On this episode of Dare to Lead
It’s part 2 of our two-part episode with James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, which has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 50 languages. In part 1 of our series, we talk about building systems to create habits, and in this episode, we talk about how and why habits are atomic and how to build a habit or break a habit. We also look at our environments and how we can tweak them to support the habits we want to have, and then dive in and talk about organization habits and how we create habits in a team and in organizations. I took multiple pages of notes on this memorable conversation on forming habits that last.
Listen to the episode
Atomic Habits by James Clear
No matter your goals, Atomic Habits offers a proven framework for improving—every day. If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Atomic Habits will reshape the way you think about progress and success and give you the tools and strategies you need to transform your habits—whether you are a team looking to win a championship, an organization hoping to redefine an industry, or simply an individual who wishes to quit smoking, lose weight, reduce stress, or achieve any other goal.
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Barrett Guillen: Hi everyone, I’m Barrett Guillen, and this is Dare to Lead. Last week, I told you all that a few of us here at BBEARG, have been unloading boxes of Brené’s new books off palettes and getting ready for Atlas of the Heart book launch. That guys, we’re still doing that. It’s still happening. Cookie and Brian have been moving boxes up and down the stairs, I think I told you all, we had four palettes, really crazy. We actually sent copies of our book to all of our facilitators in our facilitator communities, both Dare to Lead and The Daring Way. It’s so beautiful and it’s such a thoughtful culmination of 25 years of Brené’s work. We cannot wait for you to see it. While we’re on the topic of Atlas of the Heart, I do want to tell you that we have a special event coming up, we’re excited to be launching Brené’s new book at a live virtual launch event on Thursday, December 2nd at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. We’re not doing a traditional book tour this year, so instead, we’re partnering with more than 150 independent bookstores within the U.S. and Canada to bring you this virtual event with Brené in conversation with, drum roll, please, the one and only Priya Parker on all things Atlas of the Heart.
BG: You guys know Priya, she’s been on both Dare to Lead and Unlocking Us, and she’s amazing. We’re so excited she’s going to be with us for the event. Tickets will include a copy of Atlas of the Heart and access to the event. You can find out all the details, including the link to register on this podcast episode page on brenebrown.com. The virtual event is only available in the U.S. and Canada, but don’t worry if you’re not able to attend from where you are, we do have some special Atlas of the Heart podcast episodes planned, so we can all dive into this new work together. We hope you’ll join us on Thursday, December 2nd. In the meantime, let’s talk about today, this is Part 2 of Brené’s two-part episode with James Clear, and they’re talking about habits and his book, Atomic Habits, which is such a smart, important and honestly a potentially life-changing book. I’m not even kidding you that Brené has this quote on a Post-it, one of them in her office at home and one of them in her office here, “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.”
BG: If you’ve been included in any recent Dare to Lead event at all that Brené has done, you will hear her talk about this quote and how much we keep talking about it at work, analyzing at work, analyzing our systems at work. It’s so good. In the first episode, they talked about building systems, and you are definitely going to want to go back and listen to that if you haven’t listened yet. In this episode, they talk about how and why habits are atomic, and about how to actually build a habit or to break a habit. I just loved this conversation with James, I really did take five pages of notes, and I’m glad you’re here to learn with us. A little bit more about James. James Clear is a writer and a speaker focused on habits, decision-making, and continuous improvement. He is the author of the number one New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits. The book has sold over 5 million copies worldwide. And has been translated into more than 50 languages. James is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies, and his work has been featured in places like Time Magazine, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and on CBS This Morning. His popular 3-2-1 email newsletter is sent out each week to more than one million subscribers. You can learn more and sign up at jamesclear.com.
Brené Brown: Welcome everyone. It is Part 2 of our two-part episode with James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. Y’all are just losing your minds for this podcast with James. I mean, I think about it. Barrett, do you think about it all the time?
BG: All the time. It’s so good.
BB: God, yeah.
BG: It’s frustrating and infuriating.
BB: It is. But this whole identity-based habit stuff, like “I want to be this kind of person” has been really powerful for me. So in Part 1 of our series, we talked about building systems, and in this episode, we’re going to dive into why habits are atomic and how to build organizational habits, and this whole idea of small changes over time and compounding, this is where, it’s not magic because it works. But this is where the power is. Welcome back James. Alright. Holy shit. This is so good. I’ve read it twice, and I have that damn Post-it note. Where do I have it Barrett? On my desk, on my laptop.
James Clear: That’s so funny, that’s so sweet. Thank you so much. I’m glad you found it useful.
BB: It’s useful because we go into all these companies and we do courage building work, and I always say, when we’re humans and when we get scared, we need courageous systems in place, you can’t always count on fearful people to make brave decisions. You have to have systems in place that really force people into thinking about the choices they’re making.
JC: There really is a lot of connection there, it makes me think about the power of ritual, like with funerals.
JC: Someone you love dies, people will feel loss, they’re grieving, they don’t know what to do next, but because we have this ritual, it makes the next decision easy. I don’t know that you would call having a funeral a brave thing necessarily, but it makes the choice easier, and I can very clearly see how having a system for courage makes those choices more straightforward in the moment as well.
BB: It is, because I think if you took your quote, “You don’t rise to the level of your aspirational courage, you fall to the level of the systems you have in place that make your culture brave,” and so if there’s a failure, a set back, a disappointment in a team, if you’ve got a system in place where every time that happens, you’re going to meet, you’re going to do something very ritualized, everyone’s going to write down the story they’re making up about the failure, everyone’s going to share that with the team. You’re going to go through this rumble system, then it’s not dependent on people feeling brave during hard times. Does that make sense?
JC: Oh yeah, for sure.
