Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with James Clear (@JamesClear), a writer and speaker focused on habits and continuous improvement. He is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits, which covers easy and proven ways to build good habits and break bad ones. The book has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages. On average, Atomic Habits has sold one copy every 15 seconds since it was published.
James is also the creator of the 3-2-1 Newsletter, which is one of the most popular email newsletters in the world and has more than 2 million subscribers. Each issue contains 3 short ideas from James, 2 quotes from other people, and 1 question to consider that week. You can sign up for free at JamesClear.com.
He is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies, and his work is used by players and coaches in the NFL, NBA, and MLB. In college, he was an Academic All-American baseball player, and he is an avid weightlifter.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. My guest today is James Clear. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram, @jamesclear. James is a writer and speaker, focused on habits and continuous improvement. He is the author of the number one New York Times mega bestseller, I’m adding the mega, Atomic Habits, which covers easy and proven ways to build good habits and break bad ones. The book has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages. On average, Atomic Habits has sold one copy every 15 seconds since it was published. By the time I finish reading this intro, two or three copies will have been sold.
James is also the creator of the 3-2-1 Newsletter. That’s three, dash, or I suppose, hyphen, two, hyphen, one newsletter, which is one of the most popular email newsletters in the world and has more than two million subscribers. Each issue contains three short ideas from James, two quotes from other people, and one question to consider that week. We’re going to talk a lot about questions, in fact, shortly with James. You can sign up for free at jamesclear.com.
He is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies and his work is used by players and coaches in the NFL, NBA, and MLB. In college he was an academic all-American baseball player and he is an avid weightlifter. For those who cannot see the video, we seem to go to the same stylist. We’ve got the same handsome bald look and the same long sleeved dark shirt look. You can find James at jamesclear.com and, as mentioned, on Twitter and Instagram @jamesclear.
James, it is nice to see you.
James Clear: Hey, great to talk to you. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. I’m thrilled to be having this conversation. I thought we would start with something that’s also on my mind, but the topic of annual reviews comes up for some people once a year and we are now winding down on this year, about to head into the new year. Could you please describe your annual reviews and perhaps just walk us through the process, and also describe or explain why, for at least a period of time, you published all of these publicly.
James Clear: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: You can tackle that in any order you’d like.
James Clear: It’s nice to have a process for reflection and review. I’m sure we’ll talk a lot about habits in this conversation, and one of the meta habits that’s really helpful is some kind of habit of reflection and review because it allows you to course correct. Nobody sets out to get off course or to make a mistake or to do something that goes against their values, but we just have this natural drift in life. As time goes on, we find ourselves in situations where maybe we’re not doing the optimal thing anymore. An annual review is a chance to check in. I also think it’s helpful to have shorter cycles of review. On Fridays, I usually do some kind of short little business review, where I look at revenue and expenses and new email subscribers and stuff like that.
But at the end of each year, I like to ask myself some big questions. Actually, I’m glad you started here because I think that questions can be very useful. If you ask better questions, you can get better answers. But also, questions are very resilient, they’re very adaptable to the context. That’s something that’s different, and perhaps a little bit better, than advice. Advice is actually brittle and context dependent. Somebody can have a really good plan, a really good piece of advice to give you, but if it doesn’t fit your context, then it’s actually not great advice for your particular situation, whereas questions are very adaptable.
I think maybe what I should do is just go through some of the questions that I like to ask myself for my annual review and throughout the rest of the year.
I guess we could say this first category is just questions that help improve self-awareness or help bring me back to center. The first thing, and I think actually this might be a question from Derek Sivers or some version of it from him, “Just what am I optimizing for?” Sometimes people optimize for money, sometimes they optimize for free time, sometimes they optimize for creative output or being able to choose the projects they work on, all kinds of stuff, but that answer probably changes over time. What I’m optimizing for today is different than what I was optimizing for five years ago or 10 years ago. I think it’s a helpful question to keep revisiting. You need to decide what it is for you, otherwise it’s easy to slide into this status signaling or just doing the things that you feel like you’re encouraged to do by society or by your friends or peers or your parents or whatever. What am I optimizing for? Another way of phrasing that is maybe, “What’s the real objective here? What am I actually trying to achieve?” Some version of that question.
I also like, “Does this activity fill me with energy or drain me of energy?” You can tell a lot just by whether it fills up your cup or not. Ideally, you’ll be spending more time in the next year on things that fill you with energy and less time on things that drain you of energy. Speaking of the things that drain you, maybe a sub-question that I like to keep in mind is, “Does the amount of attention I’m giving this match its true importance?” Man, there’s so many years when I find that I’m giving something a lot of attention that actually is not that important. It’s nice to check in and course correct that.
Tim Ferriss: Are you asking these questions as you’re going through the calendar of your past year? In what set of circumstances or in what context are you asking these questions or these just broadly speaking questions that you’re applying more or less all the time for self-awareness and different types of cycles?
James Clear: Well, I don’t think you need to wait and only do it once a year, but when I am asking these questions for the end review, I usually am writing maybe a paragraph for each one. It’s almost like a journaling prompt. I do have things that I check for this process. There’s a lot of measurement, so to speak, that happens throughout the year, even if you aren’t thinking about it that way. For example, my calendar measures how many new cities I went to or how many nights I spent away from home, and those are important things.
Tim Ferriss: How do you do that? Oh, I see. It measures it, meaning it logs it.
James Clear: Right. I can see, oh, I was in Dallas from Tuesday to Thursday, so because I know that I was there then I’m like, “Well, that was two nights or three nights where I wasn’t sleeping in my own bed.” Then at the end of the year I try to figure out how many nights did I spend away from home, is that more than I want to spend? Is it less? How did that fall for the year?
Or I write down my workouts in an actual journal, like a pen and paper journal. I’ve got all the sets logged, I have how many workouts I did. Then I can look back on the dates, how many workouts did I do for each month, what was the average number of workouts per month? A lot of that stuff, I’m not thinking about tracking it throughout the year, but it’s there for me as I sit down to review the year. Those measurements are there as I’m going through these questions and then trying to figure out where did I direct my attention, what am I optimizing for, am I spending my energy on things that fill me up or things that drain me?
Tim Ferriss: Perfect.
James Clear: Another question that I think is helpful is once you answer what am I optimizing for, you can ask yourself, “Can my current habits carry me to my desired future?” That’s really about figuring out what kind of trajectory you’re on. If they can, then maybe all you need is patience, but if they can’t, something needs to change, you need to develop or build some new habits.
Another question I love, and this is actually at the core of a lot of what I talk about in Atomic Habits, is “How can I create an environment that will naturally bring about my desired change?” Rather than trying to fight this and force my way through, rather than trying to grit my teeth and make it happen even if the circumstances aren’t ideal, how can I look around and structure my physical environment, my social environment and the tribes I’m a part of and my strategy for what I’m trying to achieve so that it’s almost natural that I’m moving in that direction?
I actually have a bunch of questions. I’ve got like 20 that I go through, but those are just three or four that come to mind.
Tim Ferriss: Well, we may come back to the remainder of the list because I am a question junkie, no big surprise there.
But I wanted to maybe reference, I shouldn’t say the, but one of the key points in the first chapter of Atomic Habits, which is you don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems, which is a modification of one of my favorite quotes, I wish I could actually speak the original language, but I cannot, alas, from the Greek poet and philosopher, Archilochus, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
To the systems piece, I think about this a lot and have found for myself and certainly for many people in my audience, that stacking the deck so it is harder to fail goes a lot further than trying to rely on willpower. It’s almost difficult for me to imagine precise steps you could take to hone something that is labeled as broadly as willpower. How can you set up accountability, how can you set up incentives, et cetera? What are some of the systems that you have for yourself for various habits?
James Clear: We can pick a couple different habits. Let’s take fitness for example, and then I’ll also do it for writing and business.
For fitness, this is one of my core habits, it’s one of the ones I feel like is most important for how I structure my day, but I try to do whatever I can to reduce friction and make it as easy as possible to do it. The first thing is I give myself permission to reduce the scope but stick to the schedule. If my typical workout takes 45 minutes, but I only have 15 that day, it’s easy to get into this story where you’re like, “Ah, I don’t have time to do it all, why bother?” But instead, I try to remind myself to reduce the scope but stick to the schedule. There have been a lot of days where all I have time for is to go in and do a couple sets of squats, but I’m glad that I did that rather than doing nothing. It counts for a lot to not throw a zero up for another day.
In a sense, in the long run, I almost feel like the bad days matter more than the good days because —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I agree with that.
James Clear: — if you show up on the bad days, even if it’s less than what you had hoped for, you maintain the habit. If you maintain the habit, then all you need is time. It counts for a lot. You also proved to yourself, you can look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the night and be like, “You know what? Circumstances weren’t ideal, situation wasn’t perfect, but I still found out a way to show up and get some reps in today.” That’s the first thing, it’s mindset and approach.
Second thing is, and I’ve gradually increased what I do for this, first there’s basic stuff like set your workout clothes, set them out the night before, have everything ready to go, have your water bottle filled up, stuff like that, but I’ve gradually reduced the friction even more. I used to work out at a gym for 10 years and so I would do all that kind of stuff, now, over the last year or two, I’ve built a home gym. All I have to do is get down to the basement and I can just work out there. I’m gradually accumulating more and more equipment, I’m becoming this equipment hoarder, but now I have enough stuff that I don’t have any excuses. All I have to do is just walk downstairs and I can be doing that exercise in 15 seconds. It’s really just about reducing friction.
Some of that is strategy too. If you don’t have equipment or you don’t want to pay for a gym membership, there are great body weight programs or you could just do 10 sprints up and down the sidewalk. They are almost no excuses if you have the right strategy for reducing friction and just figuring out ways to get a decent workout in.
Tim Ferriss: I think the reduction of scope that you mentioned is really critical, that if you don’t have time for 60 it doesn’t mean you have to go to zero. I’m guilty of, this happens to me sometimes, I’m not going to lie. But I will also just add, if you don’t have space for an entire gym, you almost certainly have space for a functional doorstop, aka a kettlebell. You could get one kettlebell or even build a kettlebell from some basic materials, people can look it up, a T-bar kettlebell for swings. If you can just do one set of swings, you’re going to hit a lot.
I would love to hear, well, let’s see, a few things, if you don’t mind me just adding my commentary.
James Clear: Yeah, sure.
Tim Ferriss: The first is underscoring another thing you said, which is, I don’t want to say it doesn’t matter, but it matters much less what happens on the days where you feel like doing the things that you have set out as your habits or goals, behaviors, et cetera. What matters is what happens when you don’t want to do those things. This is where the systems and the lack of excuses and accountability and so on comes into play.
How do you apply this — well, actually, one more thing, which is the exercise piece. I’m glad you brought up first. Many people might think, “Well, that’s fine, that’s just exercise,” but exercise for me is the cascading upper level of the waterfall. If you take care of your body, your body takes care of your brain and mood and so many other things. In a sense it’s the force multiplier category, so I’m glad we spoke about it first. What other types of systems, and I’ll put that in air quotes because it could take, I’m sure, a lot of different forms, but what might be examples of systems or scaffolding that you’ve set up in other areas?
James Clear: Yeah. Just a quick point on what you just mentioned first. I think it’s worth asking yourself what habits are upstream from other things that I want to do or other things that set me up for a good day. What you’re describing is that a workout habit, at least for you, and I would say for me, is upstream from a lot of other good things that happen. I get the benefits of the workout, sure, but also, I tend to have that post-workout high for an hour or two where I get this good period of concentration. I tend to eat better when I’m training, it’s like I don’t want to waste it. It’s actually when I’m not training that I get lazy and start eating whatever I want. I tend to sleep better at night because I’m tired from the workout, which means I wake up the next day and I have better energy. At no point was I trying to actively build better sleep habits or nutrition habits or whatever, but it just came as a natural byproduct of getting that one habit of a good workout in.
It doesn’t have to be fitness. You talk to some people, comedians for example or athletes, will talk about how they have this visualization habit before they step out on the stage. If they get that in, they recite what a good performance is going to look like, that helps them perform in the moment. Or CEOs will talk about a meditation habit, and if they get their 15 minutes of meditation in in the morning, that sets them up for the rest of the day being productive.
I think it just comes down to asking yourself, when I’m living a good day, when I’m on, what are some of the key habits that are part of that? Then maybe rather than worrying about everything and trying to hit every little domino along the way, what’s the lead domino? What’s that first action that’s upstream from the other productive things? Can I just pour my energy into making sure I do that today and trust that the momentum will carry me forward?
Okay, so your question was, what are some other examples of systems? It can take many different forms. It could be a physical thing that helps you be more productive. For example, this doesn’t work for everybody’s job, but it works for mine, and I don’t do it every day, but I probably do it 70 to or 80 percent of the time, which is I leave my phone in another room until lunch each day. Now, it gives me a chance, it gives me space, to just work on my agenda rather than responding to everybody else’s agenda. I can actually show up and have a few hours where I can do some creative work. That’s a system in a sense, it’s a physical environment that promotes or benefits the habit that I’m trying to build, which is creative output or writing or whatever.
