These action points below aren’t a substitute for the book Atomic Habits. They are useful as a short guide to useful habit creation, however.
The compounding effect of habits is often underestimated. Recognizing this one fact, and making small but incremental changes can have a dramatic impact over time.
First of all, you want to design your environment to make the habit easy.
The goal of this process is to make your desired habits as easy as possible to execute. And the way to make it easy to execute is to make the first step as frictionless as possible.
This might involve removing the obstacles that would stop you from doing your desired action.
For example, if you want to go for a run every morning before breakfast, then you might have your running clothes set out next to your bed so they're the first thing you see when you wake up.
That way you're more likely to change into your running gear before you do anything else, and your brain feels like you've already started executing on the habit.
Our environment has more of an impact on our behavior than most of us realize. Change your environment and you’re likely to change your behavior. What does this mean?
If you want to watch less TV don’t have your lounge facing the TV. Have it facing away from the TV. Or better still, don‘t have a TV at all!
Want to get fit? Spend more time at the gym and don’t buy junk food when you go shopping. You can’t nibble on unhealthy snacks if they aren’t in your pantry!
I’d like to play the guitar again so I‘ve got the guitar sitting in my home office on a stand. I don‘t have to go through the hassle of unpacking it if I want to play it.
I can literally pick it up and play. Because I want to develop the habit of playing the guitar (again) I’m reducing the ‘friction to access’.
Conversely, if I want to stop playing the guitar, I’d put it in the guitar case and store it in the attic.
We spend a huge proportion of our time on smartphones these days.
Want to consume less social media?
Remove the apps from your smartphone.
Most of us experience our lives through our phones. Unless you attempt to cap your screen time on your smartphone, your phone will be a huge part of your environment. And for obvious reasons, that isn’t usually a good thing.
If you use Apple products make sure you have ‘screen time’ turned on. This tells you how long you’ve been using your phone each day and allows you to monitor and change your behavior.
Another good way to hack your phone is to set it to greyscale. This makes the phone a lot less attractive and you're less likely to click on those shiny attractive apps enticing you to check your email or your Twitter account.
Here's how to set your iOS device to greyscale
Going grayscale on Android In Android 9 and newer
Even though we’re now a ‘civilized’ society several of our biological instincts remain with us even today. Fitting in with our tribe is one.
Jim Rohn had once said you’re the average of the 5 people you hang around. There’s some truth to this. And I believe it comes back to our tribal instinct to ‘fit in’. Back in those days, being cast out from the usually meant certain death. We evolved to survive in tribes and that instinct remains with us today. So use that to your advantage.
Want to get healthier? Spend more time with people who work out. Get a gym buddy.
Want to become a better musician? Hang out with musicians.
Want to become a better leader? Spend time with people who display leadership qualities. Watching YouTube videos or reading books written by great leaders is a great place to start.
Do you want to stop using your phone so much? Put your phone in another room. Make it harder for you to access your phone. Leave your phone at home and go for a 10-minute walk. Increase the length of your walks over time. I know even 10 minutes can be scary. But if you can bring yourself to do it for long enough, you’ll thank yourself for it!
Be sure to increase the time intervals too. Gradual desensitization works. I speak from experience!
James beautifully explains the plateau of latent potential using the ‘ice cube analogy’: If you have an ice cube sitting on a plate and you increase the temperature by one degree at a time, you will not see any results initially. Does that mean nothing’s happening at all? No, it doesn’t. This becomes clear when you reach a ‘critical mass’ and the ice cube melts faster and faster. Stuff is happening in the ‘behind the scenes’.
Don’t assume that your efforts will be wasted.
Not being able to see instant results is often is the hardest thing when we’re trying to develop momentum around a new habit or breaking an old one.
Understanding and reminding yourself of the theory of latent potential is useful to stay focused and motivated. Knowing that your efforts aren’t wasted, but that they‘re being stored is an excellent motivator.
An important way to influence your behavior is to change your perception of ‘who’ you are. If you want to get better at music, you need to see yourself as a musician. If you want to be a better cook, then see yourself as a better cook. (Check out this episode with Todd Herman on the Alter Ego effect for more on this)
James Clear explains how every action is a ‘vote’ for who you want to become.
So an important part of changing your habits or developing good habits is seeing that as part of your identity. When you sit down to write, say to yourself “right now I’m a writer”. Over time, you can then develop momentum and continuity around that habit. This will then will give you the ‘evidence’ (which you probably need on a subconscious level) to support your new identity as a writer.
Focusing on the process/system rather than the outcomes can be rewarding. An outcome is usually a fleeting event that happens at the end of a process when you achieve your goal. By definition, this satisfaction is fleeting. Enjoy the journey (don‘t obsess about the destination) because the journey is all you really have.
