James Clear: “How To Build Better Habits”
We all want to achieve things. We want more of some things, less of others. We also want to be better at a lot of things. But to achieve something worthwhile requires focused attention applied to doing something consistently. Read this article and watch habit making expert James Clear show you how to build better habits.
James Clear is an American author, entrepreneur, and photographer. He’s also the fella behind the fabulously popular website, JamesClear.com, which in a nutshell, presents his writings about habits and human potential.
His work has been featured in The New York Times, CBS, Entrepreneur Magazine, Forbes, TIME Magazine, among others, but what I most drool over is his number of subscribers to his website — 400,000 and counting!
The reason his message has soared in popularity is because people recognize that habits are the key to getting what you want out of life.
This recognition is mirrored by my readers.
In a survey of mine running for several months that asks the question, “What do you want to improve?” The most selected of the 12 options is:
I want to learn to build new, empowering lifestyle habits.
This screenshot of the survey’s result tells the tale:
What’s most important to you? Take the survey.
And so now, dear readers, you’re about to get a big leg up on doing just that — to learn to build new, empowering lifestyle habits.
The Framework To Build Better Habits
James Clear has written a book on how to build better habits and many dozens of articles on the topic. He travels the country lecturing about habit making. It’s safe to say that he knows of what he speaks.
He has a framework to build better habits that consists of four stages.
Mr. Clear’s four stages to build better habits are:
- Doing, and
To connect the dots between these four “stages” of habit making, Clear offers the example of drinking a cup of coffee.
If you have a habit of drinking a cup of coffee, it’s likely that first you noticed its existence; Noticing. If you never saw it or knew it existed, then no interaction, particularly an habitual one, could happen.
Once you’ve noticed coffee, for you to take the next step in your potential interaction with it, you must want it sufficiently to take some action to experiencing it; this stage is Wanting.
Wanting the coffee, you must take action to experience it; this stage is Doing. And although the doing part is necessary to establish a habit, it’s insufficient, for if you do the act of drinking coffee only every once in awhile, it’s not a habit.
How does drinking coffee become a habit?
You’ve noticed it, wanted it and did something to satisfy your interest in that moment. But before coffee drinking can become habitual, you must like it — Liking is the fourth stage of habit making.
This habit making example using coffee is opportune, but unsatisfactory. It’s opportune simply because, as you’ll soon see, James Clear initially uses coffee to illustrate his four stages to build better habits. And yet it’s unsatisfactory because habitually drinking or eating something you like relies more on compulsiveness than the intentional and active work of habit making.
After all, how hard is it to develop a coffee-drinking habit?
Not so hard, and one of the reasons is that with every sip, you’re rewarded — and as you’ll soon see, that’s a requirement to build better habits.
Watch James Clear explain how to build better habits in the video below. I also encourage you to read my synopsis below, which includes some of my own insights on how to build better habits.
Build Better Habits, Stage 1: NOTICING
Mr. Clear’s favorite example to explain Noticing is via a particular study about something called, “Implementation Intentions”, which involved three cohorts (groups) in an exercise study:
- Cohort #1 — The control group that tracked their own workouts.
- Result: one of three worked out.
- Cohort #2 — The group that both tracked their workouts, but were also given a motivational speech about the health benefits of exercise.
- Result: Basically the same as Cohort #1; the motivational speech did nothing.
- Cohort #3 — Did the same as Cohort #2, but with the additional task of filling out this statement (the Implementation Intention):
- “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”
- Result: nine of ten worked out!
Bottom line of the Implementation Intention study:
You can increase by two to three times your odds of complying with your intentions if you have a specific plan. Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is CLARITY.
–> You need to have a Plan that stipulates what, when and where.
Not so fast, grasshopper… as you know (and undoubtedly have experienced), life intrudes and disrupts the best of plans. This is inevitable. Given its inevitability, plan for it!
The planning for failure exercise Mr. Clear advocates is The Failure Premortem:
When you incorporate what can go wrong in your planning, you can plan for it rather than be taken by surprise and have no thought out response to whatever threatens to disrupt what you’re trying to achieve.
