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Understanding my Habits with Atomic Habits

tl;dr: Atomic Habits is a great book to understand what habits are and how to manage them.

Monteith with arms of Gibbs and Nelthorpe source and more information

After listening and reading a book, I realize that it would help me understand the material more if I wrote about it. I have been thinking about this material frequently recently.

I will go over the general topics of the books and provide a quick summary. Less review, but my own notes from it and additional thoughts on it. Think of it as a cliff-notes version of the book.

By the end of this article you should have a basic understanding of the author’s view on habits, how to manage them, and my own take on habits.

This article should take you less than six minutes to read.


I don’t know how I found Atomic Habits or how it ended up on my listening list. I think it was when I was surfing around my library’s top books listing.

I started listening and Atomic Habits was more than I expected. The author, James Clear, has an interesting life and he outlines his journey from college to being an author. It was atypical and a great story.

The rest of the book focuses on the mechanics of habits, what they are, how to manage them.

As I listened to Atomic Habits as an audio-book, I wanted to stop and write things down so I would not forget them. This is rare because I normally power through audio-books. Over audio, I find it is easy to remember stories, I am learning facts and numbers require me to sit down and look at the details.

After listening, I borrowed the text version of the book and read the mechanics sections again. It has been a good reminder of what I listened to and made me think about myself.

While reading this, I’m also revisiting Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Although these books are over 20 years apart, I find there is a connection between them.

Pre-work: Define who you are

I would suggest before reading this book that you make sure you know who you are as a person. This is easier said than done, but Atomic Habits will give action-able steps to manage your habits.

By reading Atomic Habits, then spending time to discover yourself decreases momentum from the initial reading of Atomic Habits (which is happening to me.)

By reading Atomic Habits after you know who you are or who you want to be, you can accelerate any changes you want by implementing ideas from the book.

If you don’t know yourself or want to check in, reading Seven Habits of Highly Effective People THEN reading this might be a good combination as they complement each other.

We are just our Habits

I never thought deeply about habits, I only would define them as something we do automatically. Almost like a knee reflex. If your knee gets bumped, your leg kicks up.

After reading Atomic Habits, I define habits basically as: “automatic problem solving”.

When we encounter a problem the first time, we spend a time and resources solving it, with trial-and-error unless directed.

The next time we encounter the same problem, the brain shortcuts the process by applying the previous solution. Why? It’s because the previous solution worked before and it’s definitely a time-saver to apply the previous solution.

If the solution works again, win! No more problem and there is more time for the next problem (or if we are a good computer scientist, ask: “can we do better?” ;-) )

Every time the problem arises, there’s a high chance the last best solution will attempted first, almost automatically!

Hence, I view habits as automatic problem solving.

This is how habits can start. By having an ‘automatic problem solving’ system, it frees our minds from the complexities of solving the same problem over and over again.

It’s an advantage to have habits, especially ones that enhance who you are and who you want to be.

We are just our habits

Just as we define who we are, our habits are an expression of us. An interesting exercise is to list out all of your habits. What you do in the morning, in certain situations, etc.

When I (insert situation), I (take action)

For example:

  • When I wake up in the morning, I get up and make my bed.
  • When I finish making my bed, I goto the bathroom to start washing my face.
  • When I finish washing my face, I start shaving.
  • When I finish shaving, I goto the kitchen to make coffee.
  • When I finish making coffee, I start toasting my bagel.
  • When my bagel finishes toasting, I start to eat it.
  • When it is 07:05, I leave for the train.
  • When I get on the train in the morning, I open my computer and look to see what I have scheduled.

Making this list is enlightening. It shows that I work on a regular schedule, maybe at a company that expects me to be there at the same time every weekday.

How do Habits form?

James provides a simple form for how habits form:

1. Cue The stimulus that gets your attention that you have to address a problem.
2. Crave The motivation associated with the cue, the anticipation of solving the problem.
3. Response The action taken to resolve the problem.
4. Reward The sense of achievement for solving the problem.

Looking at each habit and applying this framework to it, let’s go back to my wake up and making bed habit:

  1. Cue: Waking up.
  2. Crave: I like a tidy bed when I go to sleep.
  3. Response: I make my bed.
  4. Reward: I feel satisfied when I get into a tidy bed at night.

By understanding this, making and breaking habits become easier.

Making New Habits

Now that we understand how to form habits, how can we make new habits?

Take steps to forming a habit and shortcut each of them:

Habit step Shortcut  
1. Cue make it obvious Place more stimulus in your environment
2. Crave make it attractive Make it more desirable
3. Response make it easy Make action easier to execute
4. Reward make it satisfying Add short term reward

I like that we can use the habit framework to make new habits by reinforcing each step. I have stumbled onto creating new habits before, now I understand why some worked and some did not.

There are more details and ideas at the cheat-sheet provided by the author here

Breaking Habits

For those habits that are already ingrained, how to break them?

Take the steps to forming a habit and invert them:

Habit step Inversion  
1. Cue make it invisible Remove cues from your environment
2. Crave make it ugly Re-frame mind-set to habit is unattractive
3. Response make it hard Make action more difficult to execute
4. Reward make it unsatisfying Have a person make you accountable

I like that we can use the habit framework to break habits by deemphasizing each step. Habit breaking has been one of my struggles and this provides clear guidance.

There are more details and ideas at the cheat-sheet provided by the author here


I enjoyed Atomic Habits as it provides a four step framework for understanding habits and how to manage them. With this framework, I understand myself better and change my habits in the way reflects me better.

After reading this book, I’m taking inventory of my habits and also doing work on figuring out who I am and, most importantly, who I want to be.

The book, Atomic Habits by James Clear, has additional details and covers these topics better. I highly recommend reading the book.