Do you struggle with piles of important projects to attend to, and then get accidentally lost down a social media rabbit hole? Or are you like me, and you totally geek out over creating sustainable habits and routines that stick?
Well my friend, last year, I got to hear today’s guest speak at a conference we were both presenting at…and let’s just say he completely blew me away. James Clear has been writing about habits and human potential for quite awhile now. Not only that, but he backs up everything he says with highly researched studies and interesting stories.
An impressive 400,000+ people are subscribed to his weekly newsletter, over 8 million people visit his website each year, and his work has been featured by TIME magazine, Entrepreneur, Forbes, CBS, and more.
Basically, he’s a total rockstar, and you’re going to love him.
In today’s interview, we talk about James’ philosophy of getting just 1% better every day, how to be more productive, and why research shows that it’s better to create often than strive for perfection. Buckle up, because this one’s pretty darn entertaining with tons of actionable takeaways. 😉
Let’s dive in!
Check out the episode below:
In this episode, you’ll hear about things like…
- A powerful (and mega inspiring) quality vs. quantity experiment, and how the results are relevant to entrepreneurs everywhere.
- The surprising reason why we don’t actually need to make big shifts in order to transform our lives.
- How our physical environment can impact our habits (and what this means for you!)
- The importance of focusing on systems and habits rather than the coveted “end goal.”
- James’ unique “1% Better Everyday” philosophy, and how we can apply his approach to our creative lives.
Some Questions I ask James…
1. How can we design a set of habits or routines that will improve our lives the most? Is there a one-size fits all morning routine, or is it more nuanced based on the person?
2. Does our physical environment affect our habits or productivity?
3. We met at ConvertKit’s Craft + Commerce conference. You gave a talk called 1% Better Everyday. What do you mean by that?
Links from the interview:
- James’ Website
- The Habits Guide: How To Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (Free Gift from James)
- Pursuit With Purpose Podcast, Episode 19: Jim Fortin
- Way Of Life (App)
- The Against Malaria Foundation
What do you think?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this episode. What habits and routines are you eager to implement into your own life?
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Thank you for listening!
TranscriptRead the Interview Transcription Here
Now James Clear has been writing about habits and human potential for quite a while on his site, jamesclear.com. More than 400,000 people are subscribed to his weekly newsletter. Over eight million people visit his website each year. His work has been featured by Time Magazine, Entrepreneur, Forbes CBS, and more. Basically, he’s a total rock star and you are going to love him. Now in today’s interview, we talk about his philosophy of getting just 1% better every day, how to be more productive, and why research shows that it’s better to create often than strive for perfection. I am so freaking excited to share this interview with you because I know you’re going to love it. It’s just going to change so much for you in a positive way. Let’s dive in.
Melyssa Griffin: Hey, James. Welcome to the show.
James Clear: Hey. Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah, awesome. So I have been following your website for a long, long time, and you’ve been writing about habits and performance for years. So I’m curious, why did you decide to start getting into these topics and really getting into habits and human performance?
James Clear: Yeah, well it started as like this personal journey. So I played baseball all the way through college. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was picking up all kinds of habits while I was there. I was part of this culture that had certain rituals and norms. There were things that we did at practice each day and I have coaches and trainers who were getting me to do certain stuff. And so that was where I got exposed to it first, and then I got done with my playing career and went to grad school. After that, I started my first company and nobody was buying anything. I couldn’t get anybody to sign up for stuff. I couldn’t get anyone to do an email* list. And so I started studying consumer psychology to try to figure those problems out. That led me into behavioral psychology and habit foundation*, and things like that. That was when I started connecting the dots. I had my career as an entrepreneur and I had my life as an athlete. I started seeing all these connections between getting people to build different purchasing habits or shopping habits and I can apply these same principles to my work out habits or my diet habits, or things like that, productivity habits. And so once I started connecting the thread, then I just began writing on my own. I had a Word document that I think was like 60 pages long, but it was just like my notes and thoughts on habits. And then eventually I was like this is ridiculous, I just need to publish something and get it out there. And so I wrote in that private doc for like a year and then decided it’s time to branch out and actually publish something. So that was kind of like the winding path that I took to get there.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. You’re so fascinating to me because I feel like you’re this rare specimen who—you’re just so in it. We’re talking about you writing your book and you’re so meticulous with everything that you research and study and talk about. Even going to your website, it’s like very simple, but it’s all the information that you need, and it’s very meticulously laid out. So I appreciate that about you. I feel like…
James Clear: Thank you. I think that attention to—I just try to have like basically the highest signal* low* noise*. I want that in my life and I want that in my business. Make sure that I’m spending my life on things that are of the highest value or the best use of time, not just like from a productivity standpoint, but also from a personal value standpoint or am I getting this sense of purpose and meaning out of my work and life that I want. Those are like high signal activities to me or habits that have a high rate of return in life. And so the more that I can spend my time on those activities, I think the better my lifestyle ends up being, and then your business succeeds and so on because of that as well. But then I also think the readers appreciate it, nobody wants to—that’s one of my pet peeves. If I listen to a podcast and read an article, it’s like okay this is taking 15 minutes to get going. I won’t get into the meat of it quickly. So I think that comes through in my work as well.
Melyssa Griffin: Absolutely. Yeah. When we first met, we met at Convert Kit Craft and Commerce Conference and you had a talk that I loved. It was called 1% better every day. What did you mean by that?
