James Clear is the New York Times best-selling author of Atomic Habits. He also coaches readers (and even writers) how to succeed in their personal and professional lives by reaping the rewards of smart daily decisions.
In this podcast episode, he explains:
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Bryan Collins: Okay, so James, I've read Atomic Habits, and it was a really fascinating book, and I was particularly intrigued by the idea of how small changes can lead to remarkable results. So I was wondering if you could maybe elaborate on that a little bit from the point of view of somebody who was working within a business and are having trouble maybe achieving their goal or getting a project off the ground and perhaps they've been procrastinating or what would you recommend that person do?
James Clear: Sure. Well, so I think there are two answers here. So the first one is just talking about how habits compound and kind of conceptualizing why that's important. And then the second one is what's the first step someone should take? First, I like to refer to habits as the compound interest of self-improvement. And the reason I like to use that phrase is that the same way that money can multiply through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them throughout time. So in a way a time magnifies the margin between success and failure. So if you have good habits, then time is suddenly your ally, and you're accumulating these little improvements each day. And if you have bad habits, then time becomes your enemy and with each day that passes, you kind of put yourself a little deeper in a hole. On any given day it's kind of hard to understand the importance of that because it doesn't feel like very much in the moment.
James Clear: What is the difference between eating a salad for lunch or eating a burger and fries? Not a whole lot on any given day. Your body looks basically the same in the mirror. The scale doesn't really change. You don't really notice any impact on that day. Same way for working on a business. What is the difference between making a sales call today or making three sales calls and not making one at all? Well, probably not very much.
James Clear: It's not going to put you out of business tomorrow if you don't do that today, but it's only after you've compounded those choices over two or five or 10 years that you look back, and you realize, "Wow, my daily choices actually make a very significant difference. If I eat a burger and fries every day for lunch, I end up in a very different spot. If I make three sales calls a day every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, well then all of a sudden the businesses thriving. Whereas if I just procrastinate that on that and put it off, we may be out of business in two years." So it doesn't feel like much of the moment, but it ends up making a significant difference in the long run.
James Clear: And that's why I refer to habits as the compound interest of self-improvement because like any compound interest curve, in the very beginning, it's shallow and basically flat that you don't see any progress. All the returns are delayed. So that's the first reason, just conceptualizing why that's important.
James Clear: Then the second answer to your question is, well, what should someone do? Okay, if you embrace this idea that 1% changes that up, that they compound over time and that your daily habits and choices are actually really significant. What can you do? Well, the first thing to realize is that your current trajectory matters much more than your current position. So a lot of the time people either sabotage themselves or never get started because they start falling into this lap or this loop of self-judgment where they feel bad about their current results and then because they don't have the outcomes they want, they feel guilty or judge themselves and so on.
James Clear: Your current position does not really matter if you're a current trajectory is positive. And so you're just trying to find some small margin, some little advantage that you can gain each day. And that's why if I'm going to recommend a place for someone to start, I like to recommend beginning with the two-minute rule. So the two minute-rule simply says that you take whatever habit you're trying to build, whatever ambitious plan or goal that you have for yourself and you scale it down to just the first two minutes.
James Clear: So read 50 books a year, becomes read one page, or build a six-figure business, becomes make one sales call or write one email. If you scale it down to just something that you can do in two minutes or less, then you start to give yourself an opportunity to master the art of showing up. And this is one of the key insights about building better habits, which is that a habit must be established before it can be improved. A lot of the time we're so focused on finding the perfect business idea, or the best weight loss program, or the ideal strength training template that we focus so much on this perfect outcome. We never figured out how to master the art of showing up.
James Clear: And if you want to have a successful business, for example, you, in order to give yourself the chance to be someone to have a six-figure business or a million dollar business or whatever it is you're looking to build, you have to first be the person who shows up and makes a sales call each day. By scaling down to just the first two minutes, you make it easier to get started and you give yourself a chance to build that identity. Then once you're the type of person that does that each day well, now you have a lot of options for improving and expanding from there.
Bryan Collins: I was particularly fascinated by was the paperclip strategy whereby you move a paper clip across the desk time you placed that sales call. I'm curious about what other types of tracking you recommend an entrepreneur use or perhaps somebody who's writing a book to grow their business?
