James Clear http://jamesclear.com Why tiny gains make a big difference in health and in life. Tue, 31 Mar 2015 06:11:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 Do More of What Already Works http://jamesclear.com/checklist-solutions http://jamesclear.com/checklist-solutions#comments Tue, 31 Mar 2015 05:34:54 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=9241 In 2004, nine hospitals in Michigan began implementing a new procedure in their intensive care units (I.C.U.). Almost overnight, healthcare professionals were stunned with its success.

Three months after it began, the procedure had cut the infection rate of I.C.U. patients by sixty-six percent. Within 18 months, this one method had saved 75 million dollars in healthcare expenses. Best of all, this single intervention saved the lives of more than 1,500 people in just a year and a half. The strategy was immediately published in a blockbuster paper for the New England Journal of Medicine.

This medical miracle was also simpler that you could ever imagine. It was a checklist.

The Power of Never Skipping Steps

The checklist strategy implemented at Michigan hospitals was named the Keystone ICU Project. It was led by a physician named Peter Pronovost and later popularized by writer Atul Gawande. 1

In Gawande’s best-selling book, The Checklist Manifesto (audiobook), he describes how Pronovost’s simple checklist could drive such dramatic results. In the following quote, Gawande explains one of the checklists that was used to reduce the risk of infection when installing a central line in a patient (a relatively common procedure).

On a sheet of plain paper, [Pronovost] plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting a line in. Doctors are supposed to (1) wash their hands with soap, (2) clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic, (3) put sterile drapes over the entire patient, (4) wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves, and (5) put a sterile dressing over the catheter site once the line is in. Check, check, check, check, check.

These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklist just for them. Still, Pronovost asked the nurses in his I.C.U. to observe the doctors for a month as they put lines into patients, and record how often they completed each step. In more than a third of patients, they skipped at least one.

This five-step checklist was the simple solution that Michigan hospitals used to save 1,500 lives. Think about that for a moment. There were no technical innovations. There were no pharmaceutical discoveries or cutting-edge procedures. The physicians just stopped skipping steps. They implemented the answers they already had on a more consistent basis.

New Solutions vs. Old Solutions

We have a tendency to undervalue answers that we have already discovered. We underutilize old solutions–even if they are best practices–because they seem like something we have already considered.

Here’s the problem: “Everybody already knows that” is very different from “Everybody already does that.” Just because a solution is known doesn’t mean it is utilized.

Even more critical, just because a solution is implemented occasionally, doesn’t mean it is implemented consistently. Every physician knew the five steps on Peter Pronovost’s checklist, but very few did all five steps flawlessly each time.

We assume that new solutions are needed if we want to make real progress, but that isn’t always the case. Consider the incredible sums of money are focused on pharmaceutical research and drug development (i.e. seeking new solutions). Imagine if those funds were poured into reducing mistakes and making sure best practices were carried out across the board (i.e. implementing old solutions).

Use What You Already Have

This pattern is just as present in our personal lives as it is in corporations and governments. We waste the resources and ideas at our fingertips because they don’t seem new and exciting.

There are many examples of behaviors, big and small, that have the opportunity to drive progress in our lives if we just did them with more consistency. Flossing every day. Never missing workouts. Performing fundamental business tasks each day, not just when you have time. Apologizing more often. Writing Thank You notes each week.

Of course, these answers are boring. Mastering the fundamentals isn’t sexy, but it works. No matter what task you are working on, there is a simple checklist of steps that you can follow right now–basic fundamentals that you have known about for years–that can immediately yield results if you just practice them more consistently.

Progress often hides behind boring solutions and underused insights. You don’t need more information. You don’t need a better strategy. You just need to do more of what already works.

  1. Although he is one of my favorite authors, calling Gawande a writer is a bit of a misnomer. He writes best-selling books in his spare time. His day job is working as a surgeon at a large hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Use This Simple Daily Habit to Add More Gratitude to Your Life http://jamesclear.com/gratitude-habit http://jamesclear.com/gratitude-habit#comments Fri, 27 Mar 2015 05:51:26 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=9159 I have a simple gratitude habit that I have been following nearly every day for three years. I want to share it with you here.

First, let me set the stage.

The Minor Tragedy

The other day I ordered takeout from one of my favorite Indian restaurants for dinner. My family had a tight timeline that night, which meant we would only be together for an hour before everyone had to run off in separate directions.

We picked up the food and drove home, but when we opened the bag we realized that the restaurant had forgotten to include one of the main dishes from our order.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal. Missing half of the dinner that you bought from a nice Indian restaurant in suburban America is a classic example of a first world problem. That said, we had an issue at the moment. Either someone had to drive back and get the food while the others packed for their trip later that night or we had to settle for eating half of the dinner we ordered. It seems frivolous in retrospect, but this is exactly the type of little hassle that can ruin the mood and pull everyone into a negative spiral–especially when you are in a rush.

I wasn’t going anywhere later that night, so I volunteered to drive back to the restuarant and pick up the missing food while everyone else packed their bags for their trip. When I returned 40 minutes later, we finally sat down to eat dinner with about 20 minutes to spare before we needed to get back in the car and leave. Basically, it was a rushed evening.

So, this was the mood in the room–frustrated, rushed, and stressed–when our simple gratitude habit came to the rescue.

The Daily Gratitude Habit

The habit is super simple. Here it is…

When I sit down to eat dinner, I say one thing that I am grateful for happening today.

On this particular day, after the frantic rush of the evening, I said that I was grateful for a short shopping trip earlier in the day because it allowed us to spend time together that we didn’t get to spend later in the evening.

