I remember buying James Clear’s bestselling book, Atomic Habits, in June 2023. It arrived and went into the stack. I eventually made it to Atomic Habits in December 2023. I wish I had skipped the whole read-em-in-order process and started Clear’s book immediately. I don’t always care for self-help books, with the occasional exception. This book quickly met the criteria for that exception: I noticed changes in my life. In this post, I hope to highlight habits of mine that I replaced with other habits I now have and how I made the change. And while this is a shoutout to James Clear and this book, this isn’t a book review. It’s not enough to know, we must do. This is my attempt to express how I took what was said in the book and applied it to my life.
Do they work for or against you?
The summer that I bought Atomic Habits I was made aware of some glaringly bad habits in my life. I knew they were just that, habits, and I was smart enough to know that old habits, as deeply rooted as they can be, can be uprooted and replaced with new habits. Along with prayer, I felt that James’ book would be a good place to start. (I have a Christian faith, and I will talk about a devotional I read later in this post. Don’t let that stop you from reading. This isn’t going to turn into a Sunday sermon, I promise.)
As I mentioned, it went into the stack of books that had been piling up. My prayer at the time was helpful, and I committed to reading my Bible daily around September. I added a habit, but the other habits remained. And I’ll tell you what, when you don’t see the change you hope to see, it becomes very discouraging. But, as the saying goes, “Old habits die hard.”
Once I began to read James’ book, however, I began to change the language I used to describe my habits. We often use the adjectives “good” and “bad” to describe our habits. I started asking myself what I truly meant when I said, “Well that’s a good habit, so there’s no need to change that,” or “I really need to change this bad habit.” I decided that it wasn’t helpful to think of habits with these terms. The decision came when I caught myself in the middle of a “good” habit. I thought this habit wasn’t bad. It was something that brought me joy. But something didn’t sit right with me this time. Despite missing a magic lightbulb above my head to flick on suddenly, the light that flooded my mind triggered a thought: This “good” habit is working against me. And it was only when I started viewing habits as behaviors that either worked for or against me, that I could start identifying and analyzing the habits in both of those categories. I didn’t like everything I saw, because I found a lot of habits that were working against me, and I was having a hard time finding habits that worked for me.
Changing the language in the conversation is an effective strategy because it creates criteria for “good” and “bad” habits. Like I said the “good” habit was working against me. When I started asking if it was benefiting me or making life better in any way, it was clear that, while this habit was harmless by nature, it was keeping me from doing the things I kept saying I wanted to start doing, like developing a reading schedule. This habit was distracting me from the habits I wanted to establish, and because habits, even the “good” ones are difficult to break.
At least I had a starting place, though. Diving into James’ book came next, and it came at just the right time.
Who are you?
The first lesson I learned from Atomic Habits is that our identity can shape our habits. The second lesson is the inverse of the first lesson: our habits can shape our identity.
Think about the first lesson this way: I identify as _____, which means my habits are _____.
Think about the second lesson this way: Because I habitually do _____, I can self-identify as _____.
Starting here is something I hadn’t thought of because I was approaching the attempt to change habits on the surface level. Coupled with the wrong descriptions of habits I had, I had a wrong process of developing and breaking habits. But, those attempts I made weren’t addressing a deeper issue: who I was, and what my habits said about me.
If you are serious about changing habits, you have to actually try something different. Instead of arguing internally with James Clear, I embraced his first lesson. I began to use sentence stems similar to the ones mentioned previously. It sounded like this.
I am a reader, and that means I have a habit of reading.
Because I have a habit of reading, a reader is part of my identity.
I can say that changing the language around our identity and habits isn’t just empty words of wishful thinking. When you identify with something, you begin to adapt the habits associated with that identity.
Think about it. Kobe Bryant was a basketball player, and that meant he studied the game in every aspect and put in thousands upon thousands of practice hours. Because he studied and practiced the game, he was one of the greatest basketball players ever. (Side note: Michael Jordan is definitely the GOAT, but Kobe was my favorite player to watch play. In my opinion, Kobe was the smartest basketball player ever.)
One more from a friend of mine, Laura McDonell. Laura is an incredible person, teacher, and athlete. She is also a great writer. (Check out her blog here.) Whether she is aware of it or not, I see her take this approach a lot, especially in the area of athletics. If you follow her on X you will find that she runs. Like, a lot! Laura has run 37 marathons, at the time of this writing. But here’s the thing, she doesn’t just run. She is a runner. Literally, the first hashtag on her X page is #MarathonRunner. This identity that she holds shapes her habit of running. Because I am a runner, I run daily. Because I run daily, I am a skilled runner, constantly improving and developing. Maybe not her exact words, but you get the point.
