Building atomic habits with James Clear (Transcript)

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ReThinking with Adam Grant
Building atomic habits with James Clear
June 27, 2023

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guest today is James Clear. He's the author of Atomic Habits, which has sold over 15 million copies and might be the most practical book I've ever read. He has a remarkable capacity for distilling complex ideas about behavior change into actionable insights, which he features in his weekly newsletter, 3-2-1. I wrote one of the advance endorsements for his book, but this is the first time we've ever spoken and I have some habits I'm ready to change.

So tell me, how did you get interested in habits?

[00:00:53] James Clear:
Early on, like when I was a kid, the main areas where I learned about habits were through sports and through school. And I liked both of those things, but I wasn't thinking about it in any way that I would describe now. Like, I didn't have any language for it.

I was just trying to go to practice and do a good job that day. And then in high school, I had this really serious injury. I was hit in the face with a baseball bat, and it was an accident. The bat slipped outta my classmate's hands and struck me right between the eyes, and it shattered both eye sockets, broke my nose, broke my ethmoid bone, which is a little deeper inside your skull, behind your nose.

And I sort of stumbled back into school and I started answering questions at the nurse's office, but I wasn't answering them very well. You know, they'd be like, “What year is it?” And I would say 1998, but it was actually 2002. I was there, but not really. And then they asked me who my mom was, and it took me like 10 seconds to answer her name.

I lost consciousness, got taken on a stretcher to the hospital, got there, and then I started struggling with basic functions like swallowing and breathing. I had to be intubated. I lost the ability to breathe on my own. And then I was getting ready to go into surgery when we got to the larger hospital, and I had a seizure.

It was actually the second one that I had had that day, and they decided that I was too unstable to undergo an operation right then. So they put me in this medically induced coma. And I stayed in, in the coma overnight, and it was this really long process of recovering from that injury. Couldn't drive a car for nine months. I was practicing basic motor patterns, like walking in a straight line at physical therapy. I had double vision for weeks, so all I wanted to do was to flip a switch and go back to being this young, normal, healthy person that I was before. And it was the first time in my life when I was really forced to start small.

I, I had to just focus on what can I do at physical therapy that feels like a small win today. ‘Cause I, I really can't do much right now. And gradually I made my way back and eventually was able to drive a car again. And then eventually a year or so later, I got back on the baseball field and ultimately ended up playing in college.

I look back on that time now. And I have a language for it. I have a way to describe it and say, “Oh, you know, I was just trying to get 1% better each day. I was trying to make these small improvements and build habits,” but I never would've said that at the time if you had come up to me. And so I think I had that personal experience with building small habits and recovering from the injury.

And 10 years later when I was writing Atomic Habits, then I started to think about those concepts more carefully, read some of the research on it, wrestle with how that meshed with my personal experience and the topic. And ultimately I think it makes the writing better because the truth is I struggle with all the same things everybody else struggles with, you know, it's like, do I procrastinate? Sure. All the time. You know, I'm probably procrastinating on something right now as we're talking.

[00:03:34] Adam Grant:
I knew there was a reason you took this—

[00:03:35] James Clear:
Yeah, exactly.

[00:03:36] Adam Grant:

[00:03:36] James Clear:
This is why I agreed to this, this conversation.

[00:03:38] Adam Grant:
What, what, what do I really not want to do? Like, let's do this instead.

[00:03:41] James Clear:
Do I focus too much on the goal and the result, not enough on the system and the process? Yeah, all the time. In a lot of ways, I had to build habits to write Atomic Habits. I had to build a writing habit. I had to build habits in my business. I had to build exercise and nutrition habits just to keep myself operating at a high enough level to finish this big project. The personal experiences have made the writing better. Now I look back on them and feel like it was a really formative experience, even though I never would've asked for it.

[00:04:07] Adam Grant:
Ideally, not everyone needs to get hit in the face with a baseball bat in order to learn what you've learned, but you clearly made the most of that traumatic event.

[00:04:14] James Clear:
Yeah. My grandpa would just say it knocked some sense into me.

[00:04:19] Adam Grant:
It sounded like it literally knocked some sense out of you first, but you, you earned it back and then some. So I think the first time I became aware of you and your work was when you had just written Atomic Habits, and you sent me an early copy of it and the first thing that piqued my interest was the title.

And I thought, “Oh, this is clever.” Because on the one hand, atomic forces are enormous, and then on the other hand, atoms are the smallest building blocks. And I thought that juxtaposition was really clever, and I didn't realize that you actually had a third meaning of it too. Talk to me a little bit about what an atomic habit is.