Everyone else contributed their own grateful moment from the day. And in those 10 seconds, the energy completely reset in the room. It was like we all breathed a deep sigh and said, “Ok, that was annoying, but we’re over it now. We live a very good life and it’s time to move on and enjoy the moment.”

Now, let’s talk about why this gratitude habit is so effective.

Why It Works

After using this mini-habit for three years, here are my biggest lessons learned.

  1. It is a really good idea to force yourself into a positive frame of mind at least once per day. Everyone has bad days and frustrating moments, myself included. But no matter what happens each day, when I sit down for dinner I am forced to think about the good in my life for at least a few seconds. The result is that there is not a day that goes by without me specifically stating something positive that is happening around me. Positive thinking opens your eyes to more opportunities.
  2. The individual impact of any one piece of gratitude is small, but the cumulative effect is huge. The power of this habit comes from a multiplier effect that takes hold after practicing it for a month or two. You begin to realize that nearly everyday is a good day (at least in a small way).
  3. You start to realize how insignificant monetary things are for your day-to-day happiness. The majority of my grateful moments don’t cost a dime: time spent with friends and family, something nice someone said, a good workout that day. That’s not to say money is unimportant, but there is something comforting in realizing that the moments you’re actually grateful for each day are free.
  4. I have stuck with the habit because it is stupidly small. I can’t name many habits that I have been able to pick up immediately and follow every day for three years. Perhaps the biggest reason that I have maintained so much consistency with this habit is that it is incredibly small. Do things you can sustain.
  5. I have stuck with the habit because it is perfectly tied to another behavior. Using the idea of habit stacking, I stacked my gratitude habit on top of my habit of eating dinner each night. It is so much easier to build a new habit into your lifestyle when you choose the right trigger.

Practicing Gratitude

Gratitude is an interesting concept. It’s one of those qualities that everyone accepts you should do, but that we rarely talk about how to do. It’s sort of like saying you should “live in the moment.” It’s easy advice to give, but you’ll rarely hear people explain how they actually live in the moment.

Gratitude is fantastic, but what does it actually look like in everyday life? When someone lives with gratitude, what do they actually do each day that separates them from most people?

I still have a lot to learn, but I can certainly say that my daily gratitude habit has made a difference for my long-term happiness. It has been one way that I have been able to live out gratitude on a daily basis.

Give it a try and see if it works for you.

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My 2015 Integrity Report http://jamesclear.com/2015-integrity-report http://jamesclear.com/2015-integrity-report#comments Mon, 23 Mar 2015 23:54:59 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=9015 Today I am publishing my second annual Integrity Report.

The main purpose of my Integrity Report is to document the steps I’m taking to set a higher standard in my work, lead with honesty, and build a business that serves first. Integrity is one of those qualities that is easy to talk about, but much harder to live out on a day-to-day basis. My hope is that this report provides a reason for me to revisit my core values each year and consider if I have been living by them.

There are 3 main questions that I will answer in this Integrity Report. (You are welcome to replicate these questions for your own Integrity Report.)

  1. What are the core values that drive my life and work?
  2. How am I living and working with integrity right now?
  3. How can I set a higher standard in the future?

Here we go…

1. What are the core values that drive my life?

Here are my core values and some questions that I use to think more deeply about each area. There are some slight changes from last year.

Growth (Learning, Adventure, Habits)

  • Am I learning new things and exploring new places?
  • Am I questioning my limiting beliefs and trying to overcome them?
  • Am I building habits that lead to continual improvement?

Self-Respect (Authenticity, Balance, Happiness)

  • Am I living a balanced life?
  • Am I living authentically?
  • Am I giving myself permission to be happy with where I am right now?

Resiliency (Strength, Preparedness, Toughness)

  • Am I mentally and physically strong?
  • Am I prepared for unexpected challenges?
  • Am I actively working to overcome the challenges in my life?

Servant Leadership (Contribution, Dependability, Generosity)

  • Am I contributing to the world or just consuming it?
  • Am I someone others can count on?
  • Am I giving the credit to others?

These are just my core values, of course. Yours may be different. I put together a list of common core values, if you want some ideas for your own Integrity Report.

2. How am I living and working with integrity now?

Here are some choices that I have made during the last year that, I think, have helped me live and work with more integrity. I plan to continue my effort in each of these areas.

Sticking to my word. As regular readers know, I publish new articles every Monday and Thursday. That’s the schedule. That’s the expectation. And I stick to it. (Obviously, I reserve the right to change my schedule if I wish, but no matter what expectations I set you can count on me to stick to them.) 1

Maintaining editorial integrity. As of March 2015, my website receives over 500,000 visitors each month. Unlike nearly every other website of that size, I don’t accept advertisements or sponsors. I want your reading experience to be as good as it can possibly be and I am committed to not selling your attention to outside businesses. I lose money because of this strategy in the short-run, but I maintain editorial integrity and hopefully gain your trust in the long-run.

No strong sales pitches. I am beginning to expand the business side of JamesClear.com this year with seminars, speaking engagements, and my first book. That said, I never want anyone to feel pressured to buy from me. When I have something to sell, I’ll tell you about it, but I want you to buy because you believe in the products and the way I do things, not because I’m hammering you over the head with a sales pitch.

Giving all the credit away. In my experience, there are no original ideas. We all get inspiration from others and that’s just fine if we do it in the right way. As author Austin Kleon writes, “Creative theft can be incredibly positive, so long as it’s honoring instead of degrading, crediting rather than plagiarizing, and transforming instead of intimidating.”

