“It’s not one little change that’s going to transform things. It’s if you have a commitment to making little changes each day or little improvements each day. ” – James Clear
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James Clear talks to Commander Divine today about his new book, “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.” James is a weightlifter, writer and photographer who has spent a lifetime working to understand how to get where you’re wanting to go, and the differences between goals and processes.
- Goals are where you are going. Systems are how you’re going to get there. You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
- Many habits are stymied by the fact that good habits often have long-term benefits, but short-term suffering. Bad habits are generally the exact opposite. You need to find ways to bring benefits into the present for good habits.
- Little things—little frictions—can be enough to stop a habit that you’re trying to form.
Listen to this episode to get insights into how even seemingly trivial changes can add when you make the commitment.
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Mark: Hey folks. Welcome back to the Unbeatable Mind podcast. This is Mark Divine. So stoked to have you here with me today. We’re gonna have a fascinating conversation about habits and discipline and getting stuff done at a high level, with my friend James Clear.
Before I introduce James in a little bit more detail, let me remind you that if you’re interested in attending our Unbeatable Mind Summit November 29th to December 2nd… It’s funny my notes say November 39th. We just added 10 days to November. That’s cool.
At any rate, it’s the first weekend in December, here in Carlsbad. I mentioned on the last show that this is the last time we’re gonna run the summit. We are changing the format of our annual events and moving more toward a deep immersion experience. Now the summit is an extraordinary experience as well, and so if you heard about it, you want to come, then this is your last opportunity. So that’s my kind of like caveman sales pitch.
And it probably didn’t work, but if you want to save 300 bucks you can use the code pod300. If you heard about on this podcast and the URL is summit.unbeatablemind.com
And one other thing—update on the burpees for vets challenge. I was just telling James a moment ago before the show that I’ve hit 70,000 burpees and on my way to a hundred. But I’m starting to think that 70,000 was a limiting factor or maybe in the outer limit at least for this body. I’m definitely gonna go for a hundred, but I injured my back last week. That just healed, and yesterday I broke my left foot. I didn’t break it doing burpees, but it broke. And so now I got to modify my burpees and figure out how to march on. But so interesting, you know? Really, it’s been a phenomenal learning experience. And I truly am suffering for the vets who have suffered for us. And you know 22 million is our goal for burpees for the tribe that have come together to support this. At burpeesforvets.com.
And you can help us by going there and pledging for me right? For my burpees, my hundred thousand. Or you could pledge for somebody else. Or you could start your own team. Or, you know, whatever. Just donate some funds. Our goal is to raise $250,000 and put as many vets as possible through a deep immersion experience with 18 months of mentorship and facilitation with a boat crew afterwards. It’s really to help them transform back to a meaningful life.
So that’s that. As soon as I’m done with this podcast I’m gonna finish up my 300 modified burpees. With a broken foot. Hooyah.
At any rate, most importantly here, we got James Clear, who is a real expert on habit formation amongst other things. But James I gotta admit is a seriously prolific writer. You know, there’s a few people that I really respect for their incredible discipline in writing. One is Seth Godin. Another is my friend Brian Johnson—who just incredible content producer for his optimized program. And the other is James. And what’s unique about James is most people write short—like Seth writes just short little stuff every day, and Brian writes something called a “Plus One” every day—which you know could be anywhere from 300 to 400 words.
But James puts out these super long really elaborate emails or content pieces and they’re all exceptional—exceptionally well researched, and I’m kind of anxious to find out how he does that. Because that’s a habit in itself that it’s extraordinary.
At any rate James is obviously a writer, a blogger, an entrepreneur. He’s an expert in behavioral science, he’s a physical person—lifting weights for one of his kind of passions.
And he’s come out with a new book that I think can be very helpful we’re gonna talk about today called “Atomic Habits,” subtitled “An Easy And Proven Way To Build Good Habits And Break Bad Ones.”
Super cool. We all need to know how to do that. James lives in Ohio. And he’s had an interesting journey to get where he’s gotten. So James thanks so much for joining me today.
James: Yeah, absolutely. It’s great to be talking with you. And very inspiring to hear about your Burpee Challenge too. That’s… You start to do the math on how many that is per day and that’s quite the commitment. So well done so far.
Mark: Yeah, thank you. 300 a day and you know I was talking to my team the other day—most of whom joined me on this—and are doing either 200 or 150. But every time I do 300 they join me on it. At the office.
It’s been more of almost a spiritual challenge, you know I mean? I’ve turned it into such a practice. Like, I’ve got a mantra. And I’ve got a particular breathing routine that I go through. And just to show up on the mat every day to do this 300 burpees has become a real discipline in itself. So it’s been extraordinary.
James: I had period where I was doing 100 pushups a day. And, I don’t know, probably lasted for a year and a half or two. And I developed a similar mantra, I guess. It was almost like an internal chant that I used to just get in the right frame of mind as I was doing that. I don’t know, you sort of want to be in this Zen-like state when you have that many reps to go through.
Mark: For sure. And that’s one of the beauty of mono-structural exercise even though it’s probably not that good for the body. When, you know, that’s all you do.
To wit my broken foot. But one of the benefits is that you can get into a deep state of awareness. And access peak states with your breath and a mantra. So you integrate those movement, breath, and mantra which is kind of one of the cores of my teaching with Kokoro yoga.
You can do that with burpees, you know I mean? You don’t need to be doing some kind of esoteric movement like Tai Chi 24 form, or yoga. You could just do burpees and get the same results.
James: You know, I actually did something like that when… So I played baseball all the way through college. And so I was a pitcher and of course, you know, as the game is going on you’re out there performing for, you know, five or ten minutes. However long the inning lasts. And then you come back into the dugout.
And that is usually the time where if you get too much in your head you start messing yourself up because you’re just sitting there for another 15 minutes waiting to go back out and so I would come in and sit on the bench and then almost like… I wouldn’t necessarily close my eyes and meditate, but I would just kind of look at my feet. And then I would have… It was almost like an internal hum that I would do, but was just it was just a rhythmic pattern. I would do that and that would keep my mind occupied for those ten minutes and then the inning would end and I’d run back out to pitch again.