BB: Yeah. Alright, talk to me about goals are the results we want to achieve, systems are about the processes that lead to those results, so I’m going to get really granular here, so I want to be a physically strong person. And that’s my goal. Does my goal need to be more explicit than that? Like bench press, I don’t want to bench press anything, [chuckle] but what… I want to be injury-proof in pickleball, that’s my big thing. I had my kids late, so I want to be a super active person through my 50s, 60s and 70s.
JC: Yeah, I don’t think it needs to be. Maybe some people have different strategies, you talk to different people, they all do it in different ways, but I don’t think it has to be something specific. The one thing I have noticed, I used to make very specific things, like I had a very specific number I wanted to bench press, and all these different things that you want to achieve, and I had this moment where I realized, first of all, about half of these things I wrote down I didn’t achieve at all, so clearly having a specific goal was not the thing that determined whether I achieved or not; secondly, with the bench press number, you know, what’s funny is I did it 11 years later than when I wrote it down. I said, “I want to achieve this in the next year,” and then it actually happened like 11 years later. And so I’m like, okay, clearly there’s something here about trying to predict the future that just is not useful. So I think my approach is mostly let’s try to determine the identity you want, the type of person you want to be. In your case, you’re saying, okay, I want to be this physically fit, this strong person, and then let’s just find behaviors that reinforce that, and it’s really less about the results you achieve and more about are you performing these daily actions, these habits that are reinforcing that identity? So I would say it’s much more about not missing workouts or getting your reps in, it’s not nearly as much about what is the specific number.
BB: Yeah, it’s so interesting for me too, because I’ve tried this before, but I did not focus on systems at all, I only focused on the goal, and then they start you out and they’re like, “You know, we’re just going to use body weight,” and I’m like, “Oh no, screw that,” and then I pick up something really heavy and then I’m hurt for six weeks.
JC: Yep. Oh God, like the most frustrating thing from working out is you’re like, I’m actually in here doing the workout, and then I get hurt, it’s just such a frustrating thing to finally have gotten yourself to do the thing you want to do and then suffer a setback because of it.
BB: Yeah, because I was not raised to respect consistency, I was raised to revere intensity.
JC: It’s partially just a consequence of growing up in society too. The results of success are highly visible and always shared, especially with social media and whatnot, like you’re just constantly seeing the highlights and the outcomes of things, but the daily news cycle is the same way. You’re never going to see a news story that says, “Woman eats chicken and salad for lunch.” It’s only a story when it’s like woman loses 150 pounds, it’s like it’s only once it’s this big outcome or result that we hear about it. And I think that tends to cause us to overvalue outcomes and undervalue the process, because the process and the system is often hidden from view.
BB: That’s really smart.
JC: I think it’s just part of what we’re all dealing with, but we can try to encourage different behavior. Let me give you the tactical answer to your question though.
JC: We’re starting to get more into like, how do we actually build a habit here? And I think, broadly speaking, there are four things that you sort of want working for you if you want to build a good habit. So the first thing is you want the cues of your habits, the things that catch your attention, the stuff that gets you started, or that prompts the behavior, you want those things to be as obvious as possible. The second thing is you want the habit to be attractive, so you want to make it attractive, the more attractive or appealing the habit is, more excited you feel to do it, the more motivated you are, more likely you are to follow through. The third thing is you want to make it easy, make it easy, convenient, frictionless, simple, the more simple a habit is to do, the more likely it is to be performed. And then the fourth thing is you want to make it satisfying. And these are the four steps that in Atomic Habits, I call them the four laws of behavior change. So make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, make it satisfying. Now, you don’t always need all four, it’s just that they’re kind of like levers, and you can sort of pull each lever when it makes sense for a given habit, and the more of them that you have working for you, the more likely it is that a good behavior will occur.
JC: And then on the flip side, if you want to break a bad habit, you just do the inverse of those four, so rather than making it obvious, you want to make it invisible. Unsubscribe from emails, don’t keep junk food in the house, reduce exposure to the cue. Rather than making it attractive, make it unattractive. So we can talk about ways to do that. Rather than making it easy, make it difficult, increase friction, and add steps between you and the behavior, and then rather than making it satisfying, make it unsatisfying. Layer on a cost or a consequence to the behavior, especially if it’s like an immediate consequence. So that’s just like the 10,000 foot view of how do I build a good habit or break a bad one? Well, you want to make it obvious, attractive, easy, satisfying or invisible, unattractive, difficult, unsatisfying.
BB: It’s just taking us kind of into the Skinner box of cue, craving, response, reward.
JC: Yeah, so Skinner, obviously a very famous psychologist, his work forms the foundation for a lot of behavioral psychology. Charles Duhigg who I know you’ve talked to before, his book, Power of Habit, does a great job of summarizing a lot of that as well. And what Skinner’s big finding was from a behavioral standpoint is that, hey, if you perceive behavior with a reliable cue and you follow it with some kind of a reliable reward or consequence, then you can shape behavior in a lot of ways. Now, I think there’s a whole separate field of cognitive psychology that would say, hey, it turns out moods and emotions and feelings also like dramatically influence our behavior. And so that was why I added in that fourth stage of craving, and really that stage is supposed to be about, from a biological standpoint, from a scientific standpoint, it’s about the prediction that your brain makes before each behavior happens, so it’s about you see a cue and then you predict. “Oh, I see a plate of cookies across the counter,” and it’s actually the prediction that a cookie is sweet, savory, tasty, enjoyable, that motivates you to walk it over, pick it up, and take a bite.
JC: And so it’s that second stage is a space for interpretation, for moods, for feelings, for emotions, and talking about how those influence our behavior as well. So my hope is that, my four-step model merges behavioral cognitive psychology in a way that’s useful and easy to apply, but both of them play important roles.
BB: Yeah, I love obvious, attractive, simple, and satisfying. Okay, give me some examples.
