It’s a new year and if you’re like millions of people around the world, you’re likely making goals to create some new habits or to break some bad ones. But if you’re also like millions of people around the world, your attempts at making and breaking habits will usually fail after just a few weeks of flailing effort, and you’ll probably think your lack of willpower is to blame.
My guest today argues that it isn’t truly a lack of willpower that’s holding you back from your habit goals, it’s the tactics you use for reaching them.
His name is James Clear, he’s the author of the book Atomic Habits, and today on the show, he walks us through how to make habit formation and habit breaking much easier by crafting optimal systems for behavior change. We begin our show discussing the misconceptions people have about habits and the 4-step process of habit formation that tracks the 4 laws of behavior change. James then suggests specific ways to make good habits more attractive and easier to obtain while making bad habits less attractive and easier to shake. We end our conversation discussing why you should take into account your unique personality when you craft your habits.
- What James Clear learned about habits from a life-threatening injury
- Why you should strive for very small changes in your life
- Why we actually shouldn’t give habits more power than they really have
- Big misconceptions people have about making and breaking habits
- How long does it really take to build a habit?
- The difference between identity-based habits and outcome-based habits
- How to come up with habits that reinforce your identity
- Why “fake it until you make it” only works as a short-term strategy
- The 4 stages of habit-building (and why James added to Charles Duhigg’s now classic model)
- Why perceptions, expectations, and anticipation are more likely to guide our actions than actual rewards
- The 4 laws of behavior change that correspond with the stages of habit building
- How 1-2 small tweaks can radically change your habits
- Making cues more obvious (or invisible) with environment design
- How to watch less TV
- Why most people work way harder than they need to in habit formation/breaking
- How do you make things that are good for you more attractive?
- Clear’s two-minute rule
- Why taking advantage of your laziness is actually a great strategy
- Making rewards more immediately satisfying
- Taking your own personality into account so that your habits work for you rather than against you
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- How to Hack the Habit Loop
- How to Create Habits That Stick
- Get 1% Better Every Day (and the podcast)
- My interview with Charles Duhigg about the power of habits
- Stick With It — The Science of Behavior Change
- The Motivation Myth
- What the Marines Can Teach About the Skill of Motivation
- The Science of Self-Motivation
- Want to Feel Like a Man? Act Like One
- Here’s How Long it Takes to Really Break a Habit
- Taking Control of the Brain Chemical That Drives Excitement, Motivation, and More
- My interview with Tim Ferriss about the Tools of Titans
- Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret to Greater Productivity
- BJ Fogg
- The Complete Guide to Breaking Your Smartphone Habit
- Big Five Personality Test
Connect With James
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. It’s a new year, and if you’re like millions of people around the world, you’re likely making goals to create some new habits or break some bad ones. But if you’re also like millions of people around the world, your attempts at making and breaking habits will usually fail after just a few weeks of flailing effort, and you’ll probably think your lack of willpower is to blame. My guest today argues that it isn’t truly a lack of willpower that is holding you back from your habit goals, it’s the tactics you use for reaching them. His name is James Clear. He is the author of the book Atomic Habits. And today on the show, he walks us through how to make habit formation, habit breaking much easier by crafting optimal systems for behavior change.
We begin our show discussing the misconceptions people have about habits and the four step process of habit formation that tracks the four laws of behavior change. James then suggests specific ways to make good habits more attractive and easier to obtain and making bad habits less attractive and easier to shake. We end our conversation discussing why you should take into account your unique personality when you craft your habits. Lots of useful, actual advice on the show. After it’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/atomichabits.
All right, James Clear, welcome to the show.
James Clear: Hey, great to talk to you. Thanks for having me on.
Brett McKay: So you’ve made a name for yourself as an expert on habit formation. You’ve been writing some great stuff on your own website, jamesclear.com, Medium, I’ve seen them there. So let’s get started with some backstory. How did you get started with your research and your writing about habits?
James Clear: We all build habits all the time. We all have them whether we’re thinking about them or not. And so I went through that period as well. You’re building habits your whole life, and then particularly for me, as an athlete, so I played baseball all the way through college, and a bunch of other sports when I was younger as well. As any athlete can tell you, there are all kinds of habits you’re building at practice or in the gym and so on. So I didn’t have a language for it at the time, but that was the place where I cut my teeth and learned how to get one percent better each day or how to build habits and stick to routines and stuff like that, even though I wouldn’t have said that at the time.
And then I went to graduate school and I was in the Center for Entrepreneurship, that’s where my graduate assistantship was. And I saw all of these companies getting started. My job was to analyze venture capital investment in the region. And so I saw all these other people starting businesses, and I got the itch to start my own thing as well.
And so I graduated, and I did that, and all the business ideas I had just totally flopped. Nothing really went anywhere. And I realized eventually after floundering around for a few months that the main reason is because I didn’t know how to market things. And so I started studying consumer psychology to figure out some of those business problems. Why would someone sign up to an email list or buy a product or whatever? And as I read more about consumer psychology, I started to bleed into behavioral psychology and some of these areas related to habit formation.
And as I read more about that, I have a fairly scientific background, so I was mostly hard sciences in undergrad like chemistry and physics, and it just started to catch my attention. And as I read more about habit formation, I was like, “Oh, I could use this stuff with my nutrition habits or in the gym,” or, “This is the kind of thing that we did at baseball practice,” or whatever. And I started to unlock a little bit of why those previous habits worked well for me. And as I did, I kept some notes on my own about … It was just kind of like James’s thoughts on habits, and it was maybe, I don’t know, 60 pages long. It was like a Word doc. So this was in 2012, and I eventually was like, all right, I have all this stuff here, I should just publish something.
And so I started writing November 12th, 2012. It was the first article I put on jamesclear.com. And then I wrote a new article, often about habits, but also sometimes about decision making or productivity or strength training, and I put those up every Monday and Thursday for the next three years. And it was really that writing habit that led to the growth of the site and the book deal that eventually became Atomic Habits and all the other things that I now do with my business and work.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned you were an athlete. And you start off the book telling this story about an experience as a young baseball player where you viscerally saw the power of habits. You had a brush with death, basically. Can you talk about that story and what you learned from that on how habits can … Like little, small changes can help improve your life?