And that really helped me stay in… I was always telling myself like “I need to stay in attack mode,” right? Like, “I don’t wanna be on the defensive as a pitcher. I want to be, like, the one bringing it to the batter.”
And it helped me maintain that kind of level of focus throughout the game. Rather than let my mind drift, or start questioning what I was doing or what…
Mark: Sure. No that’s fantastic. To just stumble upon that reminds me of when I went through SEAL training. I had a similar thing, where I would organize my breathing and a mantra any time we went out for a run. Or a long swim. Or pretty much any routine. And people are dropping like flies, and quitting and it’s because they were in their head. You know? They were literally talking themselves out of the game you know I mean?
But if you can control the inner dialogue or eliminate it, through a mantra or through the hum… I mean, that’s phenomenal. That’s like the “om” mantra which is the master mantra from yoga. Well done.
Formative Years and Serious Injury
At any rate, we got off on a wickedly cool tangent, without even me asking you my formative question. Which I ask everybody, which is really just tell us about your early life? What were the foundational experiences that made you who you are today?
James: Sure. Great question. So I grew up in Ohio. My parents still live in the same house that I grew up in. And very close family life. Both of my sides—my mom’s side and my dad’s side were more or less local, and we would see my relatives and cousins often.
But particularly on my dad’s side—every Sunday for the first 18 years of my life my family and all of my cousins and extended family would go over to my grandparents’ house. And my grandma would make dinner for 18 people. And that was like… I didn’t realize until later how weird that was, and how often that doesn’t like really happen now.
But that was great. That was a really good experience so I was really close with my family and cousins growing up.
My dad played professional baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals for a while in the minor leagues. And so of course growing up I wanted to follow a similar path. And so baseball and sports played a significant role in my life. I did a lot of different sports growing up. Swimming, basketball. I did football, for a year, but in football there are like guys who are giving hits and there are guys who are getting hit. And I was always getting hit, so I switched to baseball and basketball pretty quickly.
But I really enjoyed that and I still identify very strongly as an athlete. So you know this is something I mention… I don’t often write about my story, which you’re familiar with since you read my articles. But in the introduction to “Atomic Habits” I talk more about kind of my journey.
And I had a very serious injury. I was hit in the face with a baseball bat and I had multiple seizures and couldn’t breathe on my own. Was placed into a coma overnight I was air-cared to the hospital. And it was very long ordeal. Took eight or nine months to recover from.
So that really set back my baseball career. This happened part way through my high school career. And so, you know, I didn’t really have colleges coming to look at me or anything. I played very few innings of varsity baseball in high school.
But I still really wanted that to be a big part of my life, and so I ended up managing to make a college team. Played in college for four years and kind of the punchline to all that was that I ended up being an academic, all-American my senior year. I did not play professionally.
But that was an experience where I had to overcome a challenge and I felt like I fulfilled my potential. And that was a very meaningful moment for me in the sense that I was it wasn’t handed to me, it wasn’t the ideal circumstances, but I proved to myself that I could kind of overcome that. And still maximize whatever ability that I had.
And the way that I did that was mostly through small habits. Now I did not have the language for this at a time. Like if you had come by me I would have said “oh, I’m just trying to get 1% better each day,” or something like that. But effectively that’s what I was doing.
And so looking back especially now as I’ve been able to research and write about habits for a few years. As I connect those dots, I can kind of see that in my own story. And then it also happens to be something that I write about consistently.
So sports were a big part. And then the final piece of my childhood… Or the thing that played a large role… In addition to family and athletics, was school. I always enjoyed school. I just, you know, for whatever reason I kind of… I don’t know… I have this like… This is true in multiple areas of my life, like I really like to travel, but I also like to be home the family so that like those competing things. But I also really enjoy sports and typically athletes are seen as like this you know… Athletic stupid jock or whatever. But I also have like it’s very—I don’t know if I would call it nerdy—but like, I love learning. I’m very curious and so, I really enjoyed school for that reason. And as I went through school I just gradually started to gravitate more and more towards science. And I studied the hard sciences in college. Mostly chemistry and physics classes. I got a degree in biomechanics. But now I’ve become increasingly interested in social sciences and things like that. And a lot of what I write about now is rooted in some kind of psychology.
Mark: Mm-hmm. So I want to go back to the injury, because that sounds pretty traumatic. And it’s funny—you just basically talked about what I was gonna ask. You know, the next question was “what was the most formative challenge?” and it sounds like that was it. I mean, you don’t often get bashed in the head with a baseball bat. I imagine that was an accident, of course?
James: Yeah, it was.
Mark: Not like a fight or something.
James: (laughing) Yeah, yeah I… You know, thankfully I’m not much of a fighter. But it was an accident. The bat slipped out of the guy’s hands who was swinging at the plate. And I was kind of like off to the side maybe ten feet away. And it kind of spun like a helicopter through the air and struck me more or less right between the eyes. Broke my nose, fractured both eye sockets, broke the bone behind my nose. Which was actually quite rare to break that bone because it’s really deep inside your skull.
So anyway it was a very long fallout from that. I had multiple seizures and… Yeah, it was an intense experience, for sure.
Mark: So it obviously took you out of school for a year? Did you have to skip a year for that?
James: Well I didn’t… Thankfully it happened very near the end of the school year. So I was able to have like three months of summer to recover. And I was at least to the point where I could go back to school, once the fall came. Which was good.
I could not drive for nine months. Early on during physical therapy and things like that I had to, you know… It was just very frustrating. I mean, I was practicing very basic motor patterns. Like walking in a straight line or things like that. It really wasn’t… My hand was forced in the sense that I had to start small. Like having some kind of radical transformation or big overnight success or something like that—it just wasn’t even possible at that point in my life.
And that was very instructive, because I had to learn to be patient.