James Clear: Yeah. Well, so the talk kind of came out of this philosophy that making small improvements can really accumulate, and they don’t just—small habits aren’t just additive, they compound, they multiply into something more. The story that I tell and that first kind of sparked my interest in this topic, is about British cycling team that they wanted to improve and they were kind of mediocre. And so they brought this new coach in, and he had this philosophy that they called the aggregation of marginal gains. And so they found all these little things that they could get like 1% better at, like slightly lighter tires on the bike and a little bit more ergonomic seat. But then they did a bunch of stuff that nobody else was doing, like they hired a surgeon to come and teach the riders how to wash their hands to reduce the risk of infection. They split tested different types of massage gels to figure out how to get the best form of muscle recovery. They even figured out the best mattress and pillow for each rider to sleep on. They brought that on the road with them to big events so they could sleep better at hotels. They did all these little 1% changes. They had been totally mediocre before and they just started completely dominating on the world stage. They won 60% of the gold medals available the last two Olympic games. They won four of the last five Tour de Frances. The level of success that has followed has been—a lot of people think it’s like the most successful ten* year* run in cycling history. So once I found out about that story, I go fascinated with this idea of making 1% improvements in every little area you could find and then letting them compound. A lot of times we think that in order to change our lives or in order to transform our results, we need to make a big shift. I don’t think that that has to be the case, really what you need is like a relentless focus on finding a small inch each day on finding some little way to hold yourself accountable or to show up and do work that makes majority of the difference. These little points of leverage can end up being really powerful if you accumulate them in the long run. So then it becomes about finding something small and manageable to do and focusing on consistency. And so that’s kind of where I’ve started to focus my energy and attention, both personally and in my work.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah, I like that a lot. I think it takes the pressure off too. I started doing something recently. I’ve developed this kind of set of habits that I do every day, that are really helpful for me, just my own personal development. What I started off doing was making them really long and difficult, like meditate 15 minutes a day, journal for at least three pages. I would look at this list—I have this app that I use to kind of kick things off, and I would look at it every day and think I don’t have time to do, this is going to take me an hour and a half to do. And so I started switching it to meditate for one minute or journal like three things you’re grateful for really quickly, and make it really simple. What ended up happening is that I would still do the longer version most days, but looking at my list, it was like well that’s easy, I could do that right now, it’s only one minute. So yeah, I think what you’re talking about has deeply impacted how I do my habits too. It’s really interesting.
James Clear: Yeah. I have a lot of little examples, like the ones you mentioned, in my book. One of my favorites is that a lot of people want to start some kind of journaling habit or gratitude habit. This one guy I came across in my research, he did it by doing an interesting thing, where he would do it each day, that he forced himself to stop writing before he wanted to stop. So he would stop in the middle of a sentence or stop journaling even when he had another thought that he wanted to put down. I’ve also had readers who have gone through a couple of my programs, who will—like one guy, he wanted to lose—he ended up losing over 100 pounds. They way that he did it, was that he started by going to the gym for just five minutes, and then once he got to five minutes, he had to leave. He wasn’t allowed to stay. And so he did that for five or six weeks, and then eventually he was like, “I’m showing up here all the time, I might as well do something more, figure out the right program or whatever.” I think what we find with a lot of habits is that people try to—you need to standardize before you optimize. People try to, they try to make some perfect habit or the ideal thing that they want, they try to get to the end result before they’ve mastered the art of showing up. Whether it’s meditating for 20 minutes or figuring out the right type of exercise program to do or the best diet to follow, or worrying about all these details of your product launch, or blog post style, or whatever it is. Those things are just optimizations and they can only happen once you’ve like put your butt in the chair and sat down into front of the keyboard or made it into the gym, or actually have purchased the food and getting ready to cook the meal. Showing up is like the most essential thing. And so if you can—that’s really the only thing you have to master in the beginning. You don’t even really have to be successful in the results orient sense, so you just need to be successful with “I am here”. And then once you’re there all the time, then there’s also sorts of improvements you can make.
Melyssa Griffin: Right. I think our listeners are going to love that, because then it’s like you don’t have to do this big crazy thing. It’s really just do the tiniest thing now, and work up and create that habit in a small way first. I like that a lot.
James Clear: If you think about it, you’re really—for a lot habits you’re trying to build, you think it’s one habit, but it’s actually more. So say you’re going to the gym, what you’ll actually need is, is you need to build a habit of going to the gym at say 5:30 PM every week day. That is a habit in itself, going there and making sure you don’t go home and sit on the couch or do something else instead. Then you have the habits of what you do once you’re at the gym. And so I think it’s just sequencing properly. Make sure that you build a habit of showing up first, then you can worry about the next detail on the chain.
Melyssa Griffin: That is such an interesting way to look at it, because I think we kind of—it’s almost like if you’re going to do a webinar or something, and you’re like I’m going to learn how to do a webinar, but then you try and figure it out. You realize, well now I have to learn how to create webinar slides and I have to create an outline and I have to learn the software. What you’re saying is basically the same thing, where every single habit that we have, we think of it as this huge thing, but really, we need to break it down into there’s all these tiny steps that we need to turn into a habit first before we can master this big thing.
James Clear: Well, I did this with my—this is how I built my business. For the first three years, I wrote a new article every Monday and Thursday. I only focused on publishing on that schedule. It didn’t matter how long or how short the article was. It didn’t matter how good or how bad it was or how I felt about it. Usually you get so emotional about what you’re working on, oh it’s not ready yet. And so I just took all of it and said “you’re making a mountain out of it.” The only thing that mattered was did I show up. As long as I showed up, then I trusted that we can go from there and figure out how to improve. And then eventually, I started to learn how to write better articles and which topics resonated, how to write a better intro, like about all those details in the beginning. The only reason that I was able to do that is because I actually showed up twice a week.
Melyssa Griffin: Right, exactly. I’m loving this. So you talked about another experiment during your ConvertKit talk that really was like impactful for me. It was a photography professor who focused on quality versus quantity. Can you talk a little bit about that experiment?
James Clear: Yeah. So his name is Jerry Uelsmann. He was a photography professor at University Florida. So all the students came into this film photography class he was teaching. The first day of class, he decides to divide the room in two. He said to everyone on this side of the room, “You’re going to be graded on the quantity of work you produce throughout the term.” So 100 photos would be an A, 90 photos would be a B, 80 photos would be a C, and so on. So it’s the quantity of work that you do that matters. Then he went to the other half of the room and he said, “All right, you are all going to be graded on the quality of your work. So you all need to make one photo during the term, but it has to be the best photo that you can possibly make.” And so this interesting thing happened, where the months go by and the term ends, and then he starts looking at the pictures and grading people based on quality or quantity. What he realizes is that actually all the highest quality photos, all the best photos come from the quantity group not the quality group.
