Science or personal experience? Which is the best informant of our decisions, especially when it comes to maximizing our potential and living better—whatever that means to us as individuals?
Author, entrepreneur, and photographer James Clear offers an off-the-beaten-path answer to that question that involves holding on to two distinct ideas simultaneously.
“The first,” he says, “is that science and scientific research is the best tool that we have for figuring out what works across a broad range of cases. So in other words, what is true or what is accurate in many different circumstances for a given a topic, rather than just based on like an individual’s opinion or one particular case, or one particular circumstance.”
Then, he says, if you’re going to be a practitioner of ideas, “you have to be willing to accept the fact that you are not the average.”
He says we need to adopt philosophies of self-experimentation.
Why? As he points out, “it's quite possible that a research study will come up with a finding that says the average is X and you, in fact, are Y or Z or something totally different.”
He gives an example:
“The average American family has something like 2.3 kids or something like that, but, of course, there is no single family that actually has to 2.3 kids. It’s impossible to have .3 of a child. So my point here is that you both need to trust the science and trust the evidence that is the best method we have to kind of guide your actions, yet still be willing to go through the trials and the trial and error yourself to try to figure out what works in your individual circumstance.
Clear, whose personal blog jamesclear.com has over 400,000 email subscribers, is also the author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, an instant New York Times bestseller that was released in October 2018.
In his role as author, especially, he says he’s very wary of being a new-age version of someone in the Ivory Tower, just writing about ideas, and his commitment to staying grounded has inspired him to pursue many endeavors including…
- Diving into weigh-lifting and competing.
- Publicly sharing all of his work.
“I feel like all those little ways are kind of methods for me to have my own skin in the game and figure out what actually works for me and not just share some thoughts,” he says, noting that he wants his ideas to be “tested by readers and the audience at large.”
He acknowledges that “the vast majority of our opinions are simply those that have been reinforced through whatever this version of life is that we’ve lived,” saying that of course we have personal evidence for our beliefs—it’s the experiences we’ve had in our lives.
“If things have happened two or three times, that seems like a fairly relevant bit of evidence for why you should believe a particular thing. Of course, two or three instances in the grand scheme of the world was basically nothing.”
He says science “gives us a way to kind of look at a thousand or 10,000 instances of a particular topic or issue and maybe hone in on something that’s a little more robust and accurate,” and that while “you don't want to overweight any single instance”— “at the same time, like I just mentioned, you need to be willing to realize that ultimately you're trying to figure out what works for you.”
Notice and, not or.
“Basically, any one of us could be a billion different things. You could live an infinite number of different lives, but only one of those is actually lived out,” he says.
That seems obvious, but here’s where his take on science and self-experimentation comes in:
“Science gives you a way of whittling that number down and being able to focus on taking guesses that are more sound, more likely to succeed, and hopefully more useful for you.”
Clear says that our initial decisions can set us out on completely different paths.
From there, our habits determine how far we’ll go.
Clear’s bottom line: Decision making and habit creation are two of the pillars of living a great life.
“If you can make good decisions and master the habits related to those, then it’s very hard to not have better outcomes.”
Leveraging Atomic Energy
Clear’s interest in science shines through even in the metaphors he leverages.
He says that in thinking and writing about making good decisions and building better habits, he chose the word atomic because change and improvement need to be small.
“Obviously an atom is like the smallest fundamental unit of a compound, the smallest fundamental unit of a thing.”
Likewise, he says small habits are easy to start and easy to stick with.
He says 1 percent change—atomic change—is most valuable when it’s part of a system of change because it’s like compounding interest.
“Productivity—for example, being slightly more productive and getting 1 percent more done each day or getting an additional task done each afternoon—it doesn't really count for much on any given day, but over the course of a 30-year career, that can be a really big difference.”
Unfortunately, negative thoughts also compound.
“Once you get in the habit of seeing people as a mean, or vindictive, or vengeful, you can see that behavior anywhere,” Clear notes. “You start the spot evidence of it all over the place. That’s where you’re primed to look for.”
So how can we change these habits and avoid getting stuck in a rut, behaviorally or in our heads?
