I enjoyed reading Atomic Habits, which was recommended to me by my therapist. I found this blog post basically finished in my attic folder while sorting through things, and I found it up to posting, even though my records show I read Atomic Habits way back in … October 2022.
Self-Help in General#
Atomic Habits is pretty fundamentally a “self help book.” This is a pretty controversial genre in my experience. Some people roll their eyes at self-help books in general – I once even read an “anti-self help” book that basically did so for the entire length of a book. Others swear by them – literally, I had a friend once who said The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck was her Bible and who used it as such for an (informal but serious) oath. I’m generally somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. I read them with solidly middling expectations.
My attitude flavors how I read self-help books. So, before I talk about Atomic Habits in particular, I want to talk some about self-help books in general, and my take on them.
I’ll start with their problems, because, as a genre, they sure do have their problems.
Problem #1: Length#
They are longer than they need to be, stretched thin by the lengthening. Atomic Habits clocks in (in my copy) at 264 pages, with an estimated word count of 80,000 words. However, it provided the insight of a long blog post, maybe at around 20,000 words at most. And I only give it credit for that long a blog post because this was a particularly useful self-help book, which also mitigated its length using re-caps and summaries arranged in helpful chart forms.
I do understand why publishers do this: they want to publish books, not glorified pamphlets. I also understand that self-help is far from the only genre with this problem: it plagues all forms of popular non-fiction.
But it’s still annoying.
Problem #2: Wildly varying standards#
The bigger problem with self-help books is that they vary widely in quality, not just in terms of evidence for their claims (that if you follow their advice you will get the results they say you will), but more importantly in terms of moral quality. Some of them have questionable values, brazenly teach you how to be manipulative or otherwise unkind to other people.
This is partially because it’s such a subjective topic. There are no unified standards on wisdom, no certifying authority. Some books are written by expert psychologists and psychiatrists, but those are often framed to specific disorders, and they aren’t always compelling writers. Others are factual and even science-based, but have goals that are repugnant to many or even most people. Still others are just snake-oil or feel-good.
Problem #3: They can turn into religions#
One specific pattern of problem is endemic to the genre: over-enamored with their own importance, they try to provide a comprehensive life framework to the reader, the “one cool trick” that will fix everything that ails you. This can lead to the situation where people can buy into it so hard they idolize it and treat it like a religious text. Simultaneously, others reject it as overbearing and boundary-crossing while cringing at such people.
This is kind of easy for self-help writers to do, even by accident: The nature of the topic makes any life advice in scope, and authors as living humans generally have some sort of opinions on how to handle any sort of life situation, that they may already organize internally into an all-encompassing framework. The nature of writing also requires organizing those opinions into general principals (often over-general). And in order to be effective, you have to persuade the reader.
All together, this can lead to over-stating your case for a simplistic framework. With this One Simple Trick™, with this simple overriding principle, you can transform your entire life. On such premises religions are built.
How I read them#
As a result of these problems, I tend to take the scope and claims of a self-help book with a grain of salt. I don’t expect it to transform my life, or revolutionize me. I don’t trust it, even temporarily, to tell me how to think about or organize the ideas it presents. I don’t read it for the overarching framework at all; instead, I just sift through it for individual useful take-aways, discarding the vast majority of it (even the majority of the 1/5 of it that isn’t fluff to make it book-length) as either things I already know or else already know enough to disagree with. I then can integrate these individual ideas into my own framework and values.
So my experience goes something like this:
Huh, that’s an interesting fluff story. Cool, I see the point you made, but I knew that already. Decent story to back it up though! Nice phrasing too, but I’ll forget that tomorrow… Yeah, that page just reiterates that point, wow this could have been a blog post…
Yeah, I can see the organizational structure you’re using to tie it together with the framework for your book. It’s not that useful to me as a life framework, but I’ll treat it as a framework that holds the book together.
Wait! Aha! There we have a new idea! I’ll take it!
You might think that if I’m so cynical about self-help books, and think they have a low information density, then I’d be very disinclined to read them. But I do actually read them from time to time, especially when someone recommends them (Atomic Habits, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck), or when they’re relevant to me (Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, which is basically a self-help book but for a specific class of people to which I belong).