Mark: Yeah. I mean, when did it dawn on you that things were gonna be different and that you needed to, you know, break it down to its most elemental things? Like, learn to walk in a straight line again. I mean, was it obvious when you regained consciousness that things were gonna be different? Or I mean… Just give us a sense of what that experience is like. When you came out of that coma and you’re like “oh shit.”
James: Well, so there were like three kind of stages. So when it immediately happened, I actually was still conscious for about ten minutes. So it happened, I don’t feel anything when I think back to the experience. I know something happened, but like I don’t remember any pain, or even the impact or anything like that.
Mark: Yeah, the body is amazing isn’t it that way with pain?
James: Yeah, it’s really remarkable. I mean I looked down at my shirt and there was blood everywhere. I remember that. And then I walked to the nurse’s office. My teacher and friends kind of held me upright. So I was able to make it down there. And then I actually answered questions for about five minutes. But I answered all of them wrong. So they asked me like, you know, what year is this? It was 2002. I was like “1998.” They asked me who the president was. I said it was Bill Clinton. It was actually George Bush.
And so I was awake, but I was out of it. And then after about ten minutes of that I don’t remember anything. The swelling in my brain was too great.
I just went unconscious and so I don’t remember any of that. But then pretty soon after that, I started… Kind of my bodily function started shutting down. I lost the ability to breathe on my own, so they were pumping breaths into me for a while. I started having trouble with basic stuff like swallowing. So that was when it started to get scary, and I started having multiple seizures and they decided to air-care me to a larger hospital that could kind of handle it. And stabilize me.
And so then I was out of it for a while. I was in the coma overnight. And then when I finally came back to at some point a day later or so, I woke up and the first thing that I realized is I couldn’t smell. And so they asked me to blow my nose and try to smell this like apple juice box. So I did that and my sense of smell did return, but when I blew my nose I forced air through the cracks in my shattered eye socket…
James: …and that forced my eye out. So like my left eye started to bulge out. So then we had an additional problem. So I was supposed to be scheduled for surgery because my face is all broken up. But we couldn’t go in and do the surgery with my eye like that. So we ended up having to schedule it like a week later. And so there was kind of all this… There was like this limbo period. So this is like the second phase.
Then eventually I go back in. At this point my nose has set in the broken position, so they have to rebreak it to put it back in place. And anyway… So I go through surgery. I get all that done. So about a week or so has passed.
And then the third phase came a couple weeks later. I’m out of the hospital now, I go back in to check up with the doctor and I thought things are moving forward. I am feeling better, I have the surgery done I know I’ve had this bad injury, but like, you know, I’ll be better soon.
And it was at that meeting with the doctor that I was told and actually realized that this is gonna be like an eight or nine month or 10 month thing. That this is gonna take much longer.
Mark: And did they predict a full recovery? Or was there some question as to whether there was some cognitive…?
James: I don’t remember them ever saying… They wouldn’t take a stance on certain things. So for example, they wouldn’t tell me if they thought that I would be fully cognitively… You know, rebound. They wouldn’t tell me if the… My eye for example, we were like “what’s gonna happen with this? My eye’s bulging out now.” and they said, “Well we think it will go back. But we don’t know how long it will take.”
Mark: So they couldn’t just pop it back in huh?
James: Yeah, what they were they needed was for the air behind the eyeball to seep out of the cracks in the eye socket. So anyway… The moral of hat story is that it did end up going back. I had double vision for a few weeks, while it was still bulging. But it eventually set back after about a month.
Mark: And by the way, did it occur to you that it just sounds like a horrible idea to have you blow your nose when your face has been bashed in?
James: (laughing) Yeah, that’s a good point. Is it a good idea to blow a broken nose? Probably not.
Mark: (laughing) Yeah, probably not.
James: But I don’t know… One of the nurses was the one who suggested it, so I don’t know where that idea came from. But that was that was we ended up doing.
Mark: It was a bad one.
James: So I don’t remember them making specific statements about how they thought I would recover, or when they thought I would recover. But it wasn’t until that meeting a few weeks later that it dawned on me that this was gonna be a much longer thing.
Mark: And what was the first thing…? It must have been walking, because you already said that. So just basically learning how to walk straight again. Was that kind of the first project that you took on?
James: Well, the first thing was related to eyesight. I mentioned I had double vision for a few weeks. A lot of the initial meetings were with the ophthalmologist. This is after I got done with the surgery, of course. And like I was stabilized and all the immediate stuff was handled.
So some of it was eyesight and then the first physical stuff though—yeah, there was it was walking and… Yeah, it was a weird thing. Because my physical body—I mean my head had been hit—but all the rest of my joints and everything else were fine. So I was still a young, athletic like, you know, normally functioning body. So we were doing all kinds of things with physical therapy. Like I was doing upper body stuff. I was doing lower body stuff. I would do single leg things… And it was all to like try to, I don’t know, regain the brain control of those movements.
It was it was less about like rehabbing an injured ligament or something and more about learning how to move again.
Mark: Right. Interesting. And what about speech? Was your speech impaired at all?
James: On the first day, when it happened, I was doing all kinds of weird things. I was like mumbling it was kind of… One nurse said I was speaking in tongues. I don’t even really know what exactly she was referencing. I was chanting for a little while. And I don’t remember this. This is when I was… Between the time when I was unconscious and went into the coma.
You know my body… This is when I was having trouble swallowing and breathing and so on. My body was just freaking out.
But after that… Once I was stabilized, I don’t I don’t recall having any or speech issues.
injury and habits
Mark: So back to kind of like the relating this to learning habits and you know focusing on improvement through a little daily discipline and rituals. It sounds to me like this is where you really went deep on learning to habituate certain small things for your own recovery. And then that sparked an interest in this as a social science.
James: Yeah, that’s true to a certain degree. So again—like I said—I didn’t really have language for it at first. But there were kind of two roles here.
So the first was I had to start small. And, you know, I wanted to get better. I wanted to continue playing baseball, and get back to… Up to speed and everything. So I needed to make those small improvements for that reason.