James Clear: So my sophomore year of high school, I was hit in the face with a baseball bat. And I didn’t see it coming, it was an accident. But it struck me right between the eyes and shattered both eye sockets, broke my nose, broke the bone behind my nose, which was fairly deep inside your skull. I had a long fallout from it. I was answering questions for about 15 minutes after it happened, but I wasn’t answering them well. And pretty quickly, the swelling in my brain became so bad that I lost consciousness, I started to struggle with basic functions like swallowing and breathing. I had my first seizure of the day, I ended up having three more in the next 24 hours. And had to be taken to the hospital, and then pretty soon it became apparent that the local hospital did not have the resources needed to handle the situation, so I was air carried in a helicopter to a larger facility, went into surgery, was placed into a medically induced coma overnight.
And then the next morning, I was stable enough where the doctors realized that they could release me from the coma, and the process of healing began, but it was a very long and arduous road. So for the next eight or nine months, I couldn’t drive a car because of the seizures and I had these double vision problems because of some eye related issues with the injury. I was practicing basic motor patterns like walking in a straight line at the first physical therapy session. And of course, once I started to heal and become more conscious of what the situation was, I wanted to get back on the baseball field as well.
But my return to baseball wasn’t smooth either. It took quite a few months for me to even pick up a ball again. And then when I did, I was cut from the team. I was the only junior cut from varsity baseball team the next year, which was very hard for me given that I had played the sport since I was like four or five years old. And I grew up in a household where baseball was a really important thing. My dad had played professionally for the St. Louis Cardinals in the minor leagues for a little while. And I always had this dream of playing professionally as well. And for whatever reason, despite my high school career not going to plan, I still thought I could be a good player, and I knew that if I was going to do that, I needed to take responsibility for it and make it happen.
And so I started with, and this is where we come full circle back to small habits, I started with the only thing that I could do. I wasn’t really in a situation where I could flip a switch and just transform overnight, or I could try to make some big change. All I could manage at that time was to do small habits. And so I did little things like making my bed every morning or started working out consistently. I would study and prep for class each day. None of those things by themselves were earth shattering or radical changes or anything, but they gave me a sense of control over my life. It felt like things had been taken from me, or I had never asked for this. So instead, rather than focusing on what was taken from me, I focused on what I could improve each day.
And that little shift of focusing on those small habits led to a lot of growth. I ended up making a college baseball team. I didn’t start my first year. My sophomore year, I started. My junior season, I was captain. My senior season, I was an Academic All American, which is something that only about 30 players around the country are named to that team. And I don’t think that my story is legendary or heroic or anything. We all have things that we go through, and this injury was just one of mine. And I never ended up playing professionally. But I do feel like I was able to fulfill my potential.
And at the end of the day, I think one of the deeper purposes of why I wrote Atomic Habits and why I believe small habits can be meaningful and important is because regardless of the challenges that life throws you, small habits can allow you to fulfill your potential, whatever that happens to be in a particular area. And that’s all we can really ask. You don’t have control over external events. You don’t have control over how much talent or what genes you were born with, but you do have control over your effort and the philosophy that you use each. And in my case, I believe it should be something like how can I get one percent better today? And if you can adhere to that over the long run then it can make a meaningful difference.
Brett McKay: Yeah, we’ve had someone on the podcast talking about the Kaizen method, and that whole idea of one percent better. And I think people really underestimate how much you can improve over the long run if you just get one percent better every day, every week.
James Clear: It works both ways.
Brett McKay: Right.
James Clear: Habits are easy to dismiss on a daily basis because they seem kind of insignificant in the moment. It’s like what is the difference between eating a burger and fries for lunch or eating a salad? On any given day, not really a whole lot. Your body looks basically the same in the mirror at the end of the night. The scale hasn’t really changed very much. It’s really only like two or five or ten years later that you turn around and you’re like, “Oh, wow, those daily choices really do matter a lot.”
And I think it’s like applying Kaizen to your personal life. And if you can do that, whether it’s writing or health or business, then you turn around five or ten years later, and you’re in a really strong position, even though it didn’t seem like you were doing that much on any given day.
Brett McKay: So the book is all about small habits, atomic habits, little small ones. But the same thing with an atom, there’s a lot of power in that if you unleash it. I’m curious, based on your research and just talking to people about habit formation, reading about it, are there some big misconceptions you’ve see that people have about making a habit or breaking a habit or even the power of habits?
James Clear: Yeah, I do have quite a few that come up often just about habits in particular. But you just mentioned something at the end of that question about the power of habits or perhaps where habits are useful. And I’ll just lead with that. Habits are incredibly important, so important that I felt like it was worth spending three years of my life to write what I hope is the definitive book on how habits work and how to build them. But they’re not everything. I think they are part of the two major pillars in life. So your habits and your decisions or you choices both play a central role. And decision making is like it sets the trajectory for your results in your life …
Let’s say you’re going to start a business, you could choose to start like a pizza parlor or a local pizza shop, or you could choose to start say a software company, like an email marketing business or something. And those two businesses, you’re going to be working hard either way. It’s going to be difficult to be an entrepreneur, you have to put a lot of effort in. But they have different trajectories. If you’re going to map out a dotted line in front of you going out from the moment you start the business, then the software company might have the steeper slope. It might have more potential or growth curve.
But your decisions set your trajectory, but your habits determine how far you walk along that trajectory. So you could have really killer habits, and end up creating a more successful business with the local pizza parlor than someone who has an idea for a great software company, but doesn’t have the execution behind it. And of course, ultimately, what we’re looking for is to make great decisions and have amazing habits behind them.
Anyway, so I mention that because I think sometimes there’s this misconception that if I just master my habits, then everything will fall into place. But the trajectory that you put yourself on matters a lot as well. So decision making plays a central role.
