We all know that junk food is bad for us, but what about junk news and social media?
These days, it’s getting pretty nasty out there. The nightly news cycle of local crimes, endless stream of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram updates and feeds, celebrity gossip, reality TV shows, trendy clickbait articles. The list goes on and on.
In this age of information overload, your life can be filled with irrelevant or unnecessary information in an instant. And that just clouds your mind for the rest of the day.
Returning to the show to help us simplify our lives at a very opportune time as we get this new year off to a fresh start, we’re here with Mr. James Clear.
James Clear is a writer focused on habits, decision-making, and continuous improvement. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Time, and CBS This Morning. We have a lot of catch up on since he was last on the show many years ago.
On this show with James, you’re about to learn:
- How to stop overdosing on celebrity gossip, the news, and low quality information
- The best way to get a good habit to stick
- How our physical environment influences our behavior—that’s a big one
- How to handle haters on the internet
- And much more…
Alright, let’s go hang out with James.
James Clear: Habit Hacking & Building a Better Life
Abel: Alright folks. James Clear is a writer focused on habits, decision-making and continuous improvement. He’s a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies, and his work is utilized by teams in the NFL, NBA and MLB.
Welcome back to the show, good sir.
Hey, it’s great to talk to you, man. Thanks for having me back.
Abel: Absolutely. So your new book is getting people on track in a time when everyone seems more scattered than ever.
But I was just on your website and I noticed you had an article talking about how you should stop overdosing on the news and low-quality information.
Talk about that a little bit. It seems like that is appropriate these days.
Well, a couple of years ago I came to this realization that all of the best ideas I come across, or the ones that seem to stand the test of time and were most useful in my life, had come from books and not from the news.
And then I had this realization that the news is a TV show, which sounds weird to frame it that way because we usually don’t think about it like that.
But the news is a media company and every day they put on a new episode. And the goal of that episode is to get as many eyeballs as possible.
And so they put on the things that are most likely to elicit eyeballs watching, which generally means driving fear or anxiety or sparking up some kind of emotion.
Sometimes it’s the positive ones. Sometimes they have positive stories and get you to feel joyful or happy or so on.
Abel: Of course they do.
But most of the time, it tends to have a negative tilt because that’s what drives behavior.
But the other insight that I had while I was kind of wrestling with those same ideas, is that by definition for something to be newsworthy it must be an outlier, because if it’s normal everyday life, then it’s not newsworthy. It’s not notable.
You’re never going to see a news story that’s like, “Man eats chicken and salad for lunch today.”
It’s only a news story a year later when it’s like, “Man loses 100 pounds,” because that’s the outcome or that’s the surprising thing.
And so because of that, we get kinda boxed into this weird situation where we look to the news to be informed about what’s going on in the world. But by definition it’s not most of what is going on in the world.
It’s the outlier events that we see.
So then we start to overestimate how often those things are happening or how prevalent they are, because we see them every day.
But by definition, they are the thing that happens like 0.1% of the time. That’s why it’s newsworthy in the first place.
So, it’s really easy to watch the news and feel like there are more rapes and murders and fires and so on than there are in daily life.
It’s not that I don’t want to know about those things at all, it’s just that I want to have the proper perspective on them.
And when I realized that it was a TV show and that the most useful and robust and lasting ideas that I had come across were from books, I decided to shift my information consumption, shift my information diet from one of short tidbits of news to one more of books.
The next thing people often say is like, “Well, what about just being a good citizen? What about staying up-to-date on things?”
And the one solution that I came up with, that I haven’t heard anybody else talk about for staying informed is what I just said about the outlier idea. That actually, you feel like you’re being up-to-date, but you’re actually being up-to-date on a very small portion of life and not what’s mostly happening.
But the second piece is, at the end of each month, I have a reminder to go to Wikipedia and type into the search bar, month and year. So like: August 2018
And when you do that, say you type that in on September 1st, and it’ll pull up the most prevalent or most important stories from the last month.
And what ends up happening is, the list is almost never longer than 10 items. It’s like five to 10 things. And this is for worldwide news that was worthy of a Wikipedia entry.
And you immediately cut out all of the stuff that was like a part of the 48-hour news cycle that you thought was super important, but actually the market just dropped 3% and it doesn’t matter at all because next week it’s back up 3% and we’re back to where we were.
And you just eliminate all of that noise and only see the relevant things that at least have stood the test of a month. If it’s not relevant three weeks after they run it, how important is it really?
And so, it was all part of this larger pursuit of lasting and applicable knowledge.
Abel: I love that. Because that’s exactly what we’re not getting from social media and the internet, for the most part, these days.
It’s interesting because I think when we first got to know each other a little bit, internet research was where you went to go deep. And now it seems it’s where you go to be as surface-y, and 140 character-or-less-ee as possible. You know what I mean?
