The Paucity of Atomic Habits

Anyone who’s self-employed or an entrepreneur eventually faces the challenge of motivating themselves to grow or improve their business. Once a certain level of means is reached, it’s a particularly tough thing to do. I have taken comfort that it’s a challenge faced by even the truly successful. The comedian Steve Martin wrote that “through the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”

There is no harm in James Clear’s Atomic Habits. But please understand that, at best, it will charge you up and the valid inspiration will come from somewhere else.

It’s not that Clear offers a wholly vapid tome with no value. Indeed, anyone reading it will certainly take something useful out of it. He cites a study in Chapter 7 where approximately nine out of ten American soldiers who were addicted to heroin in Vietnam dropped the habit upon return to America. The awareness of that will certainly make anyone more conscious about their environment. The case study in Chapter 11 where a University of Florida professor divided his film photography class into two groups, will certainly inspire anyone on the importance of simply taking action. Next,many writers stuck may be tempted to put most of their clothes into storage, lock themselves into a room and finish their work in the mold of Victor Hugo. Finally, I agreed with Clear’s concept near the beginning of the book that a shift in identity might be a better way to shift some nasty habits.

So, the book has several great nuggets. And Clear’s chosen subject has value. I personally attest to the value of having some good habits. My personal finances blossomed once I drank the harsh medicine that repetitively saving small amounts makes a big difference over time. Truly, when the pandemic came those savings afforded me with choices.

Perhaps in fact, the paucity of Atomic Habits, isn’t what’s said but the mirror it shines back on American life at this juncture. For example, Clear’s advice about putting the beer in the back of the fridge to reduce drinking isn’t wrong. But in doing so, the reader avoids the more difficult question — why I am so bored/lonely/frustrated/angry that I am so prone to drinking?

Next, Clear’s advice about continuing to work out, even on a bad day where the best effort you can give is half-assed, is probably decent advice. But he gets there quoting Charlie Munger on compound interest. Setting aside the snarky fact that Munger hardly looks like a paragon of personal health, it begs several questions. Why have Americans become obsessed with optimizing their lives instead of living them? Why have ideas from finance drifted into so many facets of American life? And dare we should ask the question of whether Munger should be held up as a life tutelary just because he got insanely rich?

In Chapter 16, Clear tells us the story of an entrepreneur who has set a Tweet to automatically dispatch every morning at a certain time with a payment link. The goal being that it would cause him to get out of bed so that he doesn’t have to make the payment. Clever, I suppose. Banal, definitely. And yes, it has much of the same problems as the beer in the back of the fridge. Asking why it’s so hard to get out of bed in the morning begs deeper questions.

Here’s the penultimate rub for me. In Chapter 14 Clear, extols the story of John Henry Patterson. Patterson had a problem with employee theft at his small store. In response he bought a mechanical cash register and in 1884 bought the cash register company, which became the National Cash Register Company. Clear points out that the locking drawer broke the employee habit of stealing from the till.

Fine. But, from the tenor and tone of much of Atomic Habits, had Patterson adhered to the advice in the book, he would have acted quite differently. Perhaps when facing the pain of employee theft, he would have set up a jar of paperclips to establish a new habit of randomly checking in on his employees. Each time he peered over at the cash register during the day he would have moved a paperclip into the jar and . . . I exaggerate for effect. But it’s true that Clear never acknowledges that that a small-town general store operator transitioning into owning the National Cash Register Corporation is anything but habitual.

In his defense, Clear would not have suggested that habits are a panacea for all ills. Indeed, he states the purpose of automating some processes is to free us up for more creative tasks. But, nevertheless, where that line is drawn remained unclear to me and I think it underscores my initial point. It’s a good book for a charge up on a few processes, but not a place to find real inspiration.

Steve Jobs famously said that “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Holding ourselves up to the standard of Jobs or of Patterson may require Herculean effort. At least the Jobs quote seems to acknowledge that not every day will be lollipops and roses. In the end, however, it seems better to explore those feelings than to establish systems or ruses to override them. Much of Clear’s audience, undoubtedly, has given up on really addressing those feelings. A trained radiologist with student loans must get out of bed and read more x-rays whether it fulfills them or not. A mother with three kids at home relying on her husband for income might stay in the marriage — despite the pain of watching her husband’s extramarital affairs. Parents of a child in chemotherapy may just need the extra wine to endure the pain. Maybe in some cases, Atomic Habits is the right salve.

On the best mornings of my life though, I remember practically darting out of bed. Why would I need a Tweet to wake up me up if I were living properly? In a past unfulfilling relationship, I got fat. I was comfort eating and leaving the relationship was a better choice than trying to find new ways to get motivated to go the gym. The day I took my nieces to meet the Princesses at Disneyland, I skipped the gym altogether. I have no memory of the cost of the lunch where I met my first serious boyfriend, but the priceless advertising slogan comes to mind.

It’s not that Clear wrote bad book. It’s that our age is in want of false prophets. A better life exists with a just a few tweaks, readers want to believe. Tweaks that help us endure or ignore and therefore we get a book of commensurate smallness. In the ending chapters Clear somewhat acknowledges this stating “you have to fall in love with boredom.”

But do you? Good habits create a good life — but what of those seeking the extraordinary life? To paraphrase Rumi, out beyond our notions of good habits and bad habits is a field. I’ll meet you there.

Bantry Bay, Cape Town, South Africa

Nomad. Sometimes writer. Sometimes slut. Afrophile. Investor. Art Collector. LGBT. See also:

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