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Building Better Habits with James Clear

James Clear is the author of the bestselling book, Atomic Habits.

Here’s what you’ll hear about during in the interview conversation:

  • Mindset: How long does it truly take to build a habit, and how is that mindset at odds with what most people do for their New Year’s resolutions?

  • Simplicity: How do you keep from burning yourself out? How many new habits and routines should you incorporate as part of a New Year’s resolutions?

  • Purpose: Why do habits even matter? Why should you pay attention to your habits and routines? Can building better habits make you a better person?


James has his book, Atomic Habits, that has been out for a little over a year now and some fantastic information around building habits that matter and just rearranging your life around structure and intentionality and routine. So James, I wanted to ask you a few questions about building habits as we head into the new year and just get some wisdom and advice from you.

Before we start, I’ve got three things I wanted to hear from you today. One is around the mindset of habits β€” like why they matter β€” and specifically, just the long term impact of habits.

I also wanted to hear from you about how to avoid trying to build a whole bunch of habits all at once, especially as we start talking about New Year’s resolutions. For example, I for one have a tendency to just go like, these are all the areas of my life that I want to make massive improvements to, so I’m going to just start all these habits all at once. But I’ve learned that that’s not the best approach to. So, I’d love to hear some advice from you.

And then as well, why does this even matter? I feel like habits has become a trendy sort of hot topic over the years, and I’m glad that it has because it’s so powerful and important. I would love to hear from you some insight into why habits actually matter in the first place. So that’s kind of the three things I want to hit on.

I always start off with a simple first question. Share with us a little bit about the mindset. In your book, you talk about how long it takes to build a habit. There’s the conventional wisdom, there’s the science behind it, but then you’ve got a spin on that. So I’d love to hear from you about how long it takes to build a habit.


Yeah, I mean, this is a very common question, you know, how long do I have to do this stuff? How long until it’s easy? And I get where people are coming from. You’ll hear all kinds of myths, right? 21 days, or 30 days, or the common one now is 66 days because there was one study that showed that, on average, it took about 66 days. But as soon as you state this, it becomes quite obvious: it depends.

You know, like that study found that if you pick a very simple habit like drinking a glass of water at lunch, then maybe that’s, you know, three or four weeks. If you pick something more complicated, like going for a run after work every day, it might be seven or eight or nine months. And you can also imagine situations where the habits the same, but the context is different. And so that’s gonna depend, right? Like somebody’s trying to build a workout habit. If you live in a family or household of athletes, well, that might be a lot more normal and easy to do. If you live in a household where nobody works out, then all of a sudden, you’re running against the grain or you know, you’ve got a little more friction in the social environment.

Now we’ve got the same habit, but the length of time is gonna vary based on the situation. So, the true answer is it depends. But I think that there’s actually a more useful way to think about it, which is the honest answer to how long does it take to build a habit. Forever, because if you stop doing it, it’s no longer a habit. I think the key insight here is that habits are not a finish line to be crossed in 21 days, 30 days, or whatever it is β€” they’re a lifestyle to be lived. Once you realize that, or embrace that, you start to look for a small change or a non-threatening change β€” something that you can build and integrate into your new normal right into your daily routine.

There are a variety of ways to phrase this. I saw a good one or heard a good one at the gym the other day. They said, like everybody posts before and after pictures on Instagram, but there is no before and after. There’s only before and during. And that’s true for almost any habit, right? Like there is no finish line, it’s just I’m either living this lifestyle, or I’m not. By looking at it in that way, I think you start to embrace the long term value of habits or that long term perspective.

That’s one of the things I talk about in Atomic Habits. One of the central ideas is you’re just looking to get 1% better every day. And the reason that 1% Better philosophy or mantra is so useful for habits is that that’s the pace that you can sustain, right? That’s a pace you can integrate. That’s not a finish line or a race you’re running. That’s a philosophy of continuous improvement that you can make part of your normal day. That is generally more how I like to think about habits and trying to accumulate those small improvements over time.


How does that come at odds with the new year’s resolution stuff? I feel at least for me, like I’m an idea person. So I’m always thinking of the biggest, most exciting version of what I want and how to get it right away. For example, I was just thinking about, I want to improve my photography next year because that’s something that I care about. So I’m like, Okay, well, what can I do? What’s a resolution that I can take? And my first thought was, maybe I should travel. I’ll go to a new city every single month next year. And I was like, wait, that’s probably a terrible idea. That’s too much. So how does the 1% better every day work if I start that at the beginning of January? How do I not despise that?


