Breaking bad habits and forming good ones: a review of Atomic Habits

January 28, 2020 by Ben Brelje

I am keenly aware of several of my notable bad habits and I really want to break them. To name a few:

  • Playing on my phone instead of getting out of bed in the morning
  • Letting emails fester in my inbox for weeks until it’s too awkward to respond
  • Getting distracted on social media (in particular, Twitter) during the day when I should be working on my dissertation research

My PhD advisor mentioned the book Atomic Habits by James Clear on a number of occasions lately so I figured I would give it a try.

Overall, Atomic Habits is a worthwhile read and I think some of the tools will marginally improve my life. Hopefully, over time, that marginal improvement will compound into something significant.

In this article, I’ll attempt to summarize the actionable parts of the book. I will start by giving an overview of the major arguments of the book, then close by describing some of the more tangible tools and techniques that the author recommends.

General Insights

Compound interest wins

The core motivation of the book is cumulative advantage. Imagine doing one extra task per day (say, an extra 1%). Not only did you accomplish 1% more work, but you had 1% more learning which makes you more efficient the next day, so your 101% turns into, say, 101.5%. Over a period of years, getting one percent better every day results in massive gains.

Good habits are so important because they give us those 1% productivity gains on a daily basis, making them extra powerful in terms of compound interest.

  • Productivity compounds
  • Knowledge compounds
  • Relationships compound

He argues that consistent, deliberate practice is more important than seeking breakthrough gains. In fact, you have more opportunities to find a breakthrough gain by consistently and deliberately practicing.

Keep your identity “small”

Clear argues that good habits begin with understanding ones’ core values. He suggests that too many of us construct identities that are very specific (e.g. “I am a multidisciplinary design optimization researcher”) which makes it hard for us to adapt to changing circumstances. We are happiest when we are living in congruence with our identity, so by keeping our identity “small” and focused on core values (e.g. “I am the kind of person that enjoys learning”) we maximize our chances of remaining happy over the long term.

Focus on systems, not goals

Everybody wants to be a winner, but most of us end up losing. Clear argues that the difference is a combination of luck and having a “system”. A person’s system consists of their beliefs, their environment, their habits (basically, anything within one’s control).

Nobody wins with a bad system. We can’t control luck, so the best we can do is optimize our system. This is why it is important to systematically cultivate habits that are designed to maximize my chances of reaching my goals. Being goal-oriented can also hamper happiness by narrowly defining what success looks like.

A habit is a four-step cycle

Clear suggests that the habit loop is a four-step process consisting of:

  • Cue
  • Craving
  • Response
  • Reward

The cue is a time, place, emotional state, person, or activity which precedes a habit. For example, if my habit is drinking coffee, the cue is waking up in the morning and feeling tired.

A craving is prompted by the cue. It’s what we are seeking from the habit. When I crave drinking coffee, I want to feel alert. The response is our action prompted by the craving - e.g., drinking coffee.

The reward is the outcome of the action that reinforces the habit. I suppose that the reward of drinking coffee is a relatively complex neurological process, but I think it tastes good and it definitely makes me feel alert.

The main thesis of the book is that we can target each step in the habit loop with interventions designed to break bad habits or form good ones. I’ll address the specific interventions later on.

Efficiency is not the same as effectiveness

Atomic Habits stresses that productivity for productivity’s sake is not necessarily good. We don’t want to just be efficient, we want to be effective (doing the “right” priorities, efficiently).

The most dangerous items on your to-do list are the ones that look like opportunities, but are actually distractions.

On the other hand, it is also possible to be too focused on prioritizing that we don’t actually do anything. Clear uses an anecdote from a photography class. The instructor told half the class that he would assign their grade for the semester based only on one submitted photo. These students needed to produce one “perfect” photo. The other half would be graded on the quantity of “good” photos they could produce.

The teacher found that the best photos of the “quantity” group were actually better than the “quality” group’s best effort. Instead of overthinking how to create a perfect photo, they were practicing different ideas and accumulating opportunities to capture a great one.

This insight really resonates with me. I have a tendency to be avoid duplicating others’ efforts at all costs. This can be a good thing, but I probably spend too much time trying to coordinate and literature search and too little time actually doing research, blind to the possibility that someone else might be working on a similar idea.

Discounting and delayed gratification

Our brains tend to value the present more than the future. Clear suggests that the most addictive bad habits are the ones that provide immediate reward but delayed punishment (e.g. procrastination, Netflix auto-play).

Strategies and Tools

Reframe your identity

Clear suggests starting from core values and identity when attempting to improve habits. Instead of saying “I should exercise more”, say “I am an athlete”.

