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James Clear Q&A Interview

James Clear dishes out life-changing insights like they’re T-shirts on a college campus. He is the author of the bestselling book, Atomic Habits. Interview is courtesy of our friends at Morning Brew.

We tried not to bite our nails as we asked James all about building (and breaking) habits.

What is one of your ideas that most resonates with your audience?

There are probably two. The first is the idea of systems over goals, or rather than worrying about the outcome, focusing on the process and building better habits each day. The line that people bring up a lot from the book is, “You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” 

The other one that has gone over well is what I call “identity-based habits.” Rather than worrying about the results you want, focus on becoming the type of person who could achieve those results. So instead of worrying about losing 40 pounds, focus on being the kind of person who doesn’t miss workouts. Or rather than worrying about finishing the novel, focus on being the kind of person who writes every day.

Many people have been working from home for 18 months. Do you think that’s made it more difficult to develop habits? 

One of the things that makes it hard to stick to a habit is if you’re trying to do multiple habits in the same context. Say your couch is the place where you watch Netflix at 7pm, but you want to get in the habit of journaling each night. If you try to journal at 7pm on the couch you have this unconscious bias toward turning on the TV, because that’s what usually happens there. 

One of the benefits of going into an office is that you have a defined space for work habits to live. You can utilize that idea in a practical way, by trying to create defined spaces for certain habits. If you want to get into the habit of reading, you could have a reading chair in the corner of the room. And the only thing that happens there is when you sit there you read a book. And you gradually start to associate that behavior with that context. The more explicit you can be about where the habit occurs, and it always occurs in the same place in the same way, the more likely it is that the behavior will stick.

What did you learn about habit formation from being a college baseball pitcher? 

I learned a lot about the importance of pregame routines. Before every start in college I went through the same sequence about 40 minutes before the start of the game.

What ends up happening is that a switch flips in your mind and says, “Remember, it’s time to play now.” I think that helps not just with the physical part of the task—it helps with the mental part of the task. It helps get you in the right mindset to perform.

Translating that to what I do now, since Atomic Habits has blown up I’ve been asked to do a lot of keynote speeches. And I have a pregame routine before I walk out on stage.

What do you do? 

It usually starts with me getting a glass of water. I take a drink of water, go through the first minute of the talk in my head, and then I put my head down and have quiet time for 10 seconds or so. Then I get up, take a deep breath, and I’m ready to go.

Each of your newsletters contains two quotes. Do you have a favorite quote? 

I’m going to pick two but I do just want to say I have like 100. 

One is from my friend Morgan Housel: “Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works. We’re all biased to our own personal history.”

The second one is from the investor Josh Wolfe, who said that the most useful advice he ever got was from James Watson, the scientist who helped discover DNA. Watson said three words with two meanings: “Avoid boring people.” I like that a lot because it means a) don’t hang out with boring people and b) don’t be boring yourself. Be interesting, be fascinating, do compelling things. 

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