This is how I like to think of my work: I discover brilliant ideas from a wide range of successful people, add in lessons I’ve learned from personal experience, back it up with scientific research, and blend it all together into an article that is (hopefully) useful and practical for others. I suppose you could say this is my unique style, but really it’s just made up of bits and pieces that I learned from others.

Here are some ways I have given credit away during the past 12 months:

  • I added references to a Sources section at the bottom of my articles (example).
  • I recently added pop-up footnotes so that sources can display inline as you are reading and not just at the bottom of the post (only works when reading on JamesClear.com)
  • I have begun crediting not just the image source, but also the original photographer for any outside images that I use (example).
  • I added a Thank You page where I publicly acknowledge the individuals who have influenced my life and work in bigger ways.

I’m proud of the work I create, but I couldn’t do it without the help of others. Life is so much better when you give all the credit away.

Using more inclusive language and storytelling in my articles. This was one of the areas I listed for improvement in my 2014 Integrity Report and I improved it! During the past year, I have written about inspiring black women (here and here), people dealing with schizophrenia and mental illness (here), famous female artists (here and here), forgotten female artists (here), Swedish entrepreneurs (here), professional athletes (here and here), ancient Greek heroes and Japanese Samurai warriors (here and here), and, of course, a few white dudes (here, here, and here).

As of March 2015, our community includes more than 140,000 people from over 100 countries. We are not limited to any individual status, race, gender, or background. I believe my writing should reflect that.

3. How can I set a higher standard in the future?

Now for the hard part. Where am I slacking and how can I set a higher standard over the next 12 months?

Write about long-standing principles. Some ideas are fleeting (think: your standard news cycle of hot-button issues) while other topics stand the test of time (think: true wisdom and timeless life lessons). I already skew toward writing about topics that stand the test of time, but I think I can do even better. What are the core issues that are central to living a good life? How can I focus on those questions in a practical way? I believe it is important to avoid playing to the lowest common denominator and publishing shallow articles with little depth of thought and few practical applications.

Stop acting like a victim and get ahead of schedule. Earlier in this article, I praised myself for sticking to my Monday–Thursday writing schedule … and I do stick to it. But nearly every article I publish is written that day. I have many lame excuses for why I’m not ahead with my writing. (“There’s so much else to do with the business.” Or, “My inbox is a disaster.” Or, “I’m always working on important things, so it’s not really procrastination.”) The truth is that I need to stop acting like this is out of my control. I have built a consistent habit, but I have not developed a philosophy of preparedness with my writing. That’s a problem because resiliency is one of my core values.

Communicate faster. Show up earlier. I don’t reply fast enough via email and I’m often arriving just in the nick of time (read: 5 minutes late) because I try to cram too much into too little time. Well, it’s time to get over that stuff. I get too many emails to handle myself, which means that I need to develop a better system for dealing with it rather than blaming the problem. Furthermore, I control my schedule each day and that means I have the power to schedule enough time between tasks.

Hire, hire, hire. Last year, I said that I needed a coach because it was hard to hold myself accountable with certain business tasks. Well, I hired one and it is helping. Now, I need to hire a fantastic executive assistant (someone with killer writing and organizational skills) to keep me on track as well as an amazing researcher–editor who would take joy in finding compelling scientific research and improving the quality of my articles. I’m still trying to play superhero and do it all myself.

Make my work more accessible. There are a variety of ways I can spread my message to an even larger community. What about reading my articles in audio format and publishing it as a podcast? People could listen on the go and the audio would accommodate blind members of our community. Or, I could have readers translate my articles into different languages. Offering my articles in Chinese alone would result in a massive new segment of people who could be reached. 2

Question my limiting beliefs. I wasn’t expecting it when I started, but entrepreneurship is an incredible process of personal growth. Simply put, we all have mental barriers and limiting beliefs that we need to get over. If you’re serious about building a business that reaches a lot of people, then you need to get over yourself, check your ego at the door, and realize that all of the excuses you keep parading around in your head each day are just well-dressed lies. I’ve made some progress in this area, but I have a long way to go.

The Bottom Line

In my experience, catastrophic lapses of integrity are rare. The problems usually occur when we convince ourselves to make a series of small exceptions or “just this once” choices. After a while, the little exceptions add up and you find yourself in a place you would normally avoid.

The purpose of this report is to hold myself accountable to those small errors, avoid the tiny lapses in judgment, and ask questions that will help me raise the bar. I still have a long way to go, but if I can maintain the things that are going well and commit to one or two areas of improvement, then I should be able to deliver an even higher quality of work to you each week.

In the meantime, thanks for reading and being part of our worldwide family. It’s an honor to share my thoughts and ideas with you.

  1. As my business expands, there is one strategy that makes commitments like these possible: say no more often. It’s hard to do and I’m still getting better at it, but it is much easier to stick with your commitments if you don’t get over-extended.

  2. This is probably a project for later this year, but I would love to offer versions of my articles in Arabic, French, German, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, and Spanish. If you are a reader and interested in helping translate my articles for a project like that, then contact me.

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The Goal is Not the Point: Choose a Path and Then Walk It http://jamesclear.com/treasure-hunt http://jamesclear.com/treasure-hunt#comments Fri, 20 Mar 2015 06:05:30 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=8893 Imagine, for a moment, that your life is like a treasure hunt.

It’s not much of a leap, really. Like any good treasure hunt, you have a map to guide you. In life, the map is your corner of the universe. Some of the areas on the map you know quite well. These areas are the places and people and things that you’re familiar with and that are part of your daily life.

Other areas of the map are foreign to you. These yet-to-be-explored regions are home to the milestones in life that you can imagine reaching, but that have eluded you thus far. This undiscovered portion of the map is where your hopes and goals and dreams live. These goals are like little pieces of buried treasure that are hidden somewhere out on the map, somewhere that you hope to get to soon.

