James Clear http://jamesclear.com Why tiny gains make a big difference in health and in life. Thu, 20 Aug 2015 22:54:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.4 World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov on How to Build Confidence in the Face of Fear http://jamesclear.com/kasparov-confidence http://jamesclear.com/kasparov-confidence#comments Tue, 18 Aug 2015 05:13:13 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=12687 Garry Kasparov and his long-time rival Anatoly Karpov—two of the greatest chess players of all-time—took their respective seats around the chess board. The 1990 World Chess Championship was about to begin.

The two men would play 24 games to decide the champion with the highest scoring player being declared the World Chess Champion. In total, the match would stretch for three months with the first 12 games taking place in New York and the final 12 games being played in Lyon, France.

Kasparov started off well, but soon began to make mistakes. He lost the seventh game and let multiple victories slip away during the first half of the tournament. After the first 12 games, the two men left New York with the match tied at 6-6. The New York Times reported that “Mr. Kasparov had lost confidence and grown nervous in New York.” 1

If Kasparov was going to retain his title as the best in the world, it was going to take everything he had.

“Playing Kasparov Chess”

Josh Waitzkin was a chess prodigy as a child and won multiple U.S. Junior Championships before the age of 10. Along the way, Waitzkin and his father had the opportunity to connect with Garry Kasparov and discuss chess strategy with him. In particular, they learned how Kasparov dealt with remarkably difficult matches like the one he faced against Karpov in the 1990 World Chess Championship.

Waitzkin shares the story in his book, The Art of Learning (audiobook).

Kasparov was a fiercely aggressive chess player who thrived on energy and confidence. My father wrote a book called Mortal Games about Garry, and during the years surrounding the 1990 Kasparov-Karpov match, we both spent quite a lot of time with him.

At one point, after Kasparov had lost a big game and was feeling dark and fragile, my father asked Garry how he would handle his lack of confidence in the next game. Garry responded that he would try to play the chess moves that he would have played if he were feeling confident. He would pretend to feel confident, and hopefully trigger the state.

Kasparov was an intimidator over the board. Everyone in the chess world was afraid of Garry and he fed on that reality. If Garry bristled at the chessboard, opponents would wither. So if Garry was feeling bad, but puffed up his chest, made aggressive moves, and appeared to be the manifestation of Confidence itself, then opponents would become unsettled. Step by step, Garry would feed off his own chess moves, off the created position, and off his opponent’s building fear, until soon enough the confidence would become real and Garry would be in flow…

He was not being artificial. Garry was triggering his zone by playing Kasparov chess.

—Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

When the second half of the World Chess Championship began in Lyon, France, Kasparov forced himself to play aggressive. He took the lead by winning the 16th game. With his confidence building, he rattled off decisive wins in the 18th and 20th games as well. When it was all said and done, Kasparov lost only two of the final 12 games and retained his title as World Chess Champion.2

He would continue to hold the title for another 10 years.

“Fake It Until You Become It”

It can be easy to view performance as a one-way street. We often hear about a physically gifted athlete who underperforms on the field or a smart student who flounders in the classroom. The typical narrative about underachievers is that if they could just “get their head right” and develop the correct “mental attitude” then they would perform at the top of their game.

There is no doubt that your mindset and your performance are connected in some way. But this connection works both ways. A confident and positive mindset can be both the cause of your actions and the result of them. The link between physical performance and mental attitude is a two-way street.

Confidence is often the result of displaying your ability. This is why Garry Kasparov’s method of playing as if he felt confident could lead to actual confidence. Kasparov was letting his actions inspire his beliefs.

These aren’t just feel-good notions or fluffy self-help ideas. There is hard science proving the link between behavior and confidence. Amy Cuddy, a Harvard researcher who studies body language, has shown through her groundbreaking research that simply standing in more confident poses can increase confidence and decrease anxiety.

Cuddy’s research subjects experienced actual biological changes in their hormone production including increased testosterone levels (which is linked to confidence) and decreased cortisol levels (which is linked to stress and anxiety). These findings go beyond the popular fake it until you make it philosophy. According to Cuddy, you can “fake it until you become it.”

How to Build Confidence

When my friend Beck Tench began her weight loss journey, she repeatedly asked herself the question, “What would a healthy person do?”

When she was deciding what to order a restaurant: what would a healthy person order? When she was sitting around on a Saturday morning: what would a healthy person do with that time? Beck didn’t feel like a healthy person at the start, but she figured that if she acted like a healthy person, then eventually she would become one. And within a few years, she had lost over 100 pounds.

Confidence is a wonderful thing to have, but if you find yourself overcome with fear, self-doubt, or uncertainty then let your behavior drive your beliefs. Play as if you’re at your best. Work as if you’re on top of your game. Talk to that person as if you’re feeling confident. You can use bold actions to trigger a bold mindset.

In short, what would a brave person do? 3

Read Next

  1. With a Draw, Kasparov Keeps Title by Steven Greenhouse. December 27, 1990.

  2. The World Chess Championship 1990.

  3. Thanks to Derek Sivers for posting his notes on The Art of Learning, which mentioned Kasparov and sent me down the rabbit hole of chess history and, ultimately, led to this post. And thanks to Kristy, the love of my life, for coming up with the phrase, “What would a brave person do?”

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Getting to Simple: How Do Experts Figure out the Correct Things to Focus On? http://jamesclear.com/getting-simple http://jamesclear.com/getting-simple#comments Fri, 14 Aug 2015 04:29:41 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=12638 Peak performance experts say things like, “You should focus. You need to eliminate the distractions. Commit to one thing and become great at that thing.”

This is good advice. The more I study successful people from all walks of life—artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, scientists—the more I believe focus is a core factor of success.

But there is a problem with this advice too.

Of the many options in front of you, how do you know what to focus on? How do you know where to direct your energy and attention? How do you determine the one thing that you should commit to doing?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but let me share what I’ve learned so far.

“Until Something Comes Easily…”

Like most entrepreneurs, I struggled through my first year of building a business.

I launched my first product without having any idea who I would sell it to. (Big surprise, nobody bought it.) I reached out to important people, mis-managed expectations, made stupid mistakes, and essentially ruined the chance to build good relationships with people I respected. I attempted to teach myself how to code, made one change to my website, and deleted everything I had done during the previous three months.

To put it simply, I didn’t know what I was doing.

During my Year of Many Errors I received a good piece of advice: “Try things until something comes easily.” I took the advice to heart and tried four or five different business ideas over the next 18 months. I’d give each one a shot for two or three months, mix in a little bit of freelance work so I could continue scraping by and paying the bills, and repeat the process.

Eventually, I found “something that came easily” and I was able to focus on building one business rather than trying to find an idea. In other words, I was able to simplify.

This was the first thing I discovered about figuring out the right things to focus on. If you want to master and deeply understand the core fundamentals of a task you may, paradoxically, need to start by casting a very wide net. By trying many different things you can get a sense of what comes more easily to you and set yourself up for success. It is much easier to focus on something that’s working than struggle along with a bad idea.

Make a Call

Assuming you’re willing to try things and experiment a bit, the next question is, “How do I know what’s coming easily to me?”

The best answer I can give is to pay attention. Usually this means measuring something.

Even when you do measure things, however, there comes a point where you have to make a call.

In my mind, this moment of decision is one of the central tensions of entrepreneurship. Do we continue trying new things or do we double down on one strategy? Do we try to innovate or do we commit to doing one thing well?

Everyone wants to know the right time to simplify and focus on one thing, but nobody does. That’s what makes success so hard. Entrepreneurship isn’t like baking a cake. There is no recipe. There is no guidebook. 1

At this stage your best option is to decide. You can’t try everything. At some point, you don’t need more information, you just need to make a choice.

A Volume of Work

Now we have reached the stage where figuring out the correct things to focus on becomes a real possibility.

You have experimented with enough ideas to discover one or two options that seem to provide better than average results for you. You’ve overcome the hurdle of wanting more information and the fear of committing to something and now you’ve made a choice. You took the job. You started the business. You signed up for the class. You’re ready.

Welcome to the grind. It’s time to put in a volume of work. Not just once or twice. Not just when it’s easy. But a consistent, repeated volume of work.

It is through this sheer number of repetitions that you’ll come to understand the fundamentals of your task. You might know what greatness looks like before this point, but you won’t understand how to achieve greatness until you’ve put the work in yourself.

In the words of Ira Glass, “your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.” You’ll bridge that gap between what you know is good and what you can produce yourself by putting in the reps.

This applies to so many areas of life.

Want to dress well and develop killer style? You’re going to have to try on a lot of clothes before you can simplify down to the essentials. You’ll probably have to buy a lot of clothes before you can really get a feel for what your day-in, day-out style is. I’m not a fan of promoting rampant consumerism, but if that’s the skill set you want to develop then it’s likely going to take some experimentation and effort.

Want to become a great cook? How many bad meals do you think you need to make before you can whip up a “simple, but tasty dinner” whenever you feel like it? I’d say hundreds at least. I don’t know many people who are amazing cooks after making their tenth meal ever. Developing a deep understanding of the fundamentals of cooking takes a while.

Want to write an amazing book? You’re going to have to write and write and write some more. You need to write hundreds of thousands of words to find your voice, maybe millions. Then you need to edit those words and whittle them down to the most powerful version possible.

Only after the repetitions have been completed will you understand which pieces of the task are fundamental to success.

Getting to Simple

Now, finally, after trying many things and committing to an idea and putting in enough reps, you can begin to simplify. You can trim away the fat because you know what is essential and what is unnecessary.

As the Frenchman Blaise Pascal famously wrote in his Provincial Letters, “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.”

Mastering the fundamentals is often the hardest and longest journey of all.

  1. Furthermore, everyone has different timelines. If you’re sitting on a bunch of cash, you can afford to try even more ideas, experiment a little longer, and see if you come across a better idea. If time is short and your options are slim, you have to make a call with what you have in front of you.

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First Principles: Elon Musk and Bill Thurston on the Power of Thinking for Yourself http://jamesclear.com/first-principles http://jamesclear.com/first-principles#comments Tue, 11 Aug 2015 05:44:02 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=12496 Bill Thurston was a pioneer in the field of mathematics. He was particularly known for his contributions to low-dimensional topology, 3-manifolds, and foliation theory—concepts that sound foreign to number-challenged mortals like you and me.

In 1982, Thurston was awarded the Fields Medal, which is often considered the highest honor a mathematician can receive. One reason Thurston was able to contribute valuable insights to his field of mathematics was that he utilized a different set of mental models than his peers.

In a paper he wrote for the American Mathematical Society—which, no joke, I found to be a fascinating read—Thurston explains his approach to solving difficult problems. 1

“My mathematical education was rather independent and idiosyncratic, where for a number of years I learned things on my own, developing personal mental models for how to think about mathematics. This has often been a big advantage for me in thinking about mathematics, because it’s easy to pick up later the standard mental models shared by groups of mathematicians. This means that some concepts that I use freely and naturally in my personal thinking are foreign to most mathematicians I talk to.”

—Bill Thurston

Self-taught mental models—or, in simple terms, figuring things out for yourself—seem to be a favorite weapon of brilliant minds. (Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, also relied heavily on personal mental models.) In many cases, it is the unique point-of-view afforded by self-directed learning and deep thought that enables someone to unleash an idea of minor genius.

How can you go about developing a unique view of the world?

First Principles Thinking

Elon Musk is perhaps the boldest entrepreneur on the planet right now. After helping revolutionize online payments as the founder of PayPal, Musk now runs three companies: Tesla Motors (electric cars), SpaceX (space exploration and tourism), and Solar City (solar energy).

In a fantastic interview with Kevin Rose, Musk explains one of the core philosophies that has guided him during his bold entrepreneurial ventures. 2

“I think it is important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [When reasoning by analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done or it is like what other people are doing — slight iterations on a theme.

First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “What are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there.

Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”

With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”

It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”

It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

—Elon Musk

Reasoning by first principles is one of the best ways to develop mental models that are rare and useful. Put another way, forcing yourself to look at the fundamental facts of a situation can help you develop your own perspective on how to solve problems rather than defaulting to way the rest of the world thinks.

First Principles in Daily Life

This methodology extends beyond problems in science and business. Here are a few example of how we live everyday life by analogy and my attempt to uncover the first principles instead.

“Eating healthy and losing weight is hard work. Plus, I have to give up certain foods.” 3

First principles: What are we sure is true about eating healthy and losing weight? To eat healthy, you need to eat more whole foods to get a good balance of macronutrients and micronutrients. To lose weight, you need fewer overall calories each week. Is it possible to achieve those two things without it being “hard work” or requiring you to “give up certain foods?” Yes, you could hire a meal preparation service to deliver finished meals to you each week. 4

“Writers have poor career prospects and don’t make a lot of money.”

First principles: What is the core function of a writer? To create and share information. What is required to have a prosperous and fruitful career? To provide value that a company or a group of customers are willing to pay for. Can writers use their skill of creating and sharing information to provide value? Yes, they can. Are there writers already using this skill to provide value and make a very good living? Yes, there are writers doing that already. In other words, whether an individual writer has a successful career has more to do with how they choose to package their writing skills than whether or not the skill of writing itself is valuable.

“You have to be a risk-taker if you want to be a successful entrepreneur.”

First principles: What do you need to be an entrepreneur? You need something to sell and a way to get paid. Ok, you need something to sell. Does it have to be a risky product or service? Not at all. Many people buy “normal” products and services like bow ties and lawn maintenance and car insurance. But what about leaving it all behind and starting your own venture? Isn’t that risky even if you sell something boring? There is no rule that says you have to start as a full-time entrepreneur. In fact, that’s one of the great things about entrepreneurship: there are no rules. Keep your day job and work on nights and weekends. Or, save up a big emergency fund before jumping in.

We often live life by analogy and simply assume that what has been true before must be true in the future. Instead, break your problems down to their first principles and you may see very different solutions emerge.

Read Next

  1. On Proof and Progress in Mathematics by William P. Thurston. Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. Volume 30, Number 2, April 1994.

  2. Seriously, the Kevin Rose – Elon Musk interview is awesome. You can watch the whole thing here.

  3. Hat tip to Bruce Achterberg. I got this example from his post about first principles on Quora.

  4. Important note: Meal preparation services aren’t as expensive as you might imagine. You can often get meals (including shipping) for $8 or less. However, I still realize that this is out of budget for many people, so I don’t want you to think that I’m delusional by offering this example. Regardless of how feasible getting a meal service is for you personally, this is a good example of how we often assume one version of a story to be the one-and-only truth while other solutions become obvious if we reason from first principles.

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The Chemistry of Building Better Habits http://jamesclear.com/chemistry-habits http://jamesclear.com/chemistry-habits#comments Fri, 07 Aug 2015 06:37:45 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=12383 There is a concept in chemistry known as activation energy.

Here’s how it works:

Activation energy is the minimum amount of energy that must be available for a chemical reaction to occur. Let’s say you are holding a match and that you gently touch it to the striking strip on the side of the match box. Nothing will happen because the energy needed to activate a chemical reaction and spark a fire is not present.

However, if you strike the match against the strip with some force, then you create the friction and heat required to light the match on fire. The energy you added by striking the match was enough to reach the activation energy threshold and start the reaction.

Chemistry textbooks often explain activation energy with a chart like this:

Activation Energy

It’s sort of like rolling a boulder up a hill. You have to add some extra energy to the equation to push the boulder to the top. Once you’ve reached the peak, however, the boulder will roll the rest of the way by itself. Similarly, chemical reactions require additional energy to get started and then proceed the rest of the way.

Alright, so activation energy is involved in chemical reactions all around us, but how is this useful and practical for our everyday lives?

The Activation Energy of New Habits

Similar to how every chemical reaction has an activation energy, we can think of every habit or behavior as having an activation energy as well.

This is just a metaphor of course, but no matter what habit you are trying to build there is a certain amount of effort required to start the habit. In chemistry, the more difficult it is for a chemical reaction to occur, the bigger the activation energy. For habits, it’s the same story. The more difficult or complex a behavior, the higher the activation energy required to start it.

For example, sticking to the habit of doing 1 pushup per day requires very little energy to get started. Meanwhile, doing 100 pushups per day is a habit with a much higher activation energy. It’s going to take more motivation, energy, and grit to start complex habits day after day.

Activation Energy of Habits

The Disconnect Between Goals and Habits

Here’s a common problem that I’ve experienced when trying to build new habits:

It can be really easy to get motivated and hyped up about a big goal that you want to achieve. This big goal leads you to think that you need to revitalize and change your life with a new set of ambitious habits. In short, you get stuck dreaming about life-changing outcomes rather than making lifestyle improvements.

The problem is that big goals often require big activation energies. In the beginning you might be able to find the energy to get started each day because you’re motivated and excited about your new goal, but pretty soon (often within a few weeks) that motivation starts to fade and suddenly you’re lacking the energy you need to activate your habit each day.

This is lesson one: Smaller habits require smaller activation energies and that makes them more sustainable. The bigger the activation energy is for your habit, the more difficult it will be to remain consistent over the long-run. When you require a lot of energy to get started there are bound to be days when starting never happens.

Finding a Catalyst for Your Habits

Everyone is on the lookout for tactics and hacks that can make success easier. Chemists are no different. When it comes to dealing with chemical reactions, the one trick chemists have up their sleeves is to use what is known as a catalyst.

A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction. Basically, a catalyst lowers the activation energy and makes it easier for a reaction to occur. The catalyst is not consumed by the reaction itself. It’s just there to make the reaction happen faster.

Here’s a visual example:

Habit catalyst

When it comes to building better habits, you also have a catalyst that you can use:

Your environment.

The most powerful catalyst for building new habits is environment design (what some researchers call choice architecture). The idea is simple: the environments where we live and work influence our behaviors, so how can we structure those environments to make good habits more likely and bad habits more difficult?

Here is an example of how your environment can act as a catalyst for your habits:

Imagine you are trying to build the habit of writing for 15 minutes each evening after work. A noisy environment with loud roommates, rambunctious children, or constant television noise in the background will require a high activation energy to stick with your habit. With so many distractions, it’s likely that you’ll fall off track with your writing habit at some point. Meanwhile, if you stepped into a quiet writing environment—like a desk at the local library—your surroundings suddenly become a catalyst for your behavior and make it easier for the habit to proceed.

Your environment can catalyze your habits in big and small ways. If you set your running shoes and workout clothes out the night before, you just lowered the activation energy required to go running the next morning. If you hire a meal service to deliver low calorie meals to your door each week, you significantly lowered the activation energy required to lose weight. If you unplug your television and hide it in the closet, you just lowered the activation energy required to watch less television.

This is lesson two: The right environment is like a catalyst for your habits and it lowers the activation energy required to start a good habit.

The Intermediate States of Human Behavior

Chemical reactions often have a reaction intermediate, which is like an in-between step that occurs before you can get to the final product. So, rather than going straight from A to B, you go from A to X to B. An intermediate step needs to occur before we go from starting to finishing.

There are all sorts of intermediate steps with habits as well.

Say you want to build the habit of working out. Well, this could involve intermediate steps like paying a gym membership, packing your gym bag in the morning, driving to the gym after work, exercising in front of other people, and so on.

Here’s the important part:

Each intermediate step has its own activation energy. When you’re struggling to stick with a new habit it can be important to examine each link in the chain and figure out which one is your sticking point. Put another way, which step has the activation energy that prevents the habit from happening?

Some intermediate steps might be easy for you. To continue our fitness example from above, you might not care about paying for a gym membership or packing your gym bag in the morning. However, you may find that driving to the gym after work is frustrating because you end up hitting more rush hour traffic. Or you may discover that you don’t enjoy working out in public with strangers.

Developing solutions that remove the intermediate steps and lower the overall activation energy required to perform your habit can increase your consistency in the long-run. For example, perhaps going to the gym in the morning would allow you to avoid rush hour traffic. Or maybe starting a home workout routine would be best since you could skip the traffic and avoid exercising in public. Without these two barriers, the two intermediate steps that were causing friction with your habit, it will be much easier to follow through.

This is lesson three: Examine your habits closely and see if you can eliminate the intermediate steps with the highest activation energy (i.e. the biggest sticking points).

The Chemistry of Building Better Habits

The fundamental principles of chemistry reveal some helpful strategies that we can use to build better habits.

  1. Every habit has an activation energy that is required to get started. The smaller the habit, the less energy you need to start.
  2. Catalysts lower the activation energy required to start a new habit. Optimizing your environment is the best way to do this in the real world. In the right environment, every habit is easier.
  3. Even simple habits often have intermediate steps. Eliminate the intermediate steps with the highest activation energy and your habits will be easier to accomplish.

And that’s the chemistry of building better habits.

Read Next

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August Reading List: 5 Good Books to Read This Month http://jamesclear.com/august-2015-books http://jamesclear.com/august-2015-books#comments Tue, 04 Aug 2015 04:42:42 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=12333 It’s time for another edition of my reading list.

In addition to the five books reviewed below, I maintain a complete list of the best books I’ve read across a wide range of disciplines.

Here are a few of the top books I’ve read recently.

A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen

Print | eBook | Audiobook

The Book in Three Sentences: The only thing you have that nobody else has is control of your life. The hardest thing of all is to learn to love the journey, not the destination. Get a real life rather than frantically chasing the next level of success.

Key Ideas: This is a list of key ideas that I recorded while reading the book. These notes are informal and include quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts.

  • The only thing you have that nobody else has is control of your life. You job, your day, your heart, your spirit. You are the only one in control of that.
  • “Show up. Listen. Try to laugh.”
  • “You cannot be really good at your work if your work is all you are.”
  • “Get a life, a real life. Not a manic pursuit of the next promotion.”
  • “Turn off your cell phone. Keep still. Be present.”
  • “Get a life in which you are generous.”
  • “All of us want to do well, but if we do not do good too then doing well will never be enough.”
  • “Knowledge of our own mortality is the greatest gift God gives us.” It is so easy to exist rather than to live… Unless you know a clock is ticking.
  • We live in more luxury today than ever before. The things we have today our ancestors thought existed for just the wealthy. And yet, somehow, we are rarely grateful for all this wealth.
  • The hardest thing of all is to learn to love the journey, not the destination.
  • “This is not a dress rehearsal. Today is the only guarantee you get.”
  • “Think of life as a terminal illness.”
  • “School never ends. The classroom is everywhere.”

3 Reasons to Read This Book

  1. You need a reminder of why you should be grateful for the life you live.
  2. You need a reminder of why it is important to live a balanced life.
  3. You want to be inspired and you like short books.

Buy This Book: Print | eBook | Audiobook

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida

Print | eBook | Audiobook

The Book in Three Sentences: This book is an autobiography written by a 13-year-old boy from Japan about what it is like to live with autism. The way autistic people view the world is very different than the way we may perceive them to view the world. This disconnect between how we view and treat people with autism and how they actually view the world makes living with autism is even more difficult than it already is.

Key Ideas: This is a list of key ideas that I recorded while reading the book. These notes are informal and include quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts.

  • “When you see an object, it seems that you see it as an entire thing first, and only afterwards do its details follow on. But for people with autism, the details jump straight out at us first of all, and then only gradually, detail by detail, does the whole image float up into focus.”
  • “On our own we simply don’t know how to get things done the same way you do things. But, like everyone else, we want to do the best we possibly can. When we sense you’ve given up on us, it makes us feel miserable. So please keep helping us, through to the end.”
  • “But I ask you, those of you who are with us all day, not to stress yourselves out because of us. When you do this, it feels as if you’re denying any value at all that our lives may have–and that saps the spirit we need to soldier on. The hardest ordeal for us is the idea that we are causing grief for other people. We can put up with our own hardships okay, but the thought that our lives are the source of other people’s unhappiness, that’s plain unbearable.”
  • “True compassion is about not bruising the other person’s self-respect.”
  • “To give the short version, I’ve learnt that every human being, with or without disabilities, needs to strive to do their best, and by striving for happiness you will arrive at happiness. For us, you see, having autism is normal — so we can’t know for sure what your ‘normal’ is even like. But so long as we can learn to love ourselves, I’m not sure how much it matters whether we’re normal or autistic.”
  • “Everybody has a heart that can be touched by something.”
  • There is a fantastic story that Higashida tells about learning to wave goodbye to a friend. People kept telling him that he was doing it incorrectly, but he didn’t understand why until someone had him look in a mirror. He finally realized that he was waving goodbye to himself with his palm facing toward his own face rather than his palm facing away and toward the other person. He was simply mimicking what he saw when someone waved goodbye to him (the other person’s palm), but couldn’t fully translate what he saw into the correct behavior.
  • He spends much of his day feeling like a failure and knows he screws up often.
  • Childish behavior does not equal childish intelligence.
  • My biggest takeaway was that when it comes to many everyday circumstances Higashida “gets it,” but he can’t act on it. Perhaps I was just ignorant about autism, but I feel that we often assume that autistic people are “out of it” and aren’t really following what’s going on. (And how would we know when we have no outward or physical indication otherwise?) But he does understand. He gets context and subtlety. He knows what is happening even if he can’t take appropriate action.

3 Reasons to Read This Book

  1. You don’t know much about autism or what it’s like to live with autism and you’re interested enough to learn more.
  2. You’d like a glimpse inside the mind of someone who is likely very different from you.
  3. You want to be reminded of how every life has value.

Buy This Book: Print | eBook | Audiobook

The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir

Print | eBook | Audiobook

Summary: Hot damn. This is my favorite fiction book that I’ve read this year. If you like space, read this book. If you like science, read this book. If you like the idea of humans somehow landing on Mars, read this book. The book has a great premise and the author did a fantastic job of blending his fictional world with believable engineering and real-world science. I thought it was great. (Plus, it’s being made into a movie starring Matt Damon. Here’s the trailer.)

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How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

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Summary: I read this book after venture capitalist Chris Sacca recommended it. The novel begins with a poor child living in rural Asia and progresses through his life as he moves to the city and takes step after step in the pursuit of wealth and success. My biggest takeaways were 1) most people in the world live very differently than you do, 2) there is a lot of corruption and cheating in business, 3) there are many people who sacrifice love and relationships to achieve success and it rarely seems to be worth it.

3 Reasons to Read This Book

  1. You want a sobering reminder of the sacrifice success often requires.
  2. You want to follow an exciting story that carries you through many different stages of life.
  3. You want to learn how to get filthy rich in rising Asia.

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The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo

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Summary: The Redbreast is one of a series of novels by crime writer Jo Nesbo. All of the mystery novels feature Harry Hole as the primary detective. This one spans 60 years and involves all of the plot twists you would expect in a mystery novel. It’s a good book although I personally enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s books more, if we’re splitting hairs over Scandinavian fiction writers.

2 Reasons to Read This Book

  1. You like thriller and mystery novels.
  2. You want to start reading Jo Nesbo, who is considered one of the top Scandinavian crime writers alive.

Buy This Book: Print | eBook | Audiobook

How to Get Free Audiobooks

I have shared my strategy for how to read more books previously, but I also love listening to audiobooks. I have a monthly subscription to Audible and I really enjoy it.

Good news: if you start a 30-day free trial with Audible right now, you can get your first 2 audiobooks free. 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.


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How to Stop Lying to Ourselves: A Call for Self-Awareness http://jamesclear.com/stethoscope-self-awareness http://jamesclear.com/stethoscope-self-awareness#comments Fri, 31 Jul 2015 05:55:12 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=12238 It was September of 1816 and two Parisian boys were playing in the courtyard of the Louvre, the famous museum in Paris.

On the other side of the courtyard, a physician named René Laennec began to quicken his pace as he walked along in the morning sun. There was a woman with heart disease waiting for him at the hospital and Laennec was late.

As Laennec crossed the courtyard, he looked toward the two boys. One of them was tapping the end of a long wooden plank with a pin. On the other end, his playmate was crouched down with his ear pressed against the edge of the plank.

Laennec was immediately struck with a thought. “I recalled a well-known acoustic phenomenon,” he would later write. “If you place your ear against one end of a wood beam the scratch of a pin at the other end is distinctly audible. It occurred to me that this physical property might serve a useful purpose in the case I was dealing with.”

When Laennec arrived at the hospital later that morning, he immediately asked for a piece of paper. He rolled it up and placed the tube against his patient’s chest. He was stunned by what he heard next. “I was surprised and elated to be able to hear the beating of her heart with far greater clearness than I ever had with direct application of my ear,” he said.

René Laennec had just invented the stethoscope.

Laennec quickly upgraded from his piece of paper and, after experimenting with various sizes, he began using a hollow wood tube about 3.5 centimeters in diameter and 25 centimeters long. 1

Rene Laennec stethoscope design
This is a sketch of René Laennec’s original stethoscope design, which was essentially a hollow wood tube. The ear piece is featured in the top right corner. (Image Source: US National Library of Medicine.)

Laennec’s simple invention instantly changed the field of medicine.

For the first time in history, physicians had a safe, unbiased way to understand what was going on inside a patient’s body. They didn’t have to rely solely on what the patient said or how the patient described their condition. Now, they could track and measure things for themselves. The stethoscope was like a window that allowed a doctor to view what was actually happening and then compare their findings to the symptoms, outcomes, and autopsies of patients.

And that brings us to the main point of this story.

The Lies We Tell Ourselves

We often lie to ourselves about the progress we are making on important goals.

For example:

  • If we want to lose weight, we might claim that we’re eating healthy, but in reality our eating habits haven’t changed very much.
  • If we want to be more creative, we might say that we’re trying to write more, but in reality we aren’t holding ourselves to a rigid publishing schedule.
  • If we want to learn a new language, we might say that we have been consistent with our practice even though we skipped last night to watch television.

We use lukewarm phrases like, “I’m doing well with the time I have available.” Or, “I’ve been trying really hard recently.” Rarely do these statements include any type of hard measurement. They are usually just soft excuses that make us feel better about having a goal that we haven’t made much real progress toward. (I know because I’ve been guilty of saying many of these things myself.)

Why do these little lies matter?

Because they are preventing us from being self-aware. Emotions and feelings are important and they have a place, but when we use feel-good statements to track our progress in life, we end up lying to ourselves about what we’re actually doing.

When the stethoscope came along it provided a tool for physicians to get an independent diagnosis of what was going on inside the patient. We can also use tools to get a independent diagnosis of what is going on inside our own lives.

Tools for Improving Self-Awareness

If you’re serious about getting better at something, then one of the first steps is to know—in black-and-white terms—where you stand. You need self-awareness before you can achieve self-improvement.

Here are some tools I use to make myself more self-aware:

Workout Journal – For the past 5 years or so, I have used my workout journal to record each workout I do. While it can be interesting to leaf back through old workouts and see the progress I’ve made, I have found this method to be most useful on a weekly basis. When I go to the gym next week, I will look at the weights I lifted the week before and try to make a small increase. It’s so simple, but the workout journal helps me avoid wasting time in the gym, wandering around, and just “doing some stuff.” With this basic tracking, I can make focused improvements each week.

My Annual Reviews and Integrity Reports – At the end of each year, I conduct my Annual Review where I summarize the progress I’ve made in business, health, travel, and other areas. I also take time each spring to do an Integrity Report where I challenge myself to provide proof of how I am living by my core values. These two practices give me a chance to track and measure the “softer” areas of my life. It can be difficult to know for certain if you’re doing a better job of living by your values, but these reports at least force me to track these issues on a consistent basis.

RescueTime – I use RescueTime to track how I spend my working hours each week. For a long time, I just assumed that I was fairly productive. When I actually tracked my output, however, I’ve uncovered some interesting insights. For example, I currently spend about 60 percent of my time each week on productive tasks. This past month, I spent 9 percent of my working time on social media sites. If you would have asked me to estimate those two numbers before using RescueTime, I’m certain I would have been way off. Now, I actually have a clear idea of how I spend my time and because I know where I truly stand, I can start to make calculated and measured improvements.

A Call for Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is one of the fundamental pieces of behavior change and one of the pillars of personal science.

If you aren’t aware of what you’re actually doing, then it is very hard to change your life with any degree of consistency. Trying to build better habits without self-awareness is like firing arrows into the night. You can’t expect to hit the bullseye if you’re not sure where the target is located.

Furthermore, I have discovered very few people who naturally do the right thing without ever measuring their behavior. For example, I know a handful of people who maintain six-pack abs without worrying too much about what they eat. However, every single one of them weighed and measured their food at some point. After months of counting calories and measuring their meals, they developed the ability judge their meals appropriately.

In other words, measurement brought their levels of self-awareness in line with reality. You can wing it after you measure it. Once you’re aware of what’s actually going on, you can make accurate decisions based on “gut-feel” because your gut is based on something accurate.

In short, start by measuring something. 2

Read Next

  1. Rubber tubing wasn’t developed until the second-half of the 19th century, which is when stethoscopes resembling modern designs were first produced. Further details are explained in this piece called, “The Man Behind the Stethoscope” from a 2006 edition of Clinical Medicine and Research. That article is also the source where I found the quotes from Laennec used in this article.

  2. Thanks to NPR’s Science Friday segment, where I originally heard the story of the origin of the stethoscope from Ira Flatow and Howard Markel.

