46 min read

James Clear on building habits, focusing on quality, and life before (and after) selling 5 Million books (#084)

James Clear on building habits, focusing on quality, and life before and after selling 5 Million books (#084)
James Clear on building habits, focusing on quality, and life before (and after) selling 5 Million books (#084)

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James Clear is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits, which has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages. He also writes the popular 3-2-1 newsletter, which is sent out to over 1 million subscribers every single week.

In this episode James talks about building habits, focusing on quality, and his journey to selling 5 million books (and what life is like after). You can follow James on Instagram or Twitter.

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This episode was edited and produced by Josh Perez. If you're looking for help with your podcast, Josh is your guy. Connect with him at www.justjoshperez.com.

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(Note: This transcript is automated by software and will not reflect 100% accuracy. If it reads weird, it’s probably not actually said. For full context, refer to the audio episode above.)

Alex: This is Make Something Cool. I'm Alex Sugg. And today I am really excited to be sitting down with James Clear. James is the author of the number-one New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits, which has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages. He also writes the super-popular 3, 2, 1 newsletter, which is sent out to over 1 million readers every single week. I've been a huge, huge fan of new James for a long time, and you've been a much-requested guest for this show. So thank you so much for being here.

James: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me, man. I'm excited to talk.

Alex: Yeah, me too.

I think habits...it's unquestionable at this point that habits have become such a huge talking point over the past...I think five or six years. And I think your book is obviously the primary...there've been other books on the topic, but I'd say Atomic Habits has really solidified it as a mainstream thing that everyone is thinking about now in a way that maybe they hadn't been in the past.

I guess to start, I want to dig into a lot of different things about your career, but I think the first is, are you good at building habits yourself, or was this a learned skill? What made this stick for you as something you wanted to focus on?

James: Yeah, it's an interesting question. I do think this is something people assume a lot. They're like, well, if he wrote a book on habits, he must have all his habits dialed in, and that's definitely not the case.

When I was working on the book, I was joking with my publisher, I was saying it's ironic how much writing this book has wrecked a lot of my personal habits otherwise, to just get it done. And she said we write the books we need. And I definitely feel that at a deep level. I was interested in the topic because I needed it, because I was hoping to learn how to do it myself.

And I think in that way, I have always viewed myself and my readers and my audience...we're peers we're all going through it together. And the only difference is I am writing about some of the things as I'm trying them. But we're all trying it out and trying to figure out what works for us and what doesn't.

So in that sense, Atomic Habits is really rooted in personal experience. There's a lot of science and a lot of research as well. But ultimately it's grounded in practical application and practical experience. And that's because I was trying a lot of these things out and in many cases, struggling and failing with it.

To answer your question directly, am I good at it or not, I think I'm good at it in some areas, and then I'm not good at it in others. So for some reason, fitness is one that has always clicked with me. I really enjoy it. I really like it. I've had a strength training habit for, I don't know, probably going on 15 years now. I was an athlete in college before that, so maybe that sort of exposure to strength training through being an athlete, maybe that gave me an easy entry point. But that's one that's always clicked well with me.

And then there are other ones...nutrition, for example, is one that I've notoriously struggled with for many, many years. Really hasn't been until like the last year or so that I feel like I've actually been more in control of my nutrition than I was before. And part of that was hiring a coach and working with them on a diet plan and stuff, so a little more maybe intensive than what I had done before.

But yeah, so it really depends on the area. Like sleep habits, I've always been pretty good at that. Reading is off or on for me. One thing that's really helped a lot recently has been becoming a writer over the last five or six years. I have to read a lot now because it's part of my job, so to speak. So some of them I need more encouragement with than others.

Alex: Sure. What's your downfall with food? What gets you?

James: Well, in terms of foods that I love, I'm a pretty wide-ranging eater. So anytime something is available, it's very easy to convince me to do it. I like the fun experience of eating food or sharing a meal with people, so I can be an enabler in that sense where it's like, should we eat healthy tonight, or should we get Indian and have Tikka Masala and have a great time? I am definitely much more on the social side of the food experience, and I think that can cause you to get off track.

But the thing that changed it all for me over the last year is tracking my meals. And for the better part of a decade, that just sounded like a huge pain, and I had zero interest in doing it. I think I actually did five or six years ago. I downloaded my fitness pal and I tracked one meal. Like I didn't even do it for one day. I did it for one meal and I was like,

Alex: This sucks. (Laughter)

James: this is incredibly annoying, not going to do this. But for some reason now I do it in a spreadsheet, and I have this coach that I get emails with each week, and those two things together...I don't know, for some reason this time, it just clicked. Who knows, maybe it's also a different time in my life--maybe I'm more ready for that, or that behavior's more agreeable at this stage. But whatever it is this time, it worked.

Alex: For sure. I really resonate with where you're coming from. I tend to call myself a garbage disposal: I kind of just eat whatever's there. So yeah, I definitely resonate with that.

I think that there are three things from your book.. I've read it a couple of times now, and I'm a huge fan of it. And I think I want to cover a few of these topics before we jump into some other stuff around content creation more generally. But I think there are parts of your book that would be really helpful, and I think the first one that really stuck with me is this idea of identity.

You write a lot about habit formation being tied to our identity. And to me, this is one of the most powerful ideas in the book is it's the story we tell ourselves about who we are that can really start to change things for us. I wonder, can you dive into that a little bit? How identity and how we think of ourselves helps to form habits?

James: Sure. So this is the topic I call identity-based habits. I sort of unpack it fully in the second chapter of the book. And I think this is the real reason, the deeper reason, that habits matter.

The surface level reason that they matter are all the things that we usually say: habits can help you be more productive or make more money or lose weight or reduce stress. And it's true. Habits can do all that stuff, and that is great. It's very, it's valuable. They can deliver those kinds of results.