[00:04:56] James Clear:
So the first meaning of atomic can be tiny or small, like an atom. And that is kind of how I think about habits. You should scale them down and make them really easy to do. And, uh, we'll talk about a lot of that.

And the second meaning is that atoms build into molecules and molecules build into compounds, and it has this growth or this accumulation effect, and your habits can sort of layer on top of each other as well. They can be these units in a larger system that you're running. And it's actually the collection of habits that you have that are oriented toward your health or the collection of habits that you have oriented toward your business or so on, that drive results. It's very rarely just a single habit.

And then finally, as you said, atomic can mean the source of immense energy or power. And I think if you understand those three concepts, you sort of see the arc of the book, which is you start with changes that are small and easy to do, habits that are non-threatening and sustainable and reasonable, and you start to layer them on top of each other like units in a larger system, and you end up with these really powerful, remarkable results as a byproduct.

[00:05:55] Adam Grant:
What I think was different about that from other takes on habits that I've read is the system part. Everybody has been told, “Okay, change a habit. Go to sleep in your workout clothes and then wake up in the morning, and maybe you'll exercise.” Right? I'd never seen somebody so systematically, perhaps not coincidentally say, “We actually need to look at how these habits fit together and compound over time.”

[00:06:16] James Clear:
Yeah, I think it's the collection of things that makes the biggest difference. It's very rare to have an actual change that drives 10% of the outcome, or 40% of the outcome. I mean, these big changes in real life, they don't really exist like that. It's the accumulation of many small improvements that ultimately drives the outcome.

And your habits are like that too. If you want to read more books, well, just downloading Audible and putting it on your phone probably isn't gonna do it on its own, but that could be one piece of the puzzle. When I wanted to start reading more, the first thing I did was I selected books I was really excited about, and I think this is one thing that, that people overlook when it comes to building better habits, which is the first and most enormous hurdle to cross is are you genuinely interested in it?

The most common New Year's resolution is people want to go work out at the gym, and I kind of feel like a lot of people choose working out or going to the gym because they feel like they should do it, or they feel like society wants them to do it, not because that's the version of exercise or the version of physical activity that's most exciting to them or fun to them.

And you should start there. I mean, there are many ways to live an active lifestyle: kayak or rock climb, or go for a run, or do yoga. I mean, pick whatever version of it sounds the most naturally appealing to you. So, I chose books that I was excited about. I downloaded Audible, put it on my home screen, on my phone, moved all the other apps to second screen so it'd be the first thing I would see. I bought some of those books in print version, and then I would sprinkle them around the house so that I was, like, never far from a bad idea. And then you can also come up with a plan where you say, like, “When I get in bed at night, I'm gonna read one page before I go to sleep.”

I just described four or five things there. But it's actually the collection of those things that helps drive this reading habit. It's not any one of those changes that's really gonna radically transform your life, but if each of the changes are reasonable and each of the changes are small, and in some cases they're choices that you only have to make once, you start to stack the deck in your favor and you start to have all these forces that are kind of working for you, and by creating this system that is lifting you up and supporting your habits, now you're in a much better position to fall through on them each day.

[00:08:21] Adam Grant:
I think one of the reasons that we psychologists miss this approach is we're always wanting to figure out what's the active ingredient. I wanna pull out the one anchor habit that made the difference. And your point is actually there isn't one. And secondly, and maybe even more interestingly, it sounds like you did for habits what high-reliability organizations do to prevent errors, which is they build redundant systems.

Airplanes are designed, right, if one engine fails, right, to have a backup option available. In your case, if you forget the one page tonight, you're gonna see it on the home screen the first thing tomorrow morning, and you're probably gonna make up for it.

[00:08:54] James Clear:
I really, I like a lot of engineering, you know, strategies and metaphors like that. You think about backup systems and redundancy and breakpoints, and all, all of those concepts can be applied to building habits as well. When you're making these small changes, it doesn't hinge on any one thing the way, like you just said, like, oh, maybe there isn't an anchor point, or like the one move that changes everything, but there's always a bottleneck.

So in manufacturing process, you're making a car, maybe the car doors are the bottleneck of the process, but that doesn't mean you don't need the tires and the headlights and the roof and everything else, like you still need all the other parts. It's just maybe there's a higher leverage place to focus in the beginning.

So I think both of those can kind of coexist together. Maybe you need this overall system, but there are generally, like, higher leverage places to focus than others.

