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Atomic Habits – James Clear on humanOS Radio

Atomic Habits for Achieving Your Goals. Podcast with James Clear

Why is it so hard for us to make healthy lifestyle changes – even when we have the necessary knowledge?

We know from a mountain of evidence that relatively simple behavior modifications can dramatically improve our physical and mental performance and shield us from chronic disease. For instance, prospective cohort studies suggest that more than 90% of type 2 diabetes, 80% of coronary artery disease, 70% of stroke, and 70% of colon cancer may be prevented through a combination of basic lifestyle changes – including not smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight, and being physically active.

Yet public service announcements and advertising campaigns that endeavor to alter behavior through education are often quite disappointing. A study of the 5-A-Day Program for Better Health, for instance, found that 35% of people expressed an intention to eat five fruits and vegetables per day. Not bad. But when assessing what people actually ate, the story takes a sad turn – only 11% of people met the recommended intake. In other words, the program provided information, and may have even instilled motivation to change, but seemed to have a very modest impact on behavior itself. Alas, knowledge is not enough.

This dilemma doesn’t just apply to the greater concerns of public health, of course. It also encompasses personal health goals, which you can probably relate to pretty easily. Maybe you’d like to lose thirty pounds, or be able to do fifty pushups, or run a marathon. The fundamental problem here, of course, is that each of these goals comes with a long list of associated behaviors, many of which aren’t intrinsically rewarding, and that you have to keep doing forever, in order to achieve and maintain them.

So what is the solution? We need to learn how to build habits.

That brings us to our guest for this episode.

 

GUEST

In this episode of humanOS Radio, Dan speaks with James Clear. James is an author and entrepreneur who is focused on habits, decision-making, and continuous improvement. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Time magazine, and other major media outlets.

James has a gift for breaking down complex subjects into simple step-by-step behaviors that can be easily applied to your daily life. In his latest book, “Atomic Habits,” James draws upon a wide array of evidence from psychology, biology, and cognitive neuroscience to construct a useful guide for building and reinforcing good habits and abolishing bad habits.

So what do I mean by habits? James defines habits as behaviors that have been repeated enough times to be nearly automatic, to the point that they do not demand cognitive effort or willpower. Like brushing your teeth, or heading to the gym at 5:00 pm every day, or regularly making a green smoothie for breakfast. These automatic processes, which are mostly mundane things that we take for granted, are actually foundational to all of our goals.

The problem, of course, is that we generally don’t see the immediate payoff for any of these behaviors. You don’t instantly drop twenty pounds just switching from regular to diet soda today – in fact, you won’t lose any appreciable weight at all from that singular choice in isolation. It is only after you’ve committed to these behaviors for a while – after your efforts have compounded, to quote James – that we start to see the difference.

Something that makes this even more challenging is the fact that for many of our health-related goals, the “bad” counterpart tends to be more rewarding in the short term than the more sensible choice. Unfair as it is, I think most people would have to admit that doughnuts are way tastier than broccoli (if they’re being totally honest). When we are making decisions between foods like this, the long-term payoff of sticking to the former can be elusive, and it’s all too easy to give in to the quick and reliable reward of the more palatable option. It’s no wonder that the statistics related to long term weight maintenance are generally so underwhelming.

But the situation is not hopeless! What this means is that we need a system to assess and build good habits, and stick to them long term. And that is what “Atomic Habits” is all about. If you are interested in the art and science of self-improvement (and if you’re here reading this, I bet that you are) then I encourage you to go pick up “Atomic Habits.” You can find it on Amazon right now, or other places where books are sold.

“If you have good habits, time is your ally, and if you have bad habits, time becomes your enemy.” Click To Tweet

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

Here is just a snapshot of what is covered in the podcast:

  • What are habits, and why do they matter?
  • How the effects of habits are not immediately obvious, but multiply over time (the compound interest of self-improvement)
  • How to build a habit scorecard, to assess whether your current system is working
  • The cardinal rule of behavior change
  • Why breaking bad habits and building good habits is really hard, at least in the short term
  • How to build immediate positive reinforcement into a behavior that might not be intrinsically rewarding when you’re doing it
  • The aggregation of marginal gains – how just 1% improvement paved the road to Olympic gold
  • How changing your physical environment can facilitate behavior change
  • How belonging to a supportive group makes it easier for new habits to stick in the long run

You don’t want to miss this one. Tune in below to learn more!

 

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CONTRIBUTIONS

Dan prepared for and conducted the interview, Ginny wrote the blog post, and James continues to help guide people in cultivating good habits and becoming 1% better. 🙂

 

