Decoding How to Form Bulletproof Habits With James Clear – TCE 010

by Scott - 2 Comments

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James Clear

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Though I haven’t been in the game as long as many, I’m pretty sure that habits determine the quality of our lives.

Whether we’re talking health, wealth, or relationships, the things that we consistently do and think end up determining how we experience reality.

This is exactly why I wanted to bring on one of the most thoughtful thought leaders on habit formation on the show James Clear. James writes, has built several internet businesses, and is someone I’ve been enjoying learning from for awhile now.

Now I know you may have read some books on habit or maybe even recognize the importance of implementing positive habits into your life….but the truth is, there is probably some habits you can improve or are still having trouble forming.

Heck, I moved from New York City to ditch bad habits and still got plenty to work on!!!

If you’re in this camp, I think you’ll really enjoy this meaty interview that decodes habits and much of why we do what we do…

Jamesism: “Make small choices on a consistent basis and let your actions drive your beliefs.” – James Clear (tweet this)

What You’ll Learn By Listening

  • The two minute habit creation rule
  • The secret to breaking bad habits
  • Why we actually do things we don’t want to like overeat…this was a huge breakthrough for me
  • How to get leverage on yourself by tying your identity to habit creation
  • How to stop procrastinating using the Seinfield Strategy
  • The power of implementation intentions for taking action
  • Some unique ideas on prioritization and why we should strive for 1% gains

Listen to the episode here:

Subscribe on Itunes for more interviews or Listen on Stitcher

Thank James for dropping knowledge on us (tweet james here)

Mindshare segment at the end:

A bit of a personal share here…I describe why I love my current roommates who I moved to Brazil with. I think this share alludes to some key values of what qualities are important in friendships especially in the crazy ride of entrepreneurship.  

Links & Resources Mentioned:

For more on James check him out at: Blog, Book: Transform Your Habits (it’s free), and on Twitter @james_clear

Other resources mentioned:

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*You’ll find a full searchable transcript below

Music Credit: Carousel Games & Stay Awake

Big Thanks to Today’s Show Partner – Vimbly is the fastest way to book thousands of activities, classes & date ideas. These include dance, cooking, glassblowing, pizza making, wine tasting, learning to DJ, improvisation, scotch pairing, samurai sword fighting, persuasion class, and more.

*When I was living in the states and trying to come up with cool date ideas Vimbly was my go to. The service was super easy and I definitely got an amazing response by mixing it up from the classic “drinks” date.vimbly_logo

Did you know that you can get free Vimbly credit in the The Competitive Edge Podcast giveaway? Check out all the details here


Searchable Transcript of This James Clear Interview:

Scott:                     Okay, so today, I’m really excited to bring James Clear to the show. James is a writer, entrepreneur and travel-photographer in more than 20 countries. Right now, James Clear dot com is the home of his life’s work and his site is read by over 200,000 different people each month. Additionally, more than 60,000 people receive his email newsletter every single week. James, how’re you doing man?

James Clear:          Hey, good to be here; thanks for having me on Scott.

Scott:                     It’s awesome to have you on and today I’m just really excited to chat with you about a lot of things but in particular, habits. James, you have such an interesting background and managed to do a ton of different things between building a business, being an expert in behavior change, being a travel-photographer; why don’t you tell us just a little bit more about yourself and when you started getting into forming habits and that became a critical part of your life?

James Clear:          Sure. Well, the answer is like when I started thinking about habits a lot and writing about it and focusing on it more. My site has been around, James Clear dot com for about 16-17 months now so I’ve been thinking about it a little bit longer than that but I’ve been writing about it specifically for that long. But, as you mentioned, I sort of had a bunch of different touch points with things especially with health and wellness. I was an athlete, an undergrad athlete in baseball; I competed on the Olympic weightlifting team now, I had a brief stint where I worked at a medical practice between my first and second year of grad school.

So, I was a biomechanics major undergrad; so, I’ve always been close to the health and science and fitness piece of things through a couple of different areas. So, that was an interest and I started my first business about three and a half years ago and when I started, I realized that the things that I was doing, so like the messages that I would send out through my email or the words that I had on my website or the call to action that I would have on the sales page, the way that I worded things, changed the actions people took. And so I got interested in this idea of how does our environment and the messages that we send shape the choices and the actions that we take.

And as I got into that behavioral psychology piece more and more, I started seeing a ton of overlap with health and wellness and fitness and just productivity and efficiency in general. And so, because I already had all those interests in health and fitness, I naturally started applying those concepts to those areas. I guess you could say — I mean we’ve all been forming habits since the day we were born but I guess you could say, I have been thinking about habits for the last few years now.

Scott:                     That’s so interesting to me that your habits, your whole interest in behavior change and habits really started from just noticing some nuances in your business. Can you tell people just really quickly, I know you have multiple businesses right now but just give a few sentences on what those businesses are just so people know?

James Clear:          Sure. So, the main — I’ve started a couple of different things, I have done freelancing in web design, I built a community that teaches people how to market their freelance work and their work as a solopreneur. I built a travel website that helps people find the best credit card deals for earning points and miles and everything and then I also spend most of my time now writing on James Clear dot com. And moving forward, over the next year or two, that’s probably where everything is going to be going; I’ll roll certain projects and other things, I plan on selling one of my businesses some time hopefully soon and then focusing and sort of doubling down on behavior change, behavioral psychology, habit formation and how those principles can be applied to entrepreneurs, creative professionals and people interested in health and fitness.

