James Clear http://jamesclear.com Why tiny gains make a big difference in health and in life. Tue, 03 Mar 2015 07:01:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 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.

Sources

  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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The 5 Triggers That Make New Habits Stick http://jamesclear.com/habit-triggers http://jamesclear.com/habit-triggers#comments Tue, 24 Feb 2015 05:43:26 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=8224 In his best-selling book, The Power of Habit (audiobook), author Charles Duhigg explains a simple three-step process that all habits follow. This cycle, known as The Habit Loop, says that each habit consists of…

  1. The Trigger: the event that starts the habit.
  2. The Routine: the behavior that you perform, the habit itself.
  3. The Reward: the benefit that is associated with the behavior.

The image below shows how these three factors work together to build new habits. [1]

The 3 R's of Habit Change

Each phase of the loop is important for building new habits, but today I’d like to discuss the first factor: habit triggers.

There are five primary ways that a new habit can be triggered. If you understand each of them, then you can select the right one for the particular habit that you are working on. Here’s what you need to know about each trigger…

Trigger 1: Time

Time is perhaps the most common way to trigger a new habit. Common morning habits are just one example. Waking up in the morning usually triggers a cascade of habits: go to the bathroom, take a shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, make a cup of coffee, etc.

There are also less commonly recognized ways that time triggers our behavior. For example, if you pay attention you may notice that you repeat certain tasks mindlessly at different points during the day: heading off to get a snack at the same time each afternoon, taking a smoking break at the same time each morning, and so on.

If these patterns are bad habits, then you may want to take stock of how you feel at this time of day. In many cases, your habits are a signal of how you feel. Bored? Maybe your afternoon snacking habit is a way of breaking up the monotony of the day. Feeling lonely? Maybe your smoking break is a way to connect with fellow co-workers. The point is, if you understand the reason why these habits pop up at the same time each day, then it can become easier to find a new habit to fill the void. Bad habits are replaced, not eliminated.

How I use it: Time-based triggers can also be used to stick with routines over and over again. This is my preferred method. For example, every Monday and Thursday I write a new article and post it on JamesClear.com. The time and date drive this pattern. It doesn’t matter how good or how bad I feel about the article. It doesn’t matter how long or how short the article is. All that matters is that I stick to the schedule. The time triggers the habit.

Trigger 2: Location

If you have ever walked into your kitchen, seen a plate of cookies on the counter, and eaten them just because they are there in front of you, then you understand the power of location on our behavior.

In my opinion, location (i.e. environment) is the most powerful driver of mindless habits and also the least recognized. In many cases, our habits and behaviors are simply a response to the environment that surrounds us. The famous study on water versus soft drink consumption is one example of how our environment can either promote good habits or lead us toward bad ones.

However, location-based triggers are not simply things we respond to, they can also be things we create. Multiple research studies by David Neal and Wendy Wood from Duke University have discovered that new habits are actually easier to perform in new locations.

One theory is that we mentally assign habits to a particular location. This means that all of the current places that you’re familiar with (your home, your office, etc.) already have behaviors, habits and routines assigned to them. If you want to build new habits in these familiar locations, then you need to overcome the triggers and cues that your brain has already assigned to that area. Meanwhile, building a new habit in a new location is like having a blank slate. You don’t have to overcome any pre-existing triggers.

How I use it: When I arrive at the gym, I head to the same spot each time to get ready, change into my lifting gear, and start my warm up. This location in the gym is a simple trigger that helps prompt my pre-workout routine (more on the power of a pre-game routine). There are bound to be some days when I don’t feel like exercising, but the location-based trigger helps me overcome that and get into my workout ritual as painlessly as possible.

Trigger 3: Preceding Event

Many habits are a response to something else that happens in your life. Your phone buzzes, so you pick it up to check your latest text message. The little notification bar lights up on Facebook, so you click it to see what it signals. These are examples of habits that are triggered by a preceding event.

When it comes to triggers that are useful for building new habits, I find preceding events to be one of the most useful. Once you understand habit stacking you can develop all sorts of ways to tie new habits into preceding events. (Example: “When I make my morning cup of coffee, I will meditate for one minute.”)