But the second thing was when you go through a major injury like that, you kind of… There’s a lot of things that just feel like they’re out of your control, you know? Like you keep being told you can’t do certain things you keep being told that… You’re like, “I didn’t ask for this to happen but I still feel this way.” or you know “my body’s broken” or whatever.
And so I wanted to regain a sense of control over my life as well. And so little things. Things that don’t even sound like they’re that big of a deal, but when I went to college I made a point to keep my room neat and tidy. Like, that’s a really basic, minor thing, but it gave me that sense of control. And so as I gradually started to accumulate that… And this is really kind of I think the core lesson. I say this in the conclusion to “Atomic Habits” that the holy grail of habit change is not a single 1% improvement. It’s like a thousand of them. And you really… This is one of the ideas behind why I use the phrase “Atomic Habits” because “atomic” has multiple meanings.
I mean one, it can mean very tiny or small. Like an atom. And so I do believe that changes should be small and habits should be small.
But the second meaning is that it’s a fundamental unit of a larger system. And so often people will adopt one new habit… You know, they’ll get a Fitbit and try to walk 10,000 steps a day. Or they’ll start to meditate for five minutes a day or something. And then they get a little frustrated, because that one new habit doesn’t like transform their life or change…
They’re like, “I’m doing this work, but I don’t really feel that different.” I think it’s because it’s not one little change that’s gonna transform things. It’s if you have a commitment to making little changes each day, or little improvements each day.
And that was really the period where I started to adopt that. I was like, “alright I’ll get my room neat and tidy. And then I’ll prepare for class. And then I’ll make sure I’m ready for practice. And I’ll start strength training consistently.
And it wasn’t any one of those that made the big difference. But it was the fact that I was like always trying to find little ways to improve, that ended up accumulating into something much more significant.
Mark: Right. What do you think the difference between habits and goals are? I mean, when I think of it I think habits really are about behavior and goals, or about getting things done. Is that how you look at? Or what’s your take on the difference between habits and goals? How they relate maybe?
James: Yeah, yeah. So I mean they’re certainly connected to certain degrees. So the distinction that I like to make actually is between what I would call systems and goals. And then what I would call decision-making and habits.
So I’ll come back to the second one in a moment. So a goal… You know, having goals is not… Sometimes people like to… Especially if they’re really into the process or things like that… They like talk about how goals are useless. I don’t necessarily think that’s true. Goals can be very informative for setting a sense of direction. Knowing what you know what direction we’re gonna row in basically. Or where are we headed.
But once you have a goal, you start to realize that it probably is more useful to put the goal on the shelf and focus instead on the system and the process. And so, you know, for my own experience this is coming from someone who for a long time I was very goal-oriented. I would set goals for the grades I wanted to get in school. For the weights I wanted to lift in the gym. For the results I wanted my business.
And sometimes I would achieve those, but then other times I wouldn’t. And so what I came to realize was “well, clearly setting the goal can’t be the thing that determines whether I achieve this or not. It must not be about the goal because sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
So it’s much more about the system that you follow and you know like the example I give is you know like every basketball coach wants to win the championship. But if you don’t worry about the championship and just focus on the system—like how you recruit players, what you teach your assistant coaches, what you do a practice each day will you get better? Yeah, you probably would. And so I think it’s more about shifting that focus after the initial outset.
And the same way that atoms are like the fundamental unit of a larger system—like an atom builds into a molecule and molecules build into compounds and so on—I think we could say to a certain degree habits are like the atoms of our lives. They’re these behaviors and rituals and routines that make up the system of your daily actions. And whatever your current system in life, whatever your habits are right now, they’re perfectly designed to deliver your current results. They have to be by definition. Whatever you’re getting is the result of the system that’s running. And so if you want to change your results you don’t necessarily need to change your goals. What you need to do is change your system.
And so the way that I think about that is that goals are good for setting a direction, systems are good for making progress, and habits are the way to design a better system, or to create a better system. Another way to put this—and this is the second example that I mentioned a few moments ago—about decision making and habits. So your decisions, your choices determine the amount of leverage that you have, or the trajectory that you’re on. So for example, you could choose to become an entrepreneur and you could either open like a local candle shop or you could start a technology company or you know a software service or something. And you’re gonna be working hard either way. Like being an entrepreneur is a tough thing. And you’re going to put a lot of hours in, and be focused on it.
But that initial decision of what kind of business to start can set a very different trajectory for you. Now how far you go along that path is determined by your habits. So your decision set the trajectory. Your habits determine how far you walk along it. And it might be that you would be more successful if you picked to open the candle shop and had better habits and walked along that path further, than if you had an idea to start this interesting software company, but then had poor habits and didn’t follow through on it. And of course what we’re all looking for is to make great decisions and to have great habits.
Mark: Right. I love that. Now because I couldn’t write fast enough, you said earlier—I want to I want you to repeat it—but goals set the direction and then you said systems do something and then habits… Right?
targets, goals and systems
James: Yeah so goals are good for setting a direction. Systems are good for making progress. And habits are the method through which you build a better system. The way that I like to you know one of the lines from the book is that we do not rise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems. And I think that that is often true for many of us. I mean, we have all sorts of ambitions. Goals that we want to set. But how far you actually go and whether you achieve those is largely a result of the system that you’re running in conjunction with the goals that you set.
Mark: It’s so true. And I think about when I used to set goals, you know, like hit this revenue goal or make this kind of… You know, anything that usually had like a hard measurable outcome.
Rarely did I hit them, you know? Rarely did I hit them, and it was because it’s very hard to predict an outcome, you know? And so I’ve stopped—like you just said—I’ve stopped using even the term goal, and I now I use a “target.” and the target visually has a series of concentric rings on it, but really it’s basically just showing you where to aim your bow and arrow you know I mean?
James: It’s a weird thing we think that what needs to change are the results. But actually you need to change the process behind the results. If you think that, “I have a messy room so I need to get motivated and clean my room.” but even if you do that, achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment it’s just a point in time. And so if you don’t change the messy or sloppy habits that led to a dirty room in the first place, then you’re gonna end up with one again in two or three weeks.
