James Clear’s Atomic Habits

Principles for how to cultivate habits and stick to them

Louise Graham
8 min readJan 20, 2020

“Your outcomes in life are the lagging measure of your habits” James Clear

Understanding our habits is so critical to how we can live our lives with more joy and more energy. The International best-seller book, “Atomic Habits” by James Clear has some really amazing wisdom nuggets for learning more about how to cultivate habits and stick to them. For those of you curious to learn more or with no time to read the book, here are his principles broken down in an easy to read 10min summary.


“Results in your life are determined by your habits”
“We don’t rise to our goals, we fall to the level of our systems”
“There are no high performance people just high performance habits”

Principle #1: Habits and our sense of identity

  • Habit = Behaviour done so much it becomes automatic
  • Identity and sense of self is rolled up in your habits
  • We come to believe things about ourselves through repetition of experiences which result from the story we tell ourselves
  • Habits create experiences that reinforce the repetition
  • Every action we take is a vote for the type of person we want to be/become
  • This is why smaller habits matter. Small actions don’t create an immediate transformation but they cast a vote. Doing one push up every day might not transform your body but you can now say you’re the type of person who does a push up every day. You’re changing your identity/story
  • Daily behavioural choices really do add up
  • Build Identity based habits first
  • The real goal is not to write a book but to become a writer, or not to run a marathon but to become a marathon runner
  • When you adopt a new identity you just act in alignment with who you are. It’s much easier to show up as you want to because this is who you are now

Principle #2: Habit, energy & the brain

  • Energy is needed to survive, getting energy requires energy and using energy is expensive — because the more energy you use the less you have available for whatever life throws at you
  • The brain is always looking for ways to conserve energy and habits are a great way of conserving energy (habits — e.g tying a shoelace or brushing your teeth — by their automatic definition require less energy, thought & attention)
  • The first time you do something it takes energy but once it becomes a habit you free up energy and waste less energy

Principle #3: Where do bad habits come from?

  • Modern society asks us to practise delayed outcomes & gratification (e.g getting paid at the end of the month…) which runs counter to our biological process which is for instant gratification
  • We are in a mismatched environment and so we look for other forms of instant gratification — bad habits are formed so easily because they offer immediate rewards. There are no immediate rewards with good habits
  • There are two types of rewards. “Immediate” and “Ultimate”. Bad habits bring us immediate reward and good habits bring us the ultimate reward
  • The cost of your good habits is in the present and the cost of your bad habits is in the future

Ways to counter this:

Work out how to introduce an element of surprise and delight (instant gratification) to form a new counter habit. The instant gratification keeps you motivated to stick with the behaviour whilst the ultimate reward is on the way

Principle #4: Habits & belief

  • You can’t believe something about yourself without evidence
  • Delusion = Belief without evidence
  • To create a new story or identity let your behaviour lead the way because that creates new evidence and proof
  • This evidence and proof compiles to make your story/belief stronger
  • To create new beliefs and a new identity you have to create strong behaviour, evidence and proof of this

Principle #5: Habits & control

  • Many people believe they don’t have control over their habits
  • We can structure our habits to become the architect of our habits and not the victim of them
  • The Internal (cognitive) & external (behavioural) world influence our behaviours which create habits

Principles #6: Habits and environmental design

1st Law — Cues

  • Cues are obvious, visible and easy to see and they influence your behaviour
  • Make the cues for bad habits invisible and inverse this for good habits (e.g put the fruit in a bowl as the first thing you see in the kitchen, or put the fizzy drinks right to the back of the fridge out of sight)
  • You can do this with your digital environment too e.g by arranging your apps, changing the colour of them (research says that by changing app colours to black and white they are less enticing) or setting up habit automation (e.g automatic money-saving plans)
  • If you want a habit to be a big part of your life make it a big part of your environment have the cues in a prevalent place and if you want to reduce the impact a habit makes it a smaller part of your environment

2nd Law — Attraction

  • If a habit is attractive you’re more likely to do it
  • Our habits are socially reinforced by the people around us. Join a group or a tribe where your desired behaviour is normal behaviour
  • When you join a new group it means leaving an old group and our belonging, it requires bold courage and if you feel like you don’t belong you will feel like an imposter which can discourage you from continuing. Find a mutual area of overlap where you can feel belonging and still be able to build new habits (e.g. Nerd Fitness in New York — Fitness for comic book and superhero fanatics)
  • We don’t do something for the actual reward, we do things for the expectation of the reward. Anticipation & hope (prediction) drives all motivation to take action
  • The craving motivates us to act and the reward will satisfy the craving — the motivation evaporates when the choice has been made
  • Knowing this, try to plan your gratification upfront. Book holidays with a long lead time
  • To be delighted, your experience needs to be better than your expectation
  • The only reason you repeat habits is because they feel good — It’s important to have some sort of satisfaction with habits so your brain wants to repeat it