It could be digital things. For example, each week I write 3-2-1, this weekly newsletter. There are three short ideas from me, two quotes from other people and one question in each newsletter. I have a spreadsheet that has three tabs, one of them is ideas, one of them is quotes, and one of them is questions. I’ve got hundreds of ideas that I’ve generated or quotes that I’ve run across and read or questions that I’ve spitballed and been, “Oh, maybe this could be in a newsletter sometime.” Because I have this system, which in this case is just this spreadsheet of raw material, it only takes me an hour or two to write the newsletter because I have a lot to start from, I have good starting material. The system of when I read a book and come across a quote that I like, I type it down and put it into the spreadsheet, that’s a very simple system, but it makes the process of writing the newsletter each week much easier.
There are many different forms that could take, it could be almost infinite in its variations, but it’s any way that you set up the environment, physical, digital or social, to make the habit easier and more frictionless.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s zoom in on the creative process a little bit. We’re going to talk about also email lists, building email, because I feel as though what was old is once new again. Always, it’s like every few years I have to be like, “Guys, you need a way to communicate with your audience that cannot be taken away from you immediately by a platform.” I don’t know how many times I’ve had to say this.
James Clear: Yeah, email never dies, but everybody talks about how it’s dead.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah. It’s like the cat came back the very next day, we thought it was a goner, but it wouldn’t stay away. Email is not going anywhere anytime immediately. We’ll come back to that, because it is a vehicle for transmitting some of this creative work as you described.
I have read a bit about your use, or past use, of Asana for capturing ideas. I think this was for asymmetry at the time, at least in the article I read on every.to. Then I separately read about a 600-page Google Doc that you had put together and were compressing in various ways. Where have you landed with idea capture, maybe web capture, let’s add that in because it may be a separate category, what is your portfolio of tools?
James Clear: First of all, I don’t think the tool matters that much. I think what does matter is crafting great information flows and capturing the good ideas that you come across. Then depending on what you’re trying to do, in my case, I’m trying to create books or to write newsletters, using that raw material that you collected to create something great. I would say the big picture game is always the same, which is first I’m trying to craft better information flows.
Almost every idea that you have is downstream from what you consume. We don’t usually think about it that way, but when you choose who to follow on Twitter, you’re choosing your future thoughts in a sense, you’re creating the information flow, what the timeline, what the feed is going to look like. Or when you choose what book to read or which podcast episode to listen to, you’re choosing the thoughts that are going to arise. Now, you may not necessarily know what they are, but over time you can start to learn which sources of information are higher signal than others. I almost feel like that is the main habit to try to build, especially in our current modern society, because information is overflowing and so widely accessible.
Tim Ferriss: So choosing your inputs.
James Clear: The person who creates better information flows, gets better thoughts.
Tim Ferriss: How do you consume? What do you choose?
James Clear: I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time curating my Twitter feed. I think that makes me feel better about spending time on it. I’m not necessarily saying it’s the best place, but because I have found a really good set of people to follow I do get useful ideas from Twitter. It’s easy and I’m probably spending more time on it than I should, so at least now maybe it’s a little more valuable.
But the single highest thing for me is when I find a book that is relevant to what I’m writing about. If it’s relevant to the topic, and I mean that in a more granular fashion, let’s say for Atomic Habits for example. I don’t mean a book about habits, I mean, hey, I’m writing a chapter on self-control and this book has a story that relates to self-control, or this book has a piece of research that relates to that particular chapter, when I find the right thing, it’s hard for me to even get through a page because I’m taking so many notes and it’s sparking so many ideas to write about. It’ll take me an entire morning just to get through three pages.
Tim Ferriss: How do you find the gems that are that dense? I have my own thoughts on how I approach this, but there are a hundred thousand plus books published a year in the US in English alone, probably, something along those lines. How do you ferret your way through the maze to find some of those books?
James Clear: I think the first thing is you’ve got to be willing to quit books fast. If you have baggage around finishing books, if you feel like you have to finish something because you started it, then you’re just going to be stuck and you won’t move on quickly enough. There’s this quote about Emerson, I think, where it says something like, “He read like a hawk looking for prey, scanning over the field.” I think about that, I try to read like that. I’m not reading for the enjoyment or slowly unpacking a book the way that I would with a sci-fi novel or something. It’s like I’m trying to find an insight. That’s the first thing, is start more books, quit most of them.
The second thing is suggestions from friends are always helpful. If you let people know, “Hey, I’m writing about this topic. What’s the good book that I should read?” I have found a couple great ones that way, so just putting it out into the universe. If you find a book that’s good, go to the back of the book and see what the references are, and then go through those and just scan those books on Amazon and a lot of the time you’ll find a couple other ones that are useful. If you find a book that had something but you feel like maybe it didn’t quite hit it, go to Amazon and check all the three-star reviews for that book, or the one-star reviews sometimes, and there’ll be other books recommended in there. They’ll say, “Instead of reading this, you should read this one.”
Tim Ferriss: The three-star reviews is a key, because the five-star reviews are just overly — not overly, I don’t want to slam five-star reviews, I love five-star reviews, but they tend to not — I would say, for me at least, one-star reviews are sometimes like, “I ordered a toaster and they sent me a book,” and you’re like, “Aw, come on. You bought a book. Pay attention to what you’re clicking.”
James Clear: Sure, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: But the three-star reviews, the most helpful or most critical three-star reviews, you tend to get a lot of really helpful feedback. I’ll add too, for folks who might just be curious, because I read, for people who can see behind me, I have bookshelves and many, many more bookshelves, I’ll very often go to Wikipedia and Goodreads, I will see if the book is old enough, and if it’s iconic enough or has stood the test of time, which is not true for all books that I’ve read or do read, but there will often be a Wikipedia page and there will almost always be quotes from fill in the blank book, Goodreads, if you search that on Google you’ll get a good selection. You can get a feel for, for instance, Finite and Infinite Games by Carse, is that something you want to read? Well, you could get a very good taste of it. It’s like if you don’t like the trailer for the movie, you’re not going to like the movie. If you don’t like the Goodreads highlights, you’re not going to like the book, I can almost guarantee you.
Side note on that, you were mentioning, what am I optimizing for, which sounds very much like it could be a Derek Sivers’ question, he has a lot of good questions. A variant on that that I’ve also found helpful is, “What game am I playing?” We’re all playing games, so it’s like aside from shelter, food, a handful of the basics at the very bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we’re all playing games. What games are you playing? What are you trying to win? Becoming cognizant of that is, for me at least, step one.
James Clear: I think, I don’t know if this is a question that you’ve asked before, but is that game worth winning? Is this something that —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, absolutely.
James Clear: Am I climbing the right mountain or do I need to be climbing a different one? Because it’s very important to make sure that you’re in the right game.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, totally.
You mentioned the tools not mattering so much, choosing the inputs, we talked about books. For capturing, when you’re like, “That’s good, that’s good, that’s good.”
James Clear: You’re right, I do use Asana mostly. It’s a very messy process and Asana’s just a holding ground for it, but I have the app on my phone and Ive got it pulled up on my browser all the time and so it’s always right there. I don’t really care what the tool is, in this case this is what I’ve been using for the last few years, but it just needs to be something that is always present and as soon as you have an idea, it always goes into one place. You don’t have to think about where you’re going to record it and you don’t end up with a random note on your iPhone and another one in an Evernote doc and a third thing in a Google Doc, and now it’s hard to find the ideas. If you have them all in one place —
Tim Ferriss: That sounds like the story of my life right now, which is why I’m very interested in your use of Asana, because I’ve used Asana to, I still use Asana for project management, task management, but idea capture wasn’t a use case I’d really considered. Would you mind, just for people listening, explaining? I know this is going to seem very pedestrian, but how do you it without stuff getting lost?
James Clear: Part of this is, again, I’m trying to simplify things as much as possible, and we may talk about this more as we go through the conversation, but I have a really small team, it’s me and one employee. I’m not interested in having a large team and I want to be as effective and as high leverage as possible. That means that we need to think really carefully about where we spend our time. If I always have a bunch of different tools or I’m always switching between different apps, that’s just time that’s wasted if the job could be done in the same place.
We use Asana to run the book launch or to run the newsletter calendar or to for all the other stuff that we do throughout the day, and so I was like, “Well, I can write it down here just as well as I can write it down somewhere else.” Then once it gets categorized, it goes into the appropriate doc for that project. As an example, let’s say I’m reading a book and I come across an idea that’s relevant for the newsletter and it’s a quote. I’ll probably label the task or the project of the new thing that I put into Asana, I guess they usually call them tasks, but I label things based on the project it’s going to. I’ll just say, “Quote,” and then I’ll paste the quote in and then it’s labeled. I’ll go through all those quotes, or Lindsay, my employee, will go through all those quotes and we’ll put them into the spreadsheet so they’re in the right tab.
Or let’s say the next thing I’m reading, I come across an idea that sparks a thought for me, where I’m like, “Oh, that would fit into the next chapter for the book.” I’ll write the idea out and then I’ll label it based on whatever the topic of the book is. For Atomic Habits, the label might be Habits. At the beginning of any idea I come across that would fit for the book, I’ll put Habits. Then a lot of the time I’ll actually put a second category for the chapter. Let’s say that this particular idea was for the chapter on self-control, it’ll be Habits, Self-Control, and then I’ll type the idea out. Then a couple times a week I’ll go through everything that’s labeled as Habits and then put it in the right place in the doc and then it’s all there.
You could imagine one way to do this even faster, which is you could just put it straight into the doc that it needs to live in. Instead of putting it into Asana, I could put it straight into the 3-2-1 Newsletter sheet or I could put it straight into the chapter for the book, but I’ve noticed that the problem is I’ve got a lot of projects going at one time and a lot of notes from places where things could live. If I’m always having to remember which thing to pull up, then you either end up with a bazillion tabs open or it just is hard to remember which things need to go where at the exact moment when you have the idea. A lot of the time, I’ll have an idea when I’m on a walk or in the middle of a workout, and so I’m not in a position to pull up the book manuscript, I just need to be able to get it down and then I can sort it later.
Tim Ferriss: For people listening, what I’m trying to do in this conversation, we’ll see how successful it is, is to zoom in and zoom out. We’ll zoom out and we’ll talk about the conceptual framework or a particular focal point, whether it’s within, say, the Atomic Habits paradigm or outside of it, just given what you focus on James, and then zoom in so we can take a look at how does James run systems or develop systems in location X in his life. The one-employee small team is where I’d like to go next if that’s okay with you.
James Clear: Sure, yep.
Tim Ferriss: How do you, I suppose, try to build systems, ensure maximal leverage, with a very small team? This is always of interest to me. I have a small team, it has always been of interest to me, like Small Giants by Bo Burlingham. I think the subtitle is Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big or something like that. I’ve always been fascinated by positive constraints. One you could set is I’m not going to have a big team, I’m not going to hire a lot of people. Then you have to make decisions that fall in line with not optimizing for that, but operating within that constraint.
James Clear: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of the productivity principles, guiding questions, and so on that you have?
James Clear: First, I’ll just say I’m not saying this is how everybody should run their business, it’s just how I choose to run mine. You have to choose what you’re trying to accomplish. In my case, I don’t want to have a big team, but I do want to make as big of an impact as possible. The first question I ask is rather than optimizing for money, let’s optimize for time, so how do I want to spend my days? Then I try to make as few choices as possible that violate that answer. You’ve got to keep coming back to that. How do I want to spend my days? What do I want my time to be spent on? Within that, how can we reach the most people possible or make the most money possible, but not without violating that, because there’s all kinds of things you do. I could staff up, I can build a bigger business, whatever, but I’m not interested in spending my days like that. That’s the first thing, is you’ve got to decide what you’re trying to do.
A question that I love and that I keep coming back to for increasing leverage, and I try to encourage both Lindsay and I to think about this over and over again, is: what is the work that keeps working for us once it’s done? As an example, when Atomic Habits came out, I did a ton of interviews. Some of those interviews were on radio, and I don’t really do radio interviews anymore because as soon as I get done with that 10-minute segment or whatever it was, all the work that I put in it vanishes. Nobody’s listening anymore, it’s off the air. Whereas a podcast, what we’re doing right now, is being recorded and so people can continue to listen to it. I’ve done a bunch of podcasts for the book and there’s somebody somewhere listening to one of them right now. It’s almost like there are multiple versions of James out there and they’re all continuing to work right now. That’s an example of the work that keeps working for you once it’s done.
If you can do one or two things a day that are going to keep working for you in the long run, man, you end up two or three or five years later and you just have this tidal wave of previous effort that is working for you.
So let me give you a couple different examples and stories from my personal experience. I wrote this article a couple years ago, it was called “The Physics of Productivity,” and it was just taking like Newton’s three laws and applying them to productivity in kind of this, I don’t know, hopefully clever way. And it did fine. The article didn’t blow up or anything, but it was just kind of a normal piece. And it sat there on the site and people would occasionally read it. And then a couple years later, this journalist from the New York Times read that article and they were writing this piece and they linked to the original article in it. And it wasn’t much, it was just like a sentence, but they linked to the website.
Well, there was this producer for CBS that read the article in the New York Times and then clicked through to my site and sent me an email and said, “Hey, do you want to come on CBS This Morning and talk about this piece?” And so I was like, “Okay, sure.” So they flew me to New York and I did the segment and it was my first time on TV and so I was all nervous about it, but I tried to do my best and have a good segment. And as soon as it got done, I went over to Gayle King and I said, “Hey, I have this book coming out in 10 months.” So this was 10 months before Atomic Habits. “I would love to come back and do a segment about that when the book comes out.”
