Atomic Habits

Changes that seem small and unimportant at first, will compound into remarkable results if you stick with them for years. We all deal with setbacks, but in the long run, the quality of our lives will depend on the quality of our habits. With the same habits you will end up with the same results, but with better habits, everything is possible.

Habits Compound

Get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better.

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. You can’t see any difference in a single change, but the impact in the long run can be enormous.

📍 Aggregation of marginal gains: searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do.

It cuts both ways though, we often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment, and we find it easier to fall back to the bad habit because of its immediate reward. This idea can be also found in Better Than Before.

Same applies to negative habits. If you eat an unhealthy meal today, the scale doesn’t move much. But it is the accumulation of many missteps and small choices compound into toxic results.

Choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be.

It is not where are we standing right now (current results), it is the path we are on (current trajectory) that matters.

Under this framework, it is time that magnifies the margin between success and failure. It multiplies whatever you feed it, either good or bad.

One Defining Moment — The Illusion Of Success

Because the outside world just sees a dramatic event, not all the work that preceded it, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. It’s easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis.

You get what you repeat.

Breakthrough moments are usually the result of several previous actions, which build up the requirements to unleash a major change.

📍 Plateau of latent potential: despite you expect to make progress in a linear fashion, habits appear to make no difference until they cross a certain threshold. It is a hallmark of any compounding process, the most powerful outcomes are delayed.

Like ice melting when crossing a certain temperature, the work was not wasted, it is just being stored.

Regardless, once the plateau of latent potential is crossed, people will call it “overnight success”, reinforcing the idea of survivorship bias.

This struggle we face to understand non-linearity and compounding effects is also explored in Fooled By Randomness alongside the idea that “most people give up before the rewards”.

Goals & Systems

  • Goals are about the results you want to achieve, they are good for setting direction.
  • Systems are about the process that lead to those results, they are best for making progress.

A systems-first mentality beats a goal-oriented mind-set.

There are several problems associated with goal-setting:

  • Winners and losers share the same goals, thus the goals are not what differentiate them. It is the systems in place what leads to a desired outcome.
  • A goal is a momentary change — achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment. Focus on fixing the inputs instead and the outputs will take care of themselves.
  • Goals restrict happiness: first, they foster the idea of Hedonic treadmill, because you’re continuously deferring happiness until the next milestone (when I have X I’ll be happy). Second, it allocates success to the binary resolution of achieving it or not instead of focusing on the process.
  • Goals are at odds with long term progress: runners work hard for months, but as soon as they cross the finish line, they stop training. In other words, people revert their habits once the goal has been accomplished.

When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it?

Fall in love with the process rather than the product.

  • The purpose of setting goals is to win the game.
  • The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game.

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

Changing The Wrong Thing — Identity

Change can happen at three layers:

  • Outcomes: goals, what you get.
  • Process: systems, what you do.
  • Identity: what you believe.

As seen in the previous point, we shouldn’t focus on what we want to achieve (outcomes-based), rather on who we wish to become (identity-based).

The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes your identity.

Behind every system of action, there is a system of beliefs. Consequently, behavior that is not aligned with the self, won’t last. If you want to create new habits, you need to change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior.

If you want habits to stick in the long term, they have to become part of who you are. You are not the person who “WANTS” or “DOES”, you are the person who “IS”.

The more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity behind that behavior.

“Identity” derives from the Latin “essentitas” which means being, and “identidem”, which means repeatedly.

Define what you want to be, who you wish to become, then be the type of person that could get the outcome you want.

1st Law — Make It Obvious

A habit is just a memory of the steps you previously followed to solve a problem in the past.

Some people associate habits with lack of freedom, yet the opposite is true, when you have your habits dialed in and the basics of life are handled, your mind is free to focus on new challenges.

There are four stages when it comes to creating a habit — of any kind:

  1. Cue: the trigger that sparks a craving. Same cues might have different effects on different people, depending on their backgrounds or motivations — i.e. the sound of a slot machine to a gambler.
  2. Craving: the feeling that motivates you to act and generate a response.
  3. Response: which provides a reward.
  4. Reward: it satisfies the craving, closing the loop, and ultimately, becomes associated with the cue.

If a behavior is insufficient in any of the four stages, it will not become a habit. That being said, there are ways to reinforce or avoid this loop from happening, depending on the nature of the habit.

Create or reinforce a good habit:

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

Break or avoid a bad habit:

  1. Cue: make it invisible, and your habit will never start.
  2. Craving: make it unattractive, and you won’t experience enough motivation to act.
  3. Response: make it difficult, and you won’t be able to do it.
  4. Reward: make it unsatisfying, and it won’t satisfy your desires, then you’ll have no reason to do it again.

The ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible. To put in Thinking Fast And Slow terms, they have the ability to move behavior from System 2 to System 1.

Some habits are so deeply ingrained in our nature that the cues that spark them become essentially invisible to us. If an habit becomes mindless, you can’t expect to improve it. Because of this, the process of behavior change must begin with awareness.

Before we can effectively build new habits, we need to get a handle on our current ones.

There are no good habits or bad habits. There are only effective habits. That is, effective at solving problems.

All habits serve you in some way, even the bad ones, which is why you repeat them. In order to asses and distill good habits from bad ones, we should ask ourselves: does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be?

(Positive) Feedback loops

Despite PFL are not mentioned in this chapter, the idea of “Habit Stacking” reminded me of a similar concept also found in Better Than Before — which Gretchen Rubin refers to as “IF — THEN planning”.

📍 When and where: the first important takeaway is that people who make a specific plan for “when” and “where” will perform a new habit are more likely to succeed.

Some think they lack motivation when they really lack clarity.

Scheduling is important not only because it allocates the time to perform the habit (the when), but also because it provides focus, since it prevents other (less important) activities to get in the way.

📍 Habit stacking: create an implementation intention, it goes like “when situation X arises, I will perform response Y” or “after X happens, I will do Y”. Then when the moment of action occurs, there is no need to make a decision, simply follow the plan.

The best way to start this pattern is to map the trigger to a current habit or something you need to do, and link it to something you want to do.

After [CURRENT HABIT] that I need to do, I will [NEW HABIT] that I want to do.

In a nutshell… timing and location have a huge impact on habit formation. That’s because you often decide what to do next based on what you have just finished doing and also choose products not because of what they are, but because of where you are — environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.

Design the environment

Every habit is context-dependent: if you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment.

Be the designer of your world, not a mere consumer of it.

Deliberately designing the environment is one of the most effective ways to control our behavior. At the end of the day we think we are in control of our decisions, but we’d be surprised of how many of our actions are simply determined by the most available option, rather than explicit choice.

Visual cues are the main catalyst of behavior, thus a change in what we see can lead in a change in what you do — make the cues obvious.

If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment.

Habits can be easier to change in a new environment because it is easier to associate a new habit with a new context than to build a new habit in the face of competing cues.


Disciplined people seem not to have more self-control, they just have structured their lives in a way that they don’t require heroic will-power or self-control. They simply spend less time in tempting situations.

The people with the best self-control are usually the ones who need to use it the least.

Practice self-control not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment.

Behavior change techniques (such shaming obese people or showing picture of sick lungs to smokers) can back-fire, because they foster the feelings they are trying to numb. If you’re not careful about cues, you can provoke the behavior you intend to stop in the first place: you feel bad, then you eat more food, then because you ate junk food you feel worse… it is a downwards spiral.

You can break a bad habit, but you are unlikely to forget it.

Just the fact of being reminded of the cue, for good or for bad (as seen in the previous example), can lead to fall back into the habit again. This is what Gretchen Rubin described as “Poetic justice”:

Poetic justice of bad habits, the punishment bewailers to fit the crime. The punishment for a bad habit, is the bad habit.

Resisting temptation is an ineffective strategy, because it is difficult to maintain good habits in a negative environment. Self-control is just a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. It is better to reduce the exposure to the cue that triggers it in the first place.

📍 The inversion of the First Law Of Behavior Change (for avoiding bad habits): instead of making it obvious, make it invisible.


  1. Awareness
  2. Behavior intention: when X happens, I will do Y
  3. Habit stacking: after X, I will do Y
  4. Design the environment

2nd Law — Make It Attractive

The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely is to become habit-forming.

Habits are dopamine-driven feedback loops, when dopamine rises, so does our motivation to act. Yet dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. It is the anticipation of a reward, not the fulfillment of it, that gets us to take action.

Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation.

After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.

—— Spock

The anticipation of an experience can even feel better than attaining it, since the parts of the brain that respond to anticipation are way bigger.

Desire is the engine that drives behavior. Every action is taken because of the anticipation that precedes it. It is the craving that leads to the response.

Temptation bundling

Linking a thing you need to do with a thing you want to do — i.e. static bike that connected to Netflix that would stop the TV show under a certain cadence: you need to exercise, you want to see Netflix.

Another example: #ThanksGodIsThursday — linking the activities NBC needed their users to do (watch the TV show) with the thing their users wanted to do (sit down, relax, have some drinks, eat popcorn…). Over time, people connected the reward of relaxing over friends with the cue of watching the TV show on Thursday night. Brilliant.

