Atomic Habits

Atomic Habits cover

This book is well written. The author clearly knows and practices what he says in the book. This book is not a scientific document where every fact is backed up by evidence, the author himself states so in the book. Instead this book is written as an operating manual. There is practical advice on learning new habits and changing your existing ones. The author claims to offer a synthesis of best ideas developed by experts working in biology, neuroscience, philosophy and psychology etc. I feel that the author was reasonably successful in communicating these ideas through this book. I liked the chapter notes which summarized the ideas and practical tips covered in each chapter. I won’t include any of the practical advice given in the book here, since I feel that there needs to be context for any advice to be useful. Below is a quick summary of the ideas from the book, that were either new or interesting to me.

Sensitivity to Initial Conditions

We know that small changes in initial conditions lead to astoundingly different results. This is known as Sensitivity to initial conditions in Chaos theory. The same principle applies to human behavior.

Too often, we convince ourselves that great success requires massive action. We put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will notice. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a slight change in your daily habits can guide your life to a very different destination. Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse may seem insignificant in the moment, but it can be far more meaningful, especially if the improvement can be sustained over a long period of time. Over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. The consequence of these marginal improvements multiply like compound interest.

$1\%$ worse every day for one year: $0.99^{365} = 0.03.$
$1\%$ better everyday for one year: $1.01^{365} = 37.78.$

What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more. This is a difficult concept to appreciate in real life. We make a few changes, but the results never seem to come quickly and so we slide back into our previous outcomes. Similarly if we procrastinate and put project off until tomorrow, there will usually be time to finish it later. A single decision is easy to dismiss. But when we repeat 1 percent errors day after day, duplicating tiny mistakes, and rationalizing little excuses, our small changes compound into toxic results. It is the accumulation of many missteps—a 1 percent decline here and there—that eventually leads to a problem.

Systems vs Goals

It does not matter how successful or unsuccessful we are right now. What matters is whether our system and habits are putting us on the right path toward success. We should be far more concerned with our current trajectory than with our current results. This is because our outcomes are a lagging measure of our habits and systems. Our knowledge is a lagging measure of our learning habits. Our networth is a lagging measure of our financial habits. If you are a millionaire but you spend more than you earn each month, then you’re on a bad trajectory. Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. Here is a quote that has stuck a chord with me.

If you want to predict where you’ll end up in life, all you have to two is follow the curve of tiny gains or tiny losses and see how your daily choices will compound ten or twenty years down the line. Are you spending less than you earn each month? Are you making it into the gym each week? Are you reading books and learning something new each day? Tiny battles are the ones that will define your future self.

Goals vs Long-term progress

Goal setting suffers from a serious case of survivorship bias. We concentrate on the people who end up winning – the survivors – and mistakenly assume that ambitious goals led to their success while overlooking all of the people who had the same objective but did not succeed.

This resonated with me especially because I realized recently that it is important to get advice from unsuccessful people as well. They know the mistakes they made. Learn about those mistakes and avoid making those. There will always be people who made all of the right choices through sheer luck or serendipity. These people don’t know about the pitfalls and traps on the way. Stay a mile away from these people. Not all successful people are like this though.

Yo-Yo effect What happens to your motivation when you achieve a goal? If there is no system in place, many people find themselves reverting to their old habits after accomplishing a goal.

True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking.


Your identity emerges out of your habits. If you write each day, you embody a creative person. If you make your bed each day, you embody the identity of an organized person. When you train each day, you embody an athletic person.

Habits give you freedom. If you don’t have good financial habits, they you are always struggling for the next dollar. Without good learning habits, you will always feel like you’re behind the curve.

The cues that can trigger a habit come in a wide range of forms, but the two most common cues are time and location.

The goal of training is not the body, but to wear the identity of a person who does not miss workouts. Successful people might miss a work out, but they don’t let things slide twice. Reflection and review offers an ideal time to revisit this most important aspect of behavioural change.

Plateau of Latent Potential

I can’t seem to get the ice cube analogy that the author gave out of my head. Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change. This pattern of change is everywhere. Cancer spends 80 percent of its life undetectable, then takes over the body in months. Similarly, habits offen appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. The author calls this threshold the Plateau of Latent Potential.

The author mentions this San Antonio Spurs locker room quote which I liked very much.

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.”

Boredom and Routine

What makes it hard to stick with habits in the long run is boredom. Behaviors need to remain novel in order for them to stay attractive and satisfying. Without variety, we get bored.

Mastery requires practice. But the more you practice something, the more boring and routine it becomes. Once the beginner gains have been made and we learn what to expect, our interest starts to fade. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. As our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty. Perhaps this is why we get caught up in a never-ending cycle, jumping form one workout to the next, one diet to the next, one business idea to the next. As soon as we experience the slightest dip in motivation, we begin seeking a new strategy—even if the old one was still working.

Deliberate Practice

I first came across this idea while reading the psychologist Anders Eriksson’s 2016 book called “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”. Habits create the foundation for mastery. The upside of habits is that you can do things without thinking. The downside of habits is that you get used to doing things a certain way and stop paying attention to little errors. As a habit becomes automatic, you become less sensitive to feedback. This makes it harder to improve and your results will plateau. To cross the plateau efficiently, we need to follow deliberate practice. This is practice with a specific short term goal in mind.

Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery

Improvement is not just about learning habits, it is also about fine-tuning them. Reflection and review ensures that you spend your time on the right things and make course corrections whenever necessary.

On Talent

Some people are born with features that make it easy to outperform others in certain tasks. Michael Phelps with his long torso, has an almost perfect build for a high performance swimmer. If you want to dunk the basketball, then being 7 ft 1 in tall like Shaquille O’Neal will be very useful. The people at the top of any competitive field are not only well trained, they are also well suited to the task. The author rightly points out that most people don’t like discuss this fact, because it is not easy to talk about things you cannot control.

The more important thing to notice here is that genes do not determine your destiny. They only determine your areas of opportunity. Even for someone with immaculate work ethic and self-discipline, Micheal Phelps would not have seen as much success as he has, had he chosen running instead of swimming. This is because his physical build puts him at a serious disadvantage in running compared to others. As the author put it, competence is highly dependent on context. Note that his does not mean, Michael Phelps can just show up at Olympics and win medals in swimming. He still has to put in work every day to be the best swimmer in the world. Our genes do not eliminate the need for hard work. Instead they clarify where to direct that effort. Until you work as hard as those you admire, don’t explain away their success as luck.

Truly great among us are the ones who not only work hard but also have the great fortune to be exposed to opportunities that favor us.

The Goldilocks Zone of Peak Performance

Specialization is a powerful way to overcome the accident of bad genetics. Boiling water will soften a potato but harden an egg. You can’t control whether you’re a potato or an egg, but you can decide to play a game where it is better to be hard or soft. Once you specialize, you need to keep making improvements to reach optimal performance. The Goldilocks rule helps avoid getting stuck in plateaus.

Goldilocks Rule Humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.

Flow state Flow is the mental state you enter when you are so focused on the task at hand that the rest of the world fades away. This blend of happiness and peak performance is what athletes and performers experience when they are “in the zone”. Evidence shows that a task must be roughly 4 percent beyond your current ability to achieve a state of flow.

Improvement requires a delicate balance. This is the core idea of the Goldilocks rule. Working on challenges of just manageable difficulty—something on the perimeter of your ability—seems crucial for maintaining motivation.