How I use it: For over two years, I have used a preceding event to stick with a daily gratitude habit. Each night, when I sit down to eat dinner, I say one thing that I was grateful for that day. (It’s worth noting, one reason I believe I have been able to stick with this habit so consistently is because it is so small. The smaller the habit, the easier it is to build into your life.)

Trigger 4: Emotional State

In my experience, emotional state is a common trigger for bad habits. For example, you may have a habit of eating when you feel depressed. Or, you may default to online shopping when you feel bored. The emotional states of depression or boredom are triggers for these negative habits.

Unfortunately, although emotions are very common triggers for our behavior, I find that they are harder to control and utilize for building good habits. Mostly, I think this is because if you want an emotion to trigger a positive habit, then you often need to be consciously aware of the emotion as you are experiencing it. In other words, you have to be emotional and aware at the same time … and that can be hard to do. Paying attention is a powerful, but difficult, way to build better habits.

How I use it: I’m trying to get better about noticing when I am holding tension in my body and experiencing stress. When I do notice that I’m feeling particularly stressed, I’ll use this emotional state to trigger a deep breathing habit.

I like to follow a 3-1-5 breathing pattern: three seconds in, pause for one second, five seconds out. I’ll usually repeat this sequence three to five times. I find this little breathing exercise to be a great instant stress reliever. It’s particularly useful because you can literally do it anywhere.

Trigger 5: Other People

It is probably no surprise to you that the people you surround yourself with can play a role on your habits and behaviors. What may be a surprise is just how big of an impact these people can make. One study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that if your friend becomes obese, then your risk of obesity increases by 57 percent — even if your friend lives hundreds of miles away.

As far as I can tell, the best way to make use of this information is to surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. As Jim Rohn says, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

How I use it: I’m not a heavy drinker, but nearly every time I go out with friends I get a drink. Why is that? If I’m not yearning for a beer, why get one? It’s simply a response to the environment that I am in and the people I am around. [2]

Before You Choose Your Trigger

No matter what trigger you choose for your new habit, there is one important thing to understand. The key is to choosing a successful trigger is to pick a trigger that is very specific and immediately actionable.

For example, let’s say you want to build a new habit of doing 10 pushups each day at lunch time. You might start by choosing a time-based trigger and saying something like, “During my lunch break each day, I’ll do 10 pushups.” This might work, but it’s not very specific. Do you do your pushups at the beginning of your lunch break? At the end? Any time?

Alternatively, you could create a trigger around a very specific preceding event that happens right around your lunch break. For example, “When I close my laptop to leave for lunch, I’ll do 10 pushups.” In this case, the very specific action of “closing the laptop” is a perfect trigger for what to do next (your 10 pushups). There is no mistaking when you should do the new habit.

As always, self-experimentation is the only real answer. Play around with these five habit triggers and see what works for you.

Sources

  1. I originally learned about this sequence from BJ Fogg of Stanford University. Although Duhigg uses the term “cue” for the first phase of the habit loop, Fogg uses the term trigger, which I tend to prefer. That said, focus on understanding the main idea. Don’t worry too much about the terminology.
  2. By the way, you could define this as a positive or negative habit. Drinking alcohol often has a negative connotation, and it certainly can be when done in excess. That said, socializing with friends and building companionship is one of the healthiest things we can do as humans.
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Bob Mathias on How to Master the Art of Self-Confidence http://jamesclear.com/self-confidence http://jamesclear.com/self-confidence#comments Fri, 20 Feb 2015 06:16:13 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=8164 By the time his senior year in high school rolled around, Bob Mathias had developed into a talented track athlete. He could run fast, jump high, and throw far. Given his wide-ranging talents, his high school coach suggested that Mathias try decathlon–a grueling combination of 10 track and field events.

Mathias succeeded immediately, winning his first competition. Just a few months later, he qualified to compete at the 1948 Olympics in London. 1

Completely off the radar heading into the competition, Mathias stormed the Olympics. He placed first in four of the ten events and ran away with the gold medal. Just seventeen years old and fresh out of high school, Mathias became the youngest gold medalist to ever win a track and field event. When news of his victory reached his hometown of Tulare, California, the local factory blew the whistles for 45 minutes straight. He had entered the Olympics as an unknown kid and returned to America as a national hero.

How did a teenage underdog develop the self-confidence required to win a gold medal on the world’s biggest stage? What type of mindset did Mathias bring to his competitions? And what can we learn from it?

The Art of Self-Confidence

Years later, after his own athletic career was finished, Mathias was coaching a young pole vaulter who was struggling to reach a new height on the crossbar. As the story goes, the young athlete failed to clear the bar over and over again. Aware of his deteriorating performance, the athlete looked up at the bar and was filled with fear and frustration. He began to doubt himself and froze up completely.

After pondering the situation for a moment, Mathias looked at the young man and simply said, “Throw your heart over the bar and your body will follow.” [1]

Bob Mathias
Bob Mathias attempting a 4-meter pole vault (13.1 feet) at 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. He would win gold for a second time. (Image Source: Mark Kauffman – The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The Empty Space

There is a moment in each pole vault where the athlete must let go of the pole (their only anchor to the ground and the only thing they control) and commit to floating through empty space without fully knowing if they will clear the crossbar.

In my experience, life is pretty similar. If you want, you can hold on to what you know and stay anchored to where you are. However, if you want to rise to a higher level and find out where, exactly, your ceiling is, then you need to throw your heart over the bar and step into the empty space.

Here’s the thing: we often think that the empty space is just a stage to pass through. We think it’s a transition state, a moment of uncertainty on the way to something else. But it can be much more than that. The empty space is where we grow. The empty space is where we develop self-confidence. The empty space is where we reveal who we really are. In many ways, the empty space is where we come alive.

Going through the moment of uncertainty. Facing the period of doubt. That’s when we discover ourselves.

In many ways, self-confidence is just persevering through the empty space. Self-confidence is grit. Self-confidence is Sisu. Self-confidence is mental toughness. Mostly, self-confidence is just a willingness to let go of what is comfortable, slide into uncertain air, and trust that you’ll be ok.

“Throw your heart over the bar and your body will follow.”

Sources

  1. “Throw your heart over the bar and your body will follow.” It took me a long time to track down the original source of the quote. As best I can tell, Mathias was the first person to say the phrase, but Norman Vincent Peale popularized the quote by using it for a similar story about a “famous trapeze artist” who gives his students the same advice.

  1. This is a numeric footnote!

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Albert Einstein’s Incredible Work Ethic: Lessons on Creativity and Contribution http://jamesclear.com/albert-einstein-desk http://jamesclear.com/albert-einstein-desk#comments Mon, 16 Feb 2015 20:45:49 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=8005 As soon as he hung up the phone, Ralph Morse knew that he needed to get moving. He was still 90 miles away and there wouldn’t be much time before people began to hear the news. Albert Einstein had just died.

Morse was a photographer for LIFE Magazine. He drove down to Princeton, New Jersey as fast as possible, but other members of the media had already been alerted by the time he arrived. Morse would later recall the situation by saying,

“Einstein died at Princeton Hospital, so I headed there first. But it was chaos — journalists, photographers, onlookers. So I headed over to Einstein’s office at the Institute for Advanced Studies. On the way, I stopped and bought a case of scotch. I knew people might be reluctant to talk, but most people are happy to accept a bottle of booze, instead of money, in exchange for their help. So I get to the building, find the superintendent, give him a fifth of scotch and like that, he opens up the office.” [1]

When Morse walked into Einstein’s office, he snapped a photo of the desk where Einstein had been working just hours before.

Nobody knew it yet, but Einstein’s body would be cremated before anyone could capture a final photo of him. As a result, Morse’s photo of Einstein’s desk would soon become the final iconic image of the great scientist’s career. [2]

Albert Einstein's office photographed by Ralph Morse
Albert Einstein’s office just hours after his death on April 18, 1955. (Image Source: Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The Work Ethic of Einstein

Einstein died of internal bleeding caused by the rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurysm, a condition he had struggled with for years.

In 1948, seven years before his death, Einstein had surgery to prevent the “grapefruit-sized” aneurysm from rupturing. [3] One physician familiar with Einstein’s case wrote, “For a number of years he had suffered from attacks of upper abdominal pain, which usually lasted for 2-3 days and were often accompanied by vomiting. These attacks usually occurred about every 3 or 4 months.” [4]

Einstein continued to work despite the pain. He published papers well into the 1950s. Even on the day of his death in 1955, he was working on a speech he was scheduled to give on Israeli television and he brought the draft of it with him to the hospital. The speech draft, shown below, was never finished.