But I think the deeper reason they matter is that your habits reinforce your desired identity. They provide evidence of the type of person you are. They reinforce an element or an aspect of your story, because every action you take is like a vote for the type of person you wish to become. And so whenever you're performing a habit, you are casting a vote for that element of your identity or that aspect of who you are. In a sense, it's kind of like your habits are how you embody a particular identity or a particular element of your story. So every day that you make your bed, you embody the identity of someone who's clean and organized. Or if you do one pushup, even though it doesn't transform your body, you do cast a vote for, I'm the type of person who doesn't miss workouts, and you embody the identity of someone who is fit. If you write one sentence, you embody the identity of someone who is a writer. And so these behaviors are providing evidence of the type of person that you are.

And this is a little bit different than what you often hear. You often hear people say something like fake it till you make it. And I don't necessarily have anything wrong with fake it till you make it--it's asking you to believe something positive about yourself--but it's asking you to believe something positive without having evidence for it. And we have a word for beliefs that don't have evidence: we call it delusion. You've got this mismatch between what you say you're doing and what who you say you are and what you're actually doing. And so my argument is to let the behavior lead the way to start with one pushup, or meditating for one minute, or running around the block one time. And to let that be evidence that, in that moment, you were a writer or a meditator or a runner or whatever the particular aspect of your identity is that you're trying to focus on.

So I think that's really a key question that you can ask early on: what type of identity am I trying to reinforce? What type of person am I trying to become, and which habits reinforce or accentuate that identity?

Alex: Yeah. That's such a powerful framework around the idea because when you can get around that...I think, to your point, it can feel superficial--especially habit-building--if you first start out with it oh, I just want to eat healthier, and things along those lines. Or, I want to write blogs, or I want to make YouTube videos, or whatever your thing you're wanting to do. But if you don't dig down deeper into that core identity of who you're wanting to become or what you're trying to be like, you're just going to be...it's going to be shortsighted. You're not going to last very long, because that identity won't be solidified in who you're becoming. And I think that's a really powerful way to think about it.

James: Well this, I think, is a pretty common thing. I've certainly experienced it. I think a lot of people have gone through something like this, where you kind of have this yo-yo pattern where you're like going back and forth or up and down between your habits.

So you sign up for a half marathon, and you do the race, and that's motivating your train the whole time. And then once the race is over, you stop training because you don't have this target, this goal that you're shooting for anymore. And then all of a sudden, two or three or four months pass, and you're like, damn, I haven't run at all! I've got to get back out and train more. And so you oscillate back and forth between doing it and not doing it. And this is why I say, look, the real goal isn't to run a half marathon. The goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to do a silent meditation retreat; it's to become a meditator.

And once you start to adopt that identity, once you start to believe more deeply in, look, this is just who I am--I go for runs because I'm a runner, or I write because I'm a writer--then it becomes easier to stick with it, to a certain degree. It's less about the performance, it's less about any individual results, and it's more about just showing up as that kind of person. So ultimately I think that's where we're trying to get to. And there are strategies you can use along the way, many of which I cover in the book, but the ultimate outcome is, let me be that kind of person.

Alex: Sure. Yeah, and that's what I want to get to next.

I think starting there with the identity is obviously the key, but then there are two other things that I feel like are what actually bring it into practice. And that's what you write about very well. First off is your environment--that you make your environment conducive to better habits--but then also the systems you build around those. Your environment and your identity. I'm curious, can you talk a little bit about environment, how that affects your habits, and then systems and how that affects your habits?

James: Sure. Well, you know, we're in environments all the time. You cannot be a person outside of an environment. You're always in some context. And we are responding to that context. We're behaving in some way, we're shaped by the environments that we're in.

So the most obvious way that this happens is that the cues and the stimuli that are in the environment, they prompt you to perform a particular behavior. They remind you of something. The question that I like to ask sometimes is like, what is this space? What behavior does this space encourage? What is the space designed to encourage? And you can see this in many different ways with your behaviors. A lot of people feel like they watch too much television, for example, but walk into any living room: where do all the couches and chairs face? What is this room designed to get you to do?

I'm not saying you need to rearrange your entire house, but there's a spectrum of choices. You could take the TV and put it inside a wall unit or a cabinet so it's behind doors. You're less likely to see it. You could take the remote control, put it in a drawer, and put a book in its place. Or you could take a chair and turn it away from the TV, have it face an end table with a book on it or something like that. And individually, none of those choices are going to change your behavior very much. But collectively, you can start to imagine...if you make a dozen or two dozen or 50 of these little tweaks and changes, and the spaces where you live and work: your living room, your office, your kitchen-- these spaces are designed to make the good habits the path of least resistance; they're designed to make the good habits the easy and the obvious thing--well, shoot, suddenly it becomes a lot easier to make those choices to act in that way when it's the path of least resistance.

I was talking to a guy the other day, and he brought up this interesting point about how with babies and with young children or toddlers, we do this all the time. We set up gates, so they won't fall down the stairs. Or we try to baby-proof the house, and we make sure sharp objects are not where they can reach. And we put covers on the outlets, so they can't stick their fingers in them. We're basically trying to set the environment up for success; we're trying to set the kid up for success. Let's not put them in a situation where they're likely to fail.

And it's so obvious when we talk about doing it with babies, and yet we don't do it with ourselves very often. It's like, how can you stack the deck in your favor? How can you design an environment that is one where you don't need a lot of willpower, or one where you're not fighting against the friction of all these competing stimuli? And the more that you can do that, I think the easier it becomes to stick to better habits. And ultimately that's one of the most overlooked drivers of your habits and behavior, which is the shape of the physical environment, the things that are surrounding you.