Decide the type of person you want to be, then prove it to yourself with small wins

The example Clear uses (from his personal experience) is writing. He decided that he wanted to be a writer, so he started a habit of writing an article twice a week on his personal website. Eventually, he wrote prolifically and developed a major following. Along the way, he became a writer.

An example for someone who wants to be a “researcher” might be publishing a technical blog post, then a conference paper, then a journal paper, then a dissertation. A dissertation seems like a huge undertaking so it is important to find ways to create small wins along the way.

Forming a good habit

“Make It Obvious”

Be extremely specific when intending a new habit. You can use the form “I will (behavior) at (time) in (location)”. Instead of saying “I shouldn’t play on my phone in the morning” say “When I wake up in the morning, I will get out of bed right away”

Use habit stacking which means starting a new habit after an existing one. For example, “After I walk in the door, I will put my shoes away immediately”. This provides a regular cue.

Change your environment so that your cues are obvious and regular. For example, I have a sticky note on my monitor that says “Wouldn’t you rather be outside?” as a reminder not to waste time while I’m on the computer at home.

“Make It Attractive”

Temptation bundling means placing a habit you like or want after a habit you need to create. For example, “after I work out, I will surf Twitter for 10 minutes.” Clear claims that this can harness the “dopamine hit” that comes with a desireable reward to motivate a difficult habit.

“Make It Easy”

I think this is the most important part of the book. Developing a good habit requires making the habit as easy and low friction as possible.

  • Simplify the habit to the minimum number of steps
  • Set up (or prime) your environment in advance (e.g. go to bed in your gym clothes if you want to work out in the morning)
  • Start a new habit in a minimal way so that it takes no longer than two minutes (the two-minute rule). If you want to read more, start by reading one page before bed but doing it regularly.

Standardize before you optimize. You cant optimize a habit that doesn’t exist

“Make It Satisfying”

Find ways to create immediate reward instead or in addition to delayed gratification.

A habit tracker is a way to create immediate satisfaction while starting a new habit. You can create a calendar tracking a daily habit. Another example from the book was a salesman who started the day with a jar containing 120 paper clips. After each sales call, he would move a clip from one jar to another until the next jar was full. It creates visible progress in the present time.

Clear also states that creating habit “streaks” is inherently satisfying. Even if your effort on a given day is poor, at least do something. He suggests trying hard not to miss a day, and avoid missing two at all costs.

Breaking a bad habit

  • Make the cue invisible. Avoid tempting situations, change your environment if needed.
  • Make the craving unattractive. Say the benefits of breaking the habit out loud.
  • Make the habit difficult by increasing “friction”
  • Use a “commitment device” or an accountability partner

I want to highlight the last two because I think they are the most useful.

Increasing friction - Humans are fundamentally lazy and we will avoid using energy when we can. It is important to increase the barrier to repeating a bad habit. For example, if I play on my phone when I get up, I should locate my phone away from my bed so I have to get out of bed in order to turn my alarm off.

A great tip I found (outside the book) to help reduce phone distraction: I moved Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube into a “MindlessGarbage” folder on the third page of iOS. This reminds me of the opportunity cost and adds friction to mindless browsing.

A commitment device is a technology or procedure which restricts our future choices. Some examples from the book:

  • Anyone can voluntarily add themselves to a “do not admit” list at a casino to prevent themselves from gambling.
  • Using an outlet timer to turn off WiFi when it’s time to go to bed.
  • Have another person change your social media passwords during the work week and reset them at the weekend
  • An entrepreneur wanted to start waking up earlier. He created a twitter bot which automatically tweeted: “It’s 6:10 and I’m not up because I’m lazy! Reply to this for $5 via PayPal (limit 5)”

Having another person to answer to can also be a powerful technique in breaking a bad habit. He calls this an accountability partner.

Automate good habits when you can

The best way to build a good habit is to eliminate the need for any thought. There are certain one-time decisions which pay off indefinitely. Some examples:

  • Put your bills on autopay
  • Buy a better bed for better sleep
  • Unsubscribe from email

James Clear on Procrastination

It’s not a focus of the book per se, but James Clear’s website has a comprehensive section on procrastination. A PhD is especially prone to procrastination because the reward of defending a dissertation is very far away and other temptations have much shorter reward horizons.

Other Tools

James Clear is a big journaling proponent. He suggests writing a one-line daily journal which balances the time invested and the benefits of reflecting on each day.