One day, a particular goal grabs your attention and you decide to set out on a treasure hunt.

Searching for Buried Treasure

You begin the long hike toward your treasure and encounter a challenge or two along the way. Already the actual path is starting to look different than the buried treasure that you had been imagining. Things get worse when you finally arrive to the spot of the treasure.

This whole time, you had been imagining a chest filled with gold. After uncovering the treasure, however, all you can find are a few scraps of silver and some antique relics. These items are valuable in their own right, for sure, but they were not what you were thinking about this whole time.

You say to yourself, “This doesn’t look like the treasure I was envisioning! I must be on the wrong path. I wasted all this time!”

After thinking for a few moments, you wonder, “Hmm… maybe I should switch goals? I bet there is bigger treasure elsewhere.”

Theory vs. Practice

I’ve certainly experienced situations similar to the treasure hunt described above. Perhaps you have too.

I’m talking about situations where the goal we were excited to pursue—getting a degree, starting a new exercise routine, making a career change—turns out to look very different in practice than in theory.

It’s natural to feel a sense of disappointment or confusion or frustration when this occurs, but I think the deeper problem is rooted in how we approached the treasure hunt in the first place.

Goals as a Compass

The problem with a treasure hunt is that most people spend all of their time thinking about the treasure. The fastest way to get to a particular spot, however, is to set your compass and start walking.

The idea here is to commit to your goal with the utmost conviction. Develop a clear, single-minded focus for where you are headed. Then, however, you do something strange. You release the desire to achieve a particular outcome and focus instead on the slow march forward.

Pour all of your energy into the journey, be present in the moment, be committed to the path you are walking. Know that you are moving unwaveringly in one clear direction and that this direction is right for you, but never get wrapped up in a particular result or achieving a certain goal by a specific time.

In other words, your goal becomes your compass, not your buried treasure. The goal is your direction, not your destination. The goal is a mission that you are on, a path that you follow. Whatever comes from that path—whatever treasure you happen to find along this journey—well, that’s just fine. It is the commitment to walking the path that matters.

“Letting go of how it might come to pass.”

As far as I can tell, [success] is just about letting the universe know what you want and working toward it, while letting go of how it might come to pass. Your job is not to figure out how it’s going to happen for you, but to open the door in your head and when the doors open in real life, just walk through it. Don’t worry if you miss your cue. There will always be another door opening.
–Jim Carrey 1

Choose your goals and then forget them. Set them on a shelf. Trust that your direction is true and pour your energy into walking the path. Good goals provide direction to your life. They allow you to commit to a journey. They are like a rudder on a boat, directing your energy and attention in specific direction as you move downstream.

We all have a map to explore. Choose a path and then walk it. 2

  1. This quote is from Carrey’s popular commencement speech for the Maharishi University of Management.

  2. Thanks to Charlie Gilkey for prompting ideas of the known and unknown portions of our universe, to Thomas Sterner for originally sharing the idea that goals can be like the rudder on a boat in his book The Practicing Mind, and to reader Ryan Song for sharing the Jim Carrey quote.

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Your First Choice is Rarely the Optimal Choice: 5 Lessons on Being Wrong http://jamesclear.com/first-choice http://jamesclear.com/first-choice#comments Tue, 17 Mar 2015 06:18:06 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=8710 As a rule, we are incredibly hard on ourselves when it comes to making big decisions in life.

  • If our first five relationships end with a break up, we think we’re destined to be alone forever.
  • If we go to school, get a degree, and spend years training for a job that we end up hating, we feel like a failure for not having it all figured out.
  • If we have a dream of writing a book or starting a non-profit or creating something of value and we stumble on the first try, we say that we’re not cut out for this.

In cases like these, when we are attempting to do something that is complex and multi-faceted, I believe that being wrong is actually a sign that you’re doing something right.

Here’s why…

First Choice vs. Optimal Choice

For some reason, we often expect our first choice to be the optimal choice. However, it’s actually quite normal for your first attempt to be incorrect or wrong. This is especially true of the major decisions that we make in life.

For example…

  1. Finding the right person to marry. Think of the first person you dated. Would this person have been the best choice for your life partner? Go even further back and imagine the first person you had a crush on. Finding a great partner is complicated and expecting yourself to get it right on the first try is unreasonable. It’s rare that the first one would be the one.
  2. Choosing your career. What is the likelihood that your 22-year-old self could optimally choose the career that is best for you at 40 years old? Or 30 years old? Or even 25 years old? Consider how much you have learned about yourself since that time. There is a lot of change and growth that happens during life. There is no reason to believe that your life’s work should be easily determined when you graduate.
  3. Starting a business. It is unlikely that your first business idea will be your best one. It probably won’t even be a good one. This is the reality of entrepreneurship. (My first business idea lost $1,400. #winning)

When it comes to complex issues like determining the values you want in a partner or selecting the path of your career, your first attempt will rarely lead to the optimal solution.

5 Lessons On Being Wrong

Being wrong isn’t as bad as we make it out to be. I have made many mistakes and I have discovered five major lessons from my experiences.

1. Choices that seem poor in hindsight are an indication of growth, not self-worth or intelligence. When you look back on your choices from a year ago, you should always hope to find a few decisions that seem stupid now because that means you are growing. If you only live in the safety zone where you know you can’t mess up, then you’ll never unleash your true potential. If you know enough about something to make the optimal decision on the first try, then you’re not challenging yourself.