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The Repeated Bout Effect: If Nothing Changes, Nothing Is Going to Change http://jamesclear.com/repeated-bout-effect http://jamesclear.com/repeated-bout-effect#comments Tue, 28 Jul 2015 06:02:22 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=12144 If you have ever taken a few weeks off from exercise and then completed a strenuous workout, you may know what I’m about to say.

That first workout back from a long break can be tough, but it’s usually the soreness that follows a few days later that is really brutal. For example, if you do a squat workout after a few weeks off, it can hurt to simply sit in a chair or climb the stairs later that week. 1

One of the quickest ways to resolve this soreness is very counterintuitive:

Squat again.

If I’m feeling sore a few days after a squat workout, then doing some light reps is often the quickest way to recover from the soreness. I’ll usually opt for three sets of ten bodyweight squats. The first few are uncomfortable, but then my muscles limber up and I feel significantly better by the end of it.

How could this be? If squatting caused the pain, then why would more squatting resolve it? It’s sort of like saying, “I spent too much money, so my solution is to spend a little more money.”

On the surface, this makes little sense. But, as you may expect, there is something deeper going on here. It’s called the Repeated Bout Effect and it applies to much more than just exercise.

The Repeated Bout Effect

Here’s the Repeated Bout Effect in plain language:

The more you repeat a behavior, the less it impacts you because you become accustomed to it.

The Repeated Bout Effect comes from exercise science research, so let’s return to our previous squat example.

When you perform a new squat workout your body will experience a new stimulus that stresses your muscles and, eventually, results in muscle soreness. However, the way you respond to this new stimulus is not constant. Researchers have found that “a repeated bout results in reduced symptoms.” 2 Generally speaking, the more consistently you squat, the less soreness you will experience.

This is what is known as the Repeated Bout Effect. Your body’s response to a stimulus decreases with each repeated bout.

There are hundreds of research studies confirming the Repeated Bout Effect. The exact mechanism by which it occurs isn’t totally understood, but the fact that it does occur has been well-established. 3

The Repeated Bout Effect in Your Life

The Repeated Bout Effect tells us that the more we do something, the less of an impact it makes on us. There are many ways to think about this effect throughout life.

  • When you haven’t done much strength training, doing thirty pushups will make you stronger. After a few months of that, however, an extra thirty pushups isn’t really building new muscle.
  • When you drink coffee for the first time, you will notice an immediate caffeine spike. After years of consumption, however, one cup of coffee seems to make less of a difference.
  • When you start eating smaller portions, you’ll lose weight. After the first ten or fifteen pounds fall off, however, your smaller portion slowly becomes your normal portion and weight loss stalls.
  • Making ten sales calls on your first day in business may lead to a big jump in overall revenue. Making ten sales calls for the 300th day in a row, however, is unlikely to have a large impact on overall revenue.

These examples make sense when you see them neatly lined up in an article, but out in the real world we often curse ourselves for a lack of progress.

Let’s say you want to lose weight and you weren’t working out previously. You start running twice per week and pretty soon you’ve lost ten pounds. At some point, the Repeated Bout Effect kicks in, your body adapts, and the weight loss slows. Suddenly, you’re still running twice per week but the scale is no longer moving.

It can be very easy to interpret these diminishing results as some kind of failure.

  • “This always happens. I make a little bit of progress and then I hit a plateau.”
  • “Ugh, I’m working out every week and nothing is happening.”
  • “I’ve tried it all. Exercise doesn’t work for me.”

Except, it did work. In fact, your initial exercise worked exactly as it was supposed to because it delivered a new result and then your body adapted and became better. Now, your body has a new baseline and if you want to achieve a higher level of success, then you need to add something new to the mix.

3 Lessons On Improvement

The Repeated Bout Effect can teach us three lessons on improvement.

First, doing a light amount of work is a great way to reduce the pain of difficult sessions. Imagine that you do an easy 1-minute pushup workout on Monday and a difficult 10-minute pushup session on Friday. The Repeated Bout Effect says that your soreness after Friday’s workout will be reduced simply because you did an easy session earlier in the week. Easy work can make a difference.

Second, the amount of work that you need to do to reach your maximum level of output is higher than what you are doing now. Unless you are already performing at 100 percent of your potential, you have room to grow. And the Repeated Bout Effect tells us that you have probably adapted to all of the normal stimuli in your life. If you want to reach a new level of success then you need to put in a new level of work. This does not mean you should start by doing as much work as possible, but it does mean that when you start small you can’t expect one small change to work forever. You have to continually graduate to the next level.

Third, deliberate practice is critical to long-term success. Doing the same type of work over and over again is a strange form of laziness. You can’t go to the gym, run the same three miles each week, and expect to enjoy ever-improving results. After a few months of repetitive workouts, you’ve seen all the results that three-mile runs can deliver and your body has adapted to that stimulus. This is why deliberately practicing new skills that you can master in one to three practice sessions is important for long-term improvement. Making deliberate practice a habit can help you avoid carelessly practicing things that no longer deliver any benefit.

The key takeaway here is that things will work for a little while and then we will get used to them.

As Marshall Goldsmith says in his best-selling book, “What got you here won’t get you there.” Doing the same thing over and over again, even if it worked for a long time, will eventually lead to a plateau. If nothing changes, nothing is going to change. 4

  1. Personally, I tend to experience greater-than-normal soreness when I take a break from strength training for longer than eight days. If I’m traveling for a ten day span, for example, fitting a workout in during day five or six ends up making a big difference in my levels of soreness when I return to a normal training schedule the following week.

  2. The Repeated Bout Effect: Does Evidence for a Crossover Effect Exist? by Declan Connolly, Brian Reed, and Malachy McHugh.

  3. Want to dive into the research? Here are two decent studies to kick things off. First, Temporal Pattern of the Repeated Bout Effect of Eccentric Exercise on Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness by Cleary, Kimura, Sitler, and Kendrick. Second, The repeated bout effect of reduced-load eccentric exercise on elbow flexor muscle damage by Nosaka, Sakamoto, Newton, and Sacco.

  4. Thanks to Greg Nuckols and Justin Laczek for their writing and work on the Repeated Bout Effect, which prompted this article.

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Olympic Medalist Dick Fosbury and the Surprising Power of Being Unconventional http://jamesclear.com/dick-fosbury http://jamesclear.com/dick-fosbury#comments Fri, 24 Jul 2015 06:49:04 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=12039 Dick Fosbury took a moment to meditate as 80,000 people looked down at him from their seats in Mexico City’s Olympic stadium. The fans at the 1968 Olympic Games didn’t know it at the time, but they were about to witness not only the setting of an Olympic record, but the complete revolution of a sport.

