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In this episode, I interview James Clear, who runs the very popular blog JamesClear.com, where he writes about many facets of the science of self-improvement.
I enjoy reading James’ writing because it’s simple, clear, and practical, and chock full of interesting studies, examples, and anecdotes. If you peruse his website, you’ll quickly realize that James’ hobbyhorse is habits, and that’s the topic of today’s interview (and his upcoming book, which I’m excited to check out later this year).
Here are a few things you’re going to learn in this episode:
- Why you should focus on systems instead of goals when you want to achieve something.
- Why making habits a part of your identity makes them easier to stick to.
- How perfectionism can be productive or counterproductive, depending on how you use it.
- And more…
Click the player below to listen in …
3:56 – What are systems over goals and environment over motivation?
5:59 – What is the difference between a system and a goal?
12:28 – How can changing your beliefs change your identity?
15:22 – Can changing your habits change your beliefs?
22:15 – How does our environment impact our self-control?
30:18 – Does reinforcement destroy intrinsic motivation?
37:37 – How do we progress?
44:59 – What is a mismatch environment?
52:50 – Is perfectionism productive or counterproductive?
55:36 – Where can people follow you and find your work?
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Mike: [00:06:19] Hey, James, thanks for taking the time to come on the show, I’m excited to talk with you.
James: [00:06:22] Yeah, thanks, Mike. I’m excited, too. Thanks for having me.
Mike: [00:06:25] Absolutely. So we kind of narrowed down from the, you know, six or seven ideas that you came up with about what we could talk about, we narrowed down two things that particularly have your attention these days, which also resonate with me and that is environment over motivation and systems over goals. So with that, I’m just gonna kind of pass the ball to you and let you tell us what you have to think about these things.
James: [00:06:49] Yeah, great. Both of those topics, I think, are crucial. Let’s start with systems over goals, I feel like that’s a good way to frame the discussion and environment fits into how to build a good system so it will be a natural flow from there. The basic ideas that – I like to view self-improvement as a sort of like an onion, so the outermost layer are your results, and this is usually where people focus when they think about, you know, how much weight I want to lose in the next six months or how much money I want to earn in the next year and things like that.
And results are good, you know, setting a goal for the results that you want can kind of help provide some direction. And then the next layer in is your process, your systems, the habits that you have for achieving those goals and those are also useful to think about, usually the conversation kind of stops there. But I think there’s a deeper layer of behavior change and improvement, and that’s kind of the core, and I would call that identity change and it’s really the type of person that you believe you are.
And a lot of those beliefs, values, principles, whatever word you want to use for it, that kind of underlie or sit beneath the systems and the processes that you follow to try to get these results, a lot of people change their process, try to come up with a new plan for getting a new result, but they don’t change the underlying beliefs that they have and so they end up falling flat, they never fall through on this new plan and then they just get frustrated like, “oh, I thought I wanted to lose weight,” or “I thought I wanted to get fitter, I thought I wanted to earn more money, but I’m not actually doing that.”
Mike: [00:08:12] And that probably even reinforces negative aspects of who they think they are, “I’m just not the kind of person that can do that.”
James: [00:08:19] Yes, so then it becomes more evidence for the identity that they’re trying to change.
Mike: [00:08:23] Right, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
James: [00:08:25] Yes, exactly. So the question then is: all right, well, how do we get over that? How do we fashion a new identity? How do we become the type of person who believes that we knew about ourselves and actually be able to stick to these new processes and habits and goals? And I think the answer is by building a system. The distinguishing feature I want to make here, the difference that I want to clarify is between what a system is and what a goal is. And it’s not really that one is better or worse than the other, both can be useful.
But a goal is the result that you want to achieve. So if you’re a basketball coach, your goal might be to win the championship. But your system is the series or collection of processes and habits for getting there, so how you recruit new players, how you train your assistant coaches, the type of strategies and drills that you do a practice each day, those are all part of the system of what it means to build a good basketball team. And if you can optimize that system, then you often will get the results as a natural side effect. And there are obviously many applications of this for health and fitness.
It’s not really about the weight that’s on the bar any given day, it’s more about the system of sleep that you’re getting, nutrition you’re following, training protocols that you’re using, and a variety of other things. And so that kind of sets the stage for focusing on systems over goals, I think we can then talk about a variety of ways to do that.
Mike: [00:11:19] So let’s get right into that then, because I mean, you’ve written about this, that you know, a lot of people, of course, they say they want a lot of things, a lot of people want a lot of the same things, that’s not really that important. I mean, the first question of “what do I want” is fine, but you have to go deeper than that, a lot deeper than that to have any chance of actually achieving it. And this, of course, weighs into a system, but there’s also the price that you’re willing to pay and that goes along with the system. I mean, what are your thoughts on that?
James: [00:11:45] The question that you just asked there is like, “well, what do I want” then you need to go slightly deeper than that. I think it raises one of the issues of focusing only on goals, which is that: we often think that what we need to change are the results, but in fact, we need to change the system behind the results. So, for example, let’s say that you decide, “I really need to, like, clean my garage,” or “I have a messy room,” or something.
Well, eventually the clutter builds up enough that you get this burst of motivation to make a change and then maybe you spend all Saturday like, cleaning the room or cleaning garage and you have a clean room, so you have the result that you want, but if you don’t change the habits behind what led to a messy garage in the first place, then three months from now you’re going to have a dirty garage again.
And I think the same thing is true for so many aspects of life. You can say the result that you want us to lose 20 pounds and fine, you could go on some like crazy juice cleanse or crash diet or whatever and lose the weight, but if you don’t change any of the habits that led to that in the first place, I think this is one of the downsides of, especially with health and fitness goals, looking at them as a finish line rather than a lifestyle.
