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James Clear (he/him) is a writer and speaker focused on habits, decision-making, and continuous improvement, and the author of Atomic Habits, which has sold more than 1 million copies worldwide. In this episode James breaks down the science of habit into practical, actionable steps to help you shift from feeling stuck to doing the thing, whether you’re trying to start something new or break a pattern that isn’t serving you. He’ll explain his two minute habit hack, why “casting votes” is the best way to solidify a new habit, and what friction has to do with behavioral change. We also talk about how to navigate social influence when you’re trying to stick with a new habit, and why systems matter far more than goals.

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THIS EPISODE’S GUEST

James Clear

Writer, Speaker, Author of Atomic Habits

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Episode Notes

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#melissaurbanreads

Atomic Habits, James Clear

MU: 00:03
Hi, my name is Melissa Urban and you’re listening to Do the Thing, a podcast where we explore what’s been missing every time you’ve tried to make a change and make it stick. Today my guest is James Clear habit researcher and author of Atomic Habits, one of my new favorite books about habit and change. James doesn’t know this, but I basically consider us BFFs inside my head. We’ve read so much of the same habit research. We share many of the same keystone habits in our own lives and he’s got a simple, direct, tough love approach that kind of reminds me of my own. There’s a ton of habit research built into the Whole30 rules, resources, and support. Everything from choosing the number “30” to our tagline, I am Whole30, is grounded in habit science, although I didn’t actually plan it that way. Much of the Whole30 was created before I started studying habit, willpower, and change the original rules, the original support that I wrote. All of that came from my own experience in recovery from my drug addiction.

MU: 01:17
I learned so many lessons about a growth mindset, habit priming, and Keystone habits during my first few years in recovery, although I had no idea what those things were called, I figured if it worked for me there, they would probably work for my Whole30 years giving up the foods they loved for 30 days in the name of self experimentation. It wasn’t until a few years later that I started really digging into this psychology of change and habit and realizing there are reasons why what I did back then worked so well. I’ve been able to apply much of what I learned to other habits in my life from making my bed, which is something as a kid I never did, but I do religiously now to flossing my teeth to meditation. Every single time I work out to reading several books a week. Today, James breaks down the science of habit into practical, actionable chunks that allow anyone to immediately move from stuck to doing the thing.

MU: 02:12
Whether you’re trying to start something new or break a pattern that isn’t serving you, he explains his two minute habit hack, why casting votes is the best way to solidify a new habit and what friction has to do with behavioral change, and one of my favorite parts of the discussion, I asked James to dispel the myth of motivation. We’re not always going to be motivated when it comes to new habits, so what should we think about? Instead? I expected him to come up with something else that was kind of airy and philosophical, but in true James Clear style, he got right to the point with practical actionable steps. We also talk about how to navigate social influence when you’re trying to stick with a new habit, which should sound familiar to you, Whole30 friends and family readers. The theme of this is making change stick and if there is one episode that I could almost guarantee would give you the nugget you need to take that first step. It’s this one now onto the episode, James Clear. Welcome to Do the Thing. I am so excited to talk all things habits with you today. Hi, good to talk to you as well. All right. The first question I ask all my guests before we dive in is what’s your thing?

JC: 03:27
My thing is helping people build good habits and break bad ones. And I started out writing about that six or seven years ago on my side of James clear.com and then most recently wrote about it in a book called Atomic Habits.

MU: 03:41
Yes. So Atomic Habits is on my bed stand. I’ve been reading it kind of in between my fiction books. I actually think that’s one habit you and I have in common is that we’re voracious readers, but I’ve been flipping through it and I think Atomic Habits is one of the best books I’ve ever read in terms of having almost like this smorgasbord of amazing tips and tricks that you can pull from to make your habits work for you. What was your intention when you wrote Atomic Habits?

JC: 04:08
Oh, thank you. I’m glad you, uh, have enjoyed it. Um, well I definitely wanted to write the most useful and like practical guide on how to change your habits. You know, there have been a lot of great habit books out there and the topic has been around for a long time. But in the research that I did, looking at a lot of those books and of course reading them and investigating kind of the different science around habits and how they form a lot of the discussion was about that it was about the mechanics of habits or how they work or what regions of the brain are involved and you know, all of the science covered in Atomic Habits as well. But the gap that was kind of there is like, okay great, this information sounds good, but how do I actually use this? Like how do I implement this in my daily life and work? And so that was the, the area that I focused on. I wanted to write a guide that was simple, easy to understand, a widely applicable, whether it was work or health or personal relationships, and gave people an idea of what to actually do if they wanted to shift or adjust their habits.

MU: 05:08
Yeah, that’s exactly what I was seeing as I flipped through the book is like I would have a question. Well what happens? Okay, this is all about starting a new habit, but what about if I want to stop an existing habit? And then on the very next page you would have sort of the flip of the script. So it’s really, really well thought out. What do you think people are missing right now when it comes to making habit change? There have been some great books out there. You’ve referenced a few of them and Atomic Habits. What are people just like either not getting, not understanding or what’s the biggest misconception when it comes to habits that are getting in people’s way?