Social media is an interesting place because you curate the people you follow. It’s kind of like you get to create your own little city, you know?
Like you get to choose who the citizens are, and you need to be very careful about who you choose because that determines what ideas you get exposed to each day.
Abel: Right. So does advertising. At the same time ads are mingled with all of your friends and all the people you choose.
That’s a fair point. You don’t have total control. Advertising will interject itself in there a little bit as well.
But the common quote, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” I think actually we could maybe shift that.
Shift that to say, “You’re the average of the ideas you spend the most time with.”
Abel: I like it.
And on social media, you get to choose to a certain degree what those ideas are.
And so it can be really useful. But what I’ve realized is it’s not the default. And it wasn’t even the default for me.
I had to spend dozens of hours curating my Twitter feed to make sure that I was following people who were very high signal, very low noise, very high information density, and applicability and usefulness for daily life. And not just emotion and anger and raw or whatever, all the things that are stereotypically associated with those 140 character bits of information.
Abel: And like you said, the news is a TV show. Having been on a reality TV show, I can tell you that it’s not news as much as it’s a TV show.
I was shocked by how so many people watched the weight loss competition ABC TV show, and I was even more shocked to find how many people were trying to be informed by it. Having been on that show, I can tell you it was like 90% show and 10% actual stuff.
And of that 10%, you saw almost none that actually reaches the viewership. So news obviously is not reality TV, but it’s not too far off, I think we can agree at this point.
So if you do want to be informed, I think the Wikipedia strategy that you mentioned, even though that obviously isn’t perfect either, is such a great example of what you can do today to hopefully use technology as a tool instead of something that’s controlling you.
I think you can do that in many different ways.
I talk about that a lot in the book that I just wrote about how to use technology to promote good habits, rather than as the default that pulls you into things.
But it requires effort, it requires a little bit of strategy and thinking.
And the Wikipedia example is kind of like that news strategy. News programs don’t work this way, but imagine if they only ran a news show when they have a really meaningful event.
But that’s not how it works. Instead they have to go on every day at 5:00 PM.
And so because they’re going on TV, they have to fill that space with something, and so then it literally is a show.
Whereas the Wikipedia entry is like, “We only write the entry when there’s something worthy of writing.”
And so that helps you filter a little bit better.
The Negativity Bias
Abel: Also the negativity bias is so very much at play whenever you’re talking about media, right?
And channels or personalities or whatever, most of the ones at the top know that you get a lot more fire and juice from being divisive than you do from being good.
That’s important for people to know on the other end, because I don’t think it’s widely acknowledged, right? The negativity bias, specifically.
I don’t know if this is a true story or not, but I had heard the story about a newspaper in Chicago. During the Great Chicago Fire in the late 1800s, that newspaper saying half the city is burned sold better than any paper ever before.
And that was the inciting event that taught journalists and media that negativity is what sells.
And from there, we kind of continued down this slippery slope of framing things in a more negative way.
But really to be more accurate, what they’re really trying to do is just frame things in the most emotional way.
If you get people to feel something, an emotion, all behavior is emotionally driven at some level.
Oftentimes our emotion it’s like low level and we don’t consciously feel it.
Like, for example, you walk into a dark room, there’s some tinge of emotion that gets you to flip the light switch on. You don’t like the uncertainty of being in a dark room.
Now, we don’t consciously think, “Oh, I feel so worried and fearful,” and so on whenever we flip a light switch on.
But the emotion is there as part of the driver.
And at a higher, more conscious level, the more emotion someone feels about a news story or whatever, the more likely they are to not be able to pull their eyes away from the TV and continue to watch to figure out what’s going to happen next.
4 Stages of Decision-Making
Abel: Just thinking of it now, it’s the opposite of holistic. What all of those different channels and things are doing is pulling us all these different directions, and so we’re feeling more scattered than ever.
But I think one of the things that’s really valuable about your book in particular, is how you kind of break down habits and reactions and the process of what you go through when you actually make a decision.
So could you break that out a little bit for us?
I like to divide habits in four stages: Cue, craving, response and reward.
And I think that by doing it that way, by dividing a habit into those four steps, we can more precisely understand what a habit is, what gets it to start, why it sticks and then how we can adjust it.
So before any habit, there’s some kind of cue, there’s some kind of prompt.
I’ll just go with the example I just mentioned. You walk into a dark room, the room is dark, that’s the cue. In this case, it’s a visual cue, but it could be any of the senses, it could be auditory or smell, or touch or so on.
Visual cue, the room is dark.
Next, there’s some type of interpretation of the cue, there’s a prediction that your brain makes about what to do next, and that’s what I call the craving.
So dark room is the cue. Prediction, I would like to be able to see, I’d like to reduce the uncertainty of being in a dark room. I want to know what’s here, and so on.
That prediction, that craving, is what motivates you to act. It’s the image that it creates in your head. And I’ll give another food-related example, in a second.