TRANSCRIPT

James Clear: 00:06 And so, it’s very easy to dismiss the importance of making choices that are one percent better on a given day or to dismiss the consequences in making choices that are one percent worse, and it’s only after your habits have compounded, for two or five or 10 years, that it becomes very apparent, the importance of those daily choices.
Speaker 1: 00:31 [Human OS 00:00:31] Learn. Master. Achieve.
Dan Pardi: 00:38 Welcome back, everyone. Today I have with me author and friend, James Clear, and James writes on things like habits and decisions and generally how to live better lives, all things that are super important in our lives, but also to our health. His work has been covered by The New York Times and Time Magazine, CBS This Morning, and many other media outlets. James has a new book out called Atomic Habits. So, we are going to talk about that today. Now, I’ve been following his work and appreciating his writing for years now, and James, let me pay you a compliment here. I think you do a superb job taking complex topics and telling a story that makes these potentially life-improving ideas really resonate with a person, and there’s so many good ideas that are out there in the world that we can benefit from. And yet, we can easily miss those ideas, first, by not being exposed to them, but, second, if the idea just isn’t delivered in a way that hits home, where you could put yourself into the shoes of somebody else and experience that as though you’ve experienced it yourself. And that, I think, can really help people adopt these changes and adopt these good ideas.
So, thank you for you writing, and welcome to the show.
James Clear: 01:41 Yeah, thank you so much. That’s very nice of you to say, and, yeah, I’m excited to be talking to you again.
Dan Pardi: 01:46 Let’s start from the beginning. You started writing when, in your newsletter?
James Clear: 01:49 Well, I’ve been an entrepreneur for eight years, but I launched jamesclear.com about six years ago in November of 2012. So, the first article went up there November 12th, 2012, and I decided I was just gonna write a new article every Monday and Thursday. And I followed that twice-a-week writing habit for the next three years, and that was really the thing that led to the growth of my newsletter and my site and also was the avenue through which I developed some expertise around the topics of habits and behavior change and performance improvement. I remember, early on, I was talking to a friend, and I mean, I’m just a guy. Who am I to write about this? And he was like, “Well, the way you become an expert is by writing about it every week,” and so, in a sense, I went to school every week … or went to class, by researching and writing these articles and putting them out to the world and getting some feedback and then adjusting and improving from there. And I’m still continuing that process today.
Dan Pardi: 02:40 Really, one of the best ways to learn is to teach.
James Clear: 02:42 Probably. I mean, it might be the best way. I understand the concepts well now because I force myself to explain them simply to the audience, and so, I need to fully [inaudible 00:02:53] what I’m wrestling with and distill it down to its essence in order to write about it clearly. I’ve discovered that, in many ways, I don’t really know what I think about something until I write about it. If you were to just ask me about a topic right now that I haven’t written about, what I would do, when I respond, is I would sort of talk through my feelings. I would be talking out what my gut reaction is or what my initial feeling is on the topic, and so when I go through a first draft of an article, that’s basically what I’m doing. But then, I go back to the beginning and refine it again and again and again.
And many of the articles I’ve written, I’ve read through them 20 or 30 or 50 times, and so, it’s only through that process of kind of endless revision that I really find out what I actually think about something and kind of clarify my thoughts. I mean, you could never do that in conversation, just say the same sentence 30 times but adjust it slightly, so, in that sense, writing is very instructive for me. It’s an effective process for learning.
Dan Pardi: 03:44 The fourth time I give a talk is usually a lot better than the first just because I’ve heard myself say something out lout multiple times now, and I figure out some way to tweak it that makes me happier about how I’m communicating because I’ve learned best by doing. And the other idea is that I listen to my own podcast more than anyone that’s out there, so it’s really self-indulgent. But it’s a repetition of going over an idea over and over again to think about it more deeply and think about it a second and third and fourth time to get a deeper level of understanding by repeatedly dedicating to that one concept. I get more out of that than going faster and covering more.
James Clear: 04:18 It’s like a habit, a little bit, in the sense that it’s repetition, but anything you want to know or master well, you’re not just gonna do it once, right? You wouldn’t play one chess game and be like, “Oh, I’m a grand master now,” so writing and learning, I think, is similar; you need that repetition to instill the idea or the skill or the practice.
Dan Pardi: 04:35 What is your process for writing an article?
James Clear: 04:37 I have a couple different stages that things go through, so the first one is let’s say we’re talking here and you mention some interesting idea during the conversation that sparks something for me. So, once we get done, I’ll dump that into an Evernote file, and so, I do most of my writing, or early writing, in Evernote. And that is just like a central holding ground for all the ideas that come across, so it might be something you mention in conversation or a little snippet from a book I read or something that I listen to on a podcast or whatever. And it can be anything. It can be a title. It can be maybe just a sentence. Sometimes I’ll riff for a while, and that’s maybe a couple paragraphs, but all those first thoughts just go there and are in that central holding ground.
And there’s a lot now. There’s maybe, I don’t know, 600 or 800. There are a lot of ideas in there at this point, and then, when I sit down to write, I’ll open up that notebook and go through. And I’ll start to look for ones that are similar. Let’s say I have five notes in there that are about something related to sleep. Well, maybe I’ll start to pull those and put them into one file that’s just my thoughts on sleep, and that’ll start to take a little bit more of a shape. And I’ll see maybe what some holes are, and I’ll go off and do a little more reading. Or I’ll start to basically block it into these larger chunks. I’m not really worried about the sentences yet. I’m like, “Okay, this will be a section on this idea, and here’s the next section that’s on this idea.”
I move those chunks around a little bit, and then, once the article starts to get a general form, I’ll move it over to WordPress, which is what I run my website on. And that’s the point where the real work begins. I don’t really consider myself to be a very good writer. I think I’m a much better editor, and so, at that point, once I’ve got this generally formed article, I’ll start at the top and I’ll read the first sentence. And if that sounds good, I’ll read the second. If that sounds good, I’ll read the third, and at some point, I get to a sentence that doesn’t sound good or isn’t working quite well. And I’ll edit that, and then, as soon as that’s fixed, I’ll go back to the top and start all again.