And then the other ideas that came to me when you mentioned the myth … So the first myth with habits, and this is so relevant around New Years and so on, people will always say things like, “This year, it’s going to be different. I have to try harder. If I just had a little more willpower, grit, then I would make it happen. I wish I had as much willpower as you,” that kind of thing. And I think that that looks at habits from the entirely wrong angle or lens.
Your habits are, and I talk about this a lot in the book, they’re often a response to the environment that you find yourself in. So environment design, whether that’s the physical environment or the social environment, shapes your habits in a really meaningful way. And willpower is not necessarily like the best way to approach it. So that’s one myth.
And then the final one that I’ll mention is about this idea of how long does it take to build a habit? So often people will say, “Does it take 21 days or 30 days,” or 66 days is a really common one now. There was one study that showed that on average it took about 66 days to build a habit, and so you see that number quoted a lot now. But even within that study, the range was quite wide. And I think the honest answer to that question, how long does it take to build a habit? Is forever. Because if you stop doing it, then it’s no longer a habit. And I think that looking at it that way, there’s this implicit assumption behind that question, which is how long until it’s easy? How long until I can stop working?
And if you view habits as a lifestyle to live and not a finish line to cross, then it becomes easier to focus on making these small, sustainable changes because what you’re actually looking to do is create a new normal not to just like work hard for a month and then you’re done.
Brett McKay: Let’s segue off that idea of goals often can lead us astray or sometimes they’re not as useful. I mean, they are useful, but they can lead us astray and they can not be useful. When you talk about this idea in terms of habits, there’s two approaches to habits and behavior change. There’s outcome based habits and then there’s identity based habits. So walk us through the difference with these two, and is there one that’s better, or are they two tools you use in different situations?
James Clear: So I think our default is to build what I call outcome based habits. It’s very natural for people to be like what outcomes do I want? I want to lose 40 pounds in the next six months, or I want to double my income this year, or something like that. And then once we have the outcome, once we’ve set the goal, we come up with a plan for achieving it. Like, all right, I want to lose 40 pounds, so I’m going to follow this diet plan and go to the gym four days a week. And then we kind of like whatever person we are as a result of that, we just kind of let it flow naturally. We think, all right, if I do those things and I lose weight, then I’ll be the kind of person I want to be. And we don’t give much more thought to it.
And instead, I think it’s often more useful, especially in the beginning when building a habit, to focus on what I call identity based habits instead of outcome based. So you basically just flip the script. Rather than starting with the outcome and letting that inform the habits, and then having your identity come as a result, you start with the identity and then you build the habits, and you let the outcomes come as a result.
So for example, you might say, “All right, I want to lose 40 pounds in six months.” And then the question would be, who is the kind of person that could lose weight? And then you realize maybe it’s someone who has the identity of I don’t miss workouts. And then you focus on building habits that reinforce that identity. So it’s like … I had to travel, and I’ve been on the plane for five hours, and I got to the hotel, and I’m exhausted, and I don’t have time for a full workout, but I’m going to do five pushups before I collapse in the bed. And it wasn’t what I wanted to do. It might not help me lose 40 pounds, but at least I’m the type of person that doesn’t miss workouts.
And so this is where I think small habits can be very useful because they can reinforce a different type of identity. It’s kind of like every action you take is a vote for the type of person that you believe that you are. And so even those small things like writing one sentence is a vote for being writer. Or doing five pushups is a vote for being a fit person or being the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts.
No single instance is going to change the way that you look at yourself, but if you can do it enough, and you start accumulating those votes, it’s like you have evidence of being a new kind of person. And eventually your identity has something to root itself in and believe in, and it’s like the scale is tipped and you start to see yourself in this new light.
And I think that outcomes and goals can be useful. We might talk about that more in a little bit, but in the beginning, an ultimately true behavior change is really identity change. Because once you look at yourself, once you see yourself in a particular way, you’re not even really trying to convince yourself to do anything new, you’re not even really pursuing behavior change, you’re just acting in alignment with who you already believe that you are.
People say things all the time like, “I need to motivate myself to workout,” or, “I wish I just had enough willpower to get into the gym.” But once you identify as a certain type of person, you don’t have to motivate yourself at all. Because once you see yourself as that kind of person, it just is natural and effortless to do. And that’s kind of what we’re trying to get to with using small habits to reinforce the desired identity rather than an unfavorable one.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it sounds very Aristotelianism, like virtue ethics. You want to become a virtuous person, that’s the identity that you want to achieve. And Aristotle said you do that by doing little small things every day to develop that identity.
James Clear: I think that’s right. They key insight here I think is the distinction of evidence. So a lot of the time people will say things like, “Fake it until you make it.” And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with fake it until you make it. There’s nothing wrong with thinking positive or trying to be confident if you don’t feel like it or whatever. But fake it until you make it is a short term strategy, not a long term one because it is asking you to believe something that you don’t have evidence for. And we have a word for beliefs that don’t have evidence. We call it delusion. At some point, your brain doesn’t like the mismatch between I keep saying I’m a fit person, but I never go to the gym.
So I’m talking about let the behavior lead the way, and let the beliefs follow. Do something small and easy, even if it’s only five pushups, and then let the belief that I’m a fit person come naturally once you’ve shown up and cast enough votes. And so I think, in that sense, to use the Aristotle kind of angle with it, the way to be a virtuous person is to act with virtue. And by doing that, even in small ways, you eventually come to see yourself in that light.
Brett McKay: And I imagine this identity insight can also go to bad habits. I think part of the process of changing your identity is it might be accepting, I’m the kind of person who drinks a lot. You have to accept maybe I’m an alcoholic, or maybe I’m a smoker. I think a lot of people might not want to do that because it’s uncomfortable and it makes you feel bad, but maybe you have to do that so you can begin that identity change to where I want to be the type of person who’s not a drinker or a smoker or whatever.
