Building better habits: Tips from James Clear

Take a few moments to think about everything you’ve done so far today.

How many of those things did you also do yesterday? How many of them will you also do tomorrow? These oft-repeated activities or tasks are your habits. Your habits will make or break you.

Form good habits, and you’ll find it easy to be productive, healthy, and maybe even rich. Fall into bad habits, and you’ll become your own biggest obstacle to success.

To put it another way, there’s probably no better way to Win the Day than to form good habits. When you can be good without even thinking about it, you have a leg up. When you have to stop and think about whether to be good, you leave yourself too many chances to talk yourself out of being good. I think you get the idea.

Anyway, I’m always glad to read an article that extols the benefits of forming good habits. And James Clear is all about habits. He’s a writer, speaker, and photographer who lives by the credo, “If you can master your habits, you can master your life.” I recommend you check out his work.

I recently read his article, 3 Surprisingly Simple Things You Can Do Right Now to Build Better Habits. Here’s some of what James has to say:


1. Start with a habit that is so easy you can’t say no.

The most important part of building a new habit is staying consistent. It doesn’t matter how well you perform on any individual day. Sustained effort is what makes the real difference.

For that reason, when you start a new habit it should be so easy that you can’t say no to it. In fact, when starting a new behavior is should be so easy that it’s almost laughable.

  • Want to build an exercise habit? Your goal is to exercise for 1 minute today.
  • Want to start a writing habit? Your goal is to write three sentences today.
  • Want to create a healthy eating habit? Your goal is to eat one healthy meal this week.

It doesn’t matter if you start small because there will be plenty of time to pick up the intensity later.

Hmm, I think I like this. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and there’s much to be said for perseverance. I’ve found in my own life that when I set easy goals, I end up shattering them.

But at the risk of nitpicking, I do think there’s a risk in setting goals that are too easy. If my goal is literally to exercise for one minute per day, I might find it difficult to summon up any motivation whatsoever. Why bother getting up off the couch at all for something that’s barely going to make a dent in my weight problem? I think it’s important to find a sweet spot where the goal will give you a sense of real accomplishment but is still so easy that you almost can’t help but achieve it.

2. Take some time to understand exactly what is holding you back.

You might think that you’re the “type of person who doesn’t like working out” or the “type of person who is unorganized” or the “type of person who gives in to cravings and eats sweets.” But in most cases, you’re not destined to fail in those areas. Instead of making a blanket statement about your habits, break them down into smaller pieces and think about which areas are preventing you from becoming consistent.

Once you know the specific parts of the process that hold you back, you can begin to develop a solution to solve that problem.

I’m definitely in favor of “breaking it down.” In fact, that’s what’s behind my philosophy of DOTT (Do One Thing Today). Of course, DOTT is about breaking down big, scary tasks or goals into manageable chunks and then knocking them out today rather than “when I can find time.” But we can all apply this philosophy to our weaknesses, too.

I give in to cravings and eat sweets? Well, why do I buy them in the first place? Instead of feeling helpless, I need to make a goal of not buying junk food next time I shop. Win that battle, and I’ll probably win the war.

3. Develop a plan for when you fail.

You have to learn to not judge yourself or feel guilty when you make a mistake, and instead focus on developing a plan to get back on track as quickly as possible…..

I find the “never miss twice” mindset to be particularly useful. Maybe I’ll miss one workout, but I’m not going to miss two in a row. Maybe I’ll eat an entire pizza, but I’ll follow it up with a healthy meal. Maybe I’ll forget to meditate today, but tomorrow morning I’ll be oozing with Zen.

Slipping up on your habits doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you normal. What separates top performers from everyone else is that they get back on track quickly. Make sure you have a plan for when you fail.

This is a biggie. As I’ve mentioned before and will mention again, one of my biggest problems with New Year’s resolutions is that people think once they’ve broken them, they’ve lost and they’ll just have to try again next year. That’s not a recipe for actual improvement; it’s a silly game.

So, go easy on yourself when you slip, but also be honest with yourself. Are you constantly making excuses for yourself, telling yourself you’ve “earned a break,” and readjusting your goals downward because they were “too hard”? Remember that there’s a difference between slipping and slacking off. Keep that relentless drive, because if today gets away from you, you’ll know you can trust your drive to get you back on track tomorrow.

Thank you to James Clear for this helpful article!