Tim Ferriss: Smart.
James Clear: And she said, “Sure thing. We’ll have you back. Just make sure that we’re your first stop. Don’t do any other interviews on TV shows before us.” And so as soon as I left, I got her email and I sent a message to her and the publisher and everybody and I got on the calendar for launch day. And that was how I got on CBS This Morning for the launch of Atomic Habits. And that ended up being, I think, a kind of an important moment for the launch of the book because it made it feel like a thing.
It wasn’t just a guy launching a book, it was like, oh, this is a bigger event. And I don’t know how many books that segment sold. I’ve tried to calculate it. Probably more than a thousand, probably less than 10,000. Probably somewhere in that range. But as soon as the segment got over, they put that clip on YouTube and then two hours later we took the YouTube clip and emailed it out to my audience and that was the launch email for the book that day was like, “Here’s my segment on CBS This Morning. The book is out.” And so what I’m getting at is that work of writing that article about the physics of productivity, that work continued to work for me in really big ways three or five or six years later, even though the initial article didn’t seem like that big of a deal. And the reason it worked out is because that was work that kept working for me once it was done.
So anytime you create an asset that can compound — a blog post, a podcast episode, even simple stuff like Twitter posts and Instagram posts are less likely because they kind of have a short half life, but even those can be examples of putting work out there that is still being recorded and still being stumbled across by people online and you’re creating a large surface area for good things to kind of break your way If you spend time doing that. Now I think you can even do better than that, which is not only can you create assets that compound and keep working for you, you can do it in a way where they layer on top of each other.
So I’ll spend 20 minutes on a tweet and that seems kind of an excessive amount of time to spend writing two sentences. But the time that I put into that, I’ll put it out there and it’s its own little asset, and then maybe if it does well, I’m like, hey, we should use that in the newsletter. And so it goes in the newsletter. And then maybe it becomes the seed of an idea for a longer chapter or an article in a book or something, or it gets added to related ideas that can become something bigger. And so now that 20 minutes is actually doing a lot more work than just gaining a few Twitter followers. And if you can find ways to layer those little assets on top of each other, then you get three or five or six years down the line and you really have dramatic effect. So those are a couple different ways to try to operate in a high leverage way with a really small team.
Tim Ferriss: In the last week, we’re recording this towards the end of December, 2022, Twitter is one example, has made a number of changes that have suspended a number of my Twitter accounts. And there’s no explanation provided, no particular bad behavior that I or my team can identify, but suspended nonetheless. And then they get reinstated and then two days later they’ll get suspended again. Can’t figure it out. But what this means is much when, say, Facebook started, I don’t want to say requiring, highly encouraging boosting, AKA paying for promotion of posts to reach your previously organic audience, people’s business models and audience size started to effectively disintegrate. And having email is so, so valuable, which is why I’m also spending some time on this and it’s important to me. So that’s just a background, setting the table so that I can ask you when something is going wrong, aside from reaching out to say your email service provider and saying, “Hey, is something broken? Is there a monkey wrench in the works?”
James Clear: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How would you go about figuring things out?
James Clear: I like to think about it as there’s internal distribution. So those are the things that I own. And you really can only own kind of a few assets. You can own your website, you can own your email list, you can own your podcast. And that’s kind of roughly about it. And then the other bucket is external. So this is other people’s platforms that you can have distribution on, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, et cetera. And as much as possible, I think the web, it is very platform centric right now and people spend a lot of time on those platforms. I don’t want to be on all of them because I don’t have enough time and energy to be good at all of them, but there are probably a few that are a good fit for my audience. So Twitter and Instagram are the two that we’ve decided to focus on.
Tim Ferriss: No TikTok dances coming soon?
James Clear: No, no TikTok routines yet. If I figure out how to tie that into habits, we’ll see what comes. So I post on those two platforms and then I try to build an audience there. But also you’ll notice a lot of the posts that I put up on there, so Instagram for example, I have a very weird Instagram account because I don’t share any pictures of myself. I’m not really interested in me as an individual being out there, but it’s all about the ideas. And so it’s just a bunch of text, but on many of them, at the bottom of the image or in the caption, it’ll say, here’s a quote. And then at the bottom it’ll say, get more ideas like this, sign up for 3-2-1 and then it’ll have a link to the newsletter. And so the idea is to subtly be encouraging people to go off platform and join one of the assets or one of the pieces of audience that I do own, one of the internal ones like the website or the newsletter or whatever.
And so I try to get those things to work together and cross link between the two, and then they can start to build each other. And I do it the other way as well, like when I send out a newsletter, sometimes if the ideas are short enough and they would make a good tweet, I’ll include a little link under each idea, it’ll just say, click to tweet. And so now the newsletter is driving action on Twitter. And so it all kind of like you create this little spider web, this kind of ecosystem where everything is kind of driving each other and it all kind of grows together. But the ultimate idea is to try to point back the external platforms to the distribution sources that you do own so that you’re not beholden to any particular one when they decide to change their strategy or approach,
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Which is specifically why a whole bunch of stuff is getting banned or shadow banned right now on Twitter. And so the best theory I could come up with, and I can’t get this verified or denied, is that because some of these accounts which were created for a new podcast that came out have legitimate contact, but they all link out to Apple Podcasts. That’s the only plausible explanation that we can come up with for why they have been locked and they keep getting unlocked. So I don’t want to make anybody seem like the bad guy here, but it highlights the fragility of having something that is entirely dependent on a platform that you don’t own. And also if you were to read your terms of service, you’re probably giving all of that content to the platform as well on some level.
And I recall chatting with this guy, this is many years ago, before the organic reach was throttled a lot on Facebook, chatting with a guy who had a multi-million dollar business built on a few Facebook pages and massively successful. And I asked him what it felt like to run those businesses. And he said, “I feel like I have the most profitable McDonald’s in the world built on top of an active volcano.” It could go away at any minute, and I don’t want to live with that anxiety also.
James Clear: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: And just to add a few things just to going to feather them in with your comments. One is it’s very important to adapt. I would add something to that, which is it’s very important to adapt, but I think it’s really critical to have a good explanation for how you are adapting and not to discard for the sake of discarding. And just as an example, to give people a window into my thinking, Reddit and some of these other platforms still can drive a lot of traffic, but they’re not sexy and people have started to neglect them. So there’s far less competition on some of these older, let’s just call it platforms that are actually still innovating quite well in the case of Reddit.
So I’ve thought about revisiting some of the vintage powerhouses because there’s been such a mass migration to particularly short form video. It just seems like a bloodbath. And I would also say, something I think you’ve done very well is set constraints on what you will or will not do, say on social platforms. Because one of the risks of adapting is that you become a slave to the audience in such a way that you morph into this funhouse mirror caricature of yourself. And I’ve seen this happen to a lot of people where they put out 10 posts and the most extreme of those gets the most engagement or feedback or positive likes, et cetera, and so they then put out five more like that, the most extreme gets the best response. And a year later, not only has their social feed become like the craziest infomercial-pitchman-yelling circus, but this is the greater risk is that they in real life have started to become the mask that they’ve created for themselves.
This is a very real risk. So setting up the constraints on what you will or will not do in advance before you get on that playing field, I think is really, really, at least for me, very, very important. How do you think about that? Or have you thought about that?
James Clear: Well, this connects to one of the core ideas in Atomic Habits, which is your habits are how you embody a particular identity. So the aspects, the behaviors that you perform each day are reinforcing or shaping the story that you have about yourself. I think it’s important to ask yourself: who is the type of person I wish to become? What’s the type of identity I want to be reinforcing? And your habits are not the only things that influence that in life. Every experience is part of who you are, but by virtue of the fact that they get repeated again and again, they have an outsized influence on your story. And so the phrase I like to keep in mind is: every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a great line.
James Clear: And so as you show up each day and make another YouTube video or do another TikTok video, you’re casting a vote for being that kind of person. And if you let the algorithm run it, if you let yourself kind of fall into this, as you said, mask that you’re wearing for the audience, pretty soon you actually are casting enough votes that the bulk of the evidence starts to support that part of your identity. You start to become that kind of person.
And this is why I come back to some of those questions that we were talking about earlier like what am I optimizing for? Or how do I want to spend my days? Because you’ve got to start there and set the positive constraints for yourself. Who’s the type person I wish to become? What kind of lifestyle am I trying to create for myself? And then within that constraint, how can I have the biggest audience? Or how can I make the most money? Or how can I make the biggest impact? But I think that’s a way of trying to anchor yourself and not lose yourself and let the algorithm kind of run the show. So I think your habits and your identity are very connected and the actions that you take shape or support, they provide evidence for the type of person that you are. And so it’s worth asking yourself, what are my actions moving me closer to? And you want to make sure that you’re on a good path.
Tim Ferriss: May I read something from your fantastic website? So this is on identity-based habits. I want to highlight this and add it to what you just said because I think it’s critically important. And feel free to revise any of this. And you can’t believe everything you read on the internet too, so who knows.
James Clear: Even if it comes from my own website.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t think the CCP has infiltrated your website or anything like that. So let me just give this a read.
“The key to building lasting habits is focusing on creating a new identity first.” That’s the sentence I’d love to get your take on. “Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously). To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself. You need to build identity-based habits.”
Would you like to add anything to that? The creating a new identity first is I think the piece that is of greatest interest to me.
James Clear: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: How would somebody go about doing that? Let’s say they’re listening to this, they’re just moving into the new year. James, please tell me how do I do this?
James Clear: It’s kind of a two-step process. Decide the type of person you want to be, and then you prove it to yourself with small wins. And the more small wins, the more small habits that you perform, the more votes that you cast for that identity, the more you build up evidence of being that kind of person. And eventually you start to take pride in that aspect of your identity. And man, once we start to take pride in a part of our story, it’s much easier to stick with those habits. If you take pride in the size of your biceps, you’ll never skip arm day at the gym. If you take pride in how your hair looks, you have this long haircare routine, all these haircare habits, and you do them every day.
Tim Ferriss: I was going to say, might be past that point for you and I, my friend.
James Clear: I think you and I have lost that battle.
Tim Ferriss: Unless you’re talking about chest hair.
James Clear: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: James, may I jump in for one second?
James Clear: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: What is a good way to phrase that? So if someone wants to have, not a mission statement, but some type of statement for this is the type of person I want to be.
James Clear: I think it’s the type of person who blank for example. “I’m the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts,” or “I’m the type of person who shows up on time,” or “I’m the type of person who finishes what they start.” Whatever aspect of your identity that you’re trying to reinforce, that’s kind of the story. You can also phrase it as a question. So for example, rather than saying, “I’m the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts,” you could have this question that’s related to the identity you want to build, and you kind of carry it around with you all day. And in this example, maybe the question is, “What would a healthy person do?” And so you’re just kind of walking around all day asking yourself, “What should I get for lunch? Well, what would a healthy person do?” Or, “Should I take an Uber, or should I walk to the next meeting? Well, what would a healthy person do?” And you just kind of go around your day and try to make decisions that you feel support that identity.
But I think you start with “Who is the type of person I wish to become?” So let’s say I’m the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. And then the second step is prove it to yourself with small wins. So which small actions, what little habits cast votes for being the kind of person who doesn’t miss workouts? Well, maybe one thing is, rather than doing a 45-minute workout when I only have 10 minutes, I reduce the scope and stick to the schedule and I do a couple sprints, or I do five sets of pushups or whatever it is. And so you find ways to reinforce your desired identity, even if it’s small, especially in the beginning.
Because if you can show up consistently, if you kind of master the art of showing up and performing these small habits, you build up this sense of momentum, you kind of start to reinforce and shape that new identity and the more evidence that you have for it, at some point you kind of cross this invisible threshold where you’re like, “Oh, I guess I am that kind of person.” If you go out and shoot a basketball for five minutes, you don’t think, “Oh, I’m a basketball player.” But if you do it every day for six months or a year or two years, at some point you cross this invisible line. You’re like, “I guess playing basketball is kind of part of who I am.” So I think you’re trying to accumulate actions that support your desired identity.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s do a case study and we’re going to take a look at, this is purely selfish, at email because you’ve been very methodical and executed very well with email. I also have the 5-Bullet Friday, which has been going for, God, I have not missed a week in God knows how many years. It’s been a long time. It’s pretty wild. It serves as sort of a diary for me too. I don’t know if this is true for you, but looking back at these editions, it is actually very fun for me because I get to see, “Oh, three-and-a-half years ago. Oh, yeah. That week. Yeah. Oh, wow.”
James Clear: “Look at how dumb past Tim was. Present Tim is so much smarter. I’ve learned so much.”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, God, yes. A boy can dream, a boy can dream. So let’s say one of my resolutions, and this is going to be a bit of a force fit, but not necessarily so.
James Clear: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: I am someone who prioritizes email above all the other platforms and grows it consistently. And you may have some familiarity with my newsletter and how we do things, and I know you and have had some exchanges before.
James Clear: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: What might be some small wins or just changes that you would make, things you would add, try, test, anything at all?
James Clear: Well, when I look at, so I was browsing your website a little bit before this conversation, and I kind of feel like the main difference, also, first of all, I just need to say, you already have an enormous email list. So to do some sort of intervention on somebody who’s got millions of subscribers is kind of a ridiculous premise to start with. But I’ll take the question seriously.
Tim Ferriss: No, no. I want to give credit where credit is due. I think you have more, I think that your prioritizing is better reflected in your actions and decisions with respect to email than in my case.
