James Clear http://jamesclear.com Why tiny gains make a big difference in health and in life. Tue, 28 Jul 2015 06:51:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.3 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.

  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.

  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.

Going 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

  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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Be More Productive: The 15-Minute Routine Anthony Trollope Used to Write 40+ Books http://jamesclear.com/anthony-trollope http://jamesclear.com/anthony-trollope#comments Mon, 13 Jul 2015 16:05:08 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=11900 Beginning with his first novel in 1847, Anthony Trollope wrote at an incredible pace. Over the next 38 years, he published 47 novels, 18 works of non-fiction, 12 short stories, 2 plays, and an assortment of articles and letters.

Trollope achieved his incredible productivity by writing in 15-minute intervals for three hours per day.

His strategy is explained in Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals (audiobook):

“It had at this time become my custom,—and is still my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient of myself—to write with my watch before me, and to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour…

This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year…”
—Anthony Trollope

Trollope’s approach may seem simple on the surface, but there is more going on here than it may appear at first glance. 1

Let’s break down why this strategy allowed the author to be so productive and how we can use it in our own lives.

Anthony Trollope
Portrait of Anthony Trollope and his glorious beard. (Photographer: Napoleon Sarony)

The Problem With Big Projects

When it comes to getting things done, I have experienced the best results when I rank my priorities based on their true importance and do the most important thing first. Whenever possible, I believe this is the best strategy because it forces you to direct your energy to the tasks of highest value.

That said, there is one common problem with this approach:

After ranking your priorities for the day, if the number one task is a really big project then it can leave you feeling frustrated because it takes a long time to finish.

For example, last week I was working on a project that took two days to complete. On Tuesday morning, when I began the task, I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish it that day. Even through I knew I would work all day without completing the task, I still found myself feeling frustrated by mid-afternoon. It was 4 p.m. and I had spent all day working on the most important task, yet the only thing I had to show for my work was an unfinished project. My to-do list was just as long as it was in the morning, even though I was spending my time in the correct way.

I was doing the right thing, but it can still be disheartening to be stuck on Task #1 when you’ve been working all day. These feelings of frustration are a possible downside of the prioritized to-do list.

Trollope, however, developed a solution to this common problem.

Tiny Milestones, More Momentum

Trollope was in the business of writing books and writing a book is a big project. It is not the type of task that you can complete in a day. In some cases, merely writing a chapter is too big a task for a single day.

However, instead of measuring his progress based on the completion of chapters or books, Trollope measured his progress in 15-minute increments. This approach allowed him to enjoy feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment very quickly while continuing to work on the large task of writing a book.

This is a big deal for two reasons:

  1. Small measures of progress help to maintain momentum over the long-run, which means you’re more likely to finish large tasks.
  2. The faster you complete a productive task, the more quickly your day develops an attitude of productivity and effectiveness. 2

I have found this second point, the speed with which you complete your first task of the day, to be of particular importance for maintaining day-to-day productivity.

Speed to Completion

Trollope didn’t have to wait three months to feel a sense of accomplishment from completing his book nor did he have to wait three days until he finished a chapter. Every fifteen minutes he could check his progress. If he wrote 250 words, he could mentally check that time block off his list and feel a sense of immediate accomplishment.

Trollope’s 15-minute writing block was a well-designed progress meter that allowed Trollope to “get to finished” faster while still working on a big task. He received the long-term value of working on the most important things and the immediate payoff of finishing each little time block quickly.

You can employ a similar strategy for tasks besides writing, of course. For example, rather than measuring his progress on a bigger task like monthly revenue, Trent Dyrsmid tracked each sales call he made with a paper clip.

The basic idea is to design a way to get rapid feedback while working on bigger projects. The faster we get feedback that we are moving in the right direction, the more likely we are to continue moving that way.

Work for the long-term. Measure your progress for the short-term.

P.S. Get More Productivity Strategies

Looking for more productivity tips? Check out the 2015 Procrastination Seminar to get tons of science-backed ideas for how to overcome procrastination, master your priorities, and shave wasted hours off your workweek.

