If I remember correctly, I met James Clear at Chris Guillebeau’s terrific yearly conference, World Domination Summit. We’re interested in so many of the same things – in particular, habits.
Because he’s spent so much time thinking and writing about habits, I was curious to hear how James would answer these questions.
For me, it’s especially interesting to see how someone else approaches the issues that I often ponder—how someone else thinks of it, what vocabulary is used. In brackets in James’s answers, I’ve added the corresponding terms that I use in my book, Better Than Before.
Habits, happiness, human nature—such endlessly fascinating subjects!
Gretchen: What is a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
James: For at least five years, when we sit down for dinner at night my wife and I will say one thing we are grateful for that happened during the day. This habit provides some insight into the types of events that actually cause happiness. For example, over time, you realize that most of the things you are grateful for are things that cost little or no money like “getting in a good workout” or “getting to see my sister this weekend” or “making dinner together.” It’s an incredibly simple habit, but I’m sure that it helps us maintain a sense of perspective and increases our general feelings of gratitude and happiness.
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Physical environment is one of the most overlooked drivers of habits and behavior change. I certainly had no idea how important it was when I was 18.
Your environment can have a profound impact on our daily actions. For example, if I walk into the kitchen and see a plate of cookies, I’ll eat one (or ten) even if I’m not hungry. [Try the Strategy of Abstaining! But only if you’re an Abstainer.] The way your environment is designed can have a big impact on which options you choose. For example, I previously wrote about one study that found people drank 25% more water and 11% less soda when more water bottles were placed throughout the cafeteria. The researchers didn’t talk to anyone. They just changed the environment and the behavior changed as well.
Your habits are often triggered by what is obvious, easy, or available to you in your current environment. Walk into most living rooms. Where do all the couches and chairs face? We watch so much TV because our rooms are designed for it. Drive down any major road. It is no surprise we eat so much fast food when we are surrounded by it. It’s hard to resist the pull of what engulfs us. I’ve never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.
There is good news: You don’t have to be the victim of your environment. You can also be the architect of it.
If you want to practice guitar more frequently, then place your guitar stand in the middle of your living room. If you want to read more, then put a book on top of your pillow when you make your bed each morning. Read a few pages when you go to bed at night. [In Better Than Before, I call this the Strategy of Convenience.]
Here’s a personal example: For a long time, I would buy apples and forget to eat them because they were tucked away in the crisper at the bottom of my fridge. I never saw them. Then I bought a large bowl, set it in the middle of the kitchen counter, and put the apples in it. Now I eat one each day simply because it’s highly visible and easy to remember. You want to make good habits obvious. I call this process environment design and the core idea is to put more steps between you and bad habits and fewer steps between you and good habits.
The same principles apply to your digital environment. I hide all social media apps on my phone in a folder three swipes away from my home screen. The idea is to increase the friction between me and mindless social media browsing. [The Strategy of Inconvenience.]
I’ve written a lot about this topic. If you’re interested in more on how your environment influences your habits, this article is a good place to start: Motivation is Overvalued. Environment Often Matters More.
Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Not all habits are created equal. There are certain habits that deliver a much higher “rate of return” in life than others.
In my life, exercise has easily been one of the habits with the highest rate of return. Improved health and extra years of living are obvious benefits, but there are mental improvements as well. I often joke that without exercise I wouldn’t have a business. I need a way to physically blow off steam so that I can keep my mental sanity and handle the rollercoaster ride of entrepreneurship.
Sleep is another crucial habit for me. One of my cardinal rules is that I never cheat myself on sleep. I typically get 8 to 9 hours per night. I’m sure this extra rest keeps my sharp and helps be do more productive work during the day. [These are two of the four habits discussed in my chapter on the Strategy of Foundation.]
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I had a two-year period during grad school where I did very little exercise. Fast forward to today and I’ve been training 3 to 5 days per week for nearly a decade. The shift in exercise habits came not from making one change, but from making several related changes. I joined a gym that had a weightlifting team, which gave me a group of people I could be friends with and get to know better. As I developed friend at the gym, my motivation to go increased. [Strategy of Accountability; Strategy of Other People.] I also moved to an apartment that was very close to the gym (within five minutes). I started tracking my workouts, which helped me realize how often I was actually exercising and gave me a bit of motivation to beat my numbers from the week before. [Strategy of Monitoring.] After a few months, I signed up for a weightlifting competition, which gave me some additional motivation and something to shoot for. [Strategy of Distinction.]
I think layering small improvements on top of each other is one of the best ways to build a habit that sticks. You can’t expect habits to sustain themselves if you only change one thing. Instead, you need redundancies, backup plans, and additional layers of reinforcement.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
There are a variety of forces that drive our habits and one of the biggest is social culture. The people you are surrounded by have a major influence on your behavior. For example, if you move to a new neighborhood and see all of your neighbors setting out their recycling bins on Tuesday night, then you think, “Oh, we need to sign up for recycling. That’s what people in this neighborhood do.” [Strategy of Identity.]
In other words, social pressure and a desire to belong can really influence our habits. I find this to be a very strong force in my own life. It usually comes up when I’m getting drinks with friends. I’m not a big drinker and I can often go months without having beer in the house. But when I am out with friends, I am easily compelled to drink alcohol even though I would actually prefer water. It’s like the desire to belong with the group overpowers my preference for a drink I would enjoy. I’d imagine many people feel similarly about how the habits of those around them shape their behavior in various contexts. [Strategy of Other People.]
Do you embrace habits or resist them?
I mostly embrace them. Most of my writing is focused on how to build good habits and how to use little routines as a way to spark productive work, initiate deliberate practice, and stay focused on what matters. [Strategy of Clarity.]
Like everyone, I also have bad habits, but I find that they best way to defeat them is to reduce exposure to the triggers that cause them. Once a habit is formed in the mind, it is very hard to extinguish. The neural pathways have already been laid down and reinforced (that’s how it became a habit) and if the opportunity to act arises then you’ll likely fall back into your old habits once again.
Habits usually occur mindlessly and automatically, which means monitoring your bad habits is often a difficult task. By the time you realize what you’ve done, it’s too late. Trying to “pay attention” and “act better” is not an effective long-term strategy. Even if you can manage to remember to not bite your nails or maintain good posture or avoid cigarettes for a little while, as soon as something else grabs your attention, you’ll forget to monitor your bad habits.
As a result, I generally think it’s better to not worry about resisting your habits and instead pour your energy into creating a system and environment where good habits are more likely to emerge naturally and bad habits are less likely to be triggered. Your job isn’t so much to make success happen as it is to create an environment where success is more likely to happen. [Strategy of Safeguards.]
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