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Writing is an act of ego: the problem with Atomic Habits and why I’m giving it 2 stars

This post first featured in my bi-weekly Sunday newsletter, Idea Café on January 24, 2022. Find out more about Idea Café and read the archives here. I’ll be discontinuing the classic WordPress blog updates today, so please make sure you’re subscribed to my new list if you want to stay in touch!

Writing is an act of ego

…here’s why your Atomic Habits shouldn’t be.

Ironically, I’ve slipped out of my nighttime reading habit ever since starting to read Atomic Habits.

I wish this was some unlikely epiphany spurred on by the book, but it’s actually because I’ve found myself grumbling through it, highlighting passages with notes like “um no”, and keeping a growing list of reasons to justify giving it a two-star rating when I’m done. My reaction is admittedly dramatic and guttural – visceral at best – and at first, it seriously confused me given the book’s uninterrupted online praise.

For those unfamiliar with Atomic Habits by James Clear, it’s the #1 New York Times bestseller that has sold over 3 million copies since its publication in 2018. Its description promises a lot: “a proven framework for improving — every day” and “practical strategies that will teach you exactly how to form good habits [and] break bad ones”, from “one of the world’s leading experts on habit formation”.

Its first chapter is dedicated to setting up your expectations: “While science supports everything I’ve written, this book is not an academic research paper; it’s an operating manual.” Then it proceeds to under-deliver on the promise of proven scientific frameworks with a plethora of uncited, declarative statements the likes of: “Hearing your bad habits spoken aloud makes the consequences seem more real. It adds weight to the action rather than letting yourself mindlessly slip into an old routine.” Not to mention the questionable anecdote of asking his wife to book him into regular manicure appointments to help break his habit of nail-biting.

But let’s be honest. The book has some perfectly valid tips and tricks for habit-building (here’s a good summary)… That is if you can set aside the amateur and teeth-gritting overuse of a rhetorical device called symploce: “Junk food is a more concentrated form of calories than natural foods. Hard liquor is a more concentrated form of alcohol than beer. Video games are a more concentrated form of play than board games.”

An act of ego

The second function of the first chapter – as in many self-help books – is to establish the author as an “expert on the topic”. Done successfully, the book might have retained its merit despite being only somewhat science-based and mostly an operating manual; no one minds hearing anecdotal advice from someone they look up to.

This is an overlooked but critical element of good literature (not that self-help should necessarily be in the bidding). William Zinsser, in his excellent book “On Writing Well”, puts it like this:

“Ultimately, the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.”

James Clear’s claim to habit expertise is clearly entrenched in three things: achieving success with writing a best-selling book, recovering from a horrific sports injury in college, and … consistent blogging.

“It has been 939 days since November 12, 2012. That’s the date when I first published an article on JamesClear.com and it’s almost 2 years and 7 months ago. During these 939 mostly glorious, sometimes frustrating days, I have written a new post every Monday and Thursday. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year.”

Not only is this grandly self-important, but it tells you a lot about his approach to habits. Reading is a very vulnerable exchange between writer and reader; however hard the writer tries not to, he will inevitably offer up his deepest, truest values to the attentive reader. But you’ll have to look closely. It’s in the little turns of phrases, the choice of words, the omissions.

“But today? Well, today I am struggling. Today, I don’t feel like writing. Today, I don’t feel like sticking to the routine. Today, I don’t feel like I have any great ideas and I don’t feel like I have enough time to make the good ideas great. Today, I feel like giving up.

So, what do I do when I feel like giving up? I show up.

Do I show up at my best? I doubt it. But my job isn’t to judge how good or how bad I am.

My job is to do the work and let the world decide.”

Sure enough, the book reads like somebody’s daily writing habit.

Again, the key message of the book is valid: getting just 1% better every day at something has the power to generate compound returns in the long term. However, its implementation is important. Choosing dozens of banal ten-minute habits to stick to daily in sequence (that’s habit-stacking, another great idea in the book except that it’s borrowed from BJ Fogg) accomplishes three things: 

  • Allows someone to boast to their friends that they are now a musician, writer, athlete, reader, AND business owner all at the same time,
  • Gives them a regular boost of confidence without any real progress towards a meaningful craft or lifestyle change,
  • And takes up half of their morning.

In an interview with Daring Greatly author and TED speaker Brene Brown, James Clear calls the idea “very counter-culture”. He says, “it’s almost subversive to our culture that we live in today, if it’s not big and flashy, if you’re not doing the Iron Man, then your 10-minute jog around the neighborhood means nothing.” Except I would suggest considering that it’s extremely in-culture to be drawn to the quick fixes and short soundbites; it’s the very foundation of the addictive psychology that Instagram and TikTok have mastered.

Put another way, most habits worth having aren’t just boxes to mindlessly check off every day and conveniently fit in between a “regular life”.

Nothing worth having comes easy

The process of getting better at something takes more than just “showing up” every day. For most people, it actually involves sweat and tears, failure (on many accounts), humiliating internal lows, and navigating emotional turbulence. All of which are obtrusively absent in Atomic Habits.

I’m still waiting to qualify the author with having overcome any significant internal conflict in achieving his habits. Even the opening example of overcoming his college injury is communicated as an external setback. Success examples in the book are far removed from the inherent struggle of contending with the mental frameworks that often hold us back. Instead, quick fixes abound: make the habit itself obvious, attractive, easy and immediately satisfying.

This reminds me of William Zinsser’s spectacular anecdote of being asked to be one-half of a school panel on being a writer. He was an American writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher who began his career as a journalist, and he was to be the half representing “writing as a vocation”. A surgeon who had sold some stories to magazines was to balance him out by speaking to “writing as an avocation”. Surprisingly, their answers about writing differed drastically, and Zinsser writes, 

“At the end Dr. Brock told me he was enormously interested in my answers – it had never occurred to him that writing could be hard. I told him I was just as interested in his answers — it had never occurred to me that writing could be easy. Maybe I should take up surgery on the side.”