Scott:                     I love it. So, I know that there’s a lot of people out there who realize how important habits are for our efficiency, for our heath and our wellness; where do most people mess up when they are trying to form good habits?

James Clear:          Well, obviously there can be plenty of points for downfall; I think one thing is mindset in general and the way that you approach things. So for example, a lot of people consider habits to be like an event and what I mean is that they think, oh well, I just need to build this habit and then I’ll be done. I just need to do this and then it’ll be finished and it doesn’t really work that way. If you learn to embrace habits as a process as continuing improvement, as gradual change, as a system that can be built and function and worked over and over again each week, then you start to embrace this idea of just learning consistently and it becomes much more powerful and also much more — much less stressful because you don’t have to worry about getting to an outcome or crossing a finish line.

You simply focus on the process and the system of building a habit each week and it can carry you very far. To give you an example of that, you could for example say that you wanted to build a popular habit just like, I want to get in shape or fitness or start doing push-ups or something as an example. So you could say, I want to set a goal for myself, I want to do 100 push-ups in a row or 50 push-ups in a row or whatever it is. And that type of habit is focused on the outcome, on getting this result and if you only get to 45 push-ups in a row then you feel like a failure because you didn’t hit it. But it’s also not focused on the system and the day to day process that can take you there.

The opposite approach and the one that I think is more successful and useful would be to say, okay, what’s an easy amount of push-ups for me to do right now? Let’s say it’s ten, so you can do ten in a row without much trouble. Today do ten push-ups, only takes you fifteen seconds, get it done right away, tomorrow you simply add another one so you do eleven and the day after that 12; you find this super-small, incremental gain that is so tiny that it’s almost laughable. Or just so easy that you’re not going to just miss it but over the course of two or three months, all of a sudden you are at 50 push-ups a day and that I think is a much more powerful way to approach things.

To see them as a system, to focus on the process and to figure out a way to make tiny, incremental gains each day or each week so that you make incredible progress but without the stress an trying to predict an outcome, or when you’ll get to some point.

Scott:                     So let’s try to codify this because there’s a couple of elements here that I think are super-important for people that aren’t as familiar with building strong habits and let’s start with the beginning. When you want to form a habit, it sounds like one of the best things you can do is start off with a very achievable goal.

James Clear:          Yeah, I absolutely agree with that. The phrase that — and I learnt this from Leo [Inaudible 0:06:52] the phrase that I really like is something so easy you can’t say no to it. So you start with something that is so small that it can be done without any real motivation or will power. I mean, it’s just something to help you build the consistency of doing things over and over again. And this is a theme that comes back over and over again in many areas of life. But the idea is that it doesn’t even really matter what kind of outcomes you hope you have if you’re not going to be consistent with it.

Like a lot of people will say, I want to lose 20 pounds in the next four months; but if you’re not showing up at the gym anyway, it doesn’t even matter what your goal is. So, in the beginning, you should focus on just building the habit of consistency, of being the type of person that doesn’t miss workouts for example. And then you could get on to the performance piece later. So there are two little rules that you can think of when we talk about starting with something that is so easy, you can’t say no to it; the first is — and I sort of modified this rule from David Allen who wrote the book ‘Getting Things Done’ but his version is like a productivity hack. It says, ‘if something takes less than 10 minutes, then do it right now’.

So, making that email, or sending that email you’ve been avoiding or making that phone-call that you’ve been putting off or doing the dishes or doing the laundry; if it takes less than two minutes, then do it right now so it just sort of gets you moving. Well, I think that you can do something similar for habit formation; so pretty much any habit, it can’t really be performed in under two minutes for a lot of them, but they all can be started in less than two minutes. So you want to do a routine of going for a run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Well, maybe you get home from work on Monday and you’re drained, you’re tired, you just don’t feel like doing it, the habit should be less than two minutes.

So, it could be putting your shoes on and stepping out of the door, that’s the whole thing; if you do that you’ve succeeded, you don’t need to do anything else you don’t have to run a single step. But, if you do that, there’s often this inertia that comes with starting something that you follow through and all of a sudden you start putting one foot in front of the other and the miles click by. Another version of that is that some people love that rule; some people don’t like the two-minute rule because they’re like, ‘well, I know I’m trying to trick myself’. Well, you could do something similar but slightly different.

I had a reader that I had lunch with a few weeks ago and he told me that he lost over a hundred pounds, took him a few years to do it — like a year or two. So, it took him a couple of years but what he did when he implemented exercise into his routine, was he told himself, I’m not allowed to stay at the gym for longer than five minutes. So I got to go and so I can’t stay six minutes, I’m not allowed. And he did that for the first six weeks and then once he had done that of that long, he was like I’m going here every day, I kind of feel like staying for a little longer. And so he made it like so easy for himself to go and be successful that taking the next step wasn’t hard.