So, craving, I want to be able to see.
Response, I flip on the light switch.
Reward, the room is lit, I’m able to see.
I reduced the uncertainty of being in a dark room. And that is one of the purposes of any reward is to resolve the craving, the desire that came before the action.
And so I think it’s really instructive to have those two.
It’s kind of like every habit is sandwiched by an interpretation, by a prediction and an outcome, that says, “Was your prediction right or was it wrong?”
And when it’s right, we have a reason to repeat it again in the future, and when it’s wrong, we have a reason to update our prediction the next time around.
And this can help explain what I think are a couple of key questions about habits.
One, for example is, how come two different people can look at the same cue and have a different response?
For example, one person walks into the kitchen and sees a pack of cigarettes on the counter, and they immediately interpret that cue as, “Oh, I should smoke. I have a nicotine craving. I’m feeling anxious, it’ll help calm my nerves, resolve my stress, and so on.”
So, they have this craving for cigarettes and then pick one up and smoke it.
Another person who’s not a smoker might walk in, see the pack of cigarettes on the counter, and it means nothing to them.
It’s just neutral, it’s like a little icon in their environment. They see it and they don’t get any craving at all. And it’s the interpretation of the cue that prompts the response.
And so by having that second stage there, we can more accurately understand why two people might act differently in the same circumstance.
And then the second thing that it does, is it explains why the same person, like me, would respond differently to the same cue.
So, for example, if I wake up and I walk into the kitchen, and I see a loaf of bread, I might see that cue and think, “Oh, I need to make some toast. I want to make breakfast.”
And so I take out a piece of bread, and throw it in the toaster and make it, and go eat it and so on.
But we could just as easily imagine that 10 minutes later, I walk into the kitchen, and I see the same cue. I see the loaf of bread but now my stomach is full, and I think I interpret it differently.
I think, “Oh, I don’t want to eat anything. I’m full, I just had breakfast.”
And so, understanding that all behavior is prediction-driven, has a craving proceeding, helps you understand how you interpret cues and why you respond differently in different circumstances.
And so anyway, those four stages, cue, craving, response, reward, I think is a good way to divide up a habit and what it is.
Abel: But what we think we want isn’t always what we actually want, right?
Whether you’re talking about a craving or reward, it’s messy. It’s not perfect.
Certainly. First of all, in many cases, there are competing cravings.
So let’s say, for example, that you want to go for a run at 6:00 AM in the park. 6:00 AM rolls around, and you have one urge which is to stay in bed, because it’s warm and feels nice and you’re tired, and so on.
But you agreed to meet your friend at 6:00 AM at the park, so you have a second urge which is, “I don’t want to be a jerk and leave my friend there.”
And so these two cravings are competing against each other and one of them wins out.
In this case, let’s say you don’t want to be a bad friend, so that gets you out of bed and you decide to not stay warm and huddled up under the blankets.
So yes, it can be messy.
And then the other thing is, sometimes we think on the surface, we think we want one thing, but actually we’re looking to satisfy a much deeper or more primal drive.
Like, you might think, “Oh, I can’t stop checking Instagram.”
But what you really want is not to check Instagram, what you really want is to not feel bored, or to feel entertained or to change your state.
And so there’s kind of like a deeper layer underneath that, that you’re actually looking to address. And the modern manifestation of that is just checking Instagram.
Abel: How do you know when you need to find that deeper level or when you’ve found it?
It’s like, people are addicted to checking Instagram, it’s important that they know that it’s not Instagram they’re addicted to.
This will get a little technical, and if you want to cut this, feel free.
Abel: No, go deep.
So the lowest level for, I think pretty much any organism, is this axis of defending versus discovering.
So, for any living being, the first thing is you need to defend your life, your survival, you need to stay safe. But once you stay safe, there is a reward or potential reward in discovering, in searching your environment.
All organisms do this, even plants will reach toward the sun or reach out to try to catch more rain. So, in that sense, they’re exploring their environment, they’re reaching into the unknown, what is outside of their current leaf, to try to get more nutrients or resources or so on.
Humans have the same axis, where we come into the world and we don’t know much about it at all. And as we go through life, we try to explore more widely and more widely.
Now, there are risks associated with that. There are risks out in the unknown, but there are also rewards in the unknown, and so that’s what gets us to search.
And whenever you get into an environment where you feel too uncertain, you usually recoil back a little bit.
Like, you go to a networking event, you don’t know anybody except your one friend, and then you just stay right by them while you’re there, because that’s the most known thing in this very uncertain environment.
But as you become more and more familiar with whatever environment you’re in, you start to reach out a little bit. And the reason you do that is to capture rewards.
And the reason we want rewards, is because they provide us with energy for better survival. They provide us with resources for making our way through the world more effectively.
Alright, so that’s the base layer.