The Eisenhower Box helps prioritize important and urgent activities, improving effectiveness. I plan to create an Eisenhower Box each day in my journal going forward.

Clear also advocates looking retrospectively for feedback on your system’s effectiveness. Whenever you make a big decision, he advocates writing down the reason and expected outcome in a decision journal. In a month or longer, you can revisit the decision and examine whether the outcome was what you expected.

On a longer timescale, his Annual Review asks:

  • What went well this year?
  • What didn’t go so well?
  • What am I working toward?

He also suggests doing an Integrity Report each year focusing on how well your year mapped to your core values.

I plan to start doing these. I really admire that James Clear posts these publicly on his website, which is a sort of accountability partner and commitment device.

Case Study 1: Exercising

I think one habit I do well is staying fit. I am a trail runner, cyclist, and cross-country skier. I think part of the reason is that I have a good system.

I have chosen to live within the perfect distance of my lab. It takes about 10 minutes by bike but is too far to walk. However, with traffic and parking, it is actually faster to bike than any other method. This is a very time-efficient setup, as I have a short commute that doubles as a workout!

As a commitment device I do not own a parking sticker, so even if I want to drive, I can’t. I also invested in a relatively good bike, warm and dry cycling clothing, and waterproof saddle bags, which makes my ride satisfying and comfortable in all kinds of weather. This minimizes the friction and maximizes the reward of bike commuting. This is much more compelling than the long-term benefit of saving money on fuel and maintenance on my car.

Apart from bike commuting, it can be difficult to get enough cardio in the winter. Jogging to the gym in the cold sucks. Therefore, to minimize friction, I own a stationary bike trainer which lets me get an 800+ calorie/hr workout in front of my computer while I read papers or watch a movie.

I used to struggle with motivation to strength train and my upper body used to be weak. Then, I joined the cross-country ski team here at Michigan, which has group strength training workouts. I had motivation to get into the gym in order to get better at skiing, something I enjoyed.

I also enjoyed spending time with my teammates at the gym, and was accountable to them for showing up. This year, I even volunteered to lead the workouts, meaning I cannot skip them even if I don’t feel like going. I am now much stronger than I was two years ago.

Once I developed the habits of exercising, I started optimizing the workouts (e.g. with heart-rate data) and being more deliberate about the exercise science.

Case Study 2: Too much Twitter

I definitely need to reduce my use of Twitter, as it is addictive and detracts from getting actual work done during the day. I have tried website blockers but they don’t work on Linux and are too easy to defeat using the Task Manager in Windows.

Using the Habit Loop model to analyze this habit:

  • Cue - I tend to surf Twitter whenever I take a lunch break at my desk but I have trouble stopping after I’m done eating. I also surf on my phone when there is downtime.
  • Craving - Why do I surf Twitter? Starting with identity, I am a person who enjoys learning new things. I follow smart people on Twitter so my feed is a constant stream of new and interesting facts.
  • Response - It is basically frictionless to get on my phone or browser and scroll down for as much time as exists during the day.
  • Reward - I get immediate satisfaction in the form of new facts (when reading) and likes / retweets (when posting)

Here are the strategies I plan to use to break this habit.

  • Replace bad habit with good - To fulfill the craving of learning new info, I will read more papers and books.
  • Eliminate cue - I will not surf during lunch and will instead read a paper or book until I’m finished eating, or eat with other people.
  • “Two-minute” rule - I will start small and block out 15 minutes of the work day where I will not use social media. I will add 15 minutes per work day until I do not use it at all during working hours.
  • Habit tracking - I will use a progress bar in my journal and physically black out each new 15-minute interval until the day is blacked out. I will track compliance using a daily checkbox in my journal.
  • Accountability partner 1 - I will show my habit tracker at the weekly lab meeting whether or not I have kept the streak.
  • Accountability partner 2 - I will update this post to reflect my success or failure in breaking this habit.
  • Increased friction 1 - I moved my nightstand four feet further from my bed so I cannot reach my phone in the morning, unless I physically get up.
  • Increased friction 2 - I moved the Twitter app to the last page of iOS and put it in a folder marked “Mindless Garbage”.

I think using these steps will probably lead to the results I want.


While I am generally skeptical of self-help productivity books, I actually thought Atomic Habits was a reasonably actionable and useful book. I’d recommend it - it’s available for a discounted price if you visit James Clear’s website and download the first chapter for free.


I want to write more on this site, but I tend to overthink things and it takes me way too much time to produce something. This article took me 1:58 to create, start to finish, much less than my previous article. If I can get even faster, then I will want to write more often and the experience will compound!

Categories: optimization, productivity