Just three or four years earlier, nobody in the world of athletics had even heard the name Dick Fosbury. As a long and lean teenager from Oregon, Fosbury was just another kid interested in track and field. He wanted to compete in the high jump, but he had failed to clear the height required to participate in a high school track meet during his sophomore year. Shortly after, Fosbury had a stroke of genius.

You see, the high jump is a simple event. The athletes jump over a bar and whoever jumps the highest wins the event. Usually, each athlete will toss their body over the bar and crash onto a padded landing pit on the other side. Like most schools in the 1960s, the landing pit at Fosbury’s high school was made of wood chips and sawdust. Before his junior year, however, Fosbury’s high school became one of the first to install a foam landing pit and that gave him a crazy idea.

What if, instead of jumping the conventional way with his face toward the bar, Fosbury turned his body, arched his back, and went over the bar backwards while landing on his neck and shoulders? 1

The “Fosbury Flop”

Fosbury’s new style was criticized at first. One local newspaper said that he looked like “a fish flopping in a boat” while another called him the “World’s Laziest High Jumper” and ran a photo of him sliding over the bar backwards. 2

By 1968, however, Fosbury was the only one laughing as he used the unconventional technique to win the NCAA championship and qualify for the Olympic Games in Mexico City. By the time the games were finished, Fosbury not only set a new Olympic record by jumping 2.24 meters (7.35 feet), but also changed the entire philosophy of the sport. Within 10 years his technique became the de facto standard for high jumpers everywhere. Nearly every gold medal winner and major record holder in the last 35 years has used the “Fosbury Flop.” 3

Dick Fosbury
Dick Fosbury using his signature “Fosbury Flop” to set a new olympic record in the high jump at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. You can watch a short clip of Fosbury’s jump here. (Image Source: International Olympic Committee.)

Different Environment, Same Approach

Fosbury’s story offers two lessons that extend far beyond the world of high jumping.

First, his success came during a period when the environment of the sport had changed, but everyone was still following old patterns of behavior. Even though the switch to foam landing pits allowed athletes to experiment with a wider range of jumping techniques, everyone continued to do the same old thing until Fosbury came along.

This is exactly why you see startups completely disrupt established industries. Take the transportation company Uber, for example. Taxis were the standard way to get around town for decades. At some point, mobile phones and constant internet access became the norm in our daily lives, but everyone continued to flag down taxis and pay for them the old fashioned way. The environment had changed, but the behavior stayed the same.

Then one day Uber came along and said, “Use your phone to request a car, we’ll pick you up wherever you are at, and you can easily pay through your phone.” Today, Uber is the biggest taxi company in the world. (By the way, if you’re new to Uber you can get your first ride free by using this link.)

This is lesson one: When the environment around a task changes, a new and better way to do things is usually possible.

Right Approach, Wrong Environment

The second lesson that Fosbury’s story reveals is that even great strategies require appropriate environments.

About three years before the Fosbury Flop began its rise to fame, there was high jumper named Bruce Quande from a little high school in Montana who was experimenting with a backwards jump technique.

Why has no one ever heard of Bruce Quande? Because he stopped competing in the high jump shortly after trying his new technique. Maybe he lost interest. Maybe his school didn’t have the right landing surface. The only reason we know he tried is because someone discovered an old photo of him going over a bar backwards 50 years after it happened.

There is no debate that Fosbury’s technique is best approach to the high jump. It immediately out-performed every other method and it has been the standard in modern high jumping for decades now. But even though Bruce Quande had the right idea, he didn’t have the right environment to turn that idea into a success.

Good ideas are like seeds. Plant them in fertile soil with the sun and water they need and a little idea can explode with growth. Toss them on rocky ground and even the best strategies will struggle to take root. Environment matters. If your methods are constantly fighting your surroundings, then progress is difficult.

That is lesson two: You can’t expect a great strategy to work well in the wrong environment.

Find Your Own Flop

I’m a big believer in the power of personal science. Simply put, you have to be willing to experiment with new ideas if you’re serious about discovering what works best for you.

Dick Fosbury found success because his sport had switched the landing material and he was willing to experiment with a new jumping style. Let’s consider some common situations where experimenting with new approaches would serve us well.

For example:

  • A smart high school student gets good grades without studying. When they go to college, however, the environment changes and the workload increases. To find success in the new environment, they need to change their study techniques.
  • An athlete stops playing sports, but continues eating as if they are still training each day. If they want to avoid gaining weight, they need to adjust their eating habits to match their new lifestyle. The situation has changed, so they need a new approach.
  • A busy parent takes a new job with a longer commute. They try to squeeze in their workout routine just like before, but they end up feeling rushed and drained. The environment has changed and they need to find a new method to keep exercise part of their life.

We all face changing environments at work, at home, and in our relationships. The key is to be aware of when the landing material changes, so that we can experiment with new jumping styles and discover what works best.

Read Next

  1. The changes to the high jump landing pit are covered on page 76 of “Something in the Air” by Richard Hoffer. He writes, “During Fosbury’s sophomore year, the landing pit was only a pile of wood chips and sawdust. It was safe but not comfortable. By his junior year, though, his school had installed a foam pit and the idea of a head plant, while still daunting, was a bit more agreeable.”

  2. The unflattering descriptions ran in a 1964 edition of The Medford Mail Tribune in Medford, Oregon, where Fosbury went to high school.

  3. Before Fosbury came along, the majority of high jumpers used what was called the straddle technique. With this method, the jumper crosses over the bar face down with their legs straddling the bar. It is a strategy that is rarely used today.

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Habit Creep: The Proven, Reasonable and Totally Unsexy Way to Become More Successful http://jamesclear.com/habit-creep http://jamesclear.com/habit-creep#comments Tue, 21 Jul 2015 05:41:56 +0000 https://jamesclear.com/?p=11997 There is a common phenomenon in the world of personal finance called “lifestyle creep.” It describes our tendency to buy bigger, better, and nicer things as our income rises.

For example, say that you receive a promotion at work and suddenly you have $10,000 more of income each year. Rather than save the extra money and continue living as normal, you’re more likely to upgrade to a bigger TV or stay at better hotels or buy designer clothes. Your normal lifestyle will creep up slowly and goods that were once seen as a luxury will gradually become a necessity. What was once out of reach will become your new normal. 1

Changing human behavior is often considered to be one of the hardest things to do in business and in life. Yet, lifestyle creep describes a very reliable way that human behavior changes over the long-term.

What if we adapted this concept to the rest of our lives?

Changing Your Normal

Let’s list some typical financial goals.

  • I want to own designer jeans.
  • I want to have a bigger house.
  • I want to drive a faster car.

Here’s the interesting thing:

These big goals naturally happen as a side effect when we have the means to make them happen. When our purchasing power goes up, our purchases tend to go up too. That’s lifestyle creep.

What if similar side effects could happen in other areas of life?