If you look at things as a finish line, then it can be motivating for the short term. It’s possible that you could get to it, although in many cases you won’t, but if it’s just about crossing that finish line, then you’d never adopt the lifestyle that you need to actually, like, live that way day in and day out and maintain those results. This is why you see a lot of people who, you know, they may train for a marathon or something or a 5K and then they run the race, and after the race is done they stop training because they were just training to finish the race and they don’t have anything to motivate them afterward.
And that’s kind of one of the weird things about focusing on goals rather than systems, is that: if you just focus on the goal after you achieve it, what’s left to push you forward? Whereas if you’re focused on building the system, it’s different.
Mike: [00:13:31] Yeah. No, I totally agree. I mean, at least if you, I mean, I think of a number of people I’ve emailed with who ran marathons and then stopped running after that and they just got back into weightlifting, so I understand that, like, “I’m going to put what I’m normally doing on pause, I just want to do this, just for the sake of doing it.
All right, that’s done, I’m going back to my normal routine,” but I’ve also seen the unhealthy side of it, which is people that have started out very overweight and they’ve put in a lot of work to get into great shape, so they’ve achieved their goal, it’s done, and now they are kind of sitting there without direction or purpose, and there’s all the delicious food around them at all times.
And six months later, they are very overweight again, and it’s a strange, more, I guess, enlightened version of yo-yo dieting because they know exactly what they’re doing, and also because they know how it works, I would say, it almost becomes like, once the motivation, “okay I got lean, I got all the pictures I wanted, and I just really like food, and I know I can always do it again,” so then six months go by and they’re back to square zero, and that’s kind of an unhealthy, never-ending roller coaster.
And like you said, yes, sure, that’s health and fitness, but that pattern seems to be present in many areas of many people’s lives where, I’ve actually talked about this just with friends of mine, that I think there’s a trap in that, making progress feels good, right? We all enjoy feeling like we’re moving forward in one way or another, to think something is getting better. And when you’re in a bad state, in any area of your life, getting better isn’t that hard. Like, it starts with maybe just stop doing the obvious things that are making your life worse.
That’s all you have to do. You don’t even have to start doing hard things, you just have to stop doing the shit that is really making shit bad. Okay, so you stop there, you feel pretty good. Okay now you gotta do is start doing a couple easy things, maybe just ten minutes a day of easy little things to make those – it’s like newbie gains back to taking the fitness analogy, and this can be in any area of life, relationships, with friends, with partners, or it could be personal growth or whatever. But there’s a point where, okay your newbie gains are exhausted and now you have to fucking work.
So you’ve enjoyed the ride, you’ve got to feel good about yourself and now it starts to get hard, starts to get grindy, and fuck it, just turn it loose, let everything fall back to shit, maybe even enjoy the free fall, and then when you hit bottom, when you are straight up disgusted with yourself again, go back through the same process of like, “okay, I’m going to stop doing all the things that are making my life bad and I’m going to start doing little things so I can enjoy that,” you know, “emotional swing back into my,” coming to the fitness analogy again, muscle memory, “I get to enjoy my newbie gains again.
Once it gets hard, fuck that,” and just let it collapse. And now that I’ve seen, I mean, I’m 33 now and I’ve known people over long periods of time, I see this repeating over and over and over all over their lives. I know I’m just kind of rambling, but what you said just made me think of that and something that I myself have personally thought about like, “please do not let me fall into that trap.”
Mike: [00:16:44] Yeah, well, I think there are two things that you brought up that makes me think of two different things. The first is improvement in any area, I think you can kind of view like an S curve. And in the beginning, if you’re all the way at the bottom of the S curve, say you’re 100 pounds overweight or something like that, then it can take a while, it can take a few steps for you to actually see some improvement, for you to get into the higher part of the curve and see steeper part of the curve.
And you’ll hear that from people who lose a lot of weight like, they may say, “I’ve been walking and dieting for like three months before anybody commented and said, ‘have you lost weight?'” Like, it takes a while for people to notice. But then most people are more toward the middle of the curve and so they get those gains pretty quickly, the newbie gains, the beginner gains that you referenced.
And then once you get through those and the curb starts to flatten out again near the top of the S curve, then improvements start to – you have to work more to get a small improvement. And when you’re at the real extreme end, like if you’re an elite athlete or you’re training for the Olympics or something like that, you’ll work for four years just to shave two-hundredths of a second off and you have to design your entire life around getting that small improvement.
And so the further along that curve you get, the harder you have to work to maintain those gains. And if you’re just doing it for the results, then as soon as the work starts to get hard, as soon as you start to hit that second inflection point on the S curve, you tap out the beginner gains, if you’re just doing it for the results, it’s hard to maintain motivation.
And that’s why I think adopting, we come back to this idea of identity change, which is the second thing that you made me think about, it becomes important to adopt that type of identity, that “I’m the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts,” or, you know, you can imagine the two people who are trying to quit smoking. The first person you ask, “would you like a cigarette?”
And they say, “oh, no thanks, I’m trying to quit smoking,” and the implicit assumption there is I’m someone who is a smoker, but I’m trying to stop. You ask the second person, “would you like a cigarette?” And they say, “oh, no, thanks, I’m not a smoker.” And that’s a small change, but they don’t identify as that type of person anymore, and it becomes easier to stick with that, something that, you know, can be very hard to turn down that type of temptation if you’ve been a smoker for a long time.
My point here is that the results are going to, they’re going to fade a little bit as time goes on, as you work, as you get through that easy period and so you need something else to push you along. And that’s why true behavior change is identity change, because at that point, you’re not doing it for the results, you’re not doing it for the praise, you’re just doing it because it’s the type of person that you believe that you are.
And it’s really not even behavior change to that point, you’re just acting in alignment with the beliefs you already have. And you often hear those types of phrases from people who have made a change that’s lasted. Say things like, you know, “meditation is just part of my normal day now,” or “I’m just the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts.” Those phrases signal a difference in identity, a difference in beliefs and help them stick with it even when the results aren’t there or aren’t coming as quickly as they used to.