Then the second layer on top of that are some of these, I’ll call them primal drives.
So, like the desire to be entertained or to not be bored. Well, that’s on the discover side of the axis. We evolved to have this curiosity because organisms that have curiosity will discover more, and thus come across more rewards, and so on.
And one of the ways that has manifested itself is just with this urge to be curious and look around and be entertained and not want to be bored.
Because organisms that are fine with being bored, that are fine with the same state, spend too much time on that defend part of the axis and don’t discover enough rewards.
So that’s one example of a primal drive for the urge to not feel bored and to feel entertained. And that comes out of that axis.
Then the third layer on top of that is the modern manifestation of checking Instagram or going to YouTube, or whatever. And that’s just a consequence of our modern world.
That will change in 50 years, or 100 years it’ll be something else. But it’ll be trying to satisfy that same primal drive that lays on top of this ultimate desire or balance to defend and to discover.
Habits vs. Addictions
Abel: But our immediate behavior is often at odds with that reward, with a true reward we crave, right? How do you reconcile those things?
What do you mean? Give me a little better example?
Abel: Well, I think alcohol is a good example, because it’s almost always a bad decision.
Why does an alcoholic crave alcohol? It’s not often the vodka and the taste, it’s not the alcohol itself, it’s something much deeper than that.
And so the immediate behavior might be for that state change that you mentioned before, or it might be to numb pain, run away from whatever it is.
But it is ultimately not serving them in the end. Even though they’re after a reward, they kind of get it, but they get a lot of other things too, and usually regret it.
So I guess a true reward would be something that you don’t regret, right?
Sure, yeah. It’s great question.
Alright, I think there are two things going on here, so I’m going to separate them and then answer both.
The first thing is addiction, which I would think in my mind, addiction is somewhat of a special case. And then there are just bad habits which also fall into the same category.
You don’t have to be an alcoholic to feel like, “Well, I kinda regret drinking on the weekend. I wish I hadn’t done that.”
For addiction, one of the definitions of addiction is, you continue to repeat a behavior despite negative consequences. So, you know that it doesn’t serve you, you know it’s not a good outcome, but you still can’t stop yourself from doing it.
You still get the craving that drives you to take that action. And these four stages that I mentioned just a few moments ago; Cue, craving, response and reward. They form a feedback loop.
And so when you go through them and then you get an outcome, if that outcome is positive, then you’re like, “Oh okay, my prediction was good, my craving was good. I should do that again next time.”
But with addiction, you go through those four stages and you get to the end of the feedback loop and the outcome is negative. But for some reason, the feedback loop in the brain is kind of broken and you still think the next time, “I should do it again.” Even though the consequence is negative.
And there are variety of theories on why that’s occurring.
Although I feel like I know a lot about habits, I actually don’t consider myself an expert on addiction specifically.
There are a lot of insights that are coming out now, biologically, neurologically. There’s some really interesting new treatments that are going on with Magnetic Resonance, some of them pharmaceutical.
I think where I currently feel like that stands is, we’re on the cusp of learning some interesting things, but we don’t know yet.
And I do think that that feedback loop is somewhat broken there.
But then we have the second thing. And I think this is actually widely applicable to anyone. And it fits in well with what we’re talking about, which is your question that; Well, if something is actually rewarding, it would be rewarding in the long run, right?
Like, it would actually be good for you. We use words like “good habits” and “bad habits”, but maybe a better word would be “effective habits” or “ineffective habits.”
And so, a bad habit still serves you in some way. It’s effective at getting you something in the moment. But I still am fine with using those words, good and bad, because I think the key distinction is what you just hinted at.
Pretty much all behaviors produce multiple outcomes across time. And for bad habits, it’s often the case that the immediate outcome is favorable.
Like, if you eat a donut right now, the immediate outcome is, it’s sugary, it’s tasty, it’s sweet, it’s enjoyable. %he immediate outcome was, “Yum.” That’s how it’s serving you.
But the ultimate outcome, if you continue to repeat that habit for a week or a month or a year, is unfavorable.
And so I think that we can define bad habits as being unfavorable in their ultimate outcome, whereas good habits in many cases, the immediate outcome is actually a little unfavorable.
Like going to the gym requires some sacrifice. You sweat. It takes effort and energy. But the ultimate outcome, if you repeat that habit for a week or a month or a year, is favorable.
And so, I think that that’s a good way to distinguish what is good and what is bad.
And this is where looking at bad habits can actually be instructive for building good ones, which is, “How can we form bad habits so readily? If those things don’t serve us in the long run, why do we so easily form them? Why do we so badly want a donut or to watch more Netflix or whatever?”
And the answer is, the human brain is wired to prioritize immediate rewards.
We spent many, many thousands of years in an environment that scientists would refer to as an immediate return environment.
An environment where it benefited us to take our immediate or very near-term needs into account.