Consider these goals:

  • I want to add 10 pounds of muscle.
  • I want to find a partner and get married.
  • I want to earn six figures per year.
  • I want to get a higher score on my test.
  • I want to own a successful business.

What if we trusted that adding more muscle or earning more money or getting better grades would come as a natural side effect of improving our normal routines? In other words, as our normal habits improved, so would our results.

This idea of slightly adjusting your habits until behaviors and results that were once out of reach become your new normal is a concept I like to call “habit creep.” 2

How to Practice Habit Creep

If you buy more things than your bank account can sustain, that’s not lifestyle creep. That’s called debt.

Similarly, if you adopt a bunch of new behaviors you can’t sustain, that’s not habit creep. In other words, the key is to avoid the trap of trying to grow too fast. Lifestyle creep happens so slowly that it is almost imperceptible. Habit creep should be the same way. Your goal is to nudge your behaviors along in very small ways.

In my experience, there are two primary ways to change long-term behaviors and improve performance for good.

  1. Increase your performance by a little bit each day. (Most people take this to the extreme.)
  2. Change your environment to remove small distractions and barriers. (Most people never think about this.)

Here are some thoughts on each one:

Increasing your performance. You have a normal way of living. For example, your current level of physical fitness is generally a reflection of how much activity you get on a normal day. Let’s say that your standard day requires you walk 8,000 steps. If you want to get in better shape, the standard approach would be to start training for a race or exercise more. But the habit creep approach would be to add a very small amount to your standard behavior. Say, 8,100 steps per day rather than 8,000 steps. You can apply this logic to nearly any area of life. You have a normal amount of sales calls you make at work each day, a normal amount of Thank You notes you write each year, a normal amount of books you read each month. If you want to become more successful, more grateful, or more intelligent, then you can use the idea of habit creep to slowly improve those areas simply by improving the way you live your normal day.

Changing your environment. There are all sorts of things we do each day that are a response to the environment we live in. We eat cookies because they are on the counter. We pick up our phones because someone sends us a text. We turn on TV because it’s the first thing we look at when we sit on the couch. If you change your environment in small ways (hide the cookies in the pantry, leave the phone in another room while you work, place the TV inside a cabinet), then your actions change as well. Imagine if you made one positive environment change each week. Where would your life creep to by the end of the year?

Changing Your Normal

The results you enjoy on your best day are typically a reflection of how you spend your normal day.

Everyone gets obsessed with achieving their very best day—pulling the best score on their test, running their fastest race ever, making the most sales in the department.

I say forget that stuff. Just improve your normal day and the results will take care of themselves. We naturally make long-term changes in our lives by slowly and slightly adjusting our normal everyday habits and behaviors.

Read Next

  1. We could have an entirely separate discussion about whether lifestyle creep is a good thing or not. Typically, the concept is viewed in a negative light because it indicates unnecessary consumerism and the purchasing of items that you don’t really need. Furthermore, lifestyle creeps seems to increase the risk of loss aversion. For example, once you own designer clothes and an expensive car, it can be difficult to go back to rocking Levis and driving a Toyota Camry. That said, I’m not entirely against buying nice things for yourself (provided they are useful or that they bring you happiness), but this discussion is outside the scope of this article. I bring up lifestyle creep here simply to provide an example of how human behavior changes over the long-term in a reliable and long-lasting way. It’s an example of how you can make changes that actually stick and, as is always the case with humans, those changes can be positive or negative.

  2. If you’re wondering, habit creep is a phrase I just invented. Bonus points for me.

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Warren Buffett’s “20 Slot” Rule: How to Simplify Your Life and Maximize Your Results http://jamesclear.com/buffett-slots http://jamesclear.com/buffett-slots#comments Fri, 17 Jul 2015 05:04:23 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=11950 Charlie Munger settled into his seat in front of the crowd at the University of Southern California.

It was 1994 and Munger had spent the last 20 years working alongside Warren Buffett as the two men grew Berkshire Hathaway into a billion-dollar corporation.

Today, Munger was delivering a talk to the USC Business School entitled, “A Lesson on Elementary Worldly Wisdom.” 1

About halfway through his presentation, hidden among many fantastic lessons, Munger discussed a strategy that Warren Buffett had used with great success throughout his career.

Here it is:

When Warren lectures at business schools, he says, “I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it so that you had 20 punches—representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punched through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all.”

He says, “Under those rules, you’d really think carefully about what you did and you’d be forced to load up on what you’d really thought about. So you’d do so much better.”

Again, this is a concept that seems perfectly obvious to me. And to Warren it seems perfectly obvious. But this is one of the very few business classes in the U.S. where anybody will be saying so. It just isn’t the conventional wisdom.

To me, it’s obvious that the winner has to bet very selectively. It’s been obvious to me since very early in life. I don’t know why it’s not obvious to very many other people.

The Underrated Importance of Selective Focus

Warren Buffett’s “20-Slot” Rule isn’t just useful for financial investments, it’s a sound approach for time investments as well. In particular, what struck me about Buffett’s strategy was his idea of “forcing yourself to load up” and go all in on an investment.

The key point is this:

Your odds of success improve when you are forced to direct all of your energy and attention to fewer tasks.

If you want to master a skill—truly master it—you have to be selective with your time. You have to ruthlessly trim away good ideas to make room for great ones. You have to focus on a few essential tasks and ignore the distractions. You have to commit to working through 10 years of silence.

Simplify and Go All In

If you take a look around, you’ll notice very few people actually go “all in” on a single skill or goal for an extended period of time.

Rather than researching carefully and pouring themselves into a goal for a year or two, most people “dip their toes in the water” and chase a new diet, a new college major, a new exercise routine, a new side business idea, or a new career path for a few weeks or months before jumping onto the next new thing.

In my experience, so few people display the persistence to practice one thing for an extended period of time that you can actually become very good in many areas—maybe even world-class—with just one year of focused work. If you view your life as a 20-slot punchcard and each slot is a period of focused work for a year or two, then you can see how you can enjoy significant returns on your invested time simply by going all in on a few things.

My point here is that everyone is holding a “life punchcard” and, if we are considering how many things we can master in a lifetime, there aren’t many slots on that card. You only get so many punches during your time on this little planet. Unlike financial investments, your 20 “life slots” are going to get punched whether you like it or not. The time will pass either way.

Don’t waste your next slot. Think carefully, make a decision, and go all in. Don’t just kind of go for it. Go all in. Your final results are merely a reflection of your prior commitment. 2

Read Next

  1. You can read Munger’s full talk here: “A Lesson on Elementary Worldly Wisdom.” Munger does the title of his talk justice and provides an incredibly useful foundation for building worldly wisdom.

  2. For further reading on the importance of commitment, see “If You Commit to Nothing, You’ll Be Distracted By Everything.”

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