Ash Roy: Welcome to the productive insights podcast. I have a very special guest today who’s work I’ve been following for a few years now. He is an American author and entrepreneur, a photographer, and he writes about habits and human potential. The main question he’s trying to answer through his work is how can we live better and he seeks out the latest scientific research and explains it in a way that we can easily understand and actually use. He also likes to showcase the habits and rituals of athletes, artists, and entrepreneurs, and has recently written a book atomic habits. I’m delighted to welcome James Clear to the productive insights podcast. Welcome James.
James Clear: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s nice to talk to you.
Ash Roy: Great to have you on the show. James. So James, let’s start off by talking about your book atomic habits, and in your book you talk about how improving one percent every day can have a huge benefit over time due to the effect of compounding. And you say that habits are the compound interest of self improvement. I love that. So can you talk to us a little bit about that and how that plays out in our lives if we implement what you’re suggesting
James Clear: Sure. So I do. I like that phrase. Habits are the compound interest of self improvement and I use it because the same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiplies. You repeat them over time and when you start saving money, you know you may save like say a little bit now and it doesn’t feel like much in the moment. And whenever you look at that compound interest curve, it’s usually kind of flat in the beginning and you don’t hit the hockey stick portion or the power curve portion of it where it really takes off until a decade or two or three later. And your habits are somewhat similar. Where on any given day, the difference between making a choice that’s one percent better or one percent worse. Or you know, the difference between eating a burger and fries versus the salad or studying for an hour tonight or not studying at all isn’t really that much.
James Clear: I mean, you know, you could have both meals, but your body looks more or less the same at the end of the night. The scale is basically the same, but when you compound that habit over two years or five years or 10 years, you turn around and you realize, oh, you know, that daily choice actually really does matter, and so for that reason, I like to think about habits through the lens of compounding because on any given day it doesn’t feel like much or it feels insignificant, but in the long run it becomes something very powerful and I think if you can accept that, if you believe in that philosophy, you start to realize that time will magnify whatever you feed it. If you have good habits, time becomes your ally and if you have bad habits, then time becomes your enemy. But it’s really about carving out habits that give you that kind of small advantage, that one percent improvement each day. And if you can do that, then you just need to let time work for you rather than against you.
Ash Roy: You know, I love that. Time will magnify whatever you say it that is brilliantly put, I completely agree with you, but the challenge though, how do we as people trying to form habits connect that long term compounding effect to our behaviors I should say in each present moment. I do remember reading a book called Your erroneous zones by Wayne Dyer many years ago and a couple of the themes in his book which really resonated with me were about making decisions often and making decisions in each present moment. So I guess part of it is about being fully present and trying to be conscious about the decisions you make. So you might say, okay, I don’t feel like eating a healthy meal right now. I’d rather just reach for the Burger, but I’m going to make a decision just in this moment, not for the rest of my life, but just in this moment to have the healthy meal and then reassess how I feel at the end of it. Is that a good approach?
James Clear: Sure. So I think that can be perfectly effective. The challenge with a purchase like that, which was essentially like a form of mindfulness or awareness, being conscious of your choice in the moment and choosing the more productive or more healthy action rather than choosing the negative one. It can work great, but as we all know, it’s hard to remain present and conscious like that all the time. And so it’s a challenge to continually be aware of what you’re doing. And this is particularly true with habits because by definition a habit is something that you do more or less automatically without thinking about it. And so to be conscious of your habits is a challenging and effortful thing. So I think while you’re answer is accurate and could work, it’s challenging for people to stick to that all the time. And so the question is, well, what is a better solution or a more reliable solution
James Clear: And I think one option is to redesign your environment so that the options that are presented to you are essentially your environment is nudging you in the right direction. So let me give you a few examples. So this happens often with the habits that we want to curtail or with our bad habits. So you know, if you want to eat less or stick to a particular diet, don’t follow a bunch of food blogs on Instagram because you’re constantly being triggered by the environment to eat and be tempted. If you want to spend less money on electronics or technology gear, don’t follow the latest tech review blogs or watch unboxing videos on YouTube or things like that. Same thing. You’re being constantly triggered by the environment to do those things. And on a more fundamental level, you know, a lot of people feel like they’re watching too much television.
James Clear: But if you walk into pretty much any living room, where do all the couches and chairs face? They all face the TV. So it’s like, what is this room designed to get you to do and I think the overarching point here is that many of our behaviors and habits, while they are nonconscious or we do them like more or less automatically, they’re often the response to the environment that we’re surrounded by. And so if you’re seeing food all the time on Instagram, you feel like eating, if you walk into the living room and you did the couches and chairs all facing the television, you feel like turning on the TV and you can take control of this process by redesigning your environment, both the physical environment and the digital one. So example with my phone, my phone currently, if you were to look at it, it has no apps on the home screen.