JC: 05:42
Well, I’ll give you two. So one misconception that you hear a lot is people turn habits into like this race to run. Um, so they’ll say things like, uh, how long does it take to build a habit? Oh, it takes 21 days or 66 days is a very common answer right now. There was one study that showed that on average it took 66 days to build a habit, but even within that study, the range was quite wide. You know, like something easy. This makes obvious sense. As soon as it’s stated, it depends on the habit you’re building and it depends on the situation you’re in. So something easy like drinking a glass of water at lunch each day might only take you a few weeks. Something more difficult like going for a run after work every day. It might take seven or eight or nine months, but you can also imagine that even within that same habit, it changes based on the people you’re around.

JC: 06:31
If you’re in a family that is very active and fit and there are multiple athletes in the house, going for a run after school or work each day doesn’t sound like that big of a deal. If you’re in a family where everybody is sedentary and like doesn’t have that many healthy or active habits, then building that same habit in that environment might be much harder. And so the answer is it depends. But I think the honest answer to how long does it take to build a habit is forever. Because if you stop doing it, it’s no longer a habit. And so instead of turning habits into like this finish line or into this like race to be run habits are not a finish line to be crossed. They’re like a lifestyle to be lived and so looking at it as a lifestyle change, a nonthreatening change, something small and simple and easy that you can integrate into your new normal. That I think is a misconception that a lot of people have is like, Oh, just do this for 21 days and then I’ll be healthy. Whereas it’s much more about the commitment to a longterm lifestyle.

MU: 07:32
I love that. I want to go back to that just for a quick second because I have this habit I know as you do of exercise, I go to the gym six days a week. It’s, it’s like as normal as breathing for me, and I’ve been doing it for probably 15 years now, but when I first got started with this habit, I remember at one point walking into the gym and I had been doing it for maybe two or three months and having this moment of panic or I thought to myself, I’m going to have to do this every single day for the rest of my life. It felt so overwhelming. Is there some advice that you can give to people when they’re thinking about eating healthy or exercising or some other form of habit where it doesn’t feel so intimidating to think about it in terms of I have to do it forever?

JC: 08:17
Yeah, I think that, you know, you can think about this both on different timescales thinking about longterm and short term, short term in the moment that day. But what I like to recommend is what I call the two minute rule. And so the two minute rule says you take whatever habit you’re trying to build and you scale it down to something that takes two minutes or less to do. So in the case of, Oh, I feel so overwhelmed, I’m going to have to work out for years to get the body that I want. Or I can’t imagine doing this forever. Forget about all that. Scale it down. Somebody takes two minutes or less, taking out your yoga mat, putting on your running shoes, whatever. So now running four days a week or running a 50 times a year becomes put on my shoes and get out the door.

JC: 08:56
And sometimes when I tell people that they resist it a little bit cause they’re like, okay, I know the real goal isn’t just to like take my yoga mat out. I know I actually want to do the exercise. So this is some kind of like mental trick. Why would I fall for it? And I understand where people are coming from, but I have this reader’s name is Mitch. He ended up losing over a hundred pounds and I mentioned him in the book. Um, and for the first six weeks that he went to the gym, he had this little rule for himself where he wasn’t allowed to stay for longer than five minutes. So he would get in the car, drive to the gym, get out, do half an exercise, get back in the car, drive home. And it sounds ridiculous, right? It sounds like the kind of thing that’s sillier isn’t going to get him the results that he wants.

JC: 09:39
But if you step back for a second, what you realize is that he was mastering the art of showing up. He was becoming the type of person that went to the gym four days a week, even if it was only for five minutes. And that I think is a much deeper truth about habits, which is a habit must be established before it can be improved. You know, like it has to become the normal in your life before you worry about upgrading or expanding it from there. And so often, like you just mentioned, we get in our heads, we think about like, Oh, I’m going to have to do this forever. Or if I can’t do this perfectly, if I can’t run four days a week, why would I bother running one day a week? Um, if I can’t eat healthy seven days a week, why would I bother cooking for myself two nights a week?

JC: 10:19
And we’re so focused on optimizing, on finding the perfect diet plan, the ideal business strategy, the best workout program. We’re so focused on optimizing that we don’t give ourselves permission to show up, even if it’s just in a smaller way. But the truth is if you don’t master the art of showing up, there’s no raw material to optimize. There’s nothing there to work with. It’s just a theory at that point. And so the two minute rule kind of helps you get over that hurdle and focus more on showing up, doing the little, the next step, basically like scaling it down and knocking down that lead domino rather than getting overwhelmed by all of the things that you could be doing in the future.

MU: 10:57
I love that. You know, you’re breaking it down into a bite size kind of accessible part. You’re giving yourself a small win. It was one thing I did when I first started going to the gym. I was waking up at like four 45 in the morning, which was not usual for me and going to the gym before work and I would tell myself, all you have to do is get out of bed and put on your gym clothes. If you don’t want to go to the gym after that, that’s okay, but you’ve got to get up and put your gym clothes on. And so that gave me something that felt attainable will at least I can do that. But then it did as something else. Once I had my gym clothes on, I was primed to go to the gym. I felt like I was a healthy person with healthy habits because who else gets up at four 45 in the morning and is wearing gym clothes? And inevitably I ended up going to the gym. So that kind of priming I think can be really important to the association of like this healthy behavior. Then it makes me feel like a healthy person and now I’m on my way to do this healthy habit.

