There are a number of books to choose from when it comes to self-improvement. Some are more helpful than others. Many are confusing to people because they have no real place of reference to gauge. Our problems are many and it just becomes overwhelming to wrap your head around change sometimes, when you get right down to it.
Today I will be doing a book review on Atomic Habits, a New York Times Bestseller from James Clear. The book has many reputable reviews and a few negative ones, but this review will be my own application as a recovering heroin addict and now Alcohol & Drug Counselor. I will be reviewing rather or not Mr. Clear’s applications, expressed and taught in his book, would or could benefit the very large community of people recovering from addiction. So without further ado, let’s jump right in!
What Are Atomic Habits
In his book, James Clear expresses that atomic habits are “tiny habits that are incorporated or “stackable habits” on top of the ones that we already perform, a little at a time. He also expresses the difference between building on the good habits that we have incorporated in our lives opposed to the bad ones that we do nothing about. These are also incorporated into our makeup.
In this book Mr. Clear explains how to make small adjustments in our lives, ones that are advantageous, by implementing little tiny habits, which he refers to as atomic habits, on top of ones that already exist. He states, “If we were to make a 1% small adjustment every day, by the end of the year we would be a 37% better version of ourselves.
What 1% Looks Like
Let’s say that I brush my teeth before I go to bed but I do not floss. To incorporate a stackable ‘tiny atomic habit’ on top of my brushing, I would add in “before I brush my teeth I am going to floss the lower right side of my mouth. Notice I did not say the complete mouth, the upper teeth or the lower teeth in general. I stated, “the lower right side” of my mouth. Maybe the next day I implement the lower left side. The point is that it is a habit that I want to stack on top of brushing my teeth. Not to just brush them, but to floss them. But I take tiny steps to build this habit. What happens is that the goal isn’t to just brush and floss my teeth. The goal becomes to have healthier teeth.
The 4 Stages Of A Habit Being Formed
In order to form a habit, good or bad, there are 4 ingredients that Mr. Clear expresses in his analogy, which have to take place with a certain outcome which initiates the law of behavior change. These 4 ingredients that James Clear refers to are:
- Cue —————->Obvious
I will try to paint an example of a habit being formed with starting to smoke cigarettes. Someone offers me a cigarette, which is the cue, and my cue is obvious. The cigarette is in front of me.
Something inside me has a craving for it, not because I am addicted to it yet, but because I see everybody else smoking with impunity and it becomes attractive in the sense, “Hey, I want to try a cigarette for myself”
The response to the offer is very easy, because all I have to do is accept the offer! Doesn’t get easier than that.
Prior to the offer, the smoker that offered the cigarette expresses a reward of satisfaction from inhaling the smoke, and obviously the nicotine. By the way, over 1.1 billion people are chasing this satisfaction, which clearly becomes the reward of satisfying the individual(s) who inhale and partake of its smoke lined with nicotine.
So the cue, which was obvious, ignites a craving of attraction, which makes it attractive, and being attractive brings my response to the offer that is easy, because my focus now is on an outcome of my reward, after inhaling the cigarette, the finality of being satisfied.
In essence, it’s fair to say that every single person that smokes cigarettes had to start this habit somewhere. There was a cue that took place, which was obvious, there was a craving that became attractive, a response to reply was easy and the reward, we believed, to be worth it or satisfying.
Breaking The Bad Habit
The process of breaking bad habits, as explained in Atomic Habits, is kind of like reverse engineering from the stages of forming habits. All habits are formed, good and bad. The bad ones, once we discover or believe they are indeed actually bad for us, an inversion, so to speak, needs to take place. The chart now looks like this:
- Cue—————>make it invisible
- Craving———->make it unattractive
- Response——->make it difficult
- Reward———->make it unsatisfying
In order to start working on the breaking of a bad habit, the perspective is now that what was once cued as obvious, now needs to be cued as invisible; the craving that was once attractive, is seen as unattractive; the easy response is now a response that is difficult and the reward of satisfaction has been demoted to an understanding that the reward will, in fact, be unsatisfying.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear lays down some very compelling foundational footwork that anybody would surely benefit from and that anyone, as well, can implement and execute. He states, “many people think that they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity” meaning they have no clear cut plan to follow that has been put in place. He emphasizes that you can be motivated all you want, but until you put your plan in place and have the clarity to fulfill it, nothing will happen.