James Clear: It’s just the phone text message and then to reading applications, audible and pocket. And so the idea there is I’m trying to make the cues of a reading habit more obvious. And then all the social media applications like twitter and Instagram, those are on separate screens that I have to swipe over two or three times and press inside of to get to them. And it’s not a perfect solution, but it just adds a little bit of friction and removes that cues the environment so that my automatic response is a little more positive. And of course you can do the same thing with your physical space. You know, you could redesign your living room so that the TV is behind a wall unit or a cabinet or something where doors, so you don’t see it as much for eternity air so that it’s not facing the television and so on. But the point here is that if you live in an environment where the cues of your good habits are obvious and it’s a frictionless and easy to do, the good behavior and the cues of your bad habits are hidden or invisible and there’s more friction associated with doing it, you’ll find it much easier to slide into good habits and to have the bad ones fade away.
Ash Roy: Sure, I agree. Environment is a huge factor when it comes to habit formation or changing of habits. And something that you touched on that I think is very important is uh, smartphones and increasingly our watches are becoming large part of our environment. Not so much necessarily physically, but in terms of the timeshare, the mind space that they take up. So that is something that we need to be quite conscious of. And I think a great place to start is to rearrange something like the home screen on your smartphone because that is something you carry with you wherever you go. And that is probably the lowest hanging fruit and the quickest win when it comes to changing our environment.
James Clear: Yeah, I would agree. We spend a lot of our time and attention focused on screens now and so we should think carefully about how to design those screens and lay them out so that we can do the things we want to do but not find ourselves being pulled in or pulled off course. This doesn’t work for everyone’s job, but I have taken this year to leaving my phone in another room until lunch each day. And that really is nice because it gives me a block of three to four hours where I can do unfocused work. And what’s interesting about that is, this ties in with some of the ideas from atomic habits. But if I had my phone next to me, I’m like everybody else, I’ll check it every three minutes. But if I keep it in another room, I have a home office and so it’s only about 45 seconds away, but I never go get it.
James Clear: And so the question to is like, well, did I want it or not because like in one sense I did want it because I would check it every three minutes if it was here, but I never wanted it bad enough to go 45 seconds and get it. And I think that describes a lot of our digital habits that they are so convenient and so frictionless. They’re literally like a millimeter away from us. They’re in our pockets all day long. That will do them when we have the slightest urge, but if we increase the friction just a little bit, then we’ll say, hey, you know, well actually I don’t want it bad enough to put any real work in. And so a little bit of this comes down to designing enough friction that you have the time to pause and let that craving pass and then you’ll get back to doing the more productive thing.
Ash Roy: You Know James, I’ve been writing blog posts every day for the last few weeks now, I think on the first of November. It’s all started with the email exchange with Seth Godin who encouraged his readers to start writing everyday and just yesterday I actually wrote about how to have a holiday without traveling on my most recent blog post and that was essentially taking a bit of a break from your phone because the phone has now being proved to create certain amounts of anxiety and information overload and I believe that thoughts have in a sense, almost a material presence to them. It’s like just like you can binge eat, you can actually binge read and binge think and I think if you just take a bit of an information diet, you can actually feel a certain sense of freedom and contentment and you can achieve that by, as you suggested, taking increasingly long breaks from your phone or you could go cold Turkey for one day and see what happens. Chances are the world won’t end.
James Clear: Yeah. That’s a larger point about changing habits. In general. We often feel this resistance or fear. You know, what, if I give up my phone for a day, what if I changed my habit entirely, but it’s worth it to view it as an experiment is somewhat similar to what you mentioned with your erroneous zones idea, the idea that I’m going to make a decision in the moment, not for the rest of my life, you know, so let me take a vacation from the phone for a day, not necessarily for the rest of my life and see how that impacts me. If it’s positive, then maybe I should try it again or try a another version of it. So yeah, I think that’s a good form of experimentation.
Ash Roy: I think another point you touched on when it comes to changing habits, one of the biggest challenges, of course the fear, right? How am I going to feel when I change this habit or start a new habit or stop this habit and approaching habits or changing of habits with a mindset of curiosity and even maybe having curiosity around the fear. This is interesting. I feel a bit scared about it. How does that manifest in my physical body I’m feeling tingling and trying to bring it down to something that is relatively tangible, can be a very effective way of addressing that fear and then overcoming it rather than trying to suppress it or just crunch your way through it.
James Clear: The more mindful you become with your emotions and beliefs and feelings, the more precise you can be about addressing them, but if you just let your emotions run away from you or try to suppress them, then it’s hard to address them in any precise way. You are just stuck doing things to like numb, you know you’ll feel bad, so you eat ice cream or watch television or so on, rather than the asking the deeper questions of why do I feel bad? Okay, you know, something’s going on at work. What does that mean and what can I do? And the more precise that you get about it, kind of playing this like five why’s game. Just keep asking why and getting deeper and deeper and the more precise the answer becomes, the more precise your solution can be.