James Clear: That’s a deep point and an important one. Identity, and this is true for all things related to habits, everything that we’re talking about here is a double edged sword. Habits can work for you or against you. You can get one percent better or one percent worse. And in the sense of identity, there are all kinds of identities that people adopt that hold them back. Things like I have a sweet tooth or I’m bad at math or I’m terrible at remembering directions or I never remember people’s names at parties or things like that. And as soon as you start to adopt that identity, and we often do it blindly non-consciously, we don’t even realize that we’re identifying in that way.
People say, “I have a sweet tooth,” all the time. I’ve heard it so much recently since I published the book, I’m starting to notice it. And they often just use it as an excuse. They’ll say things like, “Yeah, my thing is chocolate, but I have such a sweet tooth.” Or you’re out to dinner and they’re like, “Yeah, we have to get some cake. I have a sweet tooth. I love dessert.” And they don’t think, “I am identifying as the kind of person who has a sweet tooth.” It’s not that kind of script going on in your mind. But I think that you are correct in that once it is stated, once you become aware that you have this identity, which can be a painful process or something that we like to avoid, then though you have the chance to change it. And I think that’s the power in realizing that you’re identifying in a particular way.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s recap that. It’s a lot of useful information there. So basically one of the more effective ways to instill new habits in yourself is start from an identity. Think like, I want to be a runner, the type of person who’s a runner, the type of person who’s a weightlifter. And then make that decisions, and then every day you do little, small things to reinforce that new identity.
James Clear: I think that’s right.
Brett McKay: Okay. So let’s dig in a little deeper to this. You talk about the four steps of habit building that Charles Duhigg made famous in his book, The Power of Habits. Can you summarize that? How did you build off of that?
James Clear: So Duhigg’s approach is a three step model where he’s got cue, routine, reward. And I could give you a very long explanation for why I changed it, but I’ll keep it short, which is basically that model is backed up by a lot of behavioral psychology research which shows that our behaviors are dependent on the rewards that they give us. And when we get a reward for doing something, or an action makes us feel good, we start to associate the cue that came before it with the feeling that comes after.
So simple example is like you walk into a kitchen and you see a plate of cookies, and that’s the cue. And then you eat the cookie and it tastes good, and so your brain starts to learn, “Hey, each time I see a cookie, I should pick one up and eat it.” So that’s the behavioral psychology model.
And then my model, it takes that backbone, which is very well proven, and also integrates another major area of science that has a bunch of research studies behind from cognitive psychology, which has realized that not only do our behaviors happen as a result of the cues and rewards that are in our environment, they’re also shaped by our internal states, our thoughts, and moods, and emotions, and feelings, and our beliefs.
So for example, you could walk into a room. Let’s say you have two people, and there’s a pack of cigarettes on the table, and one person is a smoker and they see that cue of the cigarettes, and they interpret it as, “Oh, I have this craving to smoke. I should pick up a cigarette.” And the other person has never smoked a cigarette in their life, and they see it, and they just think, “Oh, it’s just a pack of cigarettes.” It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just like a neutral thing. They don’t even really focus on it.
And so the lesson here is that the way that you interpret the cues in your life determines how you respond to them. And that is contingent upon your current state, your internal moods and emotions, and what I call in my four stage model, the craving, which is basically the prediction you make about the cue and whether you should act on it or not.
So my hope was that this four stage model integrates both behavioral and cognitive psychology so that we can understand our behavior at a deeper level. And those four stages are cue, craving, response, and reward. And the cue is usually visual, but it can be any of your senses, but it’s something that gets your attention, like that plate of cookies on the counter. The craving is the way that you interpret that cue and what kind of action or response you think you should take because of it. So it’s like the motivating force that drives you to act. The response is the action itself. And then finally there’s some kind of reward or consequence, but if there’s a consequence, then you tend to not do it again. And so with a habit, it tends to be rewarding, which is why you repeat the cycle over and over again.
Brett McKay: Right, and also I loved how you delved into the craving aspect. Because I think a lot our habits are, motivation drives … It’s like it’s not so much that you get the thing that you want, that’s not what lights up dopamine in your brain. It’s the anticipation of you getting that thing. So it’s like you smoke a cigarette because there’s that anticipation that you’re going to get some kind of dopamine hit. Or you’re going to play a video game because there’s all the variable anticipation that goes on. You don’t know if you’re going to get the thing that you want, and so you just keep doing it until you get that thing.
James Clear: Yeah, that’s correct. And there was kind of like this really big shift in the dopamine research a few years ago where they realized this. That actually once a habit is formed, dopamine spikes before the behavior, not after. Like if you show cocaine addicts, some powder of some cocaine, the dopamine will spike in their brain before they take it not after they take it. Or gamblers will get a spike of dopamine when they see dice not after they throw them. And so it’s actually that spike of dopamine in addition to many other things, but that’s one of the key players, that motivates you to take action and perform the habit.
And so it’s a very key stage, and I would summarize it just by saying perceived value motivates you to act, actual value motivates you to repeat. So when you see the plate of cookies, you perceive that there’s some value there. This is going to be tasty, this will be sugary, this will be enjoyable. And what gets you to act is not the cookie itself because you haven’t eaten it yet. It’s the image that the cookie creates in your mind. It’s your expectation, that anticipation, gets you to walk over and pick it up and eat it. And then the actual value, the way that it tastes, the sugar, and the sweetness, and the chocolate and so on, if that is enjoyable and satisfying, if it’s rewarding, then you have a reason to repeat it again in the future. So the reward is what gets you to come back again because it’s like this did have a payoff, but it’s the anticipation that gets you to act in the first place.
Brett McKay: So knowing this information, this structure you’ve built up, this four steps of habit building, you created, came up with these four laws of behavior change. So what are those four laws of behavior change?
James Clear: So basically there’s just one for each of the four steps. And for the cue, the first law is to make it obvious. So you want the cues of your good habits to be obvious and available and visible. For the craving, the second law of behavior change is to make it attractive. So the more attractive a behavior is, the more likely you are to repeat it. And we can talk about some ways to do that. For the third stage, the response, the third law of behavior change is to make it easy. The more easy, frictionless, convenient your habits and behaviors are, the more likely you are to repeat them in the future. Like why do we check our smartphones a hindered times a day? It’s because they’re literally like a millimeter from your skin. They’re in your pocket all the time, it’s so easy that you do it constantly. And then the fourth law of behavior change, for the reward, is to make it satisfying. And the key here is really about making it immediately satisfying. Behaviors that have an immediate payoff are more likely to be repeated.