JC: Yeah, so let’s talk about making it obvious and making it easy, because I think those are two really high leverage places to focus if you’re just getting started. So the first thing, making your habits obvious, one of the best ways to do this is with a strategy that I refer to as environment design, and environment design is just about how you’re shaping the spaces that you live and work and interact in on a daily basis. Obvious example, a lot of people feel like they watch too much television. But walk into any living room where do all the couches and chairs face? It’s like, what is this room designed to get you to do? Now, I’m not saying that you have to rearrange your entire house, but you can imagine sort of like a spectrum of choices here, where you could take the TV, put it inside a cabinet or a wall unit, so it’s behind doors, you’re less likely to see it, take the remote control, put it in a drawer, put a book in its place, turn a chair away from the TV, have it face an end table with a book on it. And no individual choice like that is going to radically transform your behavior, but collectively making a dozen or two dozen or 50 little choices like that, they all kind of prime the environment for the good habit to be the path of least resistance.
JC: And you would be surprised how often behavior can change just with a small shift in environment stuff. Like for me, if I buy a six-pack of beer and I put it in the fridge, I put it in the door or on the shelf, like right there is where I can see as soon as I open the door, I’ll grab one every night and drink it with dinner, just because it’s there, but if I put it on the lowest shelf in the fridge, it’s like all the way in the back, I have to bend down to see it, sometimes it’ll be there for weeks, I won’t even remember that we have it, and so I’m like, did I want it or not? Like on the one hand, I wanted it when it was easy and in front of me, but on the other hand, I never wanted it bad enough to go seek it out. Or my phone. I have this thing where I try to keep my phone in another room until lunch each day, just gives me like a block of time in the morning where I can kind of focus on my agenda, do creative work. Well, I’m like everybody else. If my phone is right next to me, I’m going to check it every three seconds because it’s there, I’ll be on Instagram, I’ll be whatever. I have a home office, and so if I keep it in another room, it’s only 45 seconds away, but I never go get it. And so again, I’m like, did I want it or not? Like in the one sense, I wanted it bad enough to check it every three seconds, but in another sense, I never wanted it so bad that I would go work 45 seconds to go get it.
BB: It’s true.
JC: And there are many behaviors that are like this that will curtail themselves to the desired degree, if you just tweak the environment a little bit.
BB: It’s funny you say that about television, because we have two chairs facing a couch instead of everything facing toward the television, and when my daughter was home, maybe, I don’t know, two or three months ago, we all sat down, decide what do we want to watch for TV, we’re going to binge a show together the family, me, my husband, my two kids, and we ended up talking for like two and a half hours and then going to bed because we just sat down and we just started talk.
JC: You’re all looking to each other.
BB: And we’re all looking each other and we just started talking, and then I was like, “Okay, well, do we want to watch something? Y’all want to move the chairs?” And they’re like, “No.” And then we just kept talking and then it was like bed time, but it would have never happened that way, had we not started in chairs facing each other.
JC: It’s interesting to think like, here’s another question I like, what does this space encourage?
BB: Oh God, yeah.
JC: And so if you can just design your spaces to encourage good habits or encourage the productive behavior or encourage the identity that you’re trying to reinforce, then you often find that it’s much easier to slide into those habits and actions. So I think that’s a good example of making it obvious.
BB: So with strength training, don’t think that I’m not going to work my own goal here, because we just have to… Yes, yeah.
JC: Okay, alright.
BB: With strength training, does that mean like laying out my workout clothes before I go to bed? What does that mean to make it obvious?
JC: Yeah, it could be. I don’t know what your set up is, I know for me, strength training is a big part of what I do each week, and one of the biggest shifts for me, especially once I had kids and things started getting busy, is creating a workout space at home, and so this corner of my basement has become the workout corner, and the biggest difference was buying the gear and having it there, and now I have no excuse. And so in that sense, that space is always set up to encourage strength training. I have a space where this habit lives. And this is actually… There are quite a few studies on this that show that it’s easier to build a new habit in a new environment than to try to overpower one of your old environments. And so take for example, let’s say that you want to start a new habit of say, you want to start journaling or something, and you’re like, “Alright, I’m going to journal after work each day, I’ll do it like at 7:00 p.m. in the living room.” Well, if right now, 7:00 p.m. in your living room is the space where you usually watch Netflix, then when you sit down there, even without even thinking about it consciously, you’re subconsciously pulled toward picking up the remote and turning on Netflix because that’s what usually happens in that context.
JC: And so in many cases, it might be more effective to… It doesn’t always have to be a totally new room, it could just be like, let’s say you get a chair and you put it in the corner and that becomes the journaling chair, and it’s the space, it’s the context where that habit always happens right there and you do it in the same way each time. So having a space that is set up to encourage that behavior, I think is one big thing. Now, that’s a fairly new development for me to have a little workout space at home. For a long time, I used to go to the gym, and in that case, the big thing was just making sure that I had a block of time in my day where it always happened in the same way. So there are a variety of different strategies, but what does the space encourage, I think gets at the core of it.
BB: Great question. Okay. Attractive?
JC: Yeah. Okay, we’ll use a fitness example for this, so let’s say that you’re listening to this conversation we’re having, and you’re like, “Alright, I heard this guy talk about habits all day, I guess tomorrow will be the day I’ll wake up and go for a run.” So you set your alarm, and it’s like 6:00 a.m. or something, and it goes off and your bed is warm, it’s cold outside, you’re like, “Well, I’ll just press snooze instead, maybe tomorrow,” but if you rewind the clock, come back to today and you text a friend and you say, “Hey, can we meet at the park at 06:15 and go for a run?”
BB: Oh God, the commitment’s killing me.
