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1% Better Every Day: James Clear (Full Transcript)

James Clear at ConvertKit Craft Commerce 2017

Here is the full text and summary of Atomic Habits author James Clear’s talk: 1% Better Every Day.

Listen to the MP3 Audio:

TRANSCRIPT:

Let me tell you a story. So it’s a story about a strategy and approach philosophy… one that I’ve been thinking a lot about. And it starts with a guy, that maybe you haven’t heard of. His name is Dave Brailsford.

And to set the stage for this, I want to tell you a little bit about British Cycling.

So about 15 years ago, early 2000s, British Cycling hires this guy named Dave Brailsford. And at that point, last like 100 years, British Cycling had been incredibly mediocre. They had won a single gold medal back in 1908. They had never won the Tour de France, which is the premium race in cycling, the premier race.

And so they hired this guy named Dave Brailsford to change that. And in fact at the time, they were so mediocre that when they went to buy a new set of bikes, they’re getting like 200 from a top manufacturer in Europe, they actually weren’t even given quotes from the manufacturer because they didn’t want other teams to see the British riders using their gear, for fear that it would hurt sales.

And so they brought Brailsford in, and they said: “What’s your plan for changing this?”

He said: “Well, I believe in this philosophy that I call the aggregation of marginal gains.”

The way that he described it is the 1% improvement in nearly everything that you do.

So they started with a bunch of things you would expect the cycling team to start with. So for example, they put slightly lighter tires on the bike. They got a more ergonomic seat for the riders to sit on. They had their outdoor riders wear indoor racing suits because they were lighter and more aerodynamic.

They had each rider wear a biofeedback sensor so they could see how they would respond to training and then adjust it appropriately for the person.

But then they did a bunch of things you wouldn’t expect a cycling team to do. So they split tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the best type of muscle recovery. They taught each rider how to wash their hands to reduce the risk of infections, they wouldn’t get a cold after and get sick.

They also figured out the type of pillow that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider and then brought that on the road with them to hotels when they were competing.

And Brailsford said if we can actually do this right, if we can execute all these little 1% improvements, then I think we can win a Tour de France within 5 years.

He ended up being wrong. They won in two years and then they repeated again the third year with a different rider. And then after one year break they won two more; so they’ve won four out of last five now, have gone to British cyclists.

But it was at the Olympics in London in 2012 and this kind of strategy really came to a fruition. They won 70% of the gold medals available.

And so this idea that small improvements, tiny habits, little choices are not just a cherry on top of our performance, not just like a nice thing to have but actually can be the key that unlocks significant success. That’s an idea that I want us to carry with us as we go through the rest of this presentation.

And one way to think about it is just kind of basic math, like if you just look at the numbers. If you were able to improve by 1% each day for an entire year and those gains compound, you would end up 37 times better at the end of the year.

And if you were to get 1% worse, you would little yourself almost all the way down to zero.

And what’s interesting here is that everybody wants a transformation, right? Everybody wants a radical improvement, want rapid success. But we fail to realize that small habits and little choices are transforming us every day already. That these times when you make a choice is slightly better, slightly worse, a little mistake or a small error, 1% better or 1% worse that these things compound over time.

And habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.

And so if you can learn to master those, then you can make time work for you rather than get against you, right?

Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.

And so throughout the rest of this presentation I want to talk about how we can do that. Today I’m going to teach you how to build the habits that you need to get the results that you want.

And in order to do this, I’m going to take you through a framework for building better habits. And I’m also going to share a personal example of how I use this. So my writing habit.

If you don’t know I write at Jamesclear.com, write about how to build better habits, improve performance and generally live better. Over a million people visit the site each month. There’s over 400,000 subscribers on the weekly email newsletter. And it all came out of the simple writing habit.

So for the rest of this talk, there are four stages of habit formation. I’m going to take you through each of those four.

All right. So the four stages are: Noticing; Wanting; Doing; and Liking. Noticing; Wanting; Doing; and Liking.

You cannot perform a habit or take an action if you do not notice something. I need to see a coffee cup sitting on the side in order to pick it up first. But if it’s not in my realm of knowledge, if I don’t know it exists I can’t do anything about it.

