4 Things Atomic Habits Didn’t Get Right

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  • Post last modified:July 3, 2023

Atomic Habits is an amazing book! It explains readers how they can develop good habits and break the bad ones to achieve their goals.

No wonder it is so popular — it sold over 4 million copies!

However, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the things author James Clear pointed out contradict other principles explained by incredibly smart people like Peter Thiel and Benjamin Hardy.

Here are four things Atomic Habits got wrong.

Table of Contents

1. Focus on the System

In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel condemns the system-oriented culture because it assumes no direction.

He takes the school system as an example. Students follow a general curriculum without any specific purpose in mind. They become good at everything and exceptional at nothing.

This process-oriented system prepares them for anything because they have no direction in life.

According to Thiel, this is because Western society gave up on having a definite vision for the future. Understand: we’re all in the same boat, and no one is at the helm.

This creates several problems.

First, if we’re not actively creating the life and society we want, we may end up with something we don’t want.

Second, when you focus on systems, it’s easy to lose the pressure and motivation and never reach the goal.

On the opposite, when you focus on a definite goal, you can find ways to hack or change the system so that you can achieve your 10-year plan in 6 months.

Keeping the goal in mind creates urgency the system alone can’t generate.

Working in a system is great, but actively working towards a goal is better.

This is why Elon Musk sets up enormous goals with short deadlines. In the end, this is how you achieve stuff.

2. Habit Shaping

Habit shaping is a technique that helps you master a difficult habit. The idea is to slowly get into the habit by mastering the first two minutes of it.

Eg: if you have a hard time going to the gym, then focus on wearing the right clothes first. Once you have mastered changing clothes, drive to the gym, but don’t go in yet. Once you have mastered that, go train for five minutes, then leave. Etc.

The purpose is to make the habit as painless as possible.

But this approach is flawed.

If you need time to master the first two minutes of the habit because you don’t want to practice it…then maybe the habit isn’t for you?

That’s the overall feeling I got out of the book.

It focuses so much on decreasing pain and maximizing pleasure that I felt like it had been written for people that shouldn’t get into specific habits in the first place.

If you really can’t do something, or don’t want to…then don’t freaking do it.

Habit hacking does not make sense, because you shouldn’t have to hack a habit.

The irony is that I suspect James Clear feels the same way.

At the end of the book, he advises readers to choose a habit that is easy to practice and that comes naturally.

In a way, this advice discredits the entire work he’s done to make habits easier. Maybe he should have started with this piece of information?

3. No Mention of the Role of Lifestyle

Surprisingly, there was no mention of the role of lifestyle in the book despite the tremendous role it plays on the psyche — hence on your capacity to practice your habit.

When I was on a strict lion diet and did nothing but working and working out, following any type of hard habit was much easier because I wasn’t craving any dopamine.

But as soon as I drank alcohol, watched a movie, read the news, ate sugar, played video games, did not sleep enough, consumed social media, or something alike, following tough habits became much harder.

Why? It’s because garbage in -> garbage out.

You can’t sustain a gym routine if you watch Netflix and eat McDonald’s. As simple as that.

If you feed your body bad food, little sleep, negative social relationships and no exercise, you will lose all desire to practice your good habits no matter how easy they are.

James Clear talks about the influence of genes on your capacity to practice habits, but genes don’t have as big of an impact as we think they have.

Do you know what has an impact? Sleep, food, exercise, and people you hang out with (Clear talks about that last one).

Everything you consume and do on a daily basis impacts your behavior much more than your genes — or anything else for that matter.

4. The Myth of Personality

In order to make it easier to follow up, James Clear recommends readers pick a habit that fits their personality.

But this is wrong for several reasons.

  1. If you have a personality that suits no habits, you’ll never pick any.
  2. Personality isn’t fixed.

In this book Personality isn’t permanent, Benjamin Hardy demonstrates that personality evolved during life and could be changed at will.

While James Clear advises finding something that fits your personality, Hardy explains the opposite: you should pick up the habits that will transform your personality so that you can become who you want to become.

James Clear explains that identity drives habits. Benjamin Hardy explains habits drive identity. At this game, Hardy is right.

Numerous studies have shown how individuals develop the character that fits with their social role (it’s not that all managers are a*shole, but that they must become a*sholes to be successful at their job).

Ironically, James Clear explains readers at the beginning how habits tied to identity are much easier to follow due to our will to remain congruent with how we define ourselves.

He reverses the principle at the end when he advises readers to choose habits based on their personalities.

Too bad.


Atomic Habits is a great book and will definitely help you break bad habits and establish good ones.

But not everything written there is true, or helpful for that matter (and James Clear is 100% honest by outlining that not everything written in his book is correct).

I believe this is why we should always keep a critical mind and cross what we read in a book with what we have read in another book in order to make sure the information makes sense, is true, correct, or applicable.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Renovacio

    1. Focus on the System:
    in his book he says that systems are better because if we only set goals for ourselves, then if we achieved our goals, we would not continue. Because they achieved what we wanted, right… and it doesn’t say that we shouldn’t set goals. It’s just that we won’t stop what we started with the system.

    2. Habit shaping:
    Maybe I don’t want to run (because I don’t like it) but I’m still fat and it would be good for me to lose weight.

  2. Jacob_

    Have read Atomic habits in great detail, and it is practical, relevant and evidence based.

    the issue of the system, you got it wrong. What James Clear meant was that we create system after we have developed a clear goal, to keep us on the path towards attaining our goal.

    Your body was created based on the concept of goal and systems. To keep you alive, one of the goal is to eliminate waste continuously, and the system–urinary system, was careful designed to achieve that.

    brain cannot operate except you give it a clear proecure of how to accomplish what you want. Recipe is a system of cooking a particular meal that you load onto your brain so that you do it in an orderly fashion, moving from one step to another.

    James clear went on to talk about reviewing your system and update it as you move from one stage of growth to another.

    The school curriculum as designed to make learning orderly, standardized and pointing at a particular goal. And the philosophy behind developing curriculum was that it was to be periodically reviewed based on the emerging trends. And this is why people are now developing better curriculum that include digital skills.

    1. aure

      The system should support your goals; overly focusing on the system may lead you to forget about them.
      Eg: I focus on my gym routine and don’t change it for 5 years while if I had focused on my goals instead, I would have changed and upgraded the gym routine, helping me reach my goal faster.