In Atomic Habits, James Clear asks us to reconsider how we think about goals, breaking bad habits, and creating new ones. Why do we overvalue goals and undervalue the systems that help us accomplish those goals? Why are we so quick to dismiss small changes that can make a life-altering impact over time? Drawing on psychology, neuroscience, and biology—and highlighting the fascinating stories of Olympic athletes, award-winning artists, business leaders, and more—the author and speaker makes a clear and compelling case for rethinking success and self-improvement.
Recently, James spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright about starting over after a serious injury, the margin between success and failure, and why it’s totally okay (encouraged, even!) to spend just five minutes at the gym.
Read It Forward: So, funny story. We actually went to college together at Denison University. You’ve gone on to study and write about human habits and potential, specifically asking the questions, how can we make life better and how can we use scientific data to do that? How did you get into this path from Denison?
James Clear: Yeah, good question. At Denison, I guess I was exposed to life from a practical standpoint. I played baseball, and as any athlete can tell you, there are all kinds of habits and practice routines involved, so that was an exposure to it in the implementation setting. I also studied sciences while I was at Denison, mostly chemistry and physics, some biology as well. And then when I left, I went to graduate school at Ohio State, and one of my assistantships during that time was studying venture capital investment in the region. I was watching all these people start their own companies, and I kind of got the itch to start my own thing, too. So I did that, and I realized pretty quickly that I had no idea what I was doing. The first two years, I just kind of wandered around and tried a bunch of different ideas and eventually realized, oh, the problem is I don’t understand consumer behavior. I don’t understand why someone would buy something.
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That led me to studying consumer psychology, and then I went down the rabbit hole and got to behavioral psychology and habit formation, and all these things that I write about now. In a sense, Atomic Habits is the merger of these two worlds for me. On the one hand, I was always practicing those ideas as an athlete, and on the other hand, I’ve always been very scientifically minded. Now I have the language and research about those topics to back up the personal experiences that I had years ago but didn’t originally have the language for.
RIF: In your book, you talk about how you began to build good habits at college by doing really small things that added up to making a big difference. What were some of those things, and how did they affect you in the long run, especially as you were coming off this life-altering injury that happened in high school?
JC: Yeah, I suffered a really serious injury in high school—I was hit in the face with a baseball bat. I discuss the whole story in the introduction to Atomic Habits. Basically, afterward, I was trying to regain some control over my life. A lot of times when something challenging happens to you, it feels like it happened to you and not because you wanted it. You’re looking for some way to regain control, so little habits like making my bed every morning or making sure that I studied consistently, or I had this rule that I wouldn’t do any homework after midnight. If I hadn’t learned it by midnight, I was just going to go to bed—effectively that’s a sleep habit. Strength-training habits were big for me then, too. And eventually over three, four years, I started to see a lot of progress. So, it was a chance for me to implement some of those ideas and try to get just 1 percent better each day, which is a core theme of the book. It was a chance for me to experiment with that and then eventually realize how potent and powerful small changes can be.
RIF: Someone making these small changes might think they’re not going to matter in the long run, but you argue that they absolutely will. Why is it important to start small?
JC: I like to refer to habits as the compound interest of self-improvement, and I like that phrase because it’s like the way money multiplies through compound interest: the effects of your habits multiply over time. On any given day, it’s easy to overlook that stuff, right? What’s the difference between studying Spanish for an hour tonight or not studying at all? Not much—you haven’t learned the language either way. The thing about habits is they feel insignificant in the moment. But once you compound those over two or five or ten years, you turn around a decade later and you’re like, “Wow, these small choices really do matter.” They end up creating the margin between who you are and who you could be. That’s one of the foundational principles of Atomic Habits: time magnifies the margin between success and failure. If you have good habits, time is your ally. If you have bad habits, time is your enemy. It’s really about mastering those little 1 percent choices. One percent better or 1 percent worse each day doesn’t feel like much in the moment, but it ends up being significant in the long run.
RIF: So, talk a little bit about goals and systems. It’s great to have goals, but you write that true change is made through altering systems, right?
JC: This is another one of the foundational principles in the book, which is that you don’t rise to the level of your goals—you fall to the level of your systems. Anybody can come up with an impressive goal, and this is coming from someone who set goals for many years. I set goals for the grades I wanted in school, the weights I wanted to lift in the gym, how successful I wanted my business to be, all kinds of stuff. Sometimes I would achieve those, but a lot of the time I wouldn’t. At some point you start to realize that setting the goal can’t be the thing that’s making the difference. And you see that in most domains: if you look at the winners and losers, so to speak, in any given field, they often have the same goals. Every candidate who applies for a job wants to get the job. Every Olympian wants to win the gold medal. They all have the same goal.