James Clear: It’s interesting you say that. That was what I was about to say is I feel like the only difference, the only primary difference is you emphasize the podcast as your number one, and I emphasize email as my number one. And something has to lead the day. Now of course, this does not mean that’s a bad decision by you, right? The podcast is enormous and it probably is the more important thing for your business, but each person needs to decide what that is. In my case, if you go to my website, it’s very clear, if something is going to be the primary call to action on the homepage, it’s the email list, not the podcast or whatever. So that’s just a question that you need to have is: are we willing to emphasize this more? And if not, then that’s a positive constraint you’re setting and you can decide, okay, given that email’s going to be number two to the podcast, how could we grow it more?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, you’ve raised such a simple idea for me. Right now, if you look at the homepage, it’s podcast on the top, on the banner, and then you have the email sign up, which is sort of right below that to the right.
James Clear: Yep.
Tim Ferriss: And it could be as simple as like, all right, well look, this doesn’t have to be a forever decision. Let’s just swap, swap those two.
James Clear: Try it out.
Tim Ferriss: For a period of time, make the top, the whole thing is email.
James Clear: Everybody’s biased to how their story played out. So I’m biased to say email’s the most important, but my stance on it is make the banner on your homepage the email list, and then you can email all the podcast episodes out to these people. It doesn’t—
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, email, every time I think about it sensibly, email is the most important because you can share the podcast much more easily via email than you can share the newsletter via podcast, because to share email via podcast requires task switching almost, I don’t want to say always, but probably 90 percent of the time if I had to just pull a number out of my ass, people are listening to a podcast is a secondary activity. Very different beast than someone who sits down, opens an email and clicks on links. They’re opening an email explicitly in the case of 5-Bullet Friday, and perhaps also in the case of your email to find things to learn and investigate.
James Clear: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Right? It’s an explicit —
James Clear: Well, this is kind of what you’re getting at, but email is in a position where it’s, both of the assets are very flexible. You can talk about whatever you want on a podcast and you can write about whatever you want in an email. But email has the advantage of having links that you can click on right away. And so it can be immediately acted upon. Whereas as you’ve mentioned, often people are listening to a podcast while they’re on a run or making dinner or in a car, and they’re not in a position to click on a link right then. And so even if you tell them, give them a great URL to go to, just the conversion rate’s not going to be nearly as high because people are busy and then by the time they get home they don’t remember to do it.
So anyway, for all of those reasons, I like email more, and honestly, I kind of feel like there are really only two things that came to mind. The first is, are you going to emphasize it more in the web design? So put it above the banner at the top of the page or above the fold. And then the second thing is how are you cross-pollinating between your different assets? So I mentioned Instagram for me. So that’s like of the top five ways that we drive email subscribers, Instagram is one of them. And the reason is because a lot of the posts have links at the bottom that encourage people to sign up for 3-2-1 or they mention the newsletter in the caption or a story that we post will have an actual link in it that you can click to the sign up on the page. And so are you using your other assets like Instagram or Twitter or the podcast to drive email subscribers?
Example for the podcast would be, I know for previous episodes, I don’t know if you do this for every episode, but sometimes you’ll mention 5-Bullet Friday at the end. What if we mentioned it at the beginning of the show rather than the end of the show? More people are going to be listening in the first minute than are going to be listening in the 120th minute. So it’s really just about using the other assets to cross-pollinate and to do it at strategic points that are high leverage. I would rather make fewer asks, but to do it at the exact right moment than to sprinkle calls to action everywhere. So those are the two things to keep in mind.
Tim Ferriss: I want to share one of your questions, if that’s okay. This is from your newsletter. Someone compiled your questions over two years and put them in a blog post. And one of them, let’s see. I have many highlighted, this is one that related to my prioritization of email. And as you pointed out, focusing on the podcast, the placement of the mention of 5-Bullet Friday being at the end as opposed to the beginning. And it is, if someone could only see my actions and not hear my words, what would they say are my priorities? That’s a good one. It’s a good one. Yeah, don’t tell me what’s important. Just show me your calendar, pal. Yeah. Okay. There we go.
James Clear: We all have the stories that we tell ourselves. Like it’s very easy for us to justify internally, but if you’re just looking at how you’re acting, what are you actually emphasizing? I think we all have felt that pain at various times, which I should say, these aren’t just questions I come up with for the readers. These are all things I need to ask myself. Pretty much everything I write is intended to help me get back to center or to course correct.
Tim Ferriss: And also to reinforce something you just said, the more success you have, even if it’s a small amount, although I do think it tends to go somewhat exponential at some point. There may be exceptions to this, but among my friends and peer group, whatever that might mean, uniformly I have seen the more success you have, whether it’s a base hit or a double or a home run or 10 home runs, the harder it becomes to focus for a lot of people. Because in the beginning stages of your career or maybe mid stages, you’re choosing between unattractive options and maybe one or two attractive options.
James Clear: You’re trying to generate attractive options, they’re like not —
Tim Ferriss: You trying to generate.
James Clear: You try to create them or find them.
Tim Ferriss: You’re trying to generate attractive options. Exactly. Once you go from having one attractive option to two attractive options on your menu, things really change dramatically. And then when that goes to 10 things and then it goes to 10 interesting people with 10 interesting things, it gets harder. And I’m not saying this to ask my audience to cry a river for me, I don’t expect that, woe is me. These are quality problems. But you really want to sharpen the acts of asking these types of questions and building these systems before you have your first one or two base hits. Because if you try to sharpen the ax when you are feeling as though you are just up to your neck in water kind of floating down the rapids, it’s going to be very, very hard. So, I would just say —
James Clear: Well, success generates not only opportunities, but also distractions. And so in a sense, success almost completes itself.
Tim Ferriss: Sometimes the same thing.
James Clear: It’s like, you get good at something and so then that brings new opportunities your way. Some of them are novel or interesting or different. And so you do those and then you turn around six months later and you don’t have any time to do the thing that made you successful in the first place. So yeah, you’ve got to be careful about what you say yes to.
Tim Ferriss: So I’d like to ask you about two goals / habits / behavioral modifications that are of interest to me personally, and also I would imagine of interest to other people listening. And I’m curious because you’ve had 10 million copies sold, you’ve interacted with or certainly observed a lot of your readers, people who have tested different things from the book. Let’s start with, well, the two that come to mind, and I’ve actually, I’m good at the second, but the two are, cutting back on caffeine and meditating. So the meditating is an addition. The cutting back on caffeine, a lot of people would think of as a subtraction. I would love to hear any thoughts you might have on cutting back on caffeine.
James Clear: Sure. So if you want to break a bad habit, there are three potential paths you could take. So the first is you can eliminate it entirely. So elimination. Second option is you can reduce it. So you could curtail it to the desired degree. I don’t want to never drink caffeine, I just want to drink less of it. And the third option is you could substitute it, you could replace it with a different habit. And of those three, oftentimes replacing it is actually the more effective option. So for example, if you get your caffeine from drinking Coke or soda or something like that, then maybe you find out, hey, you know something I really love from this experience is I actually just like drinking a carbonated beverage. And so it’s the carbonation that I like. And maybe if I substitute it with sparkling water or something like that, I still get the carbonation sensation, but I don’t have the caffeine associated with it anymore.
And so that’s a way of substituting for that behavior. And you still get something that the experience provides. This is actually kind of an important just larger picture, big picture thing about habits, which is every habit that you have, we build habits to solve the repeated problems that we face in life. And I’m using problems in a very general sense here. Let’s say that you come home from work and you feel tired and exhausted from a long day. Well, in a sense, coming home from work at 6:00 p.m. and feeling tired is a problem. And especially if you experience it repeatedly, you’ve got to come up with some kind of solution for that. And generally speaking, we just try things out in life. And so you can imagine one person solves the problem of feeling exhausted by scrolling Instagram mindlessly for 30 minutes. And another person solves that problem by playing video games for an hour.
And a third person solves it by going for a run for 20 minutes. And those are all solutions to the same kind of underlying problem, but some of them are more healthy or more productive or service better than others. And what do you think the odds are that the solutions you’ve come up with to the repeated problems in your life are the optimal one? It’s just so unlikely that whatever you happen to have stumbled into throughout life is the perfect way or the best habit that serves you most. So I think what I’m trying to get out there is maybe take a little bit of the pressure off yourself, and don’t worry about judging yourself so much. You’re just trying to solve the repeated problems that you face. But once you realize that it’s unlikely that your current solutions are the optimal solutions, well now maybe we can step outside and above ourselves and look down and try to come up with a better solution.
So rather than drinking a Coke to get the carbonation, we can drink sparkling water. So that’s one example for the substitution. If we want to take the other path of reduction, something I’ve noticed about myself is if I get a six pack of beer and I put it in the front of the fridge, like in the door, or on a shelf that’s like right at eye level, I’ll drink one every night just because it’s there. But if I take it and put it on the lowest shelf in the fridge, and it’s kind of all the way back in the corner, I can’t really see it unless I’m bending down. It’ll sit there for two weeks or three weeks. And so I’m like, did I want it or not? If it was obvious, then I grab one but if it wasn’t, then I avoid it. And I think that’s a simple question to ask yourself.
Where do I get my caffeine? Is it coffee, is it soda? And is that really obvious? Is it like the coffee sitting right out on the counter? Is the soda the first thing I see at eye level when I open the fridge? And how can I make it less obvious? In Atomic Habits, there are kind of what I call the four laws of behavior change. And it’s just this big picture view of how to build a good habit. And so if you want to build a good habit, you want to make your habits obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. And if you want to break a bad habit, you just do the opposite of those four. So you want to make it invisible, make it unattractive, make it difficult, and make it unsatisfying. And so I think, how can you make coffee or soda invisible?
How can you make it difficult to drink? Keep it outside of the house, et cetera. So there are a variety of strategies you could use here. Let’s say you live with a family and other people are going to want to drink it, but you don’t want to. Well, there’s this little kind of diabolical Tupperware container called the Kitchen Safe, and it has a lockbox code on the top of it. And so you could give the other family members the lockbox code, but then they don’t give it to you and you just put the soda inside of that and so it stays in that Tupperware and you can’t access it. So finding ways to increase friction or to make it difficult or to make it less obvious, those are all ways to potentially curtail the caffeine habit.
Tim Ferriss: The locking Tupperware, what is it called again?
James Clear: It’s called the Kitchen Safe.
Tim Ferriss: The Kitchen Safe. There are a few variations of this, and I know a number of families who use them for phones. So they will have mealtime or evening time or whenever it is, and they’ll put the phones in the safe and that’s where they sit until the phone free time has expired.
James Clear: I’ve had readers use it for late night snacking. The chips go in at 7:00 p.m. or they just stay in that Tupperware. And it’s set to lock from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. and so they just can’t get to it late at night.
Tim Ferriss: I’m just imagining myself, so I’ll give you a confession. So I love brownies and two days ago for the first time, made brownies and spiced cider, was a whole Christmas celebration thing, even though it’s not Christmas yet. And I ate all the brownies last night. So I’m not proud of this. I’m not beating myself up about it because I’m going to, I’m working out, it’s fine. It’s not a big deal. But I’m just imagining if I put the brownies into this locking container and do you know what a bear bin is? There are these bear contraptions that you use for camping. I’m just imagining being like swatting this safe around, smashing it on the ground, trying to get the brownies out. Anyway, that’s more for my own gratification folks. So thanks for listening.
Let’s talk about positive. And you already alluded to the four principles or laws or ingredients. But meditating, I think for a lot of folks, meditating is in the air. They’ve heard about it on this podcast. “I know I should do it, I just don’t. By the time I have my coffee and do this and make the sandwiches for the kids, it’s too late.” How would you suggest people approach, say meditating in the morning?
James Clear: So couple things to think about here. So again, let me just run through the four laws real quick just as a primer for this answer. So if you want to build a good habit, roughly speaking, there are four things that you can do. You want to make it obvious, you want to make it attractive, you want to make it easy and you want to make it satisfying. So obvious, attractive, easy, satisfying. Now if you’re sitting there and you’re thinking, how can I get myself to meditate more? You can just turn those into questions and you can say, how can I make the behavior more obvious? How can I make it more attractive? How can I make it easier? How can I make it more satisfying? And you’ll start to notice different things that you could do. So for example, how can I make meditation more obvious?
Well, do you have a clear space where you’re going to do this? Maybe you need a meditation pillow and it’s in the corner of your bedroom or it’s in the corner of some other room that is the dedicated meditation space. And this is exactly where it happens. So it’s obvious where the behavior’s going to occur. Make it attractive. There are many different types of meditation and there are a lot of ways to get into it. And this is true for any habit, by the way. For some reason, I think we often choose habits that we feel like we should do, but it’s not necessarily the one that we want to do individually. And there may not necessarily be a thousand ways to do everything in life, but there’s almost always more than one way. And you should choose the version that you’re most genuinely excited about. That is most appealing and interesting to you. Because if you’re genuinely interested in it, there’s going to be all kinds of ways to improve.
You’ll find all sorts of things that you could refine or make it better. But if you’re not actually interested, if you’re not genuinely engaged in the task, even the obvious stuff is going to feel like a hassle. It is going to feel like a chore even if it’s straightforward. So do you want a guided meditation? Maybe it’d be nice to have somebody walk you through it. Or do you want to find a meditation that has lovely music associated with it? Do you not want anything? Do you just want silence? And you want to be able to hear yourself think for a minute or listen to your own breath for five minutes? And that’s kind of the objective.
