How to Create a Fool-Proof System for Sticking to Good Habits

It’s hard to stick to good habits.

You start working out, preparing your own meals, or going to bed on time. You keep it up for a few weeks, but eventually, you stop.

That’s about to change.

In this podcast, James Clear is going to teach you exactly how good habits are formed, the most common reasons people don’t maintain good habits, and specific strategies you can use to make them stick.

It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to lose weight, build muscle, run faster, get more sleep, or do something completely different like manage your finances — developing good habits will help you in every aspect of your life.

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Show Notes

Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.

This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent and Here’s What Happened

How to Say No, Resist Temptation, and Stick to Your Health Goals

How Willpower Works: The Science of Decision Fatigue and How to Avoid Bad Decisions

Transform Your Habits by James Clear

James Clear’s Free Email Newsletter

Join Evidence Magazine

4 Simple Ways to Lose Weight Fast Without Counting Calories

How to Eat and Train for Fat Loss

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

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Transcript

**Armi Legge:** It’s hard to stick to good habits. You start a new behavior, you stick with it for a few weeks, and then for whatever reason you stop doing it. Whether it’s working out, preparing your own meals, going to bed on time, or even flossing your teeth. For some reason, it’s hard to keep doing things even if you know they’re good for you. That’s about to change.

In this podcast, James Clear is going to teach you exactly how good habits are formed, the most common reasons people don’t maintain good habits, and how to make good ones stick. James is also going to share some even more specific strategies you can use in the moment to maintain your good habits when you really want to quit.

My name is Armi Legge and you are listening to Evidence Radio, the podcast that helps you simplify your health and fitness.

It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to lose weight, get stronger, get faster, learn to cook, go to bed earlier or learn how to ride an elephant. This information on habit change will help you develop positive behaviors throughout your entire life. Now let’s hear how with James Clear.

James, thank you for coming on the show, man. We’ve known each other for a little while now. We got to speak for about an hour or so a few weeks ago. I’ve been digging through your stuff and I absolutely love it. I’m someone who hates email more than anything else but you have some of the few emails that I will actually sit down and read. That says a lot. Would you tell our listeners a little bit about you and what you write about in your approach?

**James Clear:** Hey, for sure. Thanks for having me on. I write about I would say three different topics. One being rituals and routines. The second being creativity and craftsmanship. Then the third being like exploration and adventure and sort of like being a builder and creating things from nothing.

Within those themes, I write about much more specific stuff. I often say I’m an entrepreneur, weight lifter, and travel photographer. Travel photography is the creativity piece. Entrepreneurship is the being a builder piece. Then weight lifter and being an athlete, I played baseball in undergrad, so I think about a lot of those issues and I use those examples and my experiences as sort of like case studies for whatever the topic or idea is that I’m talking about.

But the central thread that sort of ties all these varied experiences together is habit formation. And not just habits, but also like routines and things that aren’t necessarily as automatic as habits, but it’s all about behavior change and behavioral psychology. I try to back up a lot of my personal experiences with scientific research or a variety of studies that ground the principles with science, but I really try to toe the line and balance between the scientific research and what it looks like in the real world.

One, I think there’s value in being able to take the scientific studies and turn them into practical ideas. Two, in my experience, things may sound good in theory, but it’s much different when you step into the arena and start doing stuff. I like to keep my focus on actually doing things and that pushes me to stay active and be an experimenter and a doer, not just someone with an opinion. That’s sort of what I write about each week.

**Armi Legge:** Excellent, and you do a great job. When people hear you talking about routines and habit formation, I’m sure they’re immediately thinking about that one thing they wish they could do, whether it’s prepare a meal, keep their room clean, clean out their inbox everyday, whatever. What are the most common barriers people face to being able to achieve that one habit that has been sitting in their mind for awhile?

**James Clear:** Good question. Obviously, it can differ depending on your circumstances, situation, lifestyle and everything. I think one main thing that prevents people in the very beginning is a lack of clarity or lack of direction. I often say if you want to change or create a habit, one, it needs to be important to you, so you need to care about it, and two, you need to be clear about what it is, like what you are working towards. Sometimes people make very vague statements about what they would like to have. “I would like to be happy” or “I would like to be in shape” or whatever. That’s fine as a starting point in the conversation, but I find it is much easier to direct your actions when you have something very specific that you’re working toward.