And so those four laws make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, make it satisfying, are the four laws of behavior change that you can follow to build a good habit. It’s kind of like this toolbox that you can use. And then if you want to break a bad habit, you just invert the four laws. So for your bad habits, rather than make it obvious, you want to make them invisible, rather than attractive, make it unattractive, make it difficult, make it unsatisfying. And there are many, many ways that I cover in the book, and we’ll talk about some of them now that are strategies that you can use to do those four things.
Brett McKay: Are these strategies you have to do at the same time or can you use one, or is it do you have re-trigger or mess with all of these all at once to actually have the payoff?
James Clear: Good question. You definitely don’t have to use them all at once. In many cases, you’ll only need to use one or two to get over the friction and have that new habit built. So for example, when I wanted to start flossing consistently, I realized that I always brushed my teeth, but I wasn’t flossing as much as I wanted to, or I wasn’t doing it consistently. The key issue is that the floss was in the drawer in the bathroom, I just wouldn’t see it. It was tucked out of sight. And so first law of behavior change, make it obvious, I bought a little bowl, and I put the floss in the bowl, and I set it right next to my toothbrush. So brushed my teeth, put the toothbrush down, picked the floss up, it’s right there. And that was pretty much all I needed to do to build that habit. So that’s one example of a habit that was built that I’ve now stuck to for years that all I had to do was just make it more obvious. So you don’t have to use all four.
Brett McKay: The flossing habit is something, every time I go to the dentist, I’m always motivated to start the … The hygienist they do that thing where they poke your gums, and they tell you how deep your pocket is. She’s like, “Well, we got some 4 millimeters here.” My wife and I call them the pockets of shame because I always feel so ashamed sitting there, laying down-
James Clear: Then they floss and you’re bleeding like crazy, and they’re like, “Clearly you haven’t been doing this.”
Brett McKay: I tell them, “I haven’t been flossing.” But then after the visit I’m like, I’m going to become a flosser, and I do all the things, little floss sticks. And it goes for about a month and then the pockets of shame develop again. Anyways, I’m going to start using the things in your book to finally make this an identity for me, that I’m a flosser.
So let’s dig into some of these tactics on how we can implement some of these laws of change. So let’s talk about make it obvious, the cue obvious, or not obvious. What are some things that you’ve uncovered based on your research to make the cue more obvious or unobvious based on whether you want a good habit or a bad habit?
James Clear: So I think the first place to start is with what I call environment design. And so similar to what I just described with the floss, you basically want to restructure your environment, whether that’s the office that you work in or your kitchen counter at home or your living room to make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible or hidden. And so putting the floss on the counter, the bathroom is one example.
Another one is for a long time I realized my wife and I would go to the store and buy apples, and then we would put them in the crisper in the bottom of the fridge. And I would always forget they were there. And so then I’d turn around like two weeks later, and they would have gone bad and then I’d be annoyed. You’re throwing money away and wasting food and whatever. So instead, I bought a big display bowl, and we put it right in the middle of the counter, and put the apples there. And so now I eat them, they’re gone in like three days just because I see them and they’re right there. I will just snack on whatever is out.
And I think that is true for a lot of people. If I walk into the kitchen and there’s a plate of ten cookies, I’m going to eat them all. I’ll probably eat them all that day. I’ll just keep coming back again and again. And so you can do that just by improving your nutrition habits, just keep some fruit in a bowl, or keep like a clear jar of nuts on the counter so that it’s obvious and easy for you to get the stuff that you should be eating rather than the bad stuff.
And then on the flip side, of course, you could take the unhealthy food and you can put it on the highest shelf in the pantry or tuck it down low in the fridge. I don’t think this would actually work for like if you were dealing with alcoholism or something like that. But I’ve noticed that if I buy a six pack of beer and I put it at the front of the fridge or in the door where I can see it as soon as I open it up, I’ll pull one out and drink it each night just because it’s there. But if I take that same six pack, and I put it on the bottom shelf, all the way in the back, where I can’t see it when I open the door up, sometimes it will sit there for like a month. And examples like that are always interesting to me because you would think if you’re drinking each night, “Oh, I must have wanted a beer.” But actually you were just responding to the way that the environment was designed.
So those are a few examples with relation to food. And then another example, this one’s more for breaking a bad habit, a lot of people feel like they watch too much television or they spend too much time browsing Netflix or whatever. But if you walk into pretty much any living room, where do all the couches and chairs face? They all look at the TV. So what is that room designed to get you to do? And so there are a variety of things you could do. You could take a chair and turn it away from the TV and maybe like have a book on the shelf next to it. Or you could take the remote control and put it inside a drawer in the coffee table, and put a book in its place. Or you could unplug the TV after each use, and then only plug it back in if you can say the name of the show that you want to watch. So you’re not allowed to just turn Netflix on and find something. Or you could put the TV inside a wall unit or a cabinet. Or even if you really wanted to be extreme, take it off the wall, and put it in a closet, and only set it back up when you wanted to watch it bad enough.
Anyway, my point there is just that there are varying levels of extremity. And a lot of people find themselves watching TV because all the chairs face it. There’s a television in the bedroom right in front of their bed. It’s obvious. And so by removing that from the environment, you make it easier to stick with some of those new habits.
Brett McKay: Right, and that’s counter to what a lot of people want to do when they try to form a habit. They just want to use pure willpower. They’ll keep their environment exactly the same, and they’ll just say, “If I see the cookies, I’ll just force myself not to eat the cookies.” But the easier thing to me is exercise some willpower at the beginning, don’t buy any cookies, don’t bring it into your house. And then you don’t have to think about it after that.