Human nature & culture

The Polgar sisters grew up in a culture that prioritized chess above all else — praised them for it, rewarded them for it. In their world, an obsession with chess was normal.

One of the deepest human desires is to belong.

We don’t choose our earliest habits, we imitate them, each with with its own expectations, invisible rules that guide your behavior each day.

Behaviors are attractive when they help us fit in and belong to the tribe, we are actually wired to behave like this and imitate the habits of three social groups in particular:

  • The close: we tend to pick the behavior of the people who surround us. We can use this in our advantage by joining a culture where our desired behavior is the normal behavior, and surround with people who have the habits you want for ourselves.
  • The many: similar idea as the one found in The Wisdom Of Crowds, where the larger the group, the bigger the influence over the individual and the tendency to align our single behavior to the group’s, even if the result is a suboptimal outcome. We would rather be wrong with the tribe, rather than right by ourselves.
  • The powerful: once we fit in, we want to stand out. We are drawn to behaviors that earn us approval, admiration and respect. We imitate the people we envy or have been more successful.

Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want, and stay with the group once you have achieved them.

💡 Nerdfitness: we feel strange when joining a gym because we are out of shape, if the people in there already shares something with us (video-game lovers, computer enthusiasts) changes becomes more appealing because it feels like something people like you already do.


Great habit-forming products do not try create new motivations, but tap onto the underlying motives of human nature.

Habits are modern day solutions to ancient desires.

Your current habits might not the best way to solve the problems you face, rather the methods you’ve learned to use.

Every action is preceded by a prediction. Life feels reactive, but it is actually predictive. All day long, you are making your best guess of how to act given what you’ve just seen and what has worked for you in the past.

  • Craving is the sense that something is missing. It is the desire to change your internal state.
  • Desire is the difference between where you are now and where you want to be.

Habits are attractive when we associate them with positive feelings. Reframe your habits to highlight their benefits rather than their drawbacks.

  • Change the wording “you have to…” by “you get to…”
  • Make it aspirational, instead of “I need to go run in the morning” say “It’s time to build endurance and get faster.”


  1. Temptation bundling: pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do.
  2. Join a culture when your desired behavior is the normal behavior.
  3. Create a motivation ritual by making something you enjoy before the difficult habit.

3rd Law — Make It Easy

Don’t confuse motion with action. Motion is an illusion that allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure.

Focus on taking action, not motion. Less planning, more doing.

To master a habit and make it automatic, start with repetition, not perfection — it is the frequency that makes the difference.

Friction & environment

How to design a world where it is easy to do what is right?

Design the environment so it makes good behaviors easy and bad ones harder. Maybe a small environment change does not have an impact on its own, but the cumulative result of small tweaks might.

Redesign your life so the actions that matter most are the easiest to do.

We would naturally gravitate towards the option that requires the least amount of work.

📍 Friction: increase friction related to the environment of a bad habit, yet reduce it and organize the space in order to create and maintain healthy ones — i.e. leave the pen on the table if you want to draw.

Decisive moments

Decisive moments set the options available to your future self. Habits can be decided in a few seconds, but its impact might last for hours.

Create an environment of inevitability.

A decisive moment might be walking out of the door in the morning and head to the gym — without having breakfast. One might think the habit we are seeking is exercising, but it is also fasting, since the moment we walk out of the door we are enabling a series of future habits.

Habits are the entry point, not the destination.

The difference between a good day and a bad day is often a few productive and healthy choices made at decisive moments.

📍 Two-minute rule: when you start a new habit, it (the start) should take less than two minutes to do.

The goal might be to run a marathon, but the “gateway habit” is just lacing your shoes.

Downscale your habits until they can be done in two minutes or less.

Master the habit of showing up and become the type of person who does X (ties back to identity).

One minute of reading is better than not picking the book at all — you are casting votes for your new identity.

Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.

When you automate your life as possible, you spend your time doing tasks machines can’t do yet. Each habit we hand over to technology frees up time to pour into the next stage of growth.


  1. Reduce friction: decrease the number of steps between you and your good habits.
  2. Prime the environment: prepare your environment to make future actions easier.
  3. Master the decisive moment: optimize the small choices that deliver outsized impact.
  4. Use the Two-Minute Rule: downscale your habits until they can be done in two minutes or less.
  5. Automate your habits: invest in technology and onetime purchases that lock in future behavior.

4th Law — Make It Satisfying

Make it satisfying closes the last stage of the loop and increases the odds of repeating it next time.