For most people, they start with a habit that’s so much bigger than that which they think that if they don’t do something grand or impressive, then it’s not going to work but the consistency is the thing that drives everything else. So, if you are not showing up on a daily basis, or if you are not doing it over and over again, then the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter. So, that’s why start with something so easy that you can’t say no to it, the two-minute rule, really giving yourself the time [Inaudible 0:10:13] stay for longer, these are all ways of trying to build the habit of consistency and then you can graduate and improve to the next level later on.

Scott:                     So, besides lowering the friction by making it easy and doing this other types of things that you mentioned in terms of setting a time limit, is there anything else that can really enhance your ability to be consistent when you have some habit that you want to change?

James Clear Interview:          Yeah, so here’s a story and an example of something that I like and it seems like people gravitate towards; I wrote an article called ‘How to stop procrastinating by using the “Seinfeld strategy”‘ and the basic idea that this evolved out of was that there’s a story about Jerry Seinfeld and he was this famous comedian, he was on tour, at the time he was going on different county clubs and there was this young comedian at the club with him named Brad Isaac.

And Brad was going to open for him that night and so he caught Jerry back-stage and he said “Mr. Seinfeld, do you have any tips for a young comedian who is looking to become successful?” And he said, “Well, the secret to becoming a better comedian is to write better jokes and the only way to write better jokes is to write every day”. So, this is what you should do; buy a big wall calendar that has every day of the year mapped out on it. You can get this from Wal-Mart or Amazon or wherever for ten bucks. And when you do your task of writing a joke, or writing jokes for that day, I want you to take a Sharpie and put an X on that day.

And you may have a couple of false starts maybe do it for two days or three days and miss a day or whatever, but eventually at some point, you’re going to get a chain going where you got six, seven, eight, nine days in a row. And at that point, your only goal is to not break the chain. It doesn’t matter how good or how bad the jokes are that you write, it doesn’t matter how long or how short you write for, it’s just don’t break the chain and make sure you’re doing your writing each day.

And that same rule can be applied to all sorts of stuff. Make sure you meditate each day, don’t break the chain. Doesn’t matter if it’s for 60 seconds or 20 minutes, just don’t break the chain. Make sure you don’t break the chain of your workouts or your writing schedule or whatever it is for the habit that you are working on. But this philosophy of building up a chain and focusing on continuing that chain seems to help people with consistency and the visual element of seeing it on the calendar is also a reminder of how far you have come and how much progress you have made.

Scott:                     It’s a really good point; I think one thing that’s really been helpful for me too is being able to chart my success with a particular habit by quantifying or measuring things. So like for example, it’s hard for me to — if I want to go to the gym every week, and I’m not tracking the weights that I’m doing and experiencing the sense of growth, it’s hard for me to be as excited about continuing that chain. Do you find that with all the different people that you have habits that quantifying or measurement is an important component of being consistent or staying motivated?

James Clear:          I would say that it can be very important for certain people. Like you, I do the same thing, I have a moleskin notebook that I write down each of my workouts in each week when I go and I love having that tracking thing. Honestly I don’t know how I would work out without that because my goal is just to improve by a pound or five pounds or one set or whatever each week. So that’s how I base my gains off of that journal or off of those measurements. But the idea of tracking things and measuring things, I think it’s useful for everyone.


The reason I’m hesitating to say ‘absolutely yes, this is a very important thing for everybody’ is because some people have a personality that is more structured towards tracking and quantifying and other people don’t. And that’s fine and that’s why some people have a ton of success with food-journaling and writing down everything you ate for the day and all the calories that are in each thing. And other people are like ‘that sounds like the worst thing I’ve heard of and I don’t want to do that at all’. And the lesson is that quantifying and measuring is important and it can give you a real key insight into whether or not you’re making progress but it’s also just one tool in your tool-belt. Like there are other ways to build habits, that said, for me personally, I find that to be very important.


Scott:                     Me too. Let’s talk about bad habits, when somebody has a bad habit that they want to get rid of that’s pulling them back from achieving the things they want to in their life, what sort of advice would you give that person?


James Clear:          There are a lot of things with bad habits, I would say a few. So one is that stopping bad habits or preventing bad habits or getting rid of them, a lot of times, it comes down to not like eliminating the habit but substituting something for it. So, a lot of research has shown that even if something is a bad habit, there is usually some benefit associated with it. You may not like the behavior itself but you are getting some benefit from doing it.


So like take smoking, which is a classic example; if you are smoking, then you may be getting the benefit of social interaction if you do it with your friends at work or of reducing stress if you use it as a break to get away from things or there is a physiological benefit when you get the hit of Nicotine. So there’s all these different things that are benefits of the behavior even if you don’t like the behavior. So, the lesson here is that to break a bad habit, you can often substitute a new behavior if that provides the same benefit if you can figure out what that benefit is.


So — and this brings me to my second point about bad habits, is that many bad habits and again this was an idea I got familiar Leo [Inaudible 0:15:53], many bad habits are a response to stress or boredom. So, I have a bad habit of wasting time watching TV or YouTube or Netflix and that’s a response to me being bored. Or I have a bad habit of smoking and that is a response to stress or of shopping when I feel really stressed or whatever it may be. And if you can figure out a more healthy way to deal with stress or boredom, then you can often eliminate those habit because you are reducing the response that is causing them.