Mike: [00:19:39] Yeah, and actually I write about this in this new book coming out that I sent you the manuscript of, and there’s a bit of research that’s been done on this phenomenon and that from my understanding of it, and it also gives my personal experience myself and working with a lot of people over the years, that the easiest way to change your identity, because when you start going down that rabbit hole you can get lost in a labyrinth of complexity and have no idea what to actually do. Like, you know, things like these types of discussions are great, but if you don’t walk away with at least something you can do, it almost can even be depressing.
You know what I mean? Where you’re like,”great, so I just have to change who I am as a person, how the fuck do I do that?” But it seems to be the most reliable way to do it, is to change your actions. If you can change your behavior and if you can make it stick for long enough, and this kind of comes back to habit building, which obviously is what your new book is all about, so I guarantee you know a lot more about that world than I do, but if you can just change your behaviors for long enough, your attitudes, your beliefs, your ideas will naturally conform to your behaviors, not the other way around.
You don’t have to try to change your mind in order to change your behaviors, if you can just muster the will, the necessity level to just change your behaviors and stick to it, eventually you will naturally just become the type of person that does that and your attitudes will just align with your behaviors in ways that are explicit and implicit in ways that are obvious and non obvious. Do you agree with that?
James: [00:21:19] Yeah, I think you bring up two really important points there. So the first is you talked about, “you can get lost in this rabbit hole of identity change and easily overwhelm yourself,” and so on. I think that’s a common misconception that people have when they first hear about this. They think, “I need to change who I am.” You don’t need to change everything about yourself, you just need to adjust portions or aspects of your identity. There are many things that inform your identity.
You may identify as a father, or as an American, or as a, you know, as a Christian, or as an atheist. There are tons of things that could be involved in your identity and all we’re asking you to do is to expand or upgrade the portion that is unhelpful or is unproductive or unhealthy. And so you can maintain much of who you are, like a painting that’s being retouched, you’re just trying to retouch certain portions. And so your point about the best way to do that, to retouch certain aspects of yourself is by changing your actions, I think it’s absolutely true.
And the way that I would describe it is that your actions provide evidence for the type of person that you believe you are. So if you go to church every Sunday for 20 years, then you believe that you’re religious. If you study biology every Tuesday night for 20 minutes, then you believe that you’re a studious. Each time you perform a behavior, it’s like casting a vote for the type of person that you believe that you are.
And if you cast enough votes, then you accumulate enough evidence and you start to think, “this really is who I am.” So, you know, each time you go to the gym, maybe that’s a vote for, “well, maybe I am the type of person who likes to workout,” or “the type person who doesn’t miss workouts.” And eventually you do that enough, you become that person.
And so this is why coming back to, “okay, what can we actually do here? What’s the practical action step?” This is why habits are so crucial, and in particular, why environment is useful, which we can talk about in a second here. By designing an environment that leads to more productive and healthy behaviors, you make it more likely that you’ll follow through on those habits and continue casting votes for the type of person that you want to become and develop the identity of the type of person that you want to be.
And eventually build the ability to stick with those long-term changes, whether it’s going to the gym or eating healthy or meditating each day or journaling each day or whatever the habit is that we’re talking about or whatever the lifestyle is you’re looking to build. And so I think that’s kind of how the more ephemeral concept of identity and the more practical action step of habits, I think that’s how those two ties together. Habits provide evidence for the type of person that you believe that you are.
Mike: [00:23:48] Yeah, I agree and, you know, for anybody that’s read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it’s obvious what a lot of the book focuses on is who you are as individual, your core principles, your values and so forth, and how you live those out in the world and I mean, I’ve done this exercise myself of identifying, “okay, what are your values?”
And then working at backward of, how would that type of person behave in a daily routine or in certain types of situations or circumstances that you face regularly, and if you can just bring yourself to act like the type of person that has these values, you will eventually inculcate them, they will just become a part of you. You don’t have to sit and think about them, or meditate on them, or go get a thousand hours of therapy on them, you just have to do the things that embody those values and the, again, the subjective will conform to the objective.
And it may be fast, it may be slow, that’s where the individual aspect comes in, but it’s something I came across years ago when I read, I guess it was that and a couple other books and I put it together myself, I was like, “I like that, that’s useful to me” and I’ve used it to help, I guess, overcome some parts of me that I didn’t like. Parts of me, where I was like, “this is useful for some things, but I apply it too liberally,” it causes problems.
In this type of situation, being this kind of person makes sense, but this other situation, being this kind of person does not make sense, I need to change this. You know, one other thing I thought of, just to your point is, it’s easy to lie to other people, it’s hard to lie to yourself, right?
So if you are trying to say that you’re the type of person that, you know, is this, that, or whatever, but you don’t embody it, you don’t live it out, I mean, we’ve all been there, it’s hard to live with that cognitive dissonance and it eats up energy and I think it just warps you in bad ways. And the more you go down that road, the more ineffective and just kind of messed up you become, it seems.
James: [00:25:46] Well eventually you give up on it. Belief without evidence is delusion. And you can only delude yourself for so long before something breaks. Either your mindset has to break and you just live with like this cognitive bias and you believe that the world is different than it actually is, or you give up on the goal that you’re trying to achieve because you’re like, well, I keep saying that I do this, but then I know that I don’t actually follow through on it, and so then you just kind of like default or slide back into the old person that you were.
You brought up another point during this last minute or so where you said something to the idea of like: you reverse engineer, you start with the type of person that you want to become, and then you think about what their daily routines and habits would be, and then you just need the will or the grit, perseverance, and so on to follow through on it. And I think this is a great place to talk a little bit more about environment, because to do that, first we need to talk about self-control and what the research on self-control has shown.