To give you some examples from my own life, I could say, “I want to be a better photographer,” and that would be true because I do want to improve, but when I get really focused about it, what I really care about is being better at street photography and landscapes, so those are the two things I focus on. Once I develop that sense of clarity, and it took me a little while to get there, it probably took me over a year or two before I realized that, now it’s so much easier for me to decide where I want to spend my time and how I can develop those skills better.

Same way for weight lifting with me. I could say, “I want to be in shape” or “I want to get stronger,” which again is true, but what I really care about is being better at the Olympic lifts and increasing my raw foundational strengths like squat, deadlift, and bench press. Once I know that, it helps provide a serious sense of clarity around what I should be doing in the gym and where I should be spending my time when I work out. So I think that clarity and direction are huge and then there are all sorts of other things that could get in the way. Like there is simplicity in environment design. We can dive into that later because I think that’s really important. Then there’s also the way that you structure your habits or the self-talk that you use for yourself and whether you’re making things too big or whether you’re starting with things that are so easy that you can’t say no to them. There are a variety of strategies involved with that as well.

**Armi Legge:** We’ll talk about some of the strategies in a moment, but first, let’s talk about how habits are formed in general. In your book, you talk about the “three Rs.” Would you give our listeners a rundown of what that is or what those are and how those apply to habit formation?

**James Clear:** Sure. Before I do, I want to make one distinction. That is that oftentimes, the scientific literature and the process that I’m going to talk about in just a moment– whenever it refers to “habits,” they’re talking about an automatic behavior. Some of this stuff is like semantics in the way that we use the word “habit” to refer to many different things, even if they may not necessarily be automatic. What I mean is like brushing your teeth each morning can be an automatic behavior you sort of do on auto pilot. You’ll often hear someone say something like, “Oh, I wish I could making running or going to the gym a habit each week.” What you really mean is “I want to get into the routine and pattern of doing that,” but you’re probably not going to go to the gym for an hour and be completely unconscious and it being an automatic behavior you don’t think about. So there’s a slight difference there but I think a lot about both.

So the strategies I will mention will work for both, but I just want to clarify that from the beginning because when you read about habits becoming automatic and different things becoming a habit, sometimes the scientific research is referring to a slightly different behavior than maybe what you have in your mind.

So the three Rs are mentioned by many different people in different ways. I first learned this from BJ Fogg, who’s a professor at Stanford University. It’s also mentioned in “The Power of Habit” which is a popular habit book that’s out right now.

Anyway, there are different ways of talking about it but the basic idea is habits follow a three step sequence. The first step or the first R I like to refer to as the reminder. There’s the thing that’s like a trigger or the prompt, the cue the gets you to do a particular behavior. As an example, your phone might ring. That could be a reminder. The second step is the routine. That’s the actual habit or action that you’re doing. So your phone rings. That’s a reminder. You answer your phone. That’s the routine. Then the third step is the reward or the benefit that you get for doing the actual behavior. The reward is particularly important because a lot of times, people will say, “Oh, well that’s a bad habit. Why do you keep doing it?” It’s because there’s some type of reward or benefit associated with that particular behavior. In the case of the phone example, the phone rings, it’s a reminder. You answer it. That’s the routine. You satisfy your curiosity or find out why someone is calling. That’s the reward.

In the case of bad habits, like smoking for example, the reward might be physiological. You might have a nicotine hit that you crave. It may be you connect with friends or you get to share a moment on a smoking break with someone who’s close to you or someone you work with. You feel that sense of connection. Maybe that’s the connection you get.

It could be all sorts of things but the point is habits, whether they’re good or bad, follow this cycle where there’s some type of cue or prompt or trigger that causes you to start it. You do the behavior and then there’s some sort of benefit from doing it. What happens is if that benefit is positive, you go round and around in a loop because it tells your brain, “Hey, we did this. It’s a good thing. We got some benefit. Let’s do it again next time.” After awhile, if you run through that loop enough, it becomes a habit.

**Armi Legge:** Excellent. So where does willpower come into play in all of this? That’s what people usually think of when they think of behavior change and habit formation or breaking a bad habit. They think, “I need to have more willpower” or “I just need to tough it out.” Where does that fall under this equation?

**James Clear:** Willpower is a really big issue in itself. It’s also really important. I think this is actually a really good time to bring up environment design and choice architecture and how your environment shapes your behavior as well.

So the basic idea about willpower is that oftentimes, the way we talk about it, people will say things like, “Oh, I wish I just had more willpower.” We ask like it’s a fixed resource like you either have it or you don’t or some people are lucky to have a lot of willpower where others don’t. It doesn’t necessarily work the way.

The research shows that willpower is much more like a muscle in your body in that if you use it over and over again, it can get fatigued. This is true not just over the course of a long timespan, but over the course of minutes and hours. There’s a popular study that tracked the judges on a parole board and as they made more decisions about whether a particular prisoner should get parole or not– so they were making tons of these decisions over the course of a day. They would bring someone in, they’d make some decisions, they’d bring another criminal in, and so on.

Each time they had to choose, it was a dose of willpower. It was like doing a rep at the gym. And by the time they got to their lunch break, their willpower had dropped so far that they just automatically defaulted to saying no to the criminals even if someone with the same sentence and the same crime earlier in the day had been let free because they looked at it rationally and they were like, “OK, this person is OK.” They defaulted to no because they were like, “Well, we might as well keep them in here rather than make a bad choice” because their willpower was low.

Then they eat lunch and when they came back and had a break and got some food in them, they came back at lunch and again, their willpower spiked up, so it’s like they had a chance to receiver between sets at the gym. Again, their approval ratings went up and then as the day went on, they dipped back down again, all the way down to almost zero at the end of the day.

The point of the story is that your willpower is not something that you’re born with or born without. It can fluctuate throughout the day and there are a couple ways to think about this.

The first is the concept that of judges I just mentioned on this parole board, the thing that they suffered from is offer referred tabby the research team is “decision fatigue” or “ego depletion.” The basic idea is their resources were depleted because they had to make so many different decisions. You can take advantage of this and capitalize on increasing your willpower or maintaining it throughout the day by reducing the number of decisions you have to make early on.

A famous of example of this is that President Obama has said that he only has two suits, like a dark blue one and a gray one and he always wears one of those two suits every day because he’s like, “I’m making decisions about so many other things that I don’t want to have to decide what I’m wearing.” That’s one area where he reduces the number of decisions he needs to make, so he has more willpower to put towards the important choices.

You and I can do similar things. So like, as an example in my own life, I decided to start intermittent fasting for a variety of reasons, but one of which is that it makes my life simpler. I wake up now. I get to put my creative energy in the morning toward writing and doing important work. I don’t have to worry about debating what I’m going to have for breakfast or putting the energy or decision making into what I’m going to eat, am I going to clean it up now, am I going to clean it up later, all that other stuff. So I save that energy for later. So storing your willpower can be useful.

Another thing that you can do to increase your willpower, and this is pretty much universal through the research, is meditating. It doesn’t even have to be a lot of meditation.

The recommended thing that I often say to people who want to start is if you have your morning coffee or your morning tea, sit down. When you have your morning coffee, meditate for 60 seconds. Close your eyes, breathe deeply. You don’t have to achieve some sort of Zen state of meditation where you have no thoughts. The goal is simply to get yourself to sit and breathe and not let the urgencies of the day and all the things that are on your to-do list pull you into running around and racing. Realizing that can wait for those 60 seconds. Then you can build up to three minutes or five minutes or ten minutes or whatever. So meditating has been proven to increase willpower.

Then the third and final thing that I’ll say, and this is what I think is so critical, is the environment that you live in and the way that the physical space and the mental space around you is designed to promote certain behaviors.

To give you an idea of how important I think environment is for building habits and crafting your behavior, if you took 100 people and you put those 100 people on a beach somewhere and you asked them how they were feeling, most people would say, “Oh, relaxed, stress free.” They feel happy and they feel good. Then if you took the same 100 people and put them in a war zone, most of them would feel anxious and stressed and worried and fearful.
And this is completely unrelated to the type of personality they have, the type of person they think they are, the beliefs they have about the world, their confidence levels, all that stuff. It’s just a response to their environment and where they’re placed.

Now those are extreme examples but you can see how the environment dictates the way we feel and the actions we take. On a smaller scale, the same things are happening every day. The things that are on the kitchen counter at home are helping dictate what you eat. Where your food is located in your pantry or in your fridge dictates what you see first and what you reach for to eat. The things that are on your desk at work dictate the amount of mental space or clarity you have. The way that your living room is arranged dictates the type of actions you take when you walk in there.

If you go into most living rooms around the world, you will walk in and you’ll see a couch and some chairs organized around a TV and you wonder why so many people watch TV. It’s like that is what the space is designed for. If you walk into that room, the room is orienting you towards that. I’m not saying you have to change the way your entire home is laid out, but if you change the way that things are structured or put the TV in a cabinet and it was closed off and you didn’t see it right away or if you moved a chair around that wasn’t facing the TV, maybe you would sit down and make a different choice.

There’s a researcher at Cornell University named Brian Wantsink who has done a lot of research on food and how environment crafts your eating choices. I think he wrote a book called “Mindless Eating.” I think he has another one coming out called “Slim by Design.”

Basically, all these different studies show foods that are more visible and on the top shelf are more likely for you to eat. So guess what? Put the healthy foods there. Tuck the unhealthy foods lower and further away in your pantry. If you cover some leftovers with plastic wrap, you’re more likely to eat it than if you cover it with tinfoil because you can’t see it. Once again, cover brownies with tinfoil. Cover the vegetables from last night with plastic wrap. There are all sorts of tiny ways that you can structure your environment to promote good behaviors and prevent less healthy or less productive ones.

**Armi Legge:** To recap, it sounds like number one is to budget your willpower. So you’re spending it on other things that really matter to you.

Number two would be to meditate.

Number three would be to create an environment that’s conducive to making your habit change easier.

**James Clear:** Yes. I’d say that’s exactly right.

**Armi Legge:** Excellent. So for somebody who has trouble starting new habits, and I think probably 99% of people would say yes, what tips do you have for these people to make that transition easier from their current lifestyle to adopting a new habit?

**James Clear:** Yeah. I would say three things. The first is to start with something that’s so easy that you can’t say no to it. That’s a line that I got from Leo Babauta. It has worked really well for me. I’ll give you an example of all three of these and sort of tie it together at the end.

The second thing is to make improvements to your habit or to gradually escalate your habit in an almost imperceptible way, like really small, incremental gains.

Then the third thing is to focus on setting a schedule for yourself for doing those habits, for performing them, for starting something that’s so easy you can’t say no to it, for increasing those incremental gains, and you set a schedule for those so that you don’t have to debate when the habit is going to occur. There are a couple different ways you can do this.

To give you an example that ties these things together, I’m playing with a new pushup routine right now. I started really easy. On the first day, I did 10 pushups. For me, I can do that in one set in 15 seconds. It was so easy that I couldn’t say no to it.

The next day, I decided to do 11 pushups and the day after that 12. I keep adding 1 pushup per day each time. Again, this is the second piece. It was an incremental gain that was so small and so simple that it was almost imperceptible.

Then the third thing is that I do it each morning when I wake up. So I wake up, I get out of bed, I do my pushups, then I go take a shower. I know exactly where it fits into my day. It has a time and a place that it lives.

When I say schedule your habits, sometimes that means pick like a date and a time. Other times, it can mean tie it to a behavior that you’re already doing or fit it into your daily routine in some way.

So some other examples of schedules could be like my weightlifting schedule. I weight lift every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the gym from 5pm – 6pm. My writing schedule. I publish a new article every Monday and Thursday and I don’t have a time that it happens during the day. Just something needs to get published that day. The phrase that I like to keep in mind when you think about these schedules are “reduce the scope but stick to the schedule.”

So as an example, let’s say that you wanted to start a new running habit, so your hope was to go out and run three miles today. Well, you look up at the clock and the afternoon got away from you. You’re still working and you realize that I only have 20 minutes left. That’s not enough time for me to get changed and run three miles. Well, the typical response, and what I often would have said in the past was, “OK. I only have 20 minutes but let’s not waste this 20 minutes. I’ll keep working. I’ll send out some more important emails. I’ll do something so I don’t waste this time.”