“Habits are a double-edged sword.”
Clear says that’s what makes it “incredibly important to understand how they work, so that you can avoid the dangerous half of the blade.”
“If you know how they work, then you can get them compounding for you rather than against you.”
He gives the example of Team Sky—a British cycling team that was floundering in the early aughts, but went on to take 60 percent of the gold medals available in the 2012 Olympics after implementing a slew of wildly creative changes that were supported by science (from adopting surgeon-approved hand-washing techniques to prevent colds to traveling with the pillows that data said gave them the best night’s sleep).
Clear says, “Small improvements are not just like a cherry on top of your performance, but actually can be the thing that separates you from being mediocre to being truly great.”
“It’s very easy for us to dismiss a small bad choice [like] eating a cheeseburger rather than a salad or something like that, or choosing to not study for 20 minutes rather than sitting down and studying tonight. But it's only a year or two, or five years later that the full impact of those small 1 percent choices and little changes ends up revealing itself.”
He says that true behavior change is identity change and that this change can happen with 1 percent choices that make decisive moments as easy as possible.
“Your actions become evidence for the type of person that you believe that you are.”
So how can you leverage atomic success to become a believer in yourself? Clear has a lot of suggestions and insights that are ripe for practical application.
He points out that it’s hard to get excited about repetitive processes.
He acknowledges that we’re the victims of the 24-hour news cycle we’ve created, saying, “The only things that get covered on the news are events—and events that are newsworthy. So it's only the earthquake or the splitting of the stone that is worthy of talking about.”
“Nobody is going to make a news story about somebody hitting a stone for the 37th time and [it] not happening.”
He says it’s because we’re so focused on events (and disaster) that we get wrapped up in thinking everything is about results and success.
We become blind to the process. “Really,” he says, “it’s always the process that leads to the outcomes.”
Some of his tips for supporting yourself in the process:
Respect the feedback loop. “The hallmark of pretty much any habit,” he says, “is that they don't happen just in a sequence. They happen in a loop. They end up strengthening or weakening themselves depending on the feedback that you’re getting.”
He points out that, “Once you see yourself as religious, it becomes a reason to go back to church every Sunday. Or once you see yourself as studious, it becomes a reason to study again and try to get a good grade in the next test because you got one on the last one and so on.”He challenges people to ask the question, “Does this habit cast a vote for the type of person that I want to become?” and invest their energy accordingly.
Titrate down. Become aware of the power of little habits, and get smaller and smaller until you start experiencing success.
Clear says you should “downscale your habits until they can fit within two minutes.” Why?
“If someone [is] talking about building a habit of going for a run each day, well they might say, ‘Well, I should start small. So let me only run for 10 minutes.’ Actually, even that is still way too big.”
“What we’re talking about here,” he says, “is the habit should be getting your shoes on. So tying your shoes is the only thing you're focused on. Once you get your running shoes on, then you just get out the door and let it go from there. Whether you run or not, whether you actually even take a step, is not the goal.”
Clear knows this works from his own experience.
He shares that in the evening, his wife gets home from work and they might either change into their workout clothes and go to the gym or sit on the couch and watch Office reruns.
“It’s really that brief moment where either we change into our workout clothes or not. That little habit, that decisive moment determines what is going to happen in the next two hours.”
Find your tribe. In addition to recognizing the importance of atomic change and leveraging 2-minute habits, Clear also highlights that from an evolutionary standpoint, it is really important for humans to belong.
“We’re deeply wired to signal to provide indications to the rest of the people around us that, ‘Hey, I'm part of this group too.’”
Of course this can have all sorts of negative implications, but rather than falling in line with whatever’s around you (sometimes the source of the habits you’re trying to change), Clear says, “The powerful punch line is that you need to find a group where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.”
More specifically, Clear says you should seek out a group where your desired behavior is the norm and who you could already be friends with, maybe for some other reason. He gives the example of Nerd Fitness—a site that helps former comic book kids hook up with workout buddies, encouraging people to get creative about networking.
Beyond that, be open and honest about who you are and what you’re after. Keep your new habits small and get ready for big change.
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