TBU#23 What’s the big deal about Atomic Habits?

Episode 23 March 07, 2023 00:25:38
TBU#23 What’s the big deal about Atomic Habits?
Two Booked Up
TBU#23 What’s the big deal about Atomic Habits?

Mar 07 2023 | 00:25:38


Hosted By

Rowena Mabbott Shelley Tonkin Smith

Show Notes

Shelley’s got a bee in her bonnet in this episode! The reason? Atomic Habits by James Clear. Since it was published in October 2018, it has appeared in the best-seller list multiple times and gets recommendations from far and wide — especially around the start of a new year.

Yet Shelley is not a fan and doesn’t believe this book deserves to be the definitive book on habits (gasp!). In this episode, she goes through her reasons why — and yes, spills some tea in the process!

Shelley argues that James Clear goes out of order, putting habit formation before much consideration of WHY you’d want to form those habits in the first place (leaving you with a list of “shoulds”). She also found his definition of the term “habits” to be too vague — so much so that he was giving credit to habits when the credit was due to something else entirely.

And then there’s the very behviourist (carrot-and-stick), hardcore, pushy way that James Clear approaches habits. And ooooh, does she take exception to that!

Listen in and let us know if you think Shelley has been too harsh on James Clear. Or, did she express some of the reservations you’ve had about the book?

Find Shelley @ShelleyTSmith on Twitter and Rowena @rowenamabbott on Instagram.

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Find us online at twobookedup.com and keep in touch with Two Booked Up via email by signing up for the Two Booked Up Bookclub.

Connect with Rowena @rowenamabbott on IG and at rowenamabbott.com. You can also get Rowena’s FREE new e-book, The A - Z of Career and Life Confidence here.

Connect with Shelley @shelleysmithcreative on IG and @ShelleyTSmith on Twitter. Her copywriting business is at shelleysmithcreative.com and her writing and other musings are at shelleytonkinsmith.com.