I’ve read much of James Clear’s work about habit making, and the one thing I’ve gotten from him that I use routinely is IF/THEN.
I’m sufficiently enamored with this simple concept that I’ve written about how I use it to stay on track with my own goals.
In my article, How To Use The IF/THEN Plan To Achieve Your Goals, I write how I apply IF/THEN to keep me on track with my exercise habit, which begins thus:
IF today you legitimately cannot do the planned one hour exercise session, THEN you’ll do some predetermined one-half hour exercise session.
As I explain in the article, the point is to have a less difficult substitution that you can and will do, or those excuses will knock you out of the exercise groove altogether.
Say, it’s an exercise day and you don’t want to do it. This often happens to me on days where I’ve scheduled a run.
At 6’4″, 210 lbs, I run like a Clydesdale. But I think a fit person ought to be able to run, at least a bit. So, I do it, but it’s often a negotiation.
When I don’t feel like doing it when scheduled, I simply tell myself that I’m going to put on my running shoes and go out and walk. If something more vigorous happens, gravy!
So, IF I don’t want to run, THEN I walk.
This self-negotiating tactic knocks down the barrier that threatens to keep me from doing anything at all relative to moving my legs and breathing a bit.
Interestingly, most times what begins as walking, ends up as running, because once I’m out there and have moved past the resistance and my body is warmed up, I get in the groove and begin to run.
Alas, I think I’ve gotten ahead of myself, given that I’m already speaking to strategies for staying on the mark before we’ve even dug into the Wanting part, up next.
Build Better Habits, Stage 2: WANTING
Unless someone is holding a gun to your head, if you don’t want it, you won’t do it. But what if you really do want something, and yet don’t seem to set up your life in a way that enables it to happen consistently?
Well, naturally, there’s a study that studied how to put yourself in the best position to make what you want happen.
Make Your Environment Support Your Desires
Researchers at Harvard University wanted to experiment with how to entice more people to drink water in a cafeteria. All they did was make water more available throughout the cafeteria. They put bottles of it on various carts displayed around the cafeteria and added water bottles to dispensaries containing soda.
Result: Over the course of six months, 25% more people drank water and 11% drank less soda.
Interestingly, the researchers did not exhort cafeteria dwellers to drink more water or less soda, nor did they display signs indicating that water was more available than before. When asked why they were drinking more water/less soda, no one said it was because they noticed that water was now more available.
The insight here is that your environment can highly influence your behavior:
- Want a teeth-flossing habit? Wrap a string of dental floss around your tooth brush.
- Want to play your guitar more often? Put it where you nearly have to trip over it.
- Want to watch less TV? Don’t place it facing your living room couch/chairs.
- Want to read more? Place the book on top of your pillow.
Set up your environment to support the behavior you want to become habitual. In addition, make sure that your environment discourages the behavior you don’t want.
My favorite example for tweaking your environment to help dissuade you from doing what you don’t want is ice cream.
I used to buy and eat ice cream, a habit unhelpful to my desire to be lean. Three things helped me stop eating ice cream, except on rare occasions:
- I noticed (Noticing) that there’s so much sugar in ice cream that it’s intolerable to eat it if at room temperature (the cold numbs the sweetness somewhat);
- I wanted (Wanting) to be leaner and eat cleaner; and
- I stopped Doing the buying of ice cream so it would not be in my environment (an awkward turn of phrase, but it works in context), which is the subject we turn to next.
Build Better Habits, Stage 3: DOING
To illustrate this Doing concept, James Clear cites an experiment conducted by retired photography professor Jerry Koosman.
Once upon a time, Mr, Koosman assigned half of his class a Quantity assignment, wherein they were instructed to take 100 pictures to get an A, a B for 90 pictures and a C for 80, etc.
The other half of his class was given a Quality assignment, wherein only one photograph was required and would be graded on its exceptionalism.
Result: All of the best grades were earned by those in the Quality group.