So, if you adopt a daily meditation habit, then maybe that reduces stress and you don’t feel the need to have the bad habit to substitute for that. If you can start doing breathing exercises, that’s one of my favorites, if I feel like I’m holding tension and stress in my shoulders and my back, then a lot of times, I’ll just do a simple breathing exercise where I breathe in for three seconds, pause for one and then breathe out for six seconds. And I just repeat that cycle three – five times. It takes 30 seconds or a minute and I can really feel the stress response go down in my body.


So that’s one thing; Amy Cuddy who is a researcher at Harvard and who delivered a very popular Ted-talk on body language; she talks about different postures that you can assume to reduce the stress in your system and increase testosterone which is meant to increase confidence. So, there are all sorts of little things that you can do whether it is meditation or body language or breathing exercises or a whole range of options to reduce stress in your life and hopefully eliminate the need for some of those bad habits.


Scott:                     James, are you familiar with any of Tony Robbins’ work?


James Clear:          I am familiar with Tony but I haven’t been to any of his seminars or read a ton of his work in detail.


Scott:                     It’s just so funny, because I love Tony Robbins and it’s almost as if the things that you are saying right now, instead of ‘changing habits’, he calls them ‘patterns’ and very much speaks to a lot of the things that you just touched upon. But one thing that I in particular want to highlight is, a lot of times when we go through — we have a bad habit, what we really want to do is we just want to change our state. We want to change the way that we feel and boredom and stress are two examples of feelings that we don’t like. But, whether it is we’re overeating or we’re watching TV or we’re angry or whatever it is, we often just have patterns of reverting to these things that are going to give us that instant satisfaction just because we want to change our state.


And for me that was just an insanely powerful concept to grasp because in those moments of decision when I was going to eat a piece of chocolate that already had too much chocolate or have a dessert or whatever it is, it wasn’t that I was hungry or craving that thing, it was really just because I really just wanted to change my state.


James Clear:          Yeah, I like that philosophy a lot; I think that’s very true. And it’s an interesting way to think about it because there are many choices for changing your state. It doesn’t have to be bad habits. So when you start to see it in that way, you are more aware of the options that you have available to you to substitute in for different behaviors.


Scott:                     James, one of the things that I have heard you talk about before, is this concept of identity-based habits. Could you tell the listeners a little bit more about that, because I think it’s really powerful?


James Clear:          Yeah, I’m sure. So, the basic idea is that a lot of behavior change is focused on the outer layers, I would call it, of change. So these are things like performance or appearance-based goals; like I want to lose 20 pounds or I like to bench-press 300 pounds. These are things that are associated with your performance or your appearance. And I would say that that’s like the outer layers of behavior change and the inner layer is something a level deeper which is the things that you believe about yourself and the identity that you have.


And often times we try to change the performance and the appearance without changing our beliefs or without changing our identity and what happens is that it’s a struggle to stick with things long-term because you don’t believe different things about yourself. So, as an example, you could have someone who wants to become a runner and so they’d say something like performance based for example, ‘oh, I want to run a half-marathon’. So, they say that they want to run the half-marathon, they pick a date, they sign up they start their training schedule and they train for the race and then they run the race and they finish it; and they didn’t shift what they believed about themselves.


So, because that didn’t change, they no longer have a performance-based goal to drive them forward and therefore they will a lot of times will stop running for a month or two and then all of a sudden they’ll wake up like ‘oh man, I haven’t run in a while, I have to get a new goal to get me back on track’. And so you get this, yo-yo effect where you do something for a little while and then you don’t do it. On the flip side, you have someone else who they could be training for the same race, they could run the half-marathon but then it’s not that the performance that was driving them forward, it’s that they run each day because they are a runner and that’s what they believe about themselves.


It’s like part of their identity; it’s wrapped up in them. And so I think a much more useful way to think about habits is not — how can I build a habit that gets the outcome or the result that want, but how can I build a habit that is focused on the identity I want to have? So take for example, the fitness one; you have people who maybe want to lose 20 pounds in the next four months and that’s their appearance-based goal or their performance-based goal but the identity piece is, okay, who’s the type of person that could lose 20 pounds in four months? Well, it’s the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts.


So, your focus then becomes only on forming that habit of not missing workouts. And so once you realize the type of person that can achieve your goals, the type of identity that they have, focus your habits on that and on becoming that type of person and then the results and the performance and the appearance, those come later.


Scott:                     It makes so much sense because we have such a natural proclivity to remain consistent with who we say we are whether publically, or internally. So, I can see how that is a very strong force. Just out of curiosity James, I would love to hear some of the types of identities that you have for yourself that encourage you to do the types of things that you want to do each and every day.


James Clear:          Sure, so one is absolutely, I’m a type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. That’s something that I believe about myself, that’s something that I try to live out each week and as a side-note, just sort of bridging these two previous questions, the only way that I know to change your identity or to change the things that you believe about yourself is to make small choices on a consistent basis and let your actions drive your beliefs.