But what sounds most attractive and appealing to you? Try to find a version of the habit that you’re actually interested in. This actually, I think connects to the timing piece that you were talking about, Tim, which is yeah, in the morning is a great time for a lot of people, but if you have young kids and your four-year-old is running around and you’re trying to figure out how to get pants on them and you need to make breakfast, that’s probably not a good time to do it. So find a time and a space where that habit can live, where it’s attractive and you’re not just going to end up frustrated because you’re trying to swim upstream.
Make it easy. So rather than doing 15 or 20 minutes or 30 minutes of meditation, which hey, that sounds great because your favorite guru does it. But listen, why not just do 60 seconds? Because if you can master the art of showing up, if you can just do it for a minute and actually stick to that day in and day out, then you’re starting to build the habit and now you have something, you’ve like gained a foothold and you can advance the next level. One of the things I recommend in the book is called the two-minute rule. And it says, just take whatever habit you’re trying to build and you scale it down to something that takes two minutes or less to do. So read 30 books a year becomes read one page or meditate five days a week for 30 minutes, becomes meditate for 60 seconds and you’re just trying to master the art of showing up. A habit must be established before it can be improved. It’s got to become the standard before you worry about optimizing it into some perfect thing.
So make it easy to do. Make it easy to show up. And then the final thing is make it satisfying. Now, if you’ve done those first three steps well, it’s obvious, it’s an attractive version of it. It’s pretty easy to do. You’re probably going to feel pretty good about yourself because you’re at the end of the meditation session now. So that’ll probably be pretty satisfying. But you can layer on some additional benefit. Maybe you get to have your favorite type of coffee or your favorite drink after that, or maybe you get to have a bubble bath or a walk in the woods or whatever sounds motivating to you. So find some way to add some additional positive emotions to the experience because if you feel good about it, you’re going to want to repeat it. And this is something that in Atomic Habits, I call it the cardinal rule of behavior change, which is behaviors that get rewarded, get repeated, and behaviors that get punished, get avoided.
And it’s so basic, it’s so obvious. But all humans want to feel good. We all want to have positive emotions, to be supported, to be loved, to be rewarded, to have something that feels good. And so how can you get that feeling and associate it with your habits? That’s kind of the core idea. And ultimately, this connects back to what we talked about with identity, which is the perfect version is when you perform a habit and you feel good because it’s reinforcing your desired identity. I’m the type of person who wants to meditate each day, or I’m the type of person who doesn’t miss meditation sessions. And then even if it’s only 60 seconds, you can feel good about doing it because it’s reinforcing your desired identity. So that’s kind of a quick case study on how to apply the ideas.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, totally. And as you’re speaking, I’m thinking about all these other questions and how you could phrase the, I’m the type of person who looks forward to meditating. How do you make that a true statement? And it actually brought me back to San Francisco many, many, many years ago before I took my first meditation training and so on and so forth. I began, I hadn’t thought about this in like a decade at least. I began with listening to, I think it was, “We’re going to party like it’s 1999” by Prince, one song.
James Clear: Nice.
Tim Ferriss: And in the morning I would just sit down, lean against the wall, getting good posture and just breathe deeply while listening to Prince for one song. That was it. And it made a difference. It made a difference because as you said, I’ve never thought of it in these terms, but I became accustomed to showing up and simply having, however small it might have been, and it was small, a tiny slot in my mental calendar, which was, when I wake up, I’m going to sit down and do this thing. And then when I did Transcendental Meditation training later, and I experimented with many different forms of meditation since, going from three minutes to 20 minutes was a dilation of the amount of time required, but it wasn’t introducing an entirely new species of calendar slot. It was already there.
James Clear: Once you’ve mastered the art of showing up, scaling it up, increasing the scope is much easier once you’re already the kind of person who’s doing it every day. Yeah, those are good examples. I think actually maybe, I don’t know if it’s your question, Tim, I feel like I’ve heard you say it before, but this idea of, what would this look like if it was easy? Or, what would it look like to be the kind of person who looks forward to writing or looks forward to meditating or looks forward to working out? That’s a question worth taking seriously, because you can usually design the habit to feel like, hey, this isn’t a chore. This is something, this is how I want to be spending my days. And that’s really where you want to get to because for a habit to last, it’s got to be part of your normal lifestyle. It has to be something that, like you want to show up and do this each day. And so you’re trying to find the version of it that benefits you the most.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. “What would this look like, or what might this look like if it were easy?” is a question I ask myself all the time. And part of the reason for that is that I’ve, for most of my life, prided myself on having high pain tolerance, being able to do the hard things and the service of the long term. And when you’re starting out, like you said, kind of clawing your way to any good opportunity or any open window when you’re just kind of slipping back on the mud slope of establishing any type of,
James Clear: Yeah. You’re opening windows that are closed. People are like, that was locked.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly. Like clawing like a raccoon at the window trying to figure out the lock. And at least for me, I think I began to associate results with grinding or some degree of effort. And so the association would be, if my effort isn’t above a certain threshold, I am not doing the thing that will produce an optimal result, but past a certain point that can be a false filter, if that makes any sense. So I ask myself that constantly. If I’m recording a podcast, I’ve thought, just to give an example, I haven’t done this yet, but I’ve thought, you know what? The technology is good enough. Why do I do podcasts? At least as it stands right now in a static position. Why not figure out, get the best headset available, figure out connectivity, and go for a walk, figure out a way to record a podcast while I’m walking. I would check off a number of these laws that you mentioned.
James Clear: Microphone in one hand, Starlink dish in the other. You’re just going to be like the ultimate version of the guys sifting for gold on the beach.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah, that’d be amazing. I just put the Starlink on the back of my head, mount it on top of the headset.
Let’s use Atomic Habits as the case study.
James Clear: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How would you deconstruct Atomic Habits both in its writing, but then also its launch, right? Because those are intertwined in what made it successful. What were the things that really seemed to be the Archimedes levers for producing, to the extent that you can, right? You’re on one side of the tennis net.
James Clear: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So any examples?
James Clear: This will probably be a long answer because there’s a lot to talk about. So let’s break it into two categories, writing and marketing. And also the truth is, the honest answer might be like, I don’t know, I got lucky. Maybe that’s the truth. But I suspect that there are things, a lot of things you can do to influence the outcome. And so I’ll walk you through what I tried to do. So on the writing side, I think you have to operate with this assumption of like, let me create more value than I’m going to capture. You try to produce a hit. The ultimate thing that drives book sales is creating something that is actually genuinely valuable to people. And it has to be so good that people will talk about it. Word of mouth, you know, Atomic Habits has sold over 10 million copies at this point.
We could argue, I’d be interested to know what you think the estimate is, Tim, but there’s some number of copies that you could sell just by having an audience and a good marketing plan and sheer force of will and putting a lot of effort in. Maybe it’s 25,000, maybe it’s a hundred thousand, I don’t know. At some point there’s some number where you can’t get beyond that, even if you have a large audience just by the marketing energy. It has to be word of mouth. And I think certainly once you’re in the millions or tens of millions of copies, the only way a book grows that much is people recommend it.
And I like Seth Godin’s measure for this, which is, he says, “If you want word of mouth, you have to create something remarkable.” And that means that it’s worthy of remark, that it’s worthy of talking about. And so you have to start with that. So the three things that I always focus on are, am I writing something that’s timeless? So if it’s timeless and evergreen, then you have a longer period where it could become a hit. If it’s something that’s just really relevant to the current moment, two years from now, you’ve kind of passed your window for it taking off. But if it’s genuinely timeless —
Tim Ferriss: Like the blog post you wrote that got to the producers for television.
James Clear: Yes, right, exactly.
Tim Ferriss: Similar example.
James Clear: Right. Am I writing something that’s pretty universal? So that’s another kind of filter for me. Everybody has habits. Everybody’s trying to build good habits or break bad ones, even if they’re not thinking about it carefully, it’s just kind of part of life. And so not everybody in the world’s going to buy the book, but pretty much anybody can look at the cover and be like, yeah, I get why that would be useful. That’s a thing that most people are going to want. So timeless, is it universal? And then I feel like you have to pick something that fascinates you because if you’re genuinely interested in it, that comes through in the writing. I think Morgan Housel has some kind of line where it’s like, “Writing for yourself is fun and it shows. Writing for other people is work and it shows.” And people have a good BS meter for that. And you need to pick in your,
Tim Ferriss: Quick side sell for Morgan, The Psychology of Money. The title may seem generic. The book is outstanding. I really enjoyed it.
James Clear: Yeah. Yeah, he’s fantastic. Okay. So that’s kind of like my write something timeless, write something universal, write something that fascinates you and do all that with the intention of creating something genuinely remarkable or that creates value for people. Those things sound good. I think it’s worth asking like, what does it look like in practice to actually do that? So let me just give you some examples.
Tim Ferriss: And I’m just going to keep interrupting because I’ve had too much caffeine. I’m going to blame it on the caffeine. I would also love to at some point, so you’re going to give some examples. I would love to know how you thought about modeling other books or constructing the format and layout of your book. Not the visual layout per se.
James Clear: No, I know what you mean.
Tim Ferriss: Structuring the book. Because I’ve seen many examples of you deconstructing sentences, quotes, application essays. We probably won’t get to that, but when you went to Switzerland, right? You’re very good at modeling. So at some point I’d love for you to speak to that.
James Clear: Yeah. I think you should deconstruct the cool things that you see in life. Like when you come across something that you really like or that you think is cool, so in my case, I was writing a book, so how do I deconstruct bestsellers? What’s going on there? And if you find a single example of something, it doesn’t really tell you anything. But if you start to find patterns, then that’s probably something to pay attention to. So I think, actually this is a great segue to some of these examples I was going to give. So let’s say when I was writing Atomic Habits early on, I was like, I know what I’m trying to achieve. I’m trying to write the most comprehensive and most useful book that’s ever been written on habits. Now I have no idea if I achieved that. And it’s not really for me to decide if we’re being honest, I don’t get to choose that it did that.
That’s up to the readers to decide is that a mark that you hit or not? But I think that has to be the target. You’ve got to start there. Otherwise, you’re never just going to stumble into that outcome. So you have to try to intend to create something great. So how do we do that? I looked at a bunch of books, not just about habits, but also other bestsellers. One of the first things I did was I went to the table of contents for all those books. And then I was like, how are these books arranged? And what you’ll find is that a lot of bestselling books, they break things into thirds or it doesn’t always have to be thirds, but they have a clear structure that the book goes through so that you can look at the table of contents. And even though you don’t know what’s in the chapters, you know exactly where you’re headed as a reader. What people don’t want is they don’t want to open up a book and feel lost, feel like, “I have no idea where this guy’s going to go with this.” And it kind of feels like they’re wasting their time.
A couple examples. You could do, and I thought about these, but I didn’t actually use these for Atomic Habits. I could’ve had a table of contents that was like “Habits of the Past,” “Habits of the Present,” “Habits of the Future.” You know pretty clearly where that book’s going to go, if you see those categories in the table of contents. Or Power of Habit is another example. If you look at the table of contents there, I think he does “Habits of Individuals,” “Habits of Businesses,” and then “Habits of Societies.” So it’s like individuals, organizations, societies, and you can see how he’s kind of moving up the hierarchy as you go through the book. Another one that I looked at, I can’t remember which one of Cal Newport’s books it was, but it was either Deep Work or something like that. But he had a section on, here are the rules that you need to follow and then there were four rules or six rules, and so each one of those got their section in the book.
The point is just there needs to be a clear roadmap for the reader. And if you start looking through what other bestsellers are doing, you can start to think about how to transport that onto your own experience.
Another thing I did was I tried to look at what is the average chapter length for a lot of these books. When I signed the book deal, the publisher and the editors I was working with, which I love my publishing team by the way, but they were kind of encouraging me to write longer chapters, like 6,000 or 8,000 words. And I was coming at this as a blogger. Most of the things I wrote were like 2,000 words or 1,500 words. Eventually what I settled on was most of the chapters were between 2,000 and 3,000 words. And that felt like the right one, you know?
Tim Ferriss: And just for folks to have a reference point. I mean one printed page, what would you say, it’s roughly like 350 words?
James Clear: Yeah, I think most of my chapters were about 10 pages. So 300 words. Yeah, if it’s a 3,000 word chapter, maybe it’s 10 or 12 pages, something like that. So yeah, figuring out the length. I started to notice other things that novels would do or books that weren’t necessarily non-fiction. The chapters are really shortened. There’s kind of this momentum that gets into it. It kind of gets you flipping pages and it’s easier to keep churning through the chapters. And so I wanted to have that kind of chapter length.
I actually think Atomic Habits is still a little bit longer than I was hoping. I just couldn’t figure out to compress it more. My initial manuscript for the book was 700. It was like 712 pages or something. And the finished version of the book is like 250. So I compressed it by 66 percent or whatever. So it’s much smaller than it started out as, which I think is good because I feel like a lot of books, especially business books, they could have been a blog post or a 20-page paper and they get turned into a 200-page book. So I wanted to do the opposite.
Tim Ferriss: I fucking hate that. It’s the worst. It’s so bad.