James Clear: Yeah, that's a good question. First I should say I like to broadly lump habits into two categories. The first category are just habits that you don't really need to track or measure, and these are just kind of basic fundamentals and a lot of the time, many of the strategies that talk about in the book from environment design to temptation bundling, habit stacking, those strategies are good enough to get you to build a habit without needing to measure it. And I think that's also true for many business habits too. It's not just individual habits. But then there's a second category of habits, and those are the few things, maybe three to five at the most, I would usually say two or three, the really important habits that you do want to continuously improve and optimize.
James Clear: So I think that's the first lesson for tracking habits is if you're going to pick habits to measure and track, keep it simple, keep it small, scale it down to just two or three options. So for me, for example, for my business, I write articles, and I consider my actual audience to be the email subscribers that I have. The number of new email subscribers per day, that's a really crucial number for me to track and know what that's at. That one's important. And for whatever your particular businesses, maybe it's the number of sales calls you make, maybe it's the number of customer support tickets you respond to, or the average time that it takes to respond to a customer support request. There are probably a few key metrics that are really crucial. Once you select those, then I think there are a couple strategies that can be effective for tracking.
James Clear: You mentioned the paper clip strategy. I think that's a good one. And it can be applied in a variety of ways. The thing that makes the paperclip strategy good and just to get people on the same page here, we're talking about, you have two cups on your desk and when one of them is empty and one of them has a bunch of paper clips in it, whatever the number of sales calls are you want to make. So say you want to make 25 a day and then whenever you make a sales call, you move it over. And you just keep calling until you get all the paperclips across to the other cup. And the reason that's effective is because it's a visual form of measurement. You can't really lie to yourself about it. You can see it sitting there right in front of you.
James Clear: I've had readers who have used paperclips or marbles or hairpins or a variety of things. One person, whenever they wrote another page of their book they moved a hairpin over. So any of those visual forms can work well. The simplest form is to get a calendar and then each time you do your habit, you perform your task. You just cross an x off on that day. What ends up happening is you get kind of these chains of x's going. Say you want to work out every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday when they have like chains going down Monday, Wednesday, Friday, all the way down the calendar. One of the mantras that's kind of nice to keep in mind with that is don't break the chain. Doesn't matter how good or how bad the workout is, doesn't matter how long or how short it is, just don't break the chain, get yourself to show up again the next day. Those visual forms of measurement are good for that.
James Clear: The second strategy though is whenever possible, I like to automate the daily measurements so you don't have to track it day in and day out, but then schedule monthly reviews. There are all sorts of examples like this with my business, for example, Google analytics automatically measures how much traffic I'm getting, what countries those people are coming from, how many email subscribers we have and what the conversion rate is. And then I just have a reminder on my calendar, at the beginning of each month, to check what their numbers were for the last month and compare them. So the process of measurement suddenly becomes much easier there because it's only something I have to do occasionally rather than every day. Those numbers can be very informative, and helpful, but I only think you need to do manual tracking daily when you're building a habit in the very beginning for the first time. Once you kind of get it consistent, then you can move on to that sort of automated style.
Bryan Collins: Yeah. And the key idea that I took from the book was how making those small changes can lead to remarkable results, which I suppose you explained is what the meaning behind the title. I actually taught the title was what was, it was a really great title for a nonfiction business book, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you came up with that title, or the process for picking Atomic Habits.
James Clear: Yeah. Good question. So I chose the phrase atomic habits for three reasons. So the first meaning of the word atomic is smaller, tiny, like an atom. And that is one of the core philosophies in my approach is that habits should be small and easy to do.
James Clear: The second meaning of the word atomic is one that's overlooked a little bit more. Not thought about as much, but I think it was central and crucial, and that is the fundamental unit in a larger system. So like atom's build into molecules, molecules build into compounds and so on. And in a sense habits are kind of like the atoms of our lives. They're these little routines and patterns that we do each day. These rituals that when you put them all together, they end up making the system of your daily routine.
James Clear: And then the third meaning of the word atomic is the source of immense energy or power. And I think that if you combine all three of those meanings, then you understand the narrative arc of the book, which is if you make changes that are small and easy to do and you layer them on top of each other, like units in a larger system, then you can end up with some really powerful or remarkable results in the long run.
Bryan Collins: Did you go through many variations of your title before you decided on that one?