And it’s kind of surprising because so much of our conversation about getting motivated and sticking with something and having willpower is very deeply ingrained in our culture. But in fact, the research has primarily shown that people mostly have about the same amount of willpower. There aren’t people that are superhuman in that regard, the difference is that the people who tend to seem to have high willpower, that seem to be very good at resisting temptation and so on, are mostly just facing fewer temptations throughout the day.
And because they don’t have to constantly be turning things down or overcoming forces in their environment, they have the energy and willpower and motivation to stick with something when they need to because they’re not using up that ability all over the place. You know, this is commonly brought up as decision fatigue and there’s been some questioning about whether the decision fatigue research is robust or, you know, replicates and so on, but I think regardless of what that says, we all have had the experience where at the end of a long day, we do feel fatigued or we don’t seem to be able to draw upon the same levels of willpower always at the same time, there are some times when we feel motivated and sometimes when we don’t.
And so the question then is: what can we do to optimize the environment to make it more likely that we are a person who feels motivated at the right time or who feels inspired to do things at the right time? And this is where environment design can be very useful. And so I’ve done a variety of research on this topic and one of the stories I like to share is from Harvard Medical School.
It was done at Massachusetts General Hospital and the researchers had kind of an interesting question, they say, “can we change the eating habits, the behaviors of people, without actually talking to them, without trying to motivate them?” And so what they did was they went to the hospital cafeteria and they changed the layout so that before they went in, there were like, maybe five refrigerators kind of interspersed throughout the cafeteria and only two of them had water in it as an option and the other three were like soda and orange juice and things like that.
So then they changed it so that all five refrigerators had water, soda was still an option, but they just made water more prevalent, and then they added a couple little rolling carts next to some of the food stations with water as well. And that was it, that was all they did. But after they made that change, over the next six months, sales of water increased 25 percent and sales of soda decreased to 11 percent.
And I like that example, because if you were to go up to anybody eating in the cafeteria and ask them, “why did you get a Coke,” or, “why do you have a water?” Everybody would have a reason for it. They would say, like, “I got it because that’s what I want to drink.” But in truth, you know, a quarter of those people chose water just because it was more prevalent or more obvious to them. And this is so true about many things in our environment.
We desire the things that are obvious, our cravings, our wants are shaped by the world around us, what is made prevalent to us. And so we can take advantage of that by redesigning our workspaces at home or our workspaces at the office or kitchen counters at home so that the good option is more prevalent and that will lead to what effectively looks like better willpower, but in fact, what it actually is, is a better environment.
Mike: [00:29:58] Yeah. You know, just makes me think of a little bit of advice I’ve given a lot of people who are starting their health and fitness journey for the first time, and they have the standard beginner kind of obstacles to overcome of eating very different foods that they haven’t eaten in a while, at least consistently, and doing exercise when they’re not used to it, and one of the easy things that just helps with compliance is: go in your house, throw away all the junk food.
All the chips and little snack foods and ice cream and stuff, just throw it all away and for the next, you know, three months, while we are focusing on losing 30 pounds or whatever they’re going to able to lose in that time, 20, 30 pounds, don’t rebuy those foods. Don’t have them in the house, if you’re going to go out and have a normal meal or free meal or cheat meal or whatever you want to call it, go out to a restaurant, don’t don’t bring that food home.
And that alone is just a stupid little environment “hack”, so to speak, that makes a very big difference. When they’re at home, they’ve had a long day at work, they are, let’s just say, low on, you could say low on willpower, but it’s more just low on energy and just feeling like they need some comfort. If the chips aren’t there, they can’t eat them [laughing], so it works.
James: [00:31:09] You can use this for healthy foods as well. So like, for example, my wife and I used to buy apples and we would put them in the crisper, the bottom of the fridge, and I would never see them down there, they were like out of sight. Drawer was like, opaque, I couldn’t look in it, whatever. We would buy them and I would forget they were there. Then invariably they would, like, go bad after like, two weeks and then I’d be throwing these apples away, just like annoyed that we had wasted food and wasted money and whatever.
And so we decided to buy this, like, big display bowl and put it on the middle of the counter, and so now whenever we get fruit, we just put it right there and I eat the apples in like three days now. They’re all gone, just because it’s obvious. And so I wanted them, I wanted to eat healthy, but it just wasn’t obvious to me how I could eat healthy. And that was true even in my own kitchen, you know, it was like 10 feet away from me and I still wasn’t seeing it.
You can imagine doing that with, you know, almonds or other, like, healthy snacks, like having those visible, clear containers on the counter and meanwhile tucking away less healthy foods and like, hard to reach your hard to see places like the top or bottom shelf or, you know, putting any, like, healthy leftovers in clear containers and putting unhealthy ones in like brown bags, or tin foil, or something like that.
These are all small steps but by doing that, imagine living in an environment where you have like a hundred of those things working in the right direction. Like, you know, it’s not just eating habits either, if you want to practice guitar more than you can, like have your guitar stand in the middle of the living room, where you see it all the time.
Or a lot of people are upset about how much TV they watch, well, if you walk into like any living room in America, where do all the couches and chairs face? They all look at the television, so what is that room designed to get you to do? It’s designed to get you to watch more TV. And so you can adjust that in a bunch different ways, there’s like a whole spectrum of behaviors you could do there, you could take the remote, take it off of the coffee table and put it inside a drawer, maybe put a book in its place.
You could get, like a cabinet and put the TV inside of that behind some doors so that you don’t see it as much. You could unplug the TV after each individual use and then only plug it in when you can, like, say, the name of the show that you want to watch, so you cut out mindless browsing. I mean, at the most extreme end, if you really wanted to get crazy about it, you could unplug the TV, take it off the wall, put in the closet and only take it out when you really want to watch something.