JC: Right. Like now, 06:00 a.m. rolls around and your bed is still warm and it’s still cold outside, but if you don’t get up and go for a run, you’re a jerk because you’ll leave your friend at the park all alone. And so you have not made the run itself any easier, but you have changed the calculus that’s going on in your mind, you have made it more attractive to get up and go for a run and less attractive to press snooze and sleep in. And this strategy is often referred to as a commitment device, it’s like any choice that you make in the present, I’m going to text my friend that locks in your behavior in the future, okay, now I have to get up tomorrow morning, is a good example of a commitment device. My favorite, the ultimate example of it is using technology to just automate the habit, instead of having to remember to make a deposit into your 401k after each pay period, you just set up an automatic withdrawal and then it’s done for you. So there are a variety of ways to do it, but basically you’re trying to change the story that you’re telling yourself about why I’m doing this habit or why I’m not.
BB: I really love that. Okay, simple?
JC: Yeah, so making it easy is the third step, and this is if I was only going to recommend one thing, if people say, “What’s the most important thing?” or “What do you have to focus on?” I would say if you’re going to focus on one thing, this is the stage to focus on. And I have this reader, his name is Mitch, I mention him in Atomic Habits. He lost over 100 pounds, he’s kept it off for more than a decade, and he had this crazy little rule, this funny little thing that he would do when he first started going to the gym, which is, he wouldn’t go to the gym 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 and drive home, and it sounds ridiculous, right? It sounds like silly, you’re like, obviously, this is not going to get the guy the results that he wants, but if you take a step back, 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 I think that this is kind of the deeper truth behind this, that people often overlook. Which is…
JC: A habit must be established before it can be improved. It has to become the standard in your life before you can optimize and scale it up into something more, but for whatever reason, I don’t know why we do this, but we get really all or nothing about our habits, people are so focused on finding the perfect business idea, the best workout program, the ideal diet plan, like we’re so focused on optimizing that we don’t give ourselves permission to show up, even if it’s in a smaller way, we don’t give ourselves permission to do less than we had hoped, even if it was more consistent. So my little strategy for this is what I call the two-minute rule, and the two-minute rule just says, “Take whatever habit you’re trying to build and scale it down to something that takes two minutes or less to do.” So read 30 books a year, becomes read one page. Or do yoga four days a week, becomes take out my yoga mat. And it sounds silly at first, people are like, “Okay, buddy, I know I’m not really trying to just take my yoga mat out, I know I’m actually trying to do the workout,” but I think that story about Mitch and only going for five minutes and kind of like becoming the type of person who shows up consistently, it gets at this deeper truth, it reminds me that there’s this great quote from Ed Latimore where he says, “The heaviest weight at the gym is the front door.”
BB: Oh my God.
JC: And, there’s a lot of things in life that are like that where the hardest part is getting started. The hardest part is mastering the art of showing up, and the two-minute rule helps encourage that, get out of this perfectionist mindset, stop worrying about theorizing, coming up with the perfect strategy, let’s establish something small and use that as a foothold to advance to the next level. And prove to ourselves that we can show up consistently, that we can be this kind of person, even if it starts in a very small way.
BB: It’s really beautiful, isn’t it?
JC: There is a beauty in the simplicity of it, but there’s a beauty in the fact that you don’t have to be doing something grand to be casting votes for the kind of person you wish to be, you know, it’s like no writing one sentence does not finish the novel, but it does cast a vote for, “I’m a writer.” No, doing one push-up does not transform your body, but it does cast a vote for, “I’m the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts,” and the more that you build up evidence of being that kind of person, the more momentum that you have, the more reason you have to keep going, I mean, one of the most motivating feelings to the human mind is the feeling of progress, if you’re making progress, even if it’s smaller than what you had hoped, you have every reason to continue working, you have every reason to keep going, and so I think strategies like this are, they’re about helping encourage you to open the front door, they’re about helping to encourage you to build a little bit of momentum to get the positive feedback loop started, and then you can take that energy and kind of pour into the next iteration.
BB: What was that quote that you said, I want you to say it one more time, you can’t optimize a habit that you’ve yet to build?
JC: Yeah. A habit must be established before it can be improved.
BB: Okay, yeah, all of your work wades so deep into people as emotional beings, like you really have to understand, there’s a lot of self-awareness, I think, like Mitch sounds nuts, but it’s so embracing of who we are as humans, it’s really smart.
JC: Self-awareness is a huge part of it, and I think it’s very astute of you to recognize that, in a lot of ways, like the process of behavior change starts with self-awareness. Now, it’s kind of funny, there’s this story, this narrative, that it’s really hard to change your habits, it’s really hard to change your behavior, now in reality, changing your behavior is something that we are doing all the time, it’s one of the easiest things for a human to do, it’s one of the things that your brain is optimized to do, we change based on the room we’re in, based on the people we’re around, based on the context that we’re experiencing, if your brain was not able to make changes based on the environment or the situation, it’d be very hard to survive. But most of those changes, and this is where the tricky part comes in, are simply reactions to the external environment and to what’s around you, what we’re talking about is consciously changing your behavior, intentionally choosing to be something else or go after a new goal or to develop a new story and so on, and if you want to be in control of the process of changing, if you want to design your behavior in a way that serves you, then I think you need self-awareness, because otherwise you’re just reacting and responding. And so self-awareness is a really crucial part of that process.
BB: It reminds me a lot of the article, or I think I read the article first and I got the book of Change or Die. Have you read that?
JC: No, I haven’t read the book.
BB: Yeah. Change or Die. It’s based on a study where it’s after heart failure events, you’ve got to change these habits or you’re going to die and the majority of people die, it’s really interesting. As someone that works inside of organizations a lot, it’s that old quote, “Everyone loves transformation, but no one wants to change.”
BB: Yeah, I do think it takes a lot of self-awareness. Tell me about, make it satisfying.
JC: So ultimately, we need experiences to be enjoyable or pleasurable or satisfying, even if it’s in a small way, now, not every behavior in life is like that, sometimes things all have a consequence or a cost, sometimes they’re just sort of neutral and don’t really mean a whole lot, but if you don’t have some sort of positive outcome, some rewarding experience, again, even if it’s just in a small way, your brain has no real reason to mark that experience and say, “Hey, let’s come back to that again in the future,” like, “That got you what you wanted, let’s repeat that again next time,” and so making it satisfying, having some type of reward, I think is a crucial piece of getting habits to stick, of getting them to be something you want to return to again and again. Now, there are a variety of strategies you can use here, and of course, I’m sure many people… A carrot, or a stick or a sprinkle, these little rewards. I remember when I was in fourth grade, like we did multiplication tables and you would get a sticker each time you got one right, remember, like these are all forms of reinforcement or forms of a reward that make it a little bit more rewarding to show up again and study multiplication tables next week or whatever.
JC: Now, I think reinforcement like that, it can be very powerful, like why do people show up to work? Partially, it’s because they get a lot of meaning and value out of the work they do. Not always, but partially it can be that, but mostly it’s because they get a paycheck in two weeks or in a month or whatever, and that is a sticker for multiplication tables, but in the career context. Now, short-term reinforcements like that can be powerful, they can be helpful for getting people to stick, for getting people on track, for motivating behaviors, in the long run, I think that you need something internal as well, you need that reinforcement of identity, you need some kind of meaning or purpose. And this is why I encourage people to start with, “Who’s the kind of person you want to become?,” “What is the type of identity you want to build?” Because ultimately, let’s take working out as an example, if you want to be a fit strong person, if you want to be the kind of person who cares about your body and your health and so on, and that’s the identity you’re trying to reinforce.
JC: Well, early on when it’s not that motivating, you kind of feel… going to the gym for the first time in a while is very uncomfortable, you feel like you’re being judged, you feel like, “Am I doing this right? Are people making fun of me? Do they think that I’m looking like an idiot? Am I not doing this exercise the right way? My muscles hurt, I’m sore.” There’s not really a whole lot of positive upfront motivation with that, and so you may need some of that external encouragement early on, whether that’s in the form of a reward like every week that I don’t miss a workout, I get to celebrate with a bubble bath or something like that, or whether it’s having some kind of workout partner, like I get to spend time with a friend that I love, and we don’t get to see each other enough, but now we’re working out together, so some kind of external reinforcement can be helpful there, but eventually the hope is that after you are showing up consistently for six months or a year or two years, that at some point in the middle of the workout when you’re just doing the exercise, that in itself is rewarding in a sense, because it’s reinforcing the identity that you want to have. You don’t even have to wait. It’s like when you’re in the middle of doing a squat, you are being a strong person at that moment.
JC: And so eventually the action itself becomes a form of its own reward, and I think that’s what we’re ultimately working toward, even if the external reinforcement is there to help in the earlier stages.
BB: If you had to, across different types of habits from being physically strong or being a great leader, or spending more time with people you care about, if you had to tell me one thing that sabotages effective habit-building, what would it be?
JC: Starting too big is for sure the number one thing, it’s just like, I’m trying to encourage everybody to start small, scale it down, this established, and selecting a habit that is too large is easily going to be the thing that puts most people off course. There’s analogies, there’s metaphors from other areas, take chemistry, for example, there’s this concept of activation energy, so you put two compounds together and you have a certain amount of activation energy that you need to start the reaction, so in some cases it’s heat, it’s like striking a match, and you need to add a little bit of fire to get these two things to combust, well, you can think about habits like that too, “How much activation energy do you need to add as a catalyst to get this thing started?” And the difficulty of the habit that you select early on is the main thing that influences that, imagine one person who says, “I want to build a habit of doing 100 push-ups a day,” and there are a lot of people who choose that as that it’s like a very popular challenge, and then another person who says, “I want to build the habit of doing one push-up a day.” Very different activation energies.
JC: And when you feel motivated and refreshed and you have capacity, sure, you could probably get the 100 push-ups in throughout the day, but when you are stressed and tired and have very little capacity and you’re at the end of your rope, you may not have energy to do a workout at all, but before you fall into bed for the night, you can just do one push-up and then you can go to sleep. And there are a lot of things that are like that where it’s like, set yourself up for success by choosing something small enough that you can build the habit and get established and focus on that consistency, the intensity can come later, and this is the other thing about… You’ve mentioned a couple of times, Brené, the intensity versus consistency thing. It doesn’t mean you can never be intense, it doesn’t mean you can never perform something amazing, like sometimes I talk about starting small and people are like, “Well, what about people who climb Mount Everest? What about people who do these difficult things?” And it’s like, “No, the point is not to never do difficult things, the point is like volume before intensity, build your capacity, before you start to take on more, and once you’ve done that, now you have the ability to handle the intensity,” and so it’s much more about just doing things in the right sequence, than not pushing yourself or not challenging yourself at all.
BB: I’ve got a question from a friend, what is… Shut up, Barrett. My sister’s sitting across from me laughing, what’s the diagnosis for someone who likes to get all the equipment and do all the planning, but never actually starts the habit?
BB: Have you heard of this before?
JC: Oh, I have fallen into this before, all of these pitfalls are things that I’ve personally experienced, I like to define this as like motion versus action, so motion is…
BB: Sorry, go ahead.
JC: Motion is planning to do something or preparing to get a result or prepping for the researching, the thing that is to come, and action is a behavior that can actually deliver the result that you’re trying to achieve, so like a classic example, going to talk to a personal trainer, it does not matter how many times you talk to a personal trainer, it will never get you in shape. Doing a set of 10 squats, that is actually something that could get you the result that you want, and so talking to a personal trainer is motion, doing a set of squats is action, this doesn’t mean that motion is useless, that you should never do it, doesn’t mean that you should never prepare, never research and never plan, but it does mean that there’s a time where planning becomes its own form of procrastination.
BB: Oh, God.
JC: And I think that a lot of the time we fall into that, it’s the reason that we like motion is that because we can tell ourselves the story that I’m making progress, that I’m doing something, that I’m moving forward, right? You can tell yourselves the story of like…
BB: He’s so rude. My sister and I are like hating on you right now. Go ahead.
JC: I remember when I was getting ready to start my company, when I was first still thinking about being an entrepreneur, I spent all this time thinking about, “What should my logo be? What should my business cards look like? What should the brand name be?” A lot of time I spent thinking about the brand, I came up with a spreadsheet of 300 names for what the business could be, eventually I realized… And I still don’t have business cards to this day, because you don’t need them to have a business.
JC: But you do need customers and you do need a great product, and you do need all this other stuff that is actually action and not motion, and so I think that planning and preparation are useful, but when planning becomes its own form of procrastination, it’s time to change and switch to action.
BB: But is there anything better than not working out, but ordering the equipment?
JC: Yes. Is there anything better than dreaming about it and thinking about how great it’s going to be to design the perfect setup? Yeah.
BB: Yeah, and not having to actually do it because you feel good about yourself, but you don’t have to lift anything heavy.
JC: Yeah. Oh, it’s very attractive. [laughter]
BB: I’ll let my friend know what you think. [laughter] She’s sitting over there behind a stack of 700 bullet journals and bicycles and shit. Okay, motion versus action. Well, I thought you were a nice guy, but now I just think you’re out of bounds. Okay, I want to read this, “Habits are like the atoms of our lives, each one is a fundamental unit that contributes to your overall improvement, at first, these tiny routines seem insignificant, but soon they build on each other and fuel bigger wins that multiply to a degree that far outweighs the cost of their initial investment, they are both small and mighty, this is the meaning of the phrase atomic habits, a regular practice or routine, that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power, a component of the system of compound growth.”
JC: Yeah, so there are kind of like three central reasons I chose the phrase atomic habits, and there are sort of like three different meanings, the first is what you mentioned there, atom is tiny or small, and I do think your habits should be small and easy to do. The second meaning is something that we’ve talked about and touched on a couple of different times, the importance of building a system of behaviors, and atoms, they create their own little system, like a collection of atoms, is like a molecule and molecules build into compounds and so on. So they kind of like layer on top of each other, and then the third and final meaning is the source of immense energy or power, and I think if you combine all three of those meanings, you make changes that are small and easier to do, you layer them on top of each other, like units in a larger system, and eventually that leads to a powerful or remarkable result, you sort of understand the narrative arc of the book and the sort of like multi-layered meaning of the phrase in atomic habit. It’s not just something small and easy, it’s also something that’s building toward this greater outcome.
BB: It’s such a smart book, it’s really a smart book.
JC: Thank you, I tried really hard to make it useful and easy and straightforward and digestible. I feel like that’s kind of where I provide my value. There are many, many smart people who’ve talked about this, and the habits have been around for a long, long time, and people will be talking about it for a long time from now, and my little contribution to the universe of that literature is just to try to share something that’s straightforward and easy to apply, that somebody can take and utilize in their own life, and that definitely has been the most rewarding thing for me looking back on the book, is just seeing people take it and being able to use it to make real changes. And it feels good to produce something that helps people with that, and I’m just grateful to have been able to play some small role in the overall story of that.
BB: Yeah, it’s incredible work. So I’m grateful for it. Let me ask you this question, I’m super curious. When you go into organizations, what is the opportunity set of habits that people talk about that they’re trying to either make or break? We’ve talked about fitness and we’ve talked about strength and talked about other things, but in organizations in a macro setting like that, what are the two or three big habits people are trying to break and the two or three big habits that people are trying to create?
JC: Oh, there’s the question people ask, and then I think there’s the question we should be asking.
BB: For sure.
JC: The question people ask is always, “How do I get my team to build better habits?” Every leader has this collection of behaviors that they wish the people working with them would do, and nobody’s doing it consistently, and so then they all want to know like, “How do I change the behavior of others?” It’s actually sort of this ironic thing, I wrote this book as mostly, like I said, everything I write is like a reminder to myself, so I wrote it for individual change, and then it’s mostly oriented around the person reading the book, “Hey, are you interested in making a change? Here’s how to do it.” And then every company is like, “Okay, yeah, yeah, I can change my behavior, but what about these other people, how can they change their behavior?”
BB: Oh my God, is so true, right? We need our people to be braver.
JC: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I am fine, I am brave enough.
BB: That is what they tell me.
JC: But they really could benefit from this. Yeah, yeah. So that’s the question that gets asked a lot, I think what I always come back to, it’s like everybody knows what the answer is, but nobody wants to hear it, I love that phrase, narrow the focus, up the quality, increase the speed. So it’s like every organization needs to narrow their focus, stop doing so much, do less, make sure that you’re very clear about what the priorities are, trim stuff away, increase the quality once you’ve decided on the few things that truly matter, let’s do those to an exceptional degree, let’s try to be the very best we can in a limited number of areas, and then once we are doing great work on a small number of things, let’s increase the speed, let’s ship faster or produce more or whatever, and I think those three things, they’re pretty simple, but they can take you a long way if you take them seriously.
BB: Oh yeah, I think Jim Collins, if you have more than three priorities, you have none, was like a real life changer. It is, narrow the focus. People really don’t…
JC: I love that. I think, it’s Greg McKeown who wrote Essentialism, he’s got that story, in his book about how the word priority was singular, but we have now made it plural.