Albert Einstein's last statement
The final document worked on by Albert Einstein, a draft of his speech for Israel’s 7th Anniversary. (Image Source: Einstein Archives Online)

Contributing vs. Consuming

“Try not to become a man of success. Rather become a man of value.”
—Albert Einstein

Einstein’s most famous contribution to science, the general theory of relativity, was published in 1915. He won the Nobel Prize in 1921. Yet, rather than assume he was a finished product, Einstein continued to work and contribute to the field for 40 more years.

Up until the moment of his death, Einstein continued to squeeze every ounce of greatness out of himself. He never rested on his laurels. He continued to work even through severe physical pain and in the face of death.

Everyone has a gift to share with the world, something that both lights you on fire internally and serves the world externally, and this thing–this calling–should be something you pursue until your final breath. It could be your actual job, as it was for Einstein. It could be a creative hobby, as it was for Vivian Maier. It could be the care you provide to those around you.

Whatever it is for you, our lives were meant to be spent making our contribution to the world, not merely consuming the world that others create.

“I have done my share.”

Hours before his death, Einstein’s doctors proposed trying a new and unproven surgery as a final option for extending his life. Einstein simply replied, “I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” [5]

We cannot predict the value our work will provide to the world. That’s fine. It is not our job to judge our own work. It is our job to create it, to pour ourselves into it, and to master our craft as best we can.

We all have the opportunity to squeeze every ounce of greatness out of ourselves that we can. We all have the chance to do our share.

Sources

  1. The Day Albert Einstein Died: A Photographer’s Story by Ben Cosgrove
  2. With regards to his cluttered desk Einstein famously said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
  3. Famous Patients, Famous Operations, 2002 – Part 3: The Case of the Scientist with a Pulsating Mass by Albert B. Lowenfels, MD
  4. Famous Patients, Famous Operations, 2002 – Part 3: The Case of the Scientist with a Pulsating Mass by Albert B. Lowenfels, MD
  5. The ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm of Albert Einstein by Cohen and Graver

Thanks to my grandma for sending me the picture of Einstein’s desk that prompted this story.

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Announcing the 2015 Habits Seminar (Live Event on February 18th) http://jamesclear.com/announcing-2015-habits-seminar http://jamesclear.com/announcing-2015-habits-seminar#comments Thu, 12 Feb 2015 22:22:22 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=7843 Today I am excited to announce the 2015 Habits Seminar, which is a live online class that I will be hosting on February 18th.

Each year, I conduct one seminar on the science of behavior change and how to build habits that stick. We’ll talk about what’s working now, what always works, and what to avoid if you want to stick to good habits and break bad ones. Hundreds of people have already signed up and I’m going to take this opportunity to share more details about the event.

First, let me talk about why you would want to attend…

The Two Identities We All Have

Last week, a reader named Ryan sent me an email talking about the two identities that we all have: BIG ME and LITTLE ME.

BIG ME is the version of yourself that comes out when you’re at your best. BIG ME is the identity you display when you fulfill your potential, live up to your values, and achieve your goals. BIG ME is when you are on top of your game and fully engaged.

LITTLE ME is the version of yourself that shows up when you’re inconsistent, when you lack focus, and when you fall short of your potential. LITTLE ME is that side of you that makes excuses and hesitates when faced with uncertainty or discomfort.

Here’s the thing about BIG ME and LITTLE ME. They are not different people. They are two versions of the same person. And these two versions of yourself compete to show up on any given day.

What Makes the Difference?

We all have good days every now and then—days when we feel motivated, productive, powerful, and healthy. But having a good day every day is really hard. What makes the difference between the days when you show up as the BIG ME version of yourself versus the LITTLE ME version of yourself?

In my experience, your habits make the difference. The top performers in nearly any field of life have developed systems and routines that help them make better decisions each day.

If you want to perform near the top of your game on a more consistent basis, then you have to understand how to build habits that stick.