The idea is that while the quantity group is out there testing their skills and learning what better composition looks like and playing with different types of lighting, they actually develop skills. They figure out what a better photo looks like and they learn by doing it. It’s the repetitions that hone the habit and the activity. Meanwhile, the quality group sitting around trying to theorize about what a perfect photo would like and coming up with these kind of conceptual ideas in their head of how they could get better, rather than actually honing their skills and practicing. The core idea here is that repetition is what builds any habit. We often talk about habits, you’ll hear people say things like 21 days do a new habit or 30 days or 60 days, whatever the challenge is. But there’s actually nothing about time that builds habits. It’s all about rate and frequency. 30 days could pass and you could only practice habit once or you could practice it a 1000 times, and it’s not the amount of time that passes, it’s the number of repetitions that you do. The human brain is wired to learn this way. We’re wired to learn by trial and error. We try things. We hone our mistakes and gradually narrow in on the strategies that work most effectively. I think that that story is a great example of that.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah, I love that story so much. I feel like it also shows that skill is something that just takes a lot of repetition too. For me, I work with a lot of entrepreneurs and people who are self-identified as perfectionists and people who don’t want to do something until they know that it’s going to be perfect. What I love about that story is if you keep waiting until it’s perfect, then it’s going to actually be crappier than if you had just tried to do something over and over again and worked your way up, and then it would just be better.
James Clear: The great irony of trying to plan perfection is it actually ends up worse than if you test it out. Now there’s always a balance with that, but you need some level of strategy, but I think most people need more experimentation than information. Most people think oh I need to gather more information, you need to do more research and do more planning, but in fact, they need to try more ideas, they need to learn from more mistakes, they need to gradually hone their skills. And once you realize this, once you realize that repetitions are the things that form better habits and get better results, you can kind of—I like to think about results as like this spectrum of repetitions. So if I want—take any result that you want, like getting 1000 subscribers to your blog or getting 100,000 subscribers, getting 500,000 subscribers. If you just put those on like a spectrum, on a line, then maybe getting 1000 subscribers is like a certain number of reps, maybe it’s like publishing 50 articles. Maybe getting 100,000 is like publishing 500 articles. Maybe getting 500,000 is publishing 1000 articles. So once you—in other words, the results come naturally as you put in the rest. Once you realize that, then you realize like oh, the whole game is just for me to get started, put in as many reps as possible. If I want to squat 100 pounds, maybe I need to show up at the gym 50 different times. If I want to squat 300 pounds, maybe I need to show up 250 times, whatever it is. But there is no way to cheat that process. So yeah, for me, I kind of find it motivating because it pushes you towards action rather than planning. I mean you realize like oh well, if my goal is to get down the line down the spectrum, then I need to start accumulating those reps.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah I like that way of looking at creating a skill. I think that’s really interesting. So I know you’re a productivity expert. You’ve done a ton of research on becoming more productive, higher performance. What are some tips or strategies you could offer us about how we can be more productive people?
James Clear: Yeah. Well, I think a lot of times people look for productivity secrets or hacks, but I think there’s like one fundamental thing that if you were to do this, it would probably be the only productivity tip you need. And then there’s other stuff that helps too, so I’ll talk about those. So the only fundamental thing is, do the most important thing first each day. If you actually did the most important thing first every day, you probably wouldn’t need another productivity habit. Now I have had days when I do that, but I don’t do that every day. And so the story that I really like about this and the method that people can use to do this if they like, it’s called the Ivy Lee Method. There’s this consultant, his name is Ivy Lee. In the early 1900s, like 1915, 1918, around there, he got hired by Bethlehem Steel, which is like one of the biggest steel companies in the world at that time. He came and he said, “I want to work with each of your executives. You don’t have to pay me. Just let me work with them for like 15 minutes apiece, and then bring me back in three or four months and you can pay me whatever you think is worth.” And so, the CEO is like, “Well, I can’t really believe* this, but go ahead. Come on in.” And so he talked to each of them. What he told them was this, he said, “At the end of each work day, I want you to develop a list of six items. So you’re going to write down six things that you need to do tomorrow. And then I want you to take that list and you’re going to prioritize them in order of their true importance. So the top thing is number one, the second most important thing is number two, and so on. When you come in tomorrow, you’re only allowed to work on the first item until it’s completed, and then you get to work on the second item. You can’t skip down the list at all. So you move down the list in order. And then if there is anything left over at the end of the day, you can transfer that over to your list of six for tomorrow or if it turns out to not be important, you can cancel it and come up with a new list.”
So he told each executive this and a lot of them stuck with it. And then he comes back in three months later and the CEO is so happy with the results, with the productivity gains, that he ends up writing a check for $25,000, which I think in today’s dollars is like $450,000. So this is a huge, huge win. But what’s interesting about it is that—and what I’ve seen from my own kind of experimentation and research, the things that derail our productivity—this is especially true for people who are like high performance, who can do fairly well anyway, it’s actually not wasteful uses of time that are the dangerous pieces that draws, that take us down. Most people know when they’re procrastinating, like oh I shouldn’t be watching television or something like that. That stuff, you can cut it out and it’s easier to eliminate it. But the things that are hard, are items that are like number six, seven, eight, nine on your priority list, because you can rationalize doing them. It’s not a wasteful use of time, it’s just not the best use of time. I think that if you want non-linear productivity gains, if you want the extremely powerful improvements and how you’re spending your time, then you have to start making sacrifices that are much harder. You have to start saying I’m only going to work on the most important thing and not on number five on my list.