James Clear: Right. It’s so strange that we do that, but that’s like the standard narrative. It’s like, oh, I just need to … What we think is, “I need to try harder,” but something that’s important to realize about habits is that habits are tied to a particular context. So early on when a habit’s first being built, and in some cases, in the long run, maybe your habit is tied to a very specific cue, like seeing the cookies on the counter, but over time, your habits kind of become tied to the general context that they happen in.
Like if you make a cup of coffee every morning, you could say that the cue is the coffee machine on the counter. But really it’s probably even broader than that. It’s like the context of being in your kitchen at 7:30 in the morning, all of that that’s wrapped into that is kind of like what reminds you to make that coffee. And this is true for all kinds of habits. So the key insight here is that changing your environment not only makes it easier for some behaviors to occur and harder for others, and so structuring it in that way can make it easier for you to stick to your habit. But also changing your environment makes it easier for you to build a new habit because it changes the context that all your previous ones were tied to.
Let’s say that you want to build the habit of reading. So you go to work, and come home, sit down on the couch after dinner, and you’re like, “All right, I want to read 20 pages tonight.” And you sit down, but that same couch that you’re sitting on to read, maybe previously it’s been the couch where you watched television for an hour. And so you don’t think about it, but subconsciously your mind is kind of nudging you towards … Like you have this behavioral bias in that environment, where it’s like this is the couch where I watch television.
And so oftentimes it can be easier to build a new habit if you have a change in your environment or an entirely new one. You could buy a new chair and put it in the corner, and that becomes the reading chair. And the only thing you do in that chair is you read 20 pages. And if you can do that, especially in the beginning, then you can start to tie that habit to that new context.
Or say you want to start journaling. And so you come home from work and you try to journal on the couch. But you again, find yourself being pulled to television. Instead you could say, “After I leave work, I’m going to go to a coffee shop I don’t usually go to, and this is going to become the journaling coffee shop. When I walk in, I turn off my phone, and I sit down at the same table, and I journal for ten minutes, and then I get back in my car, and I drive home.” And it depends on the habit you’re trying to build. But my point is just that a new context does not ask you to overcome your previous behavioral biases. And so it’s not just environment design, but also selecting the right environment that makes new habits easier to form.
Brett McKay: Okay, so we talked about making the cue more obvious or invisible based on whether we’re trying to get a good habit or a bad habit. Let’s talk about the craving. So we can make that craving more attractive or unattractive, but this is tricky because oftentimes, the good habits we want to develop, they’re not very attractive, like flossing isn’t a lot of fun. Paying your bills regularly, journal … They’re not very attractive. But then the bad habits, they’re really attractive, like surfing the internet, smoking, alcohol, porn, whatever, they’re super attractive. So how do you make things that are good for you, but aren’t attractive in the short term, more attractive? And then we can talk about how do you make things that are attractive in the short term seem less attractive?
James Clear: So making the things that you want to do more attractive, you can use a strategy called temptation bundling. And the basic idea is you pair something you do want to do, you actually want to do, with the thing that you need to do. So for example, I came across this woman in my research, who she always had these overdue work emails, and she was like, “I never want to process these.” And so she created a rule for herself because she loved getting pedicures, where she said, “Okay, I will only get a pedicure if I’m processing overdue work emails while I’m doing it.” And I came across another guy, this engineering student, who he knew that he needed to be exercising more, but he would always just go home and binge watch Netflix. So he put his engineering degree to use and linked his stationary bike to his computer, such that Netflix would pause unless he was pedaling. So he basically forced himself to, yeah, I can binge watch Netflix, but I have to be riding a bike.
And little strategies like that are ways to layer the thing that you want to do with something you need to do. And it makes it inherently more attractive. It is now more attractive to cycle because it means I get to watch Netflix. And so little rules like that like I want to read the next Game of Thrones novel, but I’m only allowed to do that if I’m walking on the treadmill or something like that allows you to make that good habit more attractive.
And then your second questions which is a lot of these bad habits are very attractive. We seem to fall into them without much effort, so what can we do about that? And basically you can use what psychologists call a commitment device. So one of my favorite examples of this is Victor Hugo who is the famous author who wrote Les Mis and Hunchback of Notre Dame. And while he was writing Hunchback of Notre Dame, he signed the book deal and he just procrastinated for like a year. He had a bunch of friends over, they partied. He hosted dinners. He went out to eat. He traveled. He basically did everything except work on the book.
So his publisher got upset with him and they said, “Listen, we need this book to get done. Either you have to finish this in six months or we’re going to cancel the deal.” And so Hugo had his assistant come into his chambers, and they gathered up all of his clothes and put them in a big chest and locked them up. And then they took the clothes out of the chamber, and the only thing that was left in the house was this big like shawl, this like robe. And so suddenly he didn’t have any clothes that were suitable for entertaining guests or hosting dinner parties or traveling. And he basically put himself on house arrest and it worked. He got the book done two weeks early, and that is an example of a commitment device, a choice that you make upfront that locks in the better behavior rather than the bad habit that’s easy for you to do.
So let’s say you want to start running in the morning. You go to bed at night, you’re like, “All right, tomorrow’s the day. I’m going to stick to the habit of running. And I’m going to wake up at 6:00 AM, and go to the park.” But then 6:00 AM rolls around and your bed is warm and it’s cold outside, and you’re like, “Ah, I’ll just snooze for a little bit,” and you end up not going. Well, you could use a commitment device like texting your friend earlier in the week and saying, “Can we meet at the park 6:00 AM on Thursday and go for a run?” And now it gets to the morning and it’s still cold outside and your bed is warm and you want to stay in there, but if you do, you’re going to be a jerk because you’re going to leave your friend stranded at the park. So you effectively committed or locked in your future behavior and made it more attractive now to get out of bed because not getting out of bed means you’re a bad friend. So those are two examples of ways to utilize temptation bundling to make good habits more attractive or commitment devices to get over the hump of the bad behavior.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about response now. The laws there are make it easy to form a good habit, make it difficult to get rid of a bad habit. So what are some tactics you can do with that?
