James Clear, the NYTimes best-selling author of "Atomic Habits," talks to us about his book, and how goals, systems, and habits drive who we are.
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Last Wednesday, Chris Schelzi sat down with James Clear, author of the instant worldwide bestseller Atomic Habits to discuss ways to build and maintain powerful habits amidst the uncertainty of this time—or anytime.
Conversation with James Clear, Atomic Habits
Your book is about to reach 2 million copies sold. What are the habits that got you there?
In a sense, the book sort of wrote itself. I had to build a writing habit in order to write the book and practice a lot of the principles within the book to make it come to fruition.
I like writing about topics that I have to live out because I worry about being a new-age version of the academic in the ivory tower: sending out ideas but not really implementing them. I think there’s a gap between theory and practice, I try to practice the stuff that I write out as much as possible—so that I know what it feels like to fail, to struggle, or have a good idea that turns out doesn’t work in practice.
In that sense, I view myself and my readers as peers; we’re all kind of working through this together.
On writing Atomic Habits: Can you share more about your experience of that?
Depending on how you measure it, the book took somewhere between three to six years to write. It was pretty much my primary focus throughout that time. That’s a lot of effort and energy to put into something upfront.
That’s kind of the way books work: all the gratification is delayed. If you’re willing to spend a couple years reading, researching, refining and writing down the ideas, then submitting the manuscript, doing a marketing plan, and recording a bunch of interviews—if you’re willing to do all that and then sell the first copy, then it can be really great. But it can be a struggle in the beginning to have all that delayed gratification.
One of the big things you talk about is goals vs. systems. You could have the goal to sell a million books, but how do you build the systems around actually getting a book out?
The way that I define that is: Your goal is your desired outcome. Your system is the collection of daily habits that you follow. So throughout that entire process, there was a lot of reminding myself to return to my daily habits.
I don’t think any author could reasonably expect a book—regardless of the amount of work you do—to take off like that and sell a million copies. It also depends on timeline: are we talking a million copies in a year or 20 years?
I would say that the book has outpaced my expectations. But throughout that whole process, I tried to return to those systems and daily habits. And that’s a core part of my philosophy—not just for the book, but also how I run my business.
This idea is: You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.
That’s one of the central philosophies for me: return to those daily habits, return to that system, and run that as much as possible. Then let the results take care of themselves.
One of the other things you mention: when you have a goal and hit it, suddenly you’re done—versus if you have a system, you continue. Can you share more about that?
Goals are not completely useless. They’re helpful for certain things. Goals are good for setting a sense of direction—having clarity about what direction you want to move in. They’re also good as a filtering mechanism. If you know what your goal is, then someone can come to you and say, “Hey I have this new opportunity,” or “Would you like to join me for this project?” When you hear it, you can run it through that filter: Does this help me achieve my goal or not? If it doesn’t, then you don’t have to worry about doing it. You can filter it out.
In that sense, goals can be helpful. But goals create these weird after-effects, or what I sometimes call the “yo-yo” effect. You set a goal to run a half marathon, train 6 months, and run the race. Afterward you’re like, “Great! I accomplished my goal!” Then you turn around and take a week off. Then a week turns into a month, and a month turns into two months. And before you know it you’re like “Man, I haven’t run in 10 weeks!” I’ve gotta set a new goal or sign up for a new race or something. The pendulum swings back and forth.
Whereas if instead of focusing on the goal, you focus on the system—or what I talk about in the book “identity-based habits” i.e. being that kind of person rather than making the goal running a half marathon—the real goal is to become a runner. Then you finish the race and you’re still going to run next week because you’re a runner. Not because you were working toward the half marathon.
So for the most part, goals only change your life for the moment, whereas systems create a lifestyle.
Are systems and habits interchangeable?
Generally speaking, to go back to an earlier point, a goal is a point or outcome. A system is a collection of habits, a process that you follow. This is something I mention near the end of the book: the holy grail of behavior change is not a single improvement: it’s 1,000 of them, layering them on top of each other.
Can you tell us more about your annual reviews and integrity reports?
The purpose of those big-picture check-ins is to make sure I have alignment between who I say I am and want to be—and what I’m actually doing. In the case of the integrity report, I usually do those each summer.
The general idea is to ask three questions:
- What are my principles/values?
- How did I live by those over the last year?