So I don’t think there’s anything magical about Ivy Lee’s six step list, it’s just that it forces you to make decisions that you normally don’t make, you normally just say oh I’m being productive because I’m working on something on my to-do list. It’s like a decent priority rather than I’m working on the most important thing. So that’s the number one thing. That’s the fundamental piece. There are other things that you can do like little stuff. I like stuff that ends up serving you in the long run, that serves you every time. So really basic little one. On my computer, I go in on all my computers, I increase the mouse speed to the maximum amount of speed. So your mouse moves as fast as possible around the screen. It will seem really quick when you first do it, but that will save you a fraction of a second on if you’re spending eight hours a day when you’re moving around. Then there’s my digital screen on my phone. And so on my home screen—I’m on my phone I’ll show you right now. There are no apps on my home screen. It’s completely blank. And then you have to swipe over two screens to a nested folder where you’ll find social media and stuff like that. And so you can make sure that you—it’s more of a conscious decision than a mindless habit. And then if you want to get really extreme about it—I’ve been writing a book this year. I had my assistant lock me out of all social media on Monday. She’ll reset all the passwords. And then I’ll work all week and then it gets to Friday and she’ll send them over to me and I can login on the weekend. And then on Monday, we reset them again and then I get locked out for the work week.
Melyssa Griffin: That is so interesting. How has that been for you?
James Clear: Oh, it’s been great. Honestly, I loved it. I’m not planning on going back.
Melyssa Griffin: It seems awesome.
James Clear: We may do some moderated version of it, like maybe I’ll get locked out during each day and then get them in the evening or something. The other thing that I’ve done that I really like is social media and email applications on my phone, whenever I get done using them, I have to log out and delete the app. So the next time that I want to use it, I have to download it again and log in. That’s just enough friction that you’re like okay, I’m not going to download this thing just to like tap and look at it. But I will download it if I need to send someone an email or I need to actually check something. So the idea here is just to introduce a little bit of friction between you and your bad habits and increase the number of steps, and reduce the friction between you and your good habits. So reduce the number of steps…
Melyssa Griffin: I like that.
James Clear: …another example that I use, my wife and I used to buy apples. We’d go to the store and we’d buy apples and we put them in the bottom of our fridge. And they’d be in the crisper and I wouldn’t see them. They sit there for like two weeks and then they go bad, and then I would be annoyed every two weeks I’m throwing apples out.
Melyssa Griffin: Story of my life.
James Clear: Yeah, right? So then we went and bought a big display bowl and we put it on the center of the counter, and we just put the apples in there. And now I eat them all the time. I mean like two or three apples a day. I’m not even thinking about it, just because they’re out there. The same thing happened with flossing. When I wanted to start flossing more consistently, I bought a bunch of the pre-made flossers, put them in a little bowl right next to my toothbrush. So as soon as I get done brushing my teeth, I put it down and pick one up. The idea is just to prime your environment with visual cues that make it easier to do good habits and then you hide all those bad habits whether that’s digitally or physically, like tucking them away in a drawer, putting a TV behind a set of cabinet doors, things like that. Imagine, these things seem like little improvements, but imagine living and working in a place that has a thousand little things like that, that are designed to nudge you in the right direction and keep you away from things that distract you. It’s way easier to make a better choice when you’re surrounded by good choices like that.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. That’s an interesting idea. It almost seems like there could be this concept for an office, where every tiny little thing is designed for good habits, like your mouse speed is really fast and there’s no social media apps on your phone. I like that a lot. I deleted all my social media apps on my phone recently for the same purpose of just, that I’m going to download it, log in and I haven’t downloaded them again because of that small amount of friction. It would probably 30 seconds, but I think it’s like a mental peace, where then my mind kicks in and it’s like you don’t really need to be doing this right now and what are you going to get out of this anyways. So I like that a lot.
James Clear: It’s so interesting how many of our habits would fade. We often think that it’s hard to break bad habits and certainly addictions, or things that are deeply ingrained can be difficult. But it’s remarkable how many of our wasteful habits would just fade away if we introduced a little bit of friction or remove these triggers that we’re coming into and these little cues that we see throughout the day. Through that we find that it fades away. What you end up finding is that you only wanted it a very little bit, and because it was so easy, you were falling into it. As soon as you made it hard, you realize oh I actually didn’t want this that much. I think that that can actually be powerful and a little bit insightful, because a lot of the times we think, oh we have these big goals like getting in shape or writing a book or doing these things, and we think oh I don’t want them bad enough. But in fact, we do want them, the problem is that there are other things that we want just a little bit, like to check Instagram, that are so frictionless and so easy that they end up draining our time away from us. And so if you could make those things that you only really want a little bit and the long term habits that you actually want much more, you can change how easy or difficult they are, then you often find yourself falling into better behaviors.
Melyssa Griffin: That’s really insightful. It’s almost like—it seems like for the bad habits, it’s just kind of this subconscious thing where you don’t even want it, but you just do it anyways. And then for good habits that you actually do want, it might even be this subconscious thing where you really do want it, but because of that friction like you were saying, we get wrapped up in our heads at think well, I’m not the type of person that goes to the gym or I can’t become a runner, I can’t start a business because I keep procrastinating or not doing the right thing. That’s interesting.
James Clear: There’s a lot of research on this, and so it’s called different things, but the term that I like the most is time and consistency. A lot of behavioral economists is studying this kind of thing. What it is, is that we value immediate rewards, like things that happen right away, much more than we value delayed rewards, even if the delay and payoff is great. And so what you find is that your bad habits often have an immediate reward and delayed punishment. So like you eat a donut now, it tastes great, you really enjoy it. Then you gain 10 pounds a month from now if you repeat that. But good habits often have an immediate punishment or consequence and a delayed reward. So you go to the gym now and it’s a little bit of a pain. It takes some sacrifice and sweat, but then you’re in shape like three weeks from now. And so the trick of breaking bad habits and building good ones is finding ways to align those rewards, so adding a little bit of immediate reinforcement for your good habits. So if going for a run seems like a pain for you, but you have a friend that you can go with and you really like hanging out with her, then you get immediate benefit of going on a run and you get the delayed benefit of getting into shape. Stack those two and get them aligned and you’re less likely to fall through. if you can figure out a way to have an immediate consequence of the behavior, then you’re much more likely to avoid it because of that. So yeah, there’s this kind of like, your brain treats immediate and delayed rewards differently and they end up working against us or for us, depending on how we orient them.