Click here to learn more.

  1. Trollope was a disciplined writer in all respects. When speaking of his writing routine, he said, “It was my practice to be at my table every morning at 5:30AM; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy.”

  2. Journalist Oliver Burkeman summarizes my thoughts by saying, “When I get straight down to something really important early in the morning, before checking email, before interruptions from others, it beneficially alters the feel of the whole day: once interruptions do arise, they’re never quite so problematic.”

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2015 Procrastination Seminar: Focus on What Matters & Shave 10 Hours Off Your Workweek http://jamesclear.com/announcing-2015-procrastination-seminar http://jamesclear.com/announcing-2015-procrastination-seminar#comments Thu, 09 Jul 2015 21:50:55 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=11862 The biggest hurdle to finishing most tasks is starting them.

That’s true for everyday habits like cleaning the house, finishing homework, processing email, and exercising consistently. It’s true for big life projects like writing a book, launching a business, or changing careers. Procrastinating seems like a small pain on a daily basis, but tiny days build into months and years that end up making the difference between success and failure.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “You may delay, but time will not.”

That’s why I’m excited to announce a new online seminar that I will be hosting on July 15, 2015:

The 2015 Procrastination Seminar

If you have a project, big or small, that you’re ready to make progress on, then the 2015 Procrastination Seminar will help you take action and get started. (Now is the best time to grab a spot. The Early Bird discount ends on July 12, 2015 at 11:59PM Eastern time.)

6 Procrastination Problems We’re Going to Solve

After a lot of research (I surveyed over 1,000 of my readers), I have developed a list of 6 major procrastination problems. We’re going to cover exactly how to get past these hurdles in the Procrastination Seminar. See if you recognize some of your own experiences in this list.

6 major reasons we procrastinate:

  1. “I just get consumed by my everyday tasks.”
  2. “I decide my goals with huge motivation, but it doesn’t last very long.”
  3. “I can never finish things on schedule. I feel like I’m constantly falling behind.”
  4. “I get inspired to start, but I wait for something: the perfect time, the perfect day, the perfect idea.”
  5. “When I actually have free time I just waste it away.”
  6. “I know what I need to do, but can’t seem to consistently do those things.”

If you’ve felt those struggles too, then I know you’ll find this seminar useful.

Click here to learn more.

10 Practical Highlights

Throughout the seminar, I’m going to share examples of morning routines successful people use to reach peak productivity. Through these examples, I’m going to deliver 10 practical strategies for overcoming procrastination.

You’ll learn how to:

  1. Spot the de-motivating factors in your life that can trigger procrastination.
  2. Handle mundane tasks with ease and create more time for what matters.
  3. Stop falling victim to the same bad habits again and again.
  4. Transform your unproductive behaviors into positive actions.
  5. Get clear about what you really want and where to spend your time.
  6. Sequence your priorities and avoid doing tasks in the wrong order.
  7. Focus on one task at a time rather than jumping from one idea to the next.
  8. Take action even in the face of doubt and uncertainty.
  9. Eliminate “half-work” and actually finish what you set out to do each day.
  10. Put your productivity on auto-pilot by building habits that actually stick.

Basically, we’re going to cover simple ways to stop being lazy and get more done.

Learn More and Register

The seminar is on July 15, 2015. Early Bird pricing ends on July 12, 2015 at 11:59PM Eastern Time. (Use offer code: ACTION)

Click here to learn more and register for the 2015 Procrastination Seminar.


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The Ivy Lee Method: The Daily Routine Experts Recommend for Peak Productivity http://jamesclear.com/ivy-lee http://jamesclear.com/ivy-lee#comments Tue, 07 Jul 2015 06:36:27 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=11716 By 1918, Charles M. Schwab was one of the richest men in the world.