And I’m usually happy I did it. Even though all I get out of it are maybe a handful of ideas I can take with me, those ideas are sometimes really good. Some ideas I lean on a lot I’ve gotten from some self-help book or another – and those are just the ones I’m aware of.
And rehashing concepts I already agreed with, or defending my mind against concepts I disagree with, is also a useful exercise. I generally believe in reflection on values and approaches to life. I wouldn’t go far as to say an unexamined life is not worth living, but I tend to think that detailed critical thinking is a net positive, and is not usually driven by anxiety-based “overthinking.”
And I mean, I’ve reflected a lot on my value of reflection and done a lot of examination on my value of self-examination, and it generally holds up. Why wouldn’t I want a guided version of that, to get outside the limitations of my own way of thinking and those of my close friends?
And all in all, I need the excess wisdom. I think we live in a society with a bit of a wisdom crisis. We don’t have a lot of traditionalism going on, and to the extent that we do, we live in a different world than even our parents let alone the worlds of our various scriptures. Humans need guidance. There’s a reason self-help books sell. There’s a reason why sometimes people turn them into religions in our heads.
Atomic Habits in Particular#
Now that I’m done waxing philosophical (for now), the natural question is, what did I get out of Atomic Habits?
Even though it was much longer than it needed to be, I’m not inclined to summarize it. I don’t even remember everything that’s in there – most of it I already knew from reading the older The Power of Habit which this book admits to spending a lot of time rehashing and coming up with relatively straight-forward and obvious applications. So I’ll leave summarizing to another article by someone else who has done a great job and whose article is around the length the original book should have ideally been.
Instead, I’ll say that I enjoyed the review of the material from that other book, was inspired an appropriate amount, and even got a handful of take-aways that will stay with me in my internal pile of “wise thoughts.” Rather than a summary of what the book has to give, you’ll get a list of what I have taken from it.
- You don’t change habits by setting goals, you achieve goals by changing habits.
This one will really stick with me, because they had just told stories about sports. Every sports team has the same goal: win the tournament. It’s just that they have different habits to get there. So obviously setting goals by itself isn’t good enough.
And while this has some overlap with things I already knew (like the idea setting SMART goals) it did rub the point in in a different enough way that I felt it was worth adding to my list. If you practice in effective ways, you will get better enough to do X. You don’t have to think about that goal, and in fact, it’s probably better if you focus on enjoying the process.
- Related to the previous: Your habits are set based on the type of person you are. So, instead of thinking about goals or habits directly, consider thinking about what type of person you’re trying to be, and what they would do.
This is a bit more complicated, but it makes sense. Like an evangelical with a bracelet “What would Jesus do?”, think about the type of person you’re trying to be, and do what they’d do. In addition to enabling you to be more moral by emulating religious moral authorities, this also overlaps with advice on how to be less impulsive from ADHD advice books I’ve read.
It makes sense that this would be able to generalize to more narrow questions “what would a good writer do?” or “what would a habitual musician do?”, but I really hadn’t thought about it before.
It also, speaking of Christianity, reminded me of a drawing I saw once in a book about the Lutheran confessions. It had a tree, and the root of the tree was Glaub[e], or faith, and the branch of the tree was Lieb[e], or love, and the crown of the tree was Werk or [good] work[s]. The message was that your values influenced your feelings and attachments, which influenced your behavior. Focusing on doing good directly was not the right approach, but rather to focus on what you believed in a core way.
If anyone can find this drawing, by the way, please let me know!
It was a decent book, for a self-help book. If you’re particularly struggling with habits, or goal-setting, or trying to motivate yourself, it might be useful to help you deconstruct where you’re going wrong. It’s also useful background for understanding human nature a little better, especially if you’ve never thought about these issues in detail.
NewsletterFind out via e-mail when I make new posts!
If you want to send me something privately and anonymously, you can use my admonymous to admonish (or praise) me anonymously.
comments powered by Disqus