Melyssa Griffin: That is a genius way to look at it. I like that. Do you do that with any of your habits, where maybe it’s something you really don’t want to do, but you’ve added some reward where now it’s made it a little bit easier for you?
James Clear: Yeah. So there’s all kinds of interesting ways you can do this. So for creating good habits and kind of like layering on little reinforcements, there’s a fun little game you could play with almost anything. So each time you do a habit, you could easily just get a little jar of marbles or paperclips or something, and each time you do a good habit, you move one over. And then every time you get to a predetermined number, like 10 or 30 or whatever, you get some kind of reward. You could go get a massage or watch a movie or go on a date night or buy a leather jacket, or whatever it is that you’re saving up for. And so that’s like one thing that you can do that will provide immediate benefit to any habit. Each time you do it, you’re like oh I need to move another one over, and it feels good to do that.
One of my favorite ones is, it’s like a habit tracker, or I like to call it the Seinfeld strategy. And so there’s this story about Jerry Seinfeld, where he, early in his career, he’s on the road and his show is just starting to blow up and he’s doing these stand-up routines. There was this young comic, named Brad Isaac, who was opening for him that night. So he catches Seinfeld backstage and he was like, “Mr. Seinfeld, I’ve been a big fan of your work. I wonder if you have any tips for becoming a better comic.” Seinfeld thought for a second and said, “Well, what I think you should do is get this big wall calendar, where you have every month of the year mapped out on it. And then any time you do your task of writing better jokes or writing jokes for like 10 or 15 minutes, you should put an X on that day. And so you’re kind of building this chain of days.” He was like, “You’ll have a couple false starts, but after awhile, you get like four or five, six, seven, eight days in a row.” And at that point, your only goal becomes to not break the chain. Just don’t break the chain. It doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, it doesn’t matter how you feel about the jokes. You’re just trying to keep this chain going. I have friends who have done this for like video editing habits; every time they edit 30 minutes of the video, they put an X on that day. I have friends who use it for their workout habits. They want to work out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday so they have these chains going down, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
The nice part about that is, that again, the reward is delayed for working out for example or for like writing your book, or working on jokes for a comedy routine, but each time you do it, you get the immediate benefit of putting the X on there. The other thing that’s nice about that strategy is that it also—we talked earlier about having a visual cue in your environment to prompt a good behavior, well now you have this calendar staring at you on the wall. Every time you look at it, it’s a cue to do the habit again. You see the chain building and you feel motivated to stick to it. You notice if you have or have not done your habit for that day. A lot of the time, we actually want to do the habit, so we just kind of forget because they aren’t ingrained yet. And so I like that tracking method because it hits three different stages of habit. It helps you notice it. It makes you want it more and increases your desire to keep the chain going. It helps you like it. It reinforces, it wants you to put another X on the calendar.
Melyssa Griffin: I love that too. I have been using an app called “Way of Life”, which, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but that’s basically the point of it, is you put in your habits and then every day you either tick off whether you did it or not. It builds up this chain, and able give you like your personal record of you’ve done this habit for 18 days straight. If you break the chain by not doing it, then it starts over. For me, like there are days—one of my habits that I like love and hate is that I take at least a one minute cold shower every day. There are definitely days when it’s like nighttime and it’s cold, and I’m like I don’t want to do this at all, but I’ve got 27 days in my one minute cold shower habit tracker in my app and I’m not about to break my—like ruin my record or something like that. So I do it. It’s probably been the best thing for me in keeping up with all of my habits, just not breaking the chain and having that personal record of how far I’ve taken them. So it’s really interesting.
James Clear: That’s great. I haven’t heard about that app. It’s interesting though. It’s definitely—I think it’s a great concept. The one thing that I like to add that, so you mentioned that okay I’m not going to break this, but then what you find is that if you slip up once, it often becomes easier to rationalize it the second time around. So it’s easy to start kind of a negative chain going, I guess. And so the little rule that I like to keep in mind is never miss twice. So if you miss once, that’s fine, but what separates top performers from everybody else, is that they get back on track as quickly as possible. So if my chain is to work out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and I miss on Friday, then I put all of my energy in being back in on Monday. I don’t want to let that grow. I’m going to immediately start the next chain. So that simple little rule of never miss twice, I find helpful for when I fall off track, because the goal isn’t to be perfect, the goal is to be successful the greatest percentage of the time. Even if there is like one day in there, one blip in there where the chain was broken, well if you had a chain of 50 days in a row and then another chain of 45 days in a row, it’s really good. I think that’s great. Cold showers…that’s intense…
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. I’m getting used to them. They’re not as horrible. They’re like horrible for 10 seconds and then after that I’m like this is actually not terrible. I just count in my head and it goes by pretty quickly. They do that too, with the not missing two days, because I’ve done that before and then it becomes two months, and you’re like wait what habit I was supposed to be doing. So I’m curious too, do you feel like our physical environment affects our habits or the success of our habits?
James Clear: Yeah, definitely. So I mean it certainly affects our habits in the—we mentioned visual triggers and things like that. You can prime that a little bit. So I like this phrase, “reset the room”. So each time you leave a room, reset it to serve the purpose that you want it to serve the next time you come back in. So for example, you wake up in the morning and then make your bed. And then if you want to read more at night, take a pillow and put it right on the pillow, so that when you get into bed at night, it’s right there and the habit is primed for you. My wife does this thing, where every night before she leaves the kitchen, she sets out all the stuff for breakfast the next morning, so that she can—if she wants to have coffee and she wants to make eggs and whatever, so the spatula and the pan are out on the stove and ready, the coffee machine is loaded. Her water bottle is out. So all of that stuff is there. All she has to do is show up. And so this idea of like resetting the room to serve that next goal, I think is a great way to use your physical environment to kind of nudge you forward.