I know, I think it’s a good question. And I want to be clear, I think ambition is great. Like, I tried to be very ambitious in my business, or in the projects I’m creating, I think the balance is that we could probably summarize this by saying: when you make plans, think big. But when you make progress, think small.

Your ambitions can be as big as you want, right? You can set these very grand visions for yourself, but the truth is that if you want to execute on those, then you need to start focusing on what does the next moment look like? What does the next action look like? What does the next day look like? So, the 1% philosophy is kind of where big visions or big ambitions or hopes and dreams are like the rubber meets the road, right? It’s like, what that actually looks like if you’re going to execute on it.

This is another one of the core ideas in Atomic Habits, that you do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems. You can have whatever grand vision you want, whether it’s, you know, taking photography, taking out a weekend to do photography in 12 different cities, or writing a best selling book, or losing 40 pounds. Those goals are great, but the thing that’s going to determine whether you make progress or not is the system that you’re following.

I would define this as: your goal is your desired outcome. It’s that vision that you have, and your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there. If there’s ever a gap between your desired outcome and your daily habits β€” if there’s ever a gap between the system and the goal, the system will always win.

We almost could say, by definition, your current habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results. So, on having a goal, I think I could say having the goal or having the vision is actually not that useful, but it is sort of the easy part, right? Like I could set a goal right now to sell 10 million books. Took me like three seconds, right? The goal is actually quite quick and not that difficult. It’s the the executing on the system that is much more important. So, that’s why I like to talk about 1% better, building habits, and so on, because that’s what any grand goal actually looks like. If you zoom in to the daily or the hourly or the weekly level, it looks like that 1% improvement this week, or this day, rather than this massive outcome at the end of the year or the end of the decade or whatever.


That’s really good. I like that. I love that quote, too, that you don’t rise to the level of your goals, but you fall to the level of your systems. How does this then apply to multiple areas of life? So if I want to set a goal for my hobby photography, and a goal for personal fitness, and a goal for what I want to do with my business this year, and also I want a goal for my family time… All these things…all these goals are going to need systems, they’re going to need improvements to my habits. Is it wise to pick eight new resolutions this year for all these eight most important areas of my life? And here’s what I’m gonna do about it? Or what advice would you give for wanting to do everything and do all of it starting right away?


This is a common challenge, which is when you start thinking about improving, you can get really motivated, you find you can start to identify all sorts of areas that you’d like to improve. And there are different schools of thought β€” depending on who you talk to β€” some people think that you can focus on two or three or four things. The caveat to that being each of those things needs to be very small. So doing one push up and writing one sentence and you know, meditating for one minute and that kind of thing. And if it is that tiny, then perhaps you could do multiple.

I like to think about it from a different angle. So the first way to think about it is that all habits are tied to a particular context, right? So you know, your kitchen is where you drink coffee in the morning and your couch is where you watch Netflix and your desk is where you write every day, and so on. Because habits are tied to a context, it’s often difficult to add a new habit if an old one already occupies that space, or if it already occupies that context, because you’re trying to do the new thing in this space where the old one is β€” your bias is toward doing that.

So what I’m getting to here is, generally speaking, I tend to say you should focus on one habit at a time. But I have seen a caveat to that which is I can often get away with building or focusing on one personal little habit and one professional habit at the same time. Because the contexts are so different, I’m often focused on the personal stuff when I’m at home, and I’m focused on the professional stuff when I’m at the office. These are different enough spaces that can occupy each that I can optimize each one for that particular habit.

The final thing that I’ll say is that almost any project and habits are no different β€” it improves if you allocate your attention and focus toward it. By definition, if you’re allocating your attention towards one thing, you can’t allocate it towards something else. So if you really want the needle to move, then you probably need to pare down.

I like to say focus is the art of knowing what to ignore, so it’s really learning to say I have eight habits I’d like to build, but I’m actually going to ignore these six for right now. I’m just going to focus on the top two. That can be challenging, because in many situations, the most dangerous things on your to-do list are items like number two through seven, because those are the ones that you can rationalize doing. Because you’re like, oh, no, I’m making progress on something that’s kind of important to me. But the truth is, you’re spending all of your time on good uses of time, and very little on great uses of time. That’s actually a much more challenging trade off.

