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James Clear on Getting 1% Better Daily | The Daily Stoic



About the Podcast Host

Ryan Holiday is an American author, modern Stoic, public-relations strategist, owner of the Painted Porch Bookshop and host of the podcast The Daily Stoic.


About the Podcast Guest

James Clear (@JamesClear) is the author of the New York Times Bestseller, Atomic Habits, as well as a world-renowned speaker. His weekly 3-2-1 Newsletter has over 1,000,000 subscribers and is sent out every Thursday.


Podcast Summary

On this episode of the Daily Stoic Podcast, Ryan Holiday talks with author James Clear about practical ways to shift your internal narrative, how to begin and maintain productive habitual action, being flexible with your goals as you set and achieve them, and more.


Key Takeaways

  • When you perform a habit, you are casting a vote for the type of person you want to become

  • Focusing on a single outcome will help you win once. Focusing on systems will help you win repeatedly

  • The height of joy is tied to depth of sorrow

  • Design your perfect life and reverse engineer your daily habits from there

  • Saying no is a credit for a block of time in the future. Saying yes is a debit to spend time or resources in a certain way in the future

  • Seneca: We are intensely protective of money and property. However, we are not protective over our time. Optimize how you spend your time time above all else

  • The way of life is to be supple and flexible. The way of death is to be brittle and hard. The flexible prevail

  • Habits don't restrict freedom, they create it. By optimizing habits, we create additional capacity and space to have autonomy and freedom


Using identity to form habits

  • Many people start habits with clear intentions, and just don't follow through

  • By changing your identity identity versus looking for temporary results, habits will be stickier

  • Many people don't consider their identities - for example a meditator, successful business person, or superstar athlete

  • The trick is to shift your identity to the identity you want to become, instead aiming for temporary results

  • The problem with New Years Resolutions is that they are focused on an end goal, instead of a process

  • Instead of saying "I want to lose 40 pounds", it is better to say "I want to eat healthier"

  • Don't say I will write a book, say "I will start writing every day"

  • When you perform the desired habits, you are casting a vote for the type of person you want to become

  • Sticking to habits = reinforcing your desired identity

  • Your internal narrative must change - the work will take on a different characteristic


The target is not the goal

  • At a high-level: The target is specific (example - make $1 million), but the goal is to become the person that is consistent at helping others learn.

  • In a book called Zen in the Art of Archery, Prof. Eugene Herrigel discusses his experience studying Kyudo (a form of Japanese archery).

  • In the book, Prof. Herrigel tells the story of a student who wants to learn archery from a Zen master:

  • Master: What is your goal?

  • Student: To hit the bullseye right in the middle

  • Master: So you’re telling me, your goal is to shoot a twig into a piece of paper

  • Student: Yeah, isn’t that what we are doing?

  • Master: No, it’s not, that is your target. The goal is to be calm enough so that you can hit your target.


Outcome Vs Systems

  • Focusing on a single outcome will help you win once. Focusing on systems will help you win repeatedly

  • Once you're lucky, twice you're good

  • Systems cannot guarantee desired outcome

  • James offers a helpful discussion about how to approach different circumstances in life. He describes the following scenarios:

  • Things you don't control: The weather or the global economy

  • Things you can influence: Your performance in a tennis or chess match

  • Things you can control: Daily Habits

  • For the most part, we can only influence outcomes based on our own effort, we cannot control external factors

  • When James was writing Atomic Habits, his goal was to write the best book possible

  • James is at peace with the effort he gave. The fact that it sold well is an added bonus

  • The struggle makes the outcome more enjoyable

  • In his extensive work on The Science of Happiness Arthur Brooks has found "the true master gets enjoyments from the journey"

  • The height of joy is tied to depth of sorrow

  • The downside of being outcome oriented vs process oriented: outcome oriented has fleeting moments of happiness (sales, awards). Meanwhile, being process oriented allows one to be happy with progress made and is easier to sustain


President Jimmy Carter's example

  • Jimmy Carter managed to secure an interview with Admiral Hyman Rickover for a chance to join the nuclear submarine program

  • In the interview, Admiral Rickover asked Jimmy Carter "did you always do your best" Jimmy's response - was "no"

  • Rickover didn’t say anything and just looked at Carter for a time before asking one final question “Why not?” Then he stood up and walked out

  • Jimmy Carter spent the rest of his life looking for the ability to say "I did my best" - his campaign memoir from his run for governor of Georgia is titled, Why Not The Best?


Success Eats Itself

  • We spend so much time comparing ourselves to others - we should spend more time comparing ourselves to ourselves

  • Our current level of success becomes the new baseline. We will always compare ourselves to others in search of the next best thing

  • Dr. Andrew Huberman covers this topic in our coverage on Controlling Your Dopamine For Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction - How satisfying an experience is depends on the height of dopamine peak relative to baseline

  • At one point, you used to want the things that you now have

  • The better you get at something, the more opportunities come your way

  • The more opportunities that come your way, the easier it is to become distracted from doing what you first set out to do

  • Must upgrade ability to say no


Saying "No" to commitments

  • Commitments sound good on the surface, but then lifestyle is different than original intentions

  • Optimize for the question "What do I want my days to look like?"

