James Clear http://jamesclear.com Why tiny gains make a big difference in health and in life. Fri, 03 Jul 2015 04:57:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.2 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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Lessons From a Vexillonaire: Creativity, Simplicity, and the Carefully Constrained Life http://jamesclear.com/vexillology http://jamesclear.com/vexillology#comments Mon, 22 Jun 2015 20:41:20 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=11313 The flag of Chicago is widely regarded as one of the best city flags in the United States, perhaps in the world. It is certainly one of the most popular. You’ll find the flag of Chicago printed on t-shirts and mugs, tattooed on local musicians, and flying along streets, over rivers, and above doors throughout the city.

The flag has three white bars and two blue stripes. The white areas represent the three main sides of the city: North, West, and South. The blue stripes stand for the north and south branches of the Chicago River flowing into Lake Michigan. In the center of the flag, there are four red stars symbolizing historical events in the city like the Great Chicago Fire.

Vexillology is the scientific study of flags. The flag of Chicago received stellar 9.03 out of 10 rating from the North American Vexillological Association and was ranked 2nd out of 150 city flags by flag experts known as vexillologists. 1

Let’s talk about why good flag design can teach us an important lesson about life.

chicago illinois photos
The American flag and the flag of Chicago fly in front of a building in downtown Chicago.

How to Design a Beautiful Flag

“A 3×5 foot flag on a pole 100 feet away looks about the same size as a 1×1.5 inch rectangle seen about 15 inches from your eye. Try drawing your flag on a rectangle that is 1×1.5 inches. You’ll be surprised at how compelling and simple the design can be when you hold yourself to that limitation.”
-Ted Kaye, vexillonaire 2

If you wanted to design the best flag possible, then you would want to think creatively. Your first thought might be give yourself as many possibilities as possible. “Give me a blank slate. I want tons of colors and a huge poster board to design this on. I want space to be creative and let my imagination run wild.”

What you actually need, however, is a 1×1.5 inch piece of paper. Placing this simple constraint on yourself actually makes your design better.

You see, flag designs that often look good on paper fail in the real world. A design that looks good in the pages of a report is often confusing and unrecognizable when it is flapping in the breeze 100 feet away.

What makes the flag of Chicago so compelling is its simplicity. If you were to draw the flag of Chicago on a 1×1.5 inch piece of paper, it would still look like a good design. The same principle can be applied to our everyday lives. We often assume that we need more resources when a carefully constructed constraint would deliver better results.

The Carefully Constrained Life

The power of well-chosen limitations extends far beyond flag design. Imposing simple constraints in our own lives can lead to well-designed and more effective lives as well.

Here are a few examples from my own experience:

As an entrepreneur, I saved up $10,000 before I started my first business. This money was my constraint. I had to learn how to create products, market my business, and live off of that money until I became profitable. This constraint forced me to start an online business, reduce overhead, and—after a few years of other projects—build this website.

As a traveler, I pack ultralight and often travel for 2 weeks with just a 19-liter backpack. This tiny bag is my constraint. It still amazes me how little I actually need when I’m on the road. Furthermore, my small backpack required me to find the most useful and effective items for my needs. It didn’t just make my travel lighter, it made my travel better.

As a writer, I set a publishing schedule of every Monday and Thursday. This bi-weekly deadline is my constraint. Has it always gone smoothly? No way. Sometimes I don’t feel like showing up, but I still do. And because I have religiously kept this publishing schedule, I have some very popular articles to show for it. Genius only reveals itself when you show up enough times to get the average ideas out of the way.

We usually assume that constraints are the things that hold us back from what we want, but well-placed limitations can make us better, not worse. 3

Read Next

  1. Go and brush your shoulders off, Chicagoans.

  2. A vexillonaire is a particularly passionate breed of vexillologist who actively goes out into the world and lobbies for better flag design. Go get ‘em, vexies.

  3. Thanks to Roman Mars and the rest of the 99 Percent Invisible staff for their episode on vexillonaires, which led to the idea for this article.

