Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Most of the books I cover here are explicitly Christian, in that they are written by Christians or touch on specific Christian topics.  But the book I am going to review today is not written for a Christian audience specifically, and I cannot speak to the author’s faith.  Still, I found it helpful for my Christian walk, and so I wanted to share it here.

Atomic Habits is not a book that is trying to hide what it’s about.  The topic is right there in the title: habits.  It’s a book about how to instill good habits, and how to break bad ones, and it delves into some of the science and psychology behind how we develop habits and how habits affect our lives.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own habits ever since Tish Harris Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary, which points out the ways in which small, carefully-cultivated acts of habit can determine our identity over time.  In some ways, we are what we do every day – and yet a lot of what we do every day is subconscious and reflexive, based on patterns and routines we developed long ago without fully realizing it.

For Warren, the cultivating of a God-centered awareness in her daily habits, and a culling out of the habits that were distracting her from God, were integral.  After reading her book, I became more than a bit troubled about my own habits and routines, most of which centered around various indulgences and electronic devices.  I too wanted to pray more; I wanted to read Scripture more; I wanted to make more time for ministry.  I wanted to develop a consistent set of godly habits that were better than the ones I have now.

But making and breaking habits is hard.  Which is where Clear’s book comes in.

This book is all about practice and application.  It not only offers explanations for what why we do what we do – the cues and the contexts that guide our habits – but turns those explanations into useful applications.  Clear points out that most of us are unsuccessful at changing old habits or adopting new ones because we 1) view habits as a goal rather than an identity (i.e, we say we want to “stop smoking” rather than that we want to “become non-smokers,”), 2) we only make surface changes rather than system-level changes, and 3) we ignore the cues and contexts that make or break habits altogether.

Many of what Clear says sounds like common sense, and yet it’s not something many of us apply regularly.  He recommends “habit stacks”: tying a new habit you want to keep to a habit you already engage in every day.  He offers up concepts like “implementation”: in other words, keeping habits by specifically scheduling them (i.e., “I will exercise tomorrow at 1 pm” versus “tomorrow I will exercise!”)  He encourages us to consider context and cues: what environmental triggers or practices encourage us to keep or abandon a particular habit?  How can we alter our environment or practices to make a habit easier to keep?

Since reading his book, I’ve implemented three immediate habit practices, two spiritual and one not, and they have both worked well:

  1. I rearranged my pantry to influence better daily eating habits;
  2. I “stacked” an additional and specific God time of intercessory prayer with another daily habit;
  3. I moved around some items on my desk so that my card ministry will be more regular and consisten

Clear’s book isn’t a cure-all, of course.  No amount of working on what he describes is going to help without a will or desire to change.  But the book is an easy read that offers everyone – including believers – a chance to consider how their habits shape them, and why they might be worth changing or keeping.

If you’re a Christian, you too are made by your habits.  Our prayer times, our Scripture reading, our acts of ministry – all of these things can become good and nurturing reflexive practices in our lives if we want them to be.  And we can eliminate the things that distract us and prevent us from closeness with God, too, if we want to do so.  If you’re interested in analyzing your own habits and how they shape you, and if you find yourself wanting to make a break or few to alter your Christian walk, this book is a good and useful place to begin.

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