And so, what ends up happening is by the time the article’s finished, I’ve read it … I mean, it really might not be an exaggeration to say I’ve read 50 or 100 times. And so, I’ve gone through it so much that what I want to see is not just that the sentences are reading well, but the whole thing is working together. There’s this natural flow. Then … So, then, at some point, after doing all that, I get to the final sentence, and it’s done. Typically, that process ends in me cutting a lot. The most recent article I put up, I think it finished at 2,000 words or 2,200 or somewhere around there, and when I put it into WordPress, it was at 6,000. And that’s pretty typical for me, cut about half or so of what I start with, and it’d be nice to be more economical and not waste words. But that’s just how it goes, I guess.
Dan Pardi: 07:08 Have there been parts of your process that have become more efficient over doing this, now, for eight years?
James Clear: 07:14 Well, one big thing was that switch to having the central holding ground for all the ideas. I used to have stuff just disparately saved all over. I’d have a note on my phone or I would keep separate notes on the books I was reading or I’d … we use Trello for our project management. I have notes in there, and I realized I was just basically losing a bunch of ideas ’cause I would put it somewhere and then never come back to it. So, having one central place was a big fix. The second thing is the realization that I want the scientific ideas to be easy to understand, to be simple, actionable, and practical, but I also want to have a story that brings it to life. I want something that can hook readers in or that they have a reason to remember it.
If I give a talk and I mention a research study, nobody remembers the study, but everybody remembers the story before it. And so, I realized that stories were a big part of my writing, and so, what I have now is, usually, I’ll have either a story or I’ll have a main point that I want to make, but I don’t have both. And so, there are a lot of articles that are kind of sitting there, waiting for me, that are in need of a story that can bring them to life. And so, I can remember one in particular. It was about strength-training, the article was. And I needed a story that could make this main point I was trying to get across, and I was reading an article in The New York Times and they mentioned this Greek … I think he actually live … Milo of [inaudible 00:08:33]. But he kind of almost is this mythological character. He was this famous Greek wrestler.
And, anyway, it was just one sentence they mentioned, but it was enough that I was like, “Huh, I need to find out more about that guy. That looks interesting.” So, I researched him a little bit, just threw him name in Google, and as soon as I read his story, I was like, “Yes, this is what I need.” And so, that was the story for the strength-training article that I had been sitting on for, like, a year. And I dumped the story, kicked it off with that, and then the article was written a week later. So, a lot of the time, I’m looking for that matching between story and study and main point, and I didn’t know that for the first year or two. I was just writing articles, and occasionally, I’d have a story in there. And those would, invariably, be the ones that people liked more.
Dan Pardi: 07:14 Yeah.
James Clear: 09:09 But now that I’ve honed in on that a little bit, I’m more careful or more cognizant of that connection, that I look for that type of stuff more.
Dan Pardi: 09:15 My process is actually quite similar. In writing, I will collect a lot of ideas then go through a process of organizing then try to figure out a main point to surface in the process of talking about some concept because if you try to talk about too many, you could not make any point at all. And I actually-
James Clear: 09:32 [inaudible 00:09:32]
Dan Pardi: 09:31 -have an analogy that one book out there, Good Calories, Bad Calories, by Gary Taubes. It’s 600 pages one point: carbs are bad. You could argue that there are more scientifically-credible books that try to make 13 points per chapter, and they have had less of an impact on people’s behavior because they’re trying to cover too much one go.
James Clear: 09:50 So, I think that’s very true. I’ve been thinking about that a little bit more now that I’ve finished this book, my first full-length book, about what makes a book good, what makes a book bad, what should I improve for next time, and that idea of staying focused on one central point, it makes a lot of sense to me for the articles I write. You know, they’re about 2,000 words long, usually, and I can kind of see the idea from end-to-end. Here’s the story that kicks it off. This is the main point I’m trying to make, and here’s the practical takeaway. I think it’s really challenging to select an idea that is both easy to understand in a single sentence like that but also worthy of two or 300 pages because there are a lot of books … I mean, business books are the most obvious example of this, but they should be a 20-page report or white paper, not a 200-page book.
But if you can find the right one … 4-Hour Workweek is a good example. I can understand that in a single sentence. I get to retire early. I don’t have to work that much. I can have a full-time career on four hours a week, but then there are a lot of questions that immediately come from that. Okay, how do I actually do that? What does that look like? That idea’s … you can understand it immediately, but you also kind of need 300 pages to explain how someone does that, and so, I think good books have a balance of that or it’s a easily- digestible, compelling idea but also worthy of a good amount of explanation.
Dan Pardi: 11:04 So, let’s talk about habits a little bit. This is a topic that most people are familiar with, but why have you focused on habits? And let’s talk about what they are generally?
James Clear: 11:11 Okay. So, I’ll start with the definition. Broadly speaking, a habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to be more or less automatic. You can think of them sort of like mental shortcuts, and they are mental solutions that we use for the problems we face repeatedly in life. So, as you go throughout life, you face a variety of problems. Some of them are big; some of them are small, like you need to tie your shoe. And the more that you face that problem, every morning you need to tie your shoe, the more your brain automates a solution that it comes across that seems to be effective at solving that problem.
And if you repeat that enough times, pretty soon, you can tie your shoes while you’re having a conversation or thinking about what you need to do that day or what you’re gonna make for breakfast or whatever. And this is one of the values of habits, is that when you can solve a problem on autopilot, you free up your cognitive attention to direct it towards other problems or towards other areas of life. So, you effectively remove one more bottleneck from your brain, and you can direct your conscious attention elsewhere. But, I think that’s a reasonable definition of what a habit is.
Why do I write about it? Why is it important? Well, first of all, this is a process that’s just happening automatically. You don’t need to think about it. Your body’s going to be doing this day-in and day-out, regardless, and so, if you’re going to be building habits anyway, it makes sense to understand how the process works. The second thing is that habits are like a double-edged sword. They can either compound for you or against you, and so it makes a lot of sense to learn how to design them to your liking so that you can avoid the dangerous half of the blade.