But then I need to want it. I need to want to drink coffee and pick it up. If I don’t desire it or crave it, then I will not take the action.

Then there’s doing. You actually do the habit. And then I need to enjoy the reward. You need to enjoy drinking the coffee to repeat it again.

So noticing; wanting; doing and liking.

Let’s talk about each one, and as we do this, I’m going to give you a little bit of research about why it works. I’m going to give you practical action steps, at least one for each that you can use to implement in your life.

Noticing

So one of my favorite things about noticing, one of my favorite strategies for discussing it, it’s called Implementation Intentions. And there are hundreds of studies on this, over 100 studies on implementation intentions, if you feel like digging out and getting into the research. But if not, I’ll just give you the simple version here.

So one of my favorite studies is about exercise. And they had three cohorts in this study. So they had first cohort, they said I just want you to track how often you workout over the next few weeks, right? So that’s the standard cohort, the control group.

Second group is that we want to track often your exercise, we’re also going to give you a motivational speech, presentation, talk about the benefits of heart health, why habits are good for you, so on. So this is the motivated group, all right.

The third group; they got the same presentation, so they are equally motivated and then they did one thing differently. And that one thing was they filled out this sentence. They said: during the next week, I will for taking all these 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on this day at this time in this place, right?

They specifically stated their intention to implement the behavior. So implementation intention.

Here’s what happened. First group, one out of three of them worked out. Second group: motivation did nothing. As soon as they left the researcher’s facility the next day they were motivated. It’s like reading a book or watching a YouTube or listening to a motivational speaker and then you forget all about it 20 minutes later.

But the third group… the group that has specific plan for how they were going to implement the behavior, nine out of ten of them worked out. So you can increase your odds of success 2x to 3x just by having a specific plan.

And this is the insight: many people think that they lack motivation, when what they really lack is clarity. They think that they need to get more motivated that they need willpower in order to execute on a habit. If I just felt like writing, if I just felt like meditating, if I felt like working out, then I would do it.

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But in fact, they don’t have a plan for it, so they wake up each day thinking I wonder if I’ll feel motivated to write today, wonder if I’ll feel motivated to workout today.

But instead you can take the decision-making out of it by explicitly stating when, where, and how you want to implement the habit.

So here’s how I did this with my writing habit. I decided that on November 12, 2012 which was a Monday if you check, that was going to be the first day that I published an article. And I was going to publish every Monday and every Thursday. That was my implementation intention. That was my specific plan.

Didn’t matter how good or how bad it was; it didn’t matter how long or how short it was. It didn’t matter how I felt about it. If all I could do was write three good sentences that day, then that was getting published.

But I did that, and I did it for three years. And that was how the site grew. It was just that core habit that drove the growth.

So you need to give your goals a time and a place to live in the world, right? Give them space on your calendar.

Now it sounds easy to say let’s just start a plan, let’s write down exactly what you should do and then maybe you’ll follow through on it. But of course, we all know that there are challenges that arise. It’s not quite that easy.

Failure Pre-Mortem

So here’s a little strategy that I like to use to make sure you can come up with a better plan of action. And it’s called the Failure Pre-Mortem.

So the way that it works is you think about the habit, the project, the goal, whatever the most important thing is that you want to work on. And I want you to imagine fast forward six months from now and you fail, and then tell the story of why you failed, what happened, what challenges did you encounter? What was that took you off course?

When I do this with businesses, sometimes we call the kill the company exercise. So everybody sits around, thinks about ways to kill the company in the next six months.

And once you have all that stuff laid out on the table in front of you, you can start to make better choices about how to develop a plan. You can start to have if-then plans.

So not only do I want to exercise for 20 minutes on Monday at 5:00 p.m. but also if I do not exercise because I have to take my kid to practice or whatever, then Tuesday morning at 7:00 a.m. I would go in, right? You can have ways to adjust for these challenges.

So core point about noticing is it’s hard to change something if you’re not aware of it. And one way to become more aware of the opportunity to take action is to have a specific plan for what is going to happen. All right.