[00:09:38] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. Now, one of the things that you've done for a lot of people is you've given them some very… both non-obvious, but ultimately intuitively true and actionable principles to apply to their habit change.

Whenever somebody says, “James Clear”, immediately these phrases go through my head, like, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Consistency beats intensity. We don't rise to the level of our goals, we sink to the level of our systems.” Talk to me about those concepts and putting them into place.

[00:10:08] James Clear:
So those phrases like that, they become shorthand for the overall strategy or approach that we're trying to take. This idea of “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvements,” that's the first one you mentioned. Time will magnify whatever you feed it. So if you have good habits, time becomes your ally, and the changes that you're making each day, the showing up in a small way, making some small improvement, it doesn't seem like much on any given day, but it puts you on a trajectory that puts you on a path that starts to compound and multiply over time.

If you have bad habits, time becomes your enemy and you're on a trajectory that's moving you in the opposite direction. So I think that's actually an interesting question to ask yourself, which is, “Can my current habits carry me to my desired future?”

You know, intensity gets a lot of discussion. People are always gonna talk about running a marathon or doing a silent meditation retreat for a week, or you know, just these things that are, like, kind of notable. And this is, I think even magnified by social media; people are almost never gonna post about the process.

You're never gonna see someone, like, post a tweet or hear a news story about like, “Man eats chicken salad for lunch today.” It's only a story once you lose a hundred pounds or something. And I think that causes us to overvalue the results a little bit and undervalue the process. We get so results-oriented because it's all that we see.

Consistency is what drives progress and drives results. Intensity makes a good story, but it's almost always the case that you'd rather have the foundation, the volume of work, the capacity to do the work, the habits, rather than focusing too much on the outcome. Now, not everything in life is driven by habits, right?

You have luck and randomness; you have misfortune. But by definition, those forces are not in your control, and your habits are, and the only rational approach in life is to focus on the elements of the situation that are within your control. So that's kind of how I think about that connection point between consistency and intensity.

[00:12:08] Adam Grant:
During my diving days, my coach, Eric Best, would always quote his coach John Narcy, and say, “Look, the person who wins the meet is the one who did the most dives.”

[00:12:15] James Clear:
The results were almost baked in in a sense. I mean, it doesn't mean performance doesn't matter, right? You still screw it up on that day, but the's really hard to beat the person who's done that dive 10,000 times if you've only done it for a thousand.

[00:12:27] Adam Grant:
I think that's exactly right. What I didn't understand at first and then became clear over time was how probabilistic that is, right? That, like, the person with the best odds is the person who's put in the consistent effort day in, day out. But I think what you've also added to that is the idea that, like, the quality of those habits really matters.
And I think this is where systems become a big deal because I think a lot of people took the 10,000 hours rule and said, “Okay, this is a quantity game and what I have to do is put in the sheer number of hours.” And you're saying, “Wait a minute. No. There are a bunch of ways to work a lot smarter, and I'm gonna help you understand what those are.” So what are those? I think we all wanna know.

[00:13:05] James Clear:
Yeah, Naval Ravikant has this good distinction where he says, “It's not 10,000 hours, it's 10,000 iterations.” And I think there's a lot of truth in that. Repetition is hard enough on its own, but to try to get 1% better each day to try to improve it and iterate it is a totally different game.

And I think it changes your perspective a little bit. You know, you're not showing up in a lazy way. You're not just trying to like punch the clock and put your time in. You're trying to have this attitude, this mindset where you're looking for some small advantage to carve out. So I think the first step there is like this mindset, this attitude of trying to get 1% better each day and realizing that it's not really about measuring it. It's not like, “Oh, is it a 1% improvement or 1.6%?” Or whatever. It's not, like, getting caught up in the number. It's more this approach and a philosophy of not just showing up and putting the time in, but trying to genuinely find some way to improve and trusting that those small improvements really add up.

It's really important to ask yourself, “What is the system oriented toward? What am I optimizing for?” Sometimes people optimize for making more money. Sometimes they optimize for free time and creative, you know, freedom. Sometimes they optimize for family time. I mean, there can be an endless list, but it's a very personal answer, and you should be wary of inheriting or imitating other people's habits. Start by asking yourself, “Is this what I want my days to look like?” So I think starting there is a really important part of building a better system.

[00:14:24] Adam Grant:
Maybe for me, the most counterintuitive idea in Atomic Habits is to focus a little bit less on what you wanna achieve and a little bit more on who you wanna become.