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Fast Growth is Overrated http://jamesclear.com/yuri-vardanyan http://jamesclear.com/yuri-vardanyan#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 06:12:09 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=11266 We live in a world obsessed with what we do.

  • What did you earn from your job last year?
  • What place did your team finish in the standings?
  • What trophy did you win? What award did you get? What measure of social status did you receive?

In moderation, this focus on what is fine. I like getting results just as much as the next person. I like performing well. I like being on top of my game. Achievement can be a good thing.

However, our obsessive focus on what we’re winning can also blind us from understanding how, precisely, people become winners. If you focus too much on the finish line, you miss the strategy going on during the race.

As I continue to study top performers from all areas of life – athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, and more – I’ve begun to see similar patterns emerge among these people. Today, we’re going to venture to the world of weightlifting to uncover one of these patterns.

The Incredible Success of Yuri Vardanyan

Yuri Vardanyan is widely considered one of the greatest olympic weightlifters of all-time. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Vardanyan routinely set world records in the sport and his run of success from 1977 to 1985 is stunning. 1

Here are Vardanyan’s results at the World Weightlifting Championships and the Olympic Games during that time span:

  • 1977 World Championships – Gold
  • 1978 World Championships – Gold
  • 1979 World Championships – Gold
  • 1980 Olympics – Gold
  • 1981 World Championships – Gold
  • 1982 World Championships – Silver
  • 1983 World Championship – Gold
  • 1985 World Championship – Gold

Now for the important question:

What methods did Vardanyan use to achieve such an incredible run of success? Are there any lessons we can learn from him and apply to our own lives?

Yurik Vardanian
Yuri Vardanian receiving the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. (Image Source: RIA Novosti Archive.)

Volume Before Intensity

In 1992, after his own weightlifting career had finished, Yuri moved his family to the United States. His son, Norik Vardanian, began to make a name for himself in weightlifting a few years later.

Today, Norik is the number one ranked weightlifter in the United States and is hoping to qualify for his second Olympic Games in 2016. Recently, Norik posted a training video (here) of a successful attempt to set a new personal record on front squat as his dad watched on, coaching him.

Here’s what he said:

200 kg (440 lbs) PR front squat for 5 reps. These are the only types of PR’s my dad allows me to attempt… reps. He is not a big fan of 1RM in training. He had told me years ago that his best front squat workout was when he did 200kg for 5 reps.

Pause for a moment and consider how this training approach differs from that of most people in the gym (and in many other areas of life as well).

If the best training method for an Olympian is to focus on doing a volume of work and mastering repetition after repetition, why would it make sense for you or I to train by lifting a maximum amount of weight possible? And yet, this is often a trap we fall into.

The problem with the “Go Big or Go Home” philosophy is that when you don’t have the underlying foundation of strength to handle the intensity of the effort, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.

This is why I believe you should focus on volume before intensity.

Fast Growth Is Overrated

So many of the problems I have run into as an entrepreneur, as a writer, and as an athlete have been because I have tried to grow too fast. I was so focused on getting a particular result that I ignored the fundamental habits that would have made my growth sustainable.

Fast growth forces you into a higher cost environment and if you don’t have the systems and ability to handle those costs, you’ll end up paying for it.

  • When I tried to push myself to lift bigger weights in record time, my body got run down and injured.
  • When I tried to force my business to the “next level” without knowing what I was getting into, I got stressed out and stepped on people’s toes without meaning to.
  • When I tried to push down the accelerator and double revenues, I fell flat on my face with a product launch and didn’t have a system that could service customers properly.

Intense growth and intense effort are great — if you have the foundation to handle the intensity. This is why Yuri Vardanyan focuses on five-rep maxes. He’s building the foundation.

Put in your reps and build the capacity to do the work. There will be time for maxing out later. First, build the foundation.

  1. Despite being the gold medal favorite, Yuri Vardanyan did not compete at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles because the Soviet Union boycotted the Olympics along with 14 other countries.

