Book Review: ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear

Atomic Habits by James Clear The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

James Clear’s 2018 book ‘Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones’ is a work that belongs solidly in the self-help, psychology, and productivity genres. But to use a word I like perhaps better, and have fewer qualms and less queasiness about categorically, this is a book about self-control.

Are we able to form and break habits as the need arises? Nothing says more clearly whether or not we have control and discipline over ourselves.

But Atomic Habits is definitely a work that lends itself to a morally neutral overview of the science behind willpower, and we should not kid ourselves to the contrary.

Some quotes I liked in this book include the following most popular from the page for Atomic Habits:

  • “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
  • “You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”
  • “You don’t have to be the victim of your environment. You can also be the architect of it.”
  • “Good habits can make rational sense, but if they conflict with your identity, you will fail to put them into action.”

Good so far, and I think these are correct and helpful.

Some quotes I loved least, however, include the following:

  • “Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”
  • “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
  • “If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.”

If you’re wondering why the first set of quotes resonated but the second set failed to, the common denominator is systems. James Clear holds to an unspoken assumption regarding human will which reminds me too much of what Cassius famously says to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

That is, we are as the great Reformers of the last five centuries would say, in bondage to our own will and nature. The question is not whether we are free, but whether we will ever do anything contrary to our nature. And if our nature is such that we are slaves to sin and folly, freedom or no freedom is beside the point, save for a miracle and divine intervention. The question is “free to what?” Or perhaps we should put it another way. “Free from what?”

Such being the spirit of this age and unsurprising, nevertheless I am disappointed that this problem of the human will is not directly tackled in Atomic Habits. Rather, by turn it is accommodated or else avoided entirely. But you can tell where the obstacle is by watching us all maneuver around it as we follow the author through the subject as he intends to treat it.

Nevertheless, I intend to tackle it. Where better than a review to do so?

What do we say we want, and what do we actually want? These two are not necessarily one and the same. And the conflict between the two needs resolved by more than just getting more clever in tricking ourselves. I think we do enough of that without resolving to go with the flow yet more. So then we come to another question. And do we dare ask whether we ought to want all of what we want? If James Clear had asked that question, he almost certainly would not have been invited regularly to speak to the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Time, CBS This Morning, and Fortune 500 companies. But there you have it.

I have no such qualms, though. So here you have it: I say that we do not wish to share fully what our desires are, and that perhaps we keep all of what encompasses what we want a secret, even to ourselves. And yet this fact often makes it difficult or else impossible to achieve what we happily do admit of our intentions.

This is not necessarily because we are lying, per se. Rather, we are not telling the whole truth, perhaps especially if we ourselves don’t even realize what the whole truth about ourselves is. And so, if we are lying, we are lying also to ourselves.

In short, we are slaves to our own passions and desires. We are held fast by invisible chains. And that fact is always interfering with pursuing wisdom and virtue or their attendant routines.

To some extent, James Clear hints at this without directly dealing with it when he recommends at various points that the secret to both forming and breaking habits has a lot to do with whether we make them easy, attractive, highly visible, and enjoyable. If you want to get yourself to start doing something, pair that repetitive action with a reward which you are drawn irresistibly to, a compulsion which will counteract the inherent unattractiveness of the good habit you are trying to take up. Tempt and trick yourself into doing the thing without thinking about it. Aspire to self-seduction.

Subject yourself to intentional operant conditioning, in other words. Ring the bell as you give yourself the treat, then salivate. 

But here is where I would give my biggest caution and encouragement, when we are endeavoring to correctly define which of our habits are good and which are bad. How do you know what to put into one category or the other?

Such requires the conviction that knowing good from evil is both possible and desirable, and that something of our mode of life, thoughts, and feelings should be affected thereby. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to suggest this is faulty. Quite the opposite, actually.

Moreover, it’s because I believe this to be the case that I would say the first habit we should form is to find out and know what is good and to reject and turn away from what is evil – not least in the month of June here in the United States of America.

As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

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