2. Given that your first choice is likely to be wrong, the best thing you can do is get started. The faster you learn from being wrong, the sooner you can discover what is right. For complex situations like relationships or entrepreneurship, you literally have to start before you feel ready because it’s not possible for anyone to be truly ready. The best way to learn is to start practicing. 1

3. Break down topics that are too big to master into smaller tasks that can be mastered. I can’t look at any business and tell you what to do. Entrepreneurship is too big of a topic. But, I can look at any website and tell you how to optimize it for building an email list because that topic is small enough for me to develop some level of expertise. If you want to get better at making accurate first choices, then play in a smaller arena. As Neils Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, famously said, “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”

4. The time to trust your gut is when you have the knowledge or experience to back it up. You can trust yourself to make sharp decisions in areas where you already have proven expertise. For everything else, the only way to discover what works is to adopt a philosophy of experimentation.

5. The fact that failure will happen is not an excuse for expecting to fail. There is no reason to be depressed or give up simply because you will make a few wrong choices. Even more crucial, you must try your best every time because it is the effort and the practice that drives the learning process. They are essential, even if you fail. Realize that no single choice is destined to fail, but that occasional failure is the cost you have to pay if you want to be right. Expect to win and play like it from the outset.

Your first choice is rarely the optimal choice. Make it now, stop judging yourself, and start growing.

  1. I believe that this is also one of the reasons why history repeats itself. There are many situations that simply have to be experienced to be understood. Even if you read the opinion of every expert in a field, the only way to make progress in your own life is to experiment. Of course, not all experiments go to plan and, as a result, the same mistakes are made over and over again as each person goes through the process of finding their own way.

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Zanshin: Learning the Art of Attention and Focus From a Legendary Samurai Archer http://jamesclear.com/zanshin http://jamesclear.com/zanshin#comments Thu, 12 Mar 2015 20:54:13 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=8559 In the 1920s, a German man named Eugen Herrigel moved to Japan and began training in Kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery.

Herrigel was taught by a legendary Kyudo master named Awa Kenzo. Kenzo was convinced that beginners should master the fundamentals of archery before attempting to shoot at a real target and he took this method to the extreme. For the first four years, Herrigel was only allowed to shoot at a roll of straw just seven feet away. 1

When he was finally allowed to shoot at targets on the far end of the practice hall, Herrigel’s performance was dismal. The arrows flew off course and he became more discouraged with each wayward shot. Herrigel was convinced his problem was poor aim, but Kenzo replied that it was not whether you aimed, but how you approached your goal that determined the outcome. Frustrated with his teacher, Herrigel blurted out, “Then you ought to be able to hit it blindfolded.”

Kenzo paused for a moment and then said, “Come to see me this evening.”

Archery, Blindfolded

After night had fallen, the two men returned to the courtyard where the practice hall was located. Kenzo walked over to his normal shooting location with the target hidden somewhere out in the night. The archery master settled into his firing stance, drew the bow string tight, and released the first arrow into the darkness of the courtyard. Herrigel would later write, “I knew from the sound that it had hit the target.”

Immediately, Kenzo drew a second arrow and again fired into the night. Herrigel jumped up and ran across the courtyard to inspect the target. In his book, Zen in the Art of Archery, Herrigel wrote, “When I switched on the light over the target stand, I discovered to my amazement that the first arrow was lodged full in the middle of the black, while the second arrow had splintered the butt of the first and ploughed through the shaft before embedding itself beside it.”

Japanese archers practicing Kyudo.
Three Japanese archers circa 1860. Photographer unknown. (Image Source: Henry and Nancy Rosin Collection of Early Photography of Japan. Smithsonian Institution.)

Everything Is Aiming

Great archery masters often teach that “everything is aiming.” Where you place your feet, how you hold the bow, the way you breathe during the release of the arrow—it all determines the end result.

In the case of Awa Kenzo, the master archer was so mindful of the process that led to an accurate shot that he was able to replicate the exact series of internal movements even without seeing the external target. This complete awareness of the body and mind in relation to the goal is known as zanshin.

Zanshin is a word used commonly throughout Japanese martial arts to refer to a state of relaxed alertness. Literally translated, zanshin means “the mind with no remainder.” In other words, the mind completely focused on action and fixated on the task at hand. Zanshin is being constantly aware of your body, mind, and surroundings without stressing yourself. It is an effortless vigilance.

In practice, though, zanshin has an even deeper meaning. Zanshin is choosing to live your life intentionally and acting with purpose rather than mindlessly falling victim to whatever comes your way.

The Enemy of Improvement

There is a famous Japanese proverb that says, “After winning the battle, tighten your helmet.” 2

In other words, the battle does not end when you win. The battle only ends when you get lazy, when you lose your sense of commitment, and when you stop paying attention. This is zanshin as well: the act of living with alertness regardless of whether the goal has already been achieved.

We can carry this philosophy into many areas of life.

  • Writing: The battle does not end when you publish a book. It ends when you consider yourself a finished product, when you lose the vigilance needed to continue improving your craft.
  • Fitness: The battle does not end when you hit a PR. It ends when you lose concentration and skip workouts or when you lose perspective and overtrain.
  • Entrepreneurship: The battle does not end when you make a big sale. It ends when you get cocky and complacent.

The enemy of improvement is neither failure nor success. The enemy of improvement is boredom, fatigue, and lack of concentration. The enemy of improvement is a lack of commitment to the process because the process is everything.

The Art of Zanshin in Everday Life

“One should approach all activities and situations with the same sincerity, the same intensity, and the same awareness that one has with bow and arrow in hand.”
—Kenneth Kushner, One Arrow, One Life

We live in a world obsessed with results. Like Herrigel, we have a tendency to put so much emphasis on whether or not the arrow hits the target. If, however, we put that intensity and focus and sincerity into the process—where we place our feet, how we hold the bow, how we breathe during the release of the arrow—then hitting the bullseye is simply a side effect.