Alex: For sure. I always like to say willpower is a bad plan. (Laughter) It's not a plan, really, it's an assumption. And I think we turn older and we're like, yeah, I can totally not watch TV. But if all the environment is directing you to do this one action, you're not setting yourself up for success.

And I do think it gets really small. I think for me, one habit I've tried to build over the years is an exercise fitness routine. And I found that where I live...we live in Manhattan, and so anytime we'd look around--we were looking for a new apartment--I made it a point to say, is there a gym close by that's within walking distance? Because I found that if it's not within a three block walking distance of where I live, I'm not going. So that was a huge...and it's totally changed it for me. The barriers dropped dramatically.

James: I think there's actually a study that found that for people who, if they are intending to work out before or after work, if the gym was on the path of their commute, then they were much more likely to work out. Even if it was just a block out of the way, but they felt like they were going the wrong way to get home, they were less likely to go.

There are many different versions of that where you just try to make the good habit the path of least resistance, and conversely, you try to add friction between you and the bad behaviors. So two examples for me personally I will try--I don't do it every day, but I do it a lot --I will try to leave my phone in another room until lunch each day. And whenever I do that, I almost invariably have a better, more productive morning. Because if my phone is next to me, I'm like everybody else, I'll check it every three seconds. But if it's in another room--I have a home office, so it's only like 45 seconds away, but I never go get it. And isn't that interesting? Did I want it or not? Like in the one sense I wanted it bad enough to check it every three seconds when it was next to me, but I never wanted it so bad that I would go put 45 seconds in of work to go get it. So you'd be surprised how often undesirable behaviors can curtail themselves to the desired degree, if you just have a little bit of friction between you and that action.

Alex: Yeah, for sure. I think that, and we can close this loop a little bit, but I do think...just mentioning systems and building good systems,

you have this quote that's been re posted and tweeted about 5 trillion times, but it's worth it because it's so good. It's, "You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems." And when I first read that, it was like one of those aha mic drop type moments. Cause it's just very true. And I think that lends itself to not really relying on willpower so much as building good systems. Can you go into system building and how to do that?

James: So we are often told, you need to be more ambitious, 10X your vision, think bigger, set bigger goals, whatever. But the truth is setting goals is usually the easy part. I can set a goal right now to sell 10 million books; it took me like three seconds. The goal is not the hard part: it's executing on it. It's building a system of habits and behaviors that lead you inevitably toward that goal.

And if we connect this back with the conversation we've been having so far, what is your goal? That's your desired outcome, your target, the result, the thing you're shooting for. What is your system? It's the collection of daily habits that you follow. And if there's ever a gap between your goal and your system, if there's ever a gap between your desired outcome and...your daily habits will always win, right? Almost by definition. Your current habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results. So whatever system you've been running, whatever collection of habits you've been following for the last, say, six months or a year or whatever, it's carried you inevitably to the results that you have right now.

Now sure, habits are not the only thing that matters in life, right? You have luck and randomness and misfortune and things like that, and all those things influence outcomes too. But I do think it's generally true that your life bends in the direction of your habits--that as days click by and each day offers an opportunity to make a good choice or bad choice, to build a good habit or a bad one, to take advantage of an opportunity or not, that as those days continue to roll by, the trajectory of your life starts to bend in the direction of the system that you're running, in the direction of the habits that you're following.

And so I like to think of each habit as like a little individual gear in that overall system--it's like they come together to build the machine. And I think this is one argument for why habits are so important to understand how they work and how to design them, so that you can build a system that is inevitably carrying you toward this goal that you have, or this desired outcome that you have.

Alex: Do you have a way...when you're wanting to build a system, or when you're wanting to build a new habit or get rid of a bad habit, how do you track that for yourself? Do you have some sort of system? Cause I think zoomed in to the micro, the little actions we're talking about, that can become pretty daunting pretty quick. If you're thinking, I need to change all these little things, it sounds like a lot to manage. How do you, practically focus on that?

James: Yeah, no, that is a good question. I think I sort of have two modes of thinking about it, I guess. And you are switching between these modes depending on what you're working on in the moment. So the first mode we've touched on a little bit, but it's kind of like...I could probably summarize the two by saying when making plans, think big, when making progress things small.

And so when I'm in the thinking big mode...you're thinking about strategy. And so it's stuff like, 'what am I optimizing for?' might be one good question to ask. Sometimes people optimize for money, sometimes they optimize for free time, and sometimes they optimize for connections and relationships. It can be many different things, but you need to decide or answer that for yourself. What am I optimizing for? I think that usually connects pretty naturally to another question that we've talked about: what is the desired identity I'm trying to reinforce? So questions like that, I would put that in the thinking big bucket, that mode of thinking.

And that helps you kind of figure out or triangulate, what are the types of habits I'm trying to build? What's the area of my life I'm trying to work on? But then you need to switch to that second mode, which is thinking small and trying to build some small habit or make a 1% improvement or try to find some little thing that you can get better at today.

And you asked about tracking. I do think that...I don't always recommend tracking your habits. And there's a reason for that, which is if you're going to track your habits, in a sense, you're actually forcing yourself to build two habits: you have to build the habit of doing the thing, and then you also have to build the habit of recording it or writing it down and tracking it. And so in that sense, you're making it more difficult because you're adding more things in for you to do. That said, I do think it's worth it to track a few things that are really important to you. And from my personal experience, I have found that especially for habits that I've stuck with, or behaviors that I have been consistent on for a long time--let's say for multiple years--almost always, there's some kind of tracking component tied to that.