The other way that I think is great, is using your environment to make the action easier or the bad actions harder. There are a lot of ways that this happens without us even realizing it. When counties or cities put speed bumps on roads, that’s a way of changing the environment so that people will change their behavior so that they slow down, because it’s now harder to drive really fast. So it increases friction into the behavior. You can kind of do the same thing. I like this metaphor of a garden hose. So a lot of—say you have a garden hose that’s bent in the middle and there’s a certain amount of water that can flow through it. Well, if the amount of water that comes out the other end is like the results that you’re looking to achieve, the level of success or productivity you’re hoping to have, there are two things that you can do. You could either crank up the nozzle and force more water through a bad hose, and that’s what a lot of us try to do. We try to ramp up motivation or willpower or we just like grit* perseverance, or you could simply unbend the hose and let more water flow through. That is what happens when we redesign our environment to serve our goals, which make actions easier for ourselves.
So there is this great story about Japanese television manufacturers in the 70s. They were getting started, and like at the time, American manufacturers were producing the majority of the televisions. So all these brands that we now know like Samsung and Sony and Toshiba and Mitsubishi, they were all creating electronics for some of the first time. They started redesigning their work environments so that they could build a machine, but didn’t have to like turn as often. They didn’t have to reach over to grab as many tools. They restructured everything so there is the least amount of movement possible. That is kind of like taking a bend out of a garden hose. Rather than saying you need to work faster and rush around the work space and try harder and work longer, they just said how can we have less friction in this process. And then over the course of like the next 10 years, they ended up completely blowing the American manufacturers out of the water. I always find that story interesting because they didn’t do the normal stuff that you would say you should do, like work harder, come up with better technology, figure out new goals, like be more ambitious. All they did was they said let’s focus on the backend of the curve, how can we have fewer bad days rather than more good days. Both of those are reasonable ways to improve, but I think we often forget about reducing the friction in our environment and how big of an impact that can make.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. That’s an interesting way to think about it. I like the examples that you gave earlier too, with like putting the book on your pillow or putting your coffee stuff out in the morning, where I guess I don’t think a lot of the times of my environment and how I can set it up for the next time I’m in it. I’m really just like in the moment there and then kind of forget about the future. Do you feel like—this is almost like a personal question from my own experience. Do you feel like a messy environment has anything to do with productivity?
James Clear: I don’t know. So I have read research studies on both sides of this, and what they find is that if you’re in a super sterile environment where everything is kind of determined for you, sometimes that can actually derail creativity. I’m not sure about productivity. But people want to feel like they have some sense of personal agency over their space. So maybe their desk is clean, maybe it’s messy but they want to feel like it’s mine. And so as long as it’s like theirs, then then tend to perform better than if someone did it for them and forced them into like this is the kind of desk you need to have. But I think that it’s quite obvious to most of us that things that are more well organized or simple or easy to do, it’s definitely faster. Let’s just use the proverbial needle in a haystack mentality. If you have a large stack of hay and a needle in there that you need to find and it’s all jumbled up together, it’s way harder to do that than if you have the hay divided into one pile and the needle in a separate pile. And so that analogy applies to all kinds of work that we do, whether it’s in a digital space on a screen or in a physical environment. The easier it is to categorize and get to things as quickly as possible, then it’s certainly, at least in theory, going to make you faster. There’s a certain amount of like well it matters if you’re into it or not or if you feel like it’s your space or not. But yeah, reducing the number of steps is pretty much always going to leave you a faster result.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. I think for me it’s like sometimes I’ll walk into my office and my desk is just super cluttered, there’s stuff all over my desk. The path to my computer is fine. I could sit down and get to work, but then I look around and I’m like this is making me feel messy on the inside or like I feel unorganized just by sitting here. And then I clean it, procrastinate for an hour and then clean my entire house. And then I come back and I feel refreshed and just more productive. So I don’t know if there’s anything to that or if it’s just me, but that…
James Clear: Oh no, well I’m the same way. So there’s at least two of us. Yeah, I think that that’s definitely true, your physical space often reflects your mental space, or the way that I’ve heard it sometimes is, the state of your inbox is often a reflection of the state of your life. If you have 1000 unread emails in there, you probably have a pattern of not tying up loose ends that needs to be managed somewhere else as well. The challenge with this is that we—a lot of people deal with this issue, they walk into a room and they see that it’s cluttered and they want to go ahead and organize it and change everything. So we get this big burst of motivation. They carve out a whole Saturday afternoon or whatever. Then they feel better, but then if you don’t change the habits behind the behavior, three weeks later, you turn around and you end up with a cluttered room again. And so part of this is like a deep lesson about habits which is that the thing that needs to change is not the results. What you need is not a clean room, what you need are more organized habits, because if you never change the inputs, then you’re going to end up with the same output all the time. And so like every change becomes this temporary change. And then we get in this like, what I like to call, this yo-yo method where we kind of go back and forth. This happens all the time with exercise too. People realize they’ve gained 10 pounds, they get out of shape a little bit. Now they feel motivated to sign up for half marathon or they go to the gym and they work out for three months. And then the race ends and they don’t have a reason to keep running because the thing that were training for is now over. And then another three months pass and they realize they gained five pounds back and then the pain comes back again and then you get back in the gym again. So they’re always oscillating back and forth between these things. I think part of the reason is because we’re focused on the result, we’re focused on the goal, when we really should be focused on the system and habits that are behind it. And so you have to dedicate yourself to building a better system and to developing a better way of life, a new lifestyle of habits. Then the results often come as a natural side effect.