So, if you decide to start running for example and you want to become the type of person who believes that you are a runner, then by setting a schedule for yourself, sticking to that schedule and then running, even if it’s only for five minutes, each time you chose to do that, every one of your actions is a vote to the type of things that you believe by yourself. And if you see that, then once you stack up enough votes, then you start to actually believe it. For me, that’s how I became a type of person who doesn’t miss workouts as an example.


So, I work out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I know when I am going to the gym, I know what days it occurs, but it’s not even a decision for me anymore because I stuck to the behavior and the pattern enough that it’s just something I believe about myself now. So, that’s one thing and I think anybody can adopt that idea of how do I do something small and consistent basis and each time place a vote for this type of identity that I want to believe in. Same way with writing; about 16 months ago, I started writing a new article on James Clear dot com every Monday and Thursday and that was totally different for me compared to what I was doing previously.


When I had other websites before this, I was writing whenever I felt motivated or inspired and eventually the difference between the professionals and amateurs is that amateurs do things when they are motivated or inspired and professionals do things on a schedule. So once I embraced that philosophy, I started thinking about how can I build the identity of being a pro and approaching my work like a pro? And so I set that schedule every Monday and Thursday and I think I’ve missed it one time in the last 16 months and so each time I do that, that’s another vote of confidence for believing that type of thing about myself. So those are two examples of how I see identities play out in my work and health.


Scott:                     Yeah, I think another way to think about it is that we just build a stronger conviction in your beliefs with the greater experience that you have and the simplest example is that I have a belief that when I turn the light switch on, the light bulb in my room is going to go on. Or when I cross the street and it’s not a red light, I have a chance of getting hit. And the reason that I feel that way and I predict that and I have that belief is that my past experience tells me that when I turn the light switch on, the light’s going to go on and that’s stronger after a hundred times of turning the light switch on than the first time I ever turned it on in my life.


So I love the idea of placing votes, I love that metaphor to just build and strengthen the conviction around who you are and the type of person that you are which will dictate your actions as you mentioned.


James Clear Interview:          Yeah, I think that’s so true; I agree with that idea of — past experience drives that home. I had a basketball coach who told us once that confidence is just displayed ability. And what he meant was that if you display your ability or produce a result over and over again, then you start to have a confidence in it. And so that’s one reason why I think start small, display your ability each and every time, cast those votes each and every time and eventually the confidence comes as a natural result; like you were very confident that the light will turn on when you hit the light switch because that’s been displayed over and over again.


Scott:                     Let’s talk about how you build upon these small winds though, because it’s great if I go to the gym for five minutes every day or it’s great if I write about a hundred words, but if your ultimate goal is to become prolific at any of these things, does that require me to push the edge and how is the best way for people to go about doing that?


James Clear:          I’ll tell a story to sort of encapsulate the example and then you’ll see how this is very similar to the idea of starting small but just doing it in a slightly more incremental way each time. So, there was a cycling coach named Dave Brailsford who — team Great Britain, they have the Team Great Britain for the Olympics and then they have Team Sky which is their professional cycling team for things like the Tour de France. And they had never won a Tour de France championship but they wanted to and when they hired Brailsford to do this job and he said that their approach would be to look at everything related to cycling and try to improve it just by one percent.


So, they did things that you would think of like find tires that were one percent lighter or a seat that was slightly more ergonomic or a better racing suit that reduced the weight of the rider, all these little things. But then they also looked at stuff that you wouldn’t expect like the best type of massage gel to use for recovery or which pillows led to the best sleep at night and then they took them with them when they went to the hotel on the road. What type of hand-sanitizer or soap would reduce the risk of infection; all these things and Brailsford thought that if they added up all those one-percent gains, then maybe they would be able to win the Tour de France in five years.


And it turns out that it happened much faster than that, they won the Tour de France in three years, then they repeated after four years with a different rider the next year and he also coached Team Great Britain in the Olympics in 2012 in London and they won 70% of the gold medals available. And it was all by embracing this strategy of how do we increase these gains by one percent? How do we find an additional one percent? And I think that same concept applies to habit graduation as I recall which is this incremental improvement or improvement into the next level that you asked about.


So, graduating your habits to the next level or finding an incremental gain, I think is best done if it’s in a very small way but a very consistent way. As an example, that I mentioned earlier, if you wanted to the push-ups as a habit, you could just do ten push-ups on the first day and then add one to 11 and then add another one to 12 and then add another, to 13 and that one push up that you are adding is incrementally improving that by — that’s your one percent gain. And finding very small ways to improve I think is the secret and then the second piece of that which I can get into as well is building a system that provides feedback loops that gives you information and data to make a decision on so that you can improve each week rather than just hoping that you’ll figure out a way to make gains.


Scott:                     Interesting. This kind of touches on a topic that I would want to get to and that’s ‘prioritization’ because I’ll agree with you, I have a ton of habits that I want to build. I want to eat better, I want to be more focused, I want to spend more time with my family, I want to spend more time with my relationships, and it’s just really tough to do it all and I’m thinking about — I try to apply the 80-20 principle when it comes to prioritizing what I want to focus on and it seems like if we are trying to improve all these little things by one percent, that’s almost at odds.


It could potentially be at odds with focusing on just improving that one particular thing that’s going to get you the most benefit. So I would love for you to just kind of paint a picture of how you think about prioritization when it comes to self-improvement to building positive habits.