James Clear: But I actually think if you look at books that sell really well, a lot of the time they’re like 180 to 220 pages, they’re actually even a little bit shorter than what I ended up hitting. So these are all examples of deconstructing bestsellers on what’s going on. Probably the most important place to do this is with titles. So I have a spreadsheet of hundreds of titles for books. The way that I did it was I said, “I’m only going to look at books that have sold a million copies or more. That’s what I’m trying to achieve. So let me just see how many books I can find that have done that.”
Tim Ferriss: Quick question, tactical question, did you do that through access to Nielsen BookScan?
James Clear: I didn’t have access to BookScan because I was just a poor blogger who was trying to make a book, so I didn’t have access to any of that stuff. But what I did was I just did tons of Google searches. Usually what happens is that when an author hits a million copies or four million or whatever, they —
Tim Ferriss: They’ll let you know.
James Clear: Yeah, they let you know. And so there’s all kinds of stuff, or you’ll find like if you just search a title and then copies sold, there’s New York Times articles that profile an author and they say, “Their book sold six million copies,” or whatever. So it was just a bunch of legwork like that.
Anyway, I put together that spreadsheet. Let’s say I’ve got 150 titles or something, and then I started to look for patterns. So what format do all these titles follow? I think I ended up coming up with, they’re about six. I won’t be able to remember them all off the top of my head, but the most common format is the blank of blank. So The Power of Habit, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, The Power of Now, The Power of Positive Thinking, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, The blah, blah, blah. So it’s always the blank of blank, The War of Art. It’s a very proven format. The Psychology of Money, we can just keep going on and on and on. There are so many examples like that.
Usually what people do is they take their topic, and that’s the second piece, and then they take some type of descriptor, and that’s the first one. Ideally, you’re combining things that are not usually combined like, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. So tidying up is the topic of the book, but now you’re telling me that it’s life-changing. And what you find is a lot of these bestselling books, they have some element of contrast in the title. There’s something that’s unexpected about it. Another common format is you just take, and this is —
Tim Ferriss: Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, right? You don’t usually think subtle art.
James Clear: Yeah, the F word is actually the least subtle thing, right? So there’s this interesting contrast between the two. Another common format, this is the one that I use for Atomic Habits, is you take the topic of your book and then you layer on some kind of unexpected descriptor before it. I’ll get to Atomic Habits in a second, but Extreme Ownership by Jocko. The idea is you take ownership and responsibility for your life, but you do it in this extreme way. It’s not just a regular idea of taking ownership. Or Cal Newport, Deep Work. You’re doing work, but it’s a special kind of work. It’s not the normal type of thing that you’re thinking about.
These are just examples. There are a couple more patterns that I found. And then ultimately you’ve got to decide like, which one makes the most sense for me? Which one feels like it’s the best fit for my book?
Tim Ferriss: And which one can you live with forever?
James Clear: Yes. Titles are really tricky because they need to pass a lot of filters. They need to cover what the book is actually about. Like in my case, it needed to actually talk about habits. I think it’s important to have some element of contrast. In my case, “atomic” has multiple meanings. It can be tiny or small, so your habit should be easy to do. It can be the fundamental unit in a larger system. So like atoms build into molecules and systems versus goals is a big part of the book. It can be the source of immense energy or power. So I think if you combine all those three meanings, you get the big arc of the book, which is you make changes that are small and easy to do, you layer them on top of each other like units in a larger system, and then you end up with these powerful or remarkable results as a byproduct. So for all of those reasons, I felt like atomic was a great word to describe it.
So It needs to describe what the topic is. It needs to be interesting and compelling or a little bit different. Sometimes good habits are a little bit weird in a sense. Nobody was really using the phrase “atomic habits” before the book came out. It wasn’t like a way that you would describe a habit. You might describe it as small, but you wouldn’t describe it as atomic. And so that allows me to —
Tim Ferriss: Good habits also, if it had been good habits, just for people out there, you’re going to be competing with the entire internet for search results.
James Clear: I actually think a lot of titles fall into this pitfall, which is they use a phrase that is commonly used and you want a phrase that you can own in the reader’s mind. You don’t want to be competing with all the other things that use the phrase “good habits.” 4-Hour Workweek is a good example of this. Nobody really used that phrase before the book. It was a little bit weird in the sense that it wasn’t part of normal conversation, and that allowed you to own it.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
James Clear: It also had that element of contrast where you’re like, “Man, I work for 40 hours a week, you’re telling me I can work for four?” So it’s this surprising thing. Another example that might be like Rich Dad Poor Dad. That book has this element of contrast between the two. So it needs to be something that you actually want, it needs to cover the topic of the book, it needs to have this element of contrast. There’s a lot of filters for it to pass, and that’s why coming up with good titles is hard.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Let me add one thing too, because there may be some — I have a lot of engineers and computer scientists and so on who listen to this podcast. If you guys are starting to develop hives, because this sounds like, “Oh, my god, this is marketing. I hate marketers. All marketers are liars.” I’d like to emphasize that if you want anything, I shouldn’t say anything, if you want a book you write to be remarkable, there are some prerequisites. In other words, what are the antecedents to something be being or becoming remarkable? One of them is it needs to be remembered. People can’t remember the title, it’s very hard to remark upon it in any way that is meaningful. And this also translates and applies to the table of contents. So in The 4-Hour Workweek I had this DEAL structure and I thought very, very, very intently about how to structure the book, but then also how to label the different structures and I had multiple options that could have worked.
If you have the book in your hand, almost all of them could have worked. But if I want someone to be able to remember apply and also talk about, which requires recall, the elements in the book, having something that is an acronym, DEAL, that is easy to remember was I think a critical ingredient. To your point, given how many things are outside of your control, not sufficient to guarantee in any way that something will hit the bestseller list, but necessary. So necessary but not sufficient, I think.
What were some of the critical decisions, or I suppose critical decisions is most interesting to me, but it could also be lucky happenings that you set the conditions for? If that makes any sense.
James Clear: First of all, the launch of Atomic Habits, I started planning it about 15 months ahead of time. It was like a 15-month process. That doesn’t mean it has to be that long. I think you could still do an excellent launch in nine months maybe, but you’re going to need a lot of time. Sometimes I’ll hear from authors and they’ll be like, “Hey, my book’s coming out in two months, what should I do?” I still think there are plenty of things to do, but in a sense you’re already a year behind. It’s long process and to take it that seriously — it’s not like an accident when you see a lot of these books doing that, people are spending a lot of time on it. So that’s the first thing is you need to take it seriously and give it enough time.
So what do you do with that year? Well, we didn’t really do much different. There’s not many things that I did that you have never heard of an author doing before, but we did them at a larger scale than most people would’ve done. So let’s take podcasts, for example. Doing a podcast tour for your book is a very popular, typical thing to do when your book comes out. We put together a list. So I went through iTunes and I clicked on every category of shows that we felt like could be relevant to the book. So health and fitness, business, et cetera, and went all the way through. For each of those categories, I think usually iTunes lists like a hundred shows or so in each category. So we went through all the hundred for each of those categories, and then we identified every show that was already an interview show. So I wasn’t trying to convince anybody to bring me on that wasn’t already talking to people. Then put all those shows in a spreadsheet. I think we ended up with maybe 300. And then I wrote individual emails to all 300 hosts.
So that takes a long time. Now we had a general template, but I would customize each one. And there was a section in each email where I would say, “Hey, you’ve had on this previous guest in this episode, or you talked about this topic in this episode, I feel like I could provide something new or expand on that. It seems like it already went over well with your audience. If you’re interested, I’d love to come on. I’m sure the show is going to be successful whether I come on or not, but if you’re interested, let me know and I feel like we could have a good conversation.” And you’ve got to send 300 of those emails for 100 of them to work out.
And so I wrote the drafts up and then I think about three to four months before the book came out, it was about four months, we started sending them all out and getting interviews scheduled. I spent a two-month span before the book came out recording as many as I could. And I ended up getting about 75 interviews recorded before launch week. We asked everybody to release during launch week. Now, not everybody did, but pretty much everyone at least would either do that week or one of the weeks before or after. And this is one of my core principles for the launch, which is you want a concentrated strike. You want to have as much energy as possible in a tight window. The idea, which Tim you know this better than almost anybody, the idea is to make it seem bigger than it actually is. You want to feel like it’s everywhere.
And so I had 75 interviews hit during launch week. I did an additional 25 during the month that the book came out. So by the time the book was out for one month, I had a hundred interviews that had hit within that same month span. So you’ve got a lot of action going on there. At this point, by the time the book came out, my email list was around 400,000-450,000 subscribers, somewhere around there. So I had my own energy that I was trying to provide. So we sent a sample chapter, we sent the first chapter of the book out. I sent a couple excerpts during launch week. I had that segment that I did on CBS This Morning on launch day, and we sent that out. So there were probably four or five emails that were coming out around that time.
Similar to what you did with 4-Hour Body and so on, I did a series of bonuses. So if you bought the book during launch week, I think there was a private webinar with me where you could ask any question. If you bought three copies, you got some extra PDF downloads and a secret chapter. If you got 10 copies, you got something else. I think I only had three categories, one copy, three copies, and 10. I did have one additional higher tier. It was like, if you buy 500 books or 1,000 books or something like that, I would come and give a keynote. And I would not do that one again because I ended up giving a keynote in Malaysia and a keynote in Australia just because —
Tim Ferriss: Surprise.
James Clear: Yeah. So there were some smart people out there internationally who were like, “This is a great deal for us.” Anyway, but it was fun. It was all part of the launch. And so I did the bonuses, I did the emails to my audience, we did the podcast push, and all of that action is happening more or less in the same two-week window, but definitely in the same one-month window.
So we’ve got all this kind of energy happening. We also sent out influencer copies or whatever you want to call that, advanced copies to people. I didn’t want to send any galleys to anybody. I only wanted to send a finished copy because I wanted their experience to be the actual, finished book. I want it to be as good as possible. So we waited to send those out.
Tim Ferriss: You compiled a list of advanced folks.
James Clear: Yes, but my thing, again, the same way with the podcast, I only wanted to do it with people who opted in. I’m not trying to spam people with the book. Again, this takes a lot of effort. We had to come up with a list of people who we thought would be a good fit, and then we sent them all messages and said, “Hey, I’ve got this book coming out, would you be interested? If so, what’s the best address to send it to?” And it was only people —
Tim Ferriss: How did you find those people? Sorry to be a pain in the ass.
James Clear: No, no, no, no. It’s a good question.
Tim Ferriss: Who’s a good fit?
James Clear: Yep. The obvious answer, the one that everybody thinks of is, oh, it’s people with a big audience who are interested in the topic that I’m writing about. But I actually think you can do much better than that, which is we made a list. So again, what are we trying to do here? We’re trying to give the book a push and help it generate word of mouth. So I think one thing that you could do is say, which communities already have a lot of word of mouth? What are the type of things that people are interested in that they just can’t shut up about? And so I came up with a list of things, CrossFitters, vegans, bullet journalers, parenting and mommy blogs. I came up with a bunch of categories of people who they love to talk about their thing. And so I think I ended up having 15 categories or so.
Tim Ferriss: That’s brilliant. James, can I pause for one second?
James Clear: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: There’s a restaurant here in Austin called, I think it’s El Arroyo, and they’re famous for their signs that they put outside and they have these really pithy sayings, and these have become books now, mugs, everything, because they’re so clever. One of them was, “If someone does CrossFit and is vegan, which do they talk about first?” Which I thought was pretty good. So continue.
James Clear: It’s a worthwhile question though. There are things that people get genuinely excited about and love to talk to other people that are in that industry about, or interested in that thing. So let’s come up with a list of those. I think I had 15 or so. And then I went through those 15 and I started asking, “Okay, which of these communities is the book a good fit for? Where do I feel like there’s overlap?”
Tim Ferriss: That’s so smart. Very smart.
James Clear: So then I came up with a subset, but I don’t remember what it was, but let’s say it was five or something. CrossFitters were one of them, as an example. And so I think one of the first sets that we did was we said, “Let’s try to find all the big CrossFitters on Instagram.” And then I think the first batch that we sent out, we did 30 CrossFitters, we did 30 venture capitalists, and we did 30 parenting and mommy blogs.
Tim Ferriss: Why venture capitalists? If you don’t want me asking. That one seems to stand out.
James Clear: Wait, what did you say?
Tim Ferriss: Why venture capitalists? That stands out from the others.
James Clear: There was a lot in the book about growth, getting one percent better each day, continuous improvement, process and business habits, building a successful company. I am often asked to speak at companies or to speak to sales teams about those types of things. So all of that focus on systems and continuous improvement. We felt like it overlapped well with business. And venture capitalists are seeing lots of businesses, and they’re the kind of modern version of venture capitalists. A lot of them have public presence on Twitter or they’ve got their own podcasts or whatever. So it was the kind of thing where we felt like the topic overlapped and they had an audience that they could talk to.
Tim Ferriss: Let me dig a little bit on this because I’m fishing, and it may be a fool’s errand, but I can kind of illustrate something even if it doesn’t apply to you. Were you sending them to the venture capitalists in part because if you had say endorsement or broadcast in some fashion to their audiences, maybe it wouldn’t result in a lot of copies sold. But if one of your income streams is speaking to businesses and so on, that it could bolster that side?