The point is not to worry about hitting the target. The point is to fall in love with the boredom of doing the work and embrace each piece of the process. The point is to take that moment of zanshin, that moment of complete awareness and focus, and carry it with you everywhere in life.

It is not the target that matters. It is not the finish line that matters. It is the way we approach the goal that matters. Everything is aiming. Zanshin.

  1. When Herrigel complained of the incredibly slow pace, Kenzo replied “The way to the goal is not to be measured! Of what importance are weeks, months, years?”

  2. The actual phrase is “katte kabuto no o o shimeyo,” which literally translates to “Tighten the string of the kabuto after winning the war.” The kabuto was a helmet used by Japanese warriors. As you would expect, it looks incredible.

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Stop Thinking and Start Doing: The Power of Practicing More http://jamesclear.com/learning-vs-practicing http://jamesclear.com/learning-vs-practicing#comments Tue, 10 Mar 2015 05:22:14 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=8483 We all have goals that we want to achieve in our lives. These goals may include learning a new language, eating healthier and losing weight, becoming a better parent, saving more money, and so on.

It can be easy to assume that the gap between where you are now and where you want to be in the future is caused by a lack of knowledge. This is why we buy courses on how to start a business or how to lose weight fast or how to learn a new language in three months. We assume that if we knew about a better strategy, then we would get better results. We believe that a new result requires new knowledge.

What I’m starting to realize, however, is that new knowledge does not necessarily drive new results. In fact, learning something new can actually be a waste of time if your goal is to make progress and not simply gain additional knowledge.

It all comes down to the difference between learning and practicing.

The Difference Between Learning and Practicing

In Thomas Sterner’s book, The Practicing Mind (audiobook), he explains the key difference between practicing and learning.

“When we practice something, we are involved in the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal. The words deliberate and intention are key here because they define the difference between actively practicing something and passively learning it.”
—Thomas Sterner, The Practicing Mind

Learning something new and practicing something new may seem very similar, but these two methods can have profoundly different results. Here are some additional ways to think about the difference.

  • Let’s say your goal is to get stronger and more fit. You can research the best instructions on bench press technique, but the only way to build strength is to practice lifting weights.
  • Let’s say your goal is to grow your startup. You can learn about the best way to make a sales pitch, but the only way to actually land customers is to practice making sales calls.
  • Let’s say your goal is to write a book. You can talk to a best-selling author about writing, but the only way become a better writer is to practice publishing consistently.

Passive learning creates knowledge. Active practice creates skill.

Practice vs. Learning

Let’s consider three more reasons to prioritize active practice over passive learning.

1. Learning Can Be a Crutch That Supports Inaction

In many cases, learning is actually a way to avoid taking action on the goals and interests that we say are important to us. For example, let’s say you want to learn a foreign language. Reading a book on how to learn a foreign language quickly allows you to feel like you are making progress (“Hey, I’m figuring out the best way to do this!”). Of course, you’re not actually practicing the action that would deliver your desired outcome (speaking the foreign language).

In situations like this one, we often claim that we are preparing or researching the best method, but these rationalizations allow us to feel like we are moving forward when we are merely spinning our wheels. We make the mistake of being in motion rather than taking action. Learning is valuable until it becomes a form of procrastination.

2. Practice Is Learning, But Learning Is Not Practice

Passive learning is not a form of practice because although you gain new knowledge, you are not discovering how to apply that knowledge. Active practice, meanwhile, is one of the greatest forms of learning because the mistakes you make while practicing reveal important insights.

Even more important, practice is the only way to make a meaningful contribution with your knowledge. You can watch an online course about how to build a business or read an article about a terrible disaster in a developing nation, but that knowledge is unproductive unless you actually launch your business or donate to those in need. Learning by itself can be valuable for you, but if you want to be valuable to others, then you have to express your knowledge in some way.

3. Practice Focuses Your Energy on the Process

“Progress is a natural result of staying focused on the process of doing anything.”
—Thomas Sterner, The Practicing Mind

The state of your life right now is a result of the habits and beliefs that you have been practicing each day. When you realize this and begin to direct your focus toward practicing better habits day-in and day-out, continual progress will be the logical outcome. It is not the things we learn nor the dreams we envision that determines our results, but rather that habits that we practice each day. Fall in love with boredom and focus your energy on the process, not the product.

The Bottom Line

Is passive learning useless? Of course not. In many cases, learning for the sake of learning can be a beautiful thing. Not to mention that soaking up new information can help you make more informed decisions when you do decide to take action.

That said, the main point of this article is that learning by itself does not lead to progress. We often hide behind information and use learning as an excuse to delay the more difficult and more important choice of actually doing something. Spend less time passively learning and more time actively practicing. Stop thinking and start doing.

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March Reading List: 3 Good Books to Read This Month http://jamesclear.com/march-2014-books http://jamesclear.com/march-2014-books#comments Thu, 05 Mar 2015 17:19:15 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=8438 Welcome to another edition of my reading list.

In addition to the books below, you’re welcome to browse my complete list of the best books I’ve read. As always, I only share books that I have finished myself.

With that said, here’s what I’ve been reading recently.

The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

If you love books on history, sports, or biographies, then you’ll enjoy this one because it’s all three mashed together. The Boys in the Boat is the story of how a bunch of poor teenagers from the Pacific Northwest became one of the finest crews in the history of rowing and ended up competing in front of Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The central character, Joe Rantz, was a member of the team who somehow managed to make his way through a series of heartbreaking childhood events during the Great Depression and become an Olympian.