Like, where am I getting the next meal from? Where’s the water source? There’s a storm on the horizon, I need to take shelter. There’s a lion there, I need to make sure I’m a safe distance away.
And the consequence of evolving in an immediate return environment is, you heavily prioritized immediate rewards and you discount delayed rewards.
Because having an apple right now in the moment is more valuable than maybe having five apples in a week. But you don’t know if somebody else is going to take them or they’ll go rotten or whatever.
And so the brain is wired that way, to prioritize the immediate outcome.
And because bad habits, we just mentioned, are more likely to serve us in the near term, but hurt us in the long-term, we find ourselves often sliding into those things that provide immediate satisfaction.
And I think that the ultimate lesson here, if we’re going to try to take the reins and use this insight to build good habits, rather than to break bad ones is to say, “Well, what can we learn from that?”
And we can learn that bad habits form readily because they provide an immediate satisfaction.
One of the great ways to get a good habit to form readily or to make it more likely to stick is to try to find a way to make that habit satisfying in the moment, so that you have a reason to repeat it while you’re waiting for those delayed rewards to accumulate in the background.
How to Change Your Habits
Abel: You brought up, because how could you not, environment and how important that is when it comes to habits, especially the things that we’re doing unconsciously or non-consciously.
It just occurred to me that historically, if you’re thinking about our ancestors, they would have an opportunity to recreate their own habits very often, because they were moving all the time. They were nomadic.
And for my wife and I, we are more nomadic than most, and every time we move, we use it as an opportunity to cleave the old bad habits, whatever that means, and hopefully help install new ones.
And so I’m just thinking about how we’re kind of sucked into whatever habit we’re in in our environment.
Usually a morning routine is a great example. Or after you get home from work, we do the same thing without even thinking about it.
Yet, if we travel to our friend’s house or if we go somewhere else, all of a sudden it’s a blank slate. “What do I do this morning? I’m not sure what to do.”
But that’s a good example of how everyday could look, where you could in fact start with a blank slate and install your best habits tomorrow, if you really want you.
But we don’t feel like that, right?
Well, you raise an interesting point and a good one, which is that all habits are, at a certain level, they’re about associations. They’re about associating a solution, something that solves a recurring problem in your life with a particular context.
Take the habit of tying your shoes, whenever you put a shoe on your foot and the shoelace is untied, that’s like a situation that repeats itself each morning. You see that.
Now, it doesn’t always look exactly the same. Sometimes you put on a slightly different shoe or the shoe laces are different color or whatever, but your brain maps what it has remembered. The habit it has built onto that similar context.
And then you just pull that mental shortcut out and you tie your shoes without thinking about it, you perform the habit whenever the context is similar.
But your point about switching to a new context, being nomadic or changing environment, or being on the road and traveling for work. Whenever the context changes, it’s harder to stick with your old habits because now you don’t have the same cues, the same things firing that old script.
But the good news is, it’s easier to build new ones because you aren’t trying to overcome your behavioral biases, you aren’t trying to overcome these associations you already have built in.
And so, one solution, this is what you mentioned or what you’ve looked at a little bit, like being nomadic and moving to a new place and using that as a way to build a new habit.
But you can also do this in a smaller way even if you live in the same environment. One solution is to redesign a little bit of your room.
Take one example, we talked about the news earlier. A lot of people will feel like they watch too much TV, or too much screen time on Netflix or whatever.
But walk into any living room where do all the couches and chairs face? They all face the TV.
So it’s like, what does this room designed to get you to do?
It’s the most obvious and easiest association to make in that environment. And so if you want to do something different, like if you say “I want to build a habit of journaling for 20 minutes after work each day.”
And then you come home and you sit on your couch, where you usually watch Netflix for an hour, you might not consciously be thinking of it, but you’re fighting that internal association with, “This is where my TV habit happens.”
And so you can either make that easier by changing the environment, so put the TV inside a wall unit or a cabinet. Take it off the wall and put it in the closet, if you want to be really extreme about it. Turn the chair away from the TV so it’s not facing it, and so on.
Or you can find a new environment where you don’t have current habits built or associated with that yet and build your new habit there.
So you could say, “After I leave work, I’m going to go to this coffee shop across the street that I never go to, but now it’s going to become the journaling coffee shop. And I’ll go in there, I’ll turn my phone off when I walk in and this is where I journal for 20 minutes.”
And now after two weeks or a month or a little while, it becomes associated with that context. Journaling is the thing that happens there.
And so, that’s a powerful way to use this idea of a new environment as a clean slate, as a blank slate for building on a new habit.
Abel: I can really vouch for that. I think I learned that most in college when I was kind of speeding through and I had to study.
When I had to study, I really needed to study well and effectively. It had to happen. So there were these little areas that I would set up at different places, even in different libraries, where I’d study one thing in one spot and I’d study another thing in a different spot.