Ash Roy: Yeah, so developing a healthy curiosity towards you’re anxieties around changing habits is always a good step, so that’s a great way to overcome obstacles around changing habits. Okay. So we’ve actually already touched on a few ideas around how to go about building better habits, which I think you explain in some detail in your book. Is there anything more you would like to add to this conversation about how you go about building better habits?
James Clear: Oh certainly. Well, I mean there are a lot of things here that we haven’t had a chance to talk about yet, but I’ll just point out one that I think is a crucial topic. So many of our habits are socially reinforced and what I mean by that is we imitate and perform the habits of those around us. Those who are in our tribe and we’re all part of multiple tribes, like some of those tribes are large like what it means to be American or Australian or British or French and some of those tribes or small like what it means to be a member of your local gym or a member of the people who volunteer at the local school or a neighbor on your street. But all of those tribes, large and small, have a set of shared expectations for how to act. You know, maybe if you’re the people on your street as neighbors, the expectation is you take your recycling out on Wednesday nights or you trim the hedges and take care of your lawn and flowers and so on.
James Clear: And when habits go with the grain of the shared expectations of the group, they’re very attractive. We want to form them because they help us belong. They help us fit in, but we get praised and respected for them. When habits go against the grain of the groups that were in their very unattractive. And so the lesson here, the punch line is that you want to join groups where your desired behavior is the normal behavior because of its normal within that, if it’s normal within that tribe, then you’ll have a strong reason to do it yourself. And uh, performing the habit will not only bring you benefits, but it will also bring you social benefits. So we’ll help you fit in and bill and I think in the long run, social reinforcement, a habits that help you belong and fit in, that’s the way to really get a habit to stick because you are continually reminded of it and praised for it and respected for it by the people around you.
Ash Roy: That’s such a good point. And I think as human beings, I believe in evolution and I assume most of us do. As human beings, we’ve evolved in tribes and if we were ousted from the tribe, we actually didn’t survive. So being accepted by the tribe is actually a lot more essential than most of us probably realize it’s hardwired into our DNA. So that’s a very smart way of putting yourself in a position where you essentially normalize the habit that you’re trying to create by joining a tribe that sees that habit as the norm. So that’s a very smart way of doing it and it’s yet another way of changing environment. But in this case, it’s your human environment,
James Clear: Right, the social environment. You essentially are putting your evolutionary programming to work for you because I think you’re right that we have a deep primal desire or urge to belong. You know, the ancestors of ours who did not belong, who were outcast from the tribe, being outcast was the death sentence. They were less likely to pass their genes along because they didn’t survive with the rest of the group. And so we’re all wired at least to a certain degree to care about the opinions of others because it helps us when others think well of us, it helps us survive. And the result of all of that is that you can put this inclination for social reinforcement to work for you if you choose the right tribes to join. And you know, I mean if you want to practice violin more, then start hanging out with more musicians, you’ll start to see it as normal to play an instrument every day or if you want to, you know, for many people going to the gym feels like a sacrifice. It feels like work, but there are also plenty of people who are going to the gym feels normal and so if you can develop friendships in that tribe, then you start to view it as normal as well. And that continues and extends to pretty much any habit that you’re looking to build.
Ash Roy: Okay. But here has another challenge when it comes to forming tribes these days. Forming tribes can be a bit of a challenge because people are so caught up with their digital devices that their heads are buried in their phones. You often go to a gym and people are, you know, poking away at the phone screens probably kind of choose a music track they want to listen to or whatever it is. How do you overcome that challenge?
James Clear: Yeah, that’s a good question. So I think that this is an important caveat that is often not mentioned with respect to building a new tribe or joining a new tribe building socially reinforced to habits which is that you want to join a group where the desired behaviors, the normal behavior, but also where you have something else in common with the tribe. So the example that I like to give is my friend Steve Cam runs a company called nerd fitness. And so nerd fitness is all about getting in shape, but it’s specifically for people who identify as nerds. People who love Spiderman or Batman or star wars or Legos or all kinds of other things that nerds are into. And the Nice thing about it is that if you are the type of person that reads that site, you can come in and say, okay, what I really want us to get in shape.
James Clear: So I want to join a group or the desired behavior is the normal behavior. One, join a group where exercise is normal. But for many people going to the gym for the first time or working out and for the first time in awhile is intimidating. It doesn’t feel easy to join that tribe and this is are difficult if people are always on their phones as you just mentioned and so on, but if you can come in and say, well, mark and Lisa have a mutual love of star wars and I can bond with them over our mutual love of star wars and we’d become friends over that secondary interest. Then the primary thing that I was here for, which is exercise becomes easier because my friends are already doing it and so I think the answer here is trying to look for some of those mutual areas of overlap where friendships conform readily and once the friendship forms, then taking on the other habit, the one that you were really there for becomes easier. So it’s really about looking for a group where the desired behaviors in normal behavior and you have a mood mutual area of overlap.