The core idea here with environment design, whether it’s TV or music or food or whatever, is you want to increase the number of steps between you and the bad behaviors, the unproductive behaviors, and decrease the number of steps between you and the good ones. So you’re trying to make the good habit the path of least resistance and environment design is a useful way to do that.
Mike: [00:33:52] Yeah, you know, the fruit thing, that’s one thing I’ve done in my house that has gotten my son to like fruit is we always have fruit out on the counter, so if he’s randomly hungry, my wife and I – like my version of junk food is dark chocolate and she’s the same way.
I think she has, like some sugar-free organic cereals or a couple things that are his little treats that, you know, he doesn’t actually eat every day, and those are in the pantry, but what’s visible is fruit. We haven’t been successful with vegetables, we have to hide them and things like pancakes for him, like we’ll put spinach, you know, blend it up, put it in pancakes, he’ll eat that.
James: [00:34:30] I was going to say, you’re the only house with broccoli pancakes.
Mike: [00:34:33] Yeah, exactly. Hey, it works though [laughing], but it’s been successful with fruit. You know, we’ll leave out bananas and apples and stuff and he’ll just grab them and eat them when he’s hungry. That’s a lot easier than trying to argue with a five-year-old and trying to – I actually looked into a bit of the research on parenting and trying to play the bribe game doesn’t work anyway.
And it probably instills negative behavior patterns that can be a problem later where if it gets too extreme where a kid is always doing things for rewards, then he loses all intrinsic motivation for everything and then you have a kid that has bigger problems and won’t eat fruits or vegetables, but for any parents out there, it worked with my son, that’s really all it was, is just increasing the availability and visibility, and over time, he just like, started eating them, like, “this is actually pretty good.”
James: [00:35:24] Yeah, just a quick side note there on the intrinsic motivation versus reinforcement, paying your kids money for getting an A in school or, you know, like bribing them to eat vegetables and things like that, a lot of that also can come down to how the reward is framed. So, for example, you could easily imagine a kid saying, “okay well, I only study because I get paid for getting good grades,”
But you could also say, “studying hard in school is so important to us as a family that we’re going to provide an incentive and pay you for it and this is not because you should only do this because you get paid, but because we’re only going to do this in areas where we really believe it’s an important area of life,” and that can help overcome a little bit of that danger of them doing it just for the reward.
But at some point, you always have to be training – I think this is true in business as well as in family life – training the culture to be what you want it to be. You know, so it’s like, “look, we’re the type of family that eats healthy and that’s what we do here and that’s what it means to be part of this family, so you’re not just eating vegetables because we’re bribing you to do it, you’re eating them because that’s who we are.” And same way with like, habits of work and so on with any type of culture, but it ultimately has to come back to that identity, but reinforcements, if they’re framed right, can be used as a short term incentive.
Mike: [00:36:40] Yeah. No, again, I’ve read a bit on it and it makes sense. I mean, it obviously makes sense and certain things if they’re just one off tasks. Like if it’s something that the kid’s never going to like, like taking out the trash, I don’t think kids are ever going to like taking out the trash and you’re not trying to change them as a person to be the type person that likes taking out the trash, “just take out the fucking trash, here’s a nickel,” you know, “good job,” kind of thing, like that makes sense.
You’d say probably eating vegetables is somewhere in between there, but then there are, I think, something like school, the idea would be, you’d really want to try to put together an environment and a system that would nurture their intrinsic and foster intrinsic motivation so they become the type of person that wants to do well in school.
And you know this is a whole different tangent because this is something I care about having kids, and I think doing well in school, getting good grades is fine but I don’t even necessarily agree with the idea that we should just be teaching kids to memorize random shit to pass tests as opposed to true education, which is improving their ability to think critically, improving their ability to use their imagination to solve problems, to find out where their natural inclinations lie, and that is, I think, tragically missing from at least the public schooling system.
James: [00:37:57] So this actually has an interesting connection to our conversation here, which is that: to foster true learning and creativity in school, you need to be curious. And that really is what we’re hoping to instill in our kids, is the curiosity or the willingness to explore new topics and to want to be a lifelong learner and to be willing to, like wrestle with something, and go through trial and error, and the same thing is true for any form of self-improvement.
What everybody wants, is they want a template. They want us to be able to have this conversation and me to say, “there are 10 steps to building better habits and here’s one through ten and you need to follow them in this order and if you do that, then you’re going to have the habits that you want.” But anyone who has lived any moderate amount of life and has experimented with this all.
Knows that’s not exactly how it works, that everybody lives a different life and deals with different circumstances, and even if there are core principles or fundamentals, you can’t tell someone this is exactly what you should do, although we do like to be told that because we want to be held by the hand and guided. We want certainty, we don’t want uncertainty.
But if you’re willing to be curious, just like a child in school or someone who wants to be a lifelong learner, then you can actually make a lot of headway when it comes to building a better system or becoming the type of person who, I don’t know if we could say, “masters” their self-improvement, but certainly it comes better at it. Because what it really is, is trial and error. Like, let’s take even this topic of environment design.
Now, you could do some of the things that I just laid out: you could put your guitar stand in the middle of living room and you could set your apples in a bowl on the center of the counter and another one that I do, it’s like I have my flosser set right next to my toothbrush. So you could go ahead and do all those things and some of them might work for you but it’s also possible that there are other constraints in your life that make it not work that well.
Like maybe you have three kids and if you set the apples on the counter like they all get eaten before you get to have one, and then you’re just set looking at an empty bowl every two days and reminded that you need to go the grocery store and you’re not actually eating healthier and you just go back to the snacks in the pantry again.
Mike: [00:39:59] Or in the case of TV, right? I mean, it’s such a powerful draw for many people that I just saw a survey that was done yesterday that even with streaming, of course, on the rise, the average American still watches about three hours of TV in a day, that doesn’t account for time, like on Netflix or Amazon or YouTube.
