Atomic Habits: Small Improvements with Remarkable Results

“Sow a thought, and you reap an act;

Sow an act, and you reap a habit;

Sow a habit, and you reap a character;

Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.”

― Samuel Smiles


What are Atomic Habits


Habit is an automated behaviour or action that requires little or no efforts. There is no need of will-power and conscious decision making, its repetition makes it automatic. 


James Clears’ Book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones is the masterpiece and one of the remarkable books on habits formation. Atomic habit is the word used by the author for tiny habits when done consistently, can do miracles. Atoms are tiny particles, cannot be seen with naked eyes, but are a tremendous source of energy. 


Atomic habits are small and not noticeable. They may seem small but can be powerful if we are willing to do it daily and regularly. Human beings are not designed for big changes. We split a large task into small doable tasks and do it in milestones. 


Results of small habits and improvements are not noticed quickly. We prefer instant gratification. We want instant results of whatever we do. 1% improvement daily is not a big deal. It is as easy as a, b, c, but you know what would happen if we do this improvement for one year. One per cent improvement daily will make our life 37.78 times better than what we are right now. Doing exercise just for 10 minutes daily will not make us fit and smart in a day or two. If we continue to do it for one year, we can get extraordinary results. 


On the other hand, if a person is getting worse 1% daily, the results would not be noticed in the short term but after one year, that person would almost be finished. 


1% getting worse daily for one year. 0.99365 = 00.03

1% improvement daily for one year. 1.01365 = 37.78 


 “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”  – Bill Gates





Why we Give Up Sometimes



We value the instant results of whatever we do. Things in nature are not happening the way we want it to happen. A fat and chubby person going to the gym will not be smart and fit in a few days or first few weeks. 



We want linear results as we take actions. That’s what we want to happen, but the reality is something else. In the start, we take massive actions, but the results are small or nothing at all. At that time, we enter the “Valley of Disappointment” because we are not getting the results what we are expecting. We put in a lot of hard work, but the output is not satisfying. So, you know what we do, we quit. We start complaining and get demotivated to take actions. It makes us kind of believe that, no matter what we do, we would not be able to get the results ever.  

Atomic Habit Graph

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” – Thomas Edison


It is important to note that the relation between our actions and results is exponential. In the beginning, we do a lot of hard work, but the results are not that much obvious. We enter the “Valley of Disappointment” which is part of the game, there is no other way. Those who persevere throughout the journey and these tough times, not pretend but firmly believe that whatever they do, will get the results. After sometimes, they get massive results with small actions. Our tiny actions and improvements compound up to give the result we desire, but it takes time. 


“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”  –  Thomas A. Edison


Small changes in our behaviours will not revolutionize our lives in one or two days, but if we make it our habit, doing it consistently, will not only make our life easy and ecstatic, but enable us to accomplish the extraordinary. 


Four Laws of Behaviour Change


Any habit that we adopt or build, undergo four stages which are

  • Cue
  • Craving
  • Response
  • Reward


These four stages form a neurological feedback loop. Cue is the hint we get i.e. seeing delicious food or smelling the aroma. Craving is the desire to get that item, in our case, desire to get that delicious food. The response is what action we take getting it. The reward is joy and satisfaction we get from eating it. Cue, craving, response and reward happen in a cycle. When we enjoy certain action, get satisfied with it, we want more joy and do it again and again. This way, the action is repeated, and a habit is formed. 


Following these four laws make it very easy to form positive and healthy habits

1.    Make it obvious (Cue)

2.    Make it attractive (Craving)

3.    Make it easy (Response)

4.    Make it satisfying (Reward)

Similarly, we can break the bad habits following the four laws of behaviour change by doing the opposite of positive habits formation

1.    Make it invisible (cue)

2.    Make it unattractive (Craving)

3.    Make it difficult (Response)

4.    Make it unsatisfying (Reward)





Satisfying Results Reinforce Habits



Eminent psychologist, Edward Thorndike demonstrated with his outstanding experiment how habits are formed. He placed cats in the black box, let them figure out how to escape. In the beginning, the cats would start desperate jumping here and there, sniffing every corner, clawing at everything.


Coincidentally, when the cats would press the lever, the door would open and let them go outside. Thorndike repeated that experiment for those cats which successfully escaped the black box. He would put those cats again and again in the black box and in every next attempt, they would escape quickly than before. After 25 to 30 attempts, as Thorndike would place the cats inside the black box, they would at once press lever and get outside in no time. 


Thorndike concluded from this experiment that those behaviours which give pleasing and satisfying result (in this experiment, freedom to cats) are repeated often enough till it becomes automated, which in simple terms, we call it a habit.  




Compound Effect of Small Changes


Imagine a plane flying from Los Angeles to New York. If at the start, the pilot decided to change the direction of the plane 3.5 degrees toward the south. The nose of the plane would just move a little, not noticeable to the pilot as well as the passengers. Not a big deal! Do you know what would happen? Instead of going to New York, it would fly to Washington, DC. Unbelievable!


“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”

― Samuel Johnson


Small improvements daily are not noticeable at that moments, but with time, results are incredible. Positive and healthy habits are the compound interest of self-improvements. 




Role of Environment in Habits Formation


Our environment provides for us the system to make good or bad habits. We must realize that Bad habits repeat themselves again and again, not because we don’t want to quit it, but because we have the wrong system, not organized and functional to give us the required results. 


“Rowing harder doesn’t help if the boat is headed in the wrong direction ” -Kenichi Ohmae


Dr Anna Thorndike wanted to improve her patients’ habits without making them involve too much will-power and conscious decision making. She had an interesting plan, rearranged her hospital cafeteria. Sodas in all the refrigerators were replaced with water. People had no other choice but to drink water which was a healthy option. Sales of Soda dropped by 11% and water sale increased 25%. Her strategy “to make it obvious” really worked. 


Our environment acts as an invisible hand to shape our behaviours and habits. An environment designed in a special way helps us form our habits easily and without efforts. 






Implementation Intention Matters a Lot



It is said that concrete planning gives concrete results while vague planning gives vague results. 


Our intentions are too vague when it comes to act and get out of the comfort zone. Now and then, we say vague things like: “I will go to the gym” or “I will run”. We are very good at missing and not following it all the time. 


Studies show that concrete intentions give concrete results and it is more likely to be followed. If we say, “I will run tomorrow morning from 8:00 am till 8:30 am”, get ready my running shoes etc. or “I will go to the gym at 6:30 pm, do my workout and return at 7:30 pm” increase the chances to be followed. 



The Famous Two Minutes Rule


Two minutes rule states that: If it takes less than two minutes, do it now. 


Two minutes rule is a very powerful and incredible rule to get started, beat procrastination and form long-term habits. As mentioned earlier, our brains are not designed to start a big task and complete it. Making it easy for our brains, we split the task into small doable tasks. 


Want to read a book, don’t think of a BIG FAT BOOK to be read in one go, but think, I am going to read just for 2 minutes. That’s it. Believe me, once get started, it is very easy to continue for 30 minutes or an hour. The trick is to get started, when it is done, the rest is just going with the flow. 



Summary in a Nutshell


Atomic habits are tiny but powerful habits when done consistently, give remarkable results. We work hard and demand instant results, which does not happen. It takes time to get the real results of what we are doing now. Our self-improvements compound to form positive habits. We fail to break bad habits not because we don’t want to change but because of our system. What we become is more important than what we have achieved.