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Famous Biologist Louis Agassiz on the Usefulness of Learning Through Observation http://jamesclear.com/louis-agassiz http://jamesclear.com/louis-agassiz#comments Tue, 16 Jun 2015 06:43:32 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=10983 Louis Agassiz, the famous Swiss biologist, placed a fish specimen on the table in front of his post-graduate student.

“That’s only a sunfish,” the student said.

“I know that,” Agassiz replied.

He continued, “Write a description of it. Find out what you can without damaging the specimen. When I think that you have done the work I will question you.” 1

The Power of Observation

The student wrote for an nearly an hour, until he felt confident that he knew nearly all there was to know about this particular fish.

Much to the student’s frustration, however, Agassiz did not return to see him that day. His teacher did not come the next day either. Nor for the entire week that followed. Eventually, the student realized Agassiz’s game: the teacher wanted him to observe the fish more deeply.

After nearly one hundreds hours of study, the student began to notice finer details that had escaped his vision previously: how the scales of the fish were shaped and the patterns they made, the placement of the teeth, the shape of each individual tooth, and so on. When his teacher finally returned and the student explained all that he had learned, Agassiz replied, “That’s not right.” And walked out of the room. 2

Shocked and angry at first, the student eventually recommitted to the task with new vigor. He threw out all of his previous notes. He studied the fish for 10 hours per day for an entire week. When he met with Agassiz a final time, the student had produced work that “astonished.” 3

Louis Agassiz
Louis Agassiz circa 1865. (Photographer: John Adams Whipple.)

The Art of Comparing Objects

After his investigation of the sunfish Agassiz’s student wrote, “I had learned the art of comparing objects.” How does this tooth compare to the one next to it? How does this scale compare to the one on the opposite side? How does the symmetry of the bottom half of the fish compare to the top half?

The art of comparing objects is a remarkably useful strategy in many areas of life. Take weightlifting, for example.

For the first five years that I lifted weights, I experienced mediocre results at best. I assumed that it was information that held me back. Like many people, I thought that once I found the right workout routine, then I would be set. I was under the assumption that I simply hadn’t reached the next level yet because I hadn’t come across the right information. What I didn’t realize was my search for the perfect pre-made formula was preventing me from observing my actual results.

When I started to observe with greater care and focus, I realized that my body tended to respond better to higher volume rather than higher intensity. I noticed that my foundational strength in major movements like the squat and deadlift was lacking. I was able to use these observational discoveries to tailor my training to my needs and, subsequently, make much greater strides because of it. It was through comparing what I was doing with what was actually working for me that I made progress.

Do the Work For Yourself

“I never pay attention to anything by ‘experts.’ I calculate everything myself.”
-Richard Feynman

When Richard Feynman, the brilliant physicist, was working on a new theory of beta decay he noticed something surprising. For years, experts had been saying that beta decay occurred in a particular way, but when Feynman actually ran the experiments he kept getting a different result.

Eventually, Feynman investigated the original data that all of the expert’s were basing their theory on and discovered that the study was flawed. For years, nobody had bothered to read or repeat the original study! All of the experts just kept quoting one another and used their mutual opinions as justification for the theory. Then Feynman came along and turned everything upside simply because he did the calculations himself. 4

Look, And See for Yourself

“Take the facts into your own hands; look, and see for yourself!”
-Louis Agassiz

Pick any industry of life and you’ll find that very few people actually do the work.

Rather than read the original study, most people cite the headline from a secondary source. Rather than spend 100 hours observing every detail of a fish, most biology students would look up the description of the fish online. When most people say, “I read an article on climate change,” what they really mean is, “I read the title of an article on climate change.”

This is exactly why doing the boring work more consistently is actually a competitive advantage. Ignore the expert advice and pay attention to what gets results for you.

Look, and see for yourself.

  1. This story about Agassiz has been told by two different sources. First, in The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, who was a student of Agassiz. Second, in Ezra Pound’s classic book, The ABC of Reading (Kindle). Pound’s version is known as the Parable of the Sunfish and deviates slightly from the original sources. I’ve done my best to represent Agassiz accurately here.