Most of us are cool with saying, I shouldn’t be watching YouTube for an hour a day, or I shouldn’t be wasting too much time on Netflix or whatever, but the waste of time activities actually aren’t that difficult to cut out for most productive people.

It’s the good uses of time that steal a little bit of your energy and attention without you realizing that is preventing you from working on something great. That’s that’s much more challenging.

I have one more point to add to this, which is, sometimes I like to put habits into different buckets. So one bucket that we could put them into is what we could call like a meta habit. And occasionally people refer to these as a keystone habit as well. But it’s sort of like, what is one habit that you do that impacts a lot of others. A classic example would be sleep. If you build a good sleep habit, and you’re well rested every day, then that improves your ability to perform almost every other habit in your life. Or another one that I like is reading, if you focus on building a reading habit, well, the great thing about reading is that whatever other problem you’re facing, you can read a book on how to solve that.

So if you have a habit of reading, and then you decide I want to start a podcast, great! Read books about that. Or I want to learn how to cook better β€” well, great, there are tons of cooking books. Or I want to learn how to meditate. Cool, we’ve got a bunch of books on that. So that’s another line of questioning that you can ask yourself: I’ve got eight things that I want to focus on. What is the one or two habits on this list that are upstream of the others? What is the one thing that I could focus on here that would ripple into the other areas naturally? That’s a good place to focus. If you’re struggling to figure out how to whittle this down, just focus on one thing and start.

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I love that because then you’re creating. Like, I’ve got this stream of momentum happening here with this thing, and I can just slot stuff in. I was chatting with this one gal, and she sets aside time every week to go through online training and courses. And she goes through one or two courses a month because she has the time set aside. It’s just part of her routine. And so she’s just constantly learning. Whereas, I know so many people β€” myself included β€” are all signing up for something. And a lot of times I don’t get to it because there’s not that habit in place to be doing that. But then, you know, with reading it’s different. But yeah, I like that a lot.


Yeah, that reminds me. I came across this quote, something to the effect of, “Strategy is always one level up from the action you’re working on.” If the thing that you want to make a habit is learning, well, what’s one level up from that? Well, maybe actually, what I need to make a habit of is reviewing courses for an hour every week. By always continuing to ratchet up one level, you often can get to the meta habit for whatever it is that you’re working on.

I think a lot of people would be well-served to do this for health and fitness. You know, we often worry about the number on the scale or how much weight I’m lifting. But one level up from that is how do I build a habit of never missing a workout? And that’s much more valuable. If you’re in the gym, a lot of good things can happen. There’s that great quote by Ed Lattimore. He says the heaviest weight at the gym is the front door. And it’s like, yeah, figure out how to always open the front door, and then you’ll be surprised by how many other things you can lift as a result of that.


That’s huge. That was a huge thing for me for 2019 was to do your workout every single day. I just figured if I can hit 15 minutes a day, every single day, then the rest will take care of itself. So I had a couple of free weight workouts, a couple of spin classes that I would do as well as some yoga stuff. I just was like 15 minutes is all I have to hit β€” if I do more than that, awesome. But as long as I do that, it was enough that it built the momentum and then it gets to the point where it’s like, all I’m thinking about is like, when’s my next workout? That’s a great exertion to carry towards it. But yeah, set the bar low. You feel like you’re winning, and you’re doing it well, like, this is great. And there’s that there’s a little bit more intrinsic motivation as well.


Yeah, there’s an interesting thing with expectations there. You know, it’s like if you set your expectation high, and then if you plan on working out for 45 minutes every day, and then you did it for 15, you’d feel like a failure just because you didn’t hit this arbitrary goal that you set in the beginning. That also speaks to that difference between systems and goals. When you make it all about the goal, sometimes you feel like a failure if the goal isn’t hit. But if you make it about the system, well, now you can feel like a success. I feel successful, because that’s what the system does. And it’s much less about any individual outcome or performance. Yeah, exactly.


