Your Habits Are Your Destiny: James Clear

January 30, 2020
Estimated reading time:
5 minutes

When I first read James Clear’s stuff, I resented him.

I mean, I really didn’t like him. It was an almost visceral reaction. It took me ages to figure out why that was. More on that later.

(FYI: this is the second in a series of posts about the people that have had the biggest impact on my thinking and my life. You can read the rest here.)

Who is James Clear?

James is an author, entrepreneur, public speaker and former college athlete. He’s best known for his massive bestseller Atomic Habits, which has sold 1M+ copies all over the world.

He writes about creating and sticking to good habits, decision-making, time management, productivity and the like -- similar areas to what I write about.

He openly admits that he doesn’t really have any new ideas of his own. In the introduction to his book, he writes: “What I offer you is a synthesis of the best ideas smart people figured out a long time ago as well as the most compelling discoveries scientists have made recently."

James knows, as Austin Kleon so well puts in his book Steal Like an Artist, that there’s real value in bringing together the best of other people’s ideas, and adding a little on top yourself.

Before we get into why this annoyed me, let’s dive into his book and see what James can teach us.

Atomic Habits: a summary

The central idea of Atomic Habits is this: by making small changes, and sticking with them consistently over time, you can transform your life.

The quality of your life is determined by your habits. As James says: Good habits make time your ally; bad habits make time your enemy.

Making small changes in these habits radically changes your life. This is for two reasons.

Firstly, you can change your identity through your actions. Each action you take is a vote to be that type of person. Every time you, for example, go to the gym rather than sit on the sofa, you’re demonstrating to yourself that you’re the type of person who cares about your health.

Secondly, habits -- good or bad -- have compounding effects. No one gets in great shape in one workout, just like you won’t get sick if you smoke one cigarette. But over time, your habits inevitably and incontrovertibly will lead to a certain outcome. That means sticking with good habits consistently, over a long period of time, will lead to good outcomes.

The difference between getting 1% worse every day and getting 1% better every day. The second option is better. Source:
The difference between getting 1% worse every day and getting 1% better every day. The second option is better. Source:

Consequently, you should be more concerned about your current trajectory -- what direction your habits are leading you towards -- than where you are right now.

Obviously, James isn’t the first person to come to this conclusion. You might recognise these ideas from a number of different people:

Atomic Habits also goes into detail on how to start new habits, or break bad habits.

A habit is made up of four distinct parts:

  1. Cue
  2. Response
  3. Routine
  4. Rewards

These four parts lead to four laws of behaviour change to help build good habits:

And to remove a bad habit, simply invert all of these, e.g. make the bad habit hidden, unattractive, difficult to carry out, and unsatisfying.

Similarly, this isn’t necessarily a new idea: it’s an improved and refined version of Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, a big bestseller from 2014. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful framework that has helped a lot of people, including me.

Why I resented James Clear

None of James’s ideas are new. There are few original thoughts in any of his books or essays.

That’s OK: he knows that, and that’s the point. He brings all these ideas together into an easy to digest, actionable, engaging format. That’s incredibly valuable, and he’s done it better than anyone.

What really annoyed me is that I could have done it too.

That’s why I didn’t like him. There’s a great saying that hell is dying and meeting the person you could have become. Seeing James’s writing -- clear, succinct, popular -- and his accolades, NYT bestselling book, and numerous media appearances, was like my personal hell.

I’ve read all the same sources that James has. I could have written the articles that he’s written. He’s a better writer than I am, but I could have gotten better over time, with feedback, and with practice.

But I didn’t. He did.

That’s the real meta-lesson here. The big difference between him and me is that James has taken his own advice. He’s consistently been putting out well-written, high quality content for over 5 years. It’s taken time, and it’s been a long road, but now he’s reaping the rewards.

That’s what I learned from James Clear. Don’t get caught up chasing the shiny new thing. Don’t get frustrated that results aren’t happening more quickly.

Instead, put in the work. Trust the process. And if you do, then the score takes care of itself.

That’s what I intend to do right here. Take notes every day. Generate ideas every day. Write every day. Send one email newsletter every Tuesday. Publish a new post every Thursday.

Trust the process.

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