Melyssa Griffin: It’s interesting having this conversation with you, because I feel like I’m seeing that habits dictate absolutely everything that we do and experience in life. It’s like you have to put yourself in a place where you’re consistent about doing certain things if you want to get a result. It’s not just like you clean your house and it’s clean. It’s like you have to become the person who does things consistently to have a clean house before it gets messy.
James Clear: I mean I’ve spent a lot of the past few years writing a lot about habits and the signs of behavior change and so on. In that way, I’m biased a little bit to talk about how important habits are, but I actually do think that for most people, they are far more important than we even realize. Research has shown that about 40 to 50 percent of our actions on any given day are habitual, so like when you reach to turn on the light switch, or the order that you tie your shoes in, or whether you go to the bathroom before you take a shower or take a shower before you go to the bathroom. There’s so many little things that we don’t even think about. That includes like patterns of habitual thoughts and emotions, the way that we respond to the circumstances in our life. So that takes care of about half of your behaviors. I think the impact is far bigger than that because what we don’t realize is that habits are like an entrance ramp to a highway. So take a little habit, like you’re standing in line and you’re bored for 10 seconds so you reach in your pocket and pull out your phone. That habit of pulling out your phone is mindless and we do it—the average person checks their phone over 150 times a day. So we do it all the time. But what ends up happening is that now you’re looking at this digital portal and you’re deciding what to do. Maybe you will open email and answer emails and maybe that’s kind of productive, or maybe you’ll browse social media, or play a game, or do something else. We think that well there are more productive and less productive things that we can do on our phone. That’s true, but what we don’t realize is that little habit of pulling the phone out of our pocket, it’s set like an entirely new menu of the choices.
So our habits determine the menu of options that we have available. So that’s true for digital stuff. It’s true for physical stuff as well. If you’re in the habit of going to the gym as soon as you get out of work and you just drive there and pull in, then you have a menu of choice available. You could do all kinds of different workouts. You could do nothing and just go home. You could go and fill up your water bottle and just stretch for a little while. Some choices are better than others, but the habit is the thing that set the options that you have available. And so about 50% of our behaviors each day are habits, but a lot of the conscious choices and actions that follow those habits, are shaped by the initial behavior. So habits are the entry point, not the end point. One of my favorite examples of this was Twyla Tharp, who’s the famous dance choreographer. She had this habit where each day she would work out for two hours each morning, but her habit was not the work out. Her habit was putting on her leg warmers and workout clothes, and walking out the door and hailing a cab. And so that action only took like two minutes, but she knew as long as she hailed a cab, she would do the rest of the workout. So I love this idea of how can we optimize from the starting line, not the finish line. Let’s optimize for these little leverage points, like pulling your phone out of your pocket or not, or hailing a cab or not. If you get enough of those little leverage points going for you, enough of those little habits, then all of the conscious choices that you take are going to be a whole level higher that will be much, much better than the other mindless ones that you follow. So that’s a long winded way of answering your point that everything is habits. It might not be everything, but it is the majority of our behaviors on a given day, are either habitual or impacted by them. And so by mastering your habits, you, in a lot of ways can master your life.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. I love that. I mean I thought it was brilliant when you said optimizing for the starting line not the finish line. That seems like the foundation of just having solid habits in general. I love that kind of visual you gave, of your habits creating the menu of choices that you have, of what comes after the habit whether it’s pulling out your phone or it’s doing something else. But that’s where the menu of like well now how am I going to use my time. That’s really interesting.
James Clear: You sit down on the couch and you fire up Netflix and then you’re like well I could watch a documentary because that’s educational, or I could watch Breaking Bad or Orange is the New Black, or whatever. You feel that you’re making a conscious there, and you are, but the choices that you have available are already set beforehand. So by deciding better habits, you give yourself better options.
Melyssa Griffin: Right. Wow. It’s life changing. So what are some of the habits for you, maybe personal growth habits or self-care habits that either you’ve been personally impacted by in a positive way or that you see a lot of people adopting and getting really great results with?
James Clear: Yeah. Well, so I mentioned early in the call that there are these habits that provide a high rate of return in life, habits that kind of compound more than others. Not all habits are created equal. We know, most of us know what these habits are, things like getting eight hours of sleep or more, doing something creative each day, so whether that’s writing or painting or whatever it is for you, but having some type of creative output. Not just being a consumer, but being a producer as well. Exercise, some type of fitness or health, so again, whatever it is for you; CrossFit, running, yoga—it doesn’t matter, just something, rock climbing. So exercise, sleep, creativity. And then meditation is one that I don’t personally practice as much as I should, but you’ll talk to people who have done that and they’ll say, “In the morning, if I meditate for my 10 minute, then the whole rest of my day is easier. I manage distractions better, I make better decisions. These type of habits are often called keystone habits because they sort of ripple into the other areas of your life.
And so when we’re talking about habit change, that’s usually where I start saying you don’t need to change your whole life, just pick one of these that you feel like would be of high value to you. And just focus on mastering that because it will often ripple into other areas. For me, my keystone habit is working out. I know that if I go to the gym, yeah I get the benefits of exercise, but I also get the benefits of—I usually have that kind of post workout high where I have really clear thinking for an hour or two. I tend to eat better. I could rationalize and eat worse, but what I find is that I—and I’ll get back to this point in a minute. It’s kind of like aligning with the identity that I want to build. And so I’m like well I don’t want to waste it, like I put this work into workout and I don’t want to waste it by eating something bad. I sleep better because I’m tired from training, and because I sleep better, I end up waking up and having better energy the next day. And so at no point was I trying to build better sleep habits or diet habits or focus habits or energy habits, but all those things came as a result of just working out.