3rd Law — Ease

  • Motion vs action
  • Motion will never get you a result on its own (examples: researching, talking to a coach or a PT). Action does (example: A push-up, a sales call)
  • Motion is safe so people are drawn to it
  • Too much motion can become a crutch and a way to procrastinate
  • Have a bias towards action
  • Scale habits down to an action that takes 2mins or less to do (example: Roll out your yoga mat every day, read two lines of a book every day)
  • When you start with smaller habits you can master your habits easier
  • When you master the art of showing up, you change your behaviour, you create new evidence and proof and you start to build an identity that makes habits easier
  • A habit has to become a new normal before it can be improved or optimised
  • Use technology not forced willpower
  • The way to increase your willpower, self-control or grit is to remove temptations — not by forcing it but by redesigning it

Principle #7: Goal setting vs systems

“There rarely is a result without a system” James Clear

  • Rather than make the goal the default, make the system the default and check in with the goals occasionally to see if you are moving in the right direction
  • The goal serves a purpose for creating clarity, sense of direction, filtering (e.g. does this move me where I need to go or not?). Goals are focused on outcomes but systems are focused on the process
  • We think it’s the results that need to change when actually it’s the process behind the results that need to change (e.g. you don’t need a cleaner house, you need to become someone who’s developed good housekeeping habits)
  • Achieving a goal only changes your life for a moment. (Run a marathon vs being a runner example above)
  • If all focus is on the goal then there’s no reason to continue when the goal is reached but if it’s tied to identity e.g. about being someone or something then it’s a lifestyle / longer-term choice. You still have reason to show up
  • True long term thinking is “goal-less” thinking, much more about being that person, following that system & developing that identity

Principle #8: When habits become boring

  • Good habits can become routine and when you know what to expect it becomes less interesting and boring
  • Learn how to fall in love with boring and how to continue to show up even when it’s not exciting
  • Take your habit to mastery level, find a new thing or detail to get excited about/or to master

Principle #9: Habit entry points

“The heaviest weight at the gym is the front door” Ed Latimore

Throughout our day there are 5 to 10+ entry points where we fall into a habit which determine a productive or non-productive day. Be aware of the entry points

  • Habits are the entry points, not the endpoint. The habit is the taxi to the gym or the running shoes at the door. This is why it’s important to reduce exposure to cues which lead to bad habits


  1. Optimise your environment / removing or adding to create visibility
  2. Two min rule and making your habits as easy as possible — every habit has an entry point
  3. Habits are the entry point, not the endpoint — they are the cab, not the gym. If you can master that decisiveness moment then you’re in momentum

Top tips & rules

1% Improvement every day

  • There’s power in being committed to make small improvements every day. These 1% improvements compound and add up (like compound interest — the greatest returns are delayed)

Rule of never miss twice

  • Develop a “Never miss twice” philosophy
  • It’s never the first mistake that ruins you but the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows — if you can cut that spiral at the source then you can master the skill of getting back on track

The Goldilocks Rule

  • The Goldilocks Rule: says that humans experience peak levels of motivation when they work on a task of just manageable difficulty (e.g Cusp of your ability — not too hard, not too easy, just right)
  • Challenge is to create enough success to keep you motivated and enough challenge to keep you interested
  • Goldilocks — be on the edge of your ability so you can maintain that curiosity


What is a keystone habit for you? That when you do this thing the rest of your day feels good

About Louise Graham:

Vision & Mission Mentor for social entrepreneurs and conscious changemakers at www.louisegraham.me and Founding Director at The Glasgow Basket Brigade CIC.

I am here to support your biggest changemaker dreams and ambitions — helping you to clarify your vision, align your mission & make change happen.

You may be interested in my other articles:

A big thank you (!) for clicking the 👏 if you found this article useful.

If you have any questions or have anything you would like to share, I would love to hear your thoughts 💬



Louise Graham

Vision & Mission Mentor — Helping social entrepreneurs and conscious changemakers clarify their vision, align their mission and make change happen