Some examples…

  • Fitness: The list of people who went to the gym on January 1st is very long. The list of those still going on December 1st is much shorter.
  • Writing: You might get lucky with one article, but producing your best work over and over again requires consistent creative habits.
  • Productivity: You can be incredibly effective when you finish your most important task first each day. Imagine if that happened every day.
  • Sports: Anyone can have a big game, but great players have big seasons because they build the right practice habits.

The 2015 Habits Seminar is focused on helping you build the habits and systems that will enable BIG ME to show up more often.

The 2015 Habits Seminar

The seminar will have a special focus on sharing practical ideas for overcoming the five barriers that hold most of us back:

  1. Lack of Time and Too Many Commitments
  2. Inconsistency With Taking Action
  3. Procrastination and Laziness
  4. Self-Doubt and Lack of Confidence
  5. Lack of Focus

Click the link below to learn more and register for the seminar. (Note: Early Bird pricing ends on February 16th at 11:59PM EST. Use offer code: EARLY)

The 2015 Habits Seminar: Click here to learn more and register for the event.

 

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Fear vs. Ambition http://jamesclear.com/fear-vs-ambition http://jamesclear.com/fear-vs-ambition#comments Tue, 10 Feb 2015 05:59:01 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=7763 Last year, I started adding little pieces of inspirational hand-drawn art to my articles. I’m not much of an artist, but I’ve enjoyed visually displaying the ideas and values that our community believes in.

Because the feedback I’ve received about the images has been popular, I’m going to start sharing them more frequently. Occasionally, I’ll share an image by itself (like today) and let the image spark some thoughts for you rather than writing a full post on the subject.

Here’s a new one on creativity, entrepreneurship, and sharing your work with the world. I hope you like it.

Fear vs. Ambition

fear vs ambition

Entrepreneurship happens where continual self-doubt meets courageous ambition. (This is true for all forms of entrepreneurship: creating art, building a tech company, starting a side business, and so on.)

P.S. 2015 Habits Seminar

Hundreds of people have already signed up for the 2015 Habits Seminar next week. (Each year, I conduct one live class on the science of behavior change and how to build habits that stick.) I’ll have full details for you on Thursday, but if you already know that you want to sign up, you can learn more and grab early bird tickets here.

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Why Stores Place Candy by the Checkout Counter (And Why New Habits Fail) http://jamesclear.com/candy-checkout http://jamesclear.com/candy-checkout#comments Fri, 06 Feb 2015 07:21:23 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=7678 Selling candy bars can teach you a lot about building better habits.

Before I tell you why, let’s start at the beginning.

The Science of Candy Bars

In 1952, an economist by the name of Hawkins Stern was working at the Stanford Research Institute in Southern California where he spent his time analyzing consumer behavior. During that same year he published a little-known paper titled, “The Significance of Impulse Buying Today.”

In that paper, Stern described a phenomenon he called Suggestion Impulse Buying, which “is triggered when a shopper sees a product for the first time and visualizes a need for it.”

Suggestion Impulse Buying says that customers buy things not necessarily because they want them, but because of how they are presented to them. This simple idea—that where products are placed can influence what customers will buy—has fascinated retailers and grocery stores ever since the moment Stern put the concept into words.

How to Sell Candy Bars

Candy sales are very seasonal. Bulk candy purchases tend to be made around Halloween and other holidays, which means during the majority of the year candy never makes it onto the grocery list. Obviously, this isn’t what candy companies want since they would prefer to have sales continue throughout the year.

Because candy isn’t an item you are going to seek out during most trips to the grocery store, it is placed in a highly visible place where you’ll see it even if you aren’t looking for it: the checkout line.

But why the checkout line? If it was just about visibility, the store could put candy right by the front door so that everyone saw it as soon as they walked inside.

The second reason candy is at the checkout line is because of a concept called decision fatigue. The basic idea is that your willpower is like a muscle. Like any muscle, it gets fatigued with use. The more decisions you ask your brain to make, the more fatigued your willpower becomes.

If you saw a box of candy bars at the front door, you would be more likely to resist grabbing one. By the time you get to the checkout counter, however, the number of choices about what to buy and what not to buy has drained your willpower enough that you give in and make the impulse purchase. This is why grocery stores place candy at the checkout counter and not the front door.