The group assigned to make just one high quality picture devoted all their time and skill in an iterative process to keep improving the one picture; whereas the group assigned to produce many pictures spent their energy and effort to take many pictures without having the time, nor being given the incentive to produce outstanding work.
James Clear applies this to a particular exercise, squatting, and although he does not take this example to its logical conclusion that befits photography professor Jerry Koosman’s study, I will.
Mr. Clear correctly stipulates that if you want to develop the capacity to squat with a lot of weight on your back, you need to put in the reps. Whether your exercise sessions have you doing many reps with few sets of light or moderate weight, or few reps with lots of sets with heavy weights, the cumulative volume must add up to something significant if you’re to get strong with the squat or any other exercise movement, or with anything else for that matter that’s hard to do that you want to achieve.
I just described professor Koosman’s Quality experiment, but remember the other half of the total experiment addressed Quantity.
If the Quality vs Quantity study was about getting very strong, and one group spent all their time squatting and the other divided their exercise time to exercising their entire body, the squat group could demonstrate greater strength gains.
This is not an endorsement of exercising just one body part, which would be silly even if specializing in a sport that focused on it (in which case you would need complimentary muscles to be strong as well), but rather underscores the fact that you need to choose carefully those behavioral changes you wish to make habitual — you can’t do them all simultaneously.
David Allen’s Two Minute Rule Adaptation
James clear has adapted productivity specialist David Allen’s “Two Minute Rule”, which basically says that if a task takes two minutes or less to do, don’t put it off — do it now.
Something that takes just two minutes or so is not worth planning. Things like putting clothes into the washer, emptying the dish washer, returning a call, etc. should be done in the moment.
The adaptation of this Two Minute Rule is to apply the same effortlessness in the thinking and Doing of throwing your clothes in the washer to the behavior that you seek to become habitual.
Yes, of course, working out or meditating for two minutes is insufficient to gain the potential benefits of these activities; however, it may only take two minutes to put yourself in the position to do them.
The adaptation is to make the small (perhaps two minute) task the behavior you habituate.
As an example of this principle, James Clear speaks about his friend who works out two hours each morning. The habit she practices is not the workout itself. Instead, her habit is the several minutes it takes to walk out the door and hail a cab to take her to the gym. Once at the gym, everything’s tuned to have her accomplish the workout.
Mr. Clear refers to this as:
Optimizing for the starting line, not the finish line.
Make it as easy as you can to start, a process that begins with what Stanford University researcher BJ Fogg calls, Tiny Habits.
Read How To Make Tiny Habits Big
Build Better Habits, Stage 4: LIKING
The more you enjoy what you’re trying to habituate, the more likely it is that you’ll do it consistently enough for it to become a habit. It could be that you’ll never actually bring yourself to like the act of doing the habit, but something about the habit must have some value to you that you like.
The important thing to understand is that there is an inverse relationship between a successful outcome enabled by the habit and when you like what it takes to get there.
As I touched on at the beginning of this piece, coffee is an easy habit to have (assuming you like the taste), because it provides a near-immediate benefit, the buzz (or at least the taste).
As James Clear puts it:
The only reason that we repeat behaviors is because we enjoy them, because we like the reward. If we don’t enjoy the experience along the way we’re unlikely to stick with it and that means that you need to figure out ways to bring a reward into the present moment.
He goes on to emphasize that if there’s too large a gap between the “cost” of acquiring or being consistent with the habit relative to when the reward will happen, then it’s unlikely a habit will be formed. There’s no escaping that there will be some pain to get the gain, but the challenge is not to make the pain too great to be able to persevere to get to the promised land.
This means you need figure out how to bring some part of the reward sought by the habit into the present moment, otherwise you’re unlikely to stick with it.
Seth Godin says that the best way to change long-term behavior is with short-term feedback. He’s right. So whatever you endeavor to do consistently enough to make into a habit, find a way to get positive short-term feedback.
James Clear suggests two ways to help you get positive short-term feedback:
- The Seinfeld Strategy
- Never Miss Twice
The Seinfeld Strategy
This is inspired by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who when asked what it takes to be a good comedian, replied:
The secret to being a better comedian is to write better jokes. And the secret to writing better jokes is to write every day.