This flies in the face of everything I've ever taught on goal setting and a lot of the research I've read on it. It’s not immediately clear to people that like, if I wanna achieve something, I should actually turn my attention a bit away from that and say, instead, “What kind of person do I wanna be?” And yet I think it can be extremely powerful. So I, I wanna hear you riff on that a little bit.

[00:14:53] James Clear:
So, we often talk about habits as mattering because of the external results they'll drive for us. But I think the real reason, the true reason that habits matter, is that they reinforce your desired identity. Every action you take is like a vote for the type of person you wish to become.

No, writing one sentence may not finish the novel. But it does cast a vote for, “I'm the type of person who writes every day.” You start to cast votes and kind of build up this pile of, of evidence for who you are and starts to shift the weight of the story. And so the habits that are linked to the aspects of our identity that we take pride in, there, there's something about them that feels like more natural to you, where it's like, “This is just kind of the person that I am.”

It's more like, “How do I get alignment between my goals and my identity? How do I start with this picture of who I would like to become and how my habits feed into that and trust that ultimately it can carry me toward some of these results that I say are so important to me?”

[00:15:54] Adam Grant:
I think it’s an elegant explanation of why Christopher Bryan sometimes finds these need, noun over verb effects. Like if you wanna get kids to stop cheating in school, instead of saying “Don't cheat,” you say, “Don't be a cheater.” And all of a sudden that action reflects on my identity, and I don't wanna be the kind of person who cheats. Similar effects on the positive side with getting kids to help by saying, “Be a helper” instead of “help” and getting citizens to vote by saying, “Be a voter,” right? That's a vote cast for the kind of person I want to become. I love that.

I think it's time for a lightning round.

[00:16:31] James Clear:
Let’s do it.

[00:16:31] Adam Grant:
So you're a fan of book recommendations. I am too. What's a book you think all our ReThinking and WorkLife listeners should read or listen to that they might not have already heard of?

[00:16:42] James Clear:
I've really been on this kick of trying to find books that have compressed wisdom. So one that I really liked, it's like 500 years old, is called The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracián. I was reading this thing, I was like, “Man, this guy was like me like 500 years ago.” He was like blogging like way, way before, before it was the thing. So I thought that one was really useful.

[00:17:00] Adam Grant:
On the subject of compression, one of the things I really admire about you is how good you are at framing and reframing ideas. I've sort of had a negative opinion of what you call compression because it sounds to me like hacking or shortcuts, and you've made me think differently about it. How did you land there on that one?

[00:17:17] James Clear:
There are some challenges, like it squeezes out nuance. I would say that's a definite negative. The upside is that it's sticky and that it's easy to remember. I think Balaji has this phrase where he says, “You want this bumper sticker that expands into a Ph.D. thesis?” And I think about it like that. Like what's the bumper sticker that can remind me of this bigger, more important idea? I hadn't had someone tell me this before, what you just said, that I was good at, like, reframing ideas.

But that actually might be the only value that I really provide. I mean, the truth is m-most things that have been covered many times before, I mean, there's 8 billion people in the world, and there's a hundred billion that have lived before us. All this stuff is very well-trod ground. It's very rare that you come across something genuinely new, but maybe I can give somebody, you know, a new angle on it, or maybe I can provide clarity to the thought where if someone says, “Oh, you know, like I'd never quite heard it put that way before.”

[00:18:09] Adam Grant:
For the record, I think you strike a really good balance between articulating things that people sort of believe but haven't been able to verbalize. And then also challenging some of the assumptions they hold that actually turned out to be false. And I think it's the combination of those two that makes your words so powerful.

So, you profess to be a fan of architecture and travel photography, so I'm gonna combine those two and ask: what’s your favorite place you've gone to photograph architecture?

[00:18:37] James Clear:
St. Petersburg, Russia is a wild city because the Czar basically went around Europe and just plucked buildings like, “I like that one. Let's go build one in Russia.” Like go to Vienna and be like, “I like that one. Let's go build one like that.” So, it just has this really wide-ranging variety of architecture. It also has tons of bridges and canals and water, like, traversing all over the city. And so you end up in this interesting situation where they put the bridges up at night.

I don't remember exactly, but let's say it's from like 1:00 AM to 4:00 AM. So if you're out of the bar and it's like 12:40, like, “All right guys, we gotta make a decision. Like, are we going back home now or are we gonna stay out till 4:00 AM?” Because the bridges are going up soon. I, I thought St. Petersburg was, was fascinating.