James Clear: That might be true. That was definitely not what I was thinking when I was doing the launch. It might be true, it might be a good idea, maybe I should have been thinking about it. But all I was thinking about at the launch was where are my potential readers hanging out and how can I get in front of them or make it known to them that this book exists and they would probably enjoy it. Again, this all kind of goes back to this feeling of this concentrated strike or not wanting to have a lot of energy in a small window. So we sent out those influencer copies. What ended up happening is that the CrossFitters were the best fit. I think part of the reason is venture capitalists, for example, I don’t even know how many — they all opted in, so I only sent them to people that said they wanted a copy.
I messaged Sam Hinkie for example, and he was like, “Yeah, I would love a copy.” So then I sent him one or whatever. So it was that kind of thing. But they just didn’t talk about it as much or maybe they had a lot on their plate and they didn’t read it right away. Whatever the reason was, the CrossFitters did best. I think it was kind of interesting to them. I feel like if you’re a CrossFitter and you have a million followers on Instagram, you’re probably sent a lot of workout gear, a lot of supplements, a lot of stuff like that, but you’re very rarely sent a book. And it was like, “Oh, this is kind of cool. This is a topic that will help me in my training and I don’t usually get this.” And so they opened it up and a lot of them took a picture and then shared it on Instagram.
We didn’t ask for any of that, by the way. We just asked people who opted in and then we tried to get them a book that we felt like was a great fit for what they were already interested in. What ended up happening is, I’ve got all these podcasts sitting, I have the emails going out, I got the CBS segment, and then 20 of the top CrossFitters all posted about it on their story within the same two-week span. Now, if you’re into CrossFit and you follow the top CrossFitters on Instagram and you see —
Tim Ferriss: That surround sound. That means everyone is seeing this book.
James Clear: And you’re like, “Man, everybody I know is reading this right now.” And that’s not true at all, but it feels like it in your little universe. And so again, it’s like, how can you make it feel like it’s everywhere for that window of time? And so once we figured out that it worked well for CrossFitters, then we started saying, “Okay, let’s branch out in fitness.” So then we sent it to a bunch of bodybuilders, a bunch of power lifters and so on. And it has turned out that it’s been a really great fit for people in fitness and they love the book and they recommend it to their clients, and they find it useful for their own training and so on. And so we had to try a variety of things for that to work out. I actually do think it’s one that a lot of venture capitalists like now and recommend, but it just was a slower burn with them. It didn’t work during the influencer push as much.
Anyway, you get the idea. None of those strategies are radical or new. Everybody is familiar with that if you’re looking up, how should I launch a book? But what’s different is we tried to do it all at the same time, and we tried to do it all at a larger scale than most people were doing. At first, we only sent a hundred influencer copies. Over time, we’ve sent a thousand. Sorry, what was that?
Tim Ferriss: Well, you’re also very surgical in where you chose to go an inch wide and a mile deep. Where I think a lot of folks who I observed launching books, they kind of half-ass two dozen things.
James Clear: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I mean, that sounds too pejorative maybe, but they really try to scatter, sprinkle effort across a ton of different things. And I’ve never seen that work well. If we’re trying to quantify it, let’s just say one of your goals is to be on the bestseller list. That could be the Wall Street Journal, which at least last I checked, is a truer bestseller list. It’s compiled based on Nielsen BookScan and other metrics. The New York Times list has sales input, but it’s largely editor’s choice list.
James Clear: I think the best one is Amazon, because the Amazon charts are the only source that compiles print, e-book, and audio into a single number. Now they don’t have every book sale, they’re only counting what’s on Amazon, but that’s, I don’t know, 80 percent, 90 percent of print books. It’s probably 95 percent of audiobooks, Audible is, basically the only way that people listen to audiobooks. And it’s most e-books too, because Kindle’s the way that most people read e-books. So I think it’s probably the truest number of what books are actually selling best —
Tim Ferriss: It is the truest.
James Clear: — is the most sold list on Amazon.
Tim Ferriss: It is the truest. However, just like your morning TV show, the New York Times, just as a specific list, has a mindshare that these other bestselling list [do] not have.
James Clear: Well, what did we put on the cover of Atomic Habits? We put, “#1 New York Times Bestseller.” Not number one on the Amazon charts.
Tim Ferriss: Right, exactly.
James Clear: Isn’t that interesting? It’s the truest number, but it doesn’t have the branding.
Tim Ferriss: So if you want to hit that list, at least last I checked, depends on the category and so on. But you really want to have, let’s just say the possibility of selling, again, depending on your week, and I would suggest people do research and choose a soft week if you’re competing in this way. That’s what I did with 4-Hour Workweek. Just as a side note. You can study these things. If you have a cookbook, maybe you shouldn’t come out right before Thanksgiving and Christmas. You’re going to be fighting monsters if you try to do that. So pick your timing. But if you have to sell, let’s just call it or have a chance of selling 20,000 copies for two consecutive weeks, if you could only choose one way to do that, one medium, podcasts, email, fill in the blank, which would you choose? Okay.
And then if you had the ability to add on a second, which would you choose? If you had to shape your entire launch strategy around that, then what would you do? I think it’s just a thought exercise that is worth doing so that you do not succumb to the distraction and well-meaning advice of many people who will say, “You have to be on this, you have to be on this. You must do this, this, this, this, this.” And before you know it, you’re going to have a must-do list of 20 different things, many of which are mutually exclusive if you’re trying to be excellent in any one of those. Question for you, what do you think would’ve happened had you not had your email list? Or instead of it being 450,000 people at the time and had been 4,500 people?
James Clear: Yeah, I mean, that’s a good question. Obviously, there’s no way to know, but it made an enormous difference. In my personal story, it’s the only reason that the book happened to begin with because I was just a lowly blogger. I have no credentials. I don’t work for the New York Times, I don’t teach at Harvard. The publishers in New York would probably tell you, “Oh, we were looking for a book on habits and we really like his writing and stuff.” But the truth is they would’ve never let me in the room if I didn’t have an email list of hundreds of thousands of people. That’s the thing that got me in the door.
So this is one of the things that I love about writing, which is competence matters more than credentials. Anybody can write on any topic and that is a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is that means you need to be careful about what you read, because people can just make stuff up and write whatever they want. But the good part is competence is what matters. You don’t need permission from anybody. What you need is to write something exceptional. You need to write something that genuinely makes a difference and is useful in people’s lives. And if you genuinely deliver on the problem that you’re writing about, then you’re in a good position to make a career out of it.
Anyway, that wasn’t a direct answer to your question, but I think the email list was an enormous important part of it. It got the book deal to begin with, and it also really moved the needle on book sales during launch week. The little hypothetical you threw out a minute ago, if you could only do one thing. If I had to choose one thing, I’d choose email. Now, I have 2 million email subscribers, so maybe that’s kind of an obvious choice. But even if it was smaller, I would spend time building the audience and building the email list because it does so many things that are helpful. As you’re building the list, as you’re as writing each week, you’re refining your ideas, you’re learning what resonates with people, you’re figuring out what your best concepts are. And all of that can inform writing a better book, which puts you in a better position. And then you’re also building the audience along the way. And so now you have people that you can launch to.
If I had to pick one thing that, like let’s say your book’s coming out in five months and you don’t have an email list, but you have a book that’s written, what would I do? Then I would focus externally and I would probably just try to do as many podcasts as possible and use your current advantages to achieve and gain new advantages. Right now, your main advantage is time. You got five months, how are you going to spend it? And then if you can knock it out of the park with one podcast, now you have a really good episode, maybe you can get that published right away and you can send it to some other shows that are like one level up and prove that you’re worthy to come on as a guest. Then you try to knock those out of the park and then if you have a really good one, you use that and send it to the next level up and so on. And you just kind of try to keep going like that. So I would do email first, but if I didn’t have an email list, I think I’d pick podcast.
Tim Ferriss: How many Instagram followers would it take, if any, for you to give up your email list?
James Clear: Oh.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s say, yeah, so 10 million? 20 million? What would the minimal compelling number be, if there is one?
James Clear: I don’t think I would do it. It would have to be over 100 million. I don’t know that I would do it, because I —
Tim Ferriss: Say more.
James Clear: I’m not in control of it. So Instagram can be, the algorithm can change. My account could get suspended. They could whatever. I don’t write about provocative stuff, but you get the idea. I’m not in control. If you had 100 million followers, also, I’m assuming some level of engagement here. It’s not just phantom followers. You’re assuming that you’ve got an engaged audience either way.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah. If Kim Kardashian were like, “I want you to co-post on my Instagram with me.”
James Clear: Yeah. She’s like, “I’ll give you all my Instagram followers. You give me all your email list.”
Tim Ferriss: “We’ll do makeup and booty fitting dresses, and then, we’ll have habits.”
James Clear: Right. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: “You get every Wednesday.”
James Clear: I know. My next book is Booty Habits.
Tim Ferriss: It would sell, just saying.
James Clear: I’m telling you, man. That sounds like a bestseller to me.
Tim Ferriss: You’d have to do more squats, but that’s okay.
James Clear: Yeah. I don’t know. There’s obviously some number where it’d be stupid not to do it, but I don’t know. Email’s just so flexible in how you can use it, and Instagram is pretty constrained. It’s got to be an image. And I don’t post images of myself.
Tim Ferriss: I’m in a similar boat. If somebody said, “I’ll give you a 50 million.” I wouldn’t trade.
I’ll give just a tip for folks also. This is what I did with the first book and pretty much every book since. If I’m sending out advanced copies, I will send out galleys in some cases, at least with the earlier books I did, because it allowed me to just have a longer lead time. I have very long books, as many people know. They violate every rule of length. They tend to be gigantic. And it takes a while for people to explore these books. So I will send out galleys. Usually, they’re pretty much in final form. Maybe, there are a few citations, no appendix, probably no page numbers in the table of contents, because that stuff is moving around.
But otherwise, they’re pretty solid. They will not have a final cover, as an example. But what I will do, if I’m sending out advanced copies, whether they’re galleys or actual final product is, and this is very old fashioned and it takes time, but I feel like, if people skip some of these time consuming steps on the front end, they are sacrificing a lot of long-term potential. Because they may not ever reach that escape velocity.
Get some Post-it Notes and pick specific chapters or sections, so that you can say, “if you don’t have time to read the whole book, and I don’t expect you to read the whole book, I tabbed the chapter that I think is going to be most interesting to you or that might be most interesting to you,” which requires you to do some homework, like you did when you were sending pitches to these podcasts. You had so-and-so on. You talked about A, B, and C. It seemed like your audience really responded well to X. “Why don’t we do A, B, and C? Or if you’d be open to A, B, and C.” And that due diligence pays incredible dividends. And what you did with podcasts was exactly what I did for bloggers for The 4-Hour Workweek. I microserialized, so I could offer different blogs, different places, like Life Hacker and so on, exclusives on a particular facet of the book. And that required an incredible amount of research on the front end.
James Clear: Yep, it’s worth it. I did the same thing for the sending out the advanced copies. I can remember sending a message to Naval and saying, “Hey, I know you’re super busy. I do genuinely think you’ll find the book interesting. If you only have time to read three pages, I think these are the three to read.” And I have no idea if he read it or not, but he was like, “Thanks, I got it.” And so, that was it. And it takes a long time to do it in that way. But actually writing real emails to the podcasters and not just doing a template and actually selecting the pages that you think will be most useful for each advanced copy and not just spray and pray, that stuff, it helps. It actually works.
Tim Ferriss: And also, if you’re being very deliberate and very thoughtful about how you are picking these recipients, oftentimes, it only takes one or two. So doing that diligence and research on the front end increases the likelihood of you at least having one or two hits.
James Clear: I actually think the word that you just used, which is “thoughtful,” that’s the word that I come back to again and again and that I actually hope that’s the primary lesson that people take away from this portion of the conversation, talking about writing Atomic Habits and talking about deconstructing the marketing of it and the launch of it. I don’t know. Maybe, some people will be like, “Oh, this sounds like a lot of marketing or whatever.” But I don’t think about it that way at all.
I hope what comes through is that what I’m trying is that, at each level of this experience, the research of the product, the creation of the book, the launch, and the marketing of the book, I’m trying to be as thoughtful as possible, to create the most compelling or most useful version of the book, to share the best examples in the book, to find and identify the people who will be the best fit for the book, and to deliver it to them in a way that is the most thoughtful and makes it as easy as possible for them to consume the book and share it with others.
And if you’re thoughtful at each stage of that process, you’re just going to end up with such a better outcome. And if you are just trying to write a book, but get it out there quickly, because you want to have a book, you don’t want to write a book. Or if you’re just trying to market it and get it to as many people as possible, because you want to have a popular book, you don’t really care about who it is that it resonates with. If you cut corners like that, then it is just really hard to have a great outcome. But if you’re thoughtful at each stage, then it tends to work out much better.
Tim Ferriss: 100 percent agreed. Coming back to the frameworks and principles in Atomic Habits, are there any sections, chapters, principles, anything, that you wish more people paid attention to? There’s something that you put in, that gets glossed over or maybe doesn’t stick, for whatever reason, as much as other things, but you think it, or these things, are important. I certainly have examples from my books, where I’m like, “Shit, I don’t know if I made a mistake in the way I presented that, but it’s not getting its fair shake in the sense of its importance.”
James Clear: Well, sometimes, you might just be like, “Maybe I thought that idea was better than it actually was.”
Tim Ferriss: There might be that too.