Stage 2: Wanting

One of the most overlooked drivers of habits and human behavior is our physical environment. So let me tell you a quick story. This comes from Harvard.

So these researchers at Harvard went to Massachusetts General Hospital and they had a very interesting question. They wondered if they could change people’s behavior without talking to them at all, without giving them anything to do, without trying to motivate them, but how can we shift their behavior without asking them to do anything?

So they… this is a drawing of the cafeteria at the hospital. This is drawn to scale. So the shaded pink boxes are areas where there are refrigerators that have soda in them. The two black boxes on the side are water, all right, refrigerators, water and then all the other tables are food in the cafeteria.

Now they made a few little changes. They turned the pink boxes into ones that also had water. Okay, so they just added… but these refrigerators still have soda available; they just added water to it. And then they had a bunch of little rolling carts and they put those around the cafeteria too, so you can switch back and forth and see that, they just added a couple things.

Now what happened? They didn’t talk to anybody; didn’t do anything. But over the next six months, people drank 25% more water and 11% less soda.

And it’s interesting because if you went up and talked to anybody sitting there and you asked them why are you drinking this, everybody would have a reason. They’d say, well I felt like drinking soda, I felt like drinking water.

But in fact, many of them chose to drink it simply because they were presented with it. And this is an interesting insight about our desires. Your environment often influences them. We want things, simply because they are an option, right, simply because they are in front of us at the time.

You walk into any living room in America, where do all the couches and chairs face? They all look at the TVs, like what does that room design to get you to do? We wonder why we sit and watch so much TV, it’s because our desires are shaped in that way.

So thankfully, you don’t have to be the victim of your environment; you can also be the architect of it. You can decide to design something to make your good behaviors easier and your bad behaviors harder.

So when it comes to habits you want to practice your guitar more frequently, put it right in the middle of your living room, so you run across all the time.

You want to read more? When you make your bed in the morning, take the book you want to read; put it on top of the pillow. When you come back that night, pick it up, read a few pages, go to sleep.

For me, I used to buy apples all the time and then I would put them in the crisper at the bottom of the fridge and they would sit there for three weeks and go bad. And I finally open it up and see them again, you get mad.

And then eventually I bought a bowl and put it right in the middle of the counter. And so then when I buy apples I put them there, I see them every day. And now I eat them all the time.

Many of our desires are simply shaped because we have an environment that shapes us in that way.

So the moral of the story is I’ve never seen someone stick to positive habits in a consistent fashion in a negative environment. Maybe you can overpower it once or twice. Maybe you can have the willpower to do the right thing on one day.

But if you’re constantly fighting against those forces, it’s going to be very hard to follow through.

So don’t rely on willpower and self-control. It’s a lot easier to stick to better habits when you’re presented with better options, right?

So What Does This Mean For Writing?

So, one, I leave my phone in the other room which it is in the other room right now, because I’d like to show it to you. That’s kind of the pen.

But I also on my home screen have no applications, so you can’t see anything. I have to swipe over and then tap into certain folders to get to social media. Takes at least three clicks for me to get to any social media app.

It’s not that big of a deal but it just prevents me from being mindless and just pulling it up and tapping on Instagram just because it’s right in front of me.

And then I also started something this last year which has been really effective. Every Monday my assistant will log me out of all social media and reset the passwords, and then not give them to me until Friday. And then on Friday I get the passwords and get to enjoy social media again.

Also I am going on vacation for the next two weeks. So if you see me posting on Tuesday, I’d only hear about it because I’m allowed to be on there. I’m not logged out for this week.

So the core idea here is that you want to put more steps between you and the bad behaviors, and fewer steps between you and the good behaviors. And it is far easier to stick to good habits if you are living in an environment that is inclined to push you in that direction.

All right.

Stage 3: Doing

So quick story here. There’s this professor at the University of Florida; he’s retired now. He was a photography professor; his name’s Jerry Uelsmann. And at the beginning of the semester he would have this film photography class, and he’d bring the class in and he would split him into two groups.