So I would say that that’s a good place to start. The second one that I wanted to mention is something that I actually don’t see a lot of people doing, that I have found to be incredibly useful for me. And so the benefit is reflection and refinement. We often don’t sit down and reflect on the habits that we have. Your life, this year, right now in this moment, is in a different place than it was last year. A lot of the time, the advice that’s good for us changes based on the point that we’re at in our lives. So I’ll use the line, “good advice at the wrong time is bad advice.” I think that that holds true for our habits as well. The habit needs to fit the place that you’re at in your life. That means that we’re not static, because we’re dynamic, we need to reflect and refine our habits each year. And so I have two processes that help with that. The first one is what I call my integrity report. And so each summer, I do an integrity report that has three questions. The first question is what are my values. And so I usually limit it to like three or four categories. I write down what those are and why they are important to me. The second question is how am I living and working by those values over the last year. So this is kind of the chance to pat myself on the back and talk about what I did that was helping me become the person I want to become. And then the third question is the really important one, which is where did I fail to live up to those values. The reason this is important is because our habits and our identity are often deeply aligned. So we think
that we are a type of person and so we act in a certain way, but the truth is we learned to become a certain type of person by the habits that we repeated over time. So if you go to church every Sunday for 20 years, you believe that you’re religious. If you study biology every Wednesday for 20 minutes, you believe that you’re studious.
So your identity emerges out of the actions that you repeat time and time again. Once that identity, once those beliefs about yourself get conditioned, then you start to fall in line with that behavior. You start to think like oh that is the type of person I am, like this is—I can’t do that, that’s not the type of thing a Christian does, or I can’t do that, that’s not the type of thing a Democrat does or whatever. You find these identities and then you start to act in alignment with them. But our habits, each little action you take is like casting a vote for the type of person that you want to become. So every little choice is kind of like—it’s like your identity is a painting, it’s always being retouched. So I love to do this, this integrity report to remind me of what identity am I looking to build, who am I looking to become, and how are my habits aligning with that. And so it’s just a way to check in and make sure that I’m kind of staying on track there. So I do that in the summer and then in the winter, I do an annual report, where it’s a little more statistical like how many articles did I write this year, how many workouts did I do—that kind of thing, where it’s like a check in on my habits. That also helps keep me aware of what I am and not doing, and whether that’s aligning with the type of person I want to become. So I like those reflection review habits because they keep you on track and help you adjust as your life changes.
Melyssa Griffin: I love that. I love that you included that as one of the habits, reflection and review. I journal every day. I try to write at least three or four pages of reflection. That’s kind of my way of looking back, but I like the idea of doing it on a larger scale too, where it’s like every six months or you do an annual report and really look back over the entire year, rather than just day to day. I think that’s really important. We talked about, in episode 19 with Jim Fortin, he talked about something very similar, where if you want to change who you are, you have to change it on a core identity level. And really like what you were saying, of how—I think you give the example of like a Christian, well if somebody says I am a Christian and this is just what I do, then you have to go back and change that identity of who are you and that will inform the kinds of habits that you are able to keep up with and to do.
James Clear: Right. Well, it’s the easy categories or things like political parties and religious beliefs, and things like that, but we have all kinds of aspects of our identity. I’m a smoker for example. If you decide that about yourself, then it becomes very hard to change because you feel like your actions, these new habits of not smoking are in conflict with your identity. True behavior change is identity change. And so the way to do that is by changing from the core by casting these little votes of the new type of person you want to become.
Melyssa Griffin: Absolutely. So this has been an amazing conversation. I have one more question for you, because I like to ask this to all of my guests. That is, what do you feel like people can do to live more meaningful and fulfilled lives?
James Clear: That’s a good question. So I like to think about—and I do this in my own life as well, I like to think about what you could call like a barbell strategy. In other words, you can invest in yourself in the—we talked earlier about rewards and immediate reinforcement versus delayed reinforcement. So in order to live a meaningful life, I like to do two things that are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The first is ask myself how can I contribute to world right now, how can I give it away on the front end. So as an example, the guy who founded Craigslist, Craig Newmark, people asked him like why don’t you charge for more things. You only have this very small section of the site that you make money on and then most of the site is totally free. His argument was you can impact the world in one of two ways, you can do the Bill Gates or Warren Buffett method where you accumulate all this money and then you give it away on the backend, to philanthropy, or you offer a service or volunteer or do something useful for someone right now and give it away on the front end. That’s what I do like the Craigslist strategy. And so I like that strategy. That’s just a money example, but I like to do it with both. So I like to ask myself how I’m doing things that have immediate benefit either for my work or for myself right now, and then how am I doing things that have a long term outcome. So every article I write, I try to make it an evergreen article that you can read 35 years from now and it will still give you a lot of benefit. And so that’s giving away on the backend. Now it also might impact people today, but I’m making sure that that’s like the legacy part of it that lives on after I do my work. And then like maybe working with a student in one of my courses or giving a speech or something like that. That’s something that only has impact right now, like it evaporates as soon as the words come out of my mouth. But it’s a higher touch way to spend my time and make an impact in the immediate moment. Giving money away to charities that do great work, like for the Malaria Foundation, this is my personal favorite. That’s a way of giving away on the front end. That makes people’s lives better right now. And then you can do other stuff that works towards a better future. So that’s more of a high level way of thinking about it than an actual strategy for living a meaningful life, but I think we all have unique talents and lifestyles that we’re looking to build, but we can each take kind of those strategies and ask ourselves those questions of how am I giving away on the front end and on the backend.
Melyssa Griffin: Almost like well how are you giving or being of service now and how are you creating a legacy that’s of service too. I like that. That’s awesome. James Clear, you’re amazing Where can people go to find you? I know they’re going to want to learn all about you after this episode.
James Clear: Thank you so much. Yeah, it’s been great to do this. Jamesclear.com is the easiest place to go to find my writing. If you want, if you like this stuff about habits, I have a whole page dedicated to habits at jamesclear.com/habits, that kind of summarizes some of the best ideas. There’s a free download there if you want to grab that. But anyway, thanks Melyssa, I really appreciate it.
Melyssa Griffin: Awesome. Thank you.