JC: 11:52
Yeah, that’s a great, good point. And actually I mentioned a few minutes ago, I think we can think about these kind of friction points or these bottlenecks in both short term and which case I recommend the two minute rule or in the long term, how do I stay consistent with this thing over months and years? And I think you’re hinting at part of what I would recommend or what I feel like is a central strategy there which an Atomic Habits I refer to this as like identity and how your habits, uh, link with your identity. And so the way that I would describe this as that your habit, any habit that you perform is how you embody a particular identity. So every morning that you make your bed, you embody the identity of someone who is clean and organized. Um, anytime you write one sentence, you embody the identity of someone who is a writer.

JC: 12:37
If you study biology on Tuesday night for 20 minutes, you embody the identity of someone who is studious. And so you can sort of think as like every action you take is like a vote for the type of person you want to become. And the more that you take those actions, the more that you perform those habits, even if they’re quite small and seemingly insignificant on a daily basis, the more you’re casting votes for being that kind of person. And early on, if you do it the first day or the first week or even the first three months, no, that might not be enough votes to like shift your self image. But as that body of evidence builds up, as more votes are tossed onto the pile, each time you perform that small habit, eventually you have to turn around and kind of admit to yourself, Hey, this is like part of my identity.

JC: 13:26
And this is, I think one of the central reasons, maybe, maybe the reason that habits truly matter so much because a lot of the time we talk about habits mattering for like external results, you know, like, Oh, habits can help you get abs or lose weight or double your income or reduce stress. And yeah, it’s true how it’s gonna help you do all of those things and that’s great. But they also can shift the way that you look at yourself. And I think that’s like the real secret is that they give you evidence of being a new kind of person. And this is a little bit different than what you often hear people say about change, which is something like fake it till you make it or something like that. 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 that without having evidence for it.

JC: 14:16
And we have a word for beliefs that don’t have evidence. We call it delusion, right? Like at some point you don’t like this mismatch between what you’re telling yourself and what you’re actually doing. And so I think the real value of, you know, doing one pushup, no, it doesn’t transform your body, but it does cast a vote for, I’m the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts and no writing one sentence does not finish the novel, but it does cast a vote for I’m a writer. And the more that you cast those votes, you just, you cannot deny that at least in that moment you were that kind of person. And if you keep showing up in small ways and you keep adding votes to the pile, eventually your self image changes. The way that you look at yourself changes. And ultimately true behavior change is really identity change.

JC: 15:02
Because once you’ve changed that narrative, that internal story, once you look at yourself in a new way, you’re not even really motivating yourself to do that thing anymore. You’re just acting in alignment with who you already see yourself to be. You know, you just said that a moment ago. It’s like, Oh yeah, I go into the gym six days a week. It’s just part of who I am now. You know? And, and that’s, that’s a signal that something has been integrated into your identity and how you look at yourself. And once you’re there, it’s much easier to maintain that habit. And so that I think is the real value that small habits provide.

MU: 15:33
I could not agree more. You know, I, in my past life was a drug addict and I have about 20 years in recovery now. And the way I stayed in recovery was this mindset shift that you just described, which is telling myself I am a healthy person with healthy habits and then looking for evidence of that mindset shift in all areas of my life. And that’s actually where the, the theme of this entire podcast came from, which is it’s not enough just to Do the Thing. You have to shore that thing up with, like you said, evidence or casting votes for this new mindset or this new habit shift. So you know, going to the gym, eating healthy or going to bed earlier, making a group of likeminded friends who would just as rather go for a run in the morning, then go out for drinks at night. These were all votes. I was casting for myself to become this healthy person with healthy habits. I didn’t fake it because I knew in my heart that that wouldn’t work. And I’m not a huge fan of fake it till you make it. Cause I do think there’s that disconnect. But I could certainly look for and cultivate evidence to shore up that growth mindset in myself.

JC: 16:39
Yeah, I think that’s a great example. I’m also glad that you mentioned, um, the social environment, they’re the people you surround yourself with and so on. Because I think that in the, a lot of the strategies we’ve talked about so far, like the two minute rule, for example, great way to make it easier to get started with habit. But there’s also the second part of it, which is how do I stick with the habit? How do I maintain consistency? And in the long run, your willpower might be able to overpower your environment for a day or a week or an hour. But in the long run, your environment almost always wins that battle. And one of the biggest elements of that is not only the physical environment, the things on your desk at work or your kitchen counter at home. And I talk about that a lot and Atomic Habits, but also your social environment.

JC: 17:25
And the truth is we all, all humans have a deep desire to belong, to be loved, to be supported, to be praised. And usually we are praised and supported and loved for the habits that go with the grain of the tribe that we are. And so all of the, all of us belong to multiple tribes. Some of them are large, like what it means to be American or what it means to be French or something like that. Some of them are small, like what it means to be a neighbor on your street or a member of your local CrossFit gym or a volunteer at the elementary school. But all of those groups have a set of social norms, a set of like shared expectations for how you act in that environment. And when your behavior goes with the grain of those expectations, those habits are very attracted to form because they provide a signal to other people that, Hey, I fit in.