James Clear: Oh, my gosh. I have a spreadsheet full of probably more than three or 400 different titles that I brainstormed. We went through so many iterations it was crazy. But we ended up settling on that one. That ended up being the best variant that we could find. But there were many that were considered.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, it's a great title. I also read your email recently when you described the process of writing Atomic Habits. I was particularly drawn to your description of the mantra. I kept telling myself, "You just need to sell for a little more and then it'll be great." I was wondering if you could describe how that mantra helped you get through a difficult period while you were writing your book?
James Clear: Well, writing the book was very challenging for me. A part of that was self-induced. I spent three years writing and researching the book itself and another three years before that kind of laying the groundwork, building the audience, writing about the topics weekly, developing a sense of expertise around habits and behavior change. So the book itself was three years from start to finish. The whole process was six years. When I set out to write the book, I set out to write the definitive book on habits. I wanted it to be the most practical and actionable guide on how to change your habits and to be a really in-depth scientific discussion of how they work and how to understand human behavior.
James Clear: That's about as big of a topic as you can pick human behavior. To lay that challenge down for my first book was very difficult. There were naturally many times throughout the process that I just felt alone or like it was struggling or this wasn't getting anywhere. At one point my first complete, full draft of the book was 214,000 words, which is about 750 pages. And the finished version of the book is under 250 for the actual text. And then it's a little longer if you include the endnotes and citations and references and so on. Essentially, we cut it in one-third of what I originally had. The amount of reading and writing and editing that went into that to make it really tight and potent and powerful and useful. It was just a very long road and there were a lot of days in the middle of that where I felt I was really struggling and wasn't really sure if the project was even going to be worth it.
James Clear: As I was going through that and kind of suffering through that process, I came across this quote from the British philosopher Alain de Botton and it's something to the effect of, "Of many books a reader thinks this could have been truly great if only the author had been willing to suffer a little bit more." And I read that and I thought, "Man, that's really where I'm at right now. Maybe this is just okay, but if I'm just willing to suffer a little more than it will be great." And so I just kept telling myself that every day. Every day that it was hard, I was able to tell myself like, "This is how it's supposed to be, you just need to suffer a little more and then it'll be great." Eventually after telling myself that enough times for three years or so it was finished and I am proud of what we were able to complete and finish now. And I'm happy that I was able to write the book that I did.
Bryan Collins: When I read the book, I was struck by how meticulously it's researched. There's a wide range of citations from various different sources. How would you go into the research process for a book like Atomic Habits?
James Clear: Yeah, it's a tough question because ... So I like to refer to myself as idea-agnostic. And what I mean by that is I don't care where a good idea comes from. I'm not limiting myself to psychology or neuroscience or biology or philosophy. Any discipline is fair game for me. What I care most about is the idea accurate and is it useful. Ultimately, the best ideas have strong predictive power in life. That is that by understanding those ideas, you are at an advantage for the future because you better understand what is to come and how things will play out.
James Clear: My hope is that anybody who reads Atomic Habits, that they are at an advantage for the remainder of the day's going into the future for them. Another way to put that is that if you don't read the book you will be at a disadvantage. And so in order to do that, I have to pull from a wide range of sources, but then there's a challenge which is that it's impossible for any one person to be an expert in all those different fields. There are many, many people who are researchers and PhDs and scientists who spend their entire lives dedicated to one of those fields or a niche within one of those fields.
James Clear: The only way that I've been able to work around that is by focusing on ideas that one are not represented by a single study, but by many. So there're the scientific consensus rather than a single outlier. And two there are a variety of people who I would consider my sources or curators within a particular field. They stay on top of the research and the scientific consensus within their field. Then if I stay abreast of what they are doing, what they think is on the leading edge, then I kind of get a good idea of the thousands of researchers beneath them or around them. That curation strategy is really the only way that I know to deal with that problem of scale across many different knowledge domains. It's just not possible for one person to know everything at this point. And so those are the best strategies I've come up with so far for handling that.
Bryan Collins: And I understand you have a online course that helps people create habits? And then you also publish articles regularly on your site. I'm just wondering how you strike me as somebody who will be quite busy running their business, but just to satisfy so much time for writing your book would take up a lot of your day as well. So my question is how do you decide what to focus on now and maybe want to put off until tomorrow or next month or even next year?