James Clear: So the simplest way to do this one is what I call the two minute rule. And you basically take whatever habit you’re trying to build and you scale it down to just two minutes or less. So let’s say you want to read a book every month for the next year. Well, read 12 books becomes read one page, or you want to do weightlifting four days a week and that becomes put on weightlifting shoes and get out the door or something like that. And sometimes people resist this because it sounds a little too simple, a little too easy. I know the real goal is to actually work out for 45 minutes, it’s not to put on my lifting shoes. But this is a key insight about building better habits, which is that a habit must be established before it can be improved. You need to make it the new normal in your life, make it the standard before you worry about optimizing it. And so the two minute rule basically gives you a way to make good habits easy and master the art of showing up.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. And what about making things harder? How can you make things harder for yourself?
James Clear: So this is a lot about friction. And basically, the core idea is to increase the number of steps between you and the bad behavior. BJ Fogg, who is a professor at Stanford, writes a lot about habits as well. I thought he had a good example where he enjoys popcorn, but he didn’t want to eat as much of it, but he didn’t want to eliminate it entirely. And so he took the popcorn out of his pantry, walked down the hall, went into the garage, and put it on the highest shelf in the garage. And so if he really wants it, he can just go out and get it. But if he’s designing for his default position, for his lazy action, he’s not going to go get it. So now there are more steps between him and the bad choice.
And this is kind of like another version of environment design, but rather than making the cues invisible or making the cues you’re good at less obvious, you’re trying to increase the amount of friction between you and the task. And some of the things that you mentioned earlier about like social media or reading ESPN too much or checking porn or all that kind of stuff, you can do this in the digital environment as well. There are tools like Freedom or Self Control, those are two of the names of these applications you can use to block web sites, and effectively increase the friction of doing the bad habit. Or on my phone, you can’t see it right now, of course, but on my home screen, I have no applications. And if I want to get to social media sites, I have to be able to swipe over twice and then click inside a nested folder.
And it’s not some bulletproof strategy, but it just increases the friction a little bit, enough for me to be like do I really want to check Instagram or am I just going to this mindlessly because it’s the first thing I see when I open my phone? So little strategies like that to increase the friction of bad habits can make it more difficult to do the thing you don’t want to do.
Brett McKay: So this is just accepting the fact that human beings are really lazy, and we’re going to do the path of least resistance, so just add some friction to that?
James Clear: Yeah, I think that’s right. And that’s not I do say something similar to that in the book that our real motivation is to be lazy, but that’s not a bad strategy. Ultimately what your brain and body are trying to do is conserve energy because energy is precious and you want to make sure that you don’t waste it on anything. And so when we were living in tribes on the Savannah, that was a great strategy because it meant that we didn’t waste effort walking to a berry patch two miles away if there was one 50 feet to the left. But in modern society we have all these weird setups because now we can get things just by tapping a button on a screen and so the path of least resistance is not necessarily the one that serves us.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about the reward step in habit formation. So the law there is to form a good habit, make it satisfying, and then to break a bad habit, make it unsatisfying. So what are some tactics that you found to do that?
James Clear: The core idea here is that if a behavior is followed by a feeling of pleasure, by a feeling of satisfaction, then you have a reason to repeat it again in the future. It’s kind of like this positive emotional signal to your brain where it was like, “This felt good. You should do this again next time.” And the key insight, which I hinted at earlier, is that it’s really about what makes you feel good in the moment that gets habits to stick. And this makes sense because if you ask yourself how come bad habits form so readily? We don’t really try to form bad habits, we just seem to do it automatically even though we know it’s a bad habit. Why would I do that if i know that it’s not good for me? And the answer is that habits and most behaviors produce multiple outcomes across time. In any given moment, the immediate outcome often of bad habits is favorable. If you eat a donut right now, it’s great. Tastes sugary, it’s good, it’s sweet, but the ultimate outcome in six months or a year if you repeat that habit is unfavorable.
Meanwhile good habits are kind of the reverse. The immediate outcome of going to the gym is it takes effort and you sweat and it’s hard work, and the ultimate outcome of I’m ripped and I can bench press 300 pounds, that’s not happening until six months or a year, five years later. And so a lot of the challenge of building good habits and breaking bad ones is figuring out how to take that long term reward, that satisfaction that eventually you’ll get if you stick with it for your good habits, and pull that into the present moment so you can feel that right now.
And products are great examples of this. So one of my favorite examples, a very common one, is toothpaste. There’s no reason that toothpaste has to taste minty. It could be just like a bland paste and still clean your teeth just fine. But it has this fresh flavor, this mint flavor because it’s more satisfying to get this clean mouth feel at the end of brushing your teeth. It feels more satisfying and thus you want to do it again.
But one of my favorite examples is from car manufacturers. So a few years ago BMW added this feature to some of their cars where if you stepped on the accelerator and really pressed on the gas, it would push additional engine growl through the speakers. The engine wasn’t actually faster, it wasn’t actually a better car, or had more roar, but it felt like that because they played the music with it. And Ford has a similar set up where on a couple of their cars there’s like this valve, and if you drive normally, the valve stays shut and the interior is relatively soundproofed. And if you really slam on the gas, the valve opens and lets the engine noise in. But that’s really about making the experience of driving the car more satisfying in the moment.
And so ultimately what you’re looking for are ways to experience that with your good habits, so how can you feel satisfied right away? And one way to do that, I think that you can apply it to almost any habit is with habit tracking. So tracking is basically you write down, you put an X on the calendar for each day that you do a habit or something like that. And it’s a small thing, but it feels good to cross off another workout or another day of writing. And that can give you some small sense of satisfaction in the moment.
Brett McKay: So we’ve talked about these different laws that you can use to change behavior for the good or the better. One of my favorite chapters at the end, you talk about … And this kind of goes back to that earlier discussion you had at the beginning about decision making and habits. Oftentimes, I feel like when people make habits, it’s like, “I gotta wake up at 4:30 in the morning.” But that might not be what you need to do. Your personality isn’t suited for waking up at 4:30 in the morning. You try to do that, you’re just kicking against the bricks and it’s not making your habits work for you. So what can people do to take into account their personality or their own personal situation so their habits actually work for them instead of against them?