And so it’s really not the result that needs to change. It’s the habit and the system behind the result. It’s like you’re treating a symptom without treating the cause.
Mark: Yeah, yeah. You know a really kind of cool way to look at this is from a metaphysical standpoint. You being a physicist you probably appreciate this, but ultimately when you’re setting a goal, you’re taking a linear kind of construct of what reality is and reality is not linear. We live more in a holographic kind of universe. And all we have is what we are right now.
And so by setting a goal and having this linear approach to achieving it, you’re never living in the moment right you’re always looking into some obscure, abstract, future. Which never will exist, right? Because all that we have is right now.
James: That’s one of the dangers of setting goals, right? It’s like you always rob yourself of your current happiness, because you’re always pushing it off to the next milestone. Rather than allowing yourself to enjoy whatever the process or system or moment is that you’re experiencing right now.
Mark: Right. And the corollary to that is you know you’re always moving that goal line. And most people never really pause to appreciate their accomplishments or you know where they’re at just right now. Even if where you’re at right now is a result of the habits that you’ve developed. At least take a moment to appreciate the good, the bad, and the ugly of what you are right now, you know I mean? Be content.
James: This is… In the book I kind of lay out this dichotomy between outcome based habits and identity based habits. And so outcome based habits are focused on achieving a particular result—you know, I want to lose 20 pounds in the next six months or something like that. And typically the process of change is something along the lines of I set a goal for the outcome that I want and then I come up with a plan for achieving it. “Okay, so I want to lose 20 pounds. So I need to follow this diet and go to the gym four days a week and whatever. But I think there’s another… There’s a different way to organize that trajectory. And there’s another deeper layer there which is your identity or the set of beliefs that you have about yourself, your self-image, the kind of like biases and values and principles that you bring into each moment.
And I think it is often more fruitful to focus on building habits that foster a particular type of identity, than the ones that achieve a particular outcome. And they can work together—so for example, to use this this weight-loss example here—instead of saying that your goal is to lose 20 pounds in six months, you can say well “who is the type of person that could lose weight? Well maybe it’s the type of person that doesn’t miss workouts.”
And so now you’re focused on fostering that identity of becoming the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. And the benefit here is that in the first scenario when it’s outcome-based, when it’s goal driven you can only feel happy or successful once you’ve lost the 20 pounds.
But with the identity driven approach, you can feel satisfied anytime you reinforce that identity of not missing workouts or being that type of person. So whenever you show up at the gym you’re embodying the identity of someone who doesn’t miss workouts. Whenever you write a chapter you’re embodying what it means to be a writer and in that sense, I feel like identity can be the ultimate form of a reinforcement. Because you get to enjoy an experience and praise yourself each time you build and stick to your desired identity. Rather than waiting for some long-term goal to be achieved.
Mark: You know what else is really cool about that? Is that you can visualize an identity. It’s very difficult to visualize a kind of a hard, measurable goal. And so that can become part of your practice, once you have an identity based target
James: You can just envision yourself being that type of person or embodying that type of identity.
Mark: Right. Yeah.
James: It’s a powerful thing I think it’s a great way to add a little bit of immediate satisfaction to any habit as well, because that’s really crucial thing to get you to stick to a habit. You can kind of imagine like every behavior produces multiple outcomes across time. So, for example, if you if you eat a doughnut right now it might be the immediate outcome is favorable. It’s sugary, it’s tasty, it’s enjoyable.
But the ultimate outcome is unfavorable. Like you gain weight in a month or whatever. For good habits it’s often the reverse. The immediate outcome is like a little bit painful or there’s a sacrifice. You know, going to the gym right now, you have to sweat and put in energy and work hard.
But the ultimate outcome is favorable. You’re fit in a month. And a lot of the battle of building good habits and breaking bad ones is figuring out a way to pull the long-term consequences of your bad habits into the immediate moment. So you feel a little bit of that right now, it’s not just enjoyable.
And finding a way to pull the long-term benefits for your happy good habits into the immediate moment. And I think identity is probably the ultimate way to do that. Because if you have that identity of “I’m the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. Or I’m the type of person who is you know fit or enjoys going to gym.” as soon as you show up you get to experience the benefit of that. Or the slight bit of satisfaction that comes with that. And then, of course, that gives you an additional reason to stick with it. And ultimately, yeah sure, you get the benefits of being fit as well. But you find a way to align that immediate outcome and the long-term one.
Mark: I love that. So I’m the type of person that’s gonna do 300 burpees in spite of a broken foot.
James: There you go, right? And I wish you luck.
Mark: Yeah, thank you very much. I’m gonna need it.
habits and overcoming failures
Mark: Let’s talk about dealing with failure. You know, a lot of times we set out on a path and we have great intentions and blah, blah, blah… And all of a sudden we are like back where we started, or we’ve fallen off the wagon. How do we deal with that?
James: There can be many reasons why a habit will fall off course. And so sometimes the appropriate step depends on what’s causing the friction. But I’ll give you two ideas to carry kind of into this conversation.
So the first one is, sometimes I find it really useful to just map out like at a granular level what all the little things are that need to happen for your habit to occur. So I’ll give you two examples. When I was looking to build a flossing habit I would brush my teeth every morning and night and I’d have done this for most of my entire life. But I would only floss every now and then. It wasn’t a consistent thing. And when I mapped out like what happened and looked at each little behavior, I started to see these little points of friction. So one of them was the floss was tucked away in a drawer in the bathroom. I just like wouldn’t see it so I wouldn’t remember to do it.
And then another one was so okay sometimes I take the floss out and then I like it I but I didn’t like the feeling—and it sounds silly, it’s a small thing—but I didn’t like the feeling of wrapping it around my fingers. So what I ended up doing was buying some of the pre-made flossers. I got a little bowl, and I put that bowl right next to my toothbrush. And then put the pre-made clusters in it. So as soon as I put the toothbrush down I just pick one up and floss my teeth.