- Where did I fail to live up to those? (most important)
The conclusion I’ve come to after doing these integrity reports for a few years is: You’re not going to find anyone who says they’re not a person of integrity. Pretty much everyone thinks they have integrity. So how do people get into situations where there’s a mismatch?
Usually, I think it’s a gradual slide. “Just this once” exceptions. So the integrity report is a chance to curtail that, to make sure you’re actually living your values.
My annual report happens right around the first of the year. That’s more of a chance to run the numbers:
- How many workouts did I do?
- How many places did I visit?
- How many articles did I write?
- How many people visited the website? etc.
The point of counting is not to obsess over numbers. Those numbers should provide evidence that you’re moving toward the things you set in your integrity report. They’re both just chances to check-in and recalibrate. We need to be willing to recap, edit, refine, and revisit those mistakes, so that we can get feedback and update for next time.
An unexamined failure remains a failure. But an examined one can become a success.
Can you lay out the difference between motion and action?
The core idea here is that not all actions are equal. As an example, if you go to the gym and talk to a trainer, it doesn’t matter how many times you talk to them, it’s never going to get you in shape. That’s motion. Whereas getting under the bar and doing 10 squats can actually get you in shape—that’s action.
That doesn’t mean that preparation isn’t useful, but it does mean that if you find yourself in the stage where your planning has come to a form of procrastination, then you’re planning too much. You’re locked in motion.
It doesn’t mean that planning and review aren’t necessary – they just shouldn’t be your only focus. Perhaps they should just be occasional check-ins.
Every action you take is like a vote for the type of person you want to become.
The more that you cast votes, the more you build up evidence for being that kind of person. In that sense, the days that you don’t miss are more important than your peak performances. Because they give you evidence for the type of person you’re becoming and help you maintain it for the long run.
You don’t need a unanimous vote in any election. You just need to win a majority. Whoever you are right now, to a certain degree your identity has been shaped by the habits you’ve been performing.
Your habits are how you embody a particular identity. My argument is a bit different from “fake it til you make it.” I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with “fake it til you make it,” but it’s asking you to believe something positive without having evidence for it. And we have a word for beliefs that don’t have evidence: delusions. At some point, there’s this mismatch between what you’ve been saying you are and what you’re actually doing. So my argument is to let the behavior lead the way.
Ultimately, I think that’s the real power of habits. We often talk about habits as this pathway to external results: lose weight, make more money, reduce stress, etc. And it’s true, habits can do all those things and that’s a great outcome.
But the real reason I think habits matter is they can reshape your sense of self. They can give you a new identity.
What are some one-time actions or habits that trigger a cascade effect?
I think the principle is really powerful: What is a one-time action that I perform that continues to pay off again and again? Or another way to rephrase it: What is the work that keeps working for me once it’s done?
As an example, I’ve done a bunch of interviews to talk about Atomic Habits. Some of them have been on the radio. Let’s say I spend an hour on the radio. As soon I get off air, that work is done. It’s no longer working for me. It’s been played, it wasn’t recorded. Meanwhile, could have spent that same time speaking with someone on a podcast that gets recorded. It’s the same action on my end, but since it’s recorded and can be reaccessed at any time, suddenly the work is still working for me after it’s done.
I like things that allow you to leverage or multiply yourself a bit more to magnify your impact, efficiency, and output of those habits.
There are also a lot of one time actions that pay off again and again:
- Find a mattress that you love
- Get blackout curtains
- Interviewing — Interview multiple people for things you don’t think about interviewing for: landscapers, therapists, doctors, dentists, etc.
How do you deal with the boredom needed to build habits?
This is the challenge with building habits: the more you do something, the more routine and expected it becomes—and the less it surprises you. And when experiences lose novelty, it becomes harder for them to delight you.
Once you start to establish a habit, it can start to feel boring or monotonous because you know what’s coming. Mastery requires you to fall in love with boredom, because you have to stick with something long enough to actually master it.
To stick with new habits, you’ll need to manufacture novelty—find new details to get fascinated with as you repeat the process again and again.
I think in a lot of ways mastery is not only falling in love with boredom; it’s continually manufacturing novelty.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For the entire conversation, check out the full interview.
About James Clear
James Clear is a writer and speaker focused on habits, decision-making, and continuous improvement. He is the author of New York Times best-seller Atomic Habits. His work has appeared in Entrepreneur, Time, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. His website receives millions of visitors each month and hundreds of thousands of subscribers to his popular email newsletter.