[00:19:19] Adam Grant:
On that subject also, ultralight travel is one of your passions. What's your favorite tip for lightening the travel load?

[00:19:26] James Clear:
When I would travel on my own, I would always only travel with one bag. I still, I still do that now. I mean, like you, Adam, I, I do have to do a lot of speaking gigs. The biggest point of friction is always shoes. So if you can figure out a way to have one pair of shoes that are diverse enough in their use cases to cover the trip. Then the rest of it is, like, usually pretty easy.

[00:19:45] Adam Grant:
I agree with everything you said except for the part where you said, “I have to do a lot of speeches.” You get to do a lot of speeches. That’s a choice.

[00:19:51] James Clear:
We could have a long discussion about this. I had a weightlifting coach in college who we would come in, you know, everybody's complaining about the workout and how hard it is and blah, blah, blah. He's like, “Okay, listen. You don't have to do it. You get to do it. You know, you don't have to take your kids to school. You get to take your kids to school. You don't have to show up at work today. You get to show up at work today.” And that little reframe of “have to” versus “get to”, it has stuck with me for, you know, 20 years now.

[00:20:16] Adam Grant:
You're a fan of great speeches. What's a speech you love that I've probably not seen?

[00:20:20] James Clear:
So on, I have this page where it's called, uh, Great Talks that Most People have Never Heard. And over the last five years or so, I've just collected transcripts from different speeches. Sometimes it's a graduation speech, a little school, sometimes it's an internal talk that got posted on YouTube years later, and the one that prompted the whole project is this talk given by Richard Hamming, who is this engineer at Bell Labs, and it was this internal talk he gave called You and Your Research.

And it's about doing scientific research, but it's actually about way more than that. They're just, like, lessons for everybody in life that are baked in there. And he has so many good little questions in there that as soon as you hear them you're like, “Oh, good.” Like sometimes my favorite questions are ones that, like, cut a little bit.

You're like, “Oh, that just stings a little to even, like, think about that answer.” Like one of his famous questions, he sat down at a table with a bunch of, uh, scientists who were in a different field, and he goes and sits down with them each day for lunch for like a week, and he is listening to them talk about the projects they're doing and the research that they're doing.

And then eventually he asked them, “Hey, what are some of the most important problems in your field?” And they started listing out some of 'em, and he realized that the projects they were working on were not oriented or related to those big problems. And so his question was, “What are the most important problems in your field and why are you not working on them?”

And that is, like, such an obvious thing to ask. But you could say it as an individual—what are the most important problems in your personal life, and why are you not working on them? And you start to realize, like, “Man, maybe like maybe I should be carving out a little bit more time to get extra sleep or to go to the gym or to spend more time with my kids.”

You realize how much time and attention and energy is directed toward relatively low-priority problems, and in some cases, they're actually good uses of time, but they're not great uses of time. And I think that’s, like, one of the most dangerous things on your to-do list are items, let's say items like three to six. But the truth is those are the items that are most likely to distract you from items one and two because you have a good justification for doing them.

[00:22:22] Adam Grant:
I, I think that's something we all need to pause and think about. What are the activities in my calendar that by themselves are worthwhile, but in aggregate actually interfere with my higher priorities? What's the worst advice you've ever gotten?

[00:22:36] James Clear:
I do think that there's a very common pitfall that I have certainly fallen into many times, which is you see someone who's successful, who's doing the thing that you hope to do or that you aspire to do, and then you think, “You know what? I'll imitate what they're doing.”

And the problem is that if you have just one example or one story for something, you think you're learning something, but actually you're not learning very much at all. Most advice is very contextual. It's very dependent on the circumstances. And so in that way, advice is kind of brittle, actually. If you step outside of that specific narrow circumstance, it doesn't hold up in the same way.

Instead, what I have gradually learned to do after making many mistakes is you want to look at a hundred people who are doing the thing that you want to do, and then you try to find the commonalities or the patterns between them, because if you have a pattern, then there's some signal and not just noise.

[00:23:30] Adam Grant:
You just articulated why I have this knee-jerk reaction whenever somebody tells me they love learning from biographies. No, we do social science to figure out which of those insights are actually valid. And also, you're sampling on the dependent variable, and you need to also read biographies of people who failed, not just the ones who succeeded, and then compare them because it's in that comparison that the most meaningful patterns jump out. And then to your point, you have to run a bunch of personal experiments to figure out which of those patterns are gonna work for you.