Ok, but what does a Kit Kat bar have to do with building better habits?

3 Ways to Change Your Habits

At a basic level, a store that wants to sell more candy wants to change human behavior. And whether you’re trying to lose weight, become more productive, create art on a more consistent basis, or otherwise build a new habit, you want to change human behavior too. Let’s take a look at what the grocery store did to drive additional purchases of candy bars and talk about how those concepts apply to your life.

First, grocery stores removed the friction that prevented a certain behavior. They realized that people were only buying candy in bulk around the holidays, so they cut down the size of the purchase and sold candy bars one at a time.

You can do the same thing with your habits. What are the points of friction that prevent you from taking a behavior right now? Does the task seem overwhelming (like the equivalent of buying 40 pieces of candy when you only want 1 piece?), then start with a small habit. Examples include: doing 10 pushups per day rather than 50 per day, writing 1 post per week rather than 1 per day, running for 5 minutes rather than 5 miles, and so on. Starting small is valuable because objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

Second, grocery stores created an environment that promoted the new behavior. Retailers recognized that unless the holidays were around the corner, people were unlikely to browse the store and seek out candy bars, so they moved the candy bars to a place where people didn’t have to seek them out: the checkout line.

How can you change your environment, so that you don’t have to seek out your new habits? How can you adjust your kitchen so that you can eat healthy without thinking? How can you shift your workspace so that digital distractions are minimized? How can you create a space that promotes the good behaviors and prevents the bad ones? Surround yourself with better choices and you’ll make better choices.

Third, grocery stores stacked the new behavior at a time when the energy was right for it. As we’ve already covered, you’re more likely to give in and buy the candy bar at the checkout line because decision fatigue has set in. Of course, it’s not just decision fatigue that saps our willpower and motivation. There are a variety of positive and negative daily tasks that drain your brain. Periods of intense focus, frustration, self-control, and confusion are all examples of how you can deplete your mental battery.

When it comes to building better habits, you can deal with this issue in two ways.

  1. You can take active steps to reduce the areas that deplete your willpower. In the words of Kathy Sierra, you have to “manage your cognitive leaks.” This means eliminating distractions and focusing on the essential. It’s much easier to stick with good habits if you subtract the negative influences. Self-control has a cost. Every time you use it, you pay. Make sure you’re paying for the things that matter to you, not the stuff that is useless or provides marginal value to your life.
  2. You can perform your habit a time when your energy is right for it. Stores ask you to buy candy bars when you are most likely to say yes. Similarly, you should ask yourself to perform new habits when you are mostly likely to succeed. Your motivation ebbs and flows throughout the day, so make sure the difficulty of your habit matches your current level of your motivation. Big habits are usually best if attempted early in the day when your motivation and willpower are high (or after a lunch break when you’ve had a chance to eat and rejuvenate).

start small habits

Your Environment Drives Your Habits

We like to think that we are in control of our behavior. If we buy a candy bar, we assume it is because we wanted a candy bar. The truth, however, is that many of the actions we take each day are simply a response to the environment we find ourselves in. We buy candy bars because the store is designed to get us to buy candy bars.

Similarly, we stick to good habits (or repeat bad habits) because the environments that we live in each day—our kitchens and bedrooms, our offices and workspaces‐are designed to promote these behaviors. Change your environment and your behavior will follow.

P.S. The 2015 Habits Seminar

If you enjoyed this little lesson on sticking to new habits, then you’ll love my live Habits Seminar. Each year, I conduct one live class on the science of behavior change and how to build habits that stick. We’ll talk about what’s working now, what always works, and what to avoid if you want to stick to good habits and break bad ones.

Over 1,000 people attended last year and we’re going to do it even better this time around! There will be a special focus on sharing practical ideas for overcoming the 5 barriers that hold most of us back: 1) Lack of Time and Too Many Commitments, 2) Inconsistency With Taking Action, 3) Procrastination and Laziness, 4) Self-Doubt and Lack of Confidence, and 5) Lack of Focus.

The seminar is going to be on February 18 (audio recording will be available to those who join). Full details are coming next week, but if you already know that you want to sign up, you can learn more and grab early bird tickets here.