James Clear:          Sure, yeah; I think we all struggle with this. So the first thing is clarifying a little bit about the one percent gains. The fundamental thing about this idea is that it is focused on something specific; so for example let’s take my writing. If I wanted, I could approach that with this philosophy where it’s like let me find one percent gains and ways to improve my writing and so I could optimize the line-height and the typography to make it easier to read. I could come up with a strategy for writing better titles for my articles and so that more people are interested in them.


I could come up with a better strategy or a more user-friendly comment form. I could figure out a way to get my articles to display better on mobile devices. These are all little one percent gains that make my writing better or more accessible. But it’s all focused just on writing, it’s not find one percent in my writing, find one percent in my weight-lifting, find one percent in my diet and all that stuff. So it’s focused. The second thing that I’ll say is that there’s a concept called ‘Keystone Habits’ and I think it’s pretty useful and also I see it to be relatively true and play out in my own life.


So the idea is that a keystone habit is the one or two behaviors that you do that sort of naturally pull the rest of your life in line. So for me, strength-training is my keystone habit; if I go to the gym and I lift every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then the rest of my life falls in line more easily than it would otherwise. And what I mean is that I tend to have better focus after my workouts. So, I’m already more focused, I didn’t have a habit around that it just happened. When I work out, for some reason I feel like eating more healthy.


So it’s just natural for me to make a better healthy food decision when I’m working out versus when I’m not. I sleep better so, I’m more rested, I have better energy the next day, these are all things that come naturally from that one habit of focusing on fitness. And by doing that I don’t overwhelm myself by thinking, I need to come up with better sleep habits, I need to come up with better eating habits there, I need to come up with a way to focus more and work out. I just focus on lifting and it has this trickle-down effect in the rest of my life, it sort of ripples out.


And I’ve heard that there are other people who have seen the similar things in different areas, finance is a common one; people say that once they figure out how to budget and take control of their finances, they realize this gradual process in taking control of things and they get out of debt. It ripples into all the other areas of their life. CEOs will often claim that their daily meditation habit is their keystone habit. If they get their ten or fifteen minutes of meditation in each morning, they feel focused and more stress-free and ready to approach the problems that they face each day.


So, it could be different things for each person but focusing on a few keystone habits and trusting those to ripple out I think is a very key thing to do to make improvements in one area and not having to overwhelm yourself by thinking about all of the areas. And then the final thing that I’ll say is that there is a little exercise you can do where you take a sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle and this is an idea I got from B.J. Fogg, who is a Stanford professor; and on one side, you’re going to write all the things that you do each day without fail.


So I take a shower, I go to the bathroom, I eat lunch, I turn my car on; all the things that you do each day normally. Many of them will be like health-related, or the stuff that you do in the bathroom in the morning whatever your routine is all that stuff. Then, on the other side of the page, you’re going to write all the things that happen to you each day without fail. So, a traffic light turns red, the sun rises, the sun sets, a commercial comes on TV, someone sends you a text, your phone rings; these are all external cues that will happen each day. When you get done, you’ll have a list of all the things that happened to you and all the things that you do, pretty much on a daily or weekly basis without fail.


And you think about the new stuff that you want to put into your life, or new habits, you can usually look down that list and see a more natural place for it to fit in. So, you mentioned earlier that you want to build these habits where you are closer with your family or you put more time into those relationships. I had the same thing that I wanted to do and then I looked at my list, I saw that every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I was driving to the gym. Well, that’s a great time for me to call my parents and catch up with them too. And so now, I use that time to add that new habit in.


And so by looking at this list, you can see where these new habits fit in for you and then you can naturally add them to your lifestyle without overwhelming yourself or feeling like I need to add a new habit to my phone or whatever. You just took out a behavior that’s already happening and see where it can fit in. Another example is that I did a bunch of research to see the impact of gratitude and gratefulness on your life and it has this great impact on your happiness and just your general levels of wellbeing.


So I looked at my list and I was like well, when I have dinner each day, I can say one thing that I’m grateful for that happened that day and I stuck to that for almost two years now and on an individual basis, it takes ten seconds, it’s not a big deal. But on the cumulative basis, the idea of always having something to be grateful for each day is awesome. So, I think having that list is going to be useful way to implement some of these new things in.


Scott:                     James, I’m making a T-chart as we speak.


James Clear:          Nice.


Scott:                     It’s so true and so present with me right now that these little things have such a cumulative knowledge, but sometimes it’s so easy to just say, ‘it’s not that important’, ‘gratefulness, everyday, I know it’s good in the long run, but I’m not going to do it today’ or ‘I’m not going to write out my affirmations’ or ‘I’m not going to tell somebody that I love or I care about them’ if I said I was going to do that every single day. Is there any way for these small actions that you know have insanely valuable long-term benefits, just to stay motivated and to stay on track?


James Clear:          Sure, so, we mentioned already the idea of making something so small that you can’t say not to it and everything. There is a second piece to this and there is a lot of research studies to back this up; over a hundred at this point and the concept is called ‘Implementation Intentions’ and what happened was that these researchers — and this is just one example, there are hundreds. They took a few groups, had three different groups and for one group they were like, ‘hey we want you to track how often you work out over the next few weeks’.