James Clear: Oh, yeah, that's a good question. I mean, I certainly don't think I have that handled. I'm trying to manage it and figure it out myself. It is a challenge. The short answer to what did I actually do when I was dealing with that is I basically put everything on autopilot and just wrote the book. I basically focus on one big project at a time. So for the last year and a half, I just said, "Look, I'm just going to be writing the book," and so I didn't really publish many new articles at all. Occasionally, I would get one out, but most of the time, no. I didn't update the course that I have a which we are updating it next month actually. And so we're working on that now. But that's a good example of it just had to wait until I did the book well enough and finished it. I don't know that there's any right answer for this. It's always going to be dependent on where your business is that and how much bandwidth and flexibility you have with your schedule.
James Clear: Then, of course, there will always be emergencies that pop up and take some of your time. But whenever possible I do like the idea of asking yourself, "What season am I in right now?" And I think this works on a large level and on a small level. So I really like this idea that life is a series of seasons. For example, from a high level, the current season that I'm in is relatively career-focused. I don't have kids yet. And so I can spend more time focusing on the work I'm producing and the career I'm building the business I'm building.
James Clear: And then at some point, I will have children, so then I'll transition to a less career-focused timeline. I'll be spending more time with family and that's a different season. But then even within that larger season of, "Hey, I'm focused on the career," I can ask myself in a smaller sense, "What season am I in? Am I in a season where I'm writing a book? Am in the season where I'm working on the course? Am I in a season where I'm just writing weekly articles and trying to improve and optimize the things that we have going right now?"
James Clear: And I think by asking myself continually what season am I in, it makes it easier for me to stay focused on one thing and not get distracted or divided to fracture my attention across 10 different things. Again, it's going to vary for each business and it's challenging to figure out the right way to do that. But that's the question that has helped me handle that.
Bryan Collins: Yeah. I like that metaphor of seasons for your business and also for your life. I have one other thing I took away from the book is how you're moving away from setting goals, which are normally the staple of productivity advice and towards systems such as what Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, recommended. So do you set any goals anymore or have you moved entirely to systems?
James Clear: Yeah, that's an interesting question actually. I don't think we have set any goals this year. I'm thinking back on it right now. Maybe there was something but I actually don't know that we have. We're much more focused on process now. It's much more task-oriented or small, like daily-oriented, whether it's what's in the task list in a sauna, like what do we need to be getting done today this week? And the goal is sort of just a larger, kind of a murky idea that's out there in the distance, but it provides like a beacon for us to move toward it. It provides clarity on what direction we should be moving toward. In a sense, our goal for this year, and I say our because I wrote the book, but I have a team who helps me run the business and market it and so on.
James Clear: But in a sense, our goal was to sell as many copies of the book as possible and to write the best book possible. And we always knew that that was the goal in a broad sense, but we never made any specific goals about this is the number of copies we want to sell or this is the length of the book that we want it to be, or this is how many reviews we want to have. Things like that. We never made actual numbers there, but we knew that showing up in editing this week was really important or making sure we booked more interviews or writing up the emails for when the book was going to be launching.
James Clear: All those things were on the task list still. I think that in a way, what I'm describing here, what we just went through for the launch of the book is kind of similar to what I describe in the book, this idea of focusing on systems over goals, on process over outcomes, which is that once you have some clarity about what's important to you, it's better probably to sort of set the goal on a shelf and just focus on the system and the process. And so talking about it now. I feel like we've embodied that in a decent way over the last year.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, that's definitely something I want to do more of over the coming year is moved more towards systems. So where can people find you online, James, or your book?
James Clear: Well, thank you so much. It was nice talking to you about all this. And so the book is called Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. And if you'd like to find out more about it, you can check atomichabits.com. On that page, there are a variety of additional resources. There's a guide on how to apply the ideas to parenting, a guide on how to apply the ideas to business, a habit tracker template for tracking your own habits and a few other things, but anyway, all of that is at atomichabits.com.
Bryan Collins: That's great. Thank you, James.
James Clear: Wonderful. Thank you so much.
Bryan Collins: Okay, that's great, James, I'll send you a draft of the article before it goes live for you to read and congrats again on the book, like I said in the interview, I really enjoyed it.
James Clear: Wonderful. Yeah. Thanks again. I appreciate the opportunity. Happy rest of the day.
Bryan Collins: Take care. Bye. Bye.