And those little shifts remove those two points of friction from the process. And suddenly it became like effortless for me to stick with it.
My mom had a similar one with a different habit where she was trying to build the habit of exercising after work each day. And she realized that one of the points of friction for her was that she didn’t like working out in front of other people. She would go to the local gym, but she just… You know, she’d get her work out in, but she didn’t like it. Made her feel uncomfortable.
So she ended up buying a home yoga DVD or program and so now she you know would go to work come home and then just be able to put that on and work out in the living room of the basement or whatever. And that little shift removed what the point of friction was for her.
And I think that that basic approach can be used for almost any habit. It’s like think through the entire thing from a granular level. What are the little behaviors need to occur. And then which ones of these are like sticking points? And can you either through a different strategy—like my mom deciding to work out in a different way—or through environment design—like my flossing habit—remove those points of friction that are pulling you off course.
Mark: Right. I love that.
James: So that’s one approach. There’s a second method here which is that and this is kind of just a mantra that I like to keep in mind, but I don’t think that measurement and tracking are necessary for many habits in life. Like there’s a good amount of habits like tying my shoes for example. I don’t need… Once it’s automated I don’t need a process of continuous improvement or measurement tracking for tying my shoes. And there are many habits that are like that right? There just like you want to give them going and then once they stick, that’s fine you don’t need to focus on them anymore. Good enough is good enough.
But for a few areas of life, like weight lifting is one of mine, writing is another one—most people probably have two or three that are really important to you that you do want to improve on. Then, yeah, it can make sense to track and measure your performance. And so you know I try. If you just do a basic kind of habit tracking and see like you know… I have a friend for example who he does this anytime… He’s a videographer and so anytime he edits 30 minutes of video he puts a little x on the calendar for that day. So that’s his streak that is trying to keep going.
Well it can be motivating to keep that streak going. That’s one way to maintain consistency, but at some point all streaks end. And so the mantra that I like to keep in mind when I fall of course is “never miss twice.” so maybe you’re trying to follow a new diet, and your friend wants to go out to happy hour and so you binge eat, or you know have too many drinks or something that’s off the course of your diet.
Which is fine. Like, maybe we wouldn’t have wished that that happened, but here we are. So now pour all of your energy into making sure the next meal is a healthy one. Or for many years I wrote every Monday and Thursday on the site. So if I miss a Thursday well let’s make sure that I put all my energy to make sure I don’t miss on Monday. And I think that’s a crucial thing for getting back on track with habits, is that it’s very rarely the first mistake that ruins you. It’s almost always the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. And so if you can kind of cut that off at the source. And get back on track quickly, then that can be like a really good way to spend your time and energy.
Mark: Man, I love that. I love that. Never miss twice and change the environments to remove friction. Both of those are such excellent advice.
Let’s talk about motivation versus intention. You actually had a recent blog post about that.
James: Motivation… Every behavior is preceded by some type of motivation. By some type of desire, I guess. And one way to think about this is that your brain makes a prediction before each behavior about what to do next. And this is true even on a very granular level—like if you’re walking along the sidewalk, and you take the next step—you’re not consciously thinking about this, but your brain is predicting that your foot is gonna strike the sidewalk and hit the ground, and if you happen to step into like a pothole for example then you know that you were predicting something else. Because you’re very surprised by that result.
And so that prediction… When the prediction that you make, your brain makes, is positive that the change in state that you’ll achieve by taking that action would be enjoyable. Well then you feel motivated. So the feeling of motivation is largely the feeling of I need to change my state. Or I need to get to a new state. And a lot of the time we talk about using motivation as a way to get started on habits or whatever. And motivation can be useful, but I think using intention—implementation intentions—in particular, is much more powerful. So a lot of the time people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. They lack an understanding of what prediction they should make next.
And so the way to overcome this is by utilizing what’s called an implementation intention and there are hundreds of research studies on this… It’s a very basic system. You just write down when and where you intend to implement a behavior. So “I will work out on Monday at 4:00 p.m. At this gym.” or “I will work out you know on Monday at 4:00 p.m. In my basement,” or wherever it is.
And the clarity of that leads to an increase in the odds that the behavior will be performed. There are actually a variety of companies that have been able to use this to get employees to stick with like getting a flu shot for example. So one time they’ll send out a mailing that just says “you need to get your flu shot.” and only a certain number of people will sign up.
But if they send out a mailing that says “you need to get your flu shot. You’ve already been signed up for November 14th at 1:00 p.m. Click here if you need to change the time and date,” a significant percentage of people will follow through. Because it’s already been pre-decided. And so that idea of pre-deciding… Of setting the prediction ahead of time, can help lead to more likely action even if you don’t feel like motivation is striking you in the moment.
Mark: Mm-hmm. That’s fascinating. So writing it down you know and setting it… It sounds like that’s almost like a goal like a smart-p goal isn’t it? If I say my intention is to write 300 words a day at 6 a.m., isn’t that the same as a goal?
James: It does sound similar to me. And I think that in many ways, like, we’re just debating semantics about is it a goal or whatever. And one of the examples that I like of this is—it’s a study, it was done in Britain, but it was about exercise habits. And so they had three groups. The first group they said “we just want you to track how often you exercise in the next few weeks.” second group they said “we want you to track how often you exercise,” and then they also gave them this like motivating presentation about heart health and exercise and why I was good for them. So this was the motivated group.
And then the third group they got the same treatment as the second one, so they were equally motivated, saw the same presentation, but they asked them to fill out one sentence that was different and that sentence was “I will exercise on this day, at this time, in this place.” and that was the only thing that was different. But the control group and the motivation group when they got to the end of the study exercised basically the same amount. Was like one out of every three people. So the motivation essentially just faded as soon as they walked out of the room.