  2. From what I can tell, this was fairly standard behavior for Agassiz. He would, reportedly, “lock a student up in a room full of turtle-shells, or lobster-shells, or oyster-shells, without a book or a word to help him, and not let him out till he had discovered all the truths which the objects contained.” (Source: Speech by William James at the reception of the American Society of Naturalists on December 30, 1896.)

  3. The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler. Page 99.

  4. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (audiobook) by Richard Feynman. Page 254-255.

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How to Fall in Love With Boredom and Unlock Your Mental Toughness http://jamesclear.com/in-love-with-boredom http://jamesclear.com/in-love-with-boredom#comments Fri, 12 Jun 2015 05:28:03 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=10932 Whether we are talking about athletes, artists, or academics, the story is the same. If you want to fulfill your potential then you must practice a specific skill for a long time with remarkable consistency. Mastery is never an accident.

Somehow, top performers in any craft figure out a way to fall in love with boredom, put in their reps, and do the work.

Of course, whenever “experts” share stories about successful people they often leave out a key ingredient of the story. How, exactly, do top performers fall in love with boredom? Perhaps more important, how can you fall in love with boredom when you’re trying to build a habit that you know you should do, but you don’t really want to do.

Let me share two strategies that work for me.

How to Fall in Love With Boredom

First, there is very little hope for falling in love with a habit that you truly hate. I don’t know anyone who legitimately dislikes an activity and somehow falls in love with doing it. It doesn’t add up. It’s very difficult to hate something and be in love with it at the same time. (Your ex doesn’t count.)

Let’s say you dislike working out, but you know it’s good for you. If you want to fall in love with the boredom of going to the gym, then you have two options.

Option 1: Increase your proficiency at the task.

Even tasks that you are good at will feel monotonous some days, so imagine the uphill battle you’re fighting if you are constantly trying to do something that you don’t feel skilled at. The solution? Learn the basic fundamentals of your task and celebrate the small wins and improvements you make. With our workout example, let’s say you purchase Starting Strength and learn how to do a proper deadlift or bench press. Practicing these new skills in the gym can be fun and making tiny improvements each week builds momentum. It’s much easier to fall in love with doing something over and over again if you can look forward to making progress.

Option 2: Fall in love with a result of the task rather than the task itself.

Let’s be real: there are some things that we should do that are always going to be a hassle. Running sprints might be an example. Very few people look forward to setting their lungs on fire.

I find that I have more success in situations like these when I shift my focus away from the actual task and toward a result. Sometimes this is a direct result of the habit I’m trying to perform. Other times, it’s a result that I invent. For example, you can make a game out of not missing workouts even if you don’t enjoy the workout itself. Let’s say you have done two sprint workouts in a row. Your goal is to fall in love with becoming the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. You’re not worried about how you perform. You’re not worried about if you’re getting faster. You’re not worried about getting six-pack abs or any other type of result. For the most part, you’re not even thinking about the workout. Instead, you’re simply focused on keeping your workout streak alive.

This is basically the Seinfeld Strategy applied to exercise. Your only goal is to “not break the chain.” By shifting your focus away from the activity you dislike, you’re giving yourself an opportunity to fall in love with the boredom of sticking to the streak (something you do enjoy).

The Power of Patience

I was speaking with a friend at the gym recently. He had decided to change his weightlifting routine despite making good progress with his old program. I asked him why. He made a few excuses before eventually saying, “Basically, I got bored.”

It has taken me years to learn this lesson myself, but I’m starting to believe that a beautiful blend of patience and consistency is the ultimate competitive advantage. Success is often found by practicing the fundamentals that everyone knows they should be doing, but they find too boring or basic to practice routinely.

It’s like making 120 sales calls per day. There’s nothing sexy about it, but it works. You don’t need to reinvent the fundamentals. You need to commit to them. Do more of what already works. 1

  1. Thanks to readers Roshni, Sebastian, and Jonathan for suggesting this topic. As always, I love hearing about the topics you’d like me to write about and welcome any feedback you have on how to make my work more useful.