Ash Roy: Okay, great. Now let’s talk about the plateau of latent potential. I absolutely love this. Can you explain the plateau latent potential and how one breaks through to the other side?
James Clear: Sure. So this is an idea that I talk about in the book where you are working on a habit for a while and you just can’t seem to get the results that you want and you kind of feel stuck in the beginning. And the story that I like to use is imagine that you’re heating up an ice cube, you know, so you walk into a room, it’s cold, you can see your breath and the ice cubes sitting on the table and you start to heat it up slowly. One degree, two degrees, three degrees, so on your heating this room up, but still the ice cubes sitting there. And then at some point you make this little one degree shift. No different than all the ones that came before. But you hit the melting point, right? And this ice cube starts to melt. And you, when you hit that transition, what’s interesting about it is that the change that came right before the transition was the same thing as you were doing before, but you weren’t getting anything.
James Clear: And often the process of building a better habit is kind of like that where you need to be putting work in for days and weeks and it feels like you’re not getting anywhere. It feels like you still have an ice cube sitting on the table, but if you’re willing to keep showing up and work through that plateau of latent potential, then eventually you’ll hit a phase transition. And I think that the core idea here is that if you’ve been working on a habit for three weeks or a month or six months or whatever it is, and you don’t have the results that you want, that work was not being wasted. It’s just being stored and you need to continue to show up so that you get to the phase transition and allow it to release. And that’s kind of the core idea of working through this plateau of latent potential. I love that luck was not being wasted. It was being stored.
Ash Roy: How does one actually keep that at the full front of their mind? Let’s say for instance, you’re trying to lose weight to a healthy extent and you’re trying to change your eating habits. You’re trying to spend more time at the gym trying to walk more.
James Clear: You’re not going to see results for
Ash Roy: two, three months. You don’t see any change in the scales. You’re not probably going to see any significant difference in terms of your measurements. What do you do to actually stay to that habit for that period of time
James Clear: That’s a great question. There are a couple of different solutions, but I’ll offer a one right now which is to focus on the identity that you’re trying to build rather than the outcome you’re trying to achieve. And so the idea here is that people will often start the process of changing a habit or doing something different by saying, okay, what kind of results do I want? All right, I want to lose, you know, a certain amount of weight in the next six months or something like that. But instead I think it can be useful to ask yourself who is the type of person that could lose weight And maybe you realize it’s the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts, and so now your focus shifts from what the number on the scale says, or what your measurement is to how can I be the type of person that doesn’t Miss Workouts
James Clear: How can I make sure that I show up each day even if I’m not getting the results that I want yet? And so by focusing on fostering that identity, you not only reinforce the habit, but you actually shift your attention to the thing that delivers the result anyway. You know, this is, I think there’s a common mistake or misconception people have. We seem to be very results focused. We seem to be very outcome focused, but most of your outcomes in life or just a lagging measure of your habits, you know, so like your, the amount of money in your bank account is a lagging measure of your financial habits. The amount of clutter in your room is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. The amount of weight that you have as the mountain is a lagging measure of your eating habits and so on.
James Clear: And so if you can change the inputs, the outputs will often change themselves naturally. So the point here is not actually to worry about how much money you’re making or how much you weigh or what the result is. The point is to focus instead on what habits can lead to that identity that ultimately delivers the outcome that I want naturally. And I think if you can do that, then you’ll end up giving yourself a reason to show up each day and focus on the right thing rather than feeling depressed when you’re stuck on that plateau of latent potential.
Ash Roy: I love what you say about focusing on the systems rather than the outcomes. And I want to come back to that in a minute, but there’s a couple of things I want to clarify or get you to talk a bit more about. And that is yes, we need to change our identity rather than trying to change a habit. So if you want to develop the habit of going to the gym regularly, then you need to see yourself as somebody who visits the gym regularly. How do you make that transition? How do you change that identity of yourself? Is it just a case of just saying, okay, this is who I am from now on. Is it the habit that changes your identity or identity that changes that habit?
James Clear: Yeah, that’s a good question. So first of all, I think it is a two way street. I think that beliefs influenced behavior and behavior influenced beliefs. So if you adopt the identity of I am bad at math and someone hands you a math problem, then you have very little reason to try because you think, oh, I’m bad, and so that changes your behavior.
Ash Roy: and even if you do try, you will probably end up reinforcing what you believed anyway. So?
James Clear: You want to try very hard. You’ll succeed at it and you’ll go see, I told you I was bad at maths and that’s true for many different behaviors and beliefs. You know, like I’m terrible at remembering people’s names. I’m not good with directions. I’m bad at technology. Like all of these are identity. I have a sweet tooth. Those are all identities that we adopt and then we use them as justification for reinforcing a particular type of behavior or action. But the good news is that it often works the other way as well, and your behaviours can change what you think about yourself. So for example, it’s kind of like every action you take is a vote for the kind of person that you believe that you are. And so when you do something, you know, let’s say you sit down and you meditate for one minute and you do that 10 days in a row, will you turn around on the 11th day and you think, well, maybe you know, I’ve done this 10 times now.
