a language—you are actually making plans for your future self. And when you envision what you want your life to be like, it is easy to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits. We all want better lives for our future selves. However, when the moment of decision arrives, instant gratification usually wins. You are no longer making a choice for Future You, who dreams of being fitter or wealthier or happier. You are choosing for Present You, who wants to be full, pampered, and entertained.

How to recover quickly when your habits break down.

  • Never miss twice.
    • The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.
  • Lost days hurt you more than successful days help you. If you start with $100, then a 50% gain will take you to $150. But you only need a 33% loss to take you back to $100. In other words, avoiding a 33% loss is just as valuable as achieving a 50% gain.
  • It’s not always about what happens during the workout. It’s about being the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. It’s easy to train when you feel good, but it’s crucial to show up when you don’t feel like it—even if you do less than you hope. Going to the gym for five minutes may not improve your performance, but it reaffirms your identity.

An inversion of the 4th Law: Make it immediately unsatisfying.