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Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Rowena: Hello, you are listening to Two Booked Up. I'm Rowena Mabbott, and today my lovely co-host, Shelly Tonkin Smith is going to be talking about the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. Since it was published in October, 2018, it has appeared in the bestseller list multiple times. There are of course, certain times of year, for example, around New Year and during spring, both the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere versions that the Atomic Habits book pops up again, and then it seems to be everywhere you look and everybody is recommending it. Today, Shelley is going to share with you why she doesn't think the book deserves to be the go-to book on habits, the three main issues she believes with the book are.... Firstly, that James Clear teaches about habits before giving consideration for why you might want to create these automatic behaviors. Secondly, his actual definition of habits is quite vague, so she found, he gave broad credit to habits where often there was a different phenomenon at play. . And lastly, she did not like the behaviorist hardcore way. He approached habit formation. Yep. She goes there. So if you have read Atomic Habits or have had it recommended or are interested in exploring habits, keep listening. This is an episode you don't wanna miss. [00:01:25] Shelley: This is the Two Booked Up podcast, where we talk about books. [00:01:35] Rowena: The books that are challenging us to live more intentional lives. [00:01:39] Shelley: The books that are equipping us on our business and professional journeys. [00:01:43] Rowena: and the books that delight and bring us joy. [00:01:47] Shelley: If you want to live life with more intention and you want to be doing work that brings you joy, then come and join the bookish conversation with me, Shelley Tonkin Smith. [00:01:58] Rowena: And me, Rowena Mabbott here on Two Booked Up. [00:02:02] Shelley: So Atomic Habits by James clear. It seems that everyone who's, anyone seems to recommend this book. It's become the definitive book on habits. And of course, with the new year and people trying to develop new habits and new year's resolutions, it's recommended every way. But having read the book and considered it. I do not care for this book. And so today I'm going to be doing a little bit of blowing up of atomic habits and sharing a little bit about why I don't really find the approach that James Clear gives in the book. Very useful. [00:02:51] Shelley: So while they are a few nuggets of useful information, I really don't think this deserves to be the go-to book on habits. And I'm going to feel free in voicing my issues. Because James clear, even states in the intro to the book. And I quote, "anything foolish, assume it's my error,". So, okay, James, I'm going to use that as permission. And. Listeners be prepared. I am going to be spilling some tea here. So, let me start off with my sort of big beef, my big concern that I have with Atomic Habits. Is, he goes out of order. So he puts this habit formation step before any kind of prioritization. I get it. It's not really the, the remit of the book. But. I think it's really dangerous to just talk about habits without any kind of intention behind those habits. And I think it sends us down a slippery slope of "shoulds". I should lose weight. I should exercise more. I should improve my education. I should start a business and so on and so forth. I should spend more time with my kids. I should do more for the environment. The list goes on with a bunch of like guilty things that we are not doing. And none of those. Like ideas and those sort of directions that you want to apply habits to are bad. But I really believe that if you are going to commit to behavior change and to habit change, you really do need to prioritize whether you really want to make that change. And at the beginning of the book, James Clear, really takes aim at this idea of goals. So I think there is a bit of a difference between goal orientated thinking and habits orientated thinking. He says we should forget about goals and focus rather on a system or a process. Rather than focusing on the final outcome. And I get it. I also really believe that the joy of life is in the journey. I believe that we should be playful and experimental rather than being too hyper-specific on particular outcomes. But we also need to know where we're headed. Otherwise, we're going to be doing the equivalent of systematizing and habituating running on a hamster wheel. We have got to be intentional about what we each individually, want out of life, because otherwise we just go to, by default, kind of adopt what society says we should want out of life. And I think a lot of the examples that he uses, there's a lot of examples around losing weight and that kind of thing. And by all means, you know, if that's, if that's a goal of yours, absolutely fine. But there's this idea of like good habits and bad habits. And I think we need to be very careful. Uh, Rowena said in a blog post before there's no good habits and bad habits as such. There's just effective habits or habits that are not being effective and you have to be effective towards a particular goal or a particular intention, at least -I like to put it that way. And a lot of the examples that he gives in the book do actually have that implicit goal to guide the habits. So, so then it's okay to just go, okay, let's apply the system and they have these. Like good habits that we're adopting to get to an outcome. So he uses a lot of sports, examples. Where there's medals, and there's like winners of leagues and that kind of thing. So it's, it's very clear what kind of goal you're getting to wards. And then, the idea is that you apply these small habits to get there. But I think this is where. The whole book structure for me was off. The last section of the book and it's the last, less than a third. Is called "Advanced Tactics. How to go from being merely good to being truly great." I mean, I didn't even like that title, because we're all good. Right? We're all, even great. But that part of the book actually was where he brought in. A little bit more of the why behind the system of habits that you're applying to life. And it's where he talks about things. Like start with a period of exploration. Like if you want to take on a new habits, start with a period of exploration. Of why you wants this habits and what you want out of this habit that you're trying to apply. Tryouts arrange of solutions in an experimental approach. He says this in the book and I'm like, yay. Finally, you're saying something. Uh, logical. Yeah. To me. Um, before you commit to one, and it's only once you commit to one solution that you've prioritized, this is important. That you actually put habits and put a system. Around that solution. Because as I say, then otherwise your habits are actually default . Okay. So I think that actually brings me onto my second main issue with this book. And. That is that I don't think that he's really dealt with habits as such. So, habits is a very provocative idea. And I think honestly, the success of this book. Why it's consistently in the top 10. Especially at the beginning of years is because of the title and because of the idea of habits. So the title is. "Atomic Habits, an easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones." I mean, that is just so provocative. That is so compelling. And then it's got like a pre header above the title. That says "tiny changes, remarkable results." As a copywriter, I'm like nailed it. That's really, really great. But I don't actually think the book delivers on what it promises there. Yes. Sure. It's it's these tiny changes and remarkable results, but that's as how vague it is. You don't get anything more than that. And I feel the concept of habits is never really clearly defined for me by James Clear. The closest I could find was a bit of a definition, but you know, on my Kindle, I can see where people have highlighted things and I saw, like there's a lot of mic drop moments. It's like over 30,000 people have highlighted particular passages. But I found what I feel is a definition of atomic habits and there's zero highlighters on this. Anyway, the definition that I think is as close to a definition as is this, and I quote. "This is the meaning of the phrase atomic habits. A regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do. But also the source of incredible power. A component of the system of compound growth." So that's the end of the quote. And that's really kind of what the book is about. It's that you do small changes and that leads to this compounding growth and you kind of have to trust the process. Keep applying these small changes that don't seem to be moving the needle. But trusting the compounding that's going to lead to this growth. And to me, well, I mean, I've gone and looked up the definition of what is a habit. It's something that is done with automaticity. And it's often done subconsciously. So we actually don't really think of our habits. And I think what this book is trying to do is to help us develop new good habits so that we're automatically just doing these good things. And then that leads us to these very compelling, but very general end points. And I feel like in the book. James Clear gives so much credit to habits where the credit might be due to just a system of incremental changes. So like he opens up with a discussion of the British cycling team. And they go, okay, well, what is cycling? We do what we're doing badly. So let's break up, cycling into pieces. And so they experiment with. For example, trying different massage gels to see which one aids muscle recovery faster. And they paint the storage facility where they store their bikes, they painted white so that they can detect any dust and make sure that that doesn't interfere with the components of the bikes. That's, that's not a habit. That's incremental changes towards a particular goal. Um, because in the British cycling team is super successful. And then there's other examples also with sports, like the Lakers basketball team. And they have got this career best effort where they reflect and review after a match and go, was it my career best efforts and give themselves points and stuff. That's to me, it's not habits. That's the power of review and reflection happening. Um, there's also other examples of I'm like, that's not a habit. That's the power of play and experimentation. So to me I actually don't think it's a very good book on habits, even though it is this pivotal book that everyone claims to be the last word on habits. My third issue that I'm going to talk about today, and I'm going to limit myself to just this third issue, but it is a big one. It's just this behaviorist focus. So this is very much aligned with Skinner's behaviorist approach to psychology, where you've got a Q a craving, a response, and a reward. So that's James Clear's kind of process of habit that you get a cue that, that cues up a craving, and then you respond in some way and you get some kind of reward. And so that's the process he suggests y ou use to build good habits. But I find this behaviorist approach as a really catch all with no personalization or individualization when it comes to forming habits. And I'm just going to quote from the book, just to show you something that totally does not align with me. It makes me feel like he thinks we're all robots. So the quote is, "behavior only shifts if the punishment is painful enough and reliably enforced. In general, the more local, tangible, concrete, and immediate the consequence, the more likely it is to influence individual behavior. The more global, intangible, vague and delayed the consequence, the less likely it is to influence individual behavior." And to me, that just sounds so awful. Like the idea of punishment and reward. Maybe it works for other people. But that's not where I get my motivation to change my behavior and to change my habits. There's other things like an accountability buddy, especially the way he puts it. He's like knowing someone is watching you. Like that kind of thing is only really going to work with obligers. If you look at Gretchen Rubin's four tendencies. I mean, Rowena is my accountability buddy, but I don't. Do my work, because I know that Rowena is watching me as such. I do it in, out of a spirit of partnership, like with this podcast, and the spirit of support and journeying and together. So to me, It's my identity, rather than this idea of punishments. So that really doesn't sit, doesn't jive with me. He does say in the very last section "habits are easier to perform and more satisfying to stick with when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities." That's a quote. But it took until the very end of the book to spell this out. And that's all I was like, oh my goodness. Thank goodness. He's finally added a layer of individualization. And that to me is actually not the icing on the cake. It's not going from good to great. Individualizing your habits needs to come right at the beginning. You need to know your, why you need to know your intention and you need to know what is this person that I'm dealing with here. Which is yourself. How am I going to actually change my ways? And then just a little. Adjunct from this. Is that he's got a very hardcore pushy. And I'm going to say stereotypically masculine approach to habits. And here, I just felt. You know, you don't have to push so hard to change your behavior. I think if you can rather dig a bit deeper into the why behind your behavior, then it will become easier for you. I'm going to just quote a few things that stood out to me as, like, this very pushy, very, hardcore kind of approach. So he says. "What feels like fun to me, but work to others? The mark of whether you are made for a task is not whether you love it, but whether you can handle the pain of the task easier than most people. When are you enjoying yourself while other people are complaining? The work that hurts you less than it hurts others is the work you were made to do." End quotes. I don't know about you, but gee whiskers, that doesn't sound very appealing to me. To me, that's explaining your zone of genius. Like, but it's not because the work is not painful to you while it is to others. It's because it lights you up and because you do love it. When he says it doesn't matter, whether you love it. I'm like, no, that's that doesn't align with me. I do feel we need to bring love into the work that we do. And that. Links to another quote here of this professionals and amateurs. So I'll quote here. He says, "Professionals stick to the