James Clear: Yeah, I have a couple. So there are two things that came to mind. The first one is, there’s a little example I give in the book about, maybe about halfway through or 40 percent through, where I talk about having a pre-game routine and doing things in the same sequence each time, in the same order each time. And that helps get you in the mindset and kind of initiate the habit. So I played baseball through college, and I had the same pre-game routine that I did before each game. And that kind of flips this switch in your mind, where it’s like, “Hey, it’s time to compete now. It’s game mode.” Or the example I gave in the book was this guy who, he would do his writing at the library and he would go to the library, sit at the same desk each day, and put on his headphones and play the same playlist.
And that little sequence was a pre-game routine, that got him in the mindset to do his writing habit. And one day, he turned around and realized that no music was playing, he just had his headphones on, and it was just silent. But he was writing, and he was 20 minutes into writing before he realized it. And it’s a good example of how just that sequence of doing it the same way each time and having that same pre-game routine, that little ritual, got him in the mindset. He didn’t even need to press play that day. He was just ready to write. And so, if you can come up with what that little pre-game ritual is for you, that can be a great way to initiate a habit. And I don’t usually see people talk about that. I think, actually, I’ve heard some examples like this on your podcast previously, Tim, I think, when you talked to Josh Waitzkin at one point. Sometime, he gave this example, maybe it was in his books, maybe it was a conversation with you, where he was competing in this national competition, martial arts.
And he was told that he was going to compete at one time, and they came up to him and he was sleeping or laying on a bench. And they were like, “Hey, sorry, timing was wrong. You’re actually up in six minutes.” And he was like, “Normally, I would’ve been thrown off.” But he had this little pre-game ritual that he did, and he tried to, as he developed it over time, it started out and maybe it was 10 minutes and then, he tried to compress it. So it was seven minutes and then, it was three minutes.
And then, eventually, got it down to where his little ritual was just something he did for 30 seconds. And so, they woke him up on that bench, and he’s got to compete six minutes later. But all he needed was 30 seconds to get in the right frame of mind. And then, he was like, “Okay, now I’m ready to go.” And so, those pre-game rituals can be really powerful if you make it your own and come up with something that you do every time and it helps get you into the mindset to compete or to perform.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, for sure. Josh has given, could be, his personal example. He’s also talked about Marcelo Garcia, who’s nine-time world champion Brazilian jiu jitsu, arguably, maybe uncontroversially, probably, one of the best, if not the best, who’s ever competed in Brazilian jiu jitsu, who has a similar ability to throw a switch minutes before he’ll compete in a world championship ballot. And it applies furthermore to most writers who I have had on the podcast, will have some type of boot up sequence, much like this person who went to the library. And people can take solace in the fact that there’s no consensus. There’s no consensus.
James Clear: It’s very personal, and you need to make it your own.
Tim Ferriss: And there are also people who will say, “Yeah, I just dick around for the first two hours, but that’s not wasted time because it takes that long for me to just scribble or complain about my day on the page, so that I’m filling the page with something and then it turns into an hour later, some paragraph that is the nugget of the beginning of what I need to work on that day.”
James Clear: Eventually, the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it. And they take action.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Or Neil Gaiman and he is like, “Yeah, I’d go to the cabin and I don’t have to write, but I’m not allowed to do anything else.”
James Clear: I’d love that. I love that. That’s great.
Tim Ferriss: And B.J. Novak also has his own approach. He’s done a ton of television and film work. And for me, right now, we’re working on fiction for the first time over the last, let’s call it, six months, finding the routine, how I make the coffee, when I sit down, the exact sequence, how I set up my laptop on the laptop stand. It’s very monkish, but it does make a big difference. So that was one. The pre-game sequence.
James Clear: Yeah. So developing a pre-game ritual that works for you. And then, the other one that I feel like this is something that, if I had to pick a topic that I feel like is more important than I realized when I was writing the book, I would probably say this, and that’s the power of the social environment. We are all part of multiple tribes. Sometimes, those tribes are large, like what it means to be American. And sometimes, they’re small, like what it means to be a neighbor on your street or a member of the local gym. But all of those tribes that you belong to, the large groups and the small groups, they all have this set of expectations. They’ve got a set of social norms for what you do when you’re in that group and what the typical way is to act and behave and what kind of habits they follow.
And the more that your habits go with the grain of the expectations of the group, the more attractive they feel like to you, because it’s like, “Hey, I fit in. I belong. I’m part of something.” And the more that they go against the grain of the expectations of the group, the harder they are to stick to, especially in the long run. Maybe you can do it for a day or a week or, I don’t know, a month or two, but at some point, you kind of keep rubbing against, you have this friction where you’re conflicting with the group. And it becomes hard to stick to that for the long run. And so, the little takeaway that I kind of think of now is you want to join groups, to join tribes, where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. Because if it’s normal in that group, then it becomes really motivating to stick to it.
And furthermore, the kind of ancillary habits that are part of that group, the other expectations, are things that you’re probably going to soak up. People will join a CrossFit gym because they think they want to get in shape. But then, you turn around, six months later, and they’re all eating paleo and wearing the same brand knee sleeves and they buy the same workout gear and it’s all these other habits that they never intended to build. But they just kind of soaked them up, because that’s what the group was doing. And ultimately, I think this comes back to this kind of deep need that we all have, which is this need to bond and connect.
We all want to be a part of something. We want to belong. We want to fit in. And if people have to choose between “I have habits that I don’t really love, but I fit in, I belong, I’m part of something,” or “I have the habits that I want to have, but I’m cast out, I’m ostracized, I’m criticized,” most of the time, the desire to belong will overpower the desire to improve. So as best as possible, you’ve got to get those two things aligned and surround yourself with people where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, absolutely. The whole you are the average of the five people you associate with most type of thinking. And also, for people who are starting off the new year or about to, and thinking about how to best ensure that you cohere with a group, that leads to these new behaviors, front load it, make it painful not to do it. Pay in advance, make some type of bet with one of your friends, and you owe each other money if you miss workouts. Set it up so it is painful not to do it. I know that might sound like I’m favoring the stick over the carrot. You’re also going to use the carrots. You can use the carrots, but make it compelling from an incentives perspective to do it.
James Clear: And as you said, you can also use the carrots. The flip side of that is, so yes, make it painful not to do it and make it easy and frictionless and obvious to do it. Try to design your environments, so the things that you say are important to you are the obvious and available things. I think one interesting thing you can do is just think about one habit you’re trying to build and then walk into the rooms where you spend most of your time each day. Kitchen, office, bedroom, whatever. And just look around and ask yourself, “what behaviors are obvious here? What is this space designed to encourage?”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s really good.
James Clear: You’ll start to notice different things that you can tweak to make the good habit more obvious and easier and the bad habits, or the things you want to avoid, less obvious and maybe a little higher friction. And making one or two little adjustments like that is not going to radically transform your life. But if you make a dozen or two dozen or 50 and you’re kind of all of these environments, all these rooms where you’re spending space each day are primed to support the habits you want to build, now you’ve got a tailwind rather than a headwind. And so, it’s become so much easier to appear as if you have great willpower or that you’re really consistent, when really, you’re benefiting from the environment that you already set up.
Tim Ferriss: And I’ll also say, sometimes, one or two changes can make a huge difference. Coming back to my brownie binge yesterday. There’s a reason I don’t cook brownies all the time. There’s a reason I don’t have chips in my house, because I will eat all the fucking chips. I will eat everything. I love chips. And rather than view that as a failing, yes, I could take the hard path and crawl on my knees through broken glass to develop the willpower to stare at these chips every day and not eat them, or I can just not have the chips in my pantry.
James Clear: Put yourself in positions to succeed. A lot of it is positioning. If you have a dog and you’re walking it down the street and your dog doesn’t get along well with other dogs and you see one coming toward you, go to the other side of the street. Don’t put the dog in a bad situation. That kind of thing is obvious with our pets or with our friends or our family members. We’re like, “Oh, why would you do that to yourself?” And then, we do it to ourselves all the time. So try to design a space where you are being served by your environment, rather than being hindered by it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, totally. I think it was, I don’t want to misquote them, but when I had Jerry Seinfeld on this show, I think he said something like, “Your mind is a stupid little dog that you have to train,” something along those lines. And if you think about it, I think, now, you got me on dog training, I think about dog training a lot. And I trained my dog, Molly, and took it super seriously and worked with all these different trainers and then, tried to modify it and so on. Surprise, surprise. And there are these basic things, where it’s like, if you talk to somebody and they have a problem because their dog chews shoes, as an example. And you can ask, “Well, where did the dog spend most of its time for its first two months in the house as a puppy?” And they’ll be like, “Oh, he ran around the house.”
And be like, “Well, did you have shoes on the floor?” “Yes.” And that’s how the dog developed a habit of chewing on shoes. But if you crate train your dog and you simply prevent them from chewing on shoes for the first few months, they’re not going to eat shoes. It’s just not going to be a thing, generally speaking. And for humans too, it’s like, if you don’t want to eat chips every day, Tim Ferriss, then don’t leave the shoes on the floor. Don’t leave the chips on the pantry. This is a solvable problem. So I find a lot of reassurance in the fact that it doesn’t have to be brute force willpower. And I’m not saying this to you, because in place of something nebulous like that, you can set up systems and you can also rank order your habits in such a way that you are looking for the upstream habits, that make the downstream habits easier.
So whenever I’ve wanted to get in better shape or someone has asked me for advice, they’re like, “What should I eat?” And I’m like, “Let’s talk about exercise first.” Because if you eat well, it doesn’t necessarily lead to exercise, but if you exercise very often, you’re not going to want to spoil the exercise you did by eating a bunch of crap. If you exercise and you’re like, “Wow, I put in a lot of effort, I feel great,” you’re going to have this sunk cost fallacy benefit of having put in that effort and you’ll be less inclined to screw it up. There’ll be too much cognitive dissonance.
And in making those types of decisions, you can actually make behavioral change a lot easier for yourself. And I’m also looking at my environment. I’m like, “Coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee.” So if I want to reduce my coffee consumption, maybe I should change this room that I spend so much time in.
Oh, my goodness. Anything else that you would like to say, James? We’ve been going now for almost three hours, and I think this is probably a good place to begin to wind down. But is there anything else you’d like to mention?
James Clear: The trajectory of your life bends in the direction of your habits. And a lot of what we’ve talked about today, whether it’s launching a book or writing a book, whether it’s building an exercise habit or a meditation habit, growing an email list or developing a creative habit, it comes back to consistency. It comes back to doing small things well each day, trying to live one good day, and then, waking up again tomorrow and doing the same thing. And the world is very results oriented, and that’s fine. We all want to get better results, but almost all the results that you want are a lagging measure of your habits. So your bank account is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your physical fitness is a lagging measure of your training habits. Even silly stuff, like the amount of clutter in your living room, is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits.
So if you want your results to change, the habits that proceed them are the things that actually need to change. It’s like fix the inputs, and the outputs will fix themselves. And I don’t think that means you have to be radical about it. It doesn’t mean that you have to upend your entire life. Really, all you need to do is focus on having five good minutes. You can do a lot with five good minutes. Five good minutes of exercise can reset your mood. Five good minutes of conversation can restore a relationship. Five good minutes of writing can make you feel great about the manuscript again. And so it doesn’t take much to feel good, to get back on the path, to continue to make progress.
And small habits, showing up in little ways, mastering the art of showing up, trying to get a little bit better each day, those are all things that you can keep in mind as you try to just live one good day today and be on a good trajectory. And that really one of the core ideas of Atomic Habits is getting one percent better today. And it’s really about that. It’s not about measuring it, and “that is a one-percent improvement,” or 1.6 percent, or whatever. It’s not about the numbers. It’s like a mindset. It’s a philosophy, it’s an approach, that “I’m going to focus on the trajectory that I’m on and I’m going to try to stay on a good path, even if it’s just in small ways,” and then, trust that that will compound and multiply and turn into something much greater over time.
Because the truth is, time will magnify whatever you feed it. If you have good habits, time becomes your ally, and all you need is patience. But if you have bad habits, time becomes your enemy. And every day that goes by, you kind of dig the hole a little bit deeper. And so, the ideas in Atomic Habits, the strategies for making small changes, for letting these behaviors improve over time, it’s all about getting time to work for you. And I think you can start in really small ways and begin to reinforce your desired identity. And hopefully, this time next year, you’ll be really happy with where you’re at in the progress you’ve made.
Tim Ferriss: Hear, hear. I’m not going to spoil that with adding any commentary that is unnecessary. I think that’s a strong way to close. James Clear, you can find him at jamesclear.com. On Twitter and Instagram, @JamesClear, will link to everything including the 3-2-1 Newsletter, which everyone should check out in the show notes, as per usual, tim.blog/podcast. James, thanks so much for taking the time. This is great. Took a ton of notes. I have homework. I have changes to make. I have perhaps a few bags of coffee to remove from my immediate space. And this has rekindled my enthusiasm, amplified my enthusiasm for the new year. So I appreciate you sharing so much and being so game to play the tennis match of this conversation.
James Clear: Of course. Thanks, Tim. Really appreciate it, man.
Tim Ferriss: And to everybody listening, be just a little bit kinder than is necessary today. That includes to yourself. Setup systems. Remember our dear friend, Arken Locus, we will not rise to the level of our goal or our hopes, but fall to the levels of our training and our systems. So best of luck to you, and thanks for tuning in.