  • You cannot consider yourself successful if you don't like your daily life

  • Design your perfect life and reverse engineer your habits from there

  • What is your definition of success? Money, fame, autonomy?

  • For Ryan, success means autonomy over his time

  • Saying No is a decision

  • Saying no is a credit for a block of time in the future. Saying yes is a debit to spend time or resources in a certain way in the future

  • Saying Yes is a responsibility you have committed to

  • Where does the bill come due? If I say yes to this thing, what does that take time away from?

  • For Ryan, future time commitments come out of his family's "time account"

  • If Ryan has a call at 2:30pm, his whole day starts with the recognition that he has something to plan around, which he dislikes

  • Not only are you spending time on that, the day now must revolve around that

  • Seneca on the Shortness of Life: "You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy."

  • We are intensely protective of money and property. However, we are not protective over our time

  • It defies explanation that we spend our time in certain ways, which we will never get back

  • Time must be optimized above all other things


James Clear Daily Habits

  • Atomic Habits came out in 2018 - he spent almost 42% of time away from home

  • During the pandemic, James slowed down entirely, which he loves

  • Habits are behaviors tied to specific contexts - habits are hard to maintain while traveling

  • If you're always switching contexts, you're always changing habits

  • The year prior to the pandemic, James' habits were in maintenance mode. James aims to work out four times a week, during his travels he could only do two times a week

  • Sometimes the bad days are even more important than the good days because you showed up under challenging circumstances

  • It's easy to be disciplined and consistent when things are predictable

  • However, it's also important to maintain discipline when life is unpredictable

  • Tao Te Ching: "The way of life is to be supple and flexible. The way of death is to be brittle and hard. The flexible prevail"


Balancing work and becoming a parent

  • James took three months off when he became a father

  • After becoming a father, James had to change his schedule

  • Before he was a father, James spent all his time writing his book

  • As a father, James finds two hours of writing each morning

  • Two hours is a sweet spot in time required - James can show up every day and get his work done, while also being a father

  • James think books are a great business model. The one trade-off is that all of the work has to be done up-front (interviews, media, writing)

  • Showing up every day to work on something that looks like a mess can be a very challenging experience

  • First, decide who you want to be. Then do what you need to do


Thinking Big

  • James like the phrase "work backwards from magic"

  • Think big when imaging magical outcome - do not allow for self-limiting beliefs

  • After identifying magical outcome, wrestle it down to reality

  • If you can't find a path between the magical outcome back to reality, it is not actually a good

  • What determines if something is a good idea is whether or not you can execute on it


The Problem with Goals

  • Goals are artificially constraining

  • When authors tell Ryan they want to sell a certain number of copies, Ryan sees two issues:

  1. Ryan thinks the author should aim higher

  2. The author should also aim for something that is non-quantifiable

  • Setting a goal is like trying to predict the future, which is impossible. You have no idea what will happen

  • Instead of saying "I will lose 60 pounds" it is better to say "I will be in the best shape of my life"

  • Ryan's challenge in balancing competing priorities:

  1. Ryan wants to be a great writer, husband, and father

  2. If Ryan were to say "I want to be the best-selling writer of my generation" it would almost certainly detract from his ability to be a good husband and father

  3. By having more general identity and goals, Ryan is able to be flexible and succeed in multiple categories of his life

  • There are 7+ billion people in the world. If you pick a specific domain or niche, there may be people who are willing to sacrifice other domains of their life to succeed in one single area

  • You have to define your own rules and play your own game that are aligned with your own values

  • Many goals, status, and metrics may not be our own goals. They may have been mimicked from society

  • David Senra has a great discussion on living life according to one's true values - A great life is just a string of great days - find your blueprint for a great day

  • We must ask ourselves:

  • What is important to me?

  • What are my values?

  • What does my ideal day look like?

  • What do I actually care about?

  • Who am I when I am my best self?


The game is rigged & comparing ourselves to others

  • If you want to hit the most home runs in the history of baseball, you will come to realize that some people will cheat in order to reach the same goal

  • If you are not willing to cheat, now you have a conflict between your ambition and ethics

  • You may also be in competition with people who have different ethics and morals, who are willing to go an extra step to attain success in one narrow category

  • Internal measures of success: Am I at peace with the effort that I made?

  • In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius became the most powerful person in the world and realized it wasn't everything he thoughts it would be

  • James Clear - Just have one good day and repeat it

  • Even if things don't go my way, tomorrow I will wake up and try to have a good day

  • Habits don't restrict freedom, they create it. By optimizing habits, we create additional capacity and space to have autonomy and freedom

  • People with bad reading habits are behind the curve

  • People with bad financial habits never have enough money

  • People with bad fitness habits don't have enough


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