The second group — so the first group is the control group. The second group they said, ‘we don’t want you to track how often you work out over the next few weeks but we’re also going to show you this motivational pamphlet or a video or whatever to get you inspired about the benefits of exercise. Then for the third group, they gave the same motivational spiel so those two groups were equally motivated but the third group they had them do one other thing which is to write down. And this is like the sentence that they wrote, ‘I will work out at this place on this day at this time.’


And so by stating their intention to implement the behavior, that’s why it’s called ‘implementation intentions’, they made it more likely that they would follow through. And what happened at the end of the study is that the first two groups; the control group and the motivated group worked out the same amount, there was a negligible difference. For the third group though, the one that stated when and where they would perform a behavior, they worked out — they were two to three times more likely to follow through and that has been proven across other studies as well. That if you state your intention to do something and write it down and give it a time and a space to live in your day, on your calendar or wherever, then you are two or three more times likely to do it.


So, when I mention this idea of this T-chart, of writing down the things you do each day and the things that happen to you each day and using that as a way to tie these new little behaviors and whether it’s gratefulness or something else, that’s a way for you to state your intention; hey, this is when I do this thing, when I go to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I call my parents, that’s when it happens. When I sit down at dinner, I say something that I am grateful for. That’s when it happens and by giving it a time and a space to live in your life and not waiting — the great thing about it is you don’t wake up each day and be like, ‘man, I hope I feel motivated to be grateful today’.


You are not leaving it up to that and by giving it that time and space and stating when you are going to implement it, it makes it much more likely that you’re going to follow through.


Scott:                     Yeah, I think this taps into that human force that we talked about a little bit earlier with identity that one of the strongest things, the strongest forces for driving action in our lives is being consistent with what we say we’re going to do; because it’s the sign of integrity and this is Cialdini stuff. I’m sure you’ve read his book, ‘Influence’; it’s just so powerful. I feel like some of the people listening right now who maybe have never started down this path of habit formation and are really motivated after listening to this to start — do you think they might be a little overwhelmed because we have talked about T-charts and little wins and chunking things down; what’s the very first thing that somebody should do if they decide that they wanted to take control of one part of their life and start building a habit?


James Clear:          Well, step zero I think is to decide the type of person you want to be and what’s important to you. But if you know what’s important to you and what you want to work on like I want to get healthy or I want to get build a business or whatever, then that’s great. So you need some sense of clarity at first but once you have that, I say, pick one thing not two or five or ten different things; pick one thing and then find a way that you can get started on it in less than two minutes or find an area in your life that you can tie it to or build it into each day. And then make that small, tiny incremental gain.


The goal is to make it so easy that you can’t say no to it and to find a way to improve each time. I think the push-up example is a very good one to keep in mind because you can see exactly how it works. Like when you start, start with a number of push-ups that is easy for you; let’s say it’s 10; you can do it in less than 15 seconds. There is no debate, it’s not like I need to be motivated enough to do this, it’s like do you have 15 seconds right now to pop on the round and do ten push-ups? All right, done.


And then you find a way to improve slightly even if it’s just by one rep each day or each week or whatever it is and you just focus on that idea of how do I build consistency for myself and then you can worry about the outcomes later.


Scott:                     It’s great advice. James, you seem like a machine [Laughter]; you seem like you really have your life, in control of your life and this habit stuff down. Has there ever been a habit that you had difficulty doing?


James Clear:          Well, first of all, definitely not a machine; plenty of things that I am working on and I have made way more mistakes than I have successes. So, it’s very much a process for me and honestly that’s one of the reasons I love writing about it each week and that’s because I’m not an expert or someone who has it all figured out. I’m just working through it with everyone else and I think that forces me to make my writing practical and useful and accessible. So, yeah, I’m definitely still learning a lot along the way.


Scott:                     Well, I feel very grateful that you are sharing and for people that read James’ work and — I was talking to a buddy, it was actually during a podcast interview my friend, Charlie Hoehn for all this people that creating stuff online is really helpful. Everybody, all these people might seem so impenetrable and amazing like they have superpowers but everybody is just a dude just trying to figure it out, just like you are. So I just want everybody who is listening to this right now to realize that all of us are just trying to figure it out and even though we might seem like a step ahead or a step behind in many cases, everybody is on this journey and no one has every single thing figured out.


James Clear:          Yes, so true. I won’t get on my soapbox for this one but you can apply that to entrepreneurship as well and I see it in so many different areas when I’m building a business. You start to realize that all the things that run our world, somebody just made up. And that doesn’t mean that they did it without any thinking or anything but it’s just someone like you and I who tried to do their best they could do at the time and so they designed a rule for the government or passed this law in Congress or build a business to do XYZ thing and it was just someone like you and me trying to do the best they could.


And once you start to realize that, it opens up all of the options for you because you realize, I can make stuff too and I think that’s a very empowering way to look at the world.


Scott:                     Totally, and just to kind give a quick anecdote to that, I know of somebody who has sold their company, their startup to a public company for nine figures; so over a 100 million dollars and as part of that sale, they took a board seat at this new public company. And I mean this company is absolutely enormous, thousands of employees, hundreds of million dollars per quarter in revenue and I was really curious after the first board meeting to hear what it was like. And what my friend told me was really interesting; he said, man, it was the same exact thing like our meetings; bunch of people sitting around, throwing stuff around, trying to figure it out like nobody knew — nobody had a magical answer.