Nearly every review you’ll find about this book gushes over how fantastic it is and that is because of the remarkable research effort that Brown put into telling the story. One review that I read said, “I have never rowed. I have never read a rowing book that I can remember. If all stories about rowing were written like Daniel Brown’s fabulous multi-level biography, I would read every one of them.” I couldn’t agree more. The level of research and thought that go into each page of The Boys in the Boat is on par with other monumental research efforts like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Emperor of All Maladies. A remarkable story and a fantastic read.

Paperback | Audiobook

Bossy Pants

Bossy Pants by Tina Fey

Tina Fey is a popular American actress and comedian known for her humor. She is largely known for her repeated appearances on Saturday Night Live and for her own show, 30 Rock. As you would expect, Bossy Pants is funny. I laughed out loud multiple times. If you want to read a funny book, read this.

That said, the book offers insightful commentary as well. Fey shares a variety of heavy-hitting thoughts on feminism, women in the workplace, and gender inequality. I found these topics particularly interesting in her case because comedy is a field that is traditionally dominated by males. I’m not a comedian nor a woman, so as I read about her experiences I felt like my eyes were being opened to a version of the world that I was blind to beforehand.

Paperback | Audiobook

Who Moved My Cheese?

Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life by Spencer Johnson and Kenneth Blanchard

Who Moved My Cheese? is a classic self-help book from the 1990s.

Meh. There were a lot of things I didn’t like about the book. First, it is only 96 pages and the authors really had to stretch to make it that long. The central idea of this book could be delivered in a much shorter form. Second, there was way too much advice that fell into the “Go get ‘em and think positive!” category with no science to back it up. (I believe that positive thinking has benefits, I just want to see the science behind them.)

That said, you’ll see a lot of 1 star reviews for this book for the very reasons I mentioned above and I think that most of these people are making the mistake of grading the book on the way the content was delivered rather than on the ideas in the book itself. And I actually do like some of the ideas in the book.

For example, I would say the central theme of the book is that change is going to happen and you need to be willing to reinvent yourself over and over again rather than getting complacent with life and developing a sense of entitlement. I like that. In my experience, my life is better when I embrace that mentality.

If you’re willing to read books for the ideas they give you rather than getting wrapped up in how the author packages the idea, then this can still be a useful read. If, however, you’re looking for a strong scientific argument, skip this one.

Paperback | Audiobook

Bonus Reading: This Old Man

This Old Man: Life in the Nineties by Roger Angell

It’s not a book, but I thought this long form article about growing old and living into your nineties was a particularly good read. Two points stuck with me after reading it.

First, the longer you live the more grief you have to endure. Most people never live to be 90 years old and, if you do, you will have naturally outlived most of your friends and family. As a result, nearly everyone that you hold dear will be dead.

Second, many Western societies (especially America) don’t revere the elderly for being wise and experienced. Instead, we ignore them. There comes a certain point where, despite your vast understanding of life, people just start to ignore you in conversation because you are old. As someone who is still fairly young, I found it to be an eye-opening read.

Read at newyorker.com

How to Get Free Audiobooks

Listening to audiobooks is another great way to finish more books. Right now, if you start a 30-day free trial with Audible, you can get your first 2 audiobooks free. Audible is a great service, but here’s the best part: You get to keep the 2 audiobooks, even if you cancel the trial. It’s a no-brainer. You can sign up here.

More Book Recommendations

Looking for more good books to read? Browse the full reading list, which lists the best books in each category. I’ll be back next month with more reading suggestions.

Happy reading!

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Why We Act Irrationally: Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer Reveals the One Word That Drives Our Senseless Habits http://jamesclear.com/copy-machine-study http://jamesclear.com/copy-machine-study#comments Tue, 03 Mar 2015 06:33:14 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=8373 It was 1977 and, although nobody knew it at the time, psychologist Ellen Langer and her research team at Harvard University were about to conduct a study that would change our understanding of human behavior.

It all started when Langer asked her research assistants to cut in front of innocent people waiting in line at the photocopiers in the library.

The Copy Machine Study

This is how the research study worked…

A researcher would spot someone waiting at the library copy machine and walk over with the intention of cutting the person in line. Then, the researcher would look at the innocent bystander and ask them one of three questions.

  1. Version 1 (request only): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
  2. Version 2 (request with a real reason): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”
  3. Version 3 (request with a fake reason): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”

You’ll notice that Version 3 didn’t make much sense. Using the phrase “because I have to make copies” was a fairly useless reason for skipping the line. Everyone waiting at the photocopier needed to make copies. The phrase contained no new information, but the researcher was trying to use it to justify the favor anyway.

Surprisingly, this senseless reason performed well. When the researchers analyzed the data, they found the following.

  • Version 1: 60 percent of people let the researcher skip the line.
  • Version 2: 94 percent of people let the researcher skip ahead in line.
  • Version 3: 93 percent of people let the researcher skip ahead in line.

Langer’s research, which soon became known as The Copy Machine study, was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (source).

The study became famous because it uncovered one of the most powerful words we use to drive our behavior: because. Langer’s work proved that as long as we could justify a behavior in our brains (“I’m doing this because…”), we would perform the behavior even if the reason didn’t make sense.

In his best-selling book, Influence, Robert Cialdini explained this phenomenon by saying, “A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.”

The Copy Machine study by Ellen Langer

Why We Do What We Do

A few weeks ago, I conducted the 2015 Habits Seminar (recording available). For the last year, I’ve been saying things like, “Oh, I only run one seminar per year because people tend to build new habits at the start of the year.”