So, tell me about why this actually matters at all. Like I was talking about earlier, it seems like Medium is full of think-pieces about habits and “do these 45 things to transform your morning.” There’s a lot of cynicism there, but I feel like there’s a lot of truth there as well. I’m personally a huge fan of building healthy and intentional lifestyle practices and these habits that serve the bigger goal. It’s like, if I can put this in place…like, a huge one for me would be date night with my wife. We’ve been married for almost 15 years now, and we’ve had a date night pretty much every single Thursday for like 15 years, plus a few years before that when we were dating. I’d say this is one of the single most important systems or routines in my marriage that’s been really, really valuable. This really matters. And that goes for so many other areas as well. So, give me some of your perspective of why do habits really matter? What’s the purpose behind them? And provide a little bit of clarity behind like, what’s really happening behind the scenes?


Yeah, I think there are a variety of reasons habits matter. And we’ve hinted at many of them. But there are two that I think I should highlight here.

So, the first reason is that you’re building habits, whether you think about it or not β€” all habits are sort of these mental shortcuts. They’re the these cognitive scripts or processes that your brain will run whenever it encounters the situation repeatedly. So, the first time you put a shoe on your foot, and it’s untied, somebody has to teach you very carefully how to make the knot and loop the string and so on. But after you’ve tied your shoes a hundred or a thousand times, you can start to do it without thinking about it. That frees up energy and attention to focus on other things. You can think about your to-do list for the day or talk to somebody else who’s next to you or whatever.

All habits do that β€” they free up your attention and energy to focus on other things. They’re so useful in that regard. Your brain is building them all the time. And so sometimes that is healthy and good and productive, like tying a shoe. But occasionally, we come up with solutions that we automate that aren’t that healthy.

For example, if you come home from work and you’re exhausted, well, that might be a situation that happens fairly frequently. Your brain is starting to look for an automatic solution to that problem. And one person might play video games for an hour, another person might go for a walk in the neighborhood or go for a run. A third person might smoke a cigarette. Some of those behaviors are more healthy or productive than others, but they all solve that problem in the moment of reducing stress after a long day at work.

If you don’t know how habits work, or how to change them, or how to adjust them, you often feel like those habits are happening to you, you know? You feel like you’re the victim of your habits. “Oh, I do this mindlessly, I don’t even think about it, it’s over before I even realized I did it,” and so on, because your brain is constantly building them.

But if you understand what a habit is and how it works, for example in Atomic Habits the method of breaking it into a four step framework, but there are a variety of ways to think about it. The point of doing that is so that you see the inner architecture of what a habit is and how you can change it. And if you do that, if you understand what they are and how they work…now all of a sudden, you’re not the victim of your habits β€” you’re the architect of them, right? Like you’re the designer who can start to move the levers in place and create and structure life that serves you rather than one that hinders you.

That, I think, is the first reason. This is happening all the time and this process is functioning constantly. By understanding how it works, it gives you a little bit more control over the process. It’s almost like you get to take the reins rather than letting yourself be pulled along through life. Because of that, and by understanding that, you can start to get all kinds of better results.

This is usually what we talk about when we talk about habits and what can they provide. They can help you reduce stress and they can help you lose weight. They can help you increase your income and be more productive, and so on. It’s true that habits can do that β€” they can deliver all these great external results.

But I think the real reason that habits matter so much β€” and this is the second thing that I think I should highlight β€” the real reason that habits matter is not the external results, but the internal ones. It’s that your habits not only can deliver different outcomes, they can also shift your sense of self image.

One way to phrase this is that your habits are sort of how you embody a particular identity, right? So every morning that you make your bed, you embody the identity of someone who’s clean and organized. If you study biology for 20 minutes, every Wednesday night, you embody the identity of someone who’s studious. In your case, if you go on a date with your wife every Thursday for 15 years, you embody the identity of someone who is a good partner or a good spouse, or supportive and so on.

By acting in that way, it’s like you reinforce your belief in that identity and that aspect of yourself. So every action you take is like a vote for the type of person you want to become. Early on, the first time you do that, maybe you don’t believe I am studious just because I studied for 20 minutes one time. But if you keep doing it every week, at some point, you cross this invisible threshold β€” three months, six months, two years later, whenever it is β€” where you think, yeah, being studious is part of who I am.

That is the real reason that habits matter so much is that they give you an avenue for proving and believing something new about yourself. It’s like each time you do it, even if it’s just for a minute, you cast a vote for being that kind of person.

