Author: James Clear
APA Style Citation
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
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James Clear's book Atomic Habits provides an engaging guide to help students use behavioral psychology, biology, and neuroscience principles to create new positive habits or reduce or eliminate problematic habits. In addition to practical guidance to increase the likelihood of positive habits while deterring bad habits, the book is filled with inspiring stories of how small changes can lead to dramatic results. The idea behind atomic habits is that a small but consistent change in behavior can have dramatic results, just like how an atomic describes something very small that can be the source of immense power.
Atomic Habits breaks habits into a four-stage process: cue, craving, response, and reward. In the first stage, a cue, similar to the stimulus in operant conditioning, serves as a trigger for a voluntary behavior. Over time, individuals learn that particular cues predict the arrival of reinforcements or punishments if specific actions are taken. As a result, our minds regularly scan the environment for cues about potential rewards. The cue, in turn, creates a craving.
Stage two of the habit loop, craving, represents the motivational drive that supports habits. The drive or craving is not for the specific action it triggers but the change in the person's physiological state that it generates. For James Clear, the craving is not to look at our phones or YouTube videos but the desire to be entertained. Cues and cravings, of course, are personalized, and what creates a motivational drive for some people would not be noticed by others.
The third step is the response which will ultimately become the habit because it is followed by the final step of reward. The reward increases the chances of the behavior occurring in the future in response to the same cue creating the final piece of the habit loop. According to James Clear, the response occurs to gain a reward. We are programmed to seek out rewards because they are satisfying (fulfill the craving) and teach us what actions are important to remember in the future.
The four stages form a repeating neurological feedback loop that leads to automatic habits. The mind is always searching for cues in the environment, making predictions, trying various responses, and monitoring and learning from the outcomes. If the cue, craving, response, or reward are insufficient, a habit will not form. For example, if you avoid or eliminate the cue, a craving will not develop. If you reduce a craving, you will lack motivation for a response. If you make the response difficult, you will be unable to complete the behavior, eliminating the reward. If the reward does not satisfy the craving, you will be less likely to engage in the response.
James Clear divides the four stages into two distinct phases for habit change. Phase one, the problem phase, includes the cue and craving and provides you with the information that something should change. Phase two, the solution phase, includes the response and reward and voluntary action to execute change.
Atomic Habits offers ways to use the four stages and how our brain learns to develop positive habits and eliminate negative ones in the form of James Clear's Four Laws of Behavior Change: make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying. The author describes each law as a lever that makes creating positive habits easy and engaging in bad habits extremely difficult when tilted in the correct direction. For each stage of the habit process, there is a corresponding law for creating a positive habit. For eliminating a negative habit, the goal is to reverse the law.
Two ways to make a new habit obvious are to use the habit scorecard to create an implementation strategy or to use habit stacking. Because two of the most common cues are time and location, these can be paired with intention. For example, "I will [Behavior} at [Time] and in [Location] is the implementation intention formula. With habit stacking, you simply pair a new habit you wish to establish with an existing habit (see Habit Scorecard). The habit stacking formula is, "After [Current Habit], I will [New Habit.] For example, "when I get out of bed, I will stretch for five minutes." Because location is a powerful cue, it helps to organize your environment to make cues for habits you wish to make more obvious and make cues for habits you want to stop. For example, if you want to practice a new hobby more, place the supplies you need in an area where you often spend your free time. Conversely, if you want to reduce a habit, place cues for that behavior in areas where you spend less time. If you find you are not finishing your work, put your phone in another room for a couple of hours.
In the case of the second law, make it attractive, utilize temptation bundling to make your new habits more attractive by pairing the habit you want to create with a habit you need to do. This is the next step after habit stacking.
- After I [Current Habit], I will [Habit I need].
- After [Habit I Need]. I will [Habit I Want].
If you want to look at social media, but you need to exercise more, set up habit stacking.
- After taking out my phone when I get home, I will complete two one-minute planks (need).
- After I complete two one-minute planks, I will check my Instagram (want).
Ultimately, the goal is to look forward to doing the planks because it will mean you can scroll through your Instagram. Because dopamine rewards drive habits when dopamine increases, so does the motivation or craving. The anticipation of a reward (not its fulfillment) creates the drive for action, and temptation building helps make new habits more attractive. With habits you want to eliminate, the key is to make them unattractive by highlighting the benefits of avoiding a bad habit. Because habits become more attractive if paired with positive emotions and less attractive when paired with negative emotions.
The third law of habit creation is to make it easy. Practice is the most effective learning method, not planning, so creating new habits requires acting. What matters most is not the amount of time engaged in a habit but the number of times you have performed it. Additionally, to make a new habit easy, it is important to consider the law of least effort, or the idea that we often are pulled by the options that require the least about of work. Making a habit easy works by decreasing the friction associated with it, making it easy to act and engage in the desired activity quickly. As always, the opposite is true for decreasing a negative or ineffective habit. If you want to work out at the gym after work more, pack your workout gear and place it by the door. If you want to eat healthier at work, prep your meals over the weekend and pack them individually, so you have easy access during the week. Finally, to make habit creation easy, embrace the two-minute rule. Start a new habit small – by engaging in the desired activity for only two minutes. Atomic Habits suggests scaling your new habit from very small to very hard.
According to James Clear, the fourth law, make it satisfying, is the cardinal rule of behavioral change because reinforced behaviors are likely to be repeated, which is the basis of habit creation. Immediacy is also important because behaviors that are reinforced immediately are more likely to be repeated, and behaviors immediately followed by punishment will decrease. Habit creation works best if we can find a way to feel immediately successful. The first three laws of atomic habits (make it obvious, attractive, and easy) create an initial behavior. However, the fourth law (make it satisfying) leads to replication and habit development. James Clear recommends using a habit tracker to create visual evidence of your progress to encourage habit formation. Another way to strengthen habit creation is to utilize an accountability partner or a habit contract.
The book also includes a final section titled Advanced Tactics to help you maximize your odds of success by playing to your strengths and utilizing the psychology of motivation. The author also includes short sections to apply the theory of atomic habits to specific focus areas, including business and parenting. Atomic Habits provides students with a step-by-step practical way to apply cognitive-behavioral, social, health, neuroscience, and motivational psychology theories to transform their habits, reduce stress, and achieve their goals. Consider using this book to revitalize a unit on learning and provide students with a practical application for the learning theories they are studying.
Other Related Resources
Author James Clear's website
James Clear: Atomic Habits: How to Get 1% Better Every Day - James Clear
Atomic Habits Summary – 20 Lessons
Psychological Figures and Concepts