Early in the book, I … in Chapter One, I mentioned that habits are like the compound interest of self-improvement. So, the same way that money can multiply through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them over time. And the challenge of this is that it’s really easy to dismiss on any given day. What really is the difference between studying Chinese for 20 minutes tonight or not studying it? You don’t know the language either way. Or what is the difference between eating a salad and chicken for lunch or eating a burger and fries? On any given day, your body looks basically the same. The scale doesn’t really change, and so, it’s very easy to dismiss the importance of making choices that are one percent better on a given day or to dismiss the consequences in making choices that are one percent worse.
And it’s only after your habits have compounded, for two or five or 10 years, that it becomes very apparent, the importance of those daily choices. And so, that was something I was trying to get across in the book, and then once you accept that habits are these really important processes that kind of solve the problems we face every day, then we need a framework for actually changing them. And that’s, of course, what the bulk of the book is about.
Dan Pardi: 13:48 So, we have an intellectual understanding of the process itself and an understanding of the impact that they can have in your life for both positives and negatives. Then you can … taking charge of these to the degree where you can implement better habits and know, “Yeah, I might not necessarily have the immediate feedback, but over time, the compounding interest of designing these right is going to make my life better.”
James Clear: 14:10 I think that’s broadly right. And so, I mentioned this idea of habits are the solutions to the problems you face over and over again. Let’s say you come home from work each day and you feel stressed and exhausted. There are actually a variety of ways to solve that problem, so to speak, like, one person might play video games for an hour and another person might smoke a cigarette and a third person might go for a run for 20 minutes. And they’re all plausible solutions to the problem of feel stress and exhausted, and so, what you realize is that, in many cases, maybe you turn around, you’re 20 years old or 25 or 30, and the original habits that you built, the habits that are filling up your life now, are not necessarily the optimal habits for the problems that you face over and over again. And once you realize that, then it becomes your responsibility to try to design a more optimal solution or a more effective solution to those problems.
And so, I think that understanding how habits compound and the role that they play, as these solutions to recurring problems, may be-
PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:15:04]
James Clear: 15:00 … the role that they play as these solutions to recurring problems maybe makes that a little bit more clear and possibly inspires us to work on our habits, even though we often overlook them.
Dan Pardi: 15:09 Do you personally do a habit review?
James Clear: 15:12 In the book, I talk about this thing called a habit scorecard. And I think that there are two ways to do this. First, have scorecard that’s like an inventory of what your habits are. So you just start at the beginning of your day, and you write down pretty much in as much detail as you can muster, what happens to your performing self. I wake up. I turn off my alarm. I check Instagram. I get out of bed. I make the bed. I take a shower. I brush my teeth. On and on and on.
Then you grade that habit. You can either give it a plus sign if it’s a positive habit, or a good habit. A negative sign if you think it’s a negative habit. Or an equal sign if it’s just neutral. But the point of that inventory is not to feel good or bad about yourself or to judge yourself. It’s just to kind of get a lay of the land. Almost like you’re observing somebody else.
“Oh okay, I check Instagram before I get out of bed each morning. Should I actually do that? No, probably not. It’s probably a negative habit.” But you’re just trying to become aware that you do that. Once you have that level of awareness, then you actually have a chance to maybe design it to some meaningful degree. If you’re not aware of it, it’s really hard to design something carefully. So that’s the first thing. And I’ll add a little caveat to that, about good and bad habits, because sometimes people … “Well, if it’s a bad habit, why do I do it? That doesn’t make any sense.”
All habits serve you in some way. Smoking a cigarette might be bad in the long run, but it serves you by reducing stress or making you feel like you’re part of the social group, or a variety of other things that it could provide. So the way I like to think about that, is that habits produce multiple outcomes across time. Pretty much any behavior produces multiple outcomes across time.
For bad habits, it’s often the case that the initial outcome is favorable. So for example eating a donut each day, eating a donut right now is tasty and sugary and sweet and you might find it enjoyable, so the immediate outcome is favorable. But the ultimate outcome, that if you repeat this habit, you’re going to gain in a month or a year or whatever, is unfavorable. For good habits, it’s often the reverse. The immediate outcome of going to the gym, is effortful. You sweat. It takes some sacrifice. It’s hard work. Your body is basically the same. The scale doesn’t really change. You’re putting up basically the same weight. But the ultimate outcome if you repeat the habit, is that you’re stronger and fitter in a month or a year.
So first of all, that’s a good way to distinguish what is a bad habit and what is a good habit, is what is the ultimate outcome of the behavior. Secondly, a lot of the challenge of building good habits and breaking bad ones, is about figuring out ways to take the longterm consequences of your bad habits and pull them into the immediate moment, so you feel a little bit of the pain right now, and taking the longterm rewards of your good habits and pulling those into the immediate moment, so that it’s pleasurable and satisfying and you have a reason to repeat it right now, rather than just trying to delay gratification. We can talk more about that later.
That’s basically the first way that I do that, is this habit scorecard. Then I also have a longer term tracking or awareness exercise where I do like an annual review at the end of each year.
Dan Pardi: 17:59 I think that’s a great idea. I don’t know if you’re a basketball fan, but Joel Embiid, his saying is, “Trust the process,” which is really what you’re talking about. You can’t see that in the moment benefit, but you know it will get you to a place you want to go. And you can say, “Ah, this process is going to help me,” and that belief itself can be really good to continue something that doesn’t have that instantaneous reward.
James Clear: 18:20 The ultimate form of immediate reinforcement, is the reinforcement of your desired identity. So if you want to be the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts, well as soon as you go to the gym and do one rep, you’re the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. So you can feel satisfied right then in the moment, even if you’re waiting for the longterm rewards of a lighter number on the scale or a stronger bench press, or something like that to accumulate in the background. So it’s easier to trust the process, when you identify with the process, I guess is my point.
Dan Pardi: 18:48 How do you make something that has a longer term outcome, how do you support that by making that in the moment process more rewarding?
James Clear: 18:56 This is a crucial question. In the book, I refer to this as the cardinal rule of behavior change. Which is that behaviors that are immediately rewarded get repeated and behaviors that are immediately punished get avoided. And it’s really the speed, the immediacy of the reward or consequence that makes a big difference here. Because if you think about it, if you perform an action and it feels good right away, then it’s kind of like a positive signal to your brain that says, “Hey, this is enjoyable. You should repeat this again next time.” Whereas if you have to either wait for a positive signal that doesn’t come until weeks or months later, that’s kind of like too long and your brain has forgotten the feedback loop. It’s not tight enough to close that or to perform that process of learning.
Or if it’s unrewarding, if it’s unsatisfying, then it’ll, “Why would I do this again in the future? It didn’t feel good in the moment.” So products and businesses are an interesting example of this. A few stories. One of them from many years ago. Chewing gum has been around for a long time. It was around maybe even for hundreds or thousands of years, but certainly all throughout the early 1800s, but it was mostly just like bland resin. It was kind of chewy, but it wasn’t really tasty. And then Wrigley launched in the late 1800s, and they came out with Juicy Fruit, and Spearmint, and Doublemint and was the first time that gum had this satisfying or enjoyable flavor.
So suddenly, you had the same habit of chewing gum, but there was this immediate benefit associated with it. It tasted good as soon as you did it. And Wrigley took off and chewing gum exploded as a habit, and became the largest chewing gum company in the world. And it was largely because they added this immediate satisfaction to the product.
Interestingly, there are still many modern examples of this. BMW and Ford, have recently started coming up with methods for if you press the accelerator in the car, BMW will actually … They have a system that will pipe in additional engine growl or noise through the stereo speakers, so that it’s more satisfying to press on the gas. It feels more like a race car in the moment. That is largely built just to make it more satisfying, more enjoyable to drive the car. So those bits of immediate feedback … Video games are the ultimate example of this.
There are so many little pieces of immediate feedback in video games, that are signals of progress. Signals of satisfaction or enjoyment. Even we see the score going up in the corner of the screen, picking up power ups or coins or rubies and having a little bit of music play each time you come across them. Even little things like the pitter-patter of the character’s feet running on the ground, is immediate feedback and a signal that, “Hey, you’re making progress. You’re moving through the scene, or this level.” So video games are masterful at that.
Now of course, in the physical world, it’s not always possible to have some kind of immediate satisfaction like that, that increases the enjoyment of the behavior and leads to a greater likelihood that you’ll perform it in the future. But there are a couple other ways around it.
For example, there are a variety of habits that I would call habits of avoidance. These are things like don’t drink alcohol for 30 days. Or don’t buy stuff on Amazon. Or don’t go eat out at restaurants. And it’s really hard to be satisfied with those kind of habits, because all you’re really doing is just not doing something. How am I supposed to be satisfied not buying something on Amazon? I’m just resisting temptation. So you can flip this on its head and add a little bit of that immediate satisfaction to the process.
I had one reader. He and his wife wanted to eat out less. They wanted to eat at restaurants less often and cook for themselves more. But again, same kind of thing. “I guess we’re not going to go the restaurant.” That just kind of feels like a sacrifice. So what they did was, they opened up a bank account, a savings account. And they labeled it, “Trip to Europe.” And then every time they didn’t eat out at a restaurant and cooked at home instead, they moved $50 over to the account. Then at the end of the year, they’d put the money toward the trip or whatever.
But even if they were not going out to eat, they still got the immediate satisfaction of seeing the bank account grow, or seeing that trip to Europe … Saving toward that. It’s a small thing, but stuff like that can be meaningful in the moment, because it adds at least just like a little bit of a reason to do it, to feel good about it.
Have a tracking is another example of this. Putting an X on the calendar is a small thing, but if every time you finish a workout, you throw a little X on there, that feels good in the moment. It’s a small, positive, emotional signal. That’s really the main point of all this, is that positive emotions cultivate habits, and negative emotions destroy them, and you really want the ending of any habit or behavior to feel successful. To feel positive, so you have a reason to repeat it again in the future.
Dan Pardi: 23:17 This feels to be a fundamental component of habits, which is the sense of reward, which can be subtleness of conscious, but present and real, to perceptible. And if you trying to then modify some habit like going out and spending money on dining out, depressing that is hard. It just feels like a bummer.
James Clear: 23:35 Another way to think of this, in the book I lay out this four step framework for building habits or understanding or thinking about habits, and one of the things that’s a little different in my framework than some of the others that people may have come across, is that every behavior is preceded by a prediction, which I would call a craving or some kind of interpretation of the cue or of your current state of the circumstance. One of the roles of the outcome of your habits, is to resolve the craving that you’re feeling. And if you don’t resolve that craving you have to sit with it and that can be a very unsatisfying experience. So by having a reward that provides some immediate satisfaction in the moment, resolve the craving and satisfy or complete that loop.
Dan Pardi: 24:18 We told a great story about this 1% improvement. You mentioned that earlier, about British cyclists. I would if you could share it here?
James Clear: 24:25 For many years, British cycling was very mediocre. Really, almost for like a hundred years. This was like in the early 2000s. They’d never won a Tour de France. The race had been around for like a hundred years. They won a single gold medal, and it was way back in like 1908 or something. So they hired this guy named Dave Brailsford, to try to change this. Try to reverse this process. Brailsford believed in this concept that he called “the aggregation of marginal gains.” The way he described it was, the 1% improvement in nearly everything that you do.
So they looked at all these different areas related to cycling, and they just tried to get like 1% better in each one. They did a bunch of things in the beginning that you would expect a professional cycling team to do. Like they put slightly lighter tires on the bike, or they had a more ergonomic seat. They asked their riders to wear these electrically heated overshorts, that kept their muscle temperature ideal and warm while they were training. They had each rider wear a biofeedback sensor so they could see how they responded to training and adjust their program appropriately.