Schwab was the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second-largest steel producer in America at the time. The famous inventor Thomas Edison once referred to Schwab as the “master hustler.” He was constantly seeking an edge over the competition. 1

One day in 1918, in his quest to increase the efficiency of his team and discover better ways to get things done, Schwab arranged a meeting with a highly-respected productivity consultant named Ivy Lee.

Lee was a successful businessman in his own right and is widely remembered as a pioneer in the field of public relations. As the story goes, Schwab brought Lee into his office and said, “Show me a way to get more things done.”

“Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives,” Lee replied.

“How much will it cost me,” Schwab asked.

“Nothing,” Lee said. “Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you.” 2

The Ivy Lee Method

During his 15 minutes with each executive, Lee explained his simple method for achieving peak productivity:

  1. At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
  2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
  3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
  4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
  5. Repeat this process every working day.

The strategy sounded simple, but Schwab and his executive team at Bethlehem Steel gave it a try. After three months, Schwab was so delighted with the progress his company had made that he called Lee into his office and wrote him a check for $25,000.

A $25,000 check written in 1918 is the equivalent of a $400,000 check in 2015. 3

The Ivy Lee Method of prioritizing your to-do list seems stupidly simple. How could something this simple be worth so much?

What makes it so effective?

Ivy Ledbetter Lee
Portrait of Ivy Ledbetter Lee from the early 1900s. (Photographer: Unknown)

On Managing Priorities Well

Ivy Lee’s productivity method utilizes many of the concepts I have written about previously.

Here’s what makes it so effective:

It’s simple enough to actually work. The primary critique of methods like this one is that they are too basic. They don’t account for all of the complexities and nuances of life. What happens if an emergency pops up? What about using the latest technology to our fullest advantage? In my experience, complexity is often a weakness because it makes it harder to get back on track. Yes, emergencies and unexpected distractions will arise. Ignore them as much as possible, deal with them when you must, and get back to your prioritized to-do list as soon as possible. Use simple rules to guide complex behavior.

It forces you to make tough decisions. I don’t believe there is anything magical about Lee’s number of six important tasks per day. It could just as easily be five tasks per day. However, I do think there is something magical about imposing limits upon yourself. I find that the single best thing to do when you have too many ideas (or when you’re overwhelmed by everything you need to get done) is to prune your ideas and trim away everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Constraints can make you better. Lee’s method is similar to Warren Buffet’s 25-5 Rule, which requires you to focus on just 5 critical tasks and ignore everything else. Basically, if you commit to nothing, you’ll be distracted by everything.

It removes the friction of starting. The biggest hurdle to finishing most tasks is starting them. (Getting off the couch can be tough, but once you actually start running it is much easier to finish your workout.) Lee’s method forces you to decide on your first task the night before you go to work. This strategy has been incredibly useful for me: as a writer, I can waste three or four hours debating what I should write about on a given day. If I decide the night before, however, I can wake up and start writing immediately. It’s simple, but it works. In the beginning, getting started is just as important as succeeding at all.

It requires you to single-task. Modern society loves multi-tasking. The myth of multi-tasking is that being busy is synonymous with being better. The exact opposite is true. Having fewer priorities leads to better work. Study world-class experts in nearly any field—athletes, artists, scientists, teachers, CEOs—and you’ll discover one characteristic runs through all of them: focus. The reason is simple. You can’t be great at one task if you’re constantly dividing your time ten different ways. Master requires focus and consistency.

The bottom line? Do the most important thing first each day. It’s the only productivity trick you need. 4

P.S. Get More Expert Tips For Increased Productivity

If you enjoyed this little lesson on overcoming procrastination and getting things done, then you’ll love my live 2015 Procrastination Seminar. We’ll talk about what’s working now, what always works, and what to avoid if you want to shave wasted hours off your workweek and get more done.

Over 3,000 satisfied students have attended my previous seminars and this one is going to share all-new information. It will be packed with science-backed ideas and practical strategies for overcoming procrastination.

The seminar is going to be on July 15 at 1PM Eastern Time (New York City timezone). A full recording will be available to everyone that signs up. I’ll be sharing full details later this week, but if you know you’re interested then you can learn more and sign up here.

  1. Charles M. Schwab, the president of Bethlehem Steel, is not related to the American banking and brokerage magnate, Charles R. Schwab, who is the founder of the Charles Schwab Corporation. What are the odds that two unrelated men named Charles Schwab each end up with a personal net worth over $500 million? Pretty good apparently.

  2. It is unbelievable how hard it is to track down an original source for this story. Most stories incorrectly list the year of Lee and Schwab’s meeting as 1905 or so, but 1918 seems to be the accurate year as listed in pages 118-119 of “The Unseen Power: Public Relations: A History” by Scott M. Cutlip. Among the many books that mention reference this story are The Time Trap by R. Alec Mackenzie and Mary Kay: You Can Have It All by Mary Kay. The earliest reference I have tracked down for the story is from the 1960s. If you are aware of any earlier sources, please let me know and I will update this article accordingly.

  3. When calculating the equivalent value of a $25,000 check from 1918 in 2015 terms, I came up with results between $390,000 and $428,000 depending on which methods and numbers are used to calculate inflation. Thus, $400,000 seems like a reasonable middle ground.

  4. Thanks to UJ Ramdas who originally told me about the story of Charles M. Schwab and Ivy Lee. And to Cameron Herold, who shared the story with UJ.

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The Power of Placebo: This Is What Happens When You Believe You’re Taking Steroids http://jamesclear.com/power-of-placebo http://jamesclear.com/power-of-placebo#comments Fri, 03 Jul 2015 04:57:39 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=11683 Fifteen athletes were scattered around the room. Everyone was looking at Gideon Ariel.

“We’re going to give you steroids,” he lied.

It was 1972 and Ariel was conducting a study on athletic performance with his research partner William Saville. On this particular day, the two men were offering the athletes an interesting proposition.

Ariel explained that the study would last for 11 weeks. The athletes would lift weights for the first 7 weeks and those who made the most improvement during that period would be rewarded with Dianabol, an anabolic steroid, for the final 4 weeks of training.

What the athletes didn’t know was that the researchers were lying to them. After the initial 7-week training period, the scientists randomly selected six athletes as the winners. However, despite being told they were getting real steroids, the athletes actually received placebo pills.

What happened next surprised everyone.

Four weeks later, when the researchers conducted the final test, the athletes set all-time personal records in every exercise tested. Before the placebo pills, the lifters added an average of 5.8 lbs (2.6 kg) to their squat during the first 7 weeks of training. After they believed they were taking steroids, they added an average of 41.8 lbs (18.9 kg) in just 4 more weeks of training. That’s a 7x increase in nearly half the time. 1

The same scene played out in nearly every exercise. During the first 7 weeks of training, the lifters increased their bench press by about 10 lbs (4.5 kg) on average. After 4 weeks of receiving placebo pills that they believed to be steroids, the athletes added an average of 29.3 lbs (13.3 kg) to their bench press numbers. On military press, they increased by an average of 1.6 lbs (0.7 kg) during the initial 7-week period, but added an average of 16.7 lbs (7.6 kg) during the 4 weeks on placebo pills. 2

The evidence was clear. Every athlete got stronger simply because they believed they were on steroids. They expected to improve and so they did. 3

The Placebo Effect

The placebo effect (or placebo response) occurs when a fake treatment improves a person’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.

For example, imagine a hypothetical weight loss study that divides participants into two groups.

  • Group A is told they are taking a weight loss pill, but actually receives a sugar pill as a placebo.
  • Group B is told they are taking a weight loss pill and actually receives one.

If Group A loses weight, then they are said to have experienced the placebo effect (they lost weight simply because they expected to lose weight). If Group B loses the same amount of weight as Group A, then the weight loss pill is deemed ineffective because it didn’t work any better than the placebo.

The placebo effect often gets a negative connotation because if a new drug doesn’t work better than a placebo, then it doesn’t work. So, we tend to associate the placebo effect with things that don’t work. This mindset can be useful for testing new drugs, but it tends to hide an important message:

Placebo improvements are still real improvements. Those weren’t real steroids the athletes were given, but those were real gains that they made in the gym. Whether they lifted bigger weights because they actually took steroids or because they merely believed they took steroids, either way they lifted bigger weights.

If you believe something works, then it probably works. But not always for the reasons you thought.

If You Think It Works, It Works

When we believe a particular strategy works, we find ways to make it work. The power of the placebo effect—and, more generally, having the expectation of success—is that it pulls your mind into a focused state where you actively seek out all of the reasons you will succeed.

We all have a default level of performance. Most of our days are spent grinding away at an average speed. But I am convinced that there is more inside of us—not just a little bit more, but much, much more.

Imagine the results you can enjoy if you can just get your body, your mind, and your heart all rowing in the same direction. Imagine what kind of performance is waiting inside of you, if you can just find the courage and conviction to believe in it.

How can we make ourselves feel this way? How can we convince ourselves to believe that we are capable of more?

Honestly, I’m not sure. Properly balancing your psychology and your performance is a tricky thing to do. However, the placebo effect makes one thing very clear: you have untapped potential inside of you and it is just waiting to come out.

  1. Every athlete in the study had been lifting weights for at least two years and they were fairly strong already. Before the experiment, each athlete could bench press around 295 lbs (133 kg), squat about 300 lbs (135 kg), and military press almost 195 lbs (88 kg). In other words, they weren’t beginners.

  2. “Anabolic Steroids: The Physiological Effects of Placebos” by G. Ariel and W. Saville. Medicine and Science in Sports (1972). p.124-126

  3. The performance increases published in the study by Ariel and Saville are larger than usual. That said, the impact of the placebo effect on athletic performance has been proven in a multiple followup studies. This meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Mental Health in 2011 summarizes the current scientific consensus on the topic: “The main finding of this meta-analysis was that placebo treatments have a small to moderate effect on sports performance.”

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Two Harvard Professors Reveal One Reason Our Brains Love to Procrastinate http://jamesclear.com/time-inconsistency http://jamesclear.com/time-inconsistency#comments Tue, 30 Jun 2015 06:38:15 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=11497 Sometime around 2006, two Harvard professors began to study why we procrastinate. Why do we avoid doing the things we know we should do, even when it’s clear that they are good for us?

To answer this question, the two professors — Todd Rogers and Max Bazerman — conducted a study where participants were asked whether they would agree to enroll in a savings plan that automatically placed two percent of their paycheck in a savings account.

Nearly every participant agreed that saving money was a good idea, but their behavior said otherwise:

  • One version of the question asked participants to enroll in the savings plan as soon as possible. In this scenario, only 30 percent of people said they would agree to enroll in the plan.
  • In another version of the question, participants were asked to enroll in a savings plan in the distant future (like a year from today). In this scenario, 77 percent of people said they would agree to enroll in the plan.

Why did the timeline alter their responses so much?

As it turns out, this little experiment can tell us a lot about why we procrastinate on behaviors that we know we should do.

Present You vs. Future You

We have a tendency to care too much about our present selves and not enough about our future selves. We like to enjoy immediate benefits in the present, especially if the costs of our choices don’t become apparent until far in the future.

For example:

  • The payoff of eating a donut is immediate (sugar!) and the cost of skipping workouts won’t show up until you’ve skipped for months.
  • The payoff of spending money today is immediate (new iPhone!) and the cost of forgetting to save for retirement won’t show up until you’re years behind.
  • The payoff of unhindered fossil fuel usage is immediate (more energy! more heat! more electricity!) and the cost of climate change won’t reveal itself until decades of damage have been done.

However, when we consider these problems in the distant future, our choices usually change. In one year, who you rather be overweight and eating donuts or healthy and exercising consistently? In the long-run the choice is easy, but when it comes time to make the choice today, in this very moment, we discount the long-term costs and overvalue the immediate benefits of unproductive behaviors.