So some examples from my personal life. I mentioned my workout habits earlier, so I've been sticking to that for years. I have a workout journal that I write the workouts down in, and I record each set and each rep. And that one I write by hand; I just like doing it physically while I'm doing the workout. After I finish the set, I write it down. It's just kind of part of the process. Then for other stuff like for nutrition, I mentioned that one, so that's been a recent one for me over the last year. That one's an actual spreadsheet where I enter in the calories or whatever. And then there were some business ones, like every Friday I have some tracking things like how many email subscribers, revenue expenses, stuff like that. So I do think that tracking can be very useful.

The last thing I'll say on this is if I don't...if I'm not tracking something, but I still want it to stick for a long time, I think the number one thing that helps that happen, or influences whether or not that will happen, is the social environment. We all are part of multiple tribes. Some of those tribes are large--like what it means to be American or what it means to be French--and some of those tribes are small--what it means to be a member of your local CrossFit gym, or a neighbor on your street, or a volunteer at the elementary school. And all of those tribes, large and small, have a set of shared expectations for how to act. They have a set of social norms for what people do in that environment. And those norms strongly influence whether a habit is attractive to you and whether you're going to stick with it for a long time.

So let's take the example of a neighbor on your street. You might walk outside and see your neighbor cutting their grass, and you think, oh, I need to mow the lawn too. And you'll stick to that habit for 10 or 20 or 30 years--however long you live in that house. We wish we had that level of consistency with some of our other habits. And why do you do it? Partially you do it because it feels good to have a clean line, but mostly it feels good to have a clean lawn because you don't want to be judged by the other people in the neighborhood for being the sloppy one. And so it's actually the social expectation that helps encourage or solidify that habit.

And so I think the practical takeaway here is you want to join groups, to join tribes, where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. Because if it's normal in that group, if you're surrounded by other people who are doing it consistently, it's going to be very attractive and motivating for you to do it as well. And I think that you don't necessarily need to track stuff if you've got that kind of social expectation carrying you along.

Alex: So good. Yeah, I definitely agree with that. There are all those studies about the show me your friends, I'll show you your future type thing. And that's a really simplified version, but I think you're right. And again, these are just things that we don't consciously make choices about. Often we kind of walk into life or situations or friend groups; it's based on where the neighborhood you were in and the schools you went to and all that stuff. But to zoom out and say, I actually have a choice in the matter, and I can actually put myself in better positions and better environments to be more of who I want to be, that's really empowering.

So I think moving onto the next part, I do think that you've done a lot of podcast interviews in the past, and I've I've listened to you for a long time, I've read your books. And there are two kinds of things that I felt like might make this a little bit different and unique.

I think the first thing I'm really interested in is your early years, maybe pre-book release. And then the second part of that is what today looks like as James Clear post-book. So I'm curious, the early years when you were getting started...you've written about this a lot, you posted two articles a week for three years. I believe that's the right timeline before releasing the book. And I'm curious, that sounds so...like when you just say it in a sentence that sounds really easy; that's really freaking hard. That's a lot of writing, for a long time being, really consistent.

I'm curious, during that time, what type of adversity did you face in your yourself? Were there moments where you felt like, this is stupid and what am I doing? Or did you just have a very clear idea. No, this is what I need to be doing. What were those years like before the book was released?

James: Yeah. I mean, I just started as a lowly blogger. I was just writing one article every Monday and Thursday. And like you said, I did that for the first three years. That actually got me...so the first article was November 12th, 2012, and that took me through 2015. And that was when I signed the book deal for Atomic Habits. So it was really, those first three years were building the audience and eventually the credibility and the platform to get me the book deal.

And then 2015 to 2018 I spent writing the book, and then it came out in late 2018. The initial years, I think...I had all sorts of uncertainty and imposter syndrome and all that kind of stuff that every creator deals with. I remember early on, I had a conversation with a friend where essentially it was like, who am I to write about this stuff? And I was like, I'm not an expert on it. And he had a great line that I carried with me for the first couple of years, which was, the way you become an expert is by writing about it every week.

And if you take that idea seriously, there's a lot of truth to it. I mean, what is it that makes somebody an expert on a topic? Why do we think someone who has a Ph.D. on a topic is an expert, for example? And it's like, well, it's because they read and wrote about the topic for six years or seven years. There isn't really anything magical that happened during that time. It was just a lot of reading and writing about that thing. And that was how they developed their expertise. Just a lot of thinking about their particular topic. And so I was like, I can do that too. It took me a couple of years as well. And I was just writing publicly along the way. And I find that to be a much better strategy, because you also get to build an audience along the way, too. But I definitely felt all of that.

I think I also didn't have as good of an idea of what I wanted to write about at first. So some of the early articles I wrote were about very different things. I had an article I wrote about healthcare and the medical system, and I had an article I wrote about squat technique and how to squat better. It was more like a fitness type of thing. And then I also had some articles I wrote about habits are about creativity, your productivity. And a lot of the stuff that I write about now...and whenever I wrote about some of those bigger idea--how to build habits or how to be more productive or how to make better decisions--those were the articles that went over better with my audience.

And so I didn't know it when I started, but I gradually found my footing as I was getting feedback from people. And it was like, oh, this is what people want to hear more about. And that was like the sliver of the Venn diagram that I was interested in and they were interested in. There was also this period--I would say it took at least six months, probably more like a year to a year and a half-- where I had to find my voice. The first six months of writing, I didn't really know what...it probably took me a year before I figured out what a "James Clear article" looked like. Like it starts out with some kind of story, and then there's a takeaway or an insight, and then there's some practical application. And I didn't really have that format until I had gone through it for a little bit and realized like, oh, this is how I like to write, and this is what my voice sort of looks like.

So some of those early years...I think this is one of the biggest values of having a schedule like that. I don't think there's any...there's nothing magical about twice a week. Just because I do that does not mean that's the schedule everybody else should follow. But I do think there's something really valuable about getting your reps in; having that schedule forced me to get a lot of reps in. And over those first two or three years, I learned all of that stuff: what I should write about, what my voice was, how to build an audience or what people were interested in hearing from me on. And it's just hard to get all of that stuff right at the start. It's very...it's much easier to determine what is working after you've already done some things than to predict what will work before you've done anything. And so getting a volume of work in serves that purpose.

