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'Atomic Habits' Author James Clear: 'I'm Never Far From a Good Idea'
James Clear explains his writing and idea-generating process.
On Jan. 5, James Clear refreshed the page and watched his email list hit 1 million subscribers.
The first thing he did? "I took a screenshot," he said in an interview with The Profile. "The thing about getting to a million subscribers is that it took me eight years, so I knew it was coming, you know what I mean?"
Clear, the author of New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits, has been writing on his website JamesClear.com since 2012. He's one of the best and most interesting individual creators on the internet yet he had a moment of doubt that almost made him quit before he started.
"When I began writing in 2012, I thought I was too late," he says. "It seemed like blogs and newsletters had already peaked. It’s not too late. Someone is starting the next 1 million-person email list right now. The internet is in like the second inning. Get in the game. There is a lot of fun ahead."
I wanted to know: How did Clear build his brand? Why did he write a book? What mental frameworks does he use to generate ideas? And of course, what lessons can he share about how we can be more intentional about our day-to-day behavior?
In this interview, Clear explains his process in detail and offers practical strategies to help us form better habits in the new year. I hope you enjoy.
Below is an excerpt of the interview, but I encourage you to watch the full interview here:
When we last spoke, you told me, "My writing always suffers if I haven't read enough quality content." Tell me about how that framework relates to idea-generation for you?
CLEAR: I find that almost every thought I have is downstream from what I consume. If you have better inputs, you naturally get better outputs.
The other way I like to think about it is this: Everyone wants to be original; I would love to be brilliant and original and a genius, but I'm not smart enough for that. I don't have enough of these good ideas that just bubble up naturally without me building on top of something else.
So if I am going to be iterating upon previous stuff, then I want the best starting material possible. By having good starting material, I often can build something that's useful, interesting, and valuable, but it's largely because I started with reading something useful, interesting and valuable.
Picking what to read and making sure I'm reading consistently is a really important part of my writing and idea-generating process.
The example I heard many years ago is that it's kind of like driving a car. If you drive a car down the road and you run out of gas, then you're not going to get anywhere. You have to go to the gas station to fill up. But the point of having a car is not to just sit at the gas station and fill up all day. You need to do both.
For me, reading is like filling up the tank, and writing is like going on an adventure and driving somewhere. You need both of those if you actually want to make the journey.
I recently wrote about the importance of our "content diet," which refers to the type of information we choose to feed our brains on a daily basis. What does your content diet look like?
The most effective things I've found are to try to automate the streams of information that are coming into you. So Twitter is a good example. I have spent an unreasonable amount of time figuring out who to follow on Twitter. I have easily spent over 100 hours on it.
What ends up happening is that when you choose who to follow on Twitter or Instagram, you're choosing your future thoughts. You're choosing what that information stream is, so you're already locking yourself into certain types of thoughts. Now, you don't know exactly what those people will share, but you have an idea of what their themes are and how they view the world. If you can do a good job of selecting the right people to follow, you essentially automate good thoughts coming into your mind every time you're scrolling through.
I can't go on Twitter now, and not come out with three, four, or five ideas. I'm constantly dumping things into my big pile of ideas to work upon. I would say social media plays a much bigger role for my information consumption than it used to, but it only works because it's heavily curated.
[And then, there's] books. I have 17 books on my desk right now. I'm not reading 17 books, but they're there. For my physical environment, I try to sprinkle good sources of information all around. I have books sitting next to me, I have some next to my bed, and I have some on the coffee table in the living room.
I'm never far from a good idea. Most of them aren't mine, but they're always there for me to build upon and soak up and think about and iterate on. That's how I think about optimizing my environment for having good ideas.
In a guest column for The Profile, you wrote: "Take whatever goal you are trying to accomplish and ask yourself, 'Who is the type of person that could achieve that goal?' Why is identity so important in making or breaking habits?
I think true behavior change is really identity change. And what I mean by that is that if you look at yourself in a certain way, you're not really trying to change your behavior anymore. The goal is not to run a marathon. The goal is to look at yourself and consider yourself to be a runner. The goal is not to do a silent meditation retreat. The goal is to see yourself as a meditator. So the more that you start to adopt and fully believe in that identity — "I'm a runner," "I'm a writer," "I'm a meditator" — the behavior follows more or less naturally. You're not trying to be someone you're not; you're just acting in alignment with who you already see yourself to be.
