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  • Gazala Hitawala

Building habits from Atomic Habits

Each one of us has a limited life span on this planet and we all want to make the best out of it. Everyone has a different ambition, a different path, a different journey and different priorities, and according to our priorities, we wish to incorporate some good habits into our day to day life or to get rid of some of our existing habits in order to enhance ourselves. Recently, I came across a book named ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear, suggested by Ali Abdal at his YouTube channel (which you should definitely check out). This book turns out to be the practical manual for habit building. It gives a step by step plan for building better habits which are supported by science. I was so much impressed by the highly actionable approach towards habit building that I decided to share its summary. 

here’s the downloadable link to the summary:


Forget about goals, focus on systems instead. You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.

A) The surprising power of atomic habits

The only way to actually win is to get better each day. “The score takes care of itself.”

Problem #1: winners and losers have the same goals.

Goal setting suffers from a serious case of survivorship bias. We concentrate on the people who end up winning – the survivors – and mistakenly assume that ambitious goals led to their success while overlooking all of the people who had the same objective but didn’t succeed.

Problem #2: achieving a goal is only a momentary change.

It only changes your life for the moment.

Problem #3: goals restrict your happiness.

Either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are disappointed. Avoid mentally boxing yourself into a narrow version of happiness. It’s unlikely that your actual path through life will match the exact journey you had in mind when you set out. When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy.

Problem #4: goals are at odds with long term progress.

The purpose of setting a goal is to win the game. The purpose of building a system is to continue playing the game. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement.

B) How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa)

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


The first layer is changing your outcomes. Most of the goals you set are associated with this level, like losing weight or winning a championship.

The second layer is changing your process. This is concerned with changing your habits and systems.

The third and deepest layer is changing your Identity. This level is concerned with changing your beliefs, assumptions or biases.

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”.

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’, but it’s something very different to say: I’m the type of person who is ‘this’.You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you will stick with one is when it becomes a part of your identity. The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader.

Habits are not about having something, they are about becoming someone.

C) How to Build Better Habits in 4 Simple Steps

As habits are created, the level of activity in the brain decreases. You learn to lock in on the cues that predict success and tune out everything else. Habits are mental shortcuts learned from experience.

The science of how habits work

4 simple steps:

  1. Cue

  2. Craving

  3. Response

  4. Reward

Cue: it is the bit of the information that predicts a reward. Our prehistoric ancestors were paying attention to cues that signaled the location of primary rewards like food, water and sex. As the cue is the first indication that we are close to a reward, it leads to a craving.

Cravings: they are the motivational force. You do not crave smoking a cigarette, you crave the feeling of relief it provides. You do not want to turn on the television, you want to be entertained. Cues are meaningless until they are interpreted. The thoughts, feelings and emotions of the observer are what transform cues into cravings.

Response: this is the actual habit you perform. Whether a response occurs depends on how motivated you are and how much friction is associated with the behavior. It also depends on your ability. If you want to dunk a basketball but can’t jump high enough to reach the hoop, you are out of luck.

Reward: the end goal of every habit.

Cue is about noticing the reward. Craving is about wanting the reward. Response is about obtaining the reward. We chase rewards because: (1) they satisfy us (2) they teach us.

We can split these four steps into 2 phases:

(1) problem phase

(2) solution phase

The problem phase includes the cue and the craving, and it is when you realize that something needs to change. Sometimes the problem is that you notice something good and you want to obtain it. Sometimes the problem is that you are experiencing pain and you want to relieve it. The purpose of every habit is to solve the problems you face.

Imagine walking into a dark room and flipping on the light switch. You proceed through all the four stages in a fraction of a second.

Cue: you walk into a dark room

Craving: you want to be able to see

Response: you flip the light switch

Reward: you satisfy your craving to see

Cue: your phone buzzes with a new text message

Craving: you want to learn the contents of the message

Response: you grab your phone and read the text

Reward: you satisfy your craving to read the message

Grabbing your phone becomes associated with your phone buzzing.

These 4 steps blur into one habit.

The 4 laws of behavior change –

How to create a good habit

1st law (cue) – make it obvious

2nd law (craving) – make it attractive

3rd law (response) – make it easy

4th law (reward) – make it satisfying

How to break a bad habit

Inversion of the 1st law (cue) – make it invisible

Inversion of the 2nd law (craving) – make it unattractive

Inversion of the 3rd law (response) – make it difficult

Inversion of the 4th law (reward) – make it dissatisfying


Creating an implementation intention: “when situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”

People who make a specific plan for when and where they will perform a new habit are more likely to follow through. Put it in TIME, DATE and PLACE. Implementation intention puts away foggy notions like “I want to work out more” or “I want to be more productive”. Many people think they lack motivation but what they really lack is clarity.