Alex: Yeah, for sure. And I think that's what...it can really hinder a lot of creators is this assumption that you have to have your plan. Figure it out from the beginning and then stick to it the whole way. But I had Steph Smith on--she was the last guest on this podcast--and we talked a lot about iteration. And she talks a lot about how, who on earth told you to just keep doing this thing repetitively for two years or three years without any iteration on it? But there are these just false beliefs that we can't change our mind or change direction based on the feedback we're getting on our work.

I'm curious, this is kind of a random question, but I do think it'd help just for context...were you just writing full-time? Did you have another job? Did you have another thing that was supplementing yo while you were doing this? I'm curious what your time looked like during those early years, too.

James: So let me get to that in a minute. Just a real quick point on Steph's comment, which I think is a really good one.

Yeah, iteration is crucial. It's not just try again, try again. It's like, try differently. You need to keep trying a bunch of different things. I remember early on, I read this article that was...the title was something like 50 Ways to Drive Traffic to Your Website. And over the next couple of months, I went through almost all 50 ways and tried different things, and none of them worked. And I remember thinking like, am I just an idiot? Is this broken? What am I doing wrong here? And eventually I tried a few things that were--the article was a little bit dated, maybe it was a year or two old--and then I started trying a few things that were newer strategies that had just become available or whatever, and a couple of other things that were mentioned in the article, and two or three of those did finally work. And it's like, man, you just need...you need a lot of experimentation. You need a lot of iteration.

And it is quite possible that something is a really good strategy, but that doesn't mean it's good for you or for your business or your style. Everybody has to figure out their own style of marketing and promotion and all that stuff. Different people have different interests and appetites and styles for that. And so it just is going to take a little while to figure out what works for you. And it doesn't make sense to keep banging your head against the wall, doing the same thing everybody else is doing if it's not working for you. So yeah, the iteration part is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

To answer your question about money and what the business model was like early on, I started writing on [James store.com] in 2012. I started out as an entrepreneur in September of 2010. So I had about two years before that where I was trying ideas and experimenting with stuff. I launched an iPhone app that did absolutely terribly. I spent like $1,500 on the development. It was like...it basically let you add like captions and filters to photos, but it wasn't...it didn't have any social component to it, like Instagram or whatever. It was just like for your individual photos. I think it made like $17 in total, so


Alex: Pretty good idea. You know, in hindsight. At least the beginnings of it.

James: Yes. Yeah, it actually, you know what the lesson is there is it was a decent idea, it was terrible execution, and you need both.

So anyway, so I did that; I launched a couple of other websites. That was actually the first blog that I ever made. It was blog about marketing and small business. And so I had learned a few things through doing that where I knew how to set up a website and I knew where to put the email forms and how to start an email list. And I started Jamesclear.com from scratch and didn't have any readers, but at least I knew what to do in terms of some of those one-time costs that you have to pay early on. Cause I didn't know how to build a website or all that stuff. So at least I had gotten through that stage. So I do think that was helpful in terms of making money.

I started out as an entrepreneur in September. In May, a couple months before, when I was finishing graduate school, I applied to this essay competition. And I ended up winning it. And it was a 10,000-word prize for...or, sorry, yeah, $10,000 prize for the top essay. And so that was the money that I lived off of for the first few months while I was starting out and stuff. Obviously, I burned through that money pretty quick, especially spending $1,500 of it on the app, and then I moved in with my parents for a few months and I started doing freelance work. So I...I think it's a good example of entrepreneurship.

It's such a ridiculous thing, but...I'm not a web designer, but once I learned how to build a website, I was like, well, at least I know how to do this, and this local insurance agent, who's 72 years old, does not know how to do it. So I started building websites for some of these small businesses around town. And that would make me two grand or three grand or whatever--enough to get by and get through the next month or whatever. So that was what I was doing on the side. And then that allowed me to focus on writing and stuff.

So I had a little bit of this freelance thing going on, and that marketing and small business website that I started that I mentioned, I ran that for a year or two, and during that first year or so. And that was not making a ton of money, but it was enough that I could move out of my parents' house and get my own apartment. And so that was how I was paying the bills. And then the bulk of my time each week was spent on Jamesclear.com. And I was just focused on growth for the first year or two. And that project, I knew pretty quickly--like probably within six months--that was a better project and a better idea than the other stuff I was doing. It was just growing faster.

One piece of advice that someone gave me early on was, "try things until something comes easily." So "try things": that gets to the iteration point. Don't just keep doing the same thing; explore a variety of different things. And then "until something comes easily" does not mean that it's easy. It doesn't mean that you're not working hard on it, but it does mean that the results are just coming in. It feels so much more productive than the other stuff that you had been doing. And Jamesclear.com was the first time I got that feeling where I was like, oh, this email list is growing faster than any of the other ones I've tried to build, or it just seems like these articles are spreading easier. And so after the first year, I think I had 30,000 subscribers, and after the second year, it was like a hundred [thousand]. And at that point, the audience was big enough that I was making my full-time income from the site. And all that other stuff I just stopped doing and shut down.

Alex: I really appreciate that story, because it just shows everybody's human, you know what I mean? And that's what's so funny is I think it's easy to go to a James Clear tweet or to see your book and the fact that New York Times bestselling and all these things, but I do think it's really important to shine a light on those early years. You chose to move in with your parents, to live off 10 grand, and all these sacrifices that I think...it's so easy to overlook those early years, but in reality, it's like you needed that time. And to the creator listening now, who's maybe in their early stages: you need these early days to really get to that end point at some point.