Like, I’d read in one spot and I’d write in another spot, for example. I’d get specific with it and it really helped.
And even if you go one level deeper, there was one kind of acoustic laid-back guitar album that I was listening to at the time, that does not have lyrics. That’s really important, especially if you’re doing anything involving words.
But I would put on that particular album every time, and as soon as I had my headphones on, I was in that spot. And it’s like, “Boom, I can go as long as I need to, I know exactly what I’m needing to do, I’m not being distracted at all.”
And man, is that effective. How can people do that in their normal out of college lives?
I know you mentioned in your book, there are the higher budget or higher opportunity ways to do it, and then even if you live in a cramped little space, you can do it, too.
Those are great examples. One of the examples I share in the book, this guy Ed Latimer, he did something similar.
He’ll listen to acoustic music that has no words whenever he’s writing. But he started to realize that he did it for like a couple of months and then one time he put his headphones on and just started writing, but he forgot to press play.
And it was like the action of putting the headphones on conditioned him to get into this writing mind.
Abel: That’s awesome.
And you can utilize, I call these motivation rituals.
It’s a ritual that you do that precedes the action you do in the same place, the same way, every time.
I was an athlete, that’s my background. I played baseball through college, and I would do that whenever we had a game. I would do that literally do the exact same warm-up, exact same stretches for the same amount of time, the same number of throws.
And the key for baseball, in particular, there’s so many games that coaches are always saying like, “You have to find a way to be motivated today, you have to find a way to be up and ready.”
And there are just going to be days where you don’t feel motivated, but if you can rely on your ritual, then it’s kind of like a switch is being flippe.
And it’s like, “Oh, it’s game time. It’s time to go.”
So you were doing that with your study habits by having that specific location and practice and so on.
We’ve already given some examples of doing that with a totally new environment, like the coffee shop or something like that. But you can also do it within the same environment.
If you want to build, say, a reading habit, and again, using this example of trying to sit on your couch but you’re kinda naturally pulled toward watching TV or YouTube or whatever. Get in different chair and put that in the corner of the room and that becomes the “reading chair.”
And the only thing that you do, and this is incredibly important for the beginning, especially the first like 30 times.
You sit down and you only read in that chair. And soon, it’ll be much easier to get into that pattern because that’s the only thing that happens there.
And so little things like that can help condition yourself, condition your mind to get into the right zone at the right time.
Abel: And the two-minute rule? That could come in handy there, as well, if you want to build that habit.
So the two-minute rule, it’s a simple idea, you just take whatever habit you’re trying to build, so read 30 books a year, or do yoga five days a week, and you scale it down to just the first two minutes.
This is one of the best places to start for someone who’s looking to build a new habit. This is probably one of the first things I would recommend.
So, read 30 books a year becomes “read one page.” Or, do yoga five days a week becomes “take out my yoga mat.”
And sometimes, that sounds like a little silly to people because they’re like, “Well, I know the real thing is I want to do yoga, I’m not just looking to take my yoga mat out. That’s not going to get me in shape.”
But the key insight that people often overlook is that a habit must be established before it can be improved.
You need to master the art of showing up before you can figure out how to expand and do it better. We often overlook that.
People have heard things like: “Oh you should start small”, or “baby steps”, or whatever.
But even when you know that, it’s still really easy to start too big, and people will do things like, “Okay, I want to go for a run three days a week, but I know I should start small, so I’ll only run for 15 minutes.”
But even that’s like way bigger than what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about, put your running shoes on and get out the door, and if you do anything else, it’s just extra.
And the reason that that’s so crucial is it allows you to master the art of showing up.
And if you master the art of showing up and become the type of person who does it each day, then you have a lot of options for expanding and improving from there.
Abel: Yeah, the rest is gravy. And it’s so bizarre, but the hardest part is putting on your sneakers or whatever, and lacing them up. It’s not running.
I remember when I was doing a bunch of marathons, it’s like the first mile, I’m like, “Ugh, I feel terrible. This is never going to work out.”
And then the third mile, “Oh, kinda loosening up, things are feeling good.”
And then all of a sudden, you’re at mile 16 or whatever, things suck again, you have to work through and then things are cool again.
But it’s this process, you’re never there, but you always have to kind of trick yourself in order to persevere.
One exercise that is so powerful, it’s not imagining yourself all covered in sweat and victorious at the end, which can be helpful in its own way. It’s imagining you at your lowest, that moment in your workout, or in your challenge, or in your performance, or whatever it is. You know it’s going to come, it’s addressing that moment and visualizing yourself coming out of it, victorious in your own way.
Coming out of the lowest part, it’s going to that place in your mind and trying to imagine what you’re going to do then, when it definitely comes. And that man, has that been helpful for me since I started.
I think there’s something about just focusing on mastering the decisive moment that comes at the beginning of the behavior, that allows you to show up.
