Back in June, I took a sabbatical from writing for the entire month. One of the reasons for the break was to reflect on how I could produce a higher standard of work.
When I returned in July, I started to test a few of my ideas. Today, I want to share 7 ways my work has improved, what you can expect from me in the future, and what steps I am taking to deliver a higher standard of work to you.
1. Citing references at the end of articles.
You may have noticed that I have begun adding a “Sources” section to the end of my articles. For example, my articles on how to sleep better and on the health benefits of music both have extensive sources listed.
I added the sources section for two reasons. First, to properly cite the original sources that inspire my thinking. This is rare online. Even established journalism outlets like The New York Times or Wall Street Journal rarely cite the full source (they typically reference it within the article, but it's not always clear).
Second, I have a surprising number of teachers and students who refer to my work. I hope that the sources section will make it easier for teachers and students to refer to my work (or properly cite the original source) when using these articles for their projects and classes.
2. Creating a Research Review process.
In 2005, a Stanford professor named John Ioannidis blew the lid off of the academic community when he published a highly regarded paper called Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.
Among other problems, Ioannidis' work has revealed that 80 percent of small, non-randomized studies (the majority of research studies) end up being proven wrong at some point in the future. In other words, most of the research findings people are citing today will be false tomorrow.
Because I base a lot of my writing and ideas on proven scientific research, I worry a lot about bad science. I want to avoid these errors and I think it is my responsibility to deliver information to you that is based on the best science possible. Here's how I'm doing it:
- Only 10 to 15 percent of large, randomized trials end up being proven wrong later. In other words, you completely flip the scales in the favor of truth if a study is large and randomized.
- If a study has been repeated dozens or hundreds of times, then you have a significant trend. For example, when I wrote about implementation intentions, I drew on research from more than 100 studies that all confirmed the same finding.
By focusing on scientific research that has been repeated consistently and that is the product of large, randomized trials, I am taking careful steps to only cite research that has a high likelihood of being correct in the long run.
Sadly, bad science is often cited on the web. Many authors will see one small-scale study that proves a point, and then cite that research as if it represents the scientific consensus on the topic. It rarely does. In the future, I'll be writing more about how to protect yourself from pseudoscience, bad science, and quackery.
3. Adding a Thank You section at the end of articles.
I have said this many times before, but nearly every idea I write about, I learned from someone else.
So I thought, why not thank these people? 1
Now, when you click on the sources section at the bottom of any article and you'll see a line that says “Thanks to…” at the bottom of the article. I figure people should be rewarded for their contribution whenever possible. Plus, it's just good karma to thank the people who help you out.
You can see an example at the end of this article:
4. Adding hand-drawn images to articles.
Readers have been asking me to add images to my articles for a while now. I have always wanted to do it, but I couldn't figure out a way to add images that brought more value to the post. (I didn't want to just add stock photos.)
Now I have an answer.
I have been creating hand-drawn images that visually display the main idea of the article. Not only do the images add more value to the article, I have fun drawing them too. 2
You can see more of my hand-drawn images in these articles: 3
- How to Build a New Habit: This is Your Strategy Guide
- The Photographer Nobody Knew: Lessons on Sharing Your Gifts With the World
- How to Build Expertise, Talent, and Skill: Lessons From Peyton Manning
5. Putting the reader experience above all.
I think a lot about what it would be like to visit JamesClear.com as a first-time reader. Could I find everything easily? Would it be pleasant to read? What parts of the experience would be distracting? Can I eliminate those distracting parts?
I want your experience as a reader to be the best possible. For this reason, I have eliminated nearly every annoying part of the reading experience: no advertising, no sidebar, no in-your-face marketing, etc.
In my opinion, good design is a way to serve the reader. Most recently, I spent a day optimizing the font sizes, line heights, space between paragraphs, and headings of my articles. I want your experience as a reader to be flawless. It's not perfect yet, but I'm confident that I'll continue to improve the reading experience for you as time goes on.
6. Writing about topics that stand the test of time.
“Lifting weights increases your muscle mass. In the past they used to say that weight lifting caused the “micro-tearing of muscles,” with subsequent healing and increase in size. Today some people discuss hormonal signaling or genes, tomorrow they will discuss something else. But the effect has held forever and will continue to do so.”
—Nicholas Nassim Taleb, Antifragile
I try my best to write about topics that will stand the test of time. What effects will hold forever? What ideas are actually useful in the long-run?
- Rather than discuss the latest technology for building habits, I focus on falling in love with boredom and doing the work.
- Rather than debate the latest workout craze, I focus on the fundamentals of strength training.
- Rather than worry about a savvy new productivity theory, I talk about a strategy that has worked for decades.
7. Creating a safe space for you to comment and share.
I recently added a subtitle to the comments section: “Share your knowledge and experience.”
One of the things I love most about our community is that we have people who help others by sharing their knowledge and experience. For example, when Martin asked for help with quitting his smoking habit, five people jumped in and shared their ideas and experiences.
I can't tell you how much I love that. Our community is a family of people from all around the globe and I couldn't be happier to provide a space for us to help one another. In the future, if you have an idea or question, the best place to leave it is in the comments. Not only will I try to help out, but you'll get the collective brain power of our community as well.
Bringing It All Together
I don't always hit the mark with my writing, but I'm putting a lot of work in to get better at it.
Here are three articles that showcase some or all of the ideas I have mentioned above. I hope you enjoy them.
- How to Get Better Sleep: The Beginner’s Guide to Overcoming Sleep Deprivation
- How to Read More: The Simple System I’m Using to Read 30+ Books Per Year
- How to Build a New Habit: This is Your Strategy Guide
As always, it is an honor to have you in our little community. I'll do my best to keep improving and, in the meantime, what are your suggestions?
What else would you like to see? Is there something I am doing that annoys you? Is there something I could be doing to make my work even better? I'd love to know about it.
I also took inspiration from Paul Graham on this front. He often thanks the editors of his articles.
I have enjoyed Jessica Hagy's hand-drawn images on 3×5 cards for quite some time and her drawings have been an inspiration for my work. I also got the idea of visually displaying the main idea of the article from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who included graphs and charts of his main ideas at the back of his book Antifragile.