“Drink more water and stretch!” This was my go-to answer, years ago, for whatever ailed me or anyone I knew. It was only partly in jest. I was hooked on the idea that taking care of oneself and all one’s needs could be this simple. Plus, most people really could benefit from additional hydration and increased mobility.
A few weeks ago I posted about the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. In his book, Clear breaks down brain and behavioral science to actionable steps in order to drop bad habits and gain good ones. I thought his suggestions were useful, so I wrote about them in the hope of supporting other folks in their quest to change or implement their own bad and good habits.
But I have come to a new, more humble, perspective. It seems that humans lean more toward the individually complex rather than one-size-fits-all self-help books. Call me a slow learner of the obvious.
There’s a relatively new podcast, “If Books Could Kill,” that takes a hard look at many of the self-help and pop-science books like “Atomic Habits.” These books tend to be filled with easy, logical solutions that people like me embrace. The books the podcast discusses, a few of which I’ve read over the years, by and large call upon only the scientific work that supports the author’s ideas, if they cite scientific work at all. The authors also have a tendency to dumb-down complex ideas to spoon-fed simplicity. What this means is that the books ultimately do not offer the effective solutions their titles might suggest.
In the example of “Atomic Habits,” I learned from the podcast that for someone who has a difficult time developing good habits, this book was not helpful at all. James Clear does not seem to have ever struggled with implementing habits. The podcast hosts point out that they themselves have struggled with sticking to good habits, and if they were people who could and would take the steps outlined by Clear, they wouldn’t be struggling to begin with.
People who are going to follow the steps to develop the habit are fairly high-functioning in terms of personal habits, and will do the things necessary to follow through. But the person who has a hard time sticking to habits doesn’t need more steps. They need something to help them take the actions, and the book doesn’t identify or deliver that something.
This was mind-blowing for me. I happen to be a person who does not struggle with personal discipline and habit formation. And I thought that this was true for everyone. I thought that when people had a difficult time with dropping or developing habits they were not committed to change or didn’t have a good structure in place. I was wrong.
I wish I had the answer for what might help people in their quest for sticking to change that matters to them. Understanding why something is important enough to a person to make change, and keeping that why front and center in order to stay motivated seems like a good start.
Perhaps it isn’t that the steps outlined in “Atomic Habits” don’t work at all - perhaps it is that each person has an individual combination of things that work for them. For some people having a buddy for accountability and companionship during change is hugely helpful. For others a reward system works well. For still others it is the cueing that does the trick (gym clothes by the front door).
The bottom line is that, though many books try to sell us on easy solutions that work for all, there is not a single straightforward method that works for everyone. Instead, it is figuring out the elements that work for each individual that is the key for success.
Link to “If Books Could Kill”
Heads up that the language is R-rated.
There are many episodes that are not subscription-required.
Lastly, the two podcast hosts, Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri, are a hoot. My primetime for listening is when I’m in the kitchen, and it now takes me twice as long to do anything because I’m giggling hysterically. This is refreshing - learning while laughing.
Jacqueline Denny, ACC, CHPC, LMT