Like you mentioned, the beginning of the marathon is the hardest part. I’ve seen that in a couple different areas.
For me, I go to the gym and work out four or five days a week, but the real key that determines all that is if I change into my workout clothes.
The next two hours are already decided.
And something similar happens each morning where I sit down at my office and either I open up Evernote and I start working on the next article I’m going to write, or I go to ESPN and I check the latest sports news.
Whatever happens in the first hour of the day is really determined by what happens in that first minute.
Abel: Isn’t that interesting? Then it cascades, right?
Yeah, it’s really about mastering that decisive moment, that little fork in the road. And if you can do that, then the next chunk of time takes care of itself.
And when you realize that, I think it’s a little bit insightful, because it starts to show you that most people probably have maybe five or 10 of those decisive moments throughout their day, these little forks in the road that determine the next chunk of time.
And if you can just pour your energy and your strategy into mastering those, the rest of the day kinda takes care of itself.
So there’s really not that much to figure out if you can just master those key moments. It’s kind of a form of mental judo or judo for habits.
It’s like, apply the pressure at the right moment, and the rest of it just falls in place.
Abel: It’s fascinating how well that can work.
I can’t believe we’re already coming up on time. But the Diderot effect kind of goes in the same direction, along the same point, where basically the idea is, you obtain a new possession and then that creates a spiral of consumption.
And what occurred to me is that, during your moment, “Do I write my newest article, or do I read ESPN and check the latest scores?”
It’s a, “Do I create or do I consume here?”
That’s what we’re often faced with. That’s what I’m faced with day after day.
And you’re right, once we get into that phase of consumption, it just keeps going, and then your whole day is lost.
That’s true about a lot of behaviors. Behaviors and habits often come in bundles.
You go to the bathroom, and that reminds you to wash your hands, and that reminds you that the towels are dirty and you need to do the laundry, and that reminds you that you need to pick up detergent from the store and on and on and on. So there’s this chain of behaviors that happens.
And the key insight that I have in that section of the book where we talk about the Diderot effect and this spiral of behaviors, is that you can make this work for you rather than against you.
It doesn’t have to be something that’s out of your control.
And one of the best strategies for that is what I call habit stacking.
But I first learned it from BJ Fogg, who’s a professor at Stanford. He refers to it as the tiny habits recipe.
But the basic idea is that you take whatever habit you’re trying to build and you stack it on top of a current habit.
So if you want to build a habit of meditation and you make a cup of coffee each morning, you could say something like, “After I make my morning cup of coffee, I will meditate for 60 seconds.”
Or if you want to build the habit of journaling, like I mentioned earlier, you could say, “After I leave the office for work, I will walk across the street to the coffee shop and journal for two minutes.” Or something like that.
And by having that very clear stack, you essentially create the Diderot effect for yourself.
You create this chain of, “Where am I going to direct the momentum of my next action, and how can I get that working for me, reminding me to build good habits, rather than just taking a hold of me and seeing where it goes?”
Abel: It’s really about setting it up and then knocking it down, is the way that I think of it.
In the morning, oftentimes, I’ll take this tiny little notepad here, you can see on the video version, it’s tiny. Those are all the things that I’m going to do that day, I write it down and I visualize it.
And I often put the same little things in the same spot, like my chi gong and meditation practice goes to the top right.
And so I set it up in the morning and then all day long I’m scratching things off. Occasionally, I’ll write a little extra bonus thing on there, but I get to scratch it off all day long.
And it’s funny. Like, talk about a mental trick, that is so silly. That’s elementary school, right?
But no, this is what I’ve done every single day for the past 10+ years, and it is little things like that, those little mental tricks on yourself. Don’t think that you’re better than them, right James?
Well, it’s remarkable how often we overlook strategies like that, because we think everybody knows it.
But, “everybody knows this” is very different than “everybody does this,” do you know what I mean?
There’s all kinds of common sense that people are like, “Yeah, of course,” but then you look at their behavior, and they don’t do it consistently at all.
And that little action that you just described of creating this list, so you have a very clear implementation intention, is what the psychology research would call it, a very clear plan for implementing what you’re going to do throughout the day.
And then, as you cross that off, what you get is a visual measurement of your progress. You build up momentum with each thing that you cross off.
It feels good, feels satisfying in the moment, and you feel like “Man, I’m building towards a productive day.”
And so it’s a really effective strategy that will work for pretty much anybody.
I mean, this is one of the reasons I log my workouts.
It’s a small thing, but it feels good to put another workout in the books and to write down what sets and reps I did.
And there’s a small sense of accomplishment that comes with that, and that’s enough, in addition to the other benefits, to get me to feel like, “Hey, I should show up again tomorrow and do this again.”
Abel: Yeah. It’s interesting, almost always, the first things to cross off are the hardest ones. And then after that, I was just like, zip, zip, zip, zip, zip. It’s easy. It’s momentum.