JC: 18:19
And when it goes against the grain of the social expectations, they’re very unattractive to form. You got to kind of have a lot of courage to branch out and be ostracized or to stick out from the group. And again, you might be able to do that once or twice, but if you’re running against the grain of the group all the time, it’s really hard to stick to that. You know, if most people, if you kind of have two choices, if you got to choose, Hey, I get the habits that I want to have, but I’m ostracized from the group, or well, I kind of have habits I don’t really want to have, but I get to belong and fit in. Most people would rather be wrong with the crowd than right and by themselves, most people would choose belonging over loneliness. And so the desire to belong often overpowers the desire to improve.

JC: 19:02
And so I think that the punchline of all of that is that if you want good habits to stick, you really need to find a tribe. Join a group where your desired behavior is the normal behavior because it’s normal in that group, then it’s going to become very attractive for you to stick with that habit and maintain consistency over time. And you see this and all kinds of examples. You know, like somebody, um, joins a CrossFit gym and then they start buying certain kinds of nice leaves and paleo meal plans, like all kinds of other stuff, right? They pick up all these other habits and behaviors just because of the group they’re in and that stuff happens everywhere. We soak up the other habits of the groups that we’re in. So you need to think very carefully about the tribe that you joined, the people that you’re surrounded by so that their normal habits can become your normal habits because you’re trying to make something standard and reliable in your life, but everybody around you doesn’t have that same thing.

JC: 19:55
Then you may find yourself facing quite a bit of social friction to get that habit to stick. That’s something I talk about a lot when it comes to the Whole30 that the people that you would expect to be the most supportive of you making changes to make yourself healthier and happier and have a better quality of life are often the people that push back the most. It was so surprising isn’t it? It’s so interesting how that happens. I’ve seen the same thing in my business. Like you know, it takes a lot of courage to branch out and be an entrepreneur and when I did it the first time eight years ago or nine years ago, it was surprising that the people I thought were going to be so like ambitious and excited about it and like Oh this is great. They just didn’t say anything. And then other people that you like never thought would be your greatest fan were texting you and saying like this is awesome. Keep doing it. It’s just so funny where that support comes from. It is. It is really interesting. And I often kind of remind people that like it’s

MU: 20:48
not really about you. It is about what you making these changes or is reflecting back onto them and their own behavior and their own thoughts about it. But you know when you’re trying to do something like the Whole30 and we’ve got a ton of people starting January 1st and they’re the only person trying to make this habit shift in their household. Their kids aren’t doing it, their spouse or partners or roommates aren’t doing it. You know, we have this enormous online community full of support where you can go onto a message board or onto social media and you can have accountability and motivation and support and advice. But what tips can you give to someone if opting out of the social group you’re the closest to isn’t an option because you’re married to them or parenting them.

JC: 21:29
Yeah. Yeah. That’s so tough. I think so. First I just want to reiterate what you said. I think having those spaces, whether it’s a, you know, you go to a yoga studio and that is like an actual physical space or you join like your online community and that is like a digital space. Having some sacred space where your desired behavior is normal, um, whether it’s on a screen or in person, I think that’s crucial. You know, you gotta be able to have a tribe that is like make giving signals of feedback and saying, Hey, you are on the right track like this. You’re not crazy for doing this or thinking this way, even if the other people around you don’t agree. Um, so I do think that’s really valuable as far as changing the behavior of those around you or getting them to support your goals and so on.

JC: 22:10
I think that there, there are a couple of different strategies depending on the, the level of, um, detail we want to go into or the level of friction that you’re experiencing. I mean, on the one hand, if other people are not going to join you, uh, simply having a conversation and communicating like, Hey, I’m not expecting you to do this. Um, but I know that this is going to require some effort for me. And so I’m not asking you to change too, but I will ask like, just don’t sabotage me. You know, like just like, do your best to support me or um, to try to like create a space where I can do this rather than adding friction to it cause changing your behaviors hard enough on your own. So I think having an open conversation about that can be helpful just to get everybody on the same page of like, Hey, this is, this is in fact important to me and I just want you to know that too.

JC: 22:55
Even if your behavior is going to remain mostly the same, we recommend that 100%. And then the second part is, this is, there’s actually, there’s a very interesting New York times op ed from a couple of years ago. This woman was, um, she, she was the author and she wrote it about, uh, her husband’s laundry habits. So basically he was like just leaving his clothes thrown throughout the house. He was never picking them up or throwing them in the laundry hamper. And this was annoying her, not just cause she felt like she was, you know, constantly following around and picking up his clothes. But also the house is dirty and so on. And so she complained about it. She told him about it. She tried to tell him that this was important to her. She, um, you know, would nag him about it and so on. And basically none of the strategies that she tried worked.