Instead, what I think would be a better choice now and the choice I try to make at this point is, “Alright, 20 minutes might not be enough for me to run the three miles that I wanted to, but how can I reduce the scope but still stick to my workout schedule?” So it might be enough time for me to put my shoes on and run one mile or run 10 sprints or something like that.

On an individual basis, doing that one workout or running that one mile instead of three miles or whatever it is isn’t that big of an impact, but over the long-term, the impact of always sticking to the schedule, of proving to yourself, “Hey, the circumstances weren’t perfect but I still found a way to make this work,” and the value of showing yourself and proving to yourself mentally that, “this is a habit that is important to me and I can stick to it even when the circumstances aren’t optimal,” that is huge. I think that impact far outweighs any of the negatives of not doing something as grand or as wonderful as you were hoping it would be.

I often have to do that my writing. Last week, I was at a retreat. My time was really pressed. My schedule from 7am – 11pm was pretty much booked. I really didn’t have much time to write, but I knew that I still had to get something out Monday and Thursday, so I reduced the scope. I wrote some shorter articles. I wrote articles that didn’t have research backing them. It was just about my own experience or a photo essay of the country that I had been to. But I found a way to stick to the schedule and maintain that consistency. Those are some examples of ways to do that.

To summarize, start with something that’s so easy that you can’t say no to it. Did you write down my second point, Armi? What was it?

**Armi Legge:** I believe I did. “Make improvements in small ways.”

**James Clear:** Yes. Find a way to do those incremental, tiny gains.

Then the third piece is to set a schedule for yourself even if you have to reduce the scope. I have plenty of other stories about those first two, but I will put some articles and additional resources that explain each of those piece together and point you to them at the end of the interview.

**Armi Legge:** Excellent. I’ll make sure all of those links are in the show notes of this episode as well on evidencemag.com. I think that’s a really good point you made. I just got back from a hike with my dad and my brother and one of the things that has always amazed me about him is he has stayed in absolutely outstanding shape. He’s in about his early 50s now. It’s not like he has ever done anything crazy. He just sticks to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining, if it’s cold. He’s there. I think, often, just being consistent is far more important than what you actually do, no matter what it is.

**James Clear:** I absolutely agree. I’ve written about this as well, the difference between systems and goals. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the goal or the outcome or how much you want to lift or how much weight you want to lose or whatever the particular goal is to for you. But in reality, the goal or having the goal doesn’t actually do anything for you. It’s nice to have some clarity around what you want to work toward, but the act of setting a goal doesn’t prompt anything or doesn’t change anything.

It’s really the system that makes the difference, the things you do on a daily or weekly basis. The habits that you have of practice and consistency and maintaining that.

As I’ve started to realize that more and discover that, I have spent much more of my time focusing on the system, what I’m doing with my weekly or daily habits, and how I can just improve that incrementally, those one or two percent gains that eventually add up to do the outcome anyway and you end up getting to the result regardless.

**Armi Legge:** I’ve been making a lot of changes with the people I work with for weight loss and even my own writing on Evidence Mag. What you find is that everyone, when they’re trying to lose weight, they want to set a goal. The typical advice is you want to weigh a certain amount by this date. You write it down. You put it under your bed. Whatever.

I think there’s a lot of merit to do that, but at the same time, even then, if it’s a reasonable goal and you’re motivated to go for it, there is still a disconnect there between where I am now and how do I get there, whereas focusing on habits and even not worrying as much on how to get there, just focusing on developing those behaviors often not only gets people there faster but it’s a process they can maintain much better.

**James Clear:** I agree. The other problem is say you want to lose 20 pounds in the next three months or something and that’s your goal. If you get there and you only lose 12 pounds, you actually should be feeling really positive about the progress that you’ve made, but because you didn’t hit this arbitrary goal that you set in the future, you feel like a failure, which is the exact opposite of how you should feel.

Then the other problem I have with it is that if we continually set these outcomes for ourselves for where we want to be, sometimes it’s easy to convince yourself, “Oh, once I achieve this, then I’ll be successful” or “Once I reach this goal, then I’ll be happy,” or, “Once I hit this milestone, then I can stop or be content with who I am.” It sort of trains you to believe that happiness is always out there in the future whereas it’s actually much more useful to embrace the positive psychology and the fact you believe in yourself and you’re happy with who you are now. That prompts you and allows you to make more progress in the present moment.