Animals are constantly focused on the present or near future — they live in an immediate-return environment, with actions that deliver clear and immediate outcomes.

In modern society, most decisions we make don’t have an impact now, but in the future — we live in a delayed-return environment. We can work for years until our actions deliver the desired pay-off.

Our society is “brand-new”, we haven’t evolved to truly understand a delayed-return environment.

The consequences of bad habits are delayed, while the rewards are immediate.

What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.

The last mile is always the least crowded.

The ending of any experience is vital because we tend to remember it more than other phases. You want the ending of your habit to be satisfying in order to increase the rate of a repeated behavior.

Incentives can start a habit, identity sustains a habit.

If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Improve It

Habit tracking is a great reinforcer because it…

  • Generates a list of cues that remind you to act again.
  • Provides visual proof and clear evidence of your progress. It feels good see your result — visual proof of the person you’re becoming.
  • Keeps you honest by surfacing real data about your habit. Most of us have a distorted view of our own behavior. We think we act better than we do.
  • Reinforce your behavior and add a little bit of immediate satisfaction to any activity.

Record each measurement immediately after the habit occurs. The completion of the behavior is the cue to write it down.

Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.

Show up, never miss twice, and rebound quickly. Loss days hurt you more than successful days help you — a 33% loss is equivalent to a 50% gain.

It’s easy to train when feeling good, but it’s crucial to show up when we don’t feel like it — even if we do less than you hope. Going to the gym for five minutes may not improve your performance, but it reaffirms your identity.

Make sure you pick the right metric to measure. Measurement is only useful when it guides you and adds context to a larger picture, not when it consumes you.


  1. Use reinforcement: give yourself an immediate reward when you complete your habit.
  2. Make “doing nothing” enjoyable.
  3. Use a habit tracker: don’t break the chain.
  4. Never miss twice: get back on track immediately.

Advanced Topics

Pick your battles wisely, in order to maximize success, choose the right field of competition.

Align your habits with your personal inclinations and abilities.


The first step is to accept the simple truth that people are born with different abilities — understand your nature to better your strategy.

Competence is highly dependent on context.

Genes tell you where the odds are in your favor. If you want to be truly great, selecting the right place to focus is crucial.

Genes do not predispose, but predetermine.

In other words, genes do not determine your destiny, but your areas of opportunity.

Ask yourself: “what feels natural to me?” and work hard on the things that come easy.

Create your own game: when you can’t win by being better, you can win by being different. Assemble a rare combination of skills (you don’t necessarily need to be the best at it), that combined, allow you to stand out and make of yourself a truly unique proposition.

Flow & Boredom

Work on tasks of just manageable difficulty. Humans experience peak motivation when working right on the edge of our current abilities.

Mastery requires practice, but inevitably, habits will get boring over time, and by nature, we crave for novelty.

Successful athletes are the ones who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.

Really successful people feel the same lack of motivation as everyone else. The difference is that they still find a way to show up despite the feelings of boredom. Not a unique passion or endless motivation, it is just the fact of showing up despite the feelings of boredom.

You have to fall in love with boredom.

That’s the reason why keep jumping on a new diet or exercise routine, despite the fact “the old one” was working. The most habit-sticking products provide novelty all the time (games, junk food…) — this known as variable reward, like a slot machine.

  • Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way.
  • Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.


The upside of habits is that we can perform without thinking, the downside is that we can stop paying attention to little errors.


Mastery is the process of narrowing your focus to a tiny element of success, repeating it until you have internalized the skill, and then using this new habit as the foundation to advance to the next frontier of your development.

In order to achieve peak performance, make sure you are getting slightly better each day.

Reflect, review, take plenty of notes, and search for areas of improvement. Ensure your performance is maintained over time.

📍 Decision journal: record the major decisions you make each week, why you made them, and what you expect the outcome to be. Review the choices at the end of each month or year to see where you were correct and where you went wrong.

  • Annual Review to reflect on the previous year.
    • What went well this year?
    • What didn’t go so well this year?
    • What did I learn?
  • Core Values Review to consider whether you have been living in accordance with them.
    • What are the core values that drive my life and work?
    • How am I living and working with integrity right now?
    • How can I set a higher standard in the future?

Keep your identity small.

Your identity creates a kind of “pride” that encourages you to deny your weak spots and prevents you from truly growing.

The tighter we cling to an identity, the harder it becomes to grow beyond it.


Can one coin can make a person rich?

At some point you have to admit that your life was transformed by one small change.

Strive for thousands of 1% improvements.

Success is a not a goal, there is no finish line, it is a system to improve, an endless process to refine.

First published on April 14, 2019