“Every behavior has a surface level craving and a deeper, underlying motive.” James Clear, Atomic Habits, 126.

Clear argues that every human desire or craving is just a specific manifestation of a deeper underlying motive” (127). Here are his examples of the deepest human motives and a corresponding surface level craving:

  • Find love and reproduce = Using Tinder.
  • Connect and bond with others = Browsing Facebook
  • Win social acceptance and approval = Posting on Instagram
  • Reduce uncertainty = Searching on Google
  • Achieve status and prestige = Playing video games.

As Clear says, our habits “are modern-day solutions to ancient desires. New versions of old vices. The underlying motives behind human behavior remain the same” (127).

How then do we change our habits. Let me offer a Christian adaptation of James Clear’s approach:

Step One: Ask, “What underlying desire or motive am I trying to satisfy?” “What am I trying to achieve by this activity?”

Step Two: Which of these underlying desires are legitimate? Which are approved by God and permissible and which are forbidden and to be repented of?

Looking at Clear’s examples, I would argue that winning social acceptance and approval is forbidden. Of course we are to work at being cooperative and helpful to others; the problem is when the approval and acceptance of others becomes a foundational desire that takes precedence over seeking God’s approval and acceptance.

From a biblical perspective, I’d also want to mortify the deep desire to “achieve status and prestige.” That does not only need to be re-directed; it needs to be repented of.

Step Three: What additional motives does the Bible commend? What biblical desires do we need to build into our lives? Really, this is about constructing a Christian worldview. Some samples would be:

  • A desire for the glory of God above all else.
  • A desire for acceptance with God and approval by God.
  • A desire to be like Christ.
  • A desire to be a blessing to others by being used in their salvation and sanctification.
  • A desire to strengthen and expand the Church of Christ.
  • A desire to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
  • A desire to serve God in my vocation.
  • A desire to honor God with my money.

None of these desires come naturally to us. We need God to reconstruct us with these fundamental building blocks.

Step Four: Ask, “What legitimate activity can I engage in to satisfy these desires, to meet this need?”

This involves thinking of new activities for the new motives, but it also involves thinking of new activities for the old underlying desires that are good.

As I think it’s relatively easy to find activities that satisfy the additional motives highlighted in Step Three, let’s take some of Clear’s examples again and suggest some alternative actions that satisfy the deep motives and desires far better:

  • Find love and reproduce = Marry a godly spouse and raise children for the Lord.
  • Connect and bond with others = Join a local church.
  • Reduce uncertainty = Trust God’s sovereignty.

So much of good biblical counseling is focused in this area. We are trying to help people get to “heart issues.” What are they really trying to achieve by their actions and words? And how can we help them identify wrong motives that must be repented of and right motives which are being pursued in the wrong way?

It’s about making the tree good and therefore making the fruit good (Matt. 12:33). We often say these words but don’t give people any help in achieving them. That’s where I found Clear helpful and challenging, although his incomplete system needs Biblical adjustment and supplementing.

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones