James Clear (@JamesClear) believes that you do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems. He is the creator of the Habits Academy and author of Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.
What We Discuss with James Clear:
- How a near-death experience began James’ exploration in leveraging tiny habits for giant outcomes.
- The difference between systems and goals and which one you should commit yourself to if you want results.
- What bamboo, cancer, and a winning Olympic coach can teach us about little changes that amount to a lot.
- Why the way you behave depends on the type of person you believe yourself to be — and what you can do to modify this belief for the better.
- What it takes to break bad habits while creating good ones without falling into the “fake it ‘til you make it” delusion.
- And much more…
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Most of us have big goals we’d like to accomplish — anything from getting in better physical shape to quitting a lifelong vice to learning a new language. So we make grand plans, go full force in our intended direction, and falter when we don’t notice results within a few weeks of trying our best.
Massive head trauma forced Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones author and Habits Academy creator James Clear to relearn the very basic building blocks of functioning as himself. But he couldn’t make the change overnight — he had to start with small habits and build momentum that, over time, resulted in big changes. In this episode, he takes us along for the ride and shares processes and practicals we can use to incrementally change our own lives for the better. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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More About This Show
As we learned from recent guests Jane McGonigal and Jim Kwik, finding a way to navigate the aftermath of a concussion can change your life. After suffering his own traumatic head injury, Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones author and Habits Academy creator James Clear concurs.
“I was hit in the face with a baseball bat between my sophomore and junior year of high school,” says James. “It ended up being incredibly serious. The first 10 minutes or so, I was conscious enough to be walking around and answer some questions, but I answered all of the questions wrong!”
Q: What year is it? A: 1998. [It was 2002.] Q: Who’s the president? A: Bill Clinton. [It was George W. Bush.]
It wasn’t long before James had trouble breathing and swallowing on his own, and he suffered three seizures in eight hours. A coma was induced for his first overnight at the hospital, and when he was brought out of it the next morning, he realized he had no sense of smell. To add insult to injury, James’ eye was forced out of place when he blew his nose thanks to the new and numerous cracks in his eye socket.
“It was a brutal injury and it took me eight or nine months to recover,” says James. “Eventually, my eye did go back into place; it took about a month. But that process was — I don’t know if I’d want to say it was a blessing in any way, but it did teach me some lessons. It forced me to start small, because I didn’t really have a choice. I was so injured that I couldn’t have this radical transformation and be back up and running the next day. I had to just focus on building small habits and making little improvements; that was the first place that I practiced that in my own life.”
James considers the tiny, atomic habits illustrated in his book — the ones that helped him regain himself after this lengthy convalescence — to be “the compound interest of self-improvement.” Like a freight train leaving the railway yard, the progress made by just one small habit is nearly imperceptible at first — but as momentum is gained, it becomes unstoppable.
“It’s very easy to dismiss a single choice on any given day — positive or negative,” says James. “It’s easy to be like, ‘Oh, I had a burger and fries for lunch versus a salad.’ It doesn’t really matter on any given day; your body looks the same in the mirror. The scale is the same. You don’t really see how those one percent changes make a difference for you or against you. But you compound that over two or five or 10 years and the consequences of those repeated decisions become very apparent.”
Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about how internal and external stimuli affect our habits, the cravings and predictions that precede and influence certain behaviors, how an Olympic coach improved his team’s performance in one percent increments all the way to winning multiple gold medals, what bamboo and cancer can teach us about little changes that amount to a lot, the difference between systems and goals and which one you should commit yourself to if you want lasting results, how understanding the habit loop and the four laws of behavior change can help us make or break habits that stick, and much more.
THANKS, JAMES CLEAR!
If you enjoyed this session with James Clear, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear
- The Habits Academy
- James Clear’s Website
- James Clear at Facebook
- James Clear at Instagram
- James Clear at Twitter
- TJHS 96: Jane McGonigal | Gaming Your Way to Health and Happiness
- TJHS 85: Jim Kwik | How to Unlock Your Brain’s Secret Superpowers
- How 1% Performance Improvements Led to Olympic Gold by Eben Harrell, Harvard Business Review
- What Is the Origin of the Quote Attributed to a Navy SEAL: “Under Pressure, You Don’t Rise to the Occasion, You Sink to the Level of Your Training?” at Quora
- The Habit Loop: 5 Habit Triggers That Make New Behaviors Stick by James Clear
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
- Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal and Ryan Hoover
- TJHS 48: Nir Eyal | How to Manage Distraction in a Digital Age
- Skinner — Operant Conditioning by Saul McLeod, Simply Psychology
- The Diderot Effect: Why We Want Things We Don’t Need by James Clear
- How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones by James Clear
- TJHS 21: Benjamin Hardy | What to Do When Willpower Doesn’t Work
- How to Stop Procrastinating and Boost Your Willpower by Using “Temptation Bundling” by James Clear
- How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the “2-Minute Rule” by James Clear
- The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do by Judith Rich Harris
- The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and Business by James Clear
Transcript for James Clear | Forming Atomic Habits for Astronomic Results (Episode 108)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:00] Welcome to the show, I'm Jordan Harbinger. As always, I'm here with my producer, Jason DeFillippo. Today, we're talking with my good friend, James Clear. He is an author and a habit change expert. I've known James for a long time now and one thing that I can say about him is, he's the kind of guy who gets obsessed with results, not in a scare-everyone-off-because-he's-so-intense kind of way, but more of a there's-got-to-be-a-better-way-to-do-this-that-works-and-has-lasting-effects kind of way. And that's one major reason that I wanted to get him on the show here to discuss his work, especially his new book, Atomic Habits, which is a freaking masterpiece. I plowed through this thing. It was page after page of habit and behavior change gold. And today we'll get through a sizable chunk of some of this amazing stuff.
[00:00:44] We're going to learn how James almost died from getting a baseball bat to the head. He had to rebuild a lot of his behavior from scratch. And we'll talk about how James created the right kind of environment with internal and external stimuli to get where he needed to go and how you can do the same. We'll explore the difference between systems and goals and we'll see why commitment to a process and not commitment to a goal is actually the key and we'll discover that what you do depends on the type of person that you believe you are. Of course, this all gets into belief structure, identity change, and a set of very specific practicals to go along with it. So when you're done listening to this episode, you'll be well-versed in the science of habit loops, creating good habits and breaking bad ones, structuring the right environment for habit change success, and even how to change who you are at your very core so you can structure your habits and your new life to get what you want out of it.
[00:01:40] I love this book. I love this interview and I think you will as well. And of course, we've got worksheets for today's episode so you can make sure you solidify your understanding of all the key takeaways here from James Clear. That link is in the show notes at JordanHarbinger.com/podcast and if you're wondering, like many of you do, how I manage to book all these great people, have all these great people around me and invest in managing these relationships. Well, I use systems and tiny habits. Speaking of systems and tiny habits, so check out our Six-Minute Networking course, which includes all of those. It's free and that's over at jordanharbinger.com/course. All right, here's James Clear. James, I'm curious about how this all started for you. I know you had a massive concussion and it sounds like the most painful way to get a concussion too. I mean it was just nasty.
James Clear: [00:02:28] Yeah, it was brutal. So I was hitting the face of the baseball bat and that was between my sophomore and junior year of high school. And it ended up being incredibly serious. I mean my first 10 minutes or so, I was like conscious enough to be walking around and answer some questions, but I answered all the questions wrong. “What years is it?” It was like 2002. I was like, “1998”, or like “Who's the president?” and be like, “Bill Clinton”, it was George Bush. And so there's all that stuff.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:53] But it was your buddy who did this as an accident?
James Clear: [00:02:55] Yeah. Yeah, it was total accident. And then pretty quickly, I went very rapidly downhill. I couldn't really breathe on my own. I had trouble swallowing. I have all these seizures. I think I had three seizures and the next like eight hours I had to be air cared to the hospital. I was put into a coma overnight. And eventually, the next day I had been stabilized to the point where they kind of release me from the coma and let me try to breathe again. And I realized I couldn't smell. And so they gave me this apple juice box to blow my nose and like try to sniff the box to see if I could smell something. And that worked. I was able to smell it. But when I blew my nose, all this air went through the cracks of my eye socket and force my eye out.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:33] How's that? How's that breakfast sandwich there?
James Clear: [00:03:38] So it was a brutal injury. And it took me eight or nine months to recover. Eventually, my eye did go back into place; took about a month. But that process was -- I don't know if I would say it was a blessing in any way, but it did teach me some lessons. You know, it kind of forced me to start small because I didn't really have a choice, right? I was so injured that I couldn't just have this like radical transformation and be back up and running the next day. And so I had to just focus on building small habits and making little improvements. So that was kind of the first place that I practice that in my own life.
Jordan Harbinger [00:04:11] Was there any lasting, aside from your eyeball popping out?
James Clear: [00:04:14] Well, you can see how I look now. I used to be beautiful but --
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:16] I highly doubt that.
James Clear: [00:04:19] Yeah, I don't know if there was any lasting impact memory-wise but it's also like an impossible experiment to run, right? Like who knows, maybe I would be slightly smarter and I just never knew the difference.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:30] Have you had a brain scan since then? I'm curious.
James Clear: [00:04:32] There was a lot of stuff in the first year or two after that, checkups and different things, but I haven't done anything recently and because I haven't had any symptoms present themselves that have been like, you know, serious or impact my life in a measurable way, I don't really think about it that much now. It's been over 10 years now.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:47] That's a long time. I did a brain scan with a friend of mine who's a neuroscientist and he gave me a brain scan to play this game that helps you whatever, get into theta waves – it’s a long story that we don't have to get into here. But he goes, “You have a concussion? Or you had one?” And I said, “Nope.” And he's like, “Yeah, you. Here it is” like, “here's the back of your head and here's all this”, I don't know if it's amyloid plaque or whatever, scar tissue in the brain, he's like, “you can work on this for like a couple of years and maybe fix it, but you definitely have a concussion. Did you ever fall?” And I'm like, “Well, who hasn't fallen?” And he's like, “Yeah, it looks pretty serious. Like maybe you fell as a kid.” And I asked my mom and she was like, “I don’t know. I mean you probably, you know, somewhere, but nothing where we took you to the hospital.”
James Clear: [00:05:31] Yeah. That's interesting. I mean, I do visually, I have something like my nose is a little -- it's still hooked a little bit on one side. I have a scar on one of my eyebrows from it and stuff, but I would say it's all fairly much.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:43] Yeah. You can't even tell. I mean, I can't even tell when you're telling me about it. So that's always a good sign. It must've been pretty scary. Losing your sense of smell is the least of your concerns when your brain is that swollen, you had to be put in into a coma. So you decided to work on, how did that lead to you being like, “I need to build a habit system.”
James Clear: [00:06:02] Well, you know, I never would have said it that way at the time. I didn't have like language for it. I just knew that I just tried to get a little bit better each day, whether that was recovering, or I just wanted to, you know, in a sense when you have a really serious injury like that, you feel like you've lost control of your life a little bit. It feels like it's out of your hands, you know, like, all this thing happened to me. And so building little habits gave me this sense of control over my life. It didn't radically transform my life overnight, but at least made me feel like, “Oh, I'm in control again.” So I just did little things. I mean, when I went to college a year or two later, I've focused on having my room be clean and like make sure I was prepared for class and it’s like all this stuff is small stuff, but it started to build a sense of confidence a little bit. And this is a little bit the story of my life kind of in a nutshell is the sense that I often start kind of slow. But I just don't stop. And so gradually that stuff accumulated and, you know, I ended up having a really good career once it was all said and done.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:55] Yeah, I feel similar about my own habits. People go, “Wow, you know, you're just really, you dive right into something.” And it's like, “Well, yeah”, but then if you look online, for example, Mandarin Chinese people go, “Wow, you learn 3000 words in Chinese and you've been studying for six years”, and you go, if you look online, there are people that have learned this number of words in like nine months. It's just they live in China. They're way more intense. But I also wonder, “Did they leave China? And can they still speak it?” And the answer to a lot of those, if you look down in those threads online is like, “Hey, I forgot all my Chinese, how are you guys keeping up with it?” And they're like, “Oh, we're not.” So really, it's a free train. It's one of those that goes so slow that they can't have it crossroads because it blocks everything for like an hour.
[00:07:37] It's just that it doesn't stop like you said. It's not at the level of intensity, it's the duration in a lot of ways.
James Clear: [00:07:45] I think. I mean, that's kind of a hallmark of Cabot's. And one of the things I say in the book is that habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. And same way that compound interest builds up really slowly. This kind of free train metaphor, it's very small in the beginning. And those little 1% changes don't seem like much. But then you get going and it just compounds to a remarkable degree over time. And habits are like that, you know, like it's very easy to dismiss a single choice on any given day -- positive or negative, right? It's easy to be like, you know, “I had a burger and fries for lunch versus a salad’, that it doesn't really matter on any given day.”
[00:08:17] Your body looks the same in the mirror. The scale is the same. You don't really see how those 1% changes make a difference for you or against you, but you compound that over two or five or 10 years and the consequences of those repeated decisions become like very apparent.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:32] Right. It's the next 1100 salads that make a difference. Got you. Both internal emotions and external stimuli affect our habits -- this is an interesting statement that came early in the book in that the way that you feel and things that are happening around you affect your habits. What does that look like in practice? Because I can be damn sure that things around me affect my habits, and that I think most people think that's the only thing that affects their habits. Like, “Well, look, I don't have any good food in the house.” And we'll get to that environmental stuff later on too. But the internal emotions are the one where all of the always kind of quick to say, “Well, this has nothing to do with me. It's just that I'm at a burger place right now, so I have to have – I’m at In-N-Out, I can't not get the fries.”
James Clear: [00:09:16] So I think it's probably true that all human behavior works this way, but I also feel like that might be a little irresponsible or extreme for me to say. So I'm not going to say every behavior is like the same. But I think that it holds up in almost all cases and that is that, we experienced some bit of information which we could call a cue or trigger or prompt or something, but there's some bit of information. Usually, often it's visual. It doesn't have to be, you could, any of the senses could work, but you pick up on something. That's an external cue from the environment. So that's the external influence. Then you interpret that information in some way. And this is where the internal piece comes in. And so, you can imagine two people, for example, who see a pack of cigarettes on the table.
[00:09:59] One person who is a smoker sees those and they interpret it as, “I know I need to smoke right now.” So there's this positive signal in their brain. The other person who's never smoked, it just looks like a pack of cigarettes to them. Same way you have like two people walking into a casino, the jingles and chimes, the casino to one person are just background noise; to a gambler, it's like this signal that sets them off and they need to, they feel as compulsive desire to, you know, play the slots or whatever.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:23] That's kind of scary. It's scary, not just for gamblers and smokers. It's scary for anybody who's trying to quit anything that's around you all the time.
James Clear: [00:10:30] Yes. Well, I mean, this is a crucial thing for breaking bad habits is that one of the first steps to take is to reduce exposure. Because if the craving or if that internal prediction arises naturally then you want to cut that off at the source. There are other ways to break bad habits too, but that's a really good first step.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:46] Yeah, we can dive into that in detail in a bit as well. I think that that's fascinating because I think for most of us, we think habits are a matter of willpower and some people are lazy and don't have it. And that's why they're overweight or can keep smoking or they just can't get their crap together so they're gambling all the time. There's all these different kinds of labels we place on people, which are all universally negative because we don't want to be that person.
James Clear: [00:11:13] Right. Well, so let me give you an example that's a little less geared toward the good and bad habits. Just shows how this process works in general, which is you can have, say the news plays a story and you could have a Democrat watch this story and you could have a Republican watch the story, same exact news segment, but they interpret it in totally different ways. And so my point there is, that the external trigger is the same, but the internal interpretation of that is different. And the filter that we run our experiences through in life, changes how we respond to it. And so, that's what, in my little habit model, I call it the second step, which is like the craving or a prediction that comes before behavior and the prediction you make or the interpretation you make alters the way that you respond.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:54] Your book, Atomic Habits, which we'll link to in the show notes as we always do, addresses both avenues to habit change. So the emotional, the internal-emotional, would you say route or path to habit change and the external route? I don't know if they're two separate routes though.
James Clear: [00:12:08] Well, they're not. I don't think they are, but they often in the past had been talked about that way. So there's been, you know, this whole body of research about external stimuli and a lot of the behavioral psychology research is focused on that. And then there's been this whole avenue of cognitive psychology, which is very focused on your moods and emotions and thoughts, and how those influence behavior. And one of my goals in writing this book was to develop a model or a framework that I felt like integrated the two because it's very obvious that both influence our habits and so we need to have a good way of understanding how that happens.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:37 ] Other ways that people fail or they try to radically change a bunch of habits. I remember a friend of mine being like, “Yeah man, I got to stop smoking. And so to do that I think I got to stop drinking and to do that I think I got to stop going out and to do that I think I have to stop sleeping in so late.” And I'm like, “You are -- so basically you want to wake up tomorrow and just not be you.” Right? Not that there's anything wrong with that. You had a lot of crap yet you should probably work on that, but you can't do that. And the example in Atomic Habits is this British cycling team example. And I'm not a huge fan of cycling per se, but I think we've all maybe heard the hints to this where they were, they just smashed. They completely transformed the entire team in ways that are surprising. Like painting the truck white, you know, and tell us about how this worked for them.
James Clear: [00:13:24] Well, so this coach came in, his name's Dave Brailsford and he had this theory, this approach, this coaching style they call the aggregation of marginal gains. And the way he described it was, the 1% improvement in nearly everything that they do, so they just looked for a bunch of 1% improvements related to cycling. So they would do things like get slightly lighter tires for the bike or more ergonomic seats or they had their riders wear these electrically heated over shorts that kept their muscles warm while they were training to help them get a little bit more out of that training ride. And they did this in every area they could think of. And a lot of the ones, like the ones I just mentioned, you know, other professional cycling teams are doing that too. But then there were other things that nobody else was doing.
[00:14:01] So like they hired a surgeon to teach their riders how to wash their hands so that they would reduce the risk of catching a cold or getting sick. They figured out the type of pillow that led to the best night's sleep and had the riders bring that on the road with them to hotels for different events and whatnot. And his theory was, “If we could actually do this right, if we could make all these little 1% changes, then I think we could, you know, win the Tour de France in five years”, that was the challenge he laid out to the team and he ended up being wrong. They won the Tour de France in three years and they repeat it again the next year with a different rider and they've won the last two or three against that. They've won like five, the last six or something like that.
[00:14:34] And then at the Olympics in London in 2012, they won 60% of the gold medals available. And that core idea there, that I think is one of the main philosophies that I take into -- how can we change habits and improve performance in any area? It's this idea that it's not, I say this in the conclusion of Atomic Habits -- It's not a single 1% change that's going to transform your life. It's a thousand of them. And so you need to like make all these small sustainable changes that are easy to do by themselves, but then layer them on top of each other. And this is actually one of the reasons I chose the phrase Atomic Habits for the book, which is that atomic has multiple meanings. On the one hand, it means very small; and I do think habits should be small and easy to do.
[00:15:18] But on the other hand, it means the fundamental unit of a larger system. And that's kind of what we're talking about here. How can we make a bunch of 1% changes, these little atomic choices that layer into a larger system? And then the third and final meaning of atomic is that it's the source of incredible power.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:32] Yeah, that’s kind of what I thought. Initially, I was like, “Wow, nuclear habits – nice!”
James Clear: [00:15:35] Yeah. Well that's kind of like the overall arc of the book is that if you make changes that are small and easy -- the first meaning of atomic, and you layer them together into an overall system -- the second meaning, then you can get the third meaning, which is this incredible power, remarkable result in the long run.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:51] The compound interest of personal development is what you call that?
James Clear: [00:15:54] Habits of the compound interest of self-improvement.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:56] Yeah. I like that. Sounds better than what I said, which I can't remember already. There's negative compounding and positive compounding though, right? Like you can compound in the wrong direction.
James Clear: [00:16:06] Sure. I mean, think about stress. You know, so like the daily stress of parenting or of sitting in traffic for a long commute every day or of slightly high blood pressure. Like, those are the little 1% things that are negative or you know, wear on you a little bit, but over 10 or 20 or 30 years, all of a sudden you've got plaque build-up and you have a heart attack or stroke or whatever. And it's really from stress compounding. It's not just one like major event that led to that. And this I think is one of the reasons why understanding habits is so important is that small changes can transform your results, but only if you understand how they work and how to design them to your liking.
[00:16:42] Because habits are sort of like a double-edged sword. You know, they can either cut you down or they can give you a weapon to build you up and like blaze the path that you want and you need to understand how they work so you can avoid the dangerous half of the blade.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:53] And before we got on the mic, we also talked about this threshold. You gave a bamboo analogy, which I think is really apt and interesting because I had no idea. Bamboo grows ridiculously fast. That's all I knew. I didn't realize there was kind of a buildup to it.
James Clear: [00:17:06] Right. Well, so this pattern of making small 1% changes, not really seeing much of an outcome and then it compounding, and like exploding later. It's a hallmark of any compounding process is that the biggest returns or the greatest results are delayed.
[00:17:21] So with bamboo it grows these extensive root systems underground for like five years and then suddenly it explodes like 60 feet into the air in six weeks or whatever. Cancer is the same thing. Cancer perpetuates and grows in the body undetectable for a long time and then all of a sudden, you know, take over the body and months, or your habits if we're going to like translate that analogy to this, is kind of the same thing. You know, you show up, what's the reward for going to the gym for three weeks or something? It's not really a whole lot. You know, you show up, yeah, you're sore, you worked hard, your body doesn't really look that different. The scale isn't that different. The outcomes are delayed. And you stick with it for a long time. And that's kind of, there's this, the challenge of that with building any habit is that there's this gap we put effort in early on and we think that our results should increase linearly. It's like, “Hey, I'm working hard. Why am I not seeing something?” And you really need to kind of overcome this little valley of death or this valley of expectations where you're working hard, but you aren't seeing anything so that you can get to the delayed outcomes where the real results are.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:18:27] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest, James Clear. We'll be right back after this.
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Jason DeFillippo: [00:20:36] No, I've got a photography degree and I watched these courses and they are spot on solid. So if you definitely want the fundamentals to figure out, you know, your different rules of lighting, your different rules of composition. These are great courses to start with, especially the Nat Geo guys --those guys are top of the game. Yeah, come on. So I highly recommend fundamentals of photography. Even if you're just wanting to get your Instagram action, you know, up to the next level.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:00] So now's the perfect time to get started with The Great Courses Plus, we've got a special limited time offer for Jordan Harbinger Show fam and entire month of The Great Courses Plus for free. But to start your free month trial, you need to sign up through our special URL which is thegreatcoursesplus.com/Jordan. That's thegreatcoursesplus.com/Jordan. Let me know what gems you find in there as well. There's a lot of courses in there that I'd love to find.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:21:25] Thanks for listening and supporting the show. To learn more about our sponsors and get links to all the great discounts you just heard, visit JordanHarbinger.com/advertisers. And if you'd be so kind, please drop us a nice rating and review in iTunes or your podcast player of choice, and if you want some tips on how to do that, head on over to JordanHarbinger.com/subscribe. We really do appreciate it. And now back to our show with James Clear.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:51] Languages and habits have a lot in common. In fact, of course you need habits to learn languages. I remember the first entire like eight weeks of our Chinese class back when I took classes with a group, was learning the sounds of each letter in pinyin, which is the Roman sort of Anglicised version of these symbols that you see in Chinese because you can't read those. They don't sound like anything. If you're Western, so you have to sound out basically the whole alphabet, and it's hard. And we learned that, we did that for at least six out of eight weeks and everyone just quit. It was like class number one, 22 people. Class number two, the second eight weeks. Yeah, it was like four or five of us and then class number three, before you can really speak, you're just learning all of these little basics.
[00:22:38] There weren't enough people to keep the class going. We needed I think four people, and we just couldn't get it. So I started taking one on ones, on Skype, and then now years later, and this is just a couple of hours a week at most. Now I can have conversations in Chinese. So if I have to learn, if you said learn 25 Chinese words the first month of Chinese, it would be impossible. I wouldn't have any clue. They all look the same. It's just a bunch of squiggles on paper or whatever. Now I can probably. I can learn that in like two days maybe, or maybe even one day if I just had an hour to study. And so you see that your vocab goes up really, really high. And even in the exams that you take for Chinese, the first sort of certification levels, like 120 words and the last one, which is six, it's like 2,500 words.
[00:23:24] So if you look at level six in the beginning, you're like, “There's no way I'm going to learn this.” But by the time you get to the point where you're just memorizing vocab to increase your conversational ability, you could do it all in a few months.
James Clear: [00:23:34] I don't know what the mechanism is there for that and why that happens. But it definitely seems to be true and I think all of us have felt that in some way. We work very hard in the beginning and we don't really see a whole lot for it. And then suddenly you like, I don’t know, crossed this threshold and “Oh, it's easier now.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:49] Well, I would imagine it's like any sport. If someone just says, “Hey, go play basketball”, but you've never run, you've never thrown a ball, you've never shot a basket before, good luck. But if you’re already in good shape, you can run, you can shoot, you can pass -- then learning how to shoot three pointers is just a matter of combining different skills.
James Clear: [00:24:06] Well, habits are sort of like the foundation for mastery in that sense. You know, like imagine you're playing chess, you need to know where all the pieces move automatically, without thinking about it. Before you can think, “Okay, I'm going to make this move, then they're going to make this move and then I'm going to do this and respond like that.” That level of strategy and thinking can only come after the fundamentals are habitualized and automated.
[00:24:25] And I think that's true for most areas. You need to like master one unit of performance and then use that as like the stepping stone to the next one and the more habits that you integrate and the more fundamentals you can do without thinking, the more you free up space to focus on like the higher levels of play.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:39] And this is called what? The plateau of latent potential.
James Clear: [00:24:42] That idea that the most useful outcomes are delayed and that we work hard for a while without seeing results is what I call the plateau of latent potential. You're not, your work is not wasted. It's just being stored. You know, like I mentioned this quote in the book, that there's this great quote that sits in the San Antonio Spurs locker room and it's about this stone cutter and they say, “Whenever, you know, I don't feel like working.
[00:25:05] Or whenever I feel like giving up, I think about the stone cutter who pounds a stone a hundred times without a crack showing. And then on the hundred and first blow, it splits in two. And I know that it wasn't the a hundred first that did it. It was all the hundred that came before.” And I think that encapsulates what it feels like to build small habits a lot of the time. One single instance does not transform things, but if you're willing to let it compound, then you get something really useful.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:27] Is that why some people, I'm sure there's multiple reasons for this, but it seems like that would be a big reason why some people are successful with habit change and others not. First of all, being aware of that idea and then second of all, having the patience to get to that.
James Clear: [00:25:40] There is something about just knowing the idea that makes it a little easier to go through it, right? You know what I mean? If that's your expectation going in rather than, “Oh, well, I'll just work for three weeks and then it'll be done.” Well, yeah, it's much easier to stick with it if you know that that's the game you're playing. But from an even more meta level, yeah, that is the game. I mean, habits -- if you don't do it, if you don't stick with it, it's no longer a habit. So, the main thing is, it's really kind of like an exercise in showing up and starting everyday. If you could just figure out how to get started and you did that for 300 days, then you have a habit.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:11] Yeah. Yeah. That pretty much encompasses my entire running career there. And we'll get to that in a bit because there's a lot of things in this book in Atomic Habits where I went, “Yeah, that's how I started running.” I don't run anymore because of joint stuff. It's not like, “Oh I should get back to”, and then unconsciously not doing it. But I went from couch potato to running 10K like all the time. And it was from some of the systems and habits that you talk about in Atomic Habits. First though, I want to discuss systems versus goals because I think a lot of folks,
[00:26:44] especially people who run businesses or have big ideas, they confuse these two things. They've got goals or a dream list or even a dream board somewhere in their house. Don't get me started on that stuff -- but they don't actually have any systems in place or they want, there's people that come up to me all the time, virtually or in real life, that say, “I really want to learn Chinese. I'm working for this company for Apple or something and I got to figure out how to learn this.” And I'm thinking, “So you have a goal to be functionally literate or whatever in Chinese.” And I just kind of go, “Hey Jen, send them the referral email to the teacher that they're never going to use.” Because I already know that unless somebody comes in and says, “I have an hour a week, I want to spend on a language. And I thought about Mandarin, is it possible?” I'm like, “That person's going to learn Chinese”, right? It's going to take a decade, but they're going to be fluent in Mandarin, at some point.
James Clear: [00:27:32] So this is coming from someone who I set goals for many areas of my life and for a long time. I would set goals for the grades I wanted to get in school or for the weights I wanted to lift in the gym or how much revenue I want on my business turn. And at some point I realized, “Okay, I've achieved some of these, but I've failed on a lot of them.” So clearly setting the goal was not the thing that determined whether or not I would achieve that, right? And you can see this in pretty much any domain. There are a lot of the time the winners and the losers have the same goals. Like every candidate who applies for a job, they all want the job. They have a goal of getting it. Every Olympian has the goal of winning the gold medal, right?
[00:28:05] So if the goal is the same between winners and losers, then it can't be the thing that distinguishes between the two. So then I was like, “Well, what does make the difference?” And I would say that it's the systems or process or your habits -- however you want to define that. And one way to think about this is that a goal, achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment, whereas building a system actually changes things for the long run. So if you say you have a messy room and you want your room to be clean, you could set a goal and get motivated and clean your room up now and you'll have a clean room. You'll have achieved the goal. But if you don't change the sloppy habits that led to a messy room in the first place, then three weeks from now you'll turn around and have a messy room again. And so I think a lot of the time people think that what needs to change are the results or the outcome. But what really needs to change is the process behind the results. It's like treating a symptom without treating the cause and habits and systems are the cause.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:58] So it's like solving for the input that goes in instead of just trying to figure out how to corral everything into one output.
James Clear: [00:29:05] Yeah. If you fix the inputs, the outputs will fix themselves.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:07] Yeah. I think that's really important. And that took me years and years and years to learn. Because of course I, too, had goals and then no real process maybe to get there or a process to get there. But then everything else that's going into that is still garbage.
James Clear: [00:29:21] Well, I would just want to say I don't think goals are useless. You know, like it can be useful to set a sense of direction or to know like what area is important to you. They're useful for figuring out where to focus. But once you've done that, it's probably better to put the goal on the shelf and just focus on the systems and building the habits because that's what actually determines the progress.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:39] And in Atomic Habits, you talk about goals first mentality versus systems first mentality. And I liked this because I think there's a lot of people who say, “Well, I'll be happy when”, and that's that goals first mindset where it's “I'll be happy when I get a girlfriend finally.” And then all these other things are going to solve themselves. And that's actually backwards.
James Clear: [00:29:59] Well, you sort of box yourself into this either-or situation. It's like either I achieve my goal and then I'm happy, or anything else happens and I'm not because I didn't achieve the goal. Whereas the system is more like, you're more focused on like a building a certain identity, you know. So let's say weight loss is a really common one. So either I lose 20 pounds and I'm happy or I don't, and you know, I failed. But with the system it's like, well, you know, maybe your focus is on becoming the type of person who doesn't miss workouts or becoming the type of person who sticks to a particular diet or eats, you know, three servings of vegetables a day or something like that. And anytime that you that you are running that system, you're succeeding. You don't have to wait for the ultimate outcome to be happy. And again, this is something that I suffered with for a long time, which is that I was always setting these goals and I was feeling like, “Well then I can be happy when I reached that milestone”, rather than, you know, along the way.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:56] I think that's human nature in a lot of ways, especially when you look at the social media era that we're in. We're like, “Oh, I need to have that and this is not me. I don't care about this.” But I see this a lot in my inbox. “Oh, I need to have this cool Ferrari because look at this guy on the internet has one.” And that's like every 17-year-old to 20-something entrepreneur or wantrepreneur on Instagram has that same thing.
James Clear: [00:31:21] Well, because of social media, which I think has exacerbated this and just because of how the news cycle works, newsworthy stories are only about outcomes. And so, when we see outcomes all day long on social and on the news, we tend to overvalue them and overlook the process. Like you're never going to see a news story that is like, a man eats salad for lunch today. Like this is just not right, it's only a story. Six months later when man loses a hundred pounds. That's what you hear. And I think that that causes us to overvalue the goal or the outcome and undervalue the process and the habits and the system behind it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:56] That's a good point. We're kind of wired for that almost. And again, I'm no neuroscientist, but it seems like nobody's really interested. I saw a friend of mine actually in this building, in the restroom the other day and I go, “Hey man, haven't seen you for a while. Did you lose weight or did you just grow a beard?” And he goes, “Yeah, I lost 110 pounds.” And I was like, “Oh, I'm really observant apparently”, you know, not like, “Yeah, I lost 15 pounds or 10 pounds -- 110 pounds!” And I'm like, “I knew you looked a little different.” I mean, he lost an entire like person. Yeah. But it's not cool to say like, “Hey, what's your secret?” And he's like, “Yeah, I'm working out all the time, eating regularly, not having 17 pancakes for breakfast.”
[00:32:40] I'm sure that's the system. But everybody just, I'm sure people who want to know how he did it, it's like, “What workout are you doing or what diet are you on?” And the answer is probably really not that interesting.
James Clear: [00:32:52] It's almost always that way. I mean, the fundamentals are unsexy and people know that. We implicitly, we kind of know this, but this is one of the reasons I wrote Atomic Habits is to try to unearth what that, how can we design this process a little bit more? You know, how can we take control of that and, maybe make building the system the fun thing and the interesting thing, rather than getting wrapped up in a particular outcome.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:13] Right. Because we got to commit to the process, not the goal. That's the key here. Otherwise, it's less likely to happen. I don't want to say unlikely because a lot of people achieve goals all the time. I would bet that if we found a hundred people who have achieved the goal and we were able to ask them a hundred questions or less, we'd find that they all have systems, or at least the majority have systems.
James Clear: [00:33:34] Well, you can stumble into it, but my question is, can you design it? You know, like, can you take control of the process? And I think you can. And that was, you know, part of what I was trying to do in writing this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:45] I don't know if he did this intentionally, but you adapted the special forces motto that says, “We don't rise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems.” Did you consciously do that?
James Clear: [00:33:53] I don't know the special forces motto, but there's a famous quote which I have is in the footnotes of the book, by Archilochus. I believe, he is a Greek philosopher. But anyway, he says something to the effect of -- “We did not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:10] Okay. So they adapted that from him?
James Clear: [00:34:13] That's the special forces --- So I was thinking about that, and I was like, “Well, this definitely applies to habits”, right? And I think that that's true that we do not rise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:23] Yeah. The original quote I think is something like, “We do not rise to the level of our expectations, but we fall to or default to the level of our training.” Probably isn't default if it's ancient Greek, but whatever. You get the idea, right? It's in the book. If you want to know the official one, you got to have the book.
James Clear: [00:34:36] Yeah. Just check the footnote.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:39] Look at the footnotes. There's this onion -- three levels of change. This sort of onion that you created, or that you outlined in Atomic Habits. One is outcomes or goals on the outside. The second one is that process on the inside that we've kind of been discussing, and you hinted at this earlier, the golden child of that little tender, middle of that onion is identity. And I think that's important because that really, when I examined my own goals, achievement, whatever -- it does come down to identity and to just to continue beating the dead horse of my language learning. When I was in high school, I was an exchange student in Germany and that's where I learned German. But before that I was a miserable, terrible French student and I didn't care and I got seasoned French. It was my worst grade in high school, by far. And so I, in air quotes here, wasn't a language learner and my parents and I were very concerned that I'm going to go to Germany and as a non-language learner or someone who's not good at languages, have to then go and learn this even harder language in an informal setting.
[00:35:44] Well, it turns out, humans are actually really good at learning languages, especially when they go into it thinking that they can do it. So I resisted for three to four months in Germany going, “Well, I'm not a language learner, so it's okay that I don't understand and everything.” And then one day I went, “This sucks. I don't have any friends. I've got to figure this out.” And then once I decided that I could probably learn some German, my path to fluency was rapid -- extremely rapid.
James Clear: [00:36:06] Yeah, So I think true behavior change is identity change. And it's this shifting of your self-image or your beliefs or the way you look at yourself. Because it's one thing to say that, I want this and something very different to say, I am this. So you can see how this influences you. I mean, your example there is a good one. People walk around with beliefs like that all the time. “I'm not a language learner. I'm not good at math. I'm terrible with directions. I'm not good at remembering someone's name.” And once you have those type of, once you adopt that identity, it becomes very easy to just reinforce that over and over again. And so, these three levels that you mentioned -- outcomes, process and identity, all three matter. But I think the key is that you want the direction of change to be in the right way, the right arrow.
[00:36:50] So if you start with the outcomes, if you start with the result, then you're like, “Oh, I really want this thing and here's my plan for getting it.” And most people just never think about the identity that comes underneath that. Like they think, “I want to lose weight or I want to be skinny and if I follow this diet, then I'll be skinny.” And then they don't really give any thought to the beliefs behind their behavior. But if you start the other way around, if you start at the identity and you say, “All right, who's the type of person that could lose weight? Well, maybe it's the type of person who doesn't miss workouts.” Then you start with that identity. You say, “Okay, I want to become the type person who doesn't miss workouts. Here are the habits I need to build, and then whatever results come, just come naturally.”
[00:37:24] So most people focus on the results and build a plan and let the identity come naturally. But that rarely works because there are beliefs like conflict with your actions, but if you start with the identity and you build the habits to reinforce that, then the results just could come on their own.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:37] So if our beliefs are incongruent with what we want to happen, we're shooting ourselves in the foot consistently, right?
James Clear: [00:37:44] It's really hard. I mean, imagine two people who are trying to quit smoking. The first person, you show them a cigarette and they say, “Oh no, thanks. I'm trying to quit.” And the second person, you show them a cigarette and they say, “Oh no, thanks. I'm not a smoker.” They're both turning it down, but the first person still identifies as someone who smokes. Even if it's like non-consciously, they're like, “Oh, I'm trying to do something that I'm not trying to quit.”
[00:38:05] The second person no longer identifies as a smoker. It's not part of their identity. It's like, “Oh no thanks, I'm not a smoker”, and it's much easier to take an action that is in alignment or congruent with your identity than to do something that conflicts. You might be able to do it once or twice or have the willpower to muster up and you know, push through it, but you need willpower every time. In the long run. It's really hard. It's really hard to stick with the behavior that conflicts with your beliefs and I would say actually, you probably can't do it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:31] I would agree with that because for me, to resist a cigarette, I'm not even resisting it. I'm not a smoker. It’s disgusting.
James Clear: [00:38:39] It doesn't bother you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:40] There's absolutely no, if people are smoking around me, I want to leave. I don't go, “Oh man, I wish I could do that right now.” That's the exact opposite.
James Clear: [00:38:48] It works the same way for good habits. You know, like for many people, going to the gym feels like a sacrifice. It's like, “Oh, it takes hard work and effort”, but there are plenty of people out there who are going to the gym every week. It is just normal for them. It doesn't feel like a sacrifice, just like, this is just who I am. And so once you've adopted a behavior as part of your identity, you're really not even pursuing behavior change anymore because you're just acting in alignment with the type of person who already believed that you are.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:12] That makes sense. And I had to do that reading. People go, “Wow, you read so many books”, and I'm like, “Talk to me three years ago, and I probably read maybe two or three books in a year. Now I probably read that many a week.”
James Clear: [00:39:24] So that example, right there is a good example of how this process works, which is so that if you believe that this is true, what we're saying, the natural next question is, “Okay, well how do I upgrade and expand my identity?” Like, “How do I shift it so that I believe something new about myself?” And this is where we come back to small habits because it's kind of like every action you take is a vote for the type of person that you believe that you are. And so each time you do this thing, habits are how you like embody an identity.
[00:39:51] You know? So each time you read a book, you are embodying the identity of being a reader. Every time you go to the gym, you're embodying the identity of being a fit person. Every time you make your bed, you're embodying the identity of someone who is neat and organized. And if you embodied that identity enough, if you cast enough votes for being that type of person, it's like the evidence builds up. And as that evidence accumulates, now you have a reason to believe it. And this I think is like a key distinction between the importance of habits and what some people say about like -- fake it till you make it or something like that, right? Fake it till you make it, is asking you to believe something about yourself without evidence, right? It's saying like, “Oh, just fake it and believe that.” But that does not work really well for the brain because beliefs that don't have evidence are called delusional.
[00:40:33] And so if you try to hold onto them for a long time, it doesn't work. The brain doesn't want to latch onto that. But if you can build small habits and accumulate evidence, now you have a reason to believe it -- a reason for that identity to be rooted in something. And this I think is like ultimately one of the real reasons habits matter so much. It's true. They can get you, you know, you can be more productive or you can make more money. You can lose weight. Habits can give you all these things and that's great. But the external results are just one factor. The real reason habits matter is because they provide evidence for the type of beliefs that you have about yourself. And ultimately, you can reshape your sense of self, your self-image, the person that you believe that you are, if you embody the identity enough.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:13] So the goal is, and I think this is from Atomic Habits, the goal isn't to run a marathon, it's to become a runner, right? The goal isn't to read the book, it's to become a reader, or to read a hundred books.
James Clear: [00:41:23] Yeah. It's not about one single instance. It's about developing the identity of being that person.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:28] I think a lot of people find challenge in this. They say, “Well look, I wasn't brought up to save money or invest or become savvy with real estate or to read books or to be good in school”, and I heard this even yesterday with Freeway Rick Ross, he was like, “Look, I bought a ton of properties before I went to jail. And then they weren't being managed well when I was inside”, and I just thought, “How did you not figure out how to take care of hundreds of millions of dollars, somehow? How did you not just hire like one attorney to maybe manage all this?” And he goes, “Well, you know, my family and friends, we were not brought up to”, and I can't remember exactly what he said, but he basically just went, well, these are all the people and it's very forgivable mistake. Those are all the people he trusted as a career criminal at that point in his life to hold onto his millions of dollars of property. He didn't want to go, “Hey, random-white-dude-who-I've-never-met, here's the keys to my kingdom.” He trusted all these people that were around him and they weren't brought up in this way, but I thought, wow, you know, we all kind of do that, at some level. “Well, my whole family is really overweight, so here I am.” You hear that all the time.
James Clear: [00:42:38] That's it. Yeah. That's an interesting insight. I talk about this in the book when I read about social norms. We are all part of different tribes. Some of the tribes that were part of a really big, like being an American or being French or something like that. And some of the tribes are really small, like being a member of your local neighborhood or being a member of your CrossFit gym or a volunteer organization or whatever it is. But all of those tribes have a set of shared expectations and a set of like shared social norms and habits that, and behaviors in general that align with those expectations, are very attractive and we want to do them. And habits that conflict with those are very unattractive. And so like in that case, it's possible that reaching out to somebody else outside of the tribe would have been a violation of trust in a certain way. And so that's not an attractive thing to do. And that we all experienced that into varying degrees. And so it's hard to figure out the best solution to that, but you need to constantly be assessing your current tribe and think about whether it aligns with the habits that you want to build.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:43:38] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest, James Clear. We will be right back after this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:43] This episode is also sponsored by DesignCrowd. Crowdsourcing is how busy people get -ish done in the 21st century. And thanks to DesignCrowd, you can focus on running your business while handing over the reigns for your company's logo, web design, tee shirt, you name it -- to a pool of over 600,000 professional designers around the world. And DesignCrowd crowd-sources custom-work based on your specifications and you pick the design you like best. It really is that simple. Visit designcrowd.com/Jordan. Post your brief describing what you want from the art that you need. DesignCrowd invites over 600,000 designers from Sydney to San Francisco to respond and within hours, your first designs will start rolling in and over the course of three to 10 days, a typical project will receive 60 to a hundred -- maybe even more different pieces from designers around the world. And then you pick the one you like best and you approve payment to the designer. And if you don't like any of them, DesignCrowd will give you your money back. So check out DesignCrowd. Jason, where can they find it?
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:56] This episode is sponsored in part by FreshBooks. If you run your own business, I bet you love being your own boss. I love being my own boss, that's for sure, especially this year, Jason? I don't know, something different this year?
Jason DeFillippo: [00:45:05] I don't know. Maybe. Something's in the air.
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[00:45:38] Clients pay you through invoices with online payments, which in turn gets you paid twice as fast, right? It's like, “Click here to pay. Done.” It's not, “Please write a check when you get this fax”, right? It's fast. You can do it right in the email that they get. You can also link your FreshBooks account to your credit and debit card so the next time you expense a business lunch, it'll just show up in the FreshBooks account and as a FreshBooks customer for the last decade or so, I've experienced first-hand how all the features can save a ton of time every week, which means I've got a lot more time to work on content for upcoming shows. Jason, where can they get some FreshBooks.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:46:10] Right now, we're giving our listeners a free 30-day trial of FreshBooks for all of our listeners, no credit card needed. Just go to freshbooks.com/Jordan, and enter JORDAN in the How Did You Hear About Us section. And I've been using FreshBooks for five years now, and I finally now that they've got all this great stuff that you can tie your debit cards to, like you mentioned, I can get rid of a bookkeeper which is going to save me a couple thousand dollars a year, so I love FreshBooks. They are making my life easy. Yeah, great stuff. Thanks for listening and supporting the show. Your support of our advertisers is what keeps us on the air. We really appreciate it. And to learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard, visit JordanHarbinger.com/advertisers. Now for the conclusion of our show with James Clear.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:55] What about this habit loop that you've got here? We talked, we hinted about it. I think in the very beginning cues, this really is like the, I don't know what you, this is the roadmap to habit creation or the roadmap to how habits work.
James Clear: [00:47:09] I think that's right. I mean, that's what I was trying to build when I put it together. So a lot of people were familiar with Duhigg's Habit Loop from Power of Habit or cue routine reward. And that actually kind of had its origins in the 1930s BF Skinner had the stimulus response reward model who's this famous psychologist. But anyway, that is a good example of the external influences on behavior, which we talked about earlier. But we need to account for the internal influences as well. And so my model has four stages. So first there's a cue, there's some bit of information that you come across. Second, there is what I call a craving, which is really the prediction that you make about the queue. And I'll give you an example in a second.
[00:47:48] Third, there's the response. So the actual habit itself or the behavior that follows, I think this model works for not only habits but most human behaviors. And then fourth, there's some kind of result which I would call the reward. There's a benefit that comes from doing the behavior, how it serves you. And these four stages form a feedback loop, and if you repeat them enough, then a habit becomes ingrained or behavior you can do more or less automatically. And it's really what we're describing is really the process of learning. It's how you learn a new behavior, how you learn a habit. So let me give you an example. If you walk into a kitchen and you see a plate of cookies -- see the plate of cookies, that's a visual cue. Next, your brain makes an interpretation or prediction, and we call that the craving.
[00:48:31] So it's like, “Oh, the cookies are going to taste good so I should go eat them.” Then you have the response, you eat the cookie and then the reward is it's tasty, it’s sugary, whatever. And so that closes the feedback loop and teaches you, “Hey, next time you see a cookie, you should eat it again because it's tasty.” But you can just as easily imagine a scenario where let's say you were eating in the other room and you just finished dinner, you just had three cookies, you're full, you walk in, you see another plate of them in the kitchen, and now your interpretation is different. You see the same cue, but you're like, “Oh, I'm stuffed. I don't want to eat anything.” So different interpretation or different prediction, and so now you avoid the cookies. You don't eat anymore, the response is different, the outcome is different.
[00:49:09] And so that's where we account for kind of this internal state. Your internal state determines how you interpret the cue, which then leads to the response. And so that's how we kind of both get the external and the internal influence in this model.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:22] And everyone does this. If you don't, if you can't think of an example of the cookies aren't clear enough for you, light switches, phones.
James Clear: [00:49:29] Yeah. Let's say you walked into a room, it's dark. That's the cue. You want to be able to see -- craving, this is somehow a prediction. You reached for the light switch and flip it on -- response, you can see, reward. So I mean that happens in half a second and you do it all the time anytime you walk into a dark room, right? This loop is like endlessly running. And you're doing this without even thinking about it, right?
[00:49:51] You're building habits all the time. Depending on the study you look at, habits account for 40 to 50% of our behaviors on any given day. And this is all stuff like…
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:58] And does that mean like, anything that we do basically?
James Clear: [00:50:00] Yeah, pretty much. I mean, you know, tying your shoes or flipping on the light switch or unplugging the toaster after each use, like stuff that you don't even think about all the time. You're always using it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:08] Do you unplug the toaster after each use?
James Clear: [00:50:10] My wife does.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:11] I do too. I can't remember why I started doing that, which is like such a random and perfect example because I thought other people unplug the toaster. I thought we were the only weirdos that unplugged the toaster.
James Clear: [00:50:21] I tried to. I did a lot of research for the book and I tried to find a lot of examples that were things like that. People feel like, “Wait, I thought I was the only one that does that.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:28] Totally. And I remember like maybe I saw it in the instruction manual for the toaster. It's like, “Hey, there's no off button. You just have to unplug it.”
James Clear: [00:50:35] But then you have to admit to being the type of person who reads the instruction for a toaster.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:38] That's true. Jen, do you have any idea why we unplug the toaster after each use? Yeah. We don't know. No clue. Yeah.
James Clear: [00:50:45] Anyway, but it is endlessly running and so you're always, and again, in a way what I'm describing is the process of learning and so the brain is always learning based on what experience you're going through next. And then it updates its predictions and approaches the next time around based on your past experiences and your current situation. And when the situations repeat themselves, when you kind of come across the same context again and again, then you end up forming a habit because you've come up with the same solutions over and over.
[00:51:14] I mean in a sense, habits are like as you go through life, you face problems and some of those problems are big and some are small, like your shoes untied and you need to tie your shoe. And the more that you face the same problem, the more your brain starts to automate the solution, you know? So at first you have to think carefully about tying your shoes. But after you do it a hundred times or 500 times, now you can do it without thinking and you can have a conversation while you're doing it. And it frees up mental capacity to focus on other things. And that's the role of habits. There are these automatic solutions to repeated problems that you face.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:43] I always, I was the last kid in kindergarten to learn how to tie his shoes though. So I never understood, there like here's the hard way and here's the easy way, you know. Hard way is two loops and the easy way is one loop and then you do, and I thought, “If there's two ways to do the exact same thing, one is harder, why would anyone learn?”
James Clear: [00:52:01] Why are we all teaching it?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:02] Yeah, why would anyone not just do the easy way? And so there's kind of maybe a protest on my part. I am curious what other habits that toaster unplugging, you said you'd researched, you wanted to find things that were other people thought, “I'm the only one who does this.” What else did you find? Because I bet that's interesting.
James Clear: [00:52:17] So a lot of people cover their mouth whenever they laugh. A lot of people apologize before they ask a question. Then it's like, these are just habitual things. They don't even think about it. They're like, “Oh, I'm sorry, but”, and then you know, so there, yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:31] I used to cover my mouth when I laugh, but I think it was like an insecurity thing as a kid. I stopped doing it.
James Clear: [00:52:36] Sure. I mean there are a variety of reasons for it, but yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:38] Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. And of course, I'm sorry, but it's like, “I'm sorry for interrupting.” It's again, it's probably a social status thing. You know, if you were the youngest kid or maybe you grew up in a place where you weren't supposed to talk in class, that was a lot of things, “We don't need your questions, just follow what the teacher says.” There's a lot of that. And it might be generational too. That's so interesting. So we can edit the elements of the loop to change our behavior, of course. Whether we want to build a habit or break the habit.
James Clear: [00:53:07] So, I mean this is kind of the backbone of the book, which is what I call The Four Laws of Behavior Change. And so I came up with a law of behavior change for each stage. So for cue, let's make it obvious. For craving, make it attractive. For response, make it easy. And for reward, make it satisfying. And you can think of those four laws as sort of like levers and when the levers are in the right positions; building good habits are easy and breaking bad habits is an easier task. And when they're in the wrong positions, it's really hard. And so they're sort of like, I prefer things that are like a toolbox rather than a formula. I don't think there's one way to change behavior. But there are a set of principles and tools that can work depending on the situation. And there are certain things that kind of do need to be there each time, even if you can do it in your own way. Like I remember I played baseball for a long time, and they would say when you're swinging a bat, you can have your own swing, but at the end of the day, the bat needs to be in the zone to hit the ball, right?
[00:54:04] Like there are certain things that you can't overlook and habits are in a similar regard. Like there's a variety of tools you can use. And then there are a couple of fundamentals kind of everybody needs that doubt in.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:14] So The Four Laws of Behavior Change -- let's start with cue and go through these. Because I think some of us who are good at changing our habits, or at least better than terrible, which is where most of us are. We do some of this stuff. But when you really do apply these four laws, you can pretty much do anything. Or you can create any habit or break any habit. I would imagine.
James Clear: [00:54:37] I would say that people probably do a few of these, like you'll be familiar with them, but it's really figuring out how they work together. And honestly, this was where my knowledge was when I started working on the book. I had a variety of ideas that were related to habits, but I didn't have one overarching system for understanding how they all worked. And we talked earlier about the importance of having a system for making progress. And so one of the purposes of writing this book was to develop a system for building good habits and breaking bad ones.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:03] So the first law of making things obvious, this itself almost seems obvious, like, “Well sure, yeah. If you keep the spinach in the refrigerator, I'm going to have more salads”, but it's not just that and you're right, it has to be in concert with other things or it's not going to happen.
James Clear: [00:55:19] So here's how to think about it, for any behavior when you want to build or break, you can map it out and think about all the little things that need to happen for that behavior to occur. And then you try to figure out what portions of that you need to make obvious. So I'll give you an example of good habit and a bad one. So for many years, I would brush my teeth twice a day, but I wouldn't floss consistently. And if you map that behavior out, there were a couple things that needed to happen. First, the floss is like in a drawer in the bathroom, and so I just wouldn't remember that it was in there. Sometimes I would just forget about it and never look at. The second thing that sounds kind of silly, but I didn't like the feeling of wrapping floss around my fingers. Like yeah, it was just like uncomfortable. So, I bought some of the pre-made flossers and I got a little bowl and I put them in it and set it right next to my toothbrush. I know. So now it's right next to the toothbrush. And so just that little change of making it obvious, that was pretty much all I needed to do to build that habit. That was the only lever I needed to pull. And now, I do it twice a day without thinking about it. So that's an example of making a good habit.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:56:19] [indiscernible] flossers
James Clear: [00:56:22] Oh, yeah. So that's an example of making it obvious. Then an example for a bad habit, I don't know, like think about a lot of people watch too much TV or don't want to play as many video games to do or whatever. And if you walk into pretty much any living room where do all the couches and chairs face? They all face the TV. So it's like, “What is this room designed to get you to do?”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:56:41] It's the TV room now.
James Clear [00:56:42] And so, there are varying degrees that you could do this too. Like you could take a chair and turn it away from the television or you could take the remote control and put it inside a drawer so you're less likely to see it. You could put the TV inside like a wall unit or a cabinet. So that has doors and you know, it was behind it so you don't see that as much. You could also increase the friction associated with the task so you could like take batteries out of the remote so that it takes an extra five or 10 seconds to start it up each time. And maybe that's enough time for you to be like, “Do I really want to watch something or am I just like doing this mindlessly?” Or you could unplug the television after each use and then only plug it in when you can say the name of the show that you want to watch. So again, like you just can't turn Netflix on and find something. And then you know, the most extreme version is you could take the TV off the wall and put it in the closet and only take it out when you really want to watch something, you know.
[00:57:31] But the point here is, and this is true for any kind of environment design which is relevant to this idea of making an obvious, is that you want to increase the steps between you and the bad behaviors, and reduce the steps between you and the good behaviors. And if you live in an environment where you're kind of being nudged in like a hundred different ways, then it becomes easier to fall into good habits. And I do want to say as well that, make it obvious for all of these laws for all four laws of behavior change, if you want to build a good habit, you've got make it obvious. If you want to break a bad habit, you just invert it. So make it invisible. And a lot of the time, if you can reduce exposure to the cue, the bad habit will fall away without you having to do much more.
[00:58:07] You know, like if you don't want to eat as much, then stop following food blogs on Instagram. If you don't want to spend as much money on technology, don't follow all the tech review blogs, like you're constantly being triggered by that stuff. And you have to resist those prompts all the time. So just make it easier on your life and design a place where you're getting triggered or prompted to do the things you want to do rather than the things you're trying to resist.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:28] I love the concept of friction. I feel like that's something that I've had to work with a lot. Even now, I look at things that I do that I don't like to do, and we'll go to like See's Candies, which is like this old school candy company. This stuff is delicious, right? And occasionally, if it's the holidays or something and there's stuff around, it's like, ‘Let's go”, or we're at the mall, it's like, “Let's go there and get some samples”, and then, but the problem is when you go and you get the samples and you're like, ‘Well now we have to buy something.” So you buy something and then it's sitting on your living room table facing the TV, of course. And then at night you're like, “Oh, we have a whole box of chocolates here.” I'm not going to go watch Netflix and go, “Hey, you know what? We're out of chocolates, so let's go to the mall and go buy them.”
James Clear: [00:59:06] Yeah. If they weren't there, you wouldn't even bother with it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:59:08] I would never bother with it.
James Clear: [00:59:09] You know, it's crazy. One that I've noticed for myself, if I buy beer and I keep it in the front of the fridge where I can see it as soon as I opened the door, then I'll just drink one each night because it's there. But if I buy a six-pack and I put in the back of the fridge, like under the shelf where I can't really see it and it's like low on the lowest shelf, it'll sit there for like a month and I won't even remember that it's there. So the question I have is, do I really want to drink a beer each night or do I just do it because it's there? And I think so many of our behaviors, we just do it because it's obvious -- not because we actually want it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:59:38] I like unwinding to play. I'll play some mindless video game or something to unwind. And I usually will, it's pretty rare actually, but some days I'm like, I really want to just decompress. I don't think it engages enough of my brain where if I'm stressed out about something, I can't think about it. So I'm playing some other Halo or whatever. But I find that I'll end up laying down on a weekend decompressing and I'm like next to the Xbox playing something on my iPhone. And the reason is friction. All I have to do is tap that icon on my phone and I'm there. Otherwise, I got to turn on the TV, plug in the X-Box, put the thing in, turn it on, get the controller out, make sure it's charged, probably repair it or whatever. And I'm just never doing that.
James Clear: [01:00:20] The same principle applies for digital spaces as it does. You know, the examples I just gave were for the actual physical world. But you can do it with your phone too, you know, like all my social media icons, I have them on a separate screen. Like my home screen is just blank. So I need to swipe over twice and then open up a folder and you know, and it's not a lot, right? It's just an extra like three seconds. But the point is, I don't want to mindlessly tap Instagram just because it's right there in front of me. I want it to be a more intentional decision and that's just a way to design your digital environment. The same way you can do the physical one.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:50] That's a good idea. For a while, I had my email app on another screen and then I don’t know, somewhere along the line and I went, “It's too many clicks or too many swipes. Why isn't this in my top four or whatever it is?” And then I went, “Oh right. Because I freaking took it out of there so that I don't check my email habitually every five minutes and then pole to refresh.”
James Clear: [01:01:13] Like now, you know, turning off notifications is a very common example of reducing exposure to stuff. But I've now permanently keep my phone in Do-Not-Disturb mode. So if I get a text or get a call, I don't hear it. But like most adults now, I'm checking my phone, you know, I think the average person now checks it. It goes up every year because we keep getting more and more addition on our phones. But I think the average person checks their phone over 150 times a day now.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:35] That's obscene. [01:01:36][indiscernible].
James Clear: [01:01:38] Yeah. I have it on Do-Not-Disturb mode and if I miss a call or miss a text well, I'm probably going to be looking at my phone in four minutes. So, you know, it doesn't even matter. I just call him back.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:46] I resisted getting this Apple watch for years because of that exact same thing I went, “I do not need something that's going to make it easier for my phone to remind me of something.” I actually found that this counter-intuitively makes me check my phone less because I'll go, “Oh a text and then I'll go, I don't need to look at that right now.” Or instead of going, “Oh, I have an alarm that's going, I need to check how much time is left.” Well, no, you don't have to pick up your phone and do that. You can just look at your watch now.
James Clear: [01:02:10] I mean, here's another example of making an invisible or reducing exposure to bad habits. But I try and it doesn't work for every job, but as best as I can, each morning leave my phone in another room, that's not in my office with me until lunch. So I get like a block of, you know, four hours or so where I don't have to worry about, you know, being triggered by that again.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:29] Because it's just completely out of sight, out of mind.
James Clear: [01:02:32] It's just that, it's the same principle.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:34] What is the habit scorecard? This was kind of a good practical drill or exercise for people to do.
James Clear: [01:02:40] I think one way to consider the process of behavior change is that to do it in any reasonable way or to have any control over the process. It always starts with awareness. If you're not aware of your habits, you can't really design them in any meaningful way. So the habit scorecard is a way to improve awareness about your habits. And the method is really simple. You wake up in the morning and then you just start to write out all the behaviors that you do as you walk through your day. So it's like, “I wake up, I turn off my alarm, I check my phone, I go to the bathroom, I take a shower, I get dressed, I brush my teeth where all that stuff, whatever the order is. And you can do it with as much detail as you want.
[01:03:15] I think the first time it really helps to be pretty granular about it. And then once you have that list, you just go through and you market, you know, do I think this is a positive habit or a negative habit or a neutral one? And that helps you kind of understand like, what areas should I be focusing on to change, and what things are already going well, and it just makes you more aware of your behavior. So it gives you like a good foundational starting point for making some changes. And the goal is not to like judge yourself, you know, not to feel guilty about it. It's just a literally like observe yourself and actually see what you do. Because a lot of our habits are mindless.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:03:47] So we go through and we create this inventory of habits and then we decide which are good and which are bad. And this goes hand in hand with making things a little bit more obvious, right? Because we bring, we bubble those habits up to the level of awareness, or we're calling it out, right?
James Clear: [01:04:03] If it's not obvious to you, you don't have much chance to change it, right? So it's just that inventory helps make you more aware of your behavior.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:11] And what is this Diderot effect that kind of leads into another practical that I liked, but I'd never, I heard of this before.
James Clear: [01:04:16] Yeah. So there's this French philosopher named Denis Diderot and he was relatively poor for most of his life, but he was kind of well-known because he wrote this encyclopedia, it was one of the more popular ones of his days. This is in the 1700, I think. Anyways, so his name was known, but then his daughter was getting married and he didn't have enough money for the wedding. And Catherine the Great, who was the Empress of Russia at that time, she heard about him and like kind of, you know, felt bad for him. She was like, “Oh, you know, I really like his encyclopedia.” She was just a huge book lover. And so effectively what she did was she said, “I'll buy your library”, but it was more like a gift. She basically paid them like a hundred, what would be the equivalent of like a hundred grand today or 120 grand and said, “I'll buy your library.
[01:04:56] Here's the sum of money.” And so Diderot all of a sudden didn't have money, but now he had more than he needed. So he was able to pay for the wedding. And then he also was like, “I’ll buy myself this nice robe to go along with it.” So he got this rope and then he realized, “This robe was nicer than the chair that I'm sitting on. So now I need a new chair.” And then he was like, “Well, now the chair is nicer than the rug, so I need a new rug”, and “now my furniture is out of date, so I need a new kitchen table.” He bought art from Damascus and he got like all these new things.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:05:23] He’s like a lottery winner. Buys like two Ferrari’s.
James Clear: [01:05:24] Yes, it actually happens to all kinds of people. It happened to me. I got a new car and I started buying all this stuff that I didn't have before. I bought like a shovel to put in the back in case I got trapped in snow.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:05:35] What an extravagant purchase.
James Clear: [01:05:37] I bought a seatbelt cutter that, you know, in case I got trapped in the water or something. You know, I bought a flashlight to put in there, umbrellas. I got a little bag that I have like extra clothes in it. And at no point, I've been driving for like a decade, right? I didn't need any of this stuff before, but now suddenly I needed to get it. And this is what's called the Diderot effect. This idea that a single purchase spirals into more consumption, and behaviors in general often work this way, which is why I bring the story up in the book. It's that behaviors often come in like a chain, you know, you go to the bathroom and then you need to wash your hands and when you wash your hands you think, “Oh, the towels are dirty. I need to do laundry”, and then you think,
[01:06:14] “Oh, we're out of laundry detergent so I need to go to the store.” And so like there's kind of this endless chain of behavior that happens and because behaviors happen in bunches like that, they're related to one another, that actually is a really useful way to build better habits. You can sort of use it to your advantage. You can start to tie the habit you want to something that came before and use that, you kind of use this momentum to your advantage.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:36] How do we actually do that in practice? You know, before we get into that, reminds me of my brother-in-law, he got a great deal on a curved LCD monitor or something like that for his computer. So he got one and he's like, “Oh, this is going to be great.” And then it turned out his video card didn't support the monitor.
[01:06:50] So he had to go get a new video card for his computer. And then he got that and they went, “Oh man, my processor doesn't support this video card.” So he went and replaced the entire computer because he got a great deal for the monitor. So now he ended up with a new computer, a new video card, new monitor. And he's like, ‘That was not the plan.’ Some deal, I just got there.
James Clear: [01:07:10] So we can use this to our advantage. This idea that, you know, one buoy behavior kind of leads into the other and I refer to it as habit stacking. I first learned it from BJ Fogg. He's this professor at Stanford and I think he calls it The Tiny Habits Recipe. But the idea is the same, which is that before or after certain behavior, I will do the next behavior.
[01:07:30] After this habit, I will do the next habit. So for example, you know, say you want to start meditating, he could say, “Well after I make my morning cup of coffee, I will meditate for 60 seconds.” So you just come up with like this rule basically, and you tie your new behavior to your old one. And the great thing is you can start to like, once you get good at this, you can insert habits into the appropriate place in your life. So we just talked about that habit scorecard, that inventory that we create. Well you can look at that list that you have of your habits and you can figure out where's the best place to insert this new habit. So let's say that part of your morning routine is that you wake up, you make your bed, you take a shower.
[01:08:05] So you've got those three in a row. And you want to build a habit of reading more each day. Well, you could say, “I wake up, I make my bed, and then you insert the new habit.” You say, “I'm going to place a book on the pillow, then I take a shower.” And so that's your new habit. It's really simple. It's really easy. And when you get into bed at night, you've got a book waiting there, reminding you, obvious, and for you to read. And now you can read a page or whatever. And so you can use that same kind of strategy pretty much anywhere. You just have this set of rules that you use.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:08:31] This reminds me of the environmental habit change or the idea that creating an environment around what we want is the way to go. And we talked about this a little bit with Benjamin Hardy, who has been on the show before. Have you read that book?
James Clear: [01:08:44] I haven’t but I know that.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:08:45] I think you might dig it or you might know everything that's in it already. But yeah, it's really good as well. And the environment matters more than say, your motivation in the moment. You really do structure everything around you to make sure that you're almost funneling yourself into the right course of action. How can we set up our environment? You gave some clues already as to how this might happen, but how do you set up your environment to make sure that you are set up for success on a daily basis?
James Clear: [01:09:14] Yeah, well, most of it is what we mentioned previously about kind of making the good habits, obvious. The bad habits, invisible. The second aspect is friction, which we talked about. So BJ Fogg, that same professor I just mentioned, I think he had this example where he wanted to eat, he liked eating popcorn, but he didn't want to eat as much of it. And so he took popcorn out of his pantry, walked down the hallway and went into the garage and climbed up the ladder and put on the highest shelf in the garage. So if he still wanted to eat it, he could just go out and get it. It's only going to take a minute. But if he's designing for his default behavior for like his lazy action, he's not going to go out there and get it. And that's kind of one of the ways of the principles you can think of for environment design is, how do I design an environment where the default option is the better option, the good choice? And the,
[01:09:58] unproductive or unhealthy action is more difficult and harder to get to. And if you can do that, then often good habits will just kind of resolve naturally.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:06 ] I love this idea. I actually, again, not consciously, use this a lot in my own life. For example, I wanted to work out more and I love kettlebells because I feel like they're versatile and really every time I use them, I'm just ridiculously sore, which is always kind of a good sign. But the problem is you get these ugly kettlebells and then they sit around, you end up piling clothes on top of them. So I went and I got these Onnit ones that are like zombies and superheroes, and yeah. So I was like, these look cool. I can leave them out there, a conversation piece. So I leave them out. So I walk past them all the time and I'm like, “All right, well I got to use these.”
James Clear: [01:10:37] Yeah. So same principle, you know. I had a friend who he wanted to get better at playing violin, so he left the violin in the middle of his living room. So he saw it all the time, you know, most people, their musical instruments are tucked in a closet or in the corner or something. You don't see it, you don't use it.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:50] Or drying your laundry on the ab machine.
James Clear: [01:10:51] Right. Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:52] So the idea that we create our own world instead of just living in a world that's designed by other people that we consume, I think is powerful.
James Clear: [01:11:01] Well, your entire life, you are existing inside some environment and most of the time you’re existing inside environments that you don't think about, right? And in that sense, you're kind like the victim of your environment, but you don't have to be the victim of it. You can be the architect of it. And that's kind of the core idea here is that you want to be designing the spaces that you live and work in so that they serve your purpose rather than fighting against whatever space you happen to be in.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:11:27] Right? Like moving all the chocolates aside and the pizza aside so that you can make room for your salad. Never going to happen, right?
James Clear: [01:11:33] Right. Oh yeah. You're surrounded by it. I mean, we talked about it earlier, if See's candy is available, you're going to be eating.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:11:39] Yeah. And you will love every second of it but then you look in the mirror and you go, “Damn, you See’s. Why? Why me? I'm a victim.” What about the locations themselves? You talk about kind of mapping a location to a habit. I think that's kind of genius. You know, my garage has a car in it. Yes. But it also has weights and mats. I don't have to go and set all that crap up. It's happening.
James Clear: [01:12:01] So one way to think about environment is that it's not a physical place or a thing. It's a relationship. And so you really should think about like what is the relationship I have with these items or these places in my life. You know, for one person their couch might be the place where they read each night. And for another person their couch might be the place where they eat a bowl of ice cream and watch Netflix for an hour each night. And it's not necessarily the thing, it's the relationship you have with the thing. And that can be, sometimes that can be hard if you already have a relationship with a particular space in your life, whether it's your living room or your workspace or whatever. You basically already have a set of habits that are tied to that context. And so if you try to build a new habit in that same context without changing the environment at all, it's kind of like you're trying to overpower the relationships that you already have. It's like you're fighting against your default mode. So you either need to change the environment or it's often easier to build a new habit in a new environment because you don't have any like previous stimuli that you're trying to overpower. So if you want to build like a journaling habit, it might be easier to stop at, say a new coffee shop or something where you don't have any context and then this becomes the place where you journal -- than doing it at a place where, you know, this is usually where I play video games.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:13:18] That makes sense. And that solves the objection that I think a lot of people might have, which is, “Look, I live in a shoebox in Manhattan. I don't have 20 different locations for new habits. Like this is where [01:13:27][indiscernible].
James Clear: [01:13:29] So that does solve that situation. You go somewhere else. But also, you can employ it. This is sort of like a kindergarten model. So kindergarten classrooms have different activities zones. And so it's like this is where playing happens. And this is where a reading happens. And, you know, this is the reading corner, this is the whatever. And you can do the same thing in your apartment. You know, even if you just have a studio, you could say, “This is the chair where I read, or this is the table where I write or whatever.” And by having a very well-defined zones, it becomes easier. It doesn't make it flawless, but it becomes easier to fall into the right habit because it's like, “All right, it's time to read. I need to go sit in the chair.”
[01:14:05] And you become conditioned that like this area is where that happens.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:14:08] What if you have a ton of bad habits? You just move like, “This is my smoking balcony. This is my cocaine table.” Like, “Oh crap, I got to change my apartment.”
James Clear: [01:14:15] It's funny that you mentioned that, but there actually have been studies done on this, which find that it's easier for people to build new habits when they're on vacation because they leave all those relationships, all those stimuli in those relationships to the environment behind. Now, sometimes that gets brought up because people will say, “Oh yeah, always start a new habit on vacation.” But I think that's a little bit of a ridiculous suggestion because two weeks later, you're home. But the idea, the core principle is true, which is if you have a bunch of, if your behaviors are tied to all the context you are around right now, you either need to change the context or find a new one, so that you can make that process easier on yourself.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:14:51] That completely makes sense. I love the idea that things are tied to locations and I do find, honestly, that moving around, I've moved a lot, has helped build habits. Not necessarily always good ones, but definitely helps you build habits because you're in a new routine. All those cues are gone. You're resetting everything. You're building new cues, you're building new routines. Your environment is completely different. Like it really does have this nice recipe, if you do it consciously. If it's unconscious, welcome to hell. You're reconstructing your entire life.
James Clear: [01:15:23] This is one of the challenges for people who travel a lot for their job is that they're always changing context and habits are tied to a particular context. So it can be hard to build a new habit if you're always moving. So in that situation, what I would recommend is trying to find a part of the process that repeats itself, even if the context is different and try to tie it to that. So you could say, say you're always on the road, you're a consultant or something. You can say, “After I check in at the hotel, then I will look up where the grocery store is so I can buy a healthy meal.” Or, “After I set my bags on the bed, I will do 20 pushups or something like that.” And so the type of the action that repeats itself, even though the context is different, becomes the prompter cue for the new habit.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:16:04] Yeah, I liked that. And I liked the idea of what you called temptation bundling. Tell us about what that is. This is novel. I haven't seen this before.
James Clear: [01:16:11] So the temptation bundling comes from a researcher named Katy Milkman, who's at The Wharton School. She's at the University of Pennsylvania. But this addresses what I call The Second Law of Behavior Change. So it's making it attractive. And remember, after you see a cue or interpret a cue, pick up on a cue -- you interpret it. You have a prediction, something that follows. And if that prediction is positive, then you have this craving or this motivation to perform the habit. And temptation bundling is a way of making it more likely that you'll feel motivated to do the habit that you want to do. So what the way it works is like this, you pair something that you need to do with something that you want to do. So one of my favorite examples, there's this student, this engineering student in Dublin and he was always watching Netflix, but he was like, “Dude, I need to get in shape.
[01:17:00] Like I know I need to be exercising more.” So he rigged up this little engineering thing. He tied his exercise bike, his stationary bike to his computer so that Netflix would only run if he was riding the bike. And so he essentially a genius. Hooks something he needed to do -- riding the stationary bike, and linked it to something he wanted to do, which was watch Netflix. And there are many ways you can do that, right? Like you could say, “All right, I really need to see my relative, you know, my aunt that always annoys me, but like I need to go see her and hang out with her. But I really want to go to my favorite restaurant. So I will only see her or I will only eat at my favorite restaurant if I am there with my aunt.”
[01:17:42] So like layer some, it's like, “All right, now I have a reason to go.”
Jordan Harbinger: [01:17:44] Wait and run your favorite restaurant.
James Clear: [01:17:46] Yeah. Really? Great. But the point there is that you take something you want to do and pair it with something you need to do. And increase the attractiveness of the habit in that way.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:17:53] How have you done this or was that a real example?
James Clear: [01:17:57] No, that was not a real example. I love my aunt. But yeah, there, I don’t know. Let's see. There've been a variety of ways. So exercise is a really common one. So for me, I like working out anyway but it helped if I could see like some friends or if I could see somebody that I wanted to hang out with. So you know, whether that’s scheduling a run with a friend, well now I have a good reason to go.
[01:18:19] I may not feel like doing the run, but now I get to see my friend. So there are all kinds of little ways you can use it like that.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:18:25] How long does it take to form habits? Because we've heard, “Oh, it's 60 days”, “Actually, it's 28 days.” And I'm like, “Yeah, you just pick that because it's not a round number.” Neither of those things are true.
James Clear: [01:18:35] Yeah. So this is probably the most common question I get, is how long does it take to build a habit? And 21 days, 30 days, 66 days is very common out because there was one research study that was done that said on average, it was 66 days. But even within that study, the range was quite wide. So you know an easy habit like drinking a glass of water at lunch was like three weeks, and a hard habit like going for a run after work every day was like seven or eight months.
[01:19:03] Now from a general approach, I feel like, “Okay, 66 days”, or the idea like, “This is going to be months. Okay, this isn't going to be something quick.” That's probably good to internalize. But the real answer to this, the honest answer to how long does it take to build a habit is forever. Because if you stopped doing it, it's no longer a habit. And people, I think that this question kind of, there's an implicit assumption there, which is that how long do I have to work before I cross this finish line? Right? How long do I have to work before it's easier, it's done? And instead, people need to stop looking at habits as like a finish line to cross and start looking at them as a lifestyle to live. And so if you adopt this idea that habits are permanent changes, they’re lifestyle changes, well then you focus our focus on making small shifts that you can actually sustain over time. The other thing that's important to consider with this is that the time that has elapsed for habit, that doesn't really have anything to do with whether the habit is built. It's actually about frequency. It's about reps. You know, you could do something 200 times in a month or you could do it once in a month, and whether 30 days has passed or not, has very little to do with how well you've internalized that habit. So habits are much more about repetitions than time elapsed.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:20:15] That makes sense. They probably just went, “Oh, we're going to do this thing twice a day. Oh, it takes 66 days or 21 days or 28 days.” It's like, well, if you do something constantly at your new job, every 10 minutes, you're going to have a habit in like three days.
James Clear: [01:20:31] I mean, how long did it take you to get in the habit of checking your phone? Like I don't remember what it was, but we all seem to pick it up pretty quick.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:20:37] Pretty quick, yeah. Like this thing is so cool and you just do that and then suddenly…
James Clear: [01:20:39] When you're checking it 150 times a day, you know, your brain automates that process pretty quickly. So it's more about the reps than the time.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:20:47] And I think a lot of us, we don't actually want to build the habit, we just want the result from the habit, unfortunately. Like I don't really want to, I guess I do like working out now. But really though, if I think about it, I just want to look good and be fit. I don't really want to go to the gym every day and workout per se.
James Clear: [01:21:05] There's this weird thing, the status thing, I mean habits are, so I mentioned this earlier, but we're all part of tribes and habits that are praised by the tribe or approved by the tribe are very attractive. Habits that run against the grain of the tribe are very unattractive. And so, in many cases, people perform habits not because they actually want the result, but because the result of the habit, but because they want the result of being praised or approved or respected.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:21:32] So change our tribe?
James Clear: [01:21:33] Sometimes. I mean, that can be. It depends on what you want, right? But I think the way to think about this is you want your desire. Join a tribe where the desired behavior is the normal behavior. So, you know, there are people who, like I said earlier, working out is normal for them. It's not hard. If you want to learn an instrument and you hang out with a bunch of jazz musicians, then suddenly playing jazz four days a week seems totally normal. That's what everybody else is doing, right? So, the key though, and this is the caveat I don't see a lot of people mention, is that the thing that makes that stick is whether or not you want to be friends with these people. You have a sense of belonging. You know, like if you are worried about losing your friends who are jazz musicians, then you start to have a good reason to play jazz and to pick up an instrument because you want to belong with the group. If you don't really care about losing them as friends or don't care about belonging to that tribe, then it doesn't make that big of a difference. So the key I think is to join a group where the desired behavior is the normal behavior and you already have something else in common because then you can become friends over that other commonality. And once you’re friends, then you have a reason to pick up the behavior that you wanted in the first.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:22:40] That's great. So environment, you know, you can almost lump that into environment, right? To include people in your environment.
James Clear: [01:22:45] I like to define, I like to separate them as physical environment, social environment, but it's for sure true that both of them change wildly. And you mentioned earlier, sometimes it's really hard, like most people are going to act the same way if they're in the same physical environment. The exception to that is if you're part of a tribe that doesn't want you to do that thing. If you're part of a group and like, you know, if you practice a certain religion and that religion doesn't eat pork and you walk into a butcher shop or something, then you're there with the rest of your friends. Like, “Well, none of us are eating this because we have a very strong reason to not eat it.” And a different person that doesn't belong to that tribe, walks in there and they don't have the same set of social norms. And so they're like, “Yeah, sure, I'll take the pork sandwich.” And so there are products of their physical environment because they don't have the social environment conflicting with that.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:23:29] [indiscernible] habits and the two minute rule are something that I, this is what I was talking about earlier where I used it to become a runner. I essentially told myself, I was in Michigan, it was freaking freezing. It was wintertime and I was like, “Look, I don't want to get up while it's still dark. Go outside and run three miles. This is going to be a living hell. I hate every second of this.” And I did build up to that obviously. I did couch to 5K, which is like this little conditioning program. We can link to it in the show notes. But what I told myself, and I don't remember where I got this was, “All I have to do is get out of bed, put on my workout stuff and stand outside in the cold and if I want to go back to bed, I can”, and I did that a couple of times honestly. If I'm truthful, sometimes I was like, “Okay, it's way too cold. The wind is going through all of the layers. I'm not doing this”, but most of the time, I was just outside and I went, “Screw it. I'm going to go for a run. At least I'll be warm.”
James Clear: [01:24:17] It's a great example. So people have heard, you know, I've talked about small habits a couple of times during this conversation and people have heard that type of thing before, you know, like, “Oh, you should stick to small steps, like to inner take it slow or whatever.” But even when you know, you should start small, it's still easy to start way too big. And so my recommendation is to practice what I call the two minute rule, which essentially says, “Take whatever habit you're looking to build, and downscale it into the first two minutes and you just focus on that.” So your example is a good one. Just put on your running shoes and you're closing, step out the door. If you take another step, then that's just a bonus. But the real habit you're looking to build is putting on your running shoes and getting outside.
[01:24:54] Sometimes people think, “Oh, that sounds kind of like a trick or a mental trigger that like, why would I do that?” I know the real goal isn't just to put my running shoes on. I know the real goal is to go for a run. If you feel that way, my recommendation would be to force yourself to only do the first two minutes for the first few weeks.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:25:09] Like you're not allowed to keep running.
James Clear: [01:25:11] So I had a friend, or I'm sorry, a reader who did this. He ended up losing over a hundred pounds. And one of the things that he did was he went to the gym, but he wasn't allowed to stay for more than five minutes. So he showed up. He would drive in, show up, get out, do an exercise or stand there or something. And then five minutes have passed, you'd walk out the door and go home.
[01:25:28] And eventually after like six weeks, he was like, “I'm coming here all the time. I kind of feel like doing more. But the key there, and the reason it works is that he's mastering the art of showing up. And so often we get motivated to make a change and then we do something really big and impressive. You know, we join a CrossFit gym or we take on Insanity or P90X or some kind of crazy program and we think I got to get fit right now. And then you push really hard and then you burnout in three weeks and then you sit there for a couple of months until the process repeats itself again. But a habit must be established before it can be improved. If you don't master the art of showing up, there's nothing to optimize, there's nothing to improve.
[01:26:07] So you really need to master the first two minutes before you have the chance to do anything else. So I like to say standardize before you optimize. So make it the standard in your life that you put on your running shoes and get out the door, and then you can worry about optimizing how far you run and what your program looks like and all this other stuff because you have the chance to improve it. Other people take the opposite approach and they think all about the finish line. You know, we're always optimizing for the finish line. How much money do I want to earn? How much weight do I want to lose? How often? How many books do I want to finish? But if you optimize for the starting line, then you figure out like all these logistical details associated with the habit, like when am I going to do it and what do I need to wear and who's going to be with me and do I need to prep anything beforehand?
[01:26:46] And once you have all that stuff handled, the rest of it becomes much easier.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:26:50] All right. A lot of people are probably really well-equipped at this point. By the way, this is not the whole book. There's so much more in the book. The habit tracking to the emotional component, so don't think you heard this and then you got everything that you needed. There's so much more. But I know one question that people are going to ask is, ‘Yeah, yeah, this is all great. How do I get my freaking kids, or husband to do this stuff?” They're going to work on themselves, but they're not going to say, “Hey, now listen to this podcast and implement everything”, or “Buy Atomic Habits and implement everything.” What are some ways in which I can get other people to apply?
James Clear: [01:27:23] Yeah. So that's a good question. It's a hard question too. So same way that I said earlier that there is no one way to build a behavior. I think there's also no one way to change behavior. Like you have a bunch of different levers you can pull and stuff. Actually, I have an appendix that's associated with the book that talks specifically about how to apply these ideas to business and also how to apply them to parenting, because those are two like really common categories I get asked about. But I think that long-term for a behavior to stick, you really need to come back to what we just talked about a few minutes ago. The social norms, the tribe that people are part of. So if you can start to foster a way for people to get new friends, then the behaviors start to shift themselves and they also stick. So if you're a parent, probably the biggest influence that you have is what other types of kids you put your kid around.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:28:10] That should scare the crap out of you, by the way.
James Clear: [01:28:12] So like, what extracurriculars or activities are they put in? So what kind of kids are they? You know, are they going to swimming lessons? Are they going to play violin or music? Are they, I don't know, whatever, doing like a thousand other things. So what type of children you put your child around has a huge impact on what their behaviors are? There's actually a really good book called The Nurture Assumption. It's written by Judith Rich Harris. And it talks about how the biggest thing that parents pass down to their kids are their genes. And so if your kid is like you, you know, if you're fairly calm and your kid is calm or if you get really anxious and your kid is anxious, it's probably likely that your genes were passed down,
[01:28:52] that was the reason for that. A lot of parents think, “Oh, it must be because of my parenting style”, but it's probably more likely the biological piece. But the biggest social environment or teaching factor, the biggest nurture factor rather than nature is actually from peers rather than from parents. And so you can think about this, it kind of makes sense if you think about your own life. Like, you know, I have a technology business. I'm into all that stuff. My parents weren't into it, but all my friends were in school. And so that was where I picked that up from. And that applies in a lot of different contexts. But it also is true that my parents put me into athletics early on. So all my friends were athletes too. And there are a certain set of habits and behaviors that athletes tend to learn and it differs depending on the sport, but they did have an influence in that way. So I think that's probably the first place to start. And then the second place is with environment design, which we talked a lot about earlier.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:29:39] So if you're trying to get your kids to do that, change the peer group. If you're trying to get your significant other to do that, it might be harder to change their peer group. But if you live together you can be like, “Oh, well, yeah, you're right. There's no Coca-Cola.” “Oh yeah, the beer. It's a buried under all the spinach and behind the apples in the drawer that you have to move all of the healthy stuff out of the way to get to it.”
James Clear: [01:30:02] Ultimately, it comes back to the identity stuff that we talked about early on. You know, if your spouse identifies as a particular type of person and you're trying to make these changes, that conflict with that, it's really hard. So, having an honest conversation is of course going to be a good way to approach that because then you can get on the same wavelength about what the desired identity is and what's important to them. And then making environmental changes that kind of nudge in that direction and cast votes for that type of new identity. That's kind of how to get it to last.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:30:29] James Clear, Atomic Habits. Is there anything else that I haven't asked that you're like, “Wait a minute, I didn't include this.”?
James Clear: [01:30:35] Well, you brought up habit tracking. I think that's really important. There's a section in the book on genes and behavior and how your genes influence your habits and what you can actually do about that. How personality and habits are influenced. There's a section on the long-term consequences of habits. And so like, how to get a habit to stick. I mean, we talked a lot today about how to get a habit to start, which is of course the first hurdle across, but then you need consistency to make it last. So, there's a lot there to go into and we, you know, unfortunately just don't have time to cover it all.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:31:02] Yeah, exactly. Do you want to give us one quick thing on making things stick?
James Clear: [01:31:06] Sure. So there's something in the book that I talk about which I call The Goldilocks Rule. And The Goldilocks Rule is this idea that humans experience peak levels of motivation and sustain peak levels of motivation when they work on tasks of just manageable difficulty -- so not too hard, not too easy, just right. And a good example of this is say you're playing tennis. So if you play against a professional, it gets pretty boring pretty quick.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:31:30] For both of you.
James Clear: [01:31:31] Yeah, like you're going to lose every point, right? If you play against a five-year-old, again, it gets pretty boring pretty quick because you win every point. But if you play against someone who's your peer, they won a few, you won a few. You have a chance to win the match but only if you really try. That's incredibly motivating, and habits need to be kind of in a similar way for you to stay interested in them in the long-term. You know, after a while, once you start to automate a habit, it gets boring. The result is expected. Now there's a certain category of habits. I like to lump them kind of into two groups. The first group is just basic things you don't need to think about. Again, like flossing your teeth or tying your shoes or whatever. I don't need a process of continuous improvement for tying my shoes. But for a few areas of life, like some of the things that you really do want to get better at. You want to be a great podcaster, you want to be a great writer, you want to be a really fit or whatever. Those areas need to find little ways to advance so that you stay in that Goldilocks zone where you're winning enough and succeeding enough that you have a reason to keep showing up. But you're challenged enough that you have a reason to keep coming back and staying interested and engaged. And ultimately, we also didn't talk about the fourth law of behavior change, which would make it satisfying. And that is really the key one for getting things to stick.
[01:32:38] But what you want is for the ending to be satisfying. And if the ending is satisfying, you have a reason to repeat it again the next time.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:32:43] Perfect. Yeah. Like I said, we were only maybe 30% through the notes. So if this stuff interests you, go grab Atomic Habits. We'll link to it in the show notes. It's a quick read. It's not like, “Oh man, a 20-hour book.” This is, I can't remember how long it was on audio. Probably around eight hours, and it was better at 2X, which is what normal people. That's like what we're talking at right now. If you don't have your podcast player tuned, because 1X is kind of painfully slow for most books. You're looking at four hours. I mean, that's a flight, or a roundtrip flight that's even a short one.
[01:33:13] So you can do this and everything is very practical. There's no fluff in there. So I think it's a worthy read if you're trying to break or make any particular habit. James, thanks so much for coming on the show, man.
James Clear: [01:33:24] Thank you so much for having me. And if you want to get the book, atomichabits.com, it's probably the best place to go. And at that page, there's a secret chapter that's not included in the actual manuscript. There's some exercises like habit scorecard and some other things. Still people implement that. And then I also have chapter by chapter, audio commentary from me. I'm like, “Why I wrote particular chapters and what I was thinking behind them.” And anyway, all that sort of topic.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:33:46] What's the secret chapter about?
James Clear: [01:33:49] It's about the biology of bad behavior. So why we fall, what, why we're biologically primed to fall into certain bad habits and what we can do about it?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:33:57] Great. Big thank you too James Clear, the book title is Atomic habits. Jason, I mean I'm a fan of habit change, and I'm a fan of James Clear, and I'm a fan of practical stuff so this kind of hit the trifecta.
Jason DeFillippo: [01:34:09] Oh, it totally did. And you know, I love all of our episodes on habit change because you know, we give some really good practicals but James knocked it out of the park. This is one book that you definitely have to pick up.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:34:19] If you want to know how we managed to book all these great people, manage our relationships – well, we also use systems and tiny habits. Check out our Six-Minute Networking course. It's free. It's the stuff I wish I knew a decade ago. It’s at jordanharbinger.com/course. And I know you're thinking that there's so much here. I'll do that later. Well, the problem is you can't make up for lost time when it comes to relationships and networking. The number one mistake is punting, not digging the well before you get thirsty. Once you need relationships, you are too late. And these drills are just a few minutes per day. Again, this is the stuff I wish I knew 10, 15 years ago. It is not fluff. It is crucial and you can find it all for free on me at jordanharbinger.com/course. Speaking of building relationships, tell me your number one takeaway from James Clear. I'm @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. I love hearing from you on either or both platforms, and don't forget, if you want to learn how to apply everything you heard from James Clear, make sure you go grab the worksheets also in the show notes at JordanHarbinger.com/podcast. This show is produced in association with PodcastOne and this episode was co-produced by Jason “I thought feedback loops were a serial” DeFillippo and Jen Harbinger. Show notes are by Robert Fogarty. I got help from Jimmy prep in this. Thank you very much, Jimmy. And of course the worksheets are by Caleb Bacon. I'm your host, Jordan Harbinger. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful, which is hopefully, in every episode. So please share the show with those you love and even those you don't. Lots of more in the pipeline. Very excited to bring it to you. And in the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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