A Thousand 1% Improvements - Atomic Habits

05 Aug 2019

atomic habits book closed and filled with bright coloured index cards

Notes are inspired by Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Grains of Rice and Overnight Success

When you look at most successful people, they are often described as 'overnight successes'. In reality, these people have consistently chosen actions that favoured the long-term over the short-term. Actions whose results were so gradual that they were almost unnoticeable, until a tipping point was reached.

One way to visualize this is to imagine a set of weighing scales. One side of the scales is empty, the other side has a single grain of rice on it. When another grain is added, there is no noticable difference between he height of the left and righ scales. The same can be said when 20 or 30 grains of rice are added.

At some point, you can be sure that he scales will slowly start to tip, until suddenly the weight of a single extra grain of rice tips the balance of the scales dramatically.

Those grains of rice are your habits, the small actions that you keep repeating until the accumulated weight of them changes everything.

So how do you adopt a new habit or change your existing habits?

30 Day Habit Challenges, An Alternative Perspective

One of the things that many people do to to adopt a new habit is to do a 30 day habit challenge. 30 day habit challenges are great for trying out a new habit for a short period of time, but generally they do not help you to adopt a habit long-term.

The biggest problem with 30 day challenges for long-term habit adoption is that they focus on how many days it takes to adopt a new habit. The most commonly cited timeframe for adopting a new habit is 21-28 days. If this were true, then most people would not revert back to their old habits after completing their 30 day challenge.

A more useful way of looking at habit adoption according to James Clear, is to ask yourself how many repititions it takes for an action to become a habit [for you].

This point of view makes sense if you consider the definition of a habit. A habit is an "aquired mode of voluntary behaviour thtat has become nearly or completely involuntary" (Merriam-webster). This means that habits are so ingrained that you perform them almost automatically. Which is why it is so difficult to change them once you have reached the point of automation.

Being aware of your current habits

The first step to changing any of your habits is to become aware of them again. The habits that are obvious to us usually have strong feelings attached to them.

Healthy habits with visible positive results contribute to a positive self-image. Unhealthy habits with visible negative results contribute to low self-esteem and feelings of shame. Most of your other habits are likely to be less obvious if they have not already reached the tipping point.


One of the things that you can do to track your habits is to carry a small notebook and a pen around with you for one week. During that week, jot down the things you spend your time doing, eating and drinking day to day. Short sentences are enough.

When doing this, it can help to ask yourself whether these are the kinds of behaviours that the best version of yourself would practice.

At the end of each day, go through each of your activities and the things that you have consumed. Then ask yourself whether this activity or consumable is movig you closer to tthe person you aspiren to be or not. James Clear suggests that you write a '+' sighn next to the habits that detract value and an '=' sign next to the habits that are neutral.

The key here is to be kind to yourself, observe the way things are without negatively judging yourself.

Identity-Level habits

Once you are aware of your current habits, it's easier to identify identity-level habits. Plus signs tell you that those habits are things that align with who you are or want to be. Negative signs tell you that a habit is not currently serving you, and neutral signs tell you that you have no strong feelings towards a habit, and so it's worth questioning whether or not they should have a place in your life.

All of the plus, minus and neutral signs can be a good indicator of how happy you are, and whether or not you think you are living a life that the best version of yourself would be proud of.

It is likely that after doing this, you will see behaviours that you would like to change. This is because most people are note taught how to be intentional in the way that they live their lives, and when they are, then their behaviours are usually based on expectations set by others.

This is the start of you discovering what actions add the most value to your life. when you are living your best life, you can't help but inspire others to find the joy in their lives too.

Our habit influencers

We are ofwen inspired and influenced by three main groups in particular:


People who are close to us:

Can you think of any habits you have that have been picked up from other people? Or habits that other people have picked up from you? Write those down with a note stating whether you think those habits are valuable or not (or neutral) for you.

The majority that surrounds us:

Think about the groups that you are a part of. These can be hobby groups, education groups, spiritual groups, shops, clubs and libraries etc that you visit often. Are there actions that you do there that are influenced by the group and its environment? For example, playing hockey is a habit containing lots of sub-habits, and so is talking quietly when you are in a library.

Role Models:

List some of the people that you consider to be your role models, who can be family members, teachers, idols, successful or non-successful people. What qualities do they have tha you admire? What habits do they have that you would love to adopt?

Voting for your best self

At this point you will have a good idea of the qualities you admire in other people, and also the kind of behaviours that align with your identity-level beliefs.

This kind of thinking promotes the idea that your identity emerges from you habits. You are what you consistently do. Think about it. Is there anything you believe that you are hopeless at? Do you tell yourself that you are bad at math, or public speaking? Would these statements still be true if you practiced math every day for years, or if you became a prolific member of a public speaking group like Toastmasters over the long-term?

At some point, you will start to believe that you are good at math and public speaking because you will have enough evidence to back that up. Habits are a way for you to collect evidence to support your beliefs about yourself. So instead of thinking that you can't do something, start asking yourself what evidence you need to start collecting to help you prove that you can do something.

Collecting evidence like this is a long-term investment. Every short-term action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to be.


Pick 3-5 behaviours that will help you collect evidence in favour of your best self.

A thousand 1% improvements

"The holy grail of habit change is not a single 1% improvement, but a thousand of them." - James Clear

As we mentioned earlier, the best way to think about habit adoption is in terms of frequency. To support this new model of thinking, I designed a habit tracker that is inspired by the above Atomic Habits quote. They are called "Habit Cards".

Habit cards are grids made up of 1000 squares (25 by 40). Each square represents a single repetition of the habit you have chosen to cultivate.

There are two things to keep in mind that will help you get the most benefit from your habit cards.

  1. When choosing a habit, set the bar low.

    The easier it is to colour in a new square, the easier it is to maintain a new habit when your initial motivation wears off.

  2. Choose habits that can be repeated multiple times a day.

    It can be harder to stick to a habit when you are limited to one repetition a day. Colouring in a square makes you feel good and helps keep you motivated. The more small wins you have each day the better (though some habits like waking up early can only be done once a day).

    Here are some habit ideas:

    • 1 square = 1k (1000k or 23 and a half marathons)
    • 1 square = 10 squats (10,000 squats or buns of steel)
    • 1 square = 350 words (350,000 words or 175 articles/4 novels)
    • 1 square = 1 chapter in a book (10,000 chapters or 50-80 books)
    • 1 square = $10 saved ($10,000)

    The best thing about these habit cards is that they are entirely reward-based. This means that you'll get all of the benefit of accumulating a high streak, without the risk of skipping a day and having to start all over again (the biggest new habit killer).

habit card template

Now it's your turn

Reading Atomic Habits by James Clear was a life-changing book for me, not just because the ideas themselves were amazing, but because I adapted them and made them work for me in my own life. I hope you will do the same with the information you read here.

Over to you!