I view behavior and beliefs as a two-way street. What you believe about yourself will influence how you act, but the wonderful thing is that the way you act will also influence what you believe about yourself. So I feel like the best lever you can pull is to let the behavior lead the way. Start with one small habit and let that provide evidence of being a certain type of person.
Every action you take is like a vote for the type of person you want to become. So no, doing one push-up doesn't radically transform your body, but it does cast a vote for "I'm the type of person who doesn't miss workouts." And no, writing one sentence doesn't finish the novel, but it does cast a vote for "I'm a writer." That stuff matters, and it adds up in the long-term. The more that you cast those votes for a certain type of identity, you eventually build up this body of evidence and you shift the weight of the scales in favor of this new identity or this new person.
You essentially give weight to the story. And that new story is something that you hold on to and tell yourself until you begin to live by that narrative. Ultimately, the process of changing your habits is really the process of re-writing your story and learning to believe something new about yourself. Once you believe that, you don't really have to convince yourself to do it anymore. You're just acting in alignment.
How important of a role do society’s labels play in our identity?
The social context influences your identity. Just imagine you're in fourth grade, and you're talking with a group of friends. You can go around the group and think: "She's the smart one, he's the funny one, and she's the pretty one. So what does that make me?" You start to triangulate your identity based on the people around you.
One thing that's important to remember is that we can change based on the room that we're in. If you take me to a dinner with a bunch of people who are just starting out as entrepreneurs, then they look at me as some seasoned entrepreneur. If I go to a different dinner, and Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg are there, then I feel like a total idiot who hasn't done anything.
So we can change based on the people we are around, and your identity can shift in that social context as well.
There's no way to get around that. You can't just undo the way world works and not compare yourself to other people, but you have to realize that 1) you can influence your identity with your habits and behaviors so that gives you a lever to tell yourself a better story; 2) As you come into adulthood, you get to choose who you hang around; and 3) It doesn't have to be a competition, it can also be a collaboration. Forget about the comparison and try to find peers that you can connect with, collaborate with, and [you'll] rise together.
The more that you can join groups where your desired behavior is the normal behavior, it starts to become this powerful rising tide where you can succeed side by side rather than in conflict.
You talk about the importance of creating an environment that makes good habits easier. Due to the pandemic, many of us have been restricted to the environment that is our own home. What are 3 practical things we can do to help us form better habits in a time of physical constraint?
I think environment design is really powerful. It's the same idea that I mentioned earlier where pretty much everything you think is downstream from what you consume. It also applies to your behavior. Many of the things you do are downstream from the environment you find yourself in.
The first thing you can do is you can make things as obvious as possible. Usually, we act on the things that we see. So if the snacks are on the counter in the kitchen, then you're probably going to grab those. If they're tucked away in the bottom corner of the pantry and you have apples on the counter, you're more likely to grab the apple just because it's there.
The second thing you can do is increase the amount of friction that it takes for you to do the task. Maybe it's really easy for you to turn on the TV, and then you end up wasting time watching TV. Well, if at the end of each day, you unplug the TV, go upstairs, go to sleep, and wake up in the morning, the only thing you have to do is plug the television back in but that's probably enough friction for you to ask, "Do I really want to do this or should I be working right now?" By adding an additional step between you and the bad habit, it's less likely you slide into it and more likely that you stick to the good thing. The punch line with friction is simple: Reduce the number of steps between you and your good habits and increase the number of steps between you and your bad habits.
The third thing you can do to optimize your environment is to try to find the version of a habit that excites you. Find something that's attractive for you to do, and then use those first two strategies to make it as easy as possible.
Let me give you an example. A lot of people feel like they should be working out more — they want to get fit. But not everybody has to train like a bodybuilder; you don't have to lift weights. There are many different forms of fitness: you can do bodyweight stuff, you can go for a walk, you can go for a run, you could kayak. Find a version of a habit that excites you and then optimize your environment around it. You'll have this natural motivation and you'll have your environment working for you.
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