Atomic Habits Chapter 8

In chapter 8, we move from making it obvious to making it attractive.

Idea 1: it’s all about dopamine*

Dopamine is a key player in the habit creation process.

It’s how the brain rewards good behavior. The most addictive habits are the habits that also dump the most dopamine into your system.

The crazy thing is that, once the habit is formed, you don’t get dopamine for completing the desired task. You get the dopamine in anticipation of it.

An addict gets the dopamine bump from seeing the drug, not from doing it. That bump is the craving.

* It’s not just dopamine. There are other neurotransmitters at play. But A) “dopamine” is easier to say/type than “dopamine, a slew of other neurotransmitters, and multiple biological processes in the brain”. B) It doesn’t change the implications or applications. And C) it quietly paints the picture that your brain as an addict hooked on dope. Oddly enough, that’s completely true but it’s also the dealer. The brain is weird.

Idea 2: liking isn’t wanting

We often design habits around how we’d like to act. We paint a picture of perfection. It’s definitely something we’d like to be.

But we don’t actually desire that life… or we desire something else more.

Scientists, an apparently screwed up group of them in this case, were experimenting on rats in a study of dopamine. In 1 phase, they completely turned off all dopamine.

They could tell that the rats still liked sugar water. (Who doesn’t like an ice-cold Coke on a hot day, right?) But they wouldn’t get up to get it themselves. They wouldn’t get up and get anything. The rats literally died of dehydration.

No dopamine = no desire = no anything.

Idea 3: the brain is a harsh mistress

Initially, you get dopamine when you do “the act” – whatever the brain wants you to do more of. It’s chemically patting you on your head and calling you a good boy.

But soon (the book doesn’t say how soon), the brain switches from rewarding the action to actively encouraging it. The brain gives you dopamine as soon as it gets the cue.

So why don’t we just stop there? We have the dopamine and we haven’t done the bad thing. Win-win, right?

No, the brain is a drug dealer. And if you “break the deal”, it’s going to get what it’s owed. Your brain will punish you.

I hope that’s ludicrous enough to make you remember it. But, despite sounding crazy, that’s how it plays out.

  • At 1st, actions are rewarded with dopamine. (Action then reward)
  • Then, dopamine is used to trigger the action. (Cue, reward, then action)
  • If you get the dopamine but don’t act, the brain withholds dopamine. That’s the feeling of growing craving. (Cue, reward, punishment)
  • When you give in, the brain gives a little bump after the act to remind you what you’re supposed to be doing. (Cue, reward, punishment, action, reward)

Idea 4: will stack habits for drugs

In chapter 6, we met habit stacking. The idea is to use 1 habit (or its reward) to trigger a 2nd habit. In chapter 8, James Clear introduces another form of stacking: temptation bundling.

The formula is:

  1. After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED].
  2. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].

This seems challenging. I think the key is to make sure you’re sandwiching the habit you need between the current habit and the habit you want. I bet it’s an uphill battle to try to add a habit you need in front of an existing habit you want. That would take more discipline and we know how poorly that can work.

Use the big boost from the habit you want to get you to do the habit you need. Put some cheese on the broccoli so to speak.

Key takeaways and implementation

The critical piece of information is an understanding of your habits. Which is working? Which needs help? Which would you do regardless of the circumstances because you want it so much?

It all goes back to tracking. You have to know what’s going on before you can make any sensible decisions about what to do next.



Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones
Author: James Clear
Amazon rating: 4.8
Amazon price: $14.99
Amazon data gathered on 1Oct2020
Review status: In progress

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