I'm gonna give you the mic for a second and ask if there's a question for me.

[00:24:02] James Clear:
I have a personal question that I wanna know, which is basically how you set up your business and how you balance your days. I don't want to have a big team. I have one full-time employee. I have no desire to hire more. I don't want to have this big, big thing that I'm managing. I think management is kind of a weakness of mine. I'm better at, like, the creative side or, like, making something. That's the part that really lights me up.

So I don't wanna spend much time managing. But if you step outside of the definition of an employee and look at partnerships, well now I've got a book agent and a speaking agency and, and like in your case, you've got this partnership with TED, and you have the podcast production and so on. So you have a lot of people that are touching your business in some way.

And I guess what I'd like to know is how you think about maximizing leverage for yourself and, like, kind of extending your creative reach or your ability to produce work and whether you feel like you are overscheduled or whether you feel like you have the balance that you'd like to have?

[00:25:03] Adam Grant:
I would answer this really differently now than I would've a couple years ago. It's been a decade since I became an author. And then all these other things sort of come with it, right, that you don't realize you're opting into. I don't think that much about leverage anymore, in part because the scale we work at is already beyond my wildest dreams. I think what I'm interested in is how do I improve the quality of what I do produce.

And I think for me, that's meant sometimes producing less. So my first book came out in 2013. By 2017, I had published two more books. It was three books in four years. And then—

[00:25:36] James Clear:
I think actually we messaged at some point in 2018, and you said, “My goal for the year is to not write a book.”

[00:25:44] Adam Grant:
Goal achieved. You know, it wasn't a coincidence, then, that it was four more years and until I came out with my next book, and I really wanted to invest in learning, and that was part of why I started this podcast.

Was, it was an excuse for me to say, like, “I’m not just learning for my own curiosity. I'm gonna learn in a way that hopefully also is interesting and useful to other people.” I was, I wasn't very structured or focused around “What do I wanna learn?” And podcasting created that for me. I think otherwise I felt like I was overscheduled because I was wearing a lot of hats.

And then I said, “Okay, one of the things that just clearly differentiates my sort of periods of creative bursts from, you know, windows where I feel like I don't produce that much of value is do I have at least two days a week with nothing on my calendar?” And so then I, I committed to that and I think I achieve it most weeks. There's some weeks where I fail and then, like, the next month I have to make, make up for it basically.

[00:26:37] James Clear:
Yeah. That's great though. I love little rules of thumb like that. All right. I have one more question for you. I didn't know we were gonna do this. We could turn this into another hour where I get to interview you.

[00:26:45] Adam Grant:

[00:26:45] James Clear:
All right. So we talked a little bit about some of my compression. So, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you get to become,” or “You don't rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the love of your systems.” If you were to pick, like, one or two of your best pieces of compression, what would you say that they are?

[00:26:59] Adam Grant:
The most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed. What I figured out there that I didn't get when I wrote the book is you don't have to be more successful as a giver than a taker or a matcher. But it's the kind of success that's the most rewarding, and that was the thesis I should have led with.

[00:27:16] James Clear:
Thank you for sharing.

[00:27:12] Adam Grant:
Yeah, no, thank you for asking. It's part of the fun of what we do. I wanted to ask you about post-Atomic Habits. I was wowed by the clarity of the book and wanting to make all kinds of puns about your name, which you're definitely tired of. Even being really impressed by the book when I first read it, I dramatically underestimated how much impact it would have, and I think the main reason that I did that was I, I felt like the habit landscape was already relatively crowded, and there had been a few bestsellers that were, you know, either explicitly about habits or about habit-like concepts. And I know how, how hard it is to break through, even if you're a well-known author and you were very candid about saying, “Like, I'm just a blogger. I don't know if anybody's gonna read this stuff.”

And this book, I think it's the most successful nonfiction book of the last decade, as far as I can tell. Certainly in our genre, it appears to me to be the biggest book since Outliers, and it has incredible staying power. So my question is why? Like what, what, what is different about this book?

[00:28:14] James Clear:
Yeah, there's a chapter later in Atomic Habits where I talk about deliberate practice, and it could have been a book about deliberate practice where I talk about habits. But instead, it's a book about habits where I talk about deliberate practice. And I think the difference in how those two books would sell is pretty enormous because i—deliberate practice. If you're not like familiar with it, it takes 30 seconds to unpack it and explain how it's different than regular practice and like—

[00:28:40] Adam Grant:

[00:28:41] James Clear:
You don't get any of that time with a potential reader.