schedule. Amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose. Amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life." End quotes. And I think you can maybe tell by my tone there of, how I'm quoting that. It sounds so pushy and I feel this black and white comparison between professionals versus amateurs. And like, They get pulled of course by the urgencies of life. Maybe those urgencies of life are trying to tell you something about your priorities. And maybe those urgencies of life are also the joys of life. And I really don't think you should have this either or kind of idea. And why I brought this out with love is because the word amateur. Actually means someone who does something for love. It's someone who does their work for love. Now, of course, we all are business people. We are career people and we need to earn money for the work that we do. But I also believe that we need to bring love into this and we not, these robotic behaviorists that are only responding to rewards and punishments. I'm going to give one more quotes. " The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom." End quotes. Okay. So at least there is some love brought into this book, but you're falling in love with boredom. Sorry, but I don't think that's necessary to be excellent. And doing the same thing over and over with art intention. I think that's very dangerous. Absolutely habits are aiming for this automaticity and this flow even. But I don't think that's what he's teaching. The way he teaches it is it's that habits are applied with such force and with such, rigidity. That there isn't the space for that flow and developing these good habits that actually just flow from you. So I think there's like just a misalignment of maybe philosophies here As I read James Clear's book and I feel like there's many other books that I prefer one being Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin. That's where she started her research on the four tendencies. That book came before the four tendencies and that's a book on habits. And very much is more individualized and looking at individual ways of developing good habits. And then I also like The Lazy Genius Way here. So these are the first two books that we've actually featured on the Two Booked Up Podcast. So you can go back to episodes one to four, and then episodes, five to eight. And I feel those books. If you're looking to make changes, offer a much more practical and perhaps intuitive way of changing your behavior, which I think is what Atomic Habits is seeking to do. And it's saying that this comes through habits, but I actually think this book might have needed to be called Atomic Changes. Uh, how to change your behavior, but I don't think it would have sold as well. I think the idea of habits is very compelling to people, because I think of that automaticity of habits. Going, oh, I can just set it and forget it. And I will just then be good at this if I just set these good habits. But as we know, these excuses come up I'm going to end with this point. Is that. He keeps on bringing up like, oh, why don't you stick with your habits? When you're making excuses for not sticking to your habits, And I truly believe that when you are making those excuses about your habits, it's a sign that you should maybe go and dig deeper into. Is this habit important to you? Uncover just a little layer below the surface. Do a little bit of journaling. To go, what is it that that's your intention behind taking on that habits and what's coming up with the so called excuses that's, you're bringing, um, Say, you know, you don't want to go running and you've committed to going running, or you've committed to some kind of healthy eating plan oh, just dig a little deeper into the why behind that. This is going to be very helpful for the Questioners, by the way, but I believe it's helpful for us as humans. Rather than just going. Oh, I'm like weak for some reason, because I can't continue with us habit, and You know, this push, push, push exploit exploit exploit kind of "never give up!" energy. I don't think that is useful. And I don't think you are actually going to get the atomic power of habits. If all you're doing is applying willpower and force. To these random habits. So start with intention. I say, start with prioritization. So just in summary, my first issue is that James Clear teaches about habits before any consideration of the prioritization and why you want to create those automatic systematized behaviors. So they sitting in a vacuum. Secondly, his actual definition of habits is quite vague. So he often gives broad credit to habits where there was a different phenomenon at play. And then thirdly, I didn't like the very behaviorist, hardcore pushy way he approached habit formation. All right, everyone. That's it from me, Shelley Tonkin Smith. Let me know what you thought about this podcast. I have, as I said, spilled a little bit of tea. But let me know. If you think I have been too harsh on Mr. James Clear. You can find me on Twitter at Shelley T Smith. Rowena over to you. [00:23:00] Rowena: Well, we promised an episode that didn't hold its punches, and Shelly certainly delivered. We'd love to know your thoughts. Have you read Atomic Habits? Do the issues Shelly outlined resonate with you? Have you got a preferred habit book? For me, as Shelly mentioned, my favorite habits book is Gretchen Rubin's Better than Before, and I also enjoyed Wendy Woods's Good Habits, Bad Habits. Now continuing the Habits discussion. In our next episode, I'll be taking a deeper dive into habits and how we can be more intentional or deliberate in our. I'll also share the seven habit areas, which lead to the biggest shifts and that actually support us to get their atomic power. For now, we hope this episode inspires you to reflect on the messages contained within the non-fiction books you are reading. As we embrace being more intentional in our reading lives, we can be more selective about the ideas we fill our minds with.. So speaking of being intentional with our reading, remember to download our free reading challenge checklist. Just visit signup.twobooked.com, the link for that. And all the books mentioned in today's episode are in the show notes. We'd love to know your thoughts about this episode, the Reading Challenge, or your favorite habits book. [00:24:19] Shelley: so You can find me on Twitter, ShelleyTSmith. Sign up for my newsletter at ShelleyTonkinSmith.Com. And if you'd like to learn more about my copywriting services, head on over to ShelleySmithCreative.com. [00:24:34] Rowena: You can also find me on Instagram at RowenaMabbott and we can continue the conversation over there. And if you'd like to learn more about how I can support you as a career and life confidence coach or download my free ebook, the A to Z of Career and Life Confidence, or Read any of my over 150 blog posts, then head on over to my online home at rowenamabbott.com. Remember to subscribe or follow Two Booked Up in your podcast player. We've got lots more to say about habits. Intentional living, doing the work that lights you up and chatting about the books that help us to do that. If you're subscribed, all those episodes will automatically download for you. Thanks for listening to two booked up today. Shelly and I will be back with another new episode in a couple of weeks time. Until then, here's to reading with intention.

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