So Let’s hypothetically say, you are trying to stop smoking now, you know, that nasty habit you picked up while reading this. If someone offers you a cigarette and you recently quit, what would be your response? “No thank you, I am trying to quit” or would a more affirmative response to that be, “No thank you, I am not a smoker”
Whatever you do, Clear explains, “every action that you take is a vote for the type of person you want to be”.
So at this point, Clear explains, you have to ask yourself, “Am I still a smoker who is trying to quit?” or “Am I now a non-smoker?” Surely the latter states who you are, in fact, not who you are trying to be. You ARE a non-smoker, not a person who is TRYING to quit. This play on words may seem subtle to us. That’s because they are, but as Mr. Clear explains, “true change is identity change”. The identity is in the ‘are’ not a smoker, not the smoker ‘trying’ to quit.
In understanding this design for change that James Clear reports, he conveys that true change is identity change. The identity change above implies that your identity is in the non-smoker, not the smoker who is trying to quit. If we identify ourselves as a smoker who is trying to quit, then that’s all we’ll be. Just a smoker who is motivated to quit. But the identity change in, “I am a non-smoker implies true change that has a finality to it.
Mr. Clear shares in his book that by implementing tiny atomic habits, these habits become the compound interest of self-improvement. He goes on to further relate that our true success is the product of our daily habits, which is often confused with a once-in-a-lifetime transformation which never takes place. It is simply a want or a need to. You can want and need all day long without doing anything about it is the breakdown that is relayed
Now that we have an understanding of the stages habits are formed and the laws that apply to behavior change, we can look at the intentional implementation of what we now understand and how to apply it. These 4 elements are the application:
Referring to them as Implementation Intentions, Clear breaks it down in laymen terms.
To implement noticing, he states that, “you need to give your goals a place and time to live in the world”, meaning that your goals need to have a schedule that are met consistently. This is noticing and understanding what you notice.
In wanting, what is applied is the steps to making it happen in your physical environment. Clear gives the example, if you want to start broadening your perspective of literature, novels or the sort, you may want to implement reading a book. So you decide to incorporate, “I want to read a chapter of a book before I go to sleep at night.” To make this want become a reality, you are going to put the book on your pillow to remind you that you have a chapter to read before retiring to sleep. Placing the book on your pillow, thus, would be the incorporated atomic habit to this. The goal, Clear explains, is not to read a book, but to become a reader.
The doing part is fairly simple, if you can wrap your head around it. It is explained that you have to optimize the starting line instead of the finish line. An example given is if you want to start to get in shape, you must start with few reps and build to more reps. If you don’t, you will easily get discouraged. Trying to do 10 reps of weights in a set and the goal is 5 sets might not be realistically attainable, if you have never lifted weights. So you may get 1 set in of 10 reps but the other 4 sets? You may just quit before you actually get started. So in just starting out, may be 4-5 reps of 3 sets to begin at the starting line and build up to the finish line. This, in turn, would be ‘do-able’.
These atomic habits become behavior, like any other habit, and just knowing that they are ‘good’ or advantageous habits that you are incorporating, builds a liking. If you like something, you will begin to repeat it. The difference is knowing rather it is hindering you or benefiting you. Once you realize what you are doing is beneficial, you begin to intentionally implement it, small steps at a time, optimizing the starting line.
The 3 Layers Of Behavior Change
Clear explains, like most things in life, we want instant gratification in most cases. If we think we are fat or overweight, we want to lose weight or be skinny, but without doing any work. It’s the defective behavior in us as humans. I personally think we inherited these defective characteristics from Adam & Eve in the Garden, but whatever the case, we got em!
So as James Clear further instructs, behavior change consists of these 3 things:
This becomes easier with everything else implemented. Example for someone who wants to lose weight:
The outcome is realized to be “I am going to lose weight”.
The process is “this is what I am going to do to reach this goal”
And the identity becomes, “I believe I am going to do it”…and you act as such.
Once again, you can sit around all day saying, “Oh I want to lose weight!” or “Oh I need to lose weight!”. You are just singing to the choir until you speak the existence of, “I am going to lose weight. I am going to DO it!” By changing your belief, you are changing the identity of who you are.