But the cohort that wrote down the implementation intention, wrote done specifically when and where the habit would occur—nine out of ten of them worked out—so it was like a two or three x increase over the control. And again it sounds simple… I mean people you know… It’s not like nobody’s ever heard of that before. But so often we wake up without those little details figured out. People are always wondering “will I feel motivated to workout today?” or “will I feel inspired to write a chapter in my book today?” and rather than leaving it up to that, you kind of like… You can automate discipline, or pre-decide it by setting the intention for when and where it’s going to occur. And that makes it just a little bit easier to get into it when the time comes.
Mark: That’s interesting. It’s almost like programming it at a subconscious level right? So you’re tricking your biased mind to do something that it doesn’t want to do necessarily.
foster habits, then optimize
James: I think that’s true. It’s also true… We talked a little bit earlier about friction. When someone starts a habit…
So let me back up and tell a brief story here and then this will clarify the concept, maybe…
So I have a reader who… He ended up losing over a hundred pounds. And one of the ways that he did it was that he went to the gym, but he wasn’t allowed to stay for longer than five minutes. And so he would drive to the gym each day, he’d get out and go in. And then the clock would hit five minutes and whatever exercise he was doing, he would just stop and then get up and leave. And did this for like six weeks. And then eventually he was like you know I’m coming here all the time I kind of feel like staying longer. Figuring out the right workout program or whatever. And it sounds funny, because it’s the exact opposite of how most people approach getting in shape right? They get all amped up and they’ve decided to do Crossfit or P90X or Insanity or something. And then they push themselves really hard for like two or three weeks, and then burn out or decide to stop. And then they wait three months until they feel the same way and, like, the cycle repeats itself.
But the thing that was really critical about what this reader did is he mastered the art of showing up. You know? He focused on standardizing his behavior, before he optimized it. And I think that that’s a really crucial point because a habit must be established before it can be improved. If you don’t have a… If you don’t master the art of showing up you don’t have anything to optimize to begin with. And so by scaling a behavior down to the first two minutes or the first five minutes in his case, you make it more likely that you’re gonna get into the habit. And so you reduce the friction associated with starting it. And I think that those implementation intentions, they’re another way of reducing that friction at the beginning.
Like, there are all sorts of… When people think about a habit like that. Like, “oh, I want to build the habit of working out,” they just think about the end goal. They’re all optimizing for the finish line, you know? I want to lose this amount of weight in a few months or I want to be able to bench-press 300 pounds or whatever it is. They don’t think about optimizing for the starting line. But there are all these little logistical details that need to be figured out when you start to build a habit like that. You know, like, okay you want to start working out what gym will you go to? What route will you take? What time of day will you go? Are you gonna work out by yourself or with a friend? Do you need to get your clothes ready before you go to work or will you come home after work and change and then go? Does the gym have a water fountain, or do you need to bring your own water bottle?
And those questions are small things. But little stuff like that—like the gym not having a water fountain—that’s the kind of friction that’s enough to get people to stop. And to quit. And so when you’re focused on the implementation intention, writing specifically when where it’s gonna happen. And on scaling the behavior down to just the first two minutes and optimizing for the starting line rather than a finish line, you get all that stuff figured out and then once you master the art of showing up, then you have all sorts of options for getting better.
Mark: Right. I love that. I think that’s super profound. You can’t optimize a habit that you don’t have. I love that idea.
So speaking of a habit—one that you have developed that I’m… Also have developed but I’m always looking at optimizing.
Walk us through your goal system and habit for writing. Because you’re a pretty prolific writer.
James: Yeah, so the goal I think is just to be helpful. To contribute something of value. I don’t think I’m unique in this way. I think we all want our work to matter in some sense. So that’s kind of the ultimate thing that I’m trying to work toward.
I don’t really restrict it to specific topics. I happen to be very interested in habits right now, but I’ll probably write more about other topics in the future. Decision-making or consciousness or who knows what… So the goal is just to be helpful.
The habits and the system looks something like this—so I write all of my articles in Evernote and there are sort of different portions of the process that occur. So, you know, like let’s say, for example, during this call you mentioned something that’s interesting or phrase that like catches my attention. Or we’re talking and I like the way that I give a particular answer.
Well when we get done and I’ll jump into Evernote and like write down a little note about that. And sometimes it’s just a title that strikes me. Or that phrase that was interesting.
And other times it’ll be… Get on a little riff and it will be a paragraph or two. And that’s sort of just like my collection of all these ideas. And so, you know, at this point I have hundreds probably I think like six or eight hundred little ideas or notes or whatever in there. And then every now and then—I don’t do this as often as I should—but every now and then I’ll go back through that list. And start to come across ones that are related and start to collect them into like a little bit of a larger draft.
So for example if there are six ideas on sleep habits then maybe I’ll start to collect those. And, you know, it’ll become an article about sleep. And so I have a variety of articles that are maybe fifty or eighty percent done like that that are kind of sitting there. But even if the article is 80% done, I’m really only about you know halfway through the work or a third of the way through the work, because once I get a full draft and I kind of have everything in place, then I start at the top and I read the first sentence. And if that’s good I read the second sentence. And then keep going until let’s say like you know the fifteenth sentence is sloppy or not reading well then I’ll edit that and then I’ll go back to the beginning and start at the top again. And I do that until I get all the way through the article. And so the end result is by the time the things actually finished I’ve revised it like 35 times. I mean that and that’s probably a lowball estimate to be honest. I know some of them I’ve gone through… I’ve probably read that first sentence at least a hundred times as I work my way through. So I don’t really consider myself a good writer. I consider myself a much better editor. And so that process of editing is when the article like really kind of comes to life and starts to sing a little bit more.
And it’s also… Honestly, writing is like thinking for me. I mean, that’s how I figure out what I think about a topic is by writing about it. Until I’ve written about it I don’t really know what I think. I kind of have like maybe a gut feeling, or an intuition, or maybe I’ll have an emotional reaction one way or another to a topic. But like, I don’t really know in a clear sense what I think until it’s actually written down.
