Skip to content
Ash RoyJun 28, 2022 11:28:24 AM3 min read

Paper Clip Strategy for Habit Formation

The last couple of weeks has been challenging to say the least.

My mental demons (there are hordes of them lurking in the recesses of my ADHD brain) decided to run riot and had a party at their host's expense.

I found myself battling, resisting, and meditating (unsuccessfully) through various states of anxiety and distress. My imposter syndrome greeted me with unparalleled zeal each morning and tucked me into bed each night.

Most days I felt like a ball of jangled nerves. I was jumpy and irritable. Not much fun to be around. 

It wasn't pleasant, but I guess you've gotta work with what the genetic lottery's "gifted" you right?

Anyway, the point of this email is to tell you that I did find something that helped me work through my challenges and it's called the Paper Clip Strategy.

James Clear talks about it in his book Atomic Habits (which I'm now reading for the third time — I highly recommend it).

You can watch my conversation with James Clear here. We talked a lot about how to set up your environment to drive behavior (scroll down for the video).

The principle behind the paper clip strategy is simple:

Decide on a specific habit and each time you perform that habit you move one paper clip from one container to the other. 



So for instance, if you want to write 5 sentences every day (each of the purple paper clips represents one sentence in the photo above), then you move a purple paper clip from one container to the other for each sentence you write. 

You can apply this to just about any habit you want to perform each day. 

This was the ONE thing that helped me keep my writing habit (and my sanity) in place during what felt like a raging storm inside my head. 

There's no question that habits can have very positive (or negative) compounding effects over time, but they can also serve as an anchor when you're facing challenges. 

Here's why the paper clip method works so well:

  • More than 50% of the surface area of the brain is devoted to visual processing.
  • It's always visible (on my desk right in front of my keyboard)
  • I get a sense of satisfaction each time I move a paper clip across (each one feels like a little accomplishment)
  • I can always see my progress right there in front of me at any time of the day
  • When you combine this approach with this time-boxing approach, it works particularly well.

All the above points align with James Clear's 4 laws of behavior change:

  • Make it obvious — the paper clip holders are right in front of me as I work at my desk
  • Make it attractive — while this second law typically applies to the performance of the habit itself, I found that moving the paper clip turned into an attractive proposition (independent of writing the sentence — the original habit it was supposed to represent — and delivered a sizeable dopamine hit and created a positive feedback loop. In other words, the desire to move the paper clip, and achieve the satisfaction of seeing the paper clip move across to the other holder drove the desire to write the sentence.
  • Make it easy — writing a sentence (and moving the paperclip across) was very easy. A lot easier than writing an entire blog post (which is what the habit is designed to achieve over a few days) 
  • Make it satisfying — Moving the paper clips across was extremely satisfying. Even more than writing the sentences at times. 

I recommend going out and getting yourself two paper clip holders with multi-colored paper clips.

Stick them on your desk and watch yourself succeed ... one paper clip at a time. 

If you'd like more useful content designed to help you grow your business and improve your productivity, check out our podcast.
If you haven’t done so already, you can also subscribe to our free 9-step business growth email course which is delivered to you over 9 days. By subscribing you’ll also receive useful content approximately once a week.  
And if you'd like to learn more about the Productive Insights membership program you can do so on this page.
I look forward to supporting you in any way I can.




Ash Roy

Ash Roy has spent over 15 years working in the corporate world as a financial and strategic analyst and advisor to large multinational banks and telecommunications companies. He suffered through a CPA in 1997 and completed it despite not liking it at all because he believed it was a valuable skill to have. He sacrificed his personality in the process. In 2004 he finished his MBA (Masters In Business Administration) from the Australian Graduate School of Management and loved it! He scored a distinction (average) and got his personality back too!