JC: The word priorities was not a thing, it was just the priority, but now we’ve been like, “Well, there can be five or six or whatever.”
BB: Yeah. Yeah. Our list of 30 priorities.
JC: Right, exactly.
BB: Are as follows. Yeah.
JC: This is just a to-do list. Now, this is not a priority list.
BB: Yes. Yeah. And yes, I get it. And guilty as charged, or as not charged. Okay. You ready for rapid fire?
JC: Let’s do it.
BB: Okay. Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is?
JC: Vulnerability is the acceptance of imperfection.
JC: I guess another way you could say it is, a vulnerability is the willingness to be flexible, if you need things to be a certain way, if you need the story of who you are, what you’re doing to be a certain way, then you’re actually kind of brittle because it can’t be anything else, and so you start doing all this the stuff to hide the other ways that the story could play out, and if you’re willing to be flexible with the story, if you’re okay with it, what I said the first time, vulnerability is the acceptance of imperfection, if you can accept the story to be imperfect, then you are in a position where you can be vulnerable, it doesn’t matter if the story has flaws or messy parts, but if you’re not willing to be flexible, if you can’t accept the imperfection, then it has to be a certain way, and that thus prevents you from being vulnerable.
BB: God that’s so beautiful. And so true. Yeah, the broken-ness doesn’t come from vulnerability, it comes from the brittleness. Yeah, what is something that people often get wrong about you?
JC: Well, first they just think because I wrote a book about habits, I have amazing habits, which definitely is not correct. Like I said, I struggle with all the same stuff. The other funny thing is, not everybody does this, but occasionally after talks or whatever, it basically is like, are you judging other people for their habits is kind of their the… I think people like are worried about talking to me about habits because they think I’m going to be judging them about it, and my response is, “No, I don’t care. I’m not here to judge, I have zero interest in it.” Sometimes people ask my wife that too, like, “Oh, is he like really…” And I’m like “That…. Can you imagine a worse recipe for a happy marriage?” Yeah.
BB: Yeah. No I get that.
JC: Me nagging you about habits all the time, that is terrible. So, I have zero interest in that. I think that’s something that often comes up.
BB: I can see it. What’s one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so remarkable, you should share it with us or so shitty that you need to warn us?
JC: I guess I’ll go draw on the remarkable side, one of the best things that I was told when I was starting out with my career is, try things until something comes easily, and I think there are two parts of that very simple sentence that just they end up proving true for me again and again. The first trying things, life requires trial and error and nobody has all the answers, especially if you’re entrepreneurial or trying a new venture, starting some project that hasn’t been done before, you have to be willing to just try things but then it’s not just trying randomly or trying blindly, it’s also paying attention to what is working, and I think the way that they phrased it to me, try things until something comes easily was good because it doesn’t mean that it’s easy, it just means that it’s easier than the other things you have tried. And I think that that helps reveal where your particular strengths are or what is working in your particular context, because really your strengths or not, it doesn’t mean like, oh, my strength is stuff that like is effortless for me, it’s like in many cases, actually, the thing that is your strength is still very challenging, and still it requires a lot of struggle and effort, but it’s just that you can handle the pain of it better than most people, it comes easier to you than other things may, and so like writing a book, and I feel like it’s like that. Like writing a book is not easy at all for me, but…
BB: Jesus, yeah.
JC: I mean, Brené, you’ve been through this. How many times, six, seven, eight times now? Like so many times you’ve gone through this process again, and each one is brutal in its own way, but you can handle the delayed gratification of it, like writing a book is one of the most delayed gratification things, you spend years researching and writing it and editing and revising it, then you do your promotion and launch, you do all the interviews and everything, all of this happens before you even sell a single copy, you haven’t even got to launch date yet.
BB: That is true.
JC: And then finally, once you get to launch day, then it’s all fun, then you’re just selling a bunch of copies and things are going well and people are telling you how much they’re enjoying it, and then you’re like, “Oh, maybe I should do another one,” because you forget about how painful the three or four years before that were. But anyway, the point that I’m getting to is, try things until something comes easily, I think that encourages you to experiment and encourages you to pay attention to what is working for you, even if it doesn’t feel easy in the moment.
BB: Yeah, and it normalizes that shit’s hard.
JC: Oh yeah, we all want it to be easy, but how could you reasonably expect to have an exceptional result in any field, where you are competing with other people who are also very smart and working hard without it being a great effort on your end as well?
BB: Yeah, I hear that a lot about speaking. Well, it comes really easily to you, no, it doesn’t come easily. I’m very practiced and I put a shit ton of effort into it, and I have had enough failures that I know that I can still get back up. That’s the difference. I think it’s really, it’s interesting. What’s your best leadership quality?
JC: Oh, best? Well, let me give you two or three little things that I believe as a leader. So the first is, I think, to be a good leader, you have to be a good teammate. That’s like the first thing, like leadership is more about being a good team member than it is about, I don’t know, some other thing that puts you above the team. Secondly, I think it’s crucial to never ask people to do something that you would not be willing to do yourself. Now, that doesn’t mean that you are going to do it because as the leader, maybe you don’t have time, or maybe there are different priorities, or your role in the team is something different, but it should be something that you should be willing to do. How ridiculous or unethical, would it be to ask your team to do something that you would not put your own reputation on the line for that kind of action? So I guess we could call that symmetry, there needs to be some balance there, and then probably the third thing I would say is competence.
JC: Like I remember hearing this about a variety of other leaders, some of them athletes, some of them business people, but when you hear stories about people who are very good, they’re very competent, their team trusts them more, because they know that they’re not dealing with somebody who’s out of their depth, and that doesn’t mean that you need to be an expert on everything that’s happening in the business, but it’s a lot easier to gain people’s trust when they feel like they are dealing with someone who has that expertise as well. So I think competence, symmetry, and being a good teammate are probably three crucial things.
