One of the most “Christian” sections in James Clear’s Atomic Habits is his teaching on the importance of changing our identity if we are to change our habits. When I say “Christian,” I’m not saying that Clear is coming at this from a Christian perspective. What I am saying is that the most recent scientific research into habits confirms what the Bible has taught for millennia.
For example, the Apostle Paul said:
“Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts” (Rom. 6:11-12).
Paul is urging Christians to change their sense of identity, to establish new thoughts about who they are, to view themselves as dead to sin and alive to Christ. And the more they do so, the more they will dethrone sin and weaken its power.
2000 years later, James Clear depicts the three levels at which change can occur as layers of an onion:
- Layer 1. Identity: This is the centre of the onion and involves changing our beliefs, our worldview, our self-image, our judgments.
- Layer 2. Processes: The next layer is changing your habits and systems. This is the habits layer.
- Layer 3. Outcomes: The outside layer is changing your results. This is the goals layer.
He explains, “Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe” (30-31).
Clear says that each of these levels are involved in change but most people start with goals (what they want to achieve/what they want to do) rather than identity (what they believe/who they are). But, Clear argues, the more we start with identity, who we want to become, the more change we will see.
“It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are” (31).
The key to change, then, is identity change. For example, instead of saying, “I’m trying to stop smoking,” say, “I’m not a smoker.”
“True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity…Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are” (34).
The goal is not to stop or start something, it’s to become someone. Behaviors are a reflection of our identity. “Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief” (34).
Do you see how “Pauline” this teaching is? It’s just a pity that it took a couple of thousand years to catch up! That’s not to say, we can’t learn from what Clear teaches. Not at all. Clear is simply finding and describing truth that God has put into the world and human nature and is describing it in ways that can help us fill out the details of Paul’s teaching in Romans 6.
If somebody comes to us and asks, “How do I implement Romans 6:11-12?” while our theological explanation of Christian identity will come from the Bible, some of the guidance for practical application could easily come from Clear’s book. It certainly helped me to understand the effective outworking of these verses a lot more than most commentaries have.
This connection between identity and habit also raises serious questions about Christians identifying as “gay Christians” or saying, “I’m an alcoholic.” Making even sinful temptation a core part of our identity can only make it far more likely that we will end up in sinful practice. As Clear says:
“Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity” (36).