Clearly, Zinsser would also beg to differ with Clear’s above statement that “my job isn’t to judge how good or how bad I am.” Here’s his take on it:

“Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.”

Do we all suddenly need to become musicians, writers, runners, athletes, and speakers, or are we looking to make slow but meaningful progress in our lives? Sure, there is value in starting small, and there is power in compounding over time. But, careful: simply checking dozens of ten-minute habits off a list and then labelling ourselves is unlikely to take us down the path of the Greats. We’re better off choosing our habits carefully and applying ourselves to them in earnest and for the long run… not for the completion certificate.

Even after that, the real goliath remains standing in the way of our success: a true hero’s journey of overcoming external and internal obstacles, and a constant emotional battle with the self: from which You, in your flawed and present state, must at all odds emerge victoriously.

The trouble with identity habits and mental health

The biggest disservice I’ve ever done to myself in the pursuit of the complementary habits “living a healthy life” and “working out”, was linking my habits to my identity.

Atomic Habits popularizes this concept and calls it Identity-Based habits. It goes like this:

“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.”

Except here’s my thesis for this whole thing: I’ve come to realize that meeting or not meeting your goals should reflect absolutely NOTHING about you as a person. 

And for most people the line between “I ran a lot this week, therefore I am a person who is fit and healthy” and “I watched a lot of TV this week, therefore I am a lazy person” is dangerously nebulous. In fact, in psychology, this prevalent and detrimental cognitive distortion has its own name. “Labelling” is when you take a person’s behaviour and generalize it to their identity. Here’s a worksheet I’ve personally used to combat that kind of thinking, because the most mentally healthy people I know have one thing in common: an unwavering, intrinsic sense of worth and identity.

For this reason it is so important to me that we talk about the problematic undercurrents of identity-based habits (and therefore certain approaches to habits in general):

  1. They suffer a symptom called “marketing myopia, where the solution to the problem can be achieved through means other than the conventional means. If I’m feeling perfectly content, why should I spend thirty minutes journaling instead of watching a movie? Sticking to habits just for the sake of it misses the bigger picture.
  2. It is polarizing. If you consider TV a “bad” habit and journaling a “good” habit, then how will you regard those around you whose lifestyle happens to fall into habits you consider “bad”? 
  3. It idealizes an imaginary, unattainable abstraction of yourself. It primes you to constantly re-evaluate what you would do if you were a certain “kind of person”, rather than remain grounded in your own existing capacity and energy levels. It’s like social media comparison, but worse because there isn’t even a real person on the pedestal.

Rather, I think a far healthier – and less binary – approach is to start from a place of wanting to make your current self proud. Accomplishing a challenging daily habit doesn’t need to be a commitment to an ideal version of you that “does challenging things” or “is an athlete” or “is just an overall perfect person”. 

It can simply be a self-affirmation that, in your present circumstances, you can do challenging things. In my opinion, this right here sets you up with positive self-talk that will bring you closer to your goals than any brute force determination ever will.

Moreover, to return to my favourite business-school concept of marketing myopia, a habit is only as good as the outcome it is trying to achieve. I know this is annoyingly opposite to James Clear’s famous and well-cited “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” While I am typically one to proclaim loud and clear my love of systems, I strongly believe that a system of putting on a workout video every single day because it’s my habit is far inferior (and less realistic) than cultivating a mindset of wanting to stretch, move, and exert your muscles every day in the name of self-compassion.

My habit failure

For the past month, I’ve been in the (please note: neither good nor bad) habit of turning off my phone’s alarm and groggily browsing social media for the first 10 to 15 minutes of my day.

I’ve already cycled through the involved internal process I was talking about: I wasted my morning, I’m addicted to my phone, I need to force myself to be more motivated to get up quicker, I’m not as motivated of a person as I thought I was, how will I ever have time for my morning workouts when I start corporate life?

Once that’s over with (quicker than usual, courtesy of actively working to minimize that kind of negative self-talk), here are the three questions I’m asking myself instead:

  • Why is it important to me (if it is)? If I’m going to change this habit, I need to have a very good reason for it.
  • What will I replace it with? This packs a lot of concepts into it, but the essence is that I need to deal with my level of energy in a compassionate way.
  • When will I give myself time to enjoy the (neither good nor bad) habit? Is there another time of day where spending time on my phone might be better integrated into my day, and I’d be more likely to spend the time more productively?

How to grow as a person

Here are two takeaways I’d like to leave with you:

  1. Any lifestyle change worth building takes time, and you’re better off prioritizing a select few that are important to you and making quality progress, than pursuing the myth of superficial quantity.
  2. Self-compassionate people are more likely to pick themselves up after a failure. So don’t fall into the trap of tying your success or failure to your identity as a person, and get in it for the long run because you’re stuck with yourself for life.

Coming full-circle: the ego

At the risk of turning this into a book rant rather than a reflection on habits and personal growth (admittedly, I might have messed up the balance on that one), I think one of the reasons Atomic Habits does so well is summarized in this comical passage from an online book review:

“The whole thing was fantastic.

I didn’t get the sense of bullshit that’s so frequently found in self-help books, nor did I get the sense of “this stuff is impossible” either.

What I actually got most frequently was “omg I DO THIS!!!”.”

I find this very revealing: if anything, people appreciated the book because it brought to light and validated some habit building strategies. Unfortunately, there will always be a group of people for whom “omg I DO THIS” is points removed, not added, from the self-help book in front of them.

To close, I want to leave you with this beautiful note about working on ourselves by Cleo Wade:

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