BB: What’s the hard leadership lesson that the universe just keeps putting in front of you that you just keep having to work on? I wish y’all could see him grinning.
JC: Do less. Delegate more. That’s probably the… I’m just terrible at delegating and I think every time I learn the lesson, I get to re-learn it whenever we do a new project, because then I’m like, “Oh well, for this project of… I know last time we had to divide it up and that was like, that made sense and that ultimately we got it done, but this time I think I could probably do it,” or the different version of that is also giving myself more time to do things which I just… Books.
BB: Oh God.
JC: When I was writing Atomic Habits, at one point in the process, I told my wife, I was like, “I just need two good weeks, I think that you would be really surprised by how much progress I can make in two weeks,” and I handed the book in like a year and a half later. But I mean, I don’t know, I guess there’s a healthy level of delusion there, to some degree, it’s like you think you can do things and that motivates you to try, but there’s definitely a fair bit of delusion too.
BB: Yeah, and there’s a price for the delusion, a little bit. Yeah. Okay. What’s one thing that you’re really excited about right now, so what’s got you pumped?
JC: Ohio State football. Can I say Ohio State football?
BB: You can. You can.
JC: Yeah. I’m a huge Buckeye fan. So, I just bought this cabin in the woods, and I have been hosting author retreats pre-pandemic, where I would get a group of six or eight authors together and we would hang out for three or four days and talk about writing books and building our businesses and stuff, and it was always a ton of fun, and I haven’t done it for the last year and a half, because of the pandemic and everything. So now I have this space where I’m excited to do that and host everybody and yeah, just kind of start doing those again, so I’m really excited about that. I get almost all of my work, I’m looking at a screen, I’m writing books, I’m sharing something on Instagram or whatever, everything is focused digitally, and this is the one work-related thing that I do that is so in-person and high connection, and it just brings me a lot of joy and meaning, without fail, it’s one of the best weekends of my year, and so yeah, hosting those is something I’m really excited about.
BB: It’s a really different kind of connection, it’s so important. Okay, we asked you for your five songs you can’t live without, so we can make a mini mix tape for Spotify. Let me tell you what you gave us, “Superstition,” by Stevie Wonder. “Road Outside Columbus,” by OAR. “Wagon Wheel,” by Old Crow Medicine Show, it’s so good. “Whatever It Is” by Zac Brown Band and “Headlines,” by Drake. In one sentence, what does this mini mix tape say about you?
JC: I knew you were going to ask this one because you said it before, so I said Ohio boy likes to party. My wife said, definitely do not say that. So that’s what I’m saying. That’s what I’m going with.
BB: It is so good. Ohio boy likes… What… Let me just ask you this, who was it that we interviewed from Ohio that was… Oh, Hanif Abdurraqib.
JC: Oh yeah, Hanif is in Columbus too. Yeah, he lives like, I don’t know, 20 minutes away.
BB: What is the obsession with Ohio for you folks?
JC: I don’t know, it’s great. It’s a great place to call home.
BB: Is it?
JC: Yeah. It is, and I’m proud to be here. I love being here. I mean, whenever I can travel to New York any time or go to LA or whatever. But yeah, yeah, I like it here a lot.
BB: Ohio is home?
JC: Yes, Ohio is home.
BB: Well, thank you so much for this, it was so helpful and you are so much fun to talk to. Let me ask, what’s next? What are you taking on? Are you staying in habits, or are you going somewhere else?
JC: Yeah. So I’m learning that painful leadership lesson of taking on too much. I signed a second book deal, so I’m working on that right now. Who knows how long that will take, [chuckle] but we will see. And I am writing my newsletter each week, and we’re thinking about launching a podcast, so that’ll be an interesting experiment, so yeah, we’ve got all kinds of new things cooking and I’m excited about each of them.
BB: Well, we’re hungry and we’re waiting. We’re here.
JC: That’s great, thank you so much Brené.
BB: Hit us with some stuff. Thank you, James.
BG: I told y’all, what a great conversation, I bet you also have five pages of notes, the concept of motion versus action, James Clear, you don’t know me, I’m pretty sure she said that in the podcast, planning as procrastination is such a thing, boo! Telling ourselves the story we’re making in progress. I can relate to all of that, but I do love creating the systems that spur us to action, it’s up to us to implement those systems though, I know we can do it. Habits are the atoms of our lives, I love that, small and mighty, they’re layered in the systems, and they are the source of immense energy and power. Atomic. You can find James’ book, Atomic Habits, wherever you like to buy books. We’ll also post a link to it in this Dare to Lead episode’s page on brenebrown.com. You can find James online at Jamesclear.com. He’s also on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @James Clear. We will have those links on the episode page as well. Don’t forget that every episode of the Dare to Lead podcast has an episode page on brenebrown.com, you can listen to every episode and learn more with resources, downloads, and transcripts, and you can sign up for our newsletter there too, and it’s a beautiful new website, I hope you guys get to play around on it. Don’t forget to mark your calendar and plan to join us for the Atlas of the Heart live virtual event on Thursday, December 2nd at 8:00 PM Eastern.
BG: Again, we’re partnering with more than 150 independent bookstores within the U.S. and Canada to bring you this virtual event. Brené will be in conversation with Priya Parker on all things, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Tickets include a copy of Atlas of the Heart and access to the event. You can find all the details, including a link to register on this podcast episode page on brenebrown.com. We hope you’ll join us, and as always, everyone can listen to the Dare to Lead podcast on Mondays and the Unlocking Us podcast on Wednesdays, right here for free, only on Spotify. Thanks friends, stay awkward, brave, and kind. See you next week.
BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy productions, sound design by Tristan McNeil. And the music is by The Suffers.
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