James: [00:40:21] That’s not including Netflix? Wow. Yeah, but you’re right, it is a huge draw and you can also imagine how it would be particularly difficult if you’re in a house with many other people when your goal is to not watch TV, but it’s not their goal, and then, you know, the TV is always on and so on. But my point here is that the concept of living in an environment where the steps between you and the good behaviors are few and the steps between you and the bad behaviors are many, that concept is true.
But in order to find a way to make it work, you need to be curious enough to try a variety of different things, to design your environment in different ways and to test and experiment just the same way that someone who is going to actually excel in school or actually learn something of value over the course of their life also needs to be curious.
And if you’re willing to adopt that mindset of trial and error and personal experimentation, you know, you can listen to conversations like this and actually have something that you can put to use. I mean, one of the dangers of listening to conversations like this is that you feel like you’re doing something because you’re listening, but most people don’t actually take it and put it into action.
And that would be probably my biggest piece of encouragement to anybody listening to this talk, is that if you can take just one idea from the last 30 minutes or hour and apply that, then this will probably be time well spent and it will probably separate you from a majority of people because most people just want to passively learn rather than actively experiment. But it’s really the testing that gets you the results, it’s not the listening.
Mike: [00:41:52] Yeah, and, you know, there’s curiosity and I think there’s also something to be said for, I guess, what Steven Pressfield said, it’s in one of his books, I don’t think it was War of Art, I think it was maybe Do the Work or maybe was an interview, I don’t remember, but he was asked basically, what’s the number one skill that he has learned over the years that he would attribute his success to and he said it was just his ability to suffer, just his ability to just keep on going [laughing] to just sit down in the chair every day and do what needs to be done even if he hates what gets done on an individual day, he’s going to sit down the next day and continue going and I think there’s really something to be said for that.
And I’d say, that’s the first level and then the next level is when you get to a point where what was once suffering is no longer. Maybe it’s not enjoyable but you’re emotionally neutral about it. And then the grandmasters, are the ones that find the pleasure in the suffering and run headfirst into pain, you know, Ray Dalio talks about this a number of times in his latest book, Principles, and I totally agree with it. What are your thoughts on that?
James: [00:42:57] Yeah, I’ve had a similar quote that was a mantra for me as I was writing my book over the last two or three years and it’s from Alain de Botton, the British philosopher, and he said, “of many books, one thinks this could have been truly great if only the author was willing to suffer more.”
Mike: [00:43:15] I like that. I’m saving that.
James: [00:43:18] [Laughing] I just keep telling myself that, “okay, this book could be really good, I just need to suffer more.” And I think that’s right.
Mike: [00:43:24] That’s true with anything.
James: [00:43:24] Yes. You know, it’s similar to the point you just brought up from Dalio, which is that there is a period of time when everything is – you know, there’s that famous Musashi quote, he’s a Japanese samurai and he said, “learning to swing a samurai sword is easy, just swing two samurai swords. It will be difficult at first, but everything is difficult at first.” That idea that like, everything is difficult at the start.
So there will be a period of suffering for anything, but then you adapt. What was once challenging is now the new normal and at that point, the quest is not to stop there and enjoy the results, the quest is to return to the beginning and get back to the hard work to advance to whatever the next level is. It’s only the willingness to do that that leads to mastery. Everything else just leads to like, an intermediate level of success.
Mike: [00:44:12] Yeah and that’s one of the things that I had sitting in my head from what we were talking about previously is that, you know, changing as a person is very hard, you know, I totally agree with the s curve analogy that you gave and the thing is that it never gets easier. Like, what was very difficult in the beginning and what felt like it required a tremendous amount of effort in the beginning, yeah, sure.
That gets easier and let’s just say your personal experience of that, if you had to rate it on a scale of one to ten, “how hard is this?” And it feels like an eight, it feels like a nine, sure, what you were doing there at some point might feel like a three but if you don’t go back to that eight or nine level of discomfort, you’re not going to continue moving ahead.
So it’s almost like – this very much has to do with identity, you have to become the type of person that is just comfortable always operating at an eight or nine of discomfort if you really want to excel.
James: [00:45:10] There’s kind of this weird, this is especially true in our social media culture, Instagram culture, whatever, because we see the highlights of everybody’s life and we don’t really see the suffering because we see the end result and the success so much because society prioritizes that, I think we have this misconception that life should not have problems, that life should not – it’s really about the result, that it’s not about the process or the struggle that comes before it.
And this is, I think, kind of a broken methodology, broken way of thinking about life. It’s okay for life to have problems, for there to be challenges that you have to be dealing with.
Mike: [00:45:52] Well, I mean, there will always be problems. I think you get to choose, at best, what types of problems – if you’re living a good life, you are choosing your problems, it’s not problem-free.
James: [00:46:01] Right, yeah. It’s kind of an inversion of thinking about that, though. Right? Like what you’re saying here, which I agree with, is that it’s really about trying to upgrade the problems that you’re dealing with to upgrade to ones you get to choose or ones that are in areas that you’re more interested in than ones that just feel like a responsibility or requirement or something you have to do to get by, but there will still be those problems and challenges.
And so the goal is not to have a problem-free life, but to have control of the problems in your life. And if you can do that and if you can accept that, that there will always be challenges, then I think it becomes easier to develop that identity of living at an eight or nine of living at that level that requires you to continually put in effort.
Mike: [00:46:46] Absolutely. And this is some advice I’ve given people, just on a one-to-one basis, that when you’re getting into anything, what is it going to cost and what do you have to sacrifice? Are you willing to make that sacrifice? And you should probably multiply whatever you think, however hard you think it’s going to be, multiply that by like five and maybe you’ll be somewhat in the ballpark.