James Clear: Maybe I’m a meditator. Now I have a little bit of evidence, like I cast 10 little votes for being a meditator. And I think that that’s how identities are shifted and adjusted over time. They’re kind of like, it’s like touching up a painting in. No, no single instance will radically transform the picture, but a little adjustment each day. And you can end up with something that looks different over time. And so the point here is that every action you take is a vote for the kind of person you want to become. And so the answer to the question of how do you try to change your identity is you do it through very small habits through casting these little votes. And I think that this is different than us. The question just a moment ago is, is it as simple as saying, well, this is the kind of person I am now and I’ll just believe that.
James Clear: And I think the answer is no. The answer is that would that describes, is this idea of fake it till you make it? Let me just change my mind and then I’ll be that kind of person. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with fake it till you make it, but it doesn’t. It’s like a belief that doesn’t have any evidence. You just flipped a switch said, oh, I’m going to be this person now. And we have a word for beliefs that don’t have evidence. We call it delusion, right? Like at some point that your brain doesn’t like that. There’s no reason to hold latch on to that belief, and so I said, this is why behavior and habits are the best lever that we have for changing what we think about ourselves because they provide evidence of a particular identity. It’s one thing to say like, I want this, but it’s something very different to say I am this and when you had done something a multiple days in a row, four months in a row, now you have evidence for saying, I am a meditator, I am a writer, I am an exerciser.
James Clear: And once you view yourself in that light and you have evidence with your past behaviors, you have something to root the identity in. And so I think, to summarize, you want to decide what kind of person you want to become and improve yourself with small wins. And it’s really that proof that comes from taking small actions that gets a habit or a new identity to stick. How many days in a row.
Ash Roy: Do you need to do something before which you can reasonably, in most cases, say, okay, I am a meditator or I am a writer?
James Clear: A tough question, but I don’t think there was any specific number that we can point to. You can look at it in different ways though. You could say that, for example, you could focus on being that in the moment. You know, like whenever I sit down to meditate for 60 seconds, I am a meditator right now. This is my identity, right? I am reinforcing. So you in that sense, you can do it, as soon as you do it, you’re being it. And in fact, I would say the way to be something is through doing it. The way to be a writer is by writing, the way to be a mediator was by meditating. And so you prove it to yourself in the middle of an action implicitly. Now, how long does it take to adopt that as an identity It’s hard to say.
James Clear: You know, I give the example in the book of if you were to kick a ball around for one day, you don’t say, oh, I’m a soccer player, you know, like, but if you do it every day for months on end while then at some point you flip the switch and you think, oh, well maybe this is who I am now. So it’s an invisible line. It’s like a magical kind of threshold that you cross and it’s different probably for each habit. But the way to get there is by putting in your reps and proving it to yourself and little ways over and over again.
Ash Roy: Cool. You know, I interviewed Dr Sweeney Pillay who teaches psychiatry at Harvard in one of my previous episodes. I don’t know the episode number off the top of my head, but I’ll link to it in the show notes of this episode. He was talking about something called Psychological Halloween. That sounds like a fancy way of saying, you know, you try and see yourself as that person that you aspire to be. And I guess a good way to start to make that initial groove that you want to keep building on is as you suggested, James, by saying to yourself at the time you’re doing the thing, I am a meditator, or I am a writer, or whatever it is you’re doing at that time and continuing to make decisions in each present moment. So you might say for this moment and for today, I’m a writer, and then maybe you finished writing and he say, today I wasn’t writer, tomorrow I will be a writer. And over time if you do enough of those, then you get the momentum and then it becomes more deeply embedded in your brain. And then you will probably start to find a certain resistance if you actually try and change the habit. In other words, I’m not suggesting you want to change that habit. When I’m trying to say is it becomes a part of your personality after a certain period of time. But you need to put the reps in initially and you have to generate that momentum initially to get to that point.
James Clear: I don’t think that’s right, I think that’s a good summary of the approach.