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February Reading List: 3 Good Books to Read This Month http://jamesclear.com/reading-list-february-2014 http://jamesclear.com/reading-list-february-2014#comments Tue, 03 Feb 2015 04:17:56 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=7500 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’ve actually read and recommend. (I try to avoid sharing books that aren’t worth your time.)

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

Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
RATING: 5/5

Into Thin Air is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in the last 5 years—possibly ever. The book is a fast-paced account of the disaster that happened on Mount Everest in 1996. The man who wrote it, Jon Krakauer, is a professional writer who also happens to be an accomplished climber. Additionally, Krakauer also happened to be part of the team that was climbing Mount Everest the day of the disaster.

This incredible combination of events is only part of what makes Into Thin Air so great. It is incredibly well-written and remarkably swift for a nonfiction book. In fact, it reads like fiction, which is probably why it’s so popular. It’s just an incredible story all the way around. Highly recommended.

Paperback | Audiobook

A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
RATING: 5/5

If you love science even a little bit, then this book will blow your mind. I’ll admit that I like to geek out about space and planets and asteroids and other wonders of science and astronomy. That said, I honestly think everyone should read this book—the first half of it especially. As I was reading it, I felt like I was discovering what our world is actually like for the first time. Many of the things that I was taught in high school and college science classes were finally explained in a way that not only made sense, but also seemed incredibly reasonable.

But the first half of the book is just laying the groundwork for the big reveal at the end where Hawking shares his best theory about how the universe began, how it will end, and what it all means. What makes this book so great, in my opinion, is that it is filled with what I’ll call “deep knowledge.” Hawking doesn’t just tell you surface level facts, he tells you how we understand things to be facts. That level of knowledge is really hard to come by in my experience. Even if someone can tell you a true statement, they don’t always understand why it is a true statement. A Brief History of Time is an amazing book for anyone interested in science, God, space, or the origins of the universe.

Paperback | Audiobook

The Little Prince

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
RATING: 5/5

This book has long been a classic (it is one of the best-selling books of all-time), but I just got around to reading it. The Little Prince is both simultaneously an easy-to-read children’s book and also a deep philosophical book about life. It’s an incredibly short read (it took me about 90 minutes to finish), but each story within the book makes you think through an important part of life. In particular, the book highlights the way our mindset changes as we grow from children to adults and questions whether our hunger for money or power or approval is really worth it.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from The Little Prince:

  • “All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.”
  • “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
  • “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

I’ve added The Little Prince to my list of the best fiction books, but I can’t quite decide where to put it. It lacks the depth of other great stories like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, but it also accomplishes the remarkable feat of sharing many of life’s most important lessons in just a few words. I’ve placed it at number 5 for now. Regardless, it’s a wonderful read.

Paperback | Audiobook

More Book Recommendations

Looking for more good books to read? Browse the full reading list, which lists the best books in each category. Also, I want to thank the many readers who offered suggestions on ways to improve my reading list so that it would be more useful for you all.

Here are a few of the changes we’ve made so far…

  • Breaking the list of book recommendations into multiple pages rather than one overwhelming. (Thanks for suggesting Drew!)
  • Adding links to the audiobook version when possible. (Thanks Guennael! More audiobook links coming soon.)
  • Sharing a few books each month in addition to the entire reading list, hence this post. (Thanks Karim!)

If you have other ideas on how to make these reading suggestions more useful for you, I’m all ears.

P.S. The 2015 Habits Seminar

Each year, I conduct a live Habits Seminar. You can think of it as my annual class on the science of behavior change and how to build habits that stick. We’ll talk about what’s working now, what always works, and what to avoid if you want to stick to good habits and break bad ones.

Over 1,000 people attended last year and we’re going to do it even better this time around! There will be a special focus on sharing practical ideas for overcoming the 5 barriers that hold most of us back: 1) Lack of Time and Too Many Commitments, 2) Inconsistency With Taking Action, 3) Procrastination and Laziness, 4) Self-Doubt and Lack of Confidence, and 5) Lack of Focus.

The seminar is going to be on February 18 (audio recording will be available to those who join). I’ll share full details next week, but if you already know that you want to sign up, you can learn more and grab early bird tickets here.