Fill out this sentence:


e.g. I will study Spanish for twenty minutes at 6:00 pm in my bedroom.

I will meditate for 1 minute at 7:00 am in my kitchen.

Another benefit of implementation intention: being specific about what you want and how you will achieve it.

Habit stacking

You can spot this pattern everywhere. You buy a dress and have to get new shoes and earrings to match. You buy a toy for your child and soon find yourself purchasing all of the accessories that go with it. It’s a chain reaction of purchases.

Similarly, when it comes to building new habits, you can use the connectedness of behavior. Identify a current habit you already do and then stack your new behavior on top.

Habit stacking formula:


e.g.: After I pour my cup of coffee each morning, I will meditate for one minute. After I meditate, I will write my to-do list for the day. After writing my to-do list, I will immediately begin my first task.

Don’t stack your habits at a time when you are likely to be occupied with something else.

Brainstorm a list of your current habits. In one column write down things you do each day. In the second column, write down things that happen to you each day without fail (e.g. the sun rises, you get a text message etc.).Now with these two lists, search for the best place to layer your new habit. Find a cue in that spot. This cue has to be highly specific and immediately actionable.

Rely on your system, don’t wait around for motivation as it’s overrated.Environment often matters more:Environment is the invisible hand that shaped human behavior. If I walk into the kitchen and see a plate of cookies on the counter, I’ll pick up half a dozen and start eating, even if I don’t have the craving or hunger. Over time, your habits become associated not with a single trigger but with the entire context surrounding the behavior. For example, many people drink more in social situations than they would ever drink alone.

Our behavior is not defined by objects in the environment but by our relationship to them. Good news? You can train yourself to link a particular habit with a particular context, but it’s easier to associate a new habit with a new context than to build a new habit in the face of competing cues. It can be hard to study in the living room if that’s where you play video games.Create a separate space for work, study, exercise, entertainment and cooking. The mantra is “One space, one use.” If your space is limited, divide your room into activity zones: a chair for reading, a desk for writing, a table for eating.

The secret to self control

Bad habits are autocatalytic: the process feeds itself. Showing pictures of blackened lungs to smokers leads to higher levels of anxiety, which drives many people to reach for a cigarette. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as “cue-induced wanting”: an external trigger causes a craving to repeat a bad habit.

In the short run you can choose to overpower temptation but in the long run, we become the product of the environment in which we live.

One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it. If you are continuously feeling you are not good enough, stop following the social media account that triggers your envy. The secret to self control is to make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.


Look around yourself to see stores featuring mannequins with exaggerated hips and breasts to sell clothes. Social media delivers more “likes” and praises in a few minutes than we could ever get in the office or at home. These pleasure packed experiences are hard to resist. If you want to increase the odds that a behavior will occur, then you need to make it attractive.

Dopamine driven feedback loop

Dopamine spike is the reward system of the brain. Dopamine controls craving and desire. Every behavior that is highly habit forming – drug abuse, eating junk food, playing video games, browsing social media – is associated with higher levels of dopamine. The same is for basic habitual behavior like eating, drinking water, having sex and having socialinteraction. Dopamine gets released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. Craving is what leads to the response.

Temptation bundling

The “wantcenters” in the brain get activated with dopamine which gives us the temptation to do things. Temptation bundling is one way by which more probable behavior can be used to reinforce less probable behavior. Maybe you want to get a pedicure, but you need to clean out your email inbox. Solution: only get a pedicure while processing overdue work emails.

You can also add habit stacking with temptation bundling:

  1. After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED].

  2. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].

If you want to check Facebook, but you need to exercise more:

  1. After I pull out my phone, I will do 10 burpees.

  2. After I do 10 burpees, I will check Facebook.

The seductive pull of social norms

Behaviors are attractive when they help us fit in.We imitate habits of three groups in particular:

  1. The close

  2. The many

  3. The powerful

  4. Imitating the close

As a general rule the closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to imitate some of their habits. Studies found that if one person in a relationship lost weight, the other partner would also slim down most of the times. New habits seem to be achievable when you see your peers doing them every day.

  1. Imitating the many

One study found that when a chimpanzee learns an effective way to crack nuts open as a member of one group and then switches to a new group that uses a less effective strategy, it will avoid using the superior nut cracking method just to blend in with the rest of the chimps. Humans are similar. The reward of being accepted is often greater than the reward of winning an argument. When changing your habits means challenging the tribe, change is unattractive. When changing your habits means fitting in with the tribe, change is very attractive.

  1. Imitating the powerful

We want to be acknowledged, recognized and praised. This is one reason we care so much about the habits of highly effective people because we desire success ourselves.