After the seminar finished, I asked for feedback from the attendees. One of the first messages I received said, “Suggestion: maybe the offer seminar twice a year?”

Similar feedback came from other attendees and the pervading wisdom was that people want to build better habits all the time and it can be easy to fall off track with your goals. Hosting a habits seminar multiple times throughout the year could be a good way to pull everyone back on track.

As soon as I heard the feedback, I realized that it was logical. And yet, for the last 12 months, I’ve been justifying my behavior of only conducting one seminar per year with reasoning that didn’t make sense. Even more surprising, I never questioned myself simply because I had a reason, even if it wasn’t a good one.

I’d venture to say that we do this to ourselves in many areas of life.

  • Fitness: How are you justifying not exercising consistently?
  • Writing: What is your reason for why you can’t write each day?
  • Business: How is your mindset preventing you from reaching the next level?

The reasons that we use to guide our behavior are just stories that we tell ourselves. Sometimes, those stories are true and accurate. We all have reasons for why now isn’t the right time for that bold move, why we slip up on habits that we say are important to us, and, yes, why we do favors for strangers. What we often fail to realize, however, is that our behaviors can just as easily be driven by irrational reasons as logical ones.

The Bottom Line

There are two important lessons we can take away from Langer’s study.

  1. If you’re going to ask someone for a favor, be sure to use the word because and give the person a reason to fulfill the favor.
  2. We use reasons—both logical and illogical—to justify our own behavior.

Be aware of that. Take stock of the reasons you use in your life. You might be surprised with the type of story you’re telling yourself.

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The Myth of Multitasking: Why Fewer Priorities Leads to Better Work http://jamesclear.com/multitasking-myth http://jamesclear.com/multitasking-myth#comments Fri, 27 Feb 2015 01:05:50 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=8270 The word priority didn’t always mean what it does today.

In his best-selling book, Essentialism (audiobook), Greg McKeown explains the surprising history of the word and how its meaning has shifted over time.

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years.

Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things.

People and companies routinely try to do just that. One leader told me of this experience in a company that talked of “Pri-1, Pri-2, Pri-3, Pri-4, and Pri-5.” This gave the impression of many things being the priority but actually meant nothing was.

–Greg McKeown, Essentialism

The Myth of Multitasking

Yes, we are capable of doing two things at the same time. It is possible, for example, to watch TV while cooking dinner or to answer an email while talking on the phone.

What is impossible, however, is concentrating on two tasks at once. Multitasking forces your brain to switch back and forth very quickly from one task to another.

This wouldn’t be a big deal if the human brain could transition seamlessly from one job to the next, but it can’t. Multitasking forces you to pay a mental price each time you interrupt one task and jump to another. In psychology terms, this mental price is called the switching cost.

Switching cost is the disruption in performance that we experience when we switch our attention from one task to another. A 2003 study published in the International Journal of Information Management found that the typical person checks email once every five minutes and that, on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking your email.

In other words, because of email alone we typically waste one out of every six minutes.

The myth of multitasking is that it will make you more effective. In reality, remarkable focus is what makes the difference. (Image inspired by Jessica Hagy.)
The myth of multitasking is that it will make you more effective. In reality, remarkable focus is what makes the difference. (Image inspired by Jessica Hagy.)

While we’re on the subject, the word multitasking first appeared in 1965 IBM report talking about the capabilities of its latest computer. [1]

That’s right, it wasn’t until the 1960s that anyone could even claim to be good at multitasking. Today, people wear the word like a badge of honor as if it is better to be busy with all the things than to be great at one thing.

Finding Your Anchor Task

Doing more things does not drive faster or better results. Doing better things drives better results. Even more accurately, doing one thing as best you can drives better results.

Mastery requires focus and consistency.

I haven’t mastered the art of focus and concentration yet, but I’m working on it. One of the major improvements I’ve made recently is to assign one (and only one) priority to each work day. Although I plan to complete other tasks during the day, my priority task is the one non-negotiable thing that must get done.

Here’s what my current weekly schedule looks like…

  • Monday – Write article.
  • Tuesday – Send two emails (one for networking, one for partnerships.)
  • Wednesday – Write article.
  • Thursday – Write article.
  • Friday – Complete weekly review.
  • Saturday – OFF
  • Sunday – OFF

The power of choosing one priority is that it naturally guides your behavior by forcing you to organize your life around that responsibility. Your priority becomes an anchor task, the mainstay that holds the rest of your day in place. If things get crazy, there is no debate about what to do or not to do. You have already decided what is urgent and what is important.

Saying No to Being Busy

As a society, we’ve fallen into a trap of busyness and overwork. In many ways, we have mistaken all this activity to be something meaningful. The underlying thought seems to be, “Look how busy I am? If I’m doing all this work, I must be doing something important.” And, by extension, “I must be important because I’m so busy.”

While I firmly believe everyone has worth and value, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we believe being busy is what drives meaning in our lives.

In my experience, meaning is derived from contributing something of value to your corner of the universe. And the more I study people who are able to do that, people who are masters of their craft, the more I notice that they have one thing in common. The people who do the most valuable work have a remarkable willingness to say no to distractions and focus on their one thing.

I think we need to say no to being busy and say yes to being committed to our craft. What do you want to master? What is the one priority that anchors your life or work each day?

If you commit to nothing you’ll be distracted by everything.


  1. IBM Operating System/360 Concepts and Facilities by Witt and Ward. IBM Systems Reference Library. File Number: S360-36

Thanks to Charlie Hoehn for originally pointing me toward Essentialism and, more specifically, the quote on priority. Also, thanks to Tim Kreider for his article “The Busy Trap“, which has influenced my thinking on the subject.

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