JC: 23:40
And so eventually what she decided to do was the complete opposite. And this is a strategy now that I would summarize that works for a lot of habits and behavior change over the long run, which I would call like praise the good, ignore the bad. So essentially whenever he did happen to put his clothes in the laundry hamper, she would run over and give him a kiss or a hug like make-over and say, Oh, this is so great. This makes my life so much easier. Thank you so much. And what happened was that over the course of about a year, uh, she ended up shaping his behavior to the point where he was putting all his clothes in the laundry hamper without ever explicitly saying it. Basically the conversation that’s going on in his head is, Hey, every time I do this, like I get a kiss or I feel good or I get praised.

JC: 24:23
Um, and the lesson to take away from this I think is has nothing to do with laundry at all. But is that all humans like feeling praised and rewarded and whatever actions we take that feel good, that are followed by feelings of positivity and pleasure and enjoyment are behaviors that we’re more likely to want to repeat in the future. And so in my own family, you know, like I enjoy weight training. Other people that I’ve been around have at various times, either not wanting to do it as much or not been as invested, but I want them to train with me. And so after each workout, whenever somebody joins me, I’ll say like, Hey, great job today, or I’m really proud of you. Great job on that set. It doesn’t have to be like over the top. It can just be something. Um, but what ends up happening is that over the course of a month or three or a year or two, is that they start to feel those same things that that guy in that story felt.

JC: 25:16
Hey, every time I go to the gym, like I get praised for it. Every time I finish a workout, it feels kind of positive. And that’s on top of, you know, whatever biological feelings you might have from moving your body and so on. And so the point here is that, and this is something that in Atomic Habits are referred to as the Cardinal rule of behavior change, which is behaviors that are immediately rewarded, get repeated behaviors that are immediately punished, get avoided. And you’d be surprised how often people punish or criticize or add a consequence to the very behavior that they want to see. You know, like, um, the introverted kid comes down, joins the family for dinner and they’re like, Oh look who showed up. I was like, man, this is the whole thing. You were trying to get them to do, right, to like get out of his room and like engage with everybody.

JC: 25:59
And then it comes down here and he’s criticized for it. Um, I saw the same thing happen. Another family member went to the gym on a Friday, went in there, did some squats. That was basically it. We’re wrapping up. Somebody else came up to her and was like a man short workout for a Friday night. And I was like, this is exactly like instead we should say is it’s great that you’re in here on a Friday, you know, and that kind of thing happens all the time. And so as much as possible, trying to be the person who praises the good and ignores the bad, who rewards the behavior that you want to see that in the long run is a great way to kind of shape the behaviors of those around you. It’s really hard because it requires a very longterm commitment from you. It can literally take, you know, we talked a few moments ago about identity change.

JC: 26:45
It can take a lot of votes to shift the way someone sees about, uh, someone looks at themselves. It can take years, uh, you know, two or three or four. I think I was talking to my wife, she, you know, now we train every week together, but, um, we just, we were trying to determine like how long it became before she would go to the gym on her own and not just with me. It was probably like three or four years before she felt comfortable just being like, yeah, he’s out of town but I’m going to go train still. Um, and so you really need a longterm commitment to that. But I think that that uh, praise the good, ignore the bad is a decent strategy for trying to shape the behavior of those around you.

MU: 27:20
I’m listening to the story about the laundry, thinking about 90% of the interaction I have with my six year old and how often I’m giving him a hard time about not doing something and how little I praise him for doing the things I want him to do. So I’m absolutely going to flip that script now at home with him. So I think that’s really helpful advice. You referenced that, uh, it can take years sometimes for this behavior to become so ingrained that it just becomes a part of what you do. I want to talk for a moment about the idea of motivation. I think so often when people are forming a new habit and motivation in the beginning is, is perhaps high with something like the Whole30 people get really excited. They love the idea of it. They’re joining this big group starting January 1st. But I think people think that motive, they need to be motivated every single day to do what they’re going to do. And I know, and I think you know that that’s impossible. We’re not always going to be motivated to Do the Thing that serves us. What do we think about in place of motivation to keep a habit going?

JC: 28:28
Yeah, great question. So I think this, you know, again, once we lay this out, this sounds kind of obvious, but motivation, everybody has felt this before. Sometimes you’re motivated, sometimes you’re not. So motivation rises and falls at ebbs and flows. Habit, what we’re talking about here and making something habit by definition is a behavior that you do reliably, right? It doesn’t ebb and flow. You do it each day, day after day or each week and so on. And so why would you want something that it needs to be reliable to rely on something that is fickle and ebbs and flows. And so it doesn’t actually make sense for habits to rely on motivation. Um, so instead, and of course, you know, Atomic Habits is kind of built around this whole idea, but instead there are a variety of strategies that we can pursue. Um, and I think probably the most effective places to focus are the following.

JC: 29:18
Um, so the first thing you can do is what I call environment design. So redesigning the way that your, uh, environment spaces are laid out, changes the amount of motivation that you need to perform a habit. So for example, um, a lot of people feel like they watch too much television, but walk into any living room in America where do all the couches and chairs face or they all face the TV. So it’s like, what is this room to get you to do? It’s the lowest friction, the easiest, the simplest, the most obvious behavior in that environment. Instead, you could put a TV behind a wall unit in the cabinet, uh, so that you’re less likely to see it. You could take the remote control and put it in a drawer and put a book in its place. You could turn a chair away from the TV and have it face a coffee table, um, with a book on it or something like that.

