Atomic Habits by James Clear (Book Review)

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Atomic Habits by James Clear is wildly successful. And it hurts. Why? Because what he says just makes so much sense it’s a wonder how any of use ever missed it. Well, perhaps we miss some of it. You may actually already practice some of the things taught in Atomic Habits, but I think you should read it anyway.

It’s just that he categorizes everything so well. He illustrates it all so simply. It’s one of those books where you kind of wish you were the one that wrote it. That’t not to discredit the years of work the author put into the book. It’s just that it’s one of those topics where we almost feel stupid that on average we humans don’t do know these things, and it took a man becoming an expert on Habits in order for us to think about it.

As suggested by the title, the author is dealing with small (atomic) changes in order to achieve at times complete reversals of bad behavior, i.e. bad habits.

Every small change to your systems and every success in those small changes is a "vote for the kind of person you want to be”. Over time, you’re no longer voting for that person, you are that person.

Making changes to your habits is hard, but so is the regret in the end from having made no changes. Basically, choose your “hard”.

Instead of the normal approach which involves turning over a new leaf and setting goals, he advises making small incremental changes over time, not to your habits, but to your systems that undergird them. This makes so much sense you’re likely to feel dumb when you read about it.

He explains what he calls, the “Plateau of Latent Potential”, a chart that demonstrates that we often get discouraged with habit change because we view a straight, upward rising line in our development into good habits. The chart shows that it’s actually more a curve that dips below our ideal straight line before we notice any improvement.

He also points out that we often fail because our goals are not in the “Goldilocks zone”. In said zone, new habits should be not too easy and not too hard, but just right. This will keep us motivated and prevent epic fails that cause us to quit.

For much of this to work, he explains a few studies on delayed gratification. Again, simple, but painful stuff to hear.

He also suggests identity change. I know, it sounds like weird psycho-babble, but from reading it, it sounds similar to what we in the Biblicist world call “repentance.” For example, instead of being a big spender, and then having to tell yourself, “I’m trying to save money!”, instead change your identity. “I’m not a big spender” etc.

In the earlier scenario, I’m a big spender who’s trying to curb himself. In the latter, that’s not even who I am. He gave an example of a woman who lost weight by telling herself, “I’m a healthy person” rather than, “I’m trying to lose weight.” Sounds, ridiculous, but I actually gave up sweets a couple years ago using this. I told myself, “I don’t eat sweets.” Instead of being a sweets-eating person who’s trying to control himself, I’m just not that guy anymore. Strangely, it works.

The author even suggests letting yourself feel self-righteous about things in order to keep a habit. Now, as a Biblicist Christian, I have some qualms about that, but I see his point. If my identity as a non-sweets-eating person makes me feel superior to others, then my human nature will do anything it can to preserve that, and so on.

So, basically, he asserts that habit changes that come from a changed identity and work outward to the goals will stick while habit changes that are imposed from the outside or from the goals, won’t. Makes sense.

He also poses four simple laws for destroying a bad habit, and four laws for establishing a good habit. I’d list them here, but your should read the book. Each law requires some explanation and I don’t want to rewrite his book.

One neat thing he also discusses is something called “Habit stacking” which I have already implemented since reading the book. It’s the idea of connecting or stacking a habit you want to do on top of something you already do. This technique works really great if you are already a “to-do” list person, which I am.

Basically, my daily repeating tasks on the list all have a single word appended to the item to direct me to the next, most naturally following item on the list. In this way, you quickly memorize your routines and they turn into things you do without having to think about, i.e. habits. Soon, you won’t have to check the list to know what to do next. You’ll only check it later for the satisfaction of marking the items off.

He also suggests simple tricks for task list items. So as a pastor, instead of “Study for Sunday p.m. sermon”, it might say, “Open my study materials.” In this way, it’s only a simple task of opening the materials. Once open, it tends to funnel you into the studying part because, well, it’s already open now. Writing the list item the former way makes it look like an overwhelming task.

Another simple trick, one we all know is “Don’t break the chain”. He offers a habit tracking calendar where you can check off every day you accomplish the new habit. “You can fail once, but you shouldn’t fail twice.” Somehow this helps. I don’t know why. Perhaps because after failing twice we tend to embrace failure?

Do I recommend the book? Heartily! It’s not just for people who’s lives are a mess. Mine wasn’t really “messy”. It’s for anyone who wants to change anything about their habits. I had some things I wanted to implement, and it has helped immensely in the implementation.

As a Biblicist Christian, am I concerned that things like this undermine the work of the Holy Spirit in producing temperance in me? Not at all. In fact, I think I have an advantage in using the book as a Christian. I can both pray for help with temperance and order in my life, and enact the changes recommended in the book as part of my responsibility in my own Christian growth.

As a pastor, I have even used some of the practical tips in counseling people who need help with “getting it together”. I’m not suggesting one replace scriptural counseling with it. Come on, be fair! I just think it has helpful practical tips to help the people we counsel to implement new systems like personal Bible study, family devotions, regular prayer times, homeschool routines, and the list could go on.

It’s a great book. Go get it here.