It doesn’t matter if you’re a high school student or a doctor. We all struggle with stopping bad habits and implementing good ones. In this post, we’ll go over James Clear’s highly anticipated Atomic Habits and provide you with actionable advice on how to live more effectively.
For those who are new here, I have a degree in Neuroscience as well as my M.D. I’m obsessed with life optimization, from study habits to effective sleep and everything between. That being said, I’ve read a lot of books and research articles on habits and behavior change. I can confidently say that Atomic Habits by James Clear is one of the best that I’ve come across. I’ll be the first to say that there wasn’t necessarily anything new in this book. However, his book does a masterful job of synthesizing and condensing the information in a highly digestible and actionable series of steps.
1 | Habits Are Compound Interest of Self Improvement
First, the underlying principle that this book builds from is the idea that small, incremental changes can result in massive results. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. However, the compounding effect doesn’t just apply to investing. Small 1% improvements in your life compound to create astounding effects in your life. For example, if you improve 1% each day for one year, you’ll end up 37x better by the end.
As James says, “habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” Sure, a 1% better or worse choice in the moment seems insignificant, but these countless moments add up to who you are day-to-day.
“Success is the product of daily habits- not once-in-a-lifetime transformations”
This effect applies to both positive and negative compounding. Productivity compounds, meaning that automating an old task or mastering a new task allows you to handle more without thinking, allowing your brain to focus on other areas. Same with knowledge – learning one new idea doesn’t earn you your M.D., but a commitment to lifelong learning can make you an excellent doctor.
Your negative self-talk compounds as well. The more you tell yourself that you’re not good enough, or stupid, or worthless, the more you’ll interpret life through that lens and ingrain it further and further.
2 | Progress Is Not Overnight
Next, understand that progress is not an overnight event. James Clear hits the nail on the head when he describes breakthrough moments as the result of many previous actions. You don’t simply work out for one month and see a huge body transformation. Habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance.
He describes this Valley of Disappointment in the early and middle stages, where you are expecting to make linear progress. However, the most powerful outcomes are delayed.
To make a meaningful difference, habits must persist past the Valley of Disappointment and cross the Plateau of Latent Potential.
3 | You Fall to the Level of Your Systems
Your motivation or goals or inspiration won’t carry you, but your systems will. Or as James Clear eloquently says, “you don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system.
Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. Clear points out a few issues with goals.
First, winners and losers have the same goals. We concentrate on those who end up winning and mistakenly attribute their success to their ambitious goals. This is a textbook example of survivorship bias.
Second, achieving a goal is only a momentary change. When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to have sustained improvement, you need to solve problems at a systems level.
And third, goals restrict your happiness. The implicit assumption behind any goal is that once you reach the goal, then, and only then, will you be happy. If you’re a pre-med or medical student, you understand the concept of delayed gratification in becoming a doctor. That’s exactly what’s going on here. Goals create a dichotomy. Either you achieve your goal and are successful, or you fail and are a disappointment. If you instead fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy.
4 | Habits Shape Your Identity
Clear describes three layers of behavior change – outcomes, processes, and identity.
1) Changing your outcomes would be something like losing weight or getting into medical school. This is on the level of goals.
2) The second layer of changing your process would be something like implementing a new routine at the gym or going through the Med School Insiders advising services to optimize your medical school application. This applies to changes in your habits.
3) The third and deepest layer is changing your identity. If you believe you are a fit and athletic person, or believe you are well suited to be a doctor, your behaviors and results will follow. This applies to changes in your beliefs.
Changing your beliefs change your identity, and this is the most powerful agent of change. To illustrate this point, take two people who are trying to quit smoking. When offered a cigarette, the first person says “no thanks, I’m trying to quit.” The second says “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.” This is a small and subtle difference, but this power of language is tremendous.
The goal is not to read a book, but rather to become a reader.
The goal is not to get an A in organic chemistry, but rather become an excellent student.
The goal is not to bike 100 miles, but rather become a cyclist.
On the flip side, this can work against you. Be careful of saying things like “I’m bad at math” or “I’m not a morning person”. To get an A in math or consistently wake up at 5 AM now results in cognitive dissonance, where your behaviors and beliefs contradict one another. And people hate contradicting themselves.
5 | So How Do You Change Your Identity?
This all sounds well and good, but how do I actually get my desired identity to stick?
Well, the more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior.
Each experience in life modifies your self-image, but I didn’t consider myself a YouTuber after uploading my first video. But after dozens of uploads, my self-image began to change.
This is a gradual evolution. We don’t change in one moment, but rather we change bit by bit, day by day, habit by habit. The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do. Every time you write a page, you are a writer, and you are reinforcing this identity. But each time you engage in a bad habit, you’re reinforcing that identity as well.
Changing your identity is a simple two-step process. First, decide the person you want to be. And second, prove it to yourself with small wins to reinforce that identity. But easier said than done. And that brings us to The Four Laws.
The Purpose of Habits
The Four Laws are the prescriptive method of this book – the actionable steps on how to actually change your habits.
But to understand how to change habits, it’s first essential to understand what purpose they serve. Habits are essentially autopilot scripts your brain writes to decrease the cognitive load of solving recurring problems. The first time you walk to a new class, you spend effort figuring out where exactly it is. After a couple days, you no longer consciously think about it. Habits are essentially a memory of steps that solved a problem in the past. Whenever the conditions are right, you draw on this memory and automatically apply the same solution. By offsetting these functions to your subconscious, your conscious mind has more space and resources to address novel stimuli.
I’m a huge proponent of discipline and systematic habit formation. I often get asked whether all this structure makes my life dull. Absolutely not. As Jocko Willink says, discipline equals freedom. People without a grasp on their habits are those with the least amount of freedom. Without good financial habits, you’ll always be short on cash. Without healthy food and exercise habits, you’ll be constantly lethargic. Without good habits, you’ll always be behind the curve. With effective habits, you open up more time for yourself, and your mind is free to focus on new challenges and new experiences.
Similar to the habit cycle proposed by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, James Clear describes four steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.
First, the cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. This indication triggers a craving, which is the motivational force behind every habit. Third, the response is the actual behavior that is performed, and finally, the reward – the end goal of every habit.
The first two steps, cue and craving, are the problem phase, and the last two steps, response and reward, are the solution phase. For example:
1) Cue: you reach a difficult problem in your MCAT studying
2) Craving: You feel stuck and want to relieve your frustration
3) Response: You pull out your phone and check Instagram
4) Reward: You satisfy your craving and feel relieved. Checking social media becomes associated with feeling frustrated or bored while studying.
In Part 2, we’ll be covering each of the individual four laws and show you actionable steps on implementing good habits and eliminating bad habits.