Ash Roy: Now, what really, really good segue from this is talking about systems versus outcomes. Something that I think we have a tendency to do in our Western society is get quite obsessed with results and outcomes and wild results and outcomes are great. They are often in my view, responsible for stealing and happiness and contentment because they put you in this eternal cycle of leaning into the future or postponing your happiness and your success into the future, dependent on taking off that box. So finishing that thing that you have set yourself the goal of and steal from you the happiness and the contentment that you can feel while you’re actually travelling the path to the outcome. In other words, they make the destination the point of the whole journey, but the truth is that the journey is as much the destination as a destination is. If that makes sense. So could you talk to us about your take on this and how we can change our mental approach to being more systems and journey focused rather than outcome and destination focus
James Clear: So this comes from someone who I was very goal oriented for a long time. I would set goals for the grades that I wanted to get in school or the way that I wanted to lift in the gym or how well I wanted my business to do in the next quarter. And I realized that sometimes I would achieve those goals, but a lot of times I would just flop around and fail. And I was like, well, if I set all these goals and I only achieved some of them, clearly setting the goal is not the thing that determines whether or not I make progress. And you see that in a lot of areas. You know, like every candidate who applies for a job has a goal of getting the job. But only one of them actually does. Every Olympian has the goal of winning the gold medal.
James Clear: And so this is true in many domains, which is that the winners and losers, so to speak, have the same goals. And if the people at the top of the podium and the people who aren’t even on the podium have the same thing that they want, then the goal cannot be the thing that’s making the difference. And so the question is, well then what is it? And I think that it’s the habits and processes and systems that preceded the goal, the process before the outcome. And as you mentioned, there are a couple other issues with goals as well, which is that one of which is they rob you of your happiness in the moment because you’re always thinking about getting to the next milestone rather than enjoying the place that you’re at right now. And there’s no easy solution to that. The Best Metaphor I’ve found, the story that I’ve found that I like is imagine that you’re planting a seed and so you plant the seed and it grows and sprouts out, and then it becomes like a small sapling and then it grows into a young tree.
James Clear: And then eventually after many years it matures into an adult tree. But at no point in that process were you ever yelling at the tree for only being a seed or for only being a sapling or for, you know, being a young tree and not being mature yet at each stage it was perfect where it was and yet despite that, despite the fact that you were satisfied with it at each stage, despite the fact that the tree was happy at each moment, it never stopped growing and never stopped improving because that’s just what a tree does. And so I have tried to look at growth and ambition and improvement through that same lens from my own life that at each stage you can be perfectly happy where you are, but you’ll continue to improve and drive and be driven for improvement because that’s just what humans do.
James Clear: Humans grow, humans improve. And so that allows me to continue the quest to get better while not sacrificing all of my happiness in the moment. So anyway, so that’s just another side note, but I, as I say all this about systems and goals, I do want to add one caveat, which is I don’t think the goals are totally useless. I mentioned this in the book. What I think they’re useful for is developing a sense of clarity, setting a sense of direction, determining where you’re going to focus your attention, but once you’ve done that, it’s useful to put the goal in the shelf, so to speak and focus almost exclusively on the system. And I think that most people, most of the time, I guess I just say most of us most of the time because I think we all fall into this, probably spend like 90 percent of our time thinking about goals and outcomes and the results we want and where we want to get to and maybe only 10 percent of our time thinking about the habits and processes that we need to build. And I think we should probably flip that and maybe we spent 10 percent of our time thinking about what we want to achieve and where we want to go, what direction we want to move in and get some clarity. And then 90 percent of the time on systems, habits and processes.
Ash Roy: I wonder why it is that we’re so drawn to planting our flag on top of that hill, you know, the whole Hollywood kind of story where you struggle and you nearly die getting to the top one, plant your flag at the top of the hill when maybe it’s more appealing and it’s more dramatic. Then systems and processes which can be a lot less dramatic and quite mundane.
James Clear: Well, I think if we bring it back to an evolutionary argument and scale it down to like the basic biological fundamentals, humans are goal directed organisms and then what I mean by that is we have the goal to, to reproduce. We have the goal to find food and water. We have a goal to achieve safety and shelter and so at a fundamental level, our biology is wired such that we identify goals like this is a threat on the horizon. There’s a lion or a bear or something and I need to escape. Or there’s a storm approaching and I need to take shelter or it’s been eight hours since I’ve had something to drink or eat and I need to find food and sustenance. And so our brain is wired to identify goals and our environment and then to achieve them, to use them as a way to motivate us to take action when necessary.
James Clear: And so at some deep level we are wired for that now at like a secondary level on top of that kind of fundamental base layer. We now live in modern society where we used to need the goal to the hunger to find food or the thirst to find water to motivate us to take action and take care of ourselves and survive. But now we live in an environment where food is prevalent and abundant, cheap and water and soda and beer and so on are available and readily accessible. And so we still have this goal directed brain, but we live in an environment where rewards are plentiful rather than rare. And so I think there’s a little bit of an environment mismatch there with our underlying biology, which is goal directed and modern society, which is plush and full of goals and rewards. And so I think it’s natural for us to be goal focused because we’re wired that way. But paradoxically, we have created a modern life and modern society where systems and habits deliver better results than our natural inclination to focus on whatever the most instant reward is. Our goal is moment.