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He said everybody on this side of the room, you’re going to be graded on the quantity of work that you do this semester. And everybody on this side of the room you’re going to be graded on the quality of work that you do this semester.

And he further explained it by saying that for your film photography, you’re going to be responsible for having 100 pictures. If you do 100 photos over the course of the semester, that’ll be an A. If you do 90, it’ll be a B. If you do, it’ll be C, and so on. So it’s quantity.

For this group, you only have to produce one photo but it has to be the most perfect photo that you can make, the best photo that you can make.

An interesting thing happened. At the end of the term, all the best grades came from the quantity group, not from the quality group.

And what ended up happening was that while people were busy experimenting, making mistakes, learning, how to play with composition and so on, they would come across a really great photo.

And while the quality group was busy theorizing about what perfection would look like, and how to take the perfect photo and not actually honing their skills, they ended up only making something mediocre average.

And the important insight here, especially for habits, is that in the beginning, the most important thing is just to shut up and put your reps in. Just make sure that you hone the skill, right?

And you can start to think of it… the way that I’d like to think of it is that any outcome that you wish to achieve is just a point along the spectrum of repetitions. So if you have few reps, the more reps, and you can imagine an easy goal, moderate goal, hard goal. The more reps that you put in, the more likely you are to achieve that goal.

So maybe Point A is, let’s take fitness: squatting a hundred pounds, Point B is squatting 200, Point C is squatting 300, maybe you need to put in a hundred reps or a thousand reps to get to point A. Maybe it’s 5000 to get to point. Maybe it’s 10,000 to get to point C.

And this is actually very similar to what I saw with my writing habit. So after six articles at 100 subscribers, after 23, a thousand, after 96, 34,000; 177, hundred thousand, 243, and so on.

And every rep that I put in, every article that I published was something that was moving me closer to the next outcome on that spectrum. But you can’t get around the fact that the repetitions matter.

So every outcome is just a point along the spectrum. And this brings us to an interesting point: which is that if getting your reps in is incredibly important, then that means learning how to start is incredibly important. Because each repetition, really any consistency with the habit is just an exercise in getting started each day.

You can get started over and over again and that’s what consistency is. So you can make it as easy as possible to start. I want to give you a little strategy for doing that. I’d like to call it the Two-Minute Rule.

Now this is adapted. So David Allen has the two-minute rule for productivity. And his rule is that if it takes two minutes, just do it now. So like throwing in the laundry or washing a dish or calling somebody back, it takes two minutes or less, just do it right away; don’t plan it; don’t wait; just do it now.

Now for many of the habits and behaviors that we want to perform, they’re going to take longer than two minutes. If you go to the gym, you’re not going to work out for just two minutes.

But any habit can be started in less than two minutes, whether it’s writing, working out, meditating, anything. And so the goal here is that you want to optimize for the beginning of the task. You want your habits to act as an entrance ramp to a bigger routine.

One of my favorite examples is this Twyla Tharp, great choreographer and dancer. She said that she had a two-hour workout routine that she did every morning. But the habit was not the workout routine. The habit was: she would wake up, walk down to the street, and then hail a cab. And that was the only thing she’d focus on it.

As long as she hailed the cab and got in the car, she knew that she was going to end up at the gym and then do the rest of the workout. So she put all of her energy into starting.

Now what I like to say is you should optimize for the starting line, not the finish line, right? So often when we think about habits, goals, routines, achievements, it’s all about the milestone.

We think about how much weight we want to lose, how much money we want to earn; how many subscribers we want to have; it’s all fixed on the finish line.

But instead if you can optimize for the starting line and make it as easy as possible to get started and get your reps in, often the outcomes just come as a natural result.

Okay.

Stage 4: Liking

So the only reason that we repeat behaviors is because we enjoy them, because we like the reward. If we don’t enjoy the experience along the way, we’re unlikely to stick with it.

And that means that you need to figure out ways to bring a reward into the present moment, because good habits have a problem. And that problem is that for good habits, the immediate consequence is there. There’s a cost that happens in the moment but the reward is often delayed.

If I go to the gym now, it’s cost me time and energy and effort. But the reward is I’ll be fit three months from now or not get sick ten years from now or so on. The reward is delayed.

Bad habits are often the reverse. If I eat a doughnut right now, the benefit is: it tastes great and I get a hit of sugar and it’s awesome. And the consequence is delayed, right? I get overweight three weeks from now, or three months from now or so on.

So you need to figure out how to bring the reward into the present moment to stick to a good habit.

And someone else who’s going to be speaking here, Seth Godin, had a very nice little quote about this, he says the best way to change long-term behavior is a short-term feedback.

And one way to think about that is that long-term behaviors, sticking with writing for years on end, or going to the gym and so on, they have those delayed consequences. So you need a way to enjoy it in the moment.

All right. There are many ways to do this, but I’m just going to share one today.

Seinfeld Strategy

I like to call the Seinfeld strategy, and the story is from Jerry Seinfeld, famous comedian. Early in his career, he’s speaking at a comedy club. He’s presenting, performing that night. And this guy named Brad Isaac is opening for him.

And backstage, Brad Isaac catches Seinfeld and he said, “Mr. Seinfeld, huge fan years, do you have any tips for young comic? Do you have any recommendations for how to be better?

And Seinfeld thought for a second; he said “Well the secret to being a better comedian is write better jokes. And the secret to writing better jokes is writing every day.”

So here’s I think you should do: get a wall calendar, where you can see every day of the year mapped out on it. And then any day that you do your task of writing jokes for 15 minutes, I want you just put an X on that day. And you’ll have a couple false starts here and there. But at some point you’re going to get a little bit of a chain going, right, you get four or five, six, seven, eight days in a row.

And at that point your only goal becomes to: don’t break the chain. It doesn’t matter how good or how bad the jokes are; doesn’t matter if it makes it into your material. Just don’t break the chain.

And what’s interesting about this is that by measuring your progress, you get an immediate reward in the moment, right? The reward of like having a great stand-up routine forty days from now or 40 weeks from now or whatever is not… it’s so delayed that you need something in the moment that makes you feel good.

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So if you do those 15 minutes you can cross that off. That’s a way to get an immediate hit, a little bit of a reward by tracking it.

Never Miss Twice

Now I like to do… I like to add one more thing to this: which is never miss twice. So, many people they’ll get a chain going and then they fall off track and they feel bad about it feel, like oh, I ruined it; I had this great thing; now it’s over. The streak is gone.

But what you find when you look at top performers is not that they don’t make mistakes; they make mistakes just like everybody else. But they can just get back on track more quickly.

And in fact, if you could just adhere to this one rule: never miss twice, then you would… even if you fell off-track every single time after you got back on track, you still would do it 50% of the time.

And so this basic strategy is very useful, and I’ve seen people use the Seinfeld strategy for working out. I used it for tracking how often I was writing, every Monday, every Thursday; I didn’t want to break the chain.

I have videographer friends who every day that they do thirty minutes of video processing, that’s their X, so you can adapt it for almost same thing.

All right.  So the four stages: noticing; wanting; doing; liking.

Now I’d like to close by talking about why habits are so important. And to do that, I want to share a little story about the Ship of Theseus, which is this ancient Greek parable story about this ship that goes into Athens, Greece and parks in the dock. And as it’s there, it’s used year after year some of the boards start to wear away, some of them start to go bad.

And so whenever one board is bad, they take the board out and change it and put a new one in. This process continues for 25 or 30 years until every board that was on the ship has been changed out for a new one.

And philosophers for centuries have asked: is this the same boat? Is this the same thing that was there before? It’s both entirely same and entirely new.

And I would say that your habits can be the same way. We often fear that in order to achieve something new to become someone new, we have to abandon everything that we are.

But in fact, that’s not how it works. Change can happen plank by plank, board by board, habit by habit. And gradually you can become someone new.

With consistency and repetition, you can actually change not only your results but actually your identity. And the reason that this is true is because the more evidence that we have for a belief, the more likely we are to believe it.

