Atomic Habits

James Clear


Reviewed by: dr T.

If you want to jam your brain, kill a good number of your neurons and be left confused, go ahead and take this book, which has sold 8 million copies, seriously.

Are we all the same?

Like many other self-help books, Atomic Habits has been written by a person who has never studied psychology, worked in a psychiatric clinic or done scientific research. It is based on the notion that we as humans are of one type (no individual differences, no personality differences, no differences in IQ or in circumstances) and that we have automatic habits which we need to control to succeed in life and attain our goals – despite the fact that each one of us may have a different one.

Made up "science"

Of course, Mr Clear does not define success or automatic habits in a scientific way. He does not specify whether he is talking about our way of thinking, perception, construction of the world, reasoning patterns, behaviours, when he discusses the automatic habits which we need to control. Hence, throughout the book we are left half-guessing what he means.

He makes many false claims about the human brain which contradict science and in many cases – logic. One such claim goes:
“In total, the framework I offer is an integrated model of the cognitive and behavioral sciences. I believe it is one of the first models of human behavior to accurately account for both the influence of external stimuli and internal emotions on our habits. While some of the language may be familiar, I am confident that the details — and the applications of the Four Laws of Behavior Change — will offer a new way to think about your habits.”

For any set of ideas to be considered as a model, it has to satisfy several conditions: it has to be precise, based on objective data, verifiable, falsifiable, but what is presented in this book is none of that. Rather, it is empty talk based on obsolete notions, such as B.F. Skinner’s 1930s reductionist understanding of human behaviour to be the product of reward and punishment, and a misunderstanding of neuropsychology as well as a complete lack of understanding of memory studies.

Another fallacy in this book reads: “Human behavior is always changing: situation to situation, moment to moment, second to second.” No, it doesn’t. Human behaviour is pretty consistent.

Clear also says that “The strategies I cover will be relevant to anyone looking for a step-by-step system for improvement, whether your goals center on health, money, productivity, relationships, or all of the above. As long as human behavior is involved, this book will be your guide.”
From that we induce that the human behaviour is governed by a limited number of powers and through controlling them, we can improve our lives and achieve our goals regardless of their nature. The same misleading notion is used by fortune tellers, conspiracy theorists, fraudsters. They all have discovered the hidden truth on their own while watching telly at home; no labs, no peer reviewed papers, no research teams, and no tangible evidence. They have passionate language and their word.

Repeating a behaviour versus a habit

The following is another fallacy:
 “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.”

This is an example of the inability to differentiate between the different types of behaviours and to understand the relationship between motive and behaviour as well as the notion of mental construction. The assumption that repeating a behaviour would make it a habit is simply false. In order for a behaviour in the first place to be repeated, there must be a motive. And once the motive is gone, the behaviour is expected to disappear. For instance, if a drug addict stayed in a rehab centre or jail for months, thus kept away from drugs, and was waking up every morning, eating healthy food, exercising and reading, would he not go back to using drugs and stop all the things he was doing for long time in the jail after he is released? What makes a person start using drugs in the first place and change their life? Most addicts had stayed without substances for at least the first 17 years of their lives, then why couldn’t they resist it similarly to the majority of people?

A person's ideas guide their actions

Every evidence-based psychotherapy is based on the notion that the human behaviour results from ideas, justified by other ideas and related to dominant ideas. People, even schizophrenic ones, do not go around doing stuff without a reason. Educated schizophrenics who live in the West are more likely to have delusions related to aliens and computers while uneducated people who live in cultures that believe in spirits and black magic would develop delusions related to these issues.

The educational system is based on building up complex system of ideas that contain many smaller applied notions. For someone to be a doctor, she needs to learn chemistry, biology, math, as well as anatomy, and before all that she must know how to read and write. Then she needs to understand germ theory as well as the definition of illnesses, their symptoms, and then she needs to know how to diagnose and to stay up to date with the different treatments and their side effects.

Furthermore, for any person to keep performing any act, there needs to be a justification. People abuse psychoactive drugs to avoid specific stressors, achieve what they see as joy, or cope with specific situation. Thus, in order to create a durable change in any person’s behaviour, his ideas need to be examined and altered by him first of all.

A client of mine was spending almost a third of his income on coffee shops. He would start his day by a visit to Starbucks; at noon he had to go for a sandwich and another coffee, and after finishing work he would grab something, too. In the evening he enjoys a caffeine-free hot drink with a small cake. Many have been trying to convince him to stop this expensive superfluous habit. He was told time and again that the money spent on coffees should go towards his household. He would listen carefully and agree with them and continue with his habit. After many sessions it turned out that he has never sincerely intended to stop this habit and that he had never been convinced by the people’s arguments. They failed to understand that this is part of his identity and a coping mechanism. He is not happy in his marriage, has issues with his brothers who live in the same building as him, he grew up in poverty. He enjoys meeting different people while sitting having his coffee and reading newspapers. For him, sitting in these coffee shops makes him feel better about himself. He also avoids arguing with his wife or his brothers. If he is to stay at home, most definitely he would get a divorce, something neither he nor his wife can afford or want. He feels hurt whenever someone tells him to make his own coffee and food. “They assume that they know me better than I know myself. They insult my intelligence and interfere in my life.”

"Identity emerges out of habits"? Wrong again.

The title of chapter 2 of Atomic Habits is “How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa)”. In this chapter, the author says: “Your identity emerges out of your habits. You are not born with preset beliefs. Every belief, including those about yourself, is learned and conditioned through experience.” Needless to say, he does not have a clue about what identity is and the fact that there is something called collective identity, which is our membership in different groups, and what that membership means for us. People give up their lives for their nation, which they didn’t choose to be born in. On the other hand, people do leave their home country, change their names, religions, and language. Does that turn their identity upside down? The author also doesn’t seem to understand the whole concept of individual identity and how people have different traits that affect their way of thinking and behaviours.

"The book helped me"

Why does Atomic Habits “work” for some people? For such a claim to be taken seriously, we need to see the percentage of people who benefited from this book. Also, we need to see the degree of improvement in their behaviour and how long it lasted. How many goals did they achieve? When we promote a specific type of psychological intervention, we are responsible for showing its efficacy as well as its side effect.

Many people tend to claim that they were helped by simple ideas such as the ones in this book as well as many other self-help books, by a life coach, motivational talks. The fact is this effect has never been documented and is mostly exaggerated. People are biased and tend to believe that since they have put some effort in a task, then they must have gained something. Many say that the bad relationships they went through made them better people. This might be right to a degree but one can argue that they wasted valuable parts of their lives and the poisonous relationships tend to leave stains on our self-image and distort our perspective.

People also are capable of understanding the same text in many different ways that suits their goals. Moreover, some people who search for such books and read them, tend to be ready to change and this what made them focus on their goals. The question for whomever claims that this book had helped him is to show the extent and the longevity of the effects of reading this book as well as think of the other factors that might have contributed to the change that took place.

The harm of a magic fix

Throughout the book, Clear fails time and again to understand that people are extremely complex and that a generalisation about the human psyche needs evidence. More importantly, such books could be very harmful as they claim that there is a magical fix; this can make people blame themselves rather than realising their true abilities.

Would Clear try his model in a rehab centre? Would he try it in a forensic ward? Would he try it in an educational setting to see if it is effective or not?

Can I give “Atomic Habits” minus points?

Atomic Habits by James Clear - Review