If whatever it is that you want to improve requires some daily action, then you need to plan both the action and the reward therein derived.
If the daily action is writing, James Clear suggests you get a calendar and mark an “X” on each day that you do the writing task, say for 15 minutes, or how ever long you’ve committed to.
At first, you’re going to be rusty. There will be days when you don’t write. Initially, that’s OK, because in the beginning there’s a certain amount of acclimation you need. However, at some point you’re going to get on a roll, and once riding that you don’t want to “break the chain”.
Once you’ve got several days in succession that you’ve been writing, the objective is not to miss one day, even if that means you sit down and write a bunch of crap on any particular day.
Don’t break the chain.
Why the X in the calendar?
The X is your reward, initially. Eventually, the reward will be the finished manuscript, but until then you get to look up at the calendar on the wall and revel in the accomplishment denoted by all those bold Xs.
Measuring/tracking your process helps you get the reward you need to persevere.
Never Miss Twice
Say you’ve built a long chain and it’s been sturdy, and then something knocks you off your plan for one day… don’t let it happen the second day!
We tend to feel bad when we miss a streak.
I’ve written an article for this website every week for 621 consecutive weeks. I toil away at it; typically 15 hours each week, mostly done on Friday and Saturday. Sometimes a friend will see me sweating it out and say something like, “Damn, Joe, would it really be such a disaster if you missed one week!?”
Yes, dear friend, it would. After a streak sustained for 621 consecutive weeks, I don’t want to miss writing a weekly article until I move to another plan I have which is to produce video.
That said, if I — or you — do disrupt the streak, just do it once, not twice, because it’s too easy for that second miss to become a third and so on.
Why It’s Important To Build Better Habits
Habits are important, says Mr. Clear because they are transformative — they can change who you are, good or bad.
Through the consistency and repetition of exercising the habit, you change, as does your identity:
- Go to church for 20 years, and you come to believe that you’re religious.
- Study Spanish once a week for an hour and you come to believe you’re studious.
- Write every day for a year and you’re a writer.
Says Clear in his video:
… the actions that you take provide evidence for who you are… what ends up happening is that over the broad span of time, things that you do once or twice fade away and things that you do time after time day after day week after week accumulate the bulk of the evidence for what you believe about yourself.
And so every action that you take is actually a vote for the type of person that you want to become. if you want to become someone new, then you can take a new action and begin to accumulate evidence for that identity, for that belief about yourself…
… true change is actually not behavior change, it’s not results change, it’s not process change — its identity change. The goal is not to become the goal, is not to read a book, it’s to become a reader. The goal is not to write a book or write an article, but to become a writer…
… every time you play a sport you’re being an athlete, every time you practice painting or music or whatever, you’re being an artist. Your identity emerges out of the habits that you have and so here’s the secret to this talk — it’s not just about getting you to make small changes, it’s not just about putting a book on your pillow… [It’s to get] you to believe something new about yourself, something possible about yourself.
And habits are not only the method through which we achieve external measures of success, like losing weight or earning more money or meditating and reducing stress — they’re are also the path through which we achieve internal change and actually become someone new. They’re the a path through which we forge the identity that we have, the deepest beliefs we have about ourselves our sense of self. And so if you can change your habits you can change your life
Your “Build Better Habits” Takeaway
Remember these six things:
- Once you’ve decided you want to achieve something, you must break down the process that can produce the goods and plan the work (the process). As the saying goes, Plan the work and work the Plan.
- Focus on the process, not the end goal, and do it day by day.
- Record what you do — what you don’t measure can’t be managed.
- Have predetermined contingency plans, such as the IF/THEN strategy.
- If you miss doing what’s planned, don’t get discouraged… just jump back in.
- Make sure you have a way to feel rewarded for what you’re doing so you don’t have to rely on will power to grind out something every day, the benefits of which are too far out on the horizon.
Good luck and have fun building your better habits.
Last Updated on October 18, 2018 by Joe Garma