Applying Atomic Habits To Addiction
Right off the bat we know that addiction is a character defect. If we want to go to the depths of self-pity, and stay there, then we can say that, “we suffer from a disease that is incurable”. So is addiction a disease or is it a defect of character? Could it be that it is a behavioral habit? If so, can this book help not just one, but all of these areas? Well, let’s take a look as people with addictions. Keep in mind, your addiction is not mine. It is yours. Yours might be gambling, while mine was heroin. Theirs might be Vodka, while yours was methamphetamine or different from his that was sex.
If your life has become unmanageable then you are not the best version you that you can be of you. Can we agree on that? You simply cannot be the best version of you in your addiction, whatever the addiction is.
If I went to the doctor and the doctor told me that I have Hepatitis C but there was a medication called ‘Harvoni‘ that could, over a period of time, treat the chronic illness permanently, I would not hesitate to follow the doctors instructions (true story by the way) because this treatment would be in my best interest. It would help me to be a healthier version of me.
Defect of Character
Let’s say that Martin is a person who struggles with alcohol use disorder (alcoholic really), and gets sober every 6 months and stays sober for 30 days, then goes back to drinking for 6 months, gets clean afterwards for another 30 days, and so on and so on. Martin, it’s fair to say, like any other alcoholic struggling to stay sober, has developed a pattern of a system that he now uses, is familiar with and is, unfortunately, comfortable with, even if it is bringing him unavoidable misery at the finish line. This bad habit is part of Martin’s system now. Until this habit is broken, it can’t be replaced with anything else.
Martin may want to change. He may even plead with himself that he “needs to change”. Unfortunately, the ‘want’ and the ‘need’ will not bring about change. Only the results of what he does “do” will reveal a change. Nothing else.
It should be understood from the gate, that addiction is just one form of defective behavior. There are many more to deal with. To do so, what James Clear transmits is that it takes tiny atomic habits to implement to change the behavior. Even in my own triumph within the battle of overcoming an addiction which lasted well over 20 years, the point is that it lasted “over 20 years”. It wasn’t until I decided to implement some changes that I began to see some results. I had to live in the “do”, not the “want” or the “need” to.
The Benefit Of This Book In Addiction Recovery
If we can understand that Atomic Habits over a period of time produce long term identity change, then we can take Clear’s advice. If I want to better myself by reading, the goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader; not to run a marathon, but to become a runner; not to write a book, but to become a writer.
I believe after reading this book, the community of addiction, if you relate, will be able to see that the goal is not to stop using drugs so I can get clean, the goal is to be a person who doesn’t use drugs, period!
The goal is not to stop drinking alcohol and sober up; the goal is to NOT be an alcohol consumer, period!
This can be applied to the infamous ‘RELAPSE” too!
The goal is not to avoid another relapse, the goal is to be a person who doesn’t use anything that is mind altering or lives in abstinence.
As I stated in the beginning, this book has many good reviews. The unfavorable reviews, in my opinion, come from people who weren’t ready to embrace who they are or better yet, be willing to become a better version of who they are. For anybody that read this book and found no benefit, I would have to say that a change for the better is outside the spectrum of your belief. Remember that every action that you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become. If you have no aspirations of bettering yourself, then this book is definitely not for you.
This book clearly (by Mr. Clear lol) not only explains how changing your belief changes your identity, but it demonstrates it as well. Very clearly. So clear that Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles could see it themselves. James Clear says something that solidifies the whole thing to sum it up. He says, “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your system.”
In other words, you will never reach any goals because the system that you use is not designed to overcome or change anything. You just continue to live, and fantasize, in your ‘want’ and ‘need’. That system has to be changed.
This book, in my humble and unbiased opinion, can help and benefit ANYBODY. We all have obstacles and they don’t necessarily have to be addiction related. This book transforms the “I need” to “I get” mindset, says James Clear and I agree.
True change is identity change. What do you need to change today? You have to ask yourself and honestly answer yourself as well. I firmly believe that in educating yourself with this book, you position yourself to really change your belief system. Once the system is changed, then the goals change from being unreachable to becoming attainable. This book transforms the mindset of “I need to” into “I get to”. You tell me what sounds better? “I need to make a change in my life” or…..” I get to make a change in my life!”
The investment in this book is less than $20 at Amazon. That’s less than a good meal at Chili’s or Red Robin.
The bottom line is that the investment you make in this book is an investment in you becoming the best version of YOU that you can be! It is an investment that will serve you your lifetime, if utilized. Get busy on being a better you!
Please, if you decide to pick-up the book and read it, come back to this site and post your experience with it afterwards. Share what it is that helped or motivated you. We look forward to hearing from you!