When we identify with something, we begin to take on the habits that connect to that habit.
I am a reader, therefore I will read daily.
I am a learner. That means I will do one thing each day to learn and grow.
I am wise with money. Since I am wise with money, I have a habit of saving money for emergencies.
I am a caring husband and father. That means I have habits of showing my family how much I care for and love them.
I am a cook. Because I am a cook, I prep and cook my meals more often than I eat out.
This is where the second lesson comes into play. Once we identify as something, we develop the habits associated with that identity. Once these habits are established, they serve to strengthen that part of our identity.
Consistency over time and amount.
While reading Atomic Habits I learned something from James Clear that really took root. It’s not about the length of time you perform the habit or the amount completed, but rather the consistency of performing the habit.
One of the first habits I identified as one that worked against me was the habit of listening to music first thing when I came downstairs for the day. On the surface level, there is nothing wrong with this habit. Music is and always will be a big part of my life. But this distracted me from completing other things I wanted and needed to do. One of those things was reading.
In December 2023, I wanted to develop a habit of reading daily. Once I began reading Atomic Habits and learned to start identifying as a reader, I began to uproot the habit working against me. It sounded something like this.
I am a reader. A reader enjoys picking up and reading a book or turning on a book on Audible, so I will pick up this book and read. Listening to music benefits me, but not always.
Now is when I got to the part of consistency. James Clear makes the argument that it’s not about how much of or how long we do the habit. It just matters that we do the habit consistently. For me, this meant that I didn’t have to read for a set amount of time, chapters, or pages. I know setting those requirements works for some folks, and that’s fine. I, on the other hand, feel imprisoned by those restrictions. It’s like I’m locked into a set amount of time that I just keeping to check on. So when James said to prioritize being consistent regardless of time and amount, I said to myself, “Well, I can do that.”
Now, I do have a time of day that I choose to read, and I’ll explain why. I chose to read first thing in the morning. I chose this time to 1) replace the habit of listening to music first thing in the morning, so as not to be distracted from things like reading or chores, and 2) this is when my energy and mental focus are highest. It’s also quiet. I prefer to be awake before the sun rises, so I can enjoy the calm and stillness before the day gets going. I took a lot of other steps that James mentions so that I could be set up for success, such as planning the books I would read for 2024, setting the books I was in the middle of on the coffee table, getting an accountability partner (thank you, Taylor Armstrong!), and repeating the mantra of self-identity. I also put my earbuds out of sight. Sure I knew where they were “hidden”, but seeing a book on the table instead of earbuds completely changed my focus. From here, I had to take the action.
The first few days were hard. Just as well as a dopamine hit from our habits makes us feel good, withholding that dopamine by not performing that habit makes us feel bad. So, it wasn’t rooted overnight, and there were plenty of mornings, where I wanted to ignore the devotional staring at me and throw on some music. But here’s a valuable lesson I learned along the way: being consistent doesn’t require motivation or inspiration. It doesn’t matter whether we’re motivated to perform the habit or not, what matters is that we are consistently performing it. Starving the habit of music first thing in the morning sucked, but the replacement habit of reading my devotional each morning, and sending a text to Taylor Armstrong began to solidify the habit. I begin to tell myself (in my head or sometimes out loud), “Okay, I am downstairs. I’m a reader, so I’ll read before listening to music.” Saying it to myself didn’t necessarily create motivation, but it did establish myself in an identity that led to associated habits.
Where are you and where are you headed?
The benefits of establishing a consistent morning reading routine have been remarkable. Not only do I find myself with more time in the mornings to accomplish tasks, such as cleaning the downstairs bathroom before leaving for work, but I also experience increased reflection and readiness for the day as I walk out the door.
Mentally, I feel clearer and more confident in my decision-making abilities. As of February 12, I’m well on track to achieving my goal of reading 24 books in 2024, averaging 2 books per month. Thanks to this new routine, I’ve already devoured 6 books and am on the verge of completing Mountains by Jake Luhrs within the next few days.
Reflecting on my journey with Atomic Habits by James Clear, I recall how a simple book purchase in June 2023 eventually led to transformative changes in my life by December of the same year. While initially skeptical of self-help literature, Clear’s insights proved invaluable as I navigated the terrain of habit formation. Through the lens of identity and consistency, I unearthed a deeper understanding of my habits and their impact on my life. By reframing my habits and committing to consistency over time and amount, I discovered newfound clarity, confidence, and productivity in my daily routine. As I stride confidently into the future, armed with the tools and mindset cultivated from Atomic Habits, I am poised to achieve my goals and embrace further growth with each passing day.