Behavioral economists refer to this concept “time inconsistency” because when we think about the future we want to make choices that lead to long-term benefits (“Yes, I’ll save more!”), but when we think about today, we want to make choices that lead to short-term benefits (“I’ll spend it right now.”). 1

I like to call this the Present You vs. Future You problem. Future You knows you should do things that lead to the highest benefit in the long-term, but Present You tends to overvalue things that lead to immediate benefit right now.

Alright, so what can we do about all of this?

The Answer to Inconsistency

If you want to beat procrastination and make better long-term choices, then you have to find a way to make your present self act in the best interest of your future self.

You have three primary options: 2

  1. Make the rewards of long-term behavior more immediate.
  2. Make the costs of procrastination more immediate.
  3. Remove procrastination triggers from your environment.

Let’s break down each one.

1. Make the rewards of long-term behavior more immediate. The reason we procrastinate is because our mind wants an immediate benefit. If you can find a way to make the benefits of good long-term choices more immediate, then it becomes easier to avoid procrastination. One way to do this is to simply imagine the benefits your future self will enjoy. Visualize what your life will be like if you lose those 30 pounds. Think about why saving money now is important to your future. Pull the future payoff into the present moment in your mind’s eye. 3

2. Make the costs of procrastination more immediate. There are many ways to force you to pay the costs of procrastination sooner rather than later. For example, if you are exercising alone skipping your workout next week won’t impact your life much at all. Your health won’t deteriorate immediately because you missed that one workout. The cost of procrastinating on exercise only becomes painful after weeks and months of lazy behavior. However, if you pre-commit to working out with a friend at 7 a.m. next Monday, then the cost of skipping your workout becomes more immediate. Miss this one workout and you look like a jerk.

Here are some other ways to make procrastination more costly:

  • Set a public deadline for your behavior. (“I am going to publish a new article every Monday.”)
  • Place an expensive bet on your behavior. (“For each workout I miss, I will pay my friend $50.)
  • Make a physical consequence for your behavior. (“For each dish I leave unwashed in the sink, I have to do 25 pushups.”)

3. Remove procrastination triggers from your environment. The most powerful way to change your behavior is to change your environment. It doesn’t take much guesswork to figure out why this is true. In a normal situation, you might choose to eat a cookie rather than eat vegetables. What if the cookie wasn’t there to begin with? It is much easier to make the right choice if you’re surrounded by better choices. Remove the distractions from your environment and create a space with better choice architecture.

Want to take it a step further? You can add triggers to your environment that prompt the good behaviors. Check out the Paper Clip Strategy as an example.

The Way Forward

“We’ll increasingly be defined by what we say no to.”
-Paul Graham 4

Each day, we are faced with hundreds of tiny decisions. The option to either take the easy way out and jump at instant gratification or to say no to temptation and commit to a long-term behavior.

These daily choices end up defining our reality. It is increasingly the distractions we avoid that define our capacity for success.

The Procrastination Seminar

If you enjoyed this little lesson on overcoming procrastination, then you’ll love my live 2015 Procrastination Seminar that I’ll be running in a few weeks. You can learn more here.

  1. The concept of time inconsistency is similar and often interchangeable with other psychological concepts like dynamic inconsistency, the immediacy effect, and temporal discounting. Regardless of what you call it, the main idea is the same: we treat our present selves and our future selves differently.

  2. These are by no means the only methods of beating procrastination and inconsistency, but I’ve found these three to be useful.

  3. Although I certainly believe that visualizing long-term benefits can work, I find it to be the weakest of the three options because it can be very hard to remember to visualize future outcomes in the moment.

  4. Source: The Acceleration of Addictiveness by Paul Graham.

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How to Stop Procrastinating and Boost Your Willpower by Using “Temptation Bundling” http://jamesclear.com/temptation-bundling http://jamesclear.com/temptation-bundling#comments Thu, 25 Jun 2015 22:06:14 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=11434 Like many people, Katy Milkman knew she should be exercising more.