But then they did a bunch of things that you wouldn’t expect a cycling team to do. They hired a surgeon to teach each rider how to wash their hands, so that they would reduce the risk of catching a cold or getting sick. They split tested different types of massage gels, to see which one might do the best form of muscle recovery. They painted the inside of the team truck white, so that they could see these little bits of dust that might get into the gears of the bikes while they were traveling to different races. They even figures out the type of pillow that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider, and then brought that on the road with them to hotels, when they were going into a big championship or something.
Brailsford said, “If we can actually do this. If we can make all these little 1% changes, I think we could win a Tour de France in five years. He ended up being wrong. They won the Tour de France in three years, and then they repeated again the next year with a different rider. And they’ve continued their success now and they just won the last one. It’s something crazy, they’ve won like five out of the last six.
But it was really was at the Olympics in London in 2012, that this fully came to fruition. They won 60% of the Gold Medals available. Then in Rio in 2016, they won 60% of the Gold Medals again, and that was across dozens of different riders. So the point here is that we often think about these little 1% changes as like, “Oh, that’s just an optimization.” That’s like a little cherry on top of our performance. But if you commit to that type of continuous improvement, that mindset of the aggregation of marginal gains as a lifestyle, then it can end up becoming something much more over the long run. This is again, how we can think about the effects of our habits, as these small 1% choices. Something slightly better or slightly worse, and when repeated day in and day out for years, you end up with a very different result.
In a sense, time magnifies whatever you feed it. If you have good habits, time is your ally, and if you have bad habits, time becomes your enemy. What you really want is to make sure you’re inserting the right things into the engine of that beast, and let it get to work for you and let time become a leverage point in your favor, rather to your detriment.
Dan Pardi: 27:22 This is probably one of the most interesting, entirely important concepts that you speak to. If you think about health, which is largely what we cover on the show, there is tendency in society to seek the silver bullet. The thing that’s going to explain everything and make you better, and I think it comes from the time where we invented antibiotics and vaccines that had such a large magnitude on lifespan, 70% increase in a century, that we almost got in the mental habit of thinking that we just need to find that one thing that was going to then help solve all the problems. You might have a very small impact from modifying your light environment in the evening. It’s not going to explain everything, but when you compound that with a lot of other little changes across your entire day and night, then leads to your compounded interest of a more healthy lifestyle over time. It’s a great concept to embed in your mindset for how to be healthy.
We talked about doing this habit review, having some oversight into understanding what your habits are, revealing them and thinking about ways to make positive change. We talked about also the ability to then understand what is driving habit process so that you can take control of it in certain areas where you might find yourself doing something that’s not as positive, but you can change it terms of something more positive and how it’s going to have a compounding interest over time. What are some other big ideas that come out of the book you can share with us today? Fundamentals to the importance of this subject.
James Clear: 28:44 Sure. We can talk about two. One of them in the environment. We can talk about the physical environment. Then the second one is the social environment.
Physical environment, and this is particularly easy to understand, like food. Many of your habits are a response to the physical cues that you’re surrounded by, day in and day out. So a lot of people will think, “Oh, I watch too much TV.” But if you walk into pretty much any living room, where to all the couches and chairs face? It’s like that room is designed to get you to watch television. So there are a variety of steps that you could take here. You could turn a chair away from the TV. You could take the remote control and put it inside a coffee table. You could take the television and put it in a cabinet or wall unit, so that it’s behind doors and you don’t see it as much.
But that general principle of reducing exposure, can be a very effective way to curb a habit, or in some cases have it fade away entirely. If you don’t want to spend as much money on electronics, stop following all the tech review blogs and the latest YouTubers who are unboxing tech gear and stuff. You’re constantly being triggered in that type of situation. You have to overcome that exposure all the time, which is a challenging thing to ask anybody to do. Same way if you want to stick to a new diet or eat less, don’t follow a bunch of food blogs on Instagram. You’re constantly being prompted. So exposure is the key part of the physical environment, but thankfully that can work for you, just as well as against you.
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James Clear: 30:00 … environment. But thankfully that can work for you just as well as against you. So when I wanted to build a habit of flossing, I realized that one of the issues was that the floss was hidden away in a drawer in the bathroom and I just wouldn’t see it a lot. It wasn’t obvious. So I bought some of these pre-made flossers and put them in a little bowl and placed it right next too my toothbrush. So now I brush my teeth, put the toothbrush down, pick a flosser up. That was pretty much all I needed to do to build that habit. I’ve been doing it for years now and it’s basically just because I changed the environment and made that more obvious.
The same thing was true for food. For many years … well maybe not years but it definitely annoyed me for a few months. My wife and I would go to store and buy fruit. We’d buy apples or bananas or something and keep them in the crisper in the bottom of the fridge and I just wouldn’t remember they were there because they were tucked down there, out of sight. They would sit there for two weeks and go bad and then I’d get annoyed every time I’m throwing these apples out just wasting money and wasting food. So what I ended up doing was buying a display bowl and placing the fruit right in the middle of the counter and now I eat it in three days. It’s all gone.
I noticed something similar with alcohol. If I get beer and place it in the fridge either in the door or at the front of the shelf so that it’s very obvious and I can see it as soon as I open it, I’ll drink one each night just because it’s there. But if I buy a six pack and I put it in the back of the fridge and tuck it under the shelf so that it’s all the way at the back and I can’t really see it when the door is open then it’ll sit there for a month or two months. I won’t even remember that it’s there.
It raises an interest question about a lot of our habits, which is do you really want it or were you just doing it because it was obvious and easy? I think that that’s true not just food habits but social media is another good example or your phones. Now I try to keep my phone in another room until lunch each day so that I get at least three or four hours in the morning where I don’t have my phone on me. The numbers keep going up every year. I think the average adult now checks their phone over 150 times a day. But we just keep getting more and more addicted to it.