And ask yourself, are you ready to do that? Are you actually going to do that? You know, and I do this myself, where if I’m looking at something and I’m like, “here’s the goal, here’s the idea, here’s realistically what I think it’s going to take,” I like, double or triple my own estimation, I think I’ve gotten better at estimating effort and hardship that’s involved in trying to accomplish things, and then go, if I don’t personally feel like a hundred percent all in, completely undaunted, resolute about it, saying, “absolutely, I don’t care what it takes. I will do whatever it takes to make this happen.
I don’t care if it’s three times my three times, I think it’s worth it.” Then I’m interested in playing the game, but if I’m waffling in the beginning, even if it’s not because I’m afraid of the effort or even if it’s an opportunity cost, like, “I’m not really sure that that’s worth it, does that really make sense?” I don’t go into anything with that because I’ve experienced that not only is it more likely for you to be derailed by whatever and just, you know, life loves to get in the way of everything, but there seems to also be something.
I don’t know, you could say mysterious about it, in that the more resolved you are on a given line, the more things just tend to go the way that you want them to go for whatever reason and I’m sure there are some good explanations for it I’ve just experienced it, whereas the more wishy-washy you are, it just seems like the more random fuckery gets in the way and things that just come out of nowhere that make no sense like, it’s almost like you’re just unlucky versus lucky.
James: [00:48:40] I feel like if you’re clear about where you want to go, then people will either get out of your way or help you get there, and both of those are useful. If you’re not clear about where you want to go, then anything that people say is a possible opportunity that you should explore and then you just get distracted super easily.
Mike: [00:48:56] And then there’s just life. I mean, how many distractions? We have some of the most brilliant people in the world, all they do is sit around all day and figure out how to distract us more and more [laughing] and how to get us to buy more things we don’t need, and consume more mindless media, and be more and more ineffective and ignorant.
James: [00:49:15] This is actually a reason why environment design is important, which is that the world is not designed with your goals in mind. You know, Facebook is not designed with your goals in mind, Amazon is not designed with your goals in mind, neither are all these other websites that you’re checking out and reading. So in order for you to live in – biologist, call us a mismatched environment.
Where the traits that you evolved with are mismatched to the environmental problem that you’re facing. So the classic example is of these fish, if they grow up in a pool where there are real dark pebbles on the bottom, then of course the fish that aren’t brightly colored, can blend in easier and they’re more likely to survive. So if you are a brightly colored fish in a dark pebble pool, then you’re in a mismatched environment.
Because of the complexity of human society and what we’ve created with culture, the odds are quite high that the environment you live in is not perfectly designed to your goals, wants, needs, interests, genetic makeup, and so on and so it rests on your shoulders, the responsibility to change that environment or to tweak it to the best of your ability to best match what you want to get out of things.
And you’re right, we’re inundated and surrounded by distractions and so it’s up to you to shift both the physical environment and the digital environment, really, whether it’s social media blockers, or moving apps off of your home screen on your phone, or changing the software that you’re using on your desktop, all of those are ways to design the digital environment, to serve your goals as well.
Mike: [00:50:48] Yeah. I guess I never really got into social media, fortunately, I mean, I use it a bit for work but that’s it, I honestly don’t even enjoy it, so I’m glad that I don’t have that as a constant draw or pull at my attention. But yeah, I mean, I talk about this in this book that I have coming out, you have things that, you know, what is it, Cold Turkey is one, there are a few of these simple apps where you can just block your internet completely if you want.
Let’s say you need to work on something for an hour, so it will block Facebook and Twitter, and now Instagram as a full web app and maybe that’s actually not that new, it’s new to me, but, you know, you can block these websites, and of course, James, you know, I’m just letting all listeners know that’s an example of a simple way to control your digital environment, once you hit that button, there’s no going back for next hour those websites will not load.
James: [00:51:41] Yeah. Well, there’s one more point I want to make about that kind of ties together this environment concept and the systems over goals concept that we started with, which is a system can get to the same result through many different shapes, through different forms and perhaps like training is a good example of this. You know, if you want to get bigger shoulders, well, that’s fine, you can do that in many different ways.
You can focus on shoulder training and doing military presses and things like that in the gym. If you’re into gymnastics and you’re going to be doing things on a pommel horse all the time, the bars, and whatever, great, you’ll probably get huge shoulders that way. If you’re into some other type of training, like shot-put or swimming or something else that is heavy on the upper body, then that’ll probably help, but the point is that you can get to the same result through a variety of different paths and this is true no matter what kind of system you’re building.
And if you’re thinking about habits that you want to form, whether going to the gym more consistently or tracking your calories or journaling each morning, those also are outcomes that can be solved in many different ways, like maybe one person becomes the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts because they have a morning running partner that they meet for 6:00 a.m. every day and they use the social pressure to get them to do that.
Maybe another person hates working out in public and doesn’t really like working out with other people so they have like a home gym or yoga mat or something like that, so they make it easy by changing their environment in that way. All of the ideas that we’ve offered today and really any habit that you’re thinking through is just one way to get to that result, one form that system can take.
Like, if you want to live a peaceful, calm, meditative life, you don’t have to meditate for 60 seconds every morning to get to live a peaceful life, that’s just one way the system can be designed. And I mentioned that in closing only because I think that that’s a useful way to think about putting these concepts together as different components of a larger system and you get to decide what your system looks like.
And maybe that involves some of the environment design things we talked about here, maybe it involves some of the identity concepts we’ve talked about, maybe it involves other stuff that you pull from a variety of other self-help books or training books or whatever. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from, what matters is that the system that you create serves the end goal that you want.
And so my point is that you don’t have to build the habits that everybody tells you have to build, you should just focus on the ones that work for you and your circumstance. And this comes back to our discussion also on being willing to experiment, test, trial and error, be curious and eventually you’ll be able to create a system that works for you.