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What I Do When I Feel Like Giving Up http://jamesclear.com/giving-up http://jamesclear.com/giving-up#comments Tue, 09 Jun 2015 05:37:51 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=10687 I am struggling today. If you’ve ever struggled to be consistent with something you care about, maybe my struggle will resonate with you too.

It has been 939 days since November 12, 2012. That’s the date when I first published an article on JamesClear.com and it’s almost 2 years and 7 months ago. During these 939 mostly glorious, sometimes frustrating days, I have written a new post every Monday and Thursday. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year.

But today? Well, today I am struggling. Today, I don’t feel like writing. Today, I don’t feel like sticking to the routine. Today, I don’t feel like I have any great ideas and I don’t feel like I have enough time to make the good ideas great. Today, I feel like giving up.

Research from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that grit is the characteristic linked most closely to success. I could use some grit today.

Here’s what I try to remind myself of when I feel like giving up…

Your Mind is a Suggestion Engine

Consider every thought you have as a suggestion, not an order. Right now, my mind is suggesting that I feel tired. It is suggesting that I give up. It is suggesting that I take an easier path.

If I pause for a moment, however, I can discover new suggestions. My mind is also suggesting that I will feel very good about accomplishing this work once it is done. It is suggesting that I will respect the identity I am building when I stick to the schedule. It is suggesting that I have the ability to finish this task, even when I don’t feel like.

Remember, none of these suggestions are orders. They are merely options. I have the power to choose which option I follow. 1

Discomfort Is Temporary

Relative to the time in your normal day or week, nearly any habit you perform is over quickly. Your workout will be finished in an hour or two. Your report will be typed to completion by tomorrow morning. This article will be finished in just a moment.

Life is easier now than it has ever been. 300 years ago, if you didn’t kill your own food and build your own house, you would die. Today, we whine about forgetting our iPhone charger.

Maintain perspective. Your life is good and your discomfort is temporary. Step into this moment of discomfort and let it strengthen you.

You Will Never Regret Good Work Once It is Done

Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” So often it seems that we want to work easily at work worth doing. We want our work to be helpful and respected, but we do not want to struggle through our work. We want our stomachs to be flat and our arms to be strong, but we do not want to grind through another workout. We want the final result, but not the failed attempts that precede it. We want the gold, but not the grind.

Anyone can want a gold medal. Few people want to train like an Olympian.

And yet, despite our resistance to it, I have never found myself feeling worse after the hard work was done. There have been days when it was damn hard to start, but it was always worth finishing. Sometimes, the simple act of showing up and having the courage to do the work, even in an average manner, is a victory worth celebrating.

This Is Life

Life is a constant balance between giving into the ease of distraction or overcoming the pain of discipline. It is not an exaggeration to say that our lives and our identities are defined in this delicate balance. What is life, if not the sum of a hundred thousand daily battles and tiny decisions to either gut it out or give it up?

This moment when you don’t feel like doing the work? This is not a moment to be thrown away. This is not a dress rehearsal. This moment is your life as much as any other moment. Spend it in a way that will make you proud.

Let the World Decide

So, what do I do when I feel like giving up? I show up.

Do I show up at my best? I doubt it. But my job isn’t to judge how good or how bad I am.

My job is to do the work and let the world decide.

  1. Since my brain is currently mush, I can’t remember where I originally heard the mind-as-suggestion-engine idea, but I can assure you it was someone smarter than I who came up with this idea.

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Inside the Mind of a Mad Scientist: The Incredible Importance of Personal Science http://jamesclear.com/barry-marshall http://jamesclear.com/barry-marshall#comments Fri, 05 Jun 2015 06:04:44 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=10542 For decades the world’s greatest doctors and researchers had believed that stomach ulcers and, eventually, stomach cancers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid in the stomach.

Barry Marshall wasn’t buying it. Marshall was an Australian physician and microbiology researcher and he believed that stomach ulcers were not merely the byproduct of a hectic life or an overly spicy dinner. Instead, he believed ulcers were caused by bacteria. More specifically, Marshall believed ulcers were caused by Helicobacter pylori.