No, writing one sentence does not finish the novel. But it does cast a vote for “I’m a writer,” and no doing one pushup does not transform your body, but it does cast a vote for on the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. You turn around a couple years later, and you’re like, “Yeah, I actually am that kind of person now.” That is great that they can deliver those external results. But that internal shift β€” that change in your narrative about yourself β€” I think is the real reason that habits are such a powerful skill to learn how to adjust and change and build.


I love that it feels like cheating in a way. Because you’re you’re choosing an identity, as opposed to waiting for someone to speak that identity to you or like, pick you, right? You’re in, you know? Seth Godin would say like, you’re picking yourself. And Jon Acuff talked about it, he says, you choose the right emotions, or you choose the right behaviors, until eventually they choose you back. And it’s like, okay, this matters to me, I don’t feel it. No one ever knighted me or dubbed me or anointed me with this thing, but I’m going to choose that and go that route and take ownership as opposed to being a victim, like you say. I love that. It’s so powerful.


Yeah, beliefs and behavior are like a two way street, right? They influence each other. Sometimes we hold on to beliefs that don’t serve us, like I have a sweet tooth, or I’m bad with directions, or I’m terrible at math, or I can’t remember people’s names or whatever, right? We have these narratives that we tell ourselves that influence our behavior. A lot of the time people will suggest “fake it ’til you make it,” you know? Like, tell yourself, “I am great at math,” or “I am good at remembering people’s names” or whatever, or “I don’t have a sweet tooth.” And I don’t necessarily have anything wrong with fake it ’til you make it, ut the argument that I’m making is actually the inverse, which is that rather than starting with the beliefs, we should start with the behavior and let your behavior drive your belief.

By doing one push up, you cannot deny that in that moment, you were someone who worked out. It provides undeniable evidence to root your new identity. Whereas fake it ’til you make it is asking you to believe something without having evidence for it. And that’s fine, but we have a word for beliefs that don’t have evidence: delusion. Like, at some point, your brain doesn’t like that mismatch between what you’re saying and what you’re doing, so my argument is, if we can focus on scaling it down, getting 1% better each day, building a system of these very small habits that we know we can achieve, then we can start to cast votes for being a new kind of person and build up evidence of that new identity. Once we have evidence, we’ve got every reason in the world to believe it because we’ve proven it to ourselves again and again. In that way, understanding your habits, what habits you want, how to build them, and how to scale them up slowly over time might be one of the most important skills anyone could build in life.


That’s fantastic. Awesome. Anything else you want to share or any parting words of wisdom or humor?


I think that that covers covers things well, and from a high level view, I do have one more story that I talked about in Atomic Habits. I guess I should say that if you want more context on all of this, feel free to check out the book. But I do think there’s one thing that is useful to keep in mind for consistency purposes.

There’s the San Antonio Spurs (famous NBA team). They’ve won five championships, they have this quote that hangs in their locker room says something to the effect of whenever I feel like giving up, I think about the stonecutter who takes his hammer and bangs on the rock 100 times without showing a crack. And then at the 101st blow, it splits in two. And I know that it wasn’t the 101st that did it, but all the 100 that came before.

That’s exactly the approach to take with your habits. You know it’s not the last sentence that finishes the novel β€” it’s all the 100 that came before. It’s not the last workout that gives you a fit body, it’s all the ones that came before. By focusing on showing up and getting 1% better and just hammering on the rock, you’ll be surprised by how far you can take yourself in a year or two or 10.

But it requires that level of patience and consistency to keep banging even when you don’t see any progress right away. Any habits compound like that. Like I like to say: habits are the compound interest in self improvement in the same way that money multiplies through compound interest. The effects of your habits multiplies, and you repeat them across time. The hallmark of any compounding process is the greatest returns are delayed, so you can bang for 50 or 70 or 80 times and you don’t see anything yet. But if you keep hammering on the rock, then at some point, you start to get to those delayed returns. They accumulate and then you turn around one day and you’re like, Wow, I’m surprised by all the success I’m having. And everybody looks at you like it’s an overnight success. But you know the truth, which is you’ve been hammering away for a long time. It really requires that level of persistence and patience to see the true gains accumulate.


Yeah, that’s awesome. Thanks, James. So good to talk to you. So if people want to find out more about you…


jamesclear.com is the best place to go if you want to learn more. I’ve got articles organized by category and stuff. You can feel free to like click around there and see what’s interesting to you. And if you want to go straight to the book, then it’s called Atomic Habits and you can just go to atomichabits.com.

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