JC: 30:04
You could even unplug the TV after each use and then only plug it back in if you can say the name of the show that you want to watch. So you can’t just like turn on mindlessly and find something. But all of those are examples of environment design changes that make that action of watching television more difficult or higher friction or less obvious than it was before. And this same principle can be applied to pretty much any habit. Um, you know, like I used to, uh, I would buy apples and I put them in the crisper in the fridge and then I would forget they were there and they’d be there for three weeks. They go bad and I find them eventually and I get annoyed cause I was like wasting food and wasting money and now I’ll just put them on a display bowl in the center of the counter and they’re gone in like three days, cause I don’t have to think about it.

JC: 30:49
It’s just right in front of me. And you can treat your whole kitchen that way. Like how can I make the healthy foods the most obvious ones? How can I make the healthy meal the path of least resistance? Even something like chopping up a bunch of vegetables on Sunday night so that it’s easier, more convenient for you to eat those on Wednesday when you’re exhausted after work that now makes that environment lower friction. And so instead of relying on motivation to drive you, basically what you do is you try to prime the environment for convenience. You try to make the good habit, the path of least resistance and the more that you can do that, no single choice is going to transform your habits. But imagine the difference of living or working in a place that has a dozen or two dozen or 50 of those little environment tweaks, all oriented toward good habits, it suddenly becomes much easier to make a positive choice.

MU: 31:39
Yeah, it’s, it’s like the, you know, the, that you’ve set the river up now and you’re just kind of dropping your boat in and letting the current take you along because all along the way you’ve got these kinds of things pushing you in the right direction.

JC: 31:50
That’s actually an interesting analogy to use. Like you could think about the environment that you operate in as that kind of river in the sense that it has a current that is pulling you in a certain direction. So as an example, um, my wife and I moved to a new house not that long ago, but the old place that we lived in. If you went to, in order to get there when you got off the highway, there was a McDonald’s right there when you got off the highway and then you had to go, you know, mile or two down the road and go into the neighborhood. Well basically every time I was driving back home from somewhere, I would have to get off that exit and then McDonald’s was right there. And so I got into this pattern where I was getting like a fry from McDonald’s.

JC: 32:28
It got to the point where I was like, am I going to do this every time that I get off this highway? Um, and now we moved to this new place and uh, there are no fast food restaurants anywhere close to where we live. Doesn’t matter what way you come into the neighborhood. You don’t really pass any for miles. And I have not been to a McDonald’s in probably six months, nine months a year. I, it’s been forever. Um, and it mostly, I didn’t even really want to go initially. It was just like that river was carrying me there cause it would be environment passed me by it all the time. And so, um, I think that’s a very powerful question to ask yourself is like, how can I redesign the environment that I live in than it real big picture level? We’re talking about what city do you live in or what neighborhood do you live in?

JC: 33:13
But then in a smaller level, it’s like, what is in my bedroom? What is in the living room? What’s on the kitchen counter? How can you change the current of that river so that it’s naturally pulling you in a healthier direction? I think you’d be surprised how many good habits can be formed and how many bad ones will kind of naturally fade away. Just if you change the environment. Like as another example, I have this new habit that I’ve been doing. I’d probably do it 90% of the time where I leave my phone in another room until lunch each day.

MU: 33:42
I was going to ask you about that. Yeah. You wrote about that in your book? Yes.

JC: 33:45 Yeah. So I have a home office, right? So like if I, if I bring my phone in, I’m like everybody else, I check it three times a day or uh, sorry, I check it every three minutes. You know, it’s like, I’ll look at it all the time just cause it’s there. But if I leave it in another room, it’s only like 30 seconds away, but I never go get it. And so I’m like, well, did I want it or not? You know, like in one sense I wanted it bad enough to check it every three minutes once around me. But in another sense, I never wanted to bad enough to work 30 seconds to go get it. And I think technology and convenience, fast food, whatever it is, there’s so many examples of modern society. They make certain behaviors and Mo in most cases they’re often bad habits that we want to avoid.

JC: 34:29
They make them so convenient, so frictionless, so easy that just at the slightest hint of boredom or the briefest wisp of a desire, you can act on it. It’s like boom, I just pull up Instagram and check it just because it’s right there. It only takes three seconds. But if I was logged out of the app, if I didn’t have it on my phone and I had to download the app and then log in and it’s like, well I don’t want to check that much. I’m not going to bother with that right now. And uh, so a lot of those choices would digital, physical, social, the environment, whatever’s convenient in that space plays a huge role in which habits you perform. And just making that shift can often be far more powerful than relying on motivation.

MU: 35:09
You’re so, so right. I think about when I first started going to the gym so many years ago, one of the things I would do is every single night before I went to bed, I laid out my gym clothes, top to bottom, everything right down to like underwear and my gym bag, all my clothes for work so that all I needed to do when I was bleary-eyed in the morning was get up, put on what was already there, grab what was already ready for me and take it to the gym with me. And that’s something that I still do to this day. I have this very clear path of no resistance to get me from bed to the gym in the morning when I was thinking about flossing my teeth, I remember a couple of years ago I really was like struggling with this habit of flossing, which is so dumb because it’s so easy and it only takes like 30 seconds.

MU: 35:50
But I couldn’t be reliant with it. And what I realized was that if I bought three packs of floss and I kept one on my bathroom counter and I always had a backup within reach, I would floss cause it was right there and I didn’t have to look for it. So I think that idea of like priming or setting your environment up is super duper important. Equally important is if there’s something you don’t want to do, like you said, make it harder. So you know there’s this chocolate covered mango at my local whole foods. I know if it’s in my house I’m gonna eat it. So I just don’t buy it.

JC: 36:23
Yeah, that’s crucial. I mean all those are great examples of priming the environment for success. And really, you know, these are kind of some of the main principles I talk about in the book. But you want you roughly, you don’t need all of these to happen, but you roughly want four things to to occur. If you want to build a good habit, first thing you want is you want your habits to be obvious. And that’s exactly what you’re talking about here. Let me lead the floss. You know, all around me, I got three different packs so that I’d be able to get a, when there, I’ll be able to see it all the time. Second thing is you want to be attractive and that a lot of that is what we talked about earlier. Scale and your habits down to minutes. You know, things like that.

JC: 36:55
It’s much more attractive to think about putting on your running shoes than it is to overwhelm yourself with, I have to run three days a week for the next nine months. Um, that leads directly into the, the third piece, which is you want your habits to be easy, easier, simpler, more convenient. A habit is, that’s mostly what we’re talking about with environment design here. And then the last thing is you want them to be satisfying. You want it to be rewarding, enjoyable, and that comes back, that comes back ultimately to reinforcing your desired identity. Um, but in the short term it can be, uh, things like rewarding yourself with different external pieces. But, uh, you don’t need all four, but the more of those you have working for you, the much easier it becomes to build a habit. And the examples you just gave her are good examples of some of those principles.

MU: 37:40
And it’s funny because when I think about flossing, you know, you want them to be like, you want to kind of be able to see the benefit that what I get from flossing is not that I feel like my teeth are so much cleaner or that I’m thinking about my dental health 10 years down the road, flossing makes me feel like a healthy person because healthy people floss their teeth. They have good oral hygiene. So it goes back to reinforcing that identity for me.

JC: 38:04
Yeah. You know, it’s funny. In the long run, your outcomes in life are often the lagging measure of your habits. So like your, um, physical fitness is a lagging measure of your eating and training habits. Your bank account is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your, uh, knowledge is a lagging measure of your reading and learning habits. Even the clutter on your desk or in your bedroom is like a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. And so in the longterm, your habits often shape the, the big results that you get. But as you mentioned, if you, if you think about like the big thing, all my dental health or my, you know, the overall outcome that I want, that, that actually it isn’t even a, in some cases, the, the area where you should focus. Instead, I like to think about like, okay, you want to aim to be great in 10 years.

JC: 38:51
Like you want to be, you know, doing social habits that lead to great relationships a decade from now. You want to be doing health habits that lead to a great body 10 years from now, uh, and so on. But the way to do that and kind of ironically or paradoxically is to optimize for tomorrow. Like as in literally one day from now, floss your teeth so that your mouth is a little healthier tomorrow. Do workout today so that your body’s a little healthier tomorrow. Um, save some money today so that your bank account is a little bit more robust tomorrow. Read something today so that your brain is a little bit smarter tomorrow. And that idea of scaling it down to like, how can I just get 1% better today? How can I reinforce this identity of what would a healthy person do? Or what would a smart person do? Or what would a clean person do? Um, what would a forgiving person do? And like asking yourself to embody that identity right now in the moment and optimizing for 24 hours from now is often the way to actually be great in 10 years and to have the results that you want that are, you know, ultimately a lagging measure of those attitudes. I love that idea. I love it.

MU: 40:02
I want to close with one thing. So I heard you say an, I think it was an interview or a video I watched and I have been thinking about this ever since, that there are a few Keystone habits that you consider, I guess, foundational in your own life there. I think you listed like three or four things that you do consistently that you feel like are the building blocks for the rest of your healthy habits. Can you talk about those?

JC: 40:26
Yeah. So let, let me just kind of set the stage and say like you sometimes they’re called Keystone habits. And another way to think about is like, I’m a meta habit. So like what is the habit that you do that impacts all the other habits you have? So a good example would be like sleep. If you build a good sleep habit, then being well rested improves your ability to perform pretty much every other habit while you’re awake. Um, another good one is reading. So if you go to good reading habit, well the good news is no matter what other area of life you want to focus on, we have books on that. So if you want to build habits about cooking, great, you can read Whole30 or other, uh, health and nutrition books if you want to build, um, a workout habit. There are tons of fitness books on that.