Which kind of leads me to the next question. I'm curious now...

James: You gotta be willing to check your ego a little bit, too. Like it's not...I don't think there's anything amazing about that part of my story. Like basically every entrepreneur that I know has some version of that story. And it's not...there are parts of it that aren't fun. You have to be willing to...like I lived in a pretty junky apartment when I was starting out and stuff. And all my friends who went to grad school, they're all getting these six figure jobs at corporations and stuff. So there are parts of it that don't feel great. And you have to check out of the standard trajectory that society tells you you need to be on.

But the other part of it is I knew I wasn't interested in any of that. I had a moment sitting in this accounting class in business school. I was in graduate school, and I looked around the room, and you just could see 10 years down the road and see where everybody's going to be, like man, everybody's going to be a middle manager at some like larger corporation. And I was just like, that is not what I want. That sounds terrible to me. And I knew that path wasn't for me. That doesn't make it easier to live in a much more modest way than most of your peers, but it just...yeah, it was the right fit for me. And I think it's just a trial that basically every entrepreneur goes through in some form or fashion. Everybody's got some unsexy story from those first years and it's just, I don't know, it's just part of the process.

Alex: Yeah, for sure. That's a great note.

And I think that kind of leads me to the next question I want to ask is...I think it's what, we're three years now--I'm actually really close to the day, if it was released in November--three years, since Atomic Habits has released. Over 5 million copies. It seems like on the outside looking in, I'm sure there are a lot of people who would say, James has made it, this is the pinnacle author, New York Times bestseller. But I think there's also this reality that we all understand too, that nothing's perfect. No matter how "successful" you can become, it doesn't just suddenly make all of life's problems go away. It makes a lot of them maybe, but...I'm really curious now, maybe the reality of being successful on this side of it...I'm curious, is there anything that now keeps you up at night? Is there anything now that is really hard for you on the other side of success that maybe most people don't think about? When everyone maybe isn't there yet, or they imagine what it's like, maybe they don't have the full picture of what it's like to be in your shoes now on the other side of things?

James: Well, I mean, first of all, I am incredibly fortunate and lucky to be in the position I'm in-- that quote or line of thinking where it's like, the quest of life is just to continually solve greater and greater problems, or to upgrade your problems. So it's not like I don't have problems to deal with anymore, but it's just such a better class of problems, or such a fortunate opportunity set to be dealing with.

One of my biggest problems right now is saying no. I am perpetually a slow learner in this regard. It feels like I'm always two or three or four months behind upgrading my no, or setting a tighter filter than I should have. So there's this weird dynamic where success kind of eats itself: you do something well, so you launch a podcast that goes well, or you start a blog that gets popular, or you launch a best-selling book. And because that thing did well, a lot of new opportunities come your way. People are like, Hey, do you want to talk at this thing? Are you interested in partnering on this project? Or what do you think about this cool event or whatever? And each individually...each thing sounds pretty interesting. And it feels cool to be invited to stuff or to be asked to do things. And so you want to say yes to a lot of them and you end up getting on the hook for all of these things. And it eliminates any of the time that you had to work on the thing that got you the opportunities in the first place, so now you don't have any time to do the thing that got you there. And so that's what I mean when I say success kind of eats itself in that way; you need to have a very tight filter, and it also is challenging.

I have felt this...I was joking with my wife the other day, how for 10 years I was like, somebody, please pay attention to this thing that I'm making. And now I'm like, all of you, many of you, are paying way too much attention to the things that I make! Let's all just chill out a little bit; we don't need to focus on every word!

And there's this thing where early in your career, you basically have to say yes to every opportunity you can. You got to try to chase down every little possible window of opportunity and make the most of it. And then you have this breakout hit and it's like, oh, now all the opportunities are inbound instead of outbound. And you need to have a very tight filter and protect your time more. So it's hard to switch that mode. So I think that's one thing that a new problem...but again, I feel like it's a good problem to have, but it is something I've struggled with a little bit.

And then I would say the second thing is it is interesting to learn which things money can solve or resources can solve or connection can solve, and which things they can't. Because there are a lot of problems, so to speak, or challenges in life that actually those things are still useless for. The one thing that I was talking about recently...again, my wife was saying money can provide certain opportunities, but it can't give you courage. Can't make the decision for you. It can't get you to commit fully to something. And you'd be surprised how much that still comes up in life. The problem is not necessarily whether the opportunity is there; it's whether you're committed to making the most of it. The problem is not necessarily whether you have the ability or the talent to do something; it's whether you have the courage to bet on yourself and actually go all in on it. And all of those mental hangups--that whole mental side of the creative process and of being an entrepreneur making things--that all still exists in almost exactly the same way, at least for me. And yeah, you still need just as much courage and just as much guts in some ways--I don't know that you need more, but you need it in a different way than you did before.

One of the great things about starting out and not having a brand or not really having a name is that you have very little to lose And so you can just go for it. Who cares if it doesn't work? What's the difference? But once you have this success--once you have expectations, so to speak, for what you do and how good it should be, and whether you should be doing it at a high level--then you start to get out of creation mode and you get into protection mode, where you're trying to protect what you have rather than trying to create something new.

And in that way, I think success can kind of be, to a certain degree...it can be a handicap or toxic for creators. I think it's why you see a lot of Hollywood studios, they just do remakes of hit movies. Why? Because they're trying to protect their asset. They don't want to do something really creative and new; they just want to do something that keeps them in business. And that same phenomenon happens for many, many individual creators as well. Once something starts working now, you're worried about losing what you have rather than just creating something compelling.

Alex: Yeah, I've always imagined that. Especially...I think your career is a great example. I always very much--it probably sounds silly, but it's true--I have empathy for people who go viral and people who have this flash-in-the-pan moment, and then all of a sudden they don't even know or realize that they've just signed up for the rest of their life being known for this one goofy thing or one cool thing or something. And it takes a lot to try and reinvent yourself.

That's not at all your path. Yours is very meticulous, intentional, took a ton of discipline, work, all that stuff. But I do think there's this level of reaching some sort of height and then...yeah, that fear of losing it.

James: I think you'd have to stay aggressive with what you're creating. You have to not get too in your head about it. I am very I'm very lucky and I'm very happy about the success of Atomic Habits, but also it can just be a project that went well. It can just be a thing. It doesn't mean that it it's everything or has to consume the rest of my life or whatever. It was a project that I worked on for a few years, and I gave it the very best effort that I could. And I hoped that I would produce the most comprehensive or useful book on habits at the end of it. And I don't know if I did that or not--it's up to the readers to decide--but I gave it my best shot. And now you can move on and go do something else; it doesn't have to define everything about you. So some of that is just keeping yourself in a healthy mental space about it.

And then there's also this funny thing, like everybody, I noticed myself being like, oh, well, what will people think, or worried about the expectations that people have. And I've come to notice that whenever I get trapped in that mindset of worrying about what the audience thinks, or worrying about how people will judge the work or whatever, I am almost never worried about any specific person.

If you were to come to me and ask me like, oh, are you worried about what Alex thinks about what you're going to make? It'd be like, well, no, I'm not worried about his particular opinion; I don't think he would. What if you did something totally new, not related to habits at all? Do you think that he would hate that, or you're worried that he wouldn't respect you as a creator? And you're like, well, no, I'm not really worried about that person. And you come to realize, once you try to make the fear specific in that way, that actually you're worried about the collective view: you're worried about this vision of other people in the broad sense. And as soon as you realize that, you're like, oh, it's a story that I'm making up. It's just in my head. There is no collective "you"; they're just a collection of individual people that I happen to know or not know that well. And if you go to any one of those individuals, it's not that big of a deal. And so you're like, okay, I'm just inventing all this.

And that doesn't mean you don't fall into the trap; I still fall into the trap occasionally. But I do think it makes it easier for me to take a little bit of the pressure off and be like, just make the thing you want to make, the thing that lights you up, and worry less about the expectations that the audience is gonna have.

Alex: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, I think you're spot on; I think that's so helpful to hear. And I think just that storytelling, the stories we tell ourselves--especially about the outside world and their perception of you--that the thing to overcome is the perception of others to do what's truthfully best for you.

I do think, as the last topic, I want to talk about--and I think you just kind of mentioned it, especially about your process to creating a book where you gave it your very, very best. And I don't know if you remember this, but you and I, we spoke about a year ago, and we were on a call, and we were talking about podcasting trends, and we were just shooting from the hip basically about what's happening now, what's happening in the future. And I was talking, and I was very caught up in the trend side of podcasts. And I remember you gave...you said something, you paused and you responded to something, and it's stuck with me ever since. And you said, there will always be space for quality. And it was like a moment for me where I realized so many trends come and go, but there'll always be space for quality in work.

And I'm curious: it seems like that's a huge emphasis and what you do. And I think what I really took away from that conversation was the world is so noisy. There's infinite options. There's infinite things to listen, to watch, read whatever, you think. And the ultimate differentiator, the sharpest thing to cut through the noise, is going to be quality now. And I'm really curious, how do you think about quality? How do you approach work, in that sense?

James: It has to begin and end there. You have to make something exceptional. If you don't do that-- the answer, by the way, is going to be my personality coming out, some of this is just my personal stance on things. There are many ways to win, and so this maybe is not the only way to win, but it's the...in my opinion, it's the best way I know how.

You have to make something great. First of all, what are we even doing this for? Why am I even spending a lot of time on this to make something average, to make something mediocre? Why? I can go do something else. Like I what's, I don't even see what the point is if I'm not trying to do it to an exceptional degree. Secondly, the ultimate way that any product book, podcast, car, anything spreads and sells is by word of mouth. And I love Seth Godin's definition of that. You want to make something remarkable and that means it's worthy of remark, right?

It's worth talking about. And so. What are the products that are worth talking about what are the experiences that are, we're talking about. If you think about what those things are for your life, it's like, it's the stuff that's exceptional it's the stuff that is so fantastic or high quality or useful that you almost feel compelled to tell somebody about it.

I laugh sometimes you think about they're all. I think we've all seen these online courses and different things that people sell and they throw in a bunch of bonuses, right? There's a buyer buy in the next two days and you get 10 PDFs and you get these downloads and get a special set of interviews and private Q and a session that keep layering all this stuff on.

And then think about something like Lin-Manuel Miranda makes Hamilton, right? And then Hamilton puts their tickets up for sale on Broadway. And they don't have any bonuses. There are no free PDFs. There are no extra Q&A calls. There are no private sessions with the creator or anything like that.

It's just, it's so good. It's so exceptional that it sells out in five minutes and. I think if people will spend more time making the core thing exceptional and less time worrying about marketing tactics strategy or all this other stuff the end results would probably be better. And it's because ultimately you need people to spread it by word of mouth.

And the only way to do that is to make it so good that they want to talk about it. So I feel like that's from a business standpoint, just from a pure dollars and cents standpoint. It's the best strategy from a personal meaning standpoint--like, why am I doing this and how will I get the most satisfaction out of the work I'm doing--it's the best strategy. And then also from a, like, how much good am I doing for the world? Like this is part of my mission like I wanna help make the world a better place in some small way. The truth is, I am playing a very small role, right? Like people have written about habits for many years and they will write about them for many years after me.