[00:28:43] Adam Grant:
No. It's not sticky. And also nobody wants to practice.

[00:28:47] James Clear:

[00:28:48] Adam Grant:
If you like practice, you don't need this book per se.

[00:28:50] James Clear:
Right. Yeah.

[00:28:51] Adam Grant:
Whereas everybody knows they have bad habits and they want better ones.

[00:28:55] James Clear:
And I think that what you just said is actually a very important insight that people often overlook, which is if you want any product, not just a book, but any product… I think if you want it to do really well, it taps into a desire that people already have.

It doesn't try to generate or convince people of having a new desire. Classic example like Uber, you know, like, oh, totally redefined transportation, but only sort of. Like people already took taxis. They're not trying to convince anyone of the underlying motivation that drives the app. They're just giving them a new avenue for doing it.

I am just adding my little small piece to the collective discussion about it, like it's a very small contribution. But I don't have to convince anybody that having good habits is desirable and breaking bad habits is desirable. Like, people already want that. I just need to convince you this is the best book on that topic.

If you wanna read one thing that's the most comprehensive and useful, it's this book. Sometimes good titles actually sound a little bit strange when you first hear them, like the phrase “atomic habits”. Now people are familiar with it, but before the book came out, it's a little strange. You might describe a habit as small, but you wouldn't describe it as atomic.

Like that, it just sounds a little different. But that's actually a good thing because it means I can own that language in the reader's mind. If the title of the book were Small Habits, it might work a little bit, but it's just a little general, it's a little too much common language for it to really be sticky. So titles are really hard to get right because you want 'em to stand out, but you don't want it to be too weird.

And it also needs to actually talk about what the book covers ‘cause you have to deliver on the promise that the title makes. It was really common like five years ago for books to try to do this, where they would just stack a bunch of desirable things in the subtitle and say like, you know, “How to make money and be happy, find love,” and they would just like stack all—

[00:30:44] Adam Grant:
How to win at work and in life.

[00:30:44] James Clear:
Yeah. Like they would just stack all that stuff in there. But that's not actually what the book is genuinely about. So you need to be able to deliver on the promises that are made. Title plays a big role. Positioning plays a big role.

[00:30:56] Adam Grant:
Just one, one of the things that I hear you capturing that I don't think has been well articulated for people trying to position any idea is you need to be both really specific and really general at the same time.

[00:31:07] James Clear:

[00:31:08] Adam Grant:
And those two things together give you distinctiveness.

[00:31:11] James Clear:
Habits are like that. They're this universal topic. There's this, they apply to literally everyone on the planet, but your habits are also very personal. You know, everybody wants to build their own, they have their own style, they got their own habits that are kind of part of their routine.

So it's both personal and universal. It's both specific and general. Contrast is a really important element of good titles. If you think about a lot of bestselling books, they have this point of contrast in the title where it's a little bit surprising or it inverts the typical expectation.

Four-hour Work Week. I thought a work week is 40 hours. Now you're telling me it can be four? Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I thought tidying up was just this little thing that I did. Now you're telling me it can be life-changing? Atomic Habits: like really small habits, but also super powerful. Ultimately, my guiding light is always like, what is most useful?

What is, what is most actionable and useful for the reader? And I'm just gonna do it that way. I'm just trying to help people get results. I find that a lot of books, a lot of self-help books in particular, people talk about them as being how-to books, but they're actually what-to books. They tell you what to think or they tell you what you should do, but they don't actually tell you how to do it.

It sounds like a small detail, but taking that extra step of showing people how it would actually look if you implemented this, what specific step they would take, and then giving them a couple examples, that really makes things useful.

Other authors can talk about the science better. Other authors are better storytellers. Other authors are better at a lot of things that I'm not good at. But making it actionable and useful is the main thing that I’m, like, trying to prioritize for.

[00:32:40] Adam Grant:
I've sometimes realized what I was trying to say after the book came out when I did the book tour. I imagine one of the blessings and curses of reaching so many people is you've gotten a lot of feedback.

[00:32:50] James Clear:

[00:32:51] Adam Grant:
What have you learned or rethought since Atomic Habits first came out?

[00:32:54] James Clear:
If I had to pick one thing that I would say is more important now than I realized when I was writing the book, it would probably be the power of social environment on habits and how, just how pervasive and strong that force can be.