If I have my phone on me I’ll probably look at it every three or five minutes or something. But what’s fascinating is that when I keep it in another room, when I keep it outside of my office I just have to walk up the stairs and go to a different room to get it. But even though it’s only 45 seconds away, I’ll never go get it in the morning. If I had it I would check it all the time, but it was never worth 45 seconds of work.
So anyways that basic principle can be applied for good or bad habits. You basically just want to increase the number of steps between you and the bad habit and reduce the number of steps between you and the good habit.
Dan Pardi: 32:28 I’ll give you an example of how I’ve done this specifically. I was checking social media more than I wanted to. I was doing it in those moments where I wasn’t thinking which [inaudible 00:32:35] and then pull up Instagram and Facebook. So I took the apps off my phone and now if I want to actually use it, I’ve got to type it into the browser. So it’s more friction, takes more time.
The second thing that I did is I’ll badge it so I’ll say, “All right. I’m just going to do this on Sundays or Saturdays.” So I compartmentalize my usage to just the weekend and I’ll just go and check in. Now I’ll casually check on the weekends, maybe spend 5 or 10 minutes on it and then I’m done instead of saying I can’t use Facebook or social media all together, I’m now using it to a degree that I’m more comfortable with. So that is a powerful illustration of exactly what you’re talking about.
James Clear: 33:07 Yeah, that’s a great example. While I was writing the book, I needed to focus. So I did the most extreme version of this which is every Monday my assistant would log me out of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and reset the passwords and then I would work all week. Then on Friday she would give me the passwords and I could log in over the weekend and use them and then on Monday we would do it all over again. So it ended up working really well. What’s fascinating is how quickly you realize I really don’t need this.
Dan Pardi: 33:33 [inaudible 00:33:33].
James Clear: 33:33 Yeah. So that principle can work both for the physical environment and the digital environment. I think it can be a really effective way to change your habits. Then the second one that I mentioned is social environment which we can talk about more if you like.
Dan Pardi: 33:43 Yeah. Absolutely. I’ll mention one other thing too about placing the things that you want to be engaging with in your environment so they are more visible than the things you do not want to be using. I noticed one other thing about this behavior that I put my weights out or gym equipment so I can see it. But if something sits in the same place long enough and you don’t use it, you will look past it without noticing it. What I’ve done is I’ll then keep it visible but I’ll move things around and then that makes me notice it more and use it more.
James Clear: 34:09 Yeah, there’s something that happens over the course of a habit being built where the cue starts to be not a specific thing but the entire context around it. So you become comfortable with the entire room. So imagine if you walked into your kitchen. You don’t really think about the kitchen as being the cue that whole context as being the cue for like making your morning cup of coffee but if something was out of place when you walked in in the morning if there was … It doesn’t even have to be that big of a thing. Say you went to a party and there was some little sculpture or something you were given. It’s like the size of a baseball and it was sitting on the counter. You would pick up on it when you walk in because you would implicitly know the context is different for reason. So by moving things around, it’s a good way of capturing your attention again.
There’s also a good lesson here for building new habits which is that as habits become built and as you develop those associations with the overall context, you implicitly have these connections that if you’re trying to build a new habit you have to overpower. So one way to think about your physical environment whether it’s the place you live or the kitchen you cook in or the desk you work at is not as being filled with objects but as being filled with relationships. For one person the couch in their living room might be a place where they have a relationship of reading every night for an hour. For another person it might be the association is that they sit on the couch and watch a TV show and eat a bowl of ice cream. It’s the same object, it’s just the relationship is different.
So if you want to build a new habit it’s often more effective to go to a new place where you don’t have those associations built, where you’re not trying to over power the current stimuli. If you want to build a journaling habit maybe go to a coffee shop that’s close to your work but you don’t normally go to and that becomes the place where you journal. Or if you want to build a reading habit, buy a new chair and put it in the corner and that becomes the chair that you read in. You don’t do anything else there. What you’re essentially trying to do is find something that you don’t already have an association tied to and then make that the place where this new habit happens.
Dan Pardi: 36:06 That’s fascinating. I’m going to try that. One thing we recently started to do was [inaudible 00:36:11] we have something called the daily [inaudible 00:36:13]. The idea is we take your daily recipes and workouts and we email them to you in the morning. People may or not do those but the idea of also triggering the thought process, sort of like [inaudible 00:36:24] of, “Ah, this is what healthy looks like. Here is something to be healthy.” You’re starting your day [inaudible 00:36:29] check your email and you’re getting those thoughts into your mind [inaudible 00:36:33] affect how you might behave later that afternoon. It might affect you in a lot of different ways [inaudible 00:36:39] even if you don’t use those workouts or those recipes on that given day.
James Clear: 36:42 Yeah, yeah. That makes sense.
Dan Pardi: 36:43 So talk a little bit more about the social habits as well.
James Clear: 36:46 So this makes sense to us once we hear it explained a little bit. We all belong to multiple tribes. Some of the tribes are big, what it means to be American or Australian or French or German or Christian or Buddhist or Atheist or whatever. Some of the tribes are small like what it means to be a neighbor on your local street or a member of your local CrossFit gym or a student at your school. But large and small, all of these tribes have a set of shared expectations that are part of what it means to be that group. So the result is society and the tribes that we are a part of it leans heavily on our behavior.
Just take a couple basic habits that nobody really thinks about. Like if you walk onto an elevator, you turn around to face the front or if you have a job interview, you wear a suit and a tie or a dress or something nice. Now there’s no reason it has to be that way. You could face the back of the elevator. You could wear a bathing suit to a job interview. But we don’t because it violates the shared expectations of the group. So many of our habits are a result of those shared expectations. Humans are innately tribal creatures. Our ancestors grew up in tribes, lived in tribes and perhaps even more importantly to be cast out from the tribe was not just a bad thing, it was often a death sentence. So if you didn’t have some kind of tribal affiliation, some type of desire to belong to the group, then you probably wouldn’t pass down your genes.
