James Clear on How Small Habits Can Lead to Remarkable Results

What I am about to tell you is obvious but often overlooked: To achieve your physique goals, you need to make a habit of the actions that will get you there.

I have to remind clients of this when they beat themselves up unnecessarily after a single slip up. “We are the product of our habits, not the occasions!” I find myself typing to people often.

Well, what if I told you there are clear ways to make the establishment of the habits you need to form vastly easier? – If you focus on triggering the right behaviors, you have to rely less on willpower, and you’ll end up automating a lot of the actions that follow.

This is how I’ve chosen to kick off the second season of the podcast, by having habit setting expert James Clear on the show. I’ve been reading his work for years, and there is no doubt that his writing has helped me to become a better coach.

After six years of writing, he’s released his first book called Atomic Habits. So, while everything is super fresh in his mind, I decided to have him on to give us advice on the best ways to set training and nutrition habits.

If you prefer a written summary, I have listed the key takeaways below.

3 Key Points

  1. A habit must be established before it can be improved.
  2. Sometimes showing up on the bad days is actually the best thing you can do.
  3. Reduce the steps needed for a task to encourage good habits.

Show Notes

  • How James got into writing about habits. It started in two different ways. First, James is an athlete that has an interest in baseball and competitive weightlifting. Second, James has a degree in biomechanics (basically chemistry and physics) and further education in business. For several years James was “incubating” his skillset by trying out different businesses. From an interest in marketing, James then starting researching consumer and behavior psychology. Finally, this rabbit hole led James to the creation of a document on habits. [3:00]

  • How to use constraints strategically to set habits. James poses that you should choose either quality (how good), scope (how much), or time (how long) be the constraining factor to force you to set habits. When James wanted to get into the habit of writing more, he committed to publishing something on Monday and Thursday (a time constraint), and let the quality and scope be less of the motivating factors. Now, this did not prevent James from putting out poor quality work, but it did mean sometimes he would only publish one paragraph. James sees the parallel in the gym. When you commit to getting into the gym four days a week, something will happen. A habit must be established before it can be improved. Sometimes forcing yourself to ‘show up’ on the bad days is the best thing you can do. [7:00]

  • The act of showing up on the bad days is what is arguably the most useful. Habits are easy to dismiss on any given day. James suggests forming habits that compound to your benefit instead of to your detriment. The real effects (example: showing up to do 5 squats on a bad day) only become apparent over a long time span. [12:00]

  • How to lock in your behaviors. Andy mentions that he pre-orders his salad every morning so he gets in his greens. James calls this action a commitment device for locking in future behaviors. Another way is to make a one-time decision to lock in future decisions. An example would be buying a better mattress for sleep. Combining these strategies you create an environment where willpower isn’t needed as much to meet your goals. [15:00]

  • Think about optimizing for the starting line instead of optimizing for the finish line. If people jump into an intense exercise program, they often fizzle. When you can set the standard of showing up to the gym for a few weeks, it becomes much easier to optimize what you are doing at the gym. James likes to use the phrase, “standardize before you optimize.” Make a small version of what you would like to do a standard in your life before you try to optimize what you would like to do. [19:30]

  • Prime your environment for success. Remove as many points of friction as possible. Organizing your gym gear the night before so that if you wake late, it’s ready to go. Consider having an extra set of gym clothes in your office drawer. Shop in advance and batch cook if you find your time at a premium. Map out the activity, identify what bothers you and then change the environment. The general principle is to increase the number of steps between you and a bad behavior and decrease the number of steps between you and a good behavior. [24:00]

  • You use the current behavior as a cue for a future behavior. For example, place a book on your pillow before you shower to encourage more reading. Leave your vitamins by your toothbrush. This is known as “habit stacking.”   [35:30]

  • The biggest misconception about forming new habits is that it takes a certain number of days to build a new habit. It depends on the habit you are trying to form, with some taking longer than others. Furthermore, habits do not have a finish line. Andy mentions it is important not to be too hard on yourself but avoid occasions becoming habits. James suggests looking at longer time scales instead of getting caught up in every peak and valley. [39:00]

  • Distill a habit down to a decisive moment that shapes the actions to follow. Focus on that, then let the rest of the actions that follow. Habits are important because they happen often and shape future decisions. There are decisive moments that determine the next chunk of time (example: pulling out your phone). The most powerful way to establish a bigger habit is to distill the behavior down to the decisive moment and master that behavior (example: don’t take out your phone). [44:00]

Here’s a link to James’ website, where you can find his book Atomic Habits and sign up for that newsletter I mention.

Thank you for listening! – Andy

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About the Author

Andy Morgan

Hi, I'm Andy, co-author of 'The Muscle and Strength Pyramid' textbooks and founder of RippedBody.com. This site is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing full-time, online, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation. (You can read more about Andy here.)

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