So if you go to church every Sunday for 20 years, you believe that you’re religious. If you study Spanish every Thursday night for 20 minutes, you believe that you are studious.

The actions that you take provide evidence for who you are. And it’s not that habits matter more necessarily. On an individual basis each moment in life matters.

But what ends up happening is that over the broad span of time, things that you do once or twice fade away, and things that you do time after time, day after day, week after week accumulate the bulk of the evidence for what you believe about yourself.

And so every action that you take is actually a vote for the type of person that you want to become. If you want to become someone new, then you can take a new action and begin to accumulate evidence for that identity, for that belief about yourself.

And that the more votes that you cast, the more likely you are to win the election. You don’t need to be unanimous; you don’t have to be perfect all the time. You just need to have the body of work, right?

So true change is actually not behavior change; it’s not results change; it’s not process change; it’s identity change. The goal is not to become… the goal is not to read a book; it’s to become a reader. Goal is not to write a book or write an article; it’s to become a writer.

Goal is not to run a marathon; it’s to become a runner, to become a type of person, to develop an identity. And the way to being something or becoming someone is through doing something.

So every time you sit down to write, every time you practice that habit, you are being a writer. Every time you play a sport you’re being an athlete. Every time you practice painting or music or whatever, you’re being an artist.

Your identity emerges out of the habits that you have.

And so here’s the secret to this talk: it’s not just about getting you to make small changes. It’s not just about putting a book on your pillow or putting an apple on the counter. It’s actually by getting you to believe something new about yourself, think possible about yourself.

And habits are not only the method through which we achieve external measures of success, like losing weight or earning more money or meditating and reducing stress.

They are also the path through which we achieve internal change and actually become someone new. They’re the path through which we forge the identity that we have, the deepest beliefs we have about ourselves, our sense of self.

And so if you can change your habits, you can change your life.

Thank you.

Want a summary of this talk? Here it is.

SUMMARY:

“1% Better Every Day” is a compelling talk by James Clear that delves into the transformative potential of habits and their impact on personal growth. Clear’s insightful presentation can be summarized in key points:

1. The Dave Brailsford Story: Clear opens with the story of Dave Brailsford, who revolutionized British Cycling using the “aggregation of marginal gains” philosophy. This approach focuses on making 1% improvements in various areas.

2. Four Stages of Habit Formation: Clear identifies four key stages of habit formation: Noticing, Wanting, Doing, and Liking.

3. Noticing: To initiate change, you must first notice the opportunity for action. Implementation intentions, or specific plans, help create clarity and boost the chances of habit execution.

4. Wanting: Our physical environment significantly influences our desires. By designing our surroundings to make good habits easier and bad habits more inconvenient, we can effectively shape our behavior.

5. Doing: Consistency and repetition are essential for establishing habits. Clear introduces the “Two-Minute Rule,” emphasizing the importance of making it easy to start a habit, as the act of starting is often the most challenging part.

6. Liking: Immediate rewards play a crucial role in habit formation. Clear discusses the “Seinfeld Strategy,” where marking off completed habits on a calendar provides an immediate sense of accomplishment. He also encourages never missing twice, promoting a quick return to the habit after setbacks.

7. Identity Change: Clear’s overarching message is that habits are not just about behavior change; they are a means to transform one’s identity. Every action taken is a vote for the type of person one aspires to become. Consistent habits accumulate evidence for new beliefs and identities.

8. Small, Incremental Improvements: Clear emphasizes the power of small, gradual improvements through structured habits. He asserts that habits lead not only to external success but also to internal transformation, gradually reshaping one’s beliefs and identity.

In essence, “1% Better Every Day” underscores the profound impact of habits on personal growth. Clear’s talk inspires individuals to recognize the potential for change, create specific plans for habit execution, optimize their environments, and leverage consistency to shape their identities and achieve continuous improvement.

Resources for Further Reading: 

How to Break Away from Habit & Follow Through on Your Goals: Sabine Doebel (Transcript)

A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit by Judson Brewer (Full Transcript)

Charles Duhigg on The Power of Habit (Full Transcript)

The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers by Adam Grant (Full Transcript)

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