**Armi Legge:** Sure. Another benefit of focusing on systems rather than goals as you put it, is it allows you far more flexibility.

Let’s say you go on a cruise or something and you’re trying to stick to a diet. Your goal is a certain weight and you know that on that cruise, you probably won’t be able to lose as much weight as you did the rest of the time when you had your own environment, your own food, all that stuff, but instead of focusing on the weight, if you have a focus where it’s, “OK, I’m going to just eat until I’m satisfied without stuffing myself,” that is a far more sustainable and easy goal to stick to when you’re in challenging environment like traveling, as I’m sure you’re used to.

**James Clear:** Oh, I absolutely agree. I think that’s huge and that’s actually one of the reasons why I love systems so much, because they’re based on what’s actually happening. So like I call it “feedback loops” and I try to build them in each week or even multiple times a week so that I can make choices and adjustments on how to improve right now based on where I’m at rather than sticking to some arbitrary template or schedule that was made up a month ago or three months ago or whenever.

With my workouts, I usually get to the gym and then look at what I did in the last one or two workouts, so like where was I 5 days ago? Where was I one week ago? Then base my incremental gains or the progressive overload or how much I want to jump up by, just based on that, like what just recently happened, which I find works far better for me and has led to much more consistent gains than sticking to a program or a template that I set 12 weeks ago just because that’s what the program says. So that’s been useful, although it has taken me a little while to get to that point.

Then I also do the same thing with my business. I have a weekly review that I do every Friday and I look at 7 or 8 key metrics in my business and I track these on a spreadsheet and that spreadsheet acts as my feedback loop for those habits, so I can dive in. If the numbers are going up, great. I can keep doing what I’m doing. If a certain metric does down, then it’s a signal for me to dive into that metric a little deeper and look at what I’m doing, what did I do recently, and how I can adjust. Having those feedback loops to take action on and continually improve the system has led to far more growth than setting some goal and then just trying to chase that.

**Armi Legge:** Excellent. Well, James, I think we have covered a ton of outstanding information and I completely agree with you. I learned a lot of stuff just talking to you. Where can people learn more about habit formation, your book, and everything else that you talk about?

**James Clear:** For sure. I write at jamesclear.com. As I mentioned, new articles go up every Monday and Thursday. There’s a link in the navigation to join the newsletter if you feel like it. Many of the ideas that we covered today and more detail on those can be found in my habits guide and people can download that for free at jamesclear.com/habits.

**Armi Legge:** Excellent. We’re going to have links to everything James mentioned in today’s podcast in the show notes on Evidence Mag. If you enjoyed this, what we focused on today was more about forming positive habits, but that also leaves the other side of the equation: how do you get rid of habits you don’t like, that might be holding you back from becoming the person you want to be? That’s what we are going to talk about in a special interview that will be only available to Evidence Magazine subscribers. If you want to have access to that, you can go to evidencemag.com/join-evidence.

James, thank you very much, man, and I hope to speak to you soon.

**James Clear:** Awesome. Happy to do it. Thanks for having me.

**Armi Legge:** This was one of my favorite episodes of all time. As you may have guessed after listening to the interview with Georgie Fear and some of the other shows that we’ve done recently, Evidence Magazine is moving more and more to do a habit based system for getting lean and staying fit.

This is actually a big shift and an important one. That’s why James and I have recorded another interview that’s only for Evidence Magazine subscribers. In that interview, we go into extreme detail on how to break bad habits while this is interview, the one you just listened to, only focused on developing good ones. In this exclusive interview, James shares several simple, powerful techniques that haven’t been covered much elsewhere, that you can use to destroy bad habits and replace them with new ones.

If you want to listen to that show, you need to go evidencemag.com/join-evidence and join the rest of us. You’ll get the interview on Monday of next week. In the meantime, there’s a ton of great content waiting for you, including an exclusive interview with Eric Helms, who you also heard on the podcast before. If you’re interested in any of that, go to evidencemag.com/join-evidence or you can go to evidencemag.com and click “join us” at the top of the page.

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