But each day she left her job as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania feeling exhausted and drained. By the time she made it home, all she wanted to do was curl up on the couch and read a book or turn on her favorite TV show. On this particular day, she wanted to read The Hunger Games.

That’s when she had an idea.

What if she created a rule for herself? What if she was only allowed to read The Hunger Games when she went to the gym?

Temptation Bundling

“I struggle at the end of a long day to get myself to the gym even though I know that I should go. And at the end of a long day, I also struggle with the desire to watch my favorite TV shows instead of getting work done.

And so I actually realized that those two temptations, those two struggles I faced, could be combined to solve both problems.”
-Katy Milkman, Wharton School of Business 1

Milkman’s strategy worked. Not only did she go to the gym more often, she actually looked forward to going to the gym because it meant that she got to do one of her favorite things: read a good book or watch her favorite TV shows.

This idea that you can make it easier to perform a behavior that is good for you in the long-run by combining it with a behavior that feels good in the short-run is what Milkman refers to as “temptation bundling.” You are essentially bundling behaviors you are tempted to do with behaviors that you should do, but often neglect.

Milkman was happy with the progress that she was making in her own life, but she wanted to see if the idea extended beyond her own behavior. Given her interest in behavioral economics and her teaching post at one of the country’s finest universities, she naturally decided to design a research study.

Milkman and her colleagues studied the exercise habits of 226 students, faculty, and staff at the University of Pennsylvania. After teaching a cohort of the participants how to use temptation bundling, Milkman found that people who used temptation bundling were 29 percent to 51 percent more likely to exercise when compared to the control group. The findings were quickly published in Management Science (full study). 2

How to Create Your Temptation Bundle

There is a simple exercise you can use to figure out your own temptation bundling strategy.

You’re going to create a two column list:

  1. In column one, write down the pleasures you enjoy and the temptations that you want to do.
  2. In column two, write down the tasks and behaviors you should be doing, but often procrastinate on.

Take your time and write down as many behaviors as possible. Then, browse your list and see if you can link one of your instantly gratifying “want” behaviors with something you “should” be doing.

Here are a few common examples of temptation bundling:

  • Only listen to audiobooks or podcasts you love while exercising.
  • Only get a pedicure while processing overdue work emails.
  • Only watch your favorite show while ironing or doing household chores.
  • Only eat at your favorite restaurant when conducting your monthly meeting with a difficult colleague.

The Temptation Bundling concept by Katy Milkman

Always Important, Never Urgent

There are many factors that contribute to success, but you can make a strong argument that consistently accomplishing tasks which are important, but not urgent is the one ability that separates top performers from everyone else.

Consider how many tasks are important to our progress, but not urgent in our daily lives.

  • Getting a workout in will never feel like an urgent task on any particular day, but exercising consistently will change your health and your life.
  • Cleaning your office space or kitchen will rarely feel like an immediate need, but reducing clutter can clear your mind and reduce chronic stress.
  • Practicing the fundamentals of your craft is often boring, but when you master these core skills you begin to separate yourself from your competitors.

The tasks that are important are rarely urgent.

Temptation bundling offers a simple way to accomplish these tasks that are always important, but never feel urgent. By using your guilty pleasures pull you in, you make it easier to follow through on more difficult habits that pay off in the long-run. 3

P.S. The 2015 Procrastination Seminar

This article shares a strategy for how to stop procrastinating and offers some psychological research to back it up. If you’re interested in more science-backed ways to overcome procrastination, then you’ll enjoy my upcoming seminar on July 15, 2015. The 2015 Procrastination Seminar will share proven ideas for how to conquer your inner blocks, focus on what matters, and shave wasted hours off your workweek.

Click here to learn more.

  1. Source: “When Willpower Isn’t Enough.” Freakonomics Radio.

  2. The range of results depended on the degree to which participants implemented temptation bundling. A full treatment resulted in a 51 percent improvement. An intermediate treatment led to a 29 percent improvement.

  3. Thanks to my main man John Kester III for originally telling me about temptation bundling.

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