Catholic Summary of Atomic Habits by James Clear

Here are 3 “Catholic” insights from James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits. 

#1: Focus on identity, not on outcomes.

James Clear says that one of the secrets to building good habits that last is by focusing on identity-based habits rather than on “outcome-based habits.”

“True behaviour change is identity change” (James Clear).

Here are 2 steps to forming identity-based habits:

  1. Decide the type of person you want to become: When you imagine yourself at your absolute best, who are you?
  2. Prove it to yourself with small wins. Each “small win” will reinforce your new identity and your new identity will begin to shape your habits.

Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become” (James Clear). 

Therefore, it’s not about being perfect but rather about casting the most votes for your new desired identity. Soon enough, you’ll have enough evidence for a particular identity and truly believe that you are this new person. This is why “atomic habits” matter so much!

“Habits are not a finish line to be crossed, they are a lifestyle to be lived” (James Clear).

Since “identity” in Latin literally means “repeated being-ness”, we can say that your habits literally create your sense of identity.

Here are 3 Catholic examples of how you can make this work in real life.

#1: Want to pray more? 

Identity: Become the type of person who never misses morning prayer.

Small win: Set your alarm for 5 minutes earlier this week and spend that time in prayer. After a month of these small wins, try 10 minutes earlier. By year-end, you’ll be able to get a “holy-hour” in each morning before the day begins.

Quote: “Prayer is a precious privilege – and this is putting it mildly. That the Lord of glory, himself unending joy, beauty, and goodness, would invite us to communicate with him and then begin the conversation with his inspired word, which welcomes our responses, is an unimaginable blessing” – Fr. Thomas Dubay

#2: Want to be a better friend?

“Identity: Become the type of person who always stays in touch.

Small win: Call one friend every Saturday. If you repeat the same people every 3 months, you’ll stay close with 12 old friends throughout the year” (James Clear).

Quote: “Great love can change small things into great ones, and it is only love which lends value to our actions.” – St. Faustina

#3: Want to be more grateful?

Identity: Become the type of person who always thanks others.

Small win: Write down 3 things that you are thankful for at the end of every day and thank God for these blessings in a time of prayer. If one particular person keeps coming up, intentionally thank them next time you see them.

Quote: “What most attracts God’s grace is gratitude, because if we thank him for a gift, he is touched and hastens to give us ten more, and if we thank him again with the same enthusiasm, what an incalculable multiplication of graces! I have experienced this: try it yourself and you will see! My gratitude for everything he gives me is limitless, and I prove it to him in a thousand ways.– St. Therese of Lisieux

Remember: Your true identity is found in Christ. You are His beloved friend. Choose “atomic habits” that reinforce this identity. It will transform your life!

#2: Focus on systems, not on goals.

James Clear says that one of the secrets to building good habits that last is by focusing on systems (the processes that lead to the results we want to achieve) rather than the goals (the results we want to achieve).

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems” (James Clear).

In the spiritual life, we need to concentrate on the systems we have put in place to achieve holiness, that is, being faithful to our spiritual disciplines (daily Mass, regular Confession, daily rosary, daily lectio divina, nightly examination of conscience, etc). If we get too caught up in the goals (seeing “improvement” in our prayer life via consolation), we will get easily discouraged and will eventually give up the exact means by which God is sanctifying us.

In order to focus on systems well, we must realize that “environment matters more than motivation” (James Clear).

It’s helpful to realize that motivation is overvalued because our motivation in our spiritual lives will often feel like an unpredictable roller coaster. The same is true of natural talent and effort. Although these matter, environment will always tend to come out victorious in the end when determining behaviours.

Environment is like the invisible hand that shapes your behaviour” (James Clear).

Therefore, we must change our environments to increase our exposures to positive cues and decreases our exposure to negative cues.

“Don’t be the victim of your environment. Be the architect of your environment!” (James Clear)

Here are 3 Catholic examples of how you can make this work in real life.

#1: Have a prayer space.

Create a space that is dedicated to prayer and nothing else (cf. Matthew 6:6). Get some holy images, candles, icons, Bibles, spirituality books, and anything else that can help you make this prayer space special. Make sure this prayer space is devoid of anything that might distract you – turn off your iPhone!

#2: Visit an adoration chapel en route to work.

A great way to visit an adoration chapel more frequently is to drive by it more frequently. In other words, make your new desired habit (going to an adoration chapel) fit into the flow of your current pattern (driving to work). Just dropping by to visit our Lord for 1 minute each day could eventually lead to transformational results.

“I will not allow myself to be so absorbed in the whirlwind of work as to forget about God. I will spend all my free moments at the feet of the Master hidden in the Blessed Sacrament” – St. Faustina

#3: Get some holy friends.

Since we have a deep desire to belong and fit in, we often imitate the habits of those around us. In order to develop holy habits, we need to have friends who approve and help to reinforce our desired habits. For example, if all of your friends pray a daily holy hour, you will want to pray a daily holy hour too to fit in.

“Join groups where the desired behaviour is the normal behaviour” (James Clear).

“Spiritual friendship is so extremely important for souls not yet fortified in virtue” (St. Teresa of Avila).

Holy friendships “will be excellent because it comes from God, excellent because it leads to God, excellent because its bond will endure eternally in God. How good it is to love here on earth as they love in heaven and to learn to cherish one another in this world as we shall do eternally in the next!” (St. Francis de Sales).

#3: Focus on little habits, not on big changes.

Far too often in the spiritual life, we think that we must make big changes in order to become holier. But this will often lead to frustration and discouragement. James Clear says that it is far better to focus on little habits, what he calls “atomic habits” because these habits, just like atoms, have the ability to become mighty when they have been repeated hundreds of times.

“Rome wasn’t build in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour. You don’t have to build everything you want today, just lay a brick” (James Clear).

Since habits are “the compound interest of self-improvement”, improving 1% each day results in becoming 37 times better by year-end! Although you won’t feel that these little habits are making a difference on any given day, trust that, by God’s grace, they can deliver enormous results in the long-term.

For example, St. Therese “acquired the habit of smiling every time when, at work, she was disturbed by a Sister who came with or without reason, to ask her for some service. She noted this with humor in her last manuscript. She was ready for annoyance: “I want it; I count on it … so I am always happy” (quoted in Dubay’s Deep Conversion Deep Prayer, 62).

St. Basil the Great also affirmed the importance of “atomic habits” when he wrote:

“Don’t try to be extremely disciplined right away. Above everything beware of your own confidence, lest you fall from a height of discipline because of lack of training. It is better to move ahead a little at a time. So then, withdraw from the pleasures of life little by little. Gradually destroy all your evil habits, lest you bring on yourself a mass of temptation by stirring up all your passions at once. When you have mastered one passion, then begin waging war against another. And before long you will get the better of them all.”

Here are 2 Catholic examples of how you can make this work in real life.

#1: Pray 1 decade of the Rosary.

If you want to develop the habit of praying the Rosary daily, start out by praying only 1 decade. If you’re able to be faithful to this for a week, try 2 decades for the 2nd week.

#2: Only 2 steps for lectio divina.

If you want to develop the habit of praying with Scripture daily, start out by learning how to read well (slowly with attention and reverence) and reflect well (ask good questions) and only spending 5-10 minutes per day doing this. Slowly build up this habit.  Then after a few weeks, start to use your reflections as substance for heart-to-heart conversation with Christ. (This great insight comes from Dan Burke’s prayer book, Into the Deep).

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