Mark: That’s really interesting. As you said that I realize that’s exactly the way I am. I use writing to flesh out ideas and to think. And I’ve tried to speak a book before, and it didn’t go well, you know what I mean? I had to rewrite the entire thing, because I just don’t speak the way I write. I’m much more methodical and you can do a little research while you’re writing and blah-blah-blah…
James: The other thing I’ve realized as I’ve written more, is that I don’t know if dangerous is the right word, but there is a bit of a danger in talking about something that you haven’t written about. Because I’m really just… What I’m doing is I’m just talking my emotions… I’m just talking through how I feel about something at the time.
But that that isn’t necessarily what I think in a deeper way, right? And especially if you’re talking about a volatile topic, that can be a dangerous thing to do. Because you’re just letting your emotions guide the conversation. But you might not even… You might not really even be thinking about it that clearly. So you actually need to do some research and like write it down, and then be like “oh, I’m wording it that way, but that’s not actually how I feel about it,” or whatever.
Mark: Exactly. Yeah. Well said.
Now what about daily process for writing what’s your day look like in terms of preparation, and how do you do the deep work, and what does it look like on a daily basis for you?
James: So I like to get into the work as quickly as possible during the day? So I don’t have any good reason for this—but I don’t drink coffee—and so taking a shower is kind of like my coffee. I wake up, I take a shower, and get awake and get dressed. And then as soon as I’m done with that I walk to my office—I have a home office—and grab a glass of water and sit down and that’s when the writing begins. So I have been practicing intermittent fasting for six or seven years now. And so I usually don’t eat until somewhere around that noonish hour.
Again… The research on intermittent fasting has changed over time. I think now any particular fat loss benefits are probably minimal. But I like it from a simplicity standpoint. It’s one less meal to worry about, to clean up, to prep. To mess up, I guess, if you’re focused on sticking to a diet. So I like that level of it. And I haven’t really found it impacting my work or thinking or physical performance that much. I mean, the difference for me between eating at 8:00 am or eating at noon seems to be minimal.
James: So anyway, I sit down and then there’s what I would call a decisive moment. Which is the moment that either I open up Evernote and start working on the next article, or I open up ESPN and lose 45 minutes by browsing and reading sports news…
But that decisive moment… It’s somewhat constructed, because there are multiple moments throughout the day like that. Where if you just master the first two minutes you kind of already box yourself into the next chunk of time.
Like when my wife comes home from work each day there’s this decisive moment where if we change into our workout clothes, the next two hours are already decided. Like where we’re gonna be going to the gym, it’s all done already. So it’s more just about making sure that start happens and that initial decision happens.
And so that’s true with writing as well. I’ll sit down… I keep my phone out of the room until about noon. Till lunchtime. And that’s really crucial for me. That doesn’t happen every day, but as best as possible I try to keep my phone in another room while I write, because it just… It removes all the distractions so…
Mark: Yeah, they’ve done research on that haven’t they, James? Even just having the phone near you is a distraction. Because you’re gonna be “should I pick that thing up and check? No, don’t pick that thing up right?” so already you’ve split your brain focus…
James: It’s funny in both ways. It’s funny that you can’t resist it if it’s next to you—I mean I don’t know what the numbers are now, they keep going up every year but it’s like the average adult looks at their phone over 150 times a day.
But it’s funny that you can’t really resist the pull of it, but then I think it’s also funny on the other side that if I have it in another room I literally will forget about it for like four hours. It’s interesting how easy it is to move on when it’s not immediately there. And I think that that’s someone instructive for… You know, there are certain habits like working out and writing are two good examples. They require a little bit of it. They have a little more of a start-up cost than a habit like checking twitter. Which is just so frictionless, so easy, so seamless that you can fall into it even when you have like just 8 seconds free and you’re waiting in line at the store.
But if you remove that it’s almost like the difference between eating candy and junk food and eating something healthy. If you like if you remove the candy from the household, you find that “actually I do kind of like eating healthy. It tastes good. My energy is better. It’s not that I didn’t want this, it was just that when I was surrounded by something that was so much easier, I never got into it.”
And I think it’s something similar with the phone, and with writing or other like more cost intensive habits. Which is that I really do like writing it helps me think clearer. I like being able to produce articles. But I need to have the junk food out of the room so that I’m not distracted by the stuff that’s really frictionless. Otherwise it’s very easy to just you know fragment your attention throughout the entire day.
Mark: Yeah. Hallelujah. And that iPhone has got a lot of junk food for the brain coming out of it.
James: For sure
Mark: Awesome. Man, we could talk for another hour, but we have already been going an hour, so let me wrap this up. Your book “Atomic Habits: an easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones” just came out right? Just recently?
James: That’s right. October 16th. I’m very excited about it… Yeah, I’m excited to share with everybody.
Mark: Congratulations. And so for folks if they want to learn more jamesclear.com is your website right?
James: That’s right. And the book specifically you can go to atomichabits.com which of course has more information on the book, but also some additional bonus chapters and things. The templates and exercises. Extra stuff that wasn’t included in the manuscript itself.
Mark: Terrific. Well I look forward to seeing my copy. It got lost somewhere I think someone snatched it up so they could start working on their Atomic Habits. But I’m gonna look forward to… I’ll go to your website and grab it. And thanks so much for your time.
James: This have been a fascinating discussion. Really important.
And if we can do anything together, or support each other in any way, then think about it and reach out and I’ll do the same.
James: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity and yeah definitely had a great conversation with you. So thank you.
Mark: Yeah, enjoyable. Alright James, thanks again.
Folks that’s it. James Clear. Go check out atomichabits.com or… You know, I recommend getting on his blog, so enroll on his email. Because that’s phenomenal. He’s got some great stuff coming out and you can do that at jamesclear.com.
And as usual stay focused and set your intentions clearly, so you maintain that clarity and don’t have to be motivated. And never miss twice. Man… So much good stuff. Remove the points of friction. That’s a big one.
And remember that good decisions give you leverage and trajectory while the habits will determine how far you go. I love it.
Alright so enough here. It’s been a long one. Thanks for your attention set that iPhone aside and do some deep work and stay focused train hard and hooyah.