Ash Roy: Yeah, I agree with you. I think civilization and society as we know it today is a very recent evolution in human history. And to be honest, our body’s physiology is still fun to catch up. Our brains have evolved pretty quickly, but the rest of our bodies are still back in the million or so years ago in terms of evolution. So that’s a good point. Well, this has been a fascinating conversation. So I’m going to try and summarize things we talked about with my little notes I’ve taken here and then talk about some action steps and then feel free to jump in and share any thoughts that you have. If you think you can embellish those. So I loved what you said about how time will magnify whatever you feed it. And so if you want to build habits, it is important to do them incrementally over a period of time.
Ash Roy: We talked about redesigning your environment, so if you want to start building better habits, you redesign your physical environment, so if you want to watch less TV, don’t have your lounges facing the television. For instance, maybe move your television to a different room. You can also redesign your social environment, so if you would like to start playing more music, hanging around with more musicians. If you want to get more fit, hang around with more people who spend time at the gym because you’re already using. You’re hardwired tendency to want to fit in with the tribe. You’re taking advantage of what you’re designed to already do. If you want to break a habit like accessing your phone too much, then increased friction to access. Put your phone in another room or just put one step or two steps between you and the result that you were achieving from having done the habit before.
Ash Roy: Another example you shared, which I liked was social media apps can go on two or three screens deep inside your smartphone so you don’t have them sitting on the homescreen. You’re less likely to want to access those. It’s going to be that much more annoying to have to get to those social media apps. There’s another thing I wanted to add to that as well. Apple does have something called screen time, so perhaps they’re taking responsibility for having destroyed society to some extent without meaning to do so and I think screen time is a good tool and I do believe they appear to genuinely care their users and so they are trying to encourage you not to use your phone too much because they too have seen the studies that show it can be not too good for your health. Another thing you talked about is the plateau of latent potential and how you break through it, and I liked the ice cube analogy where you said that initially increasing the temperature by a degree at a time, you’re not going to see any results, but stuff is happening in the background, so don’t assume that your efforts are going to waste and this often is the hardest thing when we’re trying to develop momentum around a new habit or breaking an old one.
Ash Roy: Two things that you said that really resonated with me around that idea where your work isn’t being wasted, it’s being stored, and I really liked that. The idea that comes to my mind is potential energy. It’s being stored. Potential energy in the kinetic energy is something that happens a bit further down the track. I apologize. It’s a bit of a physics analogy. I used to be a physics buff. The other thing I really liked that you said was every action is a vote for who you want to become, so an important part of changing your habits or developing good habits is starting to see that as part of your identity. Now, that doesn’t mean you just go, oh, from now on, I’m this person and you don’t just fake it till you make it because that’s delusional, but if you consistently perform that habit everyday and while you’re performing that habit, excite yourself.
Ash Roy: Okay Right now I’m a meditator. Right now I’m a writer and you do that for enough days in a row and you use the technique we talked about earlier on about making decisions in each present moment. Not for the rest of your life, just for this moment. You can then develop some momentum and continuity around that habit, which then will give you the evidence which you probably need on a subconscious level to say, yes, I’m a writer. I have arrived. The other thing you also talked about was the idea of planting a seed and I really liked what we said about systems versus outcomes and you explained that while being outcome oriented might’ve been useful a few thousand years ago, we can have the luxury of focusing on being systems oriented and being able to enjoy the journey rather than just being obsessed with the destination and enjoying the journey as well as the destination. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
James Clear: No, I think that’s a wonderful summary and we’re able to cover a lot, so I’m glad that we were able to get into some of those ideas and I think that was good.
Ash Roy: Okay. Now, most importantly, how does someone buy the Book Atomic Habits? Because I think it’s a great book. I’ve bought it. I confess I haven’t read every chapter of it, but I’ve had a skim through it. I look forward to reading it in detail and taking notes. So how does someone get the hands on the book and how do people find out more about your job
James Clear: Yeah. Well thank you so much for the opportunity. It’s been wonderful to chat about some of the ideas. So the book is called Atomic Habits, an easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones and you can find it at atomichabits.com. And on that page I also have a couple of downloads and instructions getting like a guide on how to apply the ideas in the book to parenting, how to apply the ideas to business, my habit tractor for tracking your habits. Anyway, all of that is at atomichabits.com.
Ash Roy: And if they want to find out more about you?
James Clear: You can visit JamesClear.com and yeah, you can check out my articles organized by category so you can just poke around and see which ones are interesting to you. Social media links are also at JamesClear.com, so, feel free to check it out and see what you like.
Ash Roy: Look, for those who are listening or watching this on YouTube, I highly recommend you check it out because I’ve been following James’s work for years and he is a good writer and he’s developed that by developing a good writing habits, so I highly recommend it. Thank you so much for being on the show James. And maybe I can have you back on again sometime.
James Clear: Yeah. Wonderful. Thank you.
Ash Roy: Okay. Take care.