How to Handle the Haters
There are so many more things that I want to talk about with you. We’ll just have to have you back on the show for sure, but one more quick one. What’s a habit to handle haters that come up? More than ever for normal people today, who are just trying to exist online.
That’s a good question. I don’t know that it’s a habit as much as it is gaining perspective on this thing.
Thankfully, I’m very fortunate, I have a lot of people who really love my work, and have been very supportive and I try to remind myself that there are far more of them than of the haters and the negative comments.
But first of all, I try to divide it into two categories. So the first category is, is this useful criticism? Is it actually constructive criticism? In which case, I should be open-minded about that.
I just did this the other day. I shared a message on Twitter that said, “If you’re familiar with my work at all, even if only a little bit, feel free to answer any of the following questions.”
And it was like, “When do you feel like I just don’t get it?” Or, “What topics do you wish I would cover that I don’t?” “What’s your biggest criticism of my work?” And so on.
And a few people responded and said things like, “Oh, you’re so brave,” or, “That’s really courageous to ask this, to ask for public feedback or ask for people to criticize your work.”
Which is nice of them to say, but honestly, I don’t think that’s actually true at all. It’s way more upside than it is risk.
The risk is you don’t get feedback and you repeat the same stupid mistakes over and over again.
Abel: Yeah, totally.
The upside is, I get to hear what I’m doing wrong once, and maybe that’s a little bit painful, but then I can address it, then I can learn from it.
So first, you need to have some distinction there, because I think sometimes people just shut off and say, “Everybody’s a troll, everybody’s a hater, anybody who criticizes me is not useful.”
And that’s dangerous in its own right.
But then there’s the second category, where it really is not effective. It is just people who are, I don’t know, they’re mad at their own life or upset for a certain reason, or whatever it is.
Abel: Or they could be bots, at this point. I just dismiss those as bots.
Yeah, so many of them are anonymous, they don’t even have a face, or a profile, or an image, or something.
And early on, maybe I would have cared more about that, but now I am able to separate myself from it a little bit more.
The thing is, most of those people, even if they are a real person criticizing, they don’t have the full context. Like, let’s say for example, that I write an article and someone is unhappy with the story I used or the example that I gave.
What they don’t know is that I spent 10 hours searching for other examples, and that was the best one that I could find to illustrate the point.
And if they knew all the work that went into it, maybe they would view it very differently, but they don’t have that context.
And so I try to view their comments in the frame of, what context do they have to say this? And if I can put myself in their shoes, then maybe I can get something out of it.
But mostly, I can just dismiss it easily because I’m like, “Oh, they’re missing literally like 80% of the picture. And so, that makes this not a useful piece of criticism.”
Abel: Well, we’re just about out of time, but I want to say, James, I’ve always appreciated going to your website and your work, because it’s so clean.
There’s not a whole bunch of pop-ups and ads and all sorts of crap coming at you. It’s very much intentional.
You can tell that you practice what you preach, at least the best you can. And you also don’t claim to be the guru, which is very much appreciated.
Where to Find James Clear
So tell folks, before we go, a little bit more about where they can find your new book, Atomic Habits, as well as your website and your work.
Thanks man. I’m glad you’re enjoying the work and the book.
So just generally, for my work, jamesclear.com. Feel free to click on the articles. I have them organized by category so you can poke around, see what’s interesting to you.
But specifically for the book, it’s called “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones,” and you can find that at atomichabits.com.
And on that page, there are also some bonus guides, like a guide on how to apply the ideas to business, how to apply the ideas to parenting.
There’s a template for tracking your habits, and some other stuff, as well. All of that is at atomichabits.com.
Abel: Right on. Well James, thank you so very much for coming on the show, I’m sure we’ll have you on again soon.
Awesome, thanks Abel.
Before You Go…
Here’s a review that just came in from Cleo the Leo. Cleo says:
It works. It’s very difficult for me to lose weight due to a medical condition, and I lost 10 pounds in six weeks. I already ate gluten-free, grass-fed, organic minimal grains, so I think what made the biggest difference was intermittent fasting.
That basically meant eating hard-boiled eggs two to three hours later than I was used to on most days. Definitely worth a try.
– Cleo the Leo.
Well, congratulations on shedding those stubborn 10 pounds, Cleo. I know if you’ve been trying for a while and doing a lot of the right things, it can be really frustrating.
Fasting doesn’t work for everyone, but it does work for me, or at least it’s been working for me for many years now and I very much enjoy it.
If you haven’t tried fasting yet, just try pushing your breakfast a little bit later in the day. That’s all it really takes.
And if you feel good, you could push it all the way to lunch. And once you do, you’ve essentially got a 16/8-type fast, which a lot of bodybuilders use to shed fat. But also, there are a lot of hormonal benefits that help the body protect against losing muscle.
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