RIF: They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t.
JC: Right. Goal-setting may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient for success. I’m not totally anti-goals; I think they serve a purpose, but the purpose is they provide clarity and a sense of direction. Once you know what direction you’re moving in and what’s important to you, it’s more useful to metaphorically put the goal on the shelf and focus on the system instead.
So, for example: if you’re a basketball coach, your goal might be to win the championship at the end of the year, but your system is how you recruit assistant coaches and new players, what you do at practice each day, how you teach players to recover and get better after practice, what drills you do. It’s really the system that determines whether or not you make progress on that goal. There’s a book written by an NFL coach named Bill Walsh who won three Super Bowls; it’s called The Score Takes Care of Itself. The idea is that you want to have the best score on the scoreboard at the end of the game, but it would be ridiculous to spend all game looking at the scoreboard. Just thinking about the goal does nothing.
I think that’s true in a broader sense about pretty much any habit—a goal can provide clarity, but the system is how you actually make progress. For whatever reason, we tend to overvalue goals and undervalue systems. I think it has something to do with how society is designed. Things are only newsworthy when there’s some outcome or result, right? You’re never going to see a news story that’s like, “Woman eats salad for lunch today.”
RIF: “Man washes dish every day.”
JC: It’s going to be like six months later that it’s a story. This is just magnified by social media because we’re surrounded by everyone’s outcomes and goals. Because we see them so much, we think outcomes are what matter most and we need big ambitious goals, but almost always the goal isn’t the thing that needs to change. The process behind it is what needs to change.
RIF: There are two sorts of habits I think people want to change. They might want to stop doing something bad—like smoking or biting their nails—or start doing something good, like eating better or exercising. Is the methodology the same for building good habits and breaking bad ones?
JC: The short answer is it’s a little bit different, but it’s instructive in many cases to think about why bad habits form so easily, because they can tell us about how to build good habits more easily. One thing that makes bad habits stick is the fact that the immediate outcome is often favorable. You can think of pretty much any behavior as having multiple outcomes across time. So, the immediate outcome for eating a donut is it’s great. It’s sugary, it’s tasty, it’s enjoyable. The ultimate outcome if you repeat that habit every day for a year is unfavorable.
With good habits, it’s often the reverse. The immediate outcome of going to the gym is it’s effortful, it takes some sacrifice. You work a bit. It’s not that fun. But the ultimate outcome a year from now is favorable. The lesson here—this is something I refer to as the cardinal rule of behavior change in the book—is behaviors that are immediately rewarded get repeated, and behaviors that are immediately punished get avoided. You can look at your bad habits and say, wow, a lot of these reward me pretty quickly.
One way to make a good habit more appealing is to figure out how to layer some kind of immediate satisfaction on top of it or to focus on a different portion of the behavior that’s satisfying. It might be true that going to the gym, the rewards are delayed, but you could focus on another part of the process—I get to see some of my friends at the gym, or I’m going to pick a different form of exercise that’s fun to me rather than just feeling like I have to lift weights. Or the fact that I feel good when I move my body. If you focus on how it makes you feel and not on the result you want, you can enjoy it in the moment, and that allows you to hack it a little bit and find some reason to show up.
RIF: That’s very helpful. I packed my sneakers this morning, so I’ll be going to the gym.
RIF: I will, I will. James, what do you hope readers take away from this book?
JC: Well, from a high level, I hope they’d take away a focus on the system and the process rather than on any individual outcome—more on becoming the type of person that could achieve a result rather than worrying about the result itself. So, a focus on building your desired identity rather than delivering a particular outcome. From a tactical standpoint, the book is filled with practical insights to apply to building good habits and breaking bad ones.
But if I had to pick a place for people to start, I would say start with the two-minute rule, which is essentially that you take whatever habit you’re trying to build and scale it down to just the first two minutes. Read 30 books a year becomes read one page, or write my first book becomes write one sentence, or do yoga five days a week becomes take out my yoga mat. You basically scale it down to the very first two minutes of the behavior and focus on mastering that.
One of my favorite examples of this is a reader who ended up losing over 100 pounds. The way he did it was setting a rule for himself where he went to the gym, but he wasn’t allowed to stay for longer than five minutes. He would drive to the gym each day, get out, do half an exercise, and then drive home. To most people, it sounds silly. Why would you bother? But then you realize he was mastering the art of showing up. A habit must be established before it can be improved, right? If you don’t master the art of showing up, even if it’s just for two minutes, there’s nothing to optimize. Where I’d like people to start is scale it down so it’s super easy. You can do it in just two minutes and then become the type of person who shows up for those two minutes each day. And if you can do that, you have a lot of options for getting better.
Author photo © Nick Fancher