JC: 41:07
If you want to build a meditation habit, you can read books about meditation and so on and so forth. And so building the habit of reading actually kind of unlocks the ability to build all these other habits. So, um, that’s kind of the, the meta view. The Keystone habit, uh, view is a little more focused on like what is the habit that I do today that sort of naturally pulls the rest of my life in line. So for me, my Keystone habit is definitely exercise. Um, there if I do, if I get to the gym, I do my workout, then I know that like a lot of other good things happen as a side effect, even if I don’t think about them or concentrate on them. So yes, I get the health benefits of exercise, but I also have this like post-workout high for an hour or two where I think very clearly.

JC: 41:52
So my focus habits improve. I sleep better at night because I’m tired from the workout. So my sleep habits improve. I tend to want to eat better when I’m training, which is this weird thing like if I’m lethargic and not getting in the gym, I actually, it’s like easy for me to eat worse. It’s kind of just like downward spiral. Whereas if I go to the gym, then there’s this upward spiral effect on like wanting to take care of myself more. Um, and then, you know, at no point was I trying to build better focus habits or eating habits or sleep habits or whatever. It just kind of came as this natural side effect. Some other common Keystone habits that you hear people mentioned, so you’ve got exercise. Another common one you’ll hear from performers a lot is like visualization. So comedians will, you know, recite the same story to themselves before the step on stage or professional athletes will visualize in the locker room before they go out to play the game.

JC: 42:42
Um, CEO’s often mentioned meditation or managers, they talk about like, Oh, if I get my 10 minutes of meditation in, I can handle the like urgencies of the day better. And then, um, the other one that I thought was interesting is creatives or anybody who’s kind of like doing knowledge work. They talk about doing a daily walk, being a really a Keystone habit that they can get outside, walk for 10 or 15 minutes, then the creative juices get flowing much better. And I, you know, I don’t know what it is for you if you’re listening to this, but I think there’s some questions you can ask yourself and it’s just like, what do I do on days when things go well for me when I’m at my best? What tends to be part of that package of behaviors? And you’ll probably come up with two or three ideas of habits that might be your Keystone one. And I would say pick one of those and then use all of the strategies that we talked about, identity-based habits, two minute rules, social environment, environment design, and use those strategies to focus on fostering that Keystone habit. Because, you know, if you just focus on that one thing and build it into your life, it’s going to have a really positive ripple effect everywhere else. Um, and so that’s kind of how I, but think about Keystone habits and Mehta habits.

MU: 43:50
That is the absolute perfect advice to end on. I love it. Okay, well that’s not true. I have one more question for you. And it’s the one I ask my guests at the end of every episode. What’s one thing that you could advise our listeners to do right now if they were ready to do their thing?

JC: 44:07
So I like the phrase, and I use this near the beginning of the book, we do not rise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems. And so the point here is not the goals don’t matter. Like goals can be useful, but it’s not the goal that changes things. The system that you follow. And I would define the goal as your desired outcome. The system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there. And if there is ever a gap, if there’s ever a difference between your daily habits and your desired outcome, your system and your goal, the daily habits will always win. The system will always overpower it. In fact, we could say like your current habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results by definition, right? Like whatever results you have right now are a byproduct of the system that you’re running.

JC: 44:55
And so, um, the advice that I would give people is twofold. Think about, ask yourself, what system am I running right now? What is the collection of daily habits? And the, the, perhaps the real question to ask is, can my current habits carry me to my desired future? Because if they can’t, then something needs to change. There’s a misalignment between the system and the goal. And if the answer to that is no, and you determine, Oh, actually I do need to make a change in my system, then we can start to use all the other things that we’ve talked about today, two minute rule, et cetera, uh, for initiating that first change. But the first realization has to be that your system and your goal need to be aligned. That your daily habits and your desired outcome, those have to match up. And if they’re not, then something needs to change.

MU: 45:42
Absolutely. If there’s one piece of advice I could give anyone listening. It is by and read Atomic Habits. This is one of my favorite books on habit and change and I have read them all. James clear author of Atomic Habits. Thank you so much for joining me today. What a great conversation.

Speaker 3: 45:57
Great, thank you.

MU: 46:02
I told you that one would be good. James just offered 40 minutes of nonstop action items that you can apply to any habit change you want to make in the coming year, especially the January Whole30 January Whole30 starts January 1st it’s going to be the biggest one yet. I say that every year, but every year it’s true. And to celebrate the January Whole30 and the launch of my newest book, the Whole30 friends and family, I’ll be heading out on a U S book tour starting the week of January 6th I am coming to Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Charleston, South Carolina. And at every event I’ll be answering your questions about maximizing Whole30 success, navigating challenges with friends, family, traveling or social situations, re-introduction, food freedom and more. And at every event. There’ll be plenty of time for taking pictures and signing books. Go to whole thirty.com/tour for dates, locations, and ticket information and tell your friends, tell your family, tell your Whole30 BFF. We’re going to see Melissa on Whole30 book tour this year.


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Do the Thing is part of ‘The Onward Project,’ a family of podcasts brought together by Gretchen Rubin—all about how to make your life better. Check out the other Onward Project podcasts– Happier with Gretchen RubinSide Hustle School, and Happier in Hollywood.

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