So one of the net effects of that, one of the results of that is that we all are internally wired with this deep sense to belong. So when habits are aligned with the shared expectations of the group, when they help you belong, they’re very attractive. When they go against the grain of the shared expectations of the group, they’re very unattractive. So it becomes crucial to make sure that you join groups where the desired behavior is the normal behavior or the habit that you want to build is the thing that’s normal for that group. The thing that I don’t hear people talk about a lot with this that I think is crucial for getting it to stick is that what makes you want to go along with the group is friendship. It’s belonging. So what you need is not just to hang around people who have your habits. What you need is to develop relationships with them, friendships with them, to belong with them. A good way to do that is to often have a different area where you have a mutual interest or a shared overlap.
So the example that I like to give is from my friend Steve Kamb. He runs this site called Nerd Fitness. The site is about getting in shape. It’s about going to the gym and getting fit but it’s specifically written and organized and branded for nerds, people who identify as liking “Star Wars” or Spider-Man and Batman or Legos or computer programming or whatever the millions of other ways that you’re … can identify. But you can imagine that if you’re out of shape and trying to get into better shape that can be an intimidating thing sometimes. You feel out of place at the gym or you feel maybe this isn’t for me. But if you can connect with other people in the group over your mutual love of “Star Wars”, for example, well now you have friends there and you have a reason to pick up the other habits that they’re performing. It’s like, “Oh, well we’re not that different. We have a shared interest and they workout four days a week. Maybe I can do that too.”
So what really gets habits to stick in the long run is belonging to the tribe, to belong to a group. I think that changing your habits often requires you to change your tribe because it’s hard to go against the grain of the group. That is a really challenging thing if the option is either I get to stay with this group and have bad habits or have the habits I don’t want or I get to build the habits I want but I have to be alone. If the choice is between being right on your own or being wrong with the crowd, we often choose to be wrong with the crowd. So it really helps if you have another place to go, another tribe to join as you make those transitions because then at least you don’t have to be alone.
Maybe you’re still building a habit that’s a little uncomfortable for you or maybe you haven’t quite figured it out yet but you don’t have to be on your own at the same time. That I think can help make the process of transition or behavior change easier.
Dan Pardi: 40:46 Historically that has been locationally determined. We talk oftentimes about the negative aspects of online behavior but in this sense you could more easily find a community that resonates with you that might not have a large, local demographic and that could be one of the good things about online [crosstalk 00:41:02].
James Clear: 41:02 Yeah, I think that’s definitely true. We’re not as geographically bound as we were before. I was just talking to an entrepreneur about VR and AR and what that could mean. If you could throw a headset on and feel like you’re in the same room with people who are working on the same goals or have the same kind of projects. That’s a different level of power than joining a Facebook group for example, which nothing wrong with that but we all know that being in a Facebook group doesn’t feel like the same thing as being in a room with your friends. So the more that you can replicate that in person feel with … and get it anywhere geographically and connect with people that have the same interest as you across the world, the more real that becomes, the more powerful some of those social behavior change platforms can be.
Dan Pardi: 41:44 And the more we [inaudible 00:41:45] habit review instead of just getting [inaudible 00:41:47] by any sort of community. One that says, “Is this serving me well? Am I being a good social citizen? Am I going to benefit? Is the accrual of my repetitive investment in this group going to lead to a better me in some way?”
James Clear: 42:00 I think that’s a crucial point that you’re bringing up. I broadly put habits into two categories. So the first category are habits that once you build them you don’t really need to think about them any more. They’re just life skills or like tying your shoes or brushing your teeth or unplugging the toaster after each use or something like that. I don’t need a process of continuous improvement for tying my shoes. Once it built, it’s good enough.
But then there’s another category of habits that maybe you really do care about continuously improving. So for me it’s things like weightlifting and writing and photography. For those, those social groups make more sense. What really becomes crucial for endlessly refining those areas is having a process of reflection review. I think that that’s a thing that distinguishes that second group from the first one is that these are the habits that even as you build them you need to come back and be aware of them occasionally to revisit them because you want to use the formation of each habit as a stepping stone to the next level of performance and continue to reassess. Is this still serving me? Is this working well? Rather than build it once and let it ride.
Dan Pardi: 43:01 It’s a continual process and the more that you understand these factors that do shape how you live, the more you can take control of them into designing your life so that the person that you are now, which is different than 10 years ago, is still operating, effective and [inaudible 00:43:15] to yourself and others. This is great work James. I really appreciate you coming onto the show to talk about it. So many of my shows are talking about the inner workings of circadian [inaudible 00:43:25]. And yet, I consider this discussion as important and more so than just about everything else that we have discussed because this is where the rubber meets the road in a lot of ways. Can you implement good ideas? Do you know the mechanics of taking some concept and making it a reality in your life?
So I want to encourage everybody to go out and buy James’s book, “Atomic Habits”. You can find it everywhere. And James thank you for all your work.
James Clear: 43:47 Yeah. Thank you so much for the opportunity. Great to chat with you. The link for the book is AtomicHabits.com. So obviously you can check it out there. I also have a couple extra things there. There’s a secret chapter on the biology of bad behavior, which might be particularly interesting for your audience given how scientifically minded they are. Then there’s some chapter by chapter audio commentary from me on why I wrote each chapter and the research and my thinking behind it, then a variety of workbooks and templates and things for implementing some of the ideas. All that’s in AtomicHabits.com. Thank you again. I really appreciate it.
Speaker 2: 44:20 Thanks for listening. Come visit us soon at humanOS.me.
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