There was, however, a problem with this theory:

Marshall and his lab partner were pretty much the only people who bought into the crazy idea. Despite his belief, Marshall had been unable to prove the link between bacteria and ulcers in his lab experiments on pigs and now his grant money was running out. Meanwhile, thousands of people continued to die from stomach cancer each year.

The Mad Scientist

Fed up with the situation, Marshall decided to take matters into his own hands and conduct a personal science experiment of the boldest kind.

In July of 1984, Marshall held a beaker of cloudy, brown liquid that was swimming with Helicobacter pylori and prepared to take a swallow. He “drank it down in one gulp then fasted for the rest of the day.”

In the words of physician Siddhartha Mukherjee, Marshall had “swallowed a carcinogen to create a precancerous state in his own stomach.”

Three days later, Marshall started feeling nauseous. On Day 5, he began to vomit and continued doing so for three days straight. All the while, his colleague took samples of the bacteria in Marshall’s stomach lining and recorded the physiological changes as Marshall began to develop a severe episode of gastritis in his stomach. After two weeks of self-induced hell, Marshall had the proof he needed and began taking antibiotics.

Luckily, he made a full recovery. Within a month, Marshall and his colleagues had submitted his experiment and results to the Medical Journal of Australia for publication. Not only had they proven that Helicobacter pylori was the cause of stomach ulcers, they had also revealed an important precursor to stomach cancer. Marshall and his lab partner, Robin Warren, received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their efforts.

Helicobacter pylori
Helicobacter pylori under the microscope. (Photographer: Yutaka Tsutsumi, M.D. Image Source: Department of Pathology, Fujita Health University School of Medicine.)

The Power of Personal Science

Barry Marshall is a real life mad scientist. He drank a cancerous cocktail in hopes of discovering a scientific truth. His story is one of many mentioned in the fantastic book, The Emperor of All Maladies (audiobook). 1

Marshall is an extreme case of what my friend Josh Kaufman calls “personal science.”

Personal science refers to the idea of executing small experiments on your own with the intention of discovering new ways to solve problems and get results in your life. While typical studies are conducted on a large scale and published in academic journals, personal science experiments involve a single patient (you) and are focused on delivering highly practical and useful pieces of information.

Marshall used personal science to further his career goals, whereas you and I may use personal science to build a new health habit or improve our performance at work. The goal of these mini-experiments is to discover what gets you real-world results. As a writer and researcher who tries to blend science-based ideas with practical insights, I believe this philosophy of self-experimentation is incredibly important.


Because no matter how much science and theory you understand, you can never get a result in your own life unless you have the courage to take action.

Unleashing Your Inner Mad Scientist

Personal science isn’t an excuse to do something reckless. I don’t, for example, recommend drinking a test tube of precancerous bacteria. I do, however, believe that executing your own experiments and having a willingness to try things will make your life better.

Here are a few reasons why:

Personal science forces you to move past planning. If you want to accelerate your learning, develop new skills, and get useful results, then you must try things. So often we wait to take action because we believe we need to read or research more. What if, as an alternative, we spent less time trying to find the best strategy and more time testing the strategies we already have? It can be easy to forget that practice is often the most powerful form of learning.

Personal science is low risk. Unlike Marshall’s crazy cancer slushie, nearly any experiment you or I will conduct is typically low risk. Rarely, do we face life-or-death, cancer-in-the-stomach type of risks. Usually, the barriers to our progress are discomfort, uncertainty, inconvenience, and the fear of criticism. Personal science forces use to move past these emotional hurdles and see them for what they really are: limiting beliefs.

Here are some examples:

  • Wish you would finally write your book? Experiment with cutting out an activity you enjoy to make time for this important goal. What is the potential risk? Are you really worried that you’ll miss this season of your favorite TV show?
  • Trying to eat healthier? Create a bright-line rule and experiment with eating one vegetable per day, no matter what. What is the potential risk? That you’ll have a long day and have to make a batch of asparagus at 10 p.m.?
  • Want to be an early riser? Experiment with waking up at 5 a.m. this week. What is the potential risk? That you’ll feel tired for a week?