I did write about it a little bit. I had a chapter in Atomic Habits on the influence of friends and family on your behavior, but it's broader than that and it's more powerful than that. Like, we are all part of multiple groups, multiple tribes. And some of those tribes are large, like what it means to be American, and some of those tribes are small and, like, kind of local, like what it means to be a neighbor on your street or a member of the local yoga studio or a volunteer at the local hospital.

And all of those groups, all those different spaces that you step into each day, they have a set of shared expectations for how you act. They have a set of norms for what people do there. And when habits are aligned with the social norms of that group, they tend to be pretty attractive to stick to because we don't only perform habits because of the results they'll get us, we also perform them as a signal to the people around us. “Hey, I get it. I belong. I fit in. I'm part of this community. I understand how we act here.”

And if people have to choose between, “I have habits that I don't really love, but I fit in,” or “I have the habits that I want to have, but I'm cast out. I'm ostracized, I'm criticized,” I, I mean, the desire to belong will often overpower the desire to improve.

[00:34:21] Adam Grant:
Another way to, to say it that connects to one of your core points in the book is think about the person you wanna become and then say, “Okay, what kinds of groups are full of those people?”

[00:34:32] James Clear:
Yeah, for sure. That's a great way to think about it.

[00:34:34] Adam Grant:
The scariest thing about having such a breakout success is having to follow it. I'm sure you've thought a lot about second album syndrome. At first, I was wondering, is it scary to think about your next book? And then I thought, no, because this book was the result of thousands of tweets and blog posts and you were experimenting and iterating, and by the time you wrote it, you knew you had something really meaningful. So, how do you think about your future writing?

[00:35:00] James Clear:
You know, like the way that I think about it is this is the best possible outcome. I'm incredibly fortunate, but Atomic Habits, it can just be a project that went really well. It doesn't have to be anything more than that. I put everything I had into it and great. It did really well, and it's helping a lot of people, and that's awesome. And now I can just move on to the next thing that I am excited about and I'll try to do my best on that. And it doesn't really need to be some value judgment on how much I'm worth or you know, how creative I am or am not now, or you know, whether it is defining my career or not.

It doesn't have to be that. So that's the headspace I'm trying to live in. The way that I wrote the first book is very different than how I'm writing now. So, I wrote Atomic Habits when I didn't have kids, and now I do, and I had a period there for like six to nine months where I was finishing the manuscript where I worked on it for 12 hours a day.

I went to sleep. I dreamt about it. I did it all over again. Like, I can't do that now. It's kinda hard to get two hours where you're not interrupted when you've got kids running around. I'm like, “Okay, I know how to write a good book, but the way that I know how to do it doesn't work for me anymore. So what does that mean?”

You know, like I kind of need to find a new angle or something. But more than anything, the most important thing is when I wrote Atomic Habits, I knew that I had something to say, and I knew that was the topic that I wanted to write about, and I'm still trying to figure that out for the next book. What is it really that I feel like this is so important and I have so much to say on it that I have to write a book about it? It is not an easy project, and it's not a short project. So if you're just like, “I wanna write a book ‘cause I'd like to have a book,” that's not a good reason.

[00:36:32] Adam Grant:
That seems like a very healthy outlook. Well, I'm looking forward to the next one whenever it comes. No pressure.

[00:36:38] James Clear:
Yeah. Thank you. So is my publisher. They're probably listening to this thinking, “He should be writing right now, not doing this interview.”

[00:36:44] Adam Grant:
Well James, in the meantime, thank you for helping us all build better habits and, uh, occasionally even achieve our goals too.

[00:36:49] James Clear:
Awesome. Thanks, Adam.

[00:36:54] Adam Grant:
James makes such a compelling case that instead of asking “What do I wanna achieve?” it's more motivating to ask, “What kind of person do I wanna become?” For James, that means he's not focused on the result of how many books he publishes or how many copies he sells, but rather on being the kind of person who has something worth sharing.

I now think this question has much bigger implications than I realized going in. Who do I wanna become? What kind of person do I want to be? That's not just useful for reaching your goals. It's also helpful for identifying your goals, figuring out what's important to you, and then making sure that when you achieve it, It actually aligns with your values.

Rethinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington-Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard.

Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Alison Leyton-Brown.

I am also recording and, uh, tried to match your hairstyle for today.

[00:38:04] James Clear:
Yeah, I know, right? We’re, we got a little club of bald thought leaders.

[00:38:10] Adam Grant:
I feel like there are more bald people in that category than people with hair, but—

[00:38:15] James Clear:
For sure. Yeah.

[00:38:16] Adam Grant:
May—maybe I just pay more attention to them.