Encapsulating the book ‘Atomic Habits’ into 10 simple equations to remember

6 min readApr 22, 2021

Last week, I read the book ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear and I couldn’t resist listing the takeaways. The book offers great insight into the ‘science of habits’ using beautiful metaphors which makes the reading experience sheer joy. I felt those takeaways could be used by people from different spheres, and so I’ve put them here in the form of simple equations for easy retention.

image courtesy: https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits

1. Habit = (Self-Improvement)ⁱᵐ

Habits are little acts of self-improvement compounded over time. They may not seem huge when performed once, twice or thrice but when practiced repeatedly over months, they gain tremendous life-transforming powers. For instance, meditating might not seem to bring much good in the initial days but regularly practicing it for four weeks can change the neural circuits, build compassion and lower anxiety. Similarly, learning one idea will not make you a genius but a commitment to life-long learning can change lives.

2. Breakthroughs = Summation of previous practices

Breakthroughs aren’t an overnight success but the result of a long period of commitment to practice. James illustrates this using two great metaphors that are going to be a part of my ‘words of encouragement’ whenever I’m required to deliver them — cancer spends 80% of its life undetectable and then takes over the entire body in a month (oops! this sounded a bit morbid), bamboos that can barely be seen for the first five years as it builds extensive root system underground before exploding ninety feet into the air within six weeks! (this was positive enough)

3. System > Goal

System is the process that you need to go through to achieve the goal. Often, we focus more on the goal but not on the system which leads us to the goal. The system should be designed to make the habits look obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. It should decrease the friction in the steps taken to practice the habit. Just like ordering groceries online reduces the hassle of going to the market, and dating apps reduce the awkwardness of social interactions, keeping the gym clothes ready each night before going to bed, reduces the friction in going to the gym the next morning.

4. Make Habit ⊂ Identity

For those who can’t read that symbol, it says — make habit a subset of identity. When a habit becomes a part of an identity, intrinsic motivation gets unleashed. The more pride we take in maintaining an identity, the better we become in practicing the aligned habits. I’m sharing a personal example here — I don’t smoke and carry a degree of pride in that. This has always kept me at bay from smoking despite having social circles where smoking is a ‘normal behavior’. Similarly, as this year I want to read considerably more than the previous years, my goal is not to read 30 books but to become a ‘voracious reader’. Setting the goal of developing an identity of who you want to become increases your chances of practicing the aligned habits.

5. Implementation Intention = [I will ‘behavior’] + [at ‘time’]

Stating or writing the intention of doing a task at a particular time reinforces the intention and increases the likelihood of you performing it. Being specific about your goals in terms of ‘what and when’, will help you prioritize your tasks and save you from getting entangled in the loose ropes of unsorted activities.

6. Normal Behavior — — — join a tribe — — — →Desired Behavior

One of the best ways to cultivate a habit is by joining a group of people where your ‘desired behavior’ is ‘normal behavior’. This is because we imitate the habits of our close associations. For instance, you’ll be motivated to lose weight when you are surrounded by fit people, and you’ll begin to read more books when your closest associations are avid readers. James offers a way to make this strategy more exciting. He suggests joining a culture where not just your ‘desired behavior is normal behavior’ but also ‘you have something in common with that group’. He quotes an example of a gym named ‘Nerd Fitness’ which specially catered to the nerds and geeks. The members found it exciting to visit the gym each day as they could run smooth conversations with other members and felt a sense of familiarity with that gym.

7. ‘Have to’ — — — mindset shift — — — →’Get to’

A shift in the mindset can take us far in completing our tasks and practicing habits daily without feeling burdened by them. Instead of saying ‘I have to cook dinner for my family’ or ‘I have to wake up early for work’, if we replace them with ‘I get to cook dinner for my family’ and ‘I get to wake up early because of work’ then it fills us with gratitude and makes us value little things in life while ensuring we tick-off the tasks.

8. Great Result = Less Motion + More Action

It is exciting to write down the goals and chart out their execution. James has referred to this as ‘motion’. Strategizing is important but often we spend more energy on that and less on performing the ‘action’ that leads us to our goals. Listing out 10 ideas for the next article is motion whereas writing the next article is action; figuring out the best workout plan is motion whereas working out is action’. We need to remember that motion doesn’t get us results, action does. The reason why we find ourselves more in motion than in action is because motion makes us feel that we are making progress and helps us delay the failure (which might result from not following the plan). We need to not be only planning but to be practicing as well.

9. Present Action — — — commitment device — — — →Future Behavior

Once a friend gifted me a big box of sweets. As delighted as I was receiving that, I knew taking that home would lead to a guilty indulgence. On my way back home, I distributed the sweets to the children on streets. That action which saved me from falling a victim to the temptation of eating sweets was a commitment device. A commitment device is a choice that we make in the present moment that controls our future behavior. Another example of this is people deleting their social media accounts to save themselves from wasting time on it or being negatively influenced by it. The commitment device works as it makes a bad habit invisible and thus locks in good behavior.

10. Softer Identity ∝ Growth

Habits are formed through repetitions which in turn form our desired identities. However, clinging tightly to an identity can restrict us from growing further. An example of this is a senior surgeon who wants to operate in his own ways and dismisses the ideas of younger colleagues (remember that episode of Grey’s Anatomy where Yang argued with the senior surgeon Craig Thomas at Mayo clinic?). Identities should be soft and supple so that when life throws challenges at us, we can adapt smoothly. If a person identifies as an athlete and due to some life event he is restricted from playing further, then he might find himself in an identity crisis. In such situations, it is wise to redefine the identity, keeping the core values of the identity intact. For instance, ‘I an athlete’ can be redefined as ‘I’m the type of person who is mentally tough and loves physical challenge’. The adaptable identity works in our favor with changing circumstances as Lao Tsu says, ‘the soft and supple will prevail’.

Thanks for reading. Hope it added value to your day :)