Personal science teaches you the key to true problem solving. We often read books and rely on research studies for the answers to our problems. Knowing where to get information is a useful skill, but the key to good problem solving is not to have someone else do the work for you. The key to good problem solving is a willingness to try things, experiment thoughtfully, and do the work. 2

Step Into the Arena

We all live our lives in different laboratories. Your corner of the world—filled with your experiences, your biology, your environment, your friends, your beliefs—is a different petri dish than mine. There are plenty of fundamentals that apply to all petri dishes, but no matter where you find yourself, you have to be willing to experiment if you want to get a result.

Let your mad scientist out every now and then. Step into the arena and put yourself through the fire. The only truth is what works for you. 3

  1. The Emperor of All Maladies really is an incredible read. I highly recommend it, especially if you love science. Or, if you just want to be blown away by the amount of effort one author can put into a book.

  2. This does not, by the way, mean that others do not have a responsibility to teach and to share their knowledge. Just because we should help one another, however, does not mean you are entitled to having others figure your problems out for you.

  3. Thanks to Siddhartha Mukherjee, Josh Kaufman, and Matt Gemmell who each inspired pieces of this article.

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Pat Riley on the Remarkable Power of Getting 1% Better http://jamesclear.com/career-best-effort http://jamesclear.com/career-best-effort#comments Tue, 02 Jun 2015 06:45:52 +0000 http://jamesclear.com/?p=10253 The 1986 Los Angeles Lakers were one of the most talented basketball teams ever assembled, but they are rarely remembered that way.

The team started the 1985-86 NBA season with a 29-5 record. “The pundits were saying that we might be the best team in the history of basketball,” head coach Pat Riley mockingly said after the season. 1

Despite their talent, the Lakers stumbled in the 1986 playoffs and suffered a surprising season-ending defeat in the Western Conference Finals. The “best team in the history of basketball” didn’t even play for the NBA Championship that year.

As the head coach, Pat Riley was tired of hearing about how much talent his players had and about how much promise his team held. He didn’t want to see flashes of brilliance followed by a gradual fade back to mediocrity. He wanted the Lakers to play up to their potential, night after night.

In the summer of 1986, Riley created a plan to do exactly that.

Pat Riley, Los Angeles Lakers head coach

Step 1: Taking Their Number

Following the 1986 season, Riley revealed a new program that he called the Career Best Effort program or CBE. 2

“When players first join the Lakers,” Riley explained, “we track their basketball statistics all the way back to high school. I call this Taking Their Number. We look for an accurate gauge of what a player can do, then build him into our plan for the team, based on the notion that he will maintain and then improve upon his averages.”

You’ll notice that Riley was interested in the average speed of his players. His first calculation was to see what a player’s normal day looked like, not his best day.

In her book, When the Game Was Ours (Audiobook), author Jackie MacMullan explains Riley’s CBE calculations by saying,

“The Lakers coach recorded data from basic categories on the stat sheet, applied a plus or a minus to each column, and then divided the total by minutes played. He calculated a rating for each player and asked them to improve their output by at least 1 percent over the course of the season. If they succeeded, it would be a CBE, or Career Best Effort.” 3

Riley was careful to point out that CBE was not merely about points or statistics, but giving your “best effort spiritually and mentally and physically.” Players got credit for “allowing an opponent to run into you when you know that a foul will be called against him, diving for loose balls, going after rebounds whether you are likely to get them or not, helping a teammate when the player he’s guarding has surged past him, and other ‘unsung hero’ deeds.” 4

Step 2: Calculating Your CBE

I don’t know Riley’s exact formula, but here’s what the CBE calculation might look like in practice:

Let’s say that Magic Johnson had 11 points, 8 rebounds, 12 assists, 2 steals, and 5 turnovers in a particular game. Magic also got credit for an “unsung hero” deed by diving after a loose ball (+1). Finally, he played a total of 33 minutes in this imaginary game.