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Vince Lombardi on the Hidden Power of Mastering the Fundamentals http://jamesclear.com/vince-lombardi-fundamentals http://jamesclear.com/vince-lombardi-fundamentals#comments Fri, 30 Jan 2015 07:01:17 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=7262 It was July of 1961 and the 38 members of the Green Bay Packers football team were gathered together for the first day of training camp. The previous season had ended with a heartbreaking defeat when the Packers squandered a lead late in the 4th quarter and lost the NFL Championship to the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Green Bay players had been thinking about this brutal loss for the entire off-season and now, finally, training camp had arrived and it was time to get to work. The players were eager to advance their game to the next level and start working on the details that would help them win a championship.

Their coach, Vince Lombardi, had a different idea.

“This is a football.”

In his best-selling book, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi, author David Maraniss explains what happened when Lombardi walked into training camp in the summer of 1961.

He took nothing for granted. He began a tradition of starting from scratch, assuming that the players were blank slates who carried over no knowledge from the year before… He began with the most elemental statement of all. “Gentlemen,” he said, holding a pigskin in his right hand, “this is a football.”

Lombardi was coaching a group of three dozen professional athletes who, just months prior, had come within minutes of winning the biggest prize their sport could offer. And yet, he started from the very beginning.

Lombardi’s methodical coverage of the fundamentals continued throughout training camp. Each player reviewed how to block and tackle. They opened up the playbook and started from page one. At some point, Max McGee, the Packers’ Pro Bowl wide receiver, joked, “Uh, Coach, could you slow down a little? You’re going too fast for us.” [1] Lombardi reportedly cracked a smile, but continued his obsession with the basics all the same. His team would become the best in the league at the tasks everyone else took for granted.

Six months later, the Green Bay Packers beat the New York Giants 37-0 to win the NFL Championship.

Vince Lombardi
Vince Lombardi is carried off the field by his players after defeating the New York Giants 37-0 to win the 1961 NFL Championship. (Image Source: Green Bay Press-Gazette Archive)

Fundamentals First

The 1961 season was the beginning of Vince Lombardi’s reign as one of the greatest football coaches of all-time. He would never lose in the playoffs again. In total, Lombardi won five NFL Championships in a span of seven years, including three in a row. He never coached a team with a losing record.

This pattern of focusing on the basics has been a hallmark of many successful coaches. (For example, basketball legends John Wooden and Phil Jackson were known for having a similar obsession with the fundamentals. Wooden even went so far as to teach his players how to put on their socks and tie their shoes.)

However, it is not just football and basketball where this strategy is useful. Throughout our lives, a focus on the fundamentals is what determines our results.

It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one critical event or one “big break” while simultaneously forgetting about the hidden power that small choices, daily habits, and repeated actions can have on our lives. Without the fundamentals, the details are useless. With the fundamentals, tiny gains can add up to something very significant.

Simple Ideas, Deeply Understood

Nearly every area of life can be boiled down to some core task, some essential component, that must be mastered if you truly want to be good at it.

Fitness: There are plenty of details you can focus on in the gym. Mobility work is great. Analyzing your technique can be important. Optimizing your programming is a good idea if you have the time and energy. However, these training details will never substitute for the one fundamental question that all athletes must answer: Are you stepping under the bar and getting your reps in?

Love: Displays of affection are wonderful. It’s nice to buy your loved ones flowers or to spread joy with presents. Working hard for your family is admirable (and often very necessary). It’s wonderful to upgrade to a larger house or to pay for your children’s school or to otherwise advance to higher standard of living. I’d like to do these things myself. But make no mistake, you can never buy your way around the most essential unit of love: showing up. To be present, this is love.

Web Design: Building a website is like painting on a canvas that never gets full. There is always space to add a new feature. There is never a moment when something couldn’t be optimized or split-tested. But these details can distract us from the only essential thing that websites do: communicate with someone. You don’t need fancy design or the latest software or faster web hosting to communicate with someone. The most basic unit of any website is the written word. You can do a lot with the right words.

Mastery in nearly any endeavor is the result of deeply understanding simple ideas. For most of us, the answer to becoming better leaders, better parents, better lovers, better friends, and better people is consistently practicing the fundamentals, not brilliantly understanding the details.

“This is a football.”

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