Everybody is like, I guess that’s a good idea, I don’t know what do you think? And so like sure, there’s people that have these things that we looked up to that might be at a different scale, but they are still going through the same processes, anxieties, doubts that all of us are facing at whatever scale that we are currently at.


James Clear:          Yeah, I think it’s also a great thing to keep in mind when it comes to building good habits or moving in the positive direction anywhere in your life is that everyone faces the same types of uncertainties and fears and questions and nobody has it all figured out. But some people still find a way to move forward despite that and that is essential to building better habits as well. You’re not going to have all the answers but if you find a way to move forward even when things aren’t perfect, then you can make progress.


Scott:                     I love that, I mean that is a sign of a champion. It’s such a powerful message. So James, the theme of this podcast is ‘the competitive edge’ and you really try to bring on guests who are knowledgeable about a variety of topics, who have done amazing things and kind of trying to get an insider’s view of what they have done in their life to get an edge in their business and just overall life. So, I want to ask you a final question here; can you tell us one thing that you have done; it can be a habit, or can just be a specific thing, that you’ve done to get an edge in your business and then another thing that you have done to get an edge in your health, because I know you have some amazing tips for that.


James Clear:          Sure, so I would say for business, one of the essential things that I do now, one of the most useful things is the weekly review. So every Friday, I sit down, I have a spreadsheet where I track seven or eight core metrics in my business and I — it acts like this feedback for me on whether things were going well or going wrong. I track the number of people who visit my website, how many were people [Inaudible 0:46:07] my email list, revenue, expenses; and it’s just a quick overview. It only takes me 10-15 minutes to do. And if the numbers are moving in the right direction, great, I continue what I’m doing, I keep sticking with the process and consistency.


If the numbers are going in the wrong direction, then I deep-dive on that particular area and say ‘okay what did I do last week, how can I improve this, where can I be better?’ And that has been an awesome way for me to systemize this idea of making this one percent gains to doing this continuing improvement because I have the time each week where I get to see the overview and make those choices. And on any individual week, the impacts aren’t that great but over the span of five months, six months or a year, all of a sudden you are a much different place than you were 12 months ago.


So, I would say that that has been a very big business choice that has helped a lot. And then for health and fitness, the biggest thing is a shifting my mindset. When I decided that the most important thing was to not miss workouts rather than to hit a particular goal that was one thing that has started to change for me. So, I used to write down goals for the grades that I wanted to get in school, or what I wanted to squat in the gym and all these different things and when I focused only on the outcome, I tend to lose sight of the process that would get me there. Now, I don’t necessarily care when I squat 400 pounds, I just know that it’s going to happen if I show up to the gym every week. And so by focusing on that level of consistency, I have been able to make a lot more progress.


Scott:                     I love that because it makes things seem so much more achievable by focusing on the process than this grandiose goal that seem miles and miles away.


James Clear:          Yeah, agree with that and you also start to realize that — it took me seven years of lifting to figure any of this out so if you are getting started and it doesn’t seem natural to you yet, don’t worry, I was a pretty slow learner. But, you also realize that when you come up with these milestones or these numbers, they are made up and I could say, for example, I want to squat 450 pounds by July 31st of this year and I could say that but I’m just making it up and then if I don’t get to that, then what? I don’t know, it’s just — by focusing on the process instead and by doing the work and by focusing on putting in my reps, I know that I’ll make it at some point. So, for me, it’s a much less stressful way to look at things and it’s also a way of embracing this idea of making progress each week rather than worrying about hitting that number that I made up.


Scott:                     For all of you who also want to squat 450 pounds, there is no squat police that are going to come to your house if you don’t do it by next week. [Laughter] James, this has been awesome man, I really do appreciate the amazing wisdom that you would be able to drop on everyone listening today. If people want to know more about you, they want to get more of this information, they want to stay in touch with some of the things that you are doing and coming out in the future, where is the best place for them to go?


James Clear:          Sure, I have two things, I write at James Clear dot com every Monday and Thursday, which I mentioned during this interview, so you’re welcome to pop right there and take a look; there is a contact form in the website, you’re welcome to respond to me — you know, I answer and read all my email so feel free to reach out. And also, and perhaps more importantly, a lot of the things that we talked about in this discussion around building habits, developing a process, the signs behind habit formation starting with something that is so easy that you can’t say no to it; I went ahead and compiled a lot of those resources in one place to make it easier for you to get all the information rather jumping across the Web or clicking across my website.


I have put it in this 46-page guide that’s sort of like a cheat-sheet to building better habits and some of these ideas for maintaining consistency. You can get that, and if you are listening to this, you can download it at James Clear dot com slash habits; and yeah, thanks for having me on.


Scott:                     Amazing, I will make sure to link that up in the show notes just so that everyone can access that as easy as possible. James, thanks again for your time and I really appreciate it.


James Clear:          Awesome, happy to do it Scott thanks for having me on.


[End of interview 0:50:19]


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