If we add up all the positive numbers (11+8+12+2+1), we get 34. Then, we subtract the 5 turnovers (34-5) to get 29. Finally, we divide 29 by 33 minutes played.

29/33 = 0.879

In this example, Magic’s CBE number would have been 879. 5 This number was calculated for all of a player’s games and he was then asked to improve his average CBE by one percent during the course of the season. Riley knew that if the Lakers could aggregate many small individual improvements they would achieve a big jump in team performance.

Step 3: Historical Comparisons

Throughout the 1987 season, Riley was constantly comparing each player’s current CBE to not only their past performances, but also other players around the league. As Riley put it, “We rank team members alongside league opponents who play the same position and have similar role definitions.” 6

“Riley trumpeted the top performers in the league in bold lettering on the blackboard each week and measured them against the corresponding players on his own roster.

Solid, reliable players generally rated a score in the 600s, while elite players scored at least 800. Magic Johnson, who submitted 138 triple-doubles in his career, often scored over 1,000.”7

The Lakers also emphasized year-over-year progress by making historical comparisons of CBE data. Riley said, “We stacked the month of November, 1986, next to November, 1985, and showed the players whether they were doing better or worse than at the same point last season. Then we showed them how their performance figures for December, 1986, stacked up against November’s.”

Imagine you’re one of the players. Every week you walk into the locker room and see your name ranked alongside Michael Jordan or Larry Bird or some other competitor across the league. You’re constantly aware of how you are performing relative to the competition and relative to your average performance. It is impossible to lie to yourself about whether you are playing well or poorly. You are are constantly aware of your choices, your actions, and your performance.

Compare that situation to how most of us live our lives. We don’t track or measure the things that we say are important to us. We make excuses, create rationalizations, and lie to ourselves about our daily performance. We have no evidence of whether we are performing better or worse compared to previous months or years. It’s not hard to see why the CBE program delivered results.

The Results of CBE

The Los Angeles Lakers began executing the CBE program in October of 1986. Eight months later, they were NBA Champions. The following year, during the 1987-88 season, Pat Riley led his team to another title as the Lakers became the first team in 20 years to win back-to-back NBA championships.

“Sustaining an effort is the most important thing for any enterprise. The way to be successful is to learn how to do things right, then do them the same way every time. Players can’t excel in every area, but they can strive to better themselves in the areas that we value most for each individual. Then we can show them what they need to do to have their Career Best Effort. Over the length of a season, a correlation always appears between great effort and great overall numbers. It may not show from one game to the next, but in the long run superior effort is reflected in the win column.”
—Pat Riley

What Makes Great Performers Great?

There is a surprisingly narrow gap that separates the good performance from the great performance. And that narrow gap is separated by small habits and daily rituals.

It is so easy to dismiss the value of making slightly better decisions on a daily basis. Sticking with the fundamentals is not impressive. Falling in love with boredom is not sexy. Getting one percent better isn’t going to make headlines.

There is one thing about it though: it works.

  1. Temporary Insanity and Other Management Techniques: The Los Angeles Lakers’ Coach Tells All by Pat Riley and Byron Laursen. Los Angeles Times Magazine.

  2. Jackie MacMullan’s book (cited below), claims that Riley began his CBE program during the 1984-85 NBA season. From what I can tell, the Lakers began tracking statistics of individual players at that time, but the CBE program as it is described in this article was first used during the 1986-87 NBA season.

  3. Thanks to a friendly reader, MSW, for originally telling me about Pat Riley’s CBE model.

  4. Temporary Insanity and Other Management Techniques: The Los Angeles Lakers’ Coach Tells All by Pat Riley and Byron Laursen. Los Angeles Times Magazine.

  5. From what I can tell, the Lakers talked about CBE scores in the same way you would talk about batting averages in baseball. That is, .312 is pronounced “three twelve.”

  6. Temporary Insanity and Other Management Techniques: The Los Angeles Lakers’ Coach Tells All by Pat Riley and Byron Laursen. Los Angeles Times Magazine.

  7. When the Game Was Ours (Audiobook)

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