And I am just occupying some liberal, small sliver of that universe for a narrow window of time. And even if I only get that little chance that small sliver, I want to make the most of it. I don't want to make my contribution and provide something useful. And so in that sense, you also want something high quality, exceptional.I want it to be the most useful thing possible. So that for my little window of opportunity, I got to make something of that. Yeah, in that way. I think quality is maybe it's the thing that underpins all of my work. It's like the, core philosophy that just everything relies on.

And I know everything I make could be better there's always stuff that you can revise or improve. And I have a long list of ideas and thoughts for how I could make the second edition of Atomic Habits better. But I gave the first edition my very best effort. And I think that has been one of the reasons why it's paid off for me.

Alex: Yeah, no that's, true. I think that, yeah, again, It's a testament to...it's also a very...it's like what you just said. I think that's a long-term decision in choosing quality over and over and over again, because I do think you can do the the other side of the coin is quantity. Just more stuff, especially in the social media, YouTube world, where it's like, just do more and more and more and more and more.

And that might be true, but it feels very short-term and that you might make something that is seen a lot quickly, but it might not be as memorable or as useful or as helpful for as long. But something was a lot of thought and care put into it...

James: I do think there's probably a balance here that's worth mentioning as a creator and as a digital creator and strategy and so on. Because you're right in the sense that the internet does reward people who are prolific because each piece of content you create has potentially infinite upside each tweet could go viral. Most of them don't, but you create the opportunity.

And so you can imagine the person who tweets five times a day versus the person who tweets five times a year has way more surface area for something to take off and for something to break out. And so it can't just be, Hey, only post your five best ideas of the year. That's probably too infrequent for the strategy to pay off for you.

So there is a balance there. And I think the way that I have settled into that balance is there's a certain level of quality that I'm just not willing to sacrifice. And in order to reach that quality bar. Sometimes, if I'm going to be playing more of a volume game, I have to scale the level of creation down.

Like I couldn't produce a 15 minute podcast every day because I don't have the capacity to produce that kind of volume, but maybe I could do a one minute, one at the quality bar that I'm trying to achieve. Now there's a question of whether you would rather have one minute podcast that's daily or a 50 minute podcast that's weekly or monthly or whatever.

And that's a separate distinction, but you get what I'm getting at. Like I can't I don't do this all the time, but usually I most of the time I try to tweet one thing per day and it's one sentence basically, or two sentences. It's very short and I can produce a tweet that is that high quality.

I can't produce an article every day. That's that high quality right? Two per week was like my max. But so I think you can maintain your quality bar. If you scale the level of creation down. This is what I did with 3, 2, 1, you know what I mean? The newsletters very popular over a million people subscribed to it, but it only takes me an hour or two to make it because it's it's not that many ideas.

It's just to a few sentences and I try to achieve very high quality with it. But the scope of it is small enough that I can do it each week. So yeah there's a balance there for me. I try to never sacrifice quality if I have to sacrifice something, I sacrifice scope.

Alex: That's a really good distinction. I've never heard that before, but that's really useful.

Okay. I think my final question is the most basic question you could probably expect from me, but for early creators who might be listening, maybe they're early on in their journey, what's a piece of advice? Or maybe to yourself, what would you tell James maybe seven or eight years ago, and what's something you'd suggest for early creators on their journey?

James: Yeah, a couple of different things, maybe. I mean, first thing is just to trust yourself I, if I would've trusted myself earlier, I probably would have started two years earlier. But I I don't know that I was, yeah I, maybe I had doubts that I could do it.

Maybe it just felt like it wasn't the right time. I don't know what it was, but I I would definitely want to tell my younger self to trust myself. Second thing is while you're in that process of trying to figure out if this is right for you, if you can make this thing work or not, you're going to be getting advice from the people you love and who care about you.

And you need to remember that. You know, I was very lucky. I have very supportive family and very supportive people around me, but the people who love you often want what's safe for you and you often want what will help you grow. And those two things are not always aligned. And that doesn't mean that they aren't supporting you or that they don't want you to do well.

It's just...they want you to be safe and you want to progress. And so you need to be able to filter through those bits of advice that you get and realize when maybe it's not matching up with the thing that you're trying to optimize for. And then I always have this question.

I come back to as a creator, which is, can my current habits carry me to my desired future. And if you find that your current habits or the current system. It's not on the trajectory that you want to be on. Something's got to change like you can't just sit there and hope that you're going to get the outcome that you want without following the system or the, trajectory to get there it's kinda like why didn't the cake turn out?

So why did you follow the recipe? Like, don't get mad at the cake if you didn't follow the recipe. So there's a, I think there's just like a little bit of self-awareness and maybe a hard conversation you have to have with yourself around am I actually showing up in the way I need to show up if I'm going to make this a reality?

Alex: Yeah, that's really good. James, thank you so much. I'm very grateful for you to spend the time on the show today. Where would you like everyone to be redirected? I'm going to put the link for, your newsletter which everyone should go read the book where can people find you?

James: Yeah, thanks for the opportunity. If you enjoyed the conversation, I think reading Atomic Habits is probably the best next step. It kind of expands on all the stuff that we sort of touched on today and you can find all my work at jamesclear.com. So if you want to sign up for the newsletter and just click on newsletter and if you wanna check out the book, you can just click on books and that's all you need.

Alex: Awesome, James. Thanks so much.

And thanks to everyone for listening. If you enjoyed this episode and want to get more of these conversations sent directly to your inbox, head over to alexsugg.com and sign up for my newsletter. As always, please go leave a five-star rating and review on apple podcasts for the show.

It helps to spread the word and last but not least, this episode is edited and produced by Josh Perez. If you are looking to get help with your podcast, Josh is your guy. He's a great producer and an even better dude. So please get in touch with him at justjoshperez.com. I'll be back soon with another new episode, so until then, let's go make something cool.