Mike: [00:54:15] Yeah, well said. Completely agree. I would add to that that I wouldn’t necessarily – I personally don’t really like looking for formulas that people have to offer, especially with, I mean, if it’s simple things, fine. But as you get into more complexity, especially if it’s something like the kind of stuff that we’re talking about, or even if it’s just, you know, success in business, I would say that I’m just wary of things that are overly formulaic and I’m more interested in first principles.
I’m more interested in understanding the true fundamentals in play and then creating my own formula that fits me and my circumstances because my formula won’t necessarily work for you, won’t necessarily work for people listening, because we are very different people, we are living very different lives, we have very different circumstances, you know, so I just thought I would throw that out there and to the point of being curious and I would say also, and this is something that has worked well for me, that is in my little “life swipe file” is just the more you’re willing to be curious.
I completely agree with that point, and trial and error, and the more you’re willing to exert effort and just work, regardless of how you feel about it, work toward whatever it is you’re trying to do, the less precise and the less optimal you have to be with your system, the more wiggle room you have. If you have someone who is inherently very lazy and not willing to work very hard and very risk-averse and can’t be comfortable being uncomfortable, they don’t have much room for error.
Their system has to be, you know, these are like the super work smart, not hard people, if you’re only going to actually do 20 hours of real work a week and you want to make something of yourself, you better make sure like, you better be the smartest motherfucker ever, basically, because those 20 hours are going to have to be the absolute maximum leverage use of that time and good luck.
But if you’re willing to work 80 hours a week, well, all of a sudden your options have expanded tremendously and you have a lot of room to make mistakes. Mistakes aren’t as punishing because, yeah, who cares? You just do the next thing, do the next thing, do the next thing until finally the first part of the code you’ve cracked, great.
Now you move on to the next tumbler in the lock and you know, you can kind of muscle fuck your way through anything to a degree, I think if you’re just willing to push and push and push and I know people personally who are not tremendously intelligent, who almost strike me as kind of stupid, but like successful beyond your wildest imagination and because in my opinion, the number one reason is that’s what they possess.
More than anything else, they had tremendous intention and they were just capable of a tremendous amount of output of action. They just never stopped and they never were allowed themselves to be discouraged by setbacks, which because they weren’t necessarily the smartest people, they experienced a lot of unnecessary setbacks, but they just kept going.
James: [00:57:07] Yeah, hard work creates a margin for error. It’s a good point, it also makes me think, you can design a margin for error into many of the things you do. Like a lot of people you mentioned, you know, someone’s lazy, like they might do it, but if anything doesn’t go right, then they’ll fall off track and I would say so many habits are like that, so many people’s habits are like that. They’ll go to the gym, but only if everything goes to plan and you can’t have that…
Mike: [00:57:33] Perfectionism.
James: [00:57:34] You can’t have habits that are fragile and brittle like that. Yeah, it’s like, people want to have control over every little aspect, and they think that that makes them more powerful, but in fact, it makes them brittle. Because if things don’t follow the exact plan that they have in their head, then they fall off course and they don’t follow through.
There’s this concept in Alzheimer’s research known as cognitive reserve, and they found that people who learn multiple languages particularly have a strong ability to do this, which is that as Alzheimer’s takes over the brain and you forget how to do certain things, the brain has an alternate pathway for achieving that same result. So, in fact, some people will pass away and when the autopsy, when the doctors examine their brain, they see that they have a lot of markings of damage from Alzheimer’s, but they didn’t actually display any of the symptoms when they were alive because their brain has this alternate pathway of achieving things.
And I would say that your habits should be similar. You shouldn’t only have one ideal way that you’re going to follow through and get a workout in or stick to your diet plan or whatever. There should be backups, there should be reserves, alternate ways of doing things and getting things done. You can imagine like you have a busy day at work, you get tight on time, you wanted to run three miles or you want to work out for 45 minutes and you only have 15, and so this actually happened to me a lot over the last year as I was finishing the book.
There were so many times when I went to the gym and I only squatted and I was only there for 20 minutes, but it was better than not going at all and it was particularly useful if you look at it through the lens of identity, because even on days when situations weren’t ideal, I was able to cast a vote and say, I’m the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts.
And the cumulative effect of that over the long run, knowing, “hey, I was able to like write a full book and get that finished and also not miss workouts,” is very empowering. And so having some kind of backup plan, whether it’s a scaled-down version of the habit or another place where you can perform it or an alternate plan for when you’ll pick it back up, even if you can’t do it at the normal time, all of those things are good ways to make sure that you stay on track in the long run and have that reserve built in.
Mike: [00:59:46] Yeah, that’s great, that’s powerful, I like that. That’s a good place for a conversation I think, we’ve touched on a lot of things.
James: [00:59:51] Yeah, this has been great. Thanks again for the opportunity. Happy to chat more. We’ve covered a lot of ground on habits, but there’s also a lot more to cover if people are interested in seeing more jamesclear.com is probably the best place to check that out and you can just dig in and see what you like there.
Mike: [01:00:05] Yeah, and I’m just going to throw in that I’ve been a consistent reader of James’ stuff for, I found you a couple of years ago, and does good research, good writing. It’s just, I’m not surprised you’re doing very well because you do a very good job. So I’d say anybody listening, if you like my stuff, you’re going to like James’s stuff. He focuses on different topics, but it’s very similar, it’s research-based, it’s well-written, it’s easy to understand, it’s practical and also, James, I don’t know if you’re talking about it – are you talking about the book yet? Is there anything you want to let people know on this?
James: [01:00:35] Yeah, it’s called Atomic Habits: How Tiny Changes Can Lead to Remarkable Results and it’s gonna be out in October of this year, so I’ll have a lot more on that. If you want to hop over to jamesclear.com and sign up for the email list, those will be the first people to hear about it once it’s ready. But yeah, thank you for listening and it’s been a pleasure.