James Clear: Yeah, I’m glad you liked that chapter. That was one of my favorites as well. So basically first of all there are a lot of different ways to build similar habits. Let’s say you want to get in the habit of exercise. There are a bunch of ways to do that. Not everybody has to train like a body builder. I love lifting weights, but you could go hiking or rowing or rock climbing or do yoga or Pilates. There’s an infinite range of things. And similarly, if you’re looking to build a reading habit, I think that reading nonfiction books and business kind of books, the type of thing that I wrote with Atomic Habits, I think that’s really useful and solves a lot of problems. But if you’re not into that and you want to read Harry Potter or science fiction or romance novels or whatever, that’s fine. Just build the form of a habit that is most satisfying to you. And you don’t have to do the habit that society says you should do. So that’s the first lesson.
But the second thing with regards to personality is that success, whether we’re talking about building habits or just more generally in life, is often a matching problem. It’s often about figuring out how to match your particular makeup, whether that’s your physical genes or your psychological characteristics, with the right environment. If you have genes that make you seven feet tall, well that’s a really useful thing on a basketball court, but it’s a great hindrance if you’re on a balance beam and trying to do a gymnastics routine. And so this is something that I think is often overlooked when we talk about genes and personality because people bring those topics up and they kind of want to avoid them a lot of the time because it’s like it feels fixed and deterministic or why bother if it’s all just my genes? Isn’t it all predetermined?
But the lesson is that the usefulness of your genes, the usefulness of your personality, is dependent on the context that you find yourself in. And so if you can put yourself in … Basically genes do not change the need to work hard, they just show you where to work hard. They inform your strategy.
So for example, one way to measure personality is with a test called the Big Five. And it kind of maps personality on five spectrums. The one most people are familiar with are introversion on one side and extroversion on the other. But there’s another spectrum there which is called agreeableness, and it’s basically how warm and kind and considerate your personality is. And you can imagine, people who are high in agreeableness, it might be easy for them to get in the habit of writing thank you notes or get in the habit of organizing social events and getting friends together. Whereas someone who is low in that, they may struggle more with that.
And so essentially what that tells you is if you understand your personality a little bit better, it can show you where to focus. Maybe the person who is low in agreeableness, who is going to have a harder time naturally feeling like writing thank you notes, maybe it’s really helpful for them to use environment design and to have thank you notes preselected and in a little box right in a very visible place on their desk so that it’s there reminding them since they aren’t naturally going to feel that themselves. So little things like that can help tweak or improve your strategy for building new habits.
Brett McKay: I love that because I think, especially with social media, there’s a tendency, because you see people who are successful and they’re typically extroverted and all that and that’s great. But then there’s people who see that who might be an introvert, “Well, I want that. It seems like society values that,” so they try to do it and they’re just miserable in the process because it doesn’t suit them. And they probably might have been happier doing something else and just as flourishing and successful.
James Clear: Yeah, 100% agree. There’s no one way to be successful. There’s no one way to make it work. And there’s also no one right way to build a habit. And so that’s why I wanted to give people a tool set they could use. And I think ultimately, you could have the best advice in the world, but you need to be willing to experiment. And part of that philosophy of experimentation is self discovery and figuring out what works for you and what kind of person am I? And what resonates with me? So thinking through some of those questions, I think it doesn’t disregard or ignore the fact that there are some fundamentals that work for everyone, but it shows you how to apply the fundamentals for your particular use.
Brett McKay: So we’ve talked about a few of the tactics. There’s a lot more that we could go into. People can get that in the book. What do you think there’s something … like the one thing that someone can do today that will provide a lot of ROI in starting a good habit or breaking a bad one?
James Clear: The single biggest choice is what kind of habit you are trying to build. So the first thing that I would suggest is scaling it down. We talked about the two minute rule as one possible way to do that. But if you want to get in the habit of reading, there are a bunch of ways to set that out for yourself. You could say I want to read a new book every week. I want to read a new book every month. I want to read 20 pages a day. I want to read one page a day. And just those four that I’ve brainstormed right now are very different. They land in your brain in a different way. And so I think the most useful thing you can do is choose the simplest version of the habit you’re trying to build so that you can feel successful again and again and build up some of that momentum.
You mentioned a few moments ago video games. One of the reasons that video games stick so well is because they give continual signals of progress. You have the score, the little counter up in the top right corner that’s showing you your score is going up. Whenever you come across rubies or coins or resources or guns or little power-ups, there’s a jingle or a chime. Even the pitter patter of footsteps as you run through the different levels is giving you a signal of, hey, you’re making progress, you’re moving forward. And real life, it’s hard to have that. It’s hard to feel like you’re always making progress every moment of every day. And video games are so addictive, they’re so sticky, because it feels good to make progress.
And so by choosing a habit that is small, something that you can do in two minutes or less, you can feel satisfied in the moment. You can feel like you’re making progress. I did my pushups today. I wrote my one sentence today. I stretched for a minute today. I read one page, whatever it is. And I think that’s a great way to build up some momentum and get started and start to feel confident about your ability to change.
Brett McKay: Well, James, where’s some place people can go to learn more about your work?
James Clear: If you just want to check out some of the articles I’ve written, things like that, you can go to jamesclear.com. If you click on articles, I have them organized by topic, so you can feel free to poke around, and see what interests you. And then if you’d like to check out the book, it’s called Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. And you can find that at atomichabits.com.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. James, it’s been a great conversation. It’s been a lot of fun. Thanks for coming on.
James Clear: Yeah, you bet. Thank you so much for having me.
Brett McKay: Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website, artofmanliness.com where you can find over 3,000 articles on personal development, personal finance, social skills, health and fitness. You name it, we’ve got it. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your support and until next time, this is Brett McKay encouraging you not only to listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve learned into action.