If a behavior can get us approval, respect and praise, we find it attractive.

How to fix bad habits?

Where cravings come from

Every behavior has a surface level craving and a deeper motive. The following are examples of underlying motive of human nature and the resultant habit forming:

Find love and reproduce = using tinder

Connect and bond with others = browsing Facebook

Win social acceptance and approval = posting on Instagram

Here’s the powerful part: there are many different ways to address the same underlying motive. One person might learn to reduce stress by smoking a cigarette. Another person learns to ease their anxiety by going for a run. Every action is preceded by a prediction. The prediction leads to feelings, which is how we typically describe a craving – a feeling, a desire, an urge. Feelings transform into a signal that we can follow.

The key to finding and fixing the cause of a bad habit is to reframe the association you have about them. It’s not easy but if you can reprogram your predictions you can transform a hard habit into an attractive one.

How to reprogram your brain to enjoy hard habits?

Here’s a story about a man who uses a wheelchair. When asked if it was difficult being confined, he responded, “I am not confined to my wheelchair, I am liberated by it. If it wasn’t for my wheelchair, I would be bed ridden and never be able to leave my house.” Sometimes all you need is a slight shift of mindset.

You have to wake up early for work. You have to make another sales call for your business. You have to cook dinner for your family. Now imagine changing just one word: you don’t “have” to, you “get” to. You get to wake up early for work, you get to make another sales call, you get to cook dinner for your family. The key point is that both versions of this reality are true. You have to do those things, and you also get to do them, but the behavior was turned from burden into opportunity.


Most of us are experts at avoiding criticism. It doesn’t feel good to fail or be judged and that’s the biggest reason why you slip into motion rather than taking action. Motion makes you feel like you are getting things done. You don’t want to merely be planning, you want to be practicing. If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection.

The first takeaway of the third law: you just need to get started on your reps. Habits are based on frequency, not time. The amount of time you have been practicing a habit is not as important as the number of times you have performed it.

The law of least effort

It is human nature to follow the Law of Least Effort, which states that when deciding between two similar options, people will naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work. Sticking to the habit of waking up 5 minutes earlier each day requires almost no energy to get started and the less energy a habit requires, the more likely it is to occur. It is crucial to make your habits so easy that you’ll do them even when you don’t feel like it.

How to achieve more with less effort

Habits are easier to build when they fit into the flow of your life. You are more likely to go to the gym if it is on your way to work because stopping doesn’t add much friction to your lifestyle. The idea is to reduce the friction associated with your good habits and increase the friction associated with the bad ones.

Prime the environment for future use

Want to exercise? Set out your workout clothes, shoes, gym bag and water bottle ahead of time.

Want to improve your diet? Chop up a ton of fruits and vegetables on weekends and pack them in containers so you have easy access to them during the week.

The two minute rule

When you start a new habit, it should take less than 2 minutes to do. As a result, “Read before bed each night” becomes “Read one page before bed.”The point is to master the habit of showing up. A habit must be established before it can be improved.


If you do a good job at work, you’ll get a raise or a promotion in a few months. If you exercise starting today, perhaps you won’t be overweight next year. This is the ‘delayed return’ environment for which the human brain is not primed. Smoking might kill you in 10 years, but it promptly reduces stress and eases your cravings. Sex – safe or not – provides pleasure right away. When the moment of decision arrives, instant gratification usually wins. The best way to used it to your advantage is to add a little bit of immediate pleasure to the habits that pay off in the long run and a little bit of pain to the ones that don’t.

How to turn instant gratification to your advantage

The best approach is to use reinforcement, which refers to the process of using an immediate reward to increase the frequency of a behavior. Reward yourself with a massage after exercising. However, if your reward for exercising is eating a bowel of ice-cream, then you are casting votes for conflicting identities, and it ends up being a wash.

The inversion of the 4th law of behavior change is to make it dissatisfying. We are less likely to repeat a bad habit if it is painful or dissatisfying. You can do it by having an accountability partner who can charge you for any sort of inaction. Knowing that someone else is watching you can be a powerful motivator.

In summary, one of the best ways to ensure your habits remain satisfying over the long-run is to pick behaviors that align with your personality and skills. Work hard on the things that come easy. Unless you’ve worked as hard as those you idolize, don’t credit their achievements to luck. We all have limited time on this planet, and the truly great among us are the ones who not only work hard but also have the good fortune to be exposed to opportunities that are favorable. What if you don’t want to leave it up to luck? If you can’t find a game where the odds are stacked in your favor, create one.

To have a bigger perspective get a copy of ‘Atomic Habits’ and understand it better.

Thanks to my friend Faizan Faizee for his help.


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