Earlier this week, we announced the second recipient of our Give It All award: James Clear.
We interviewed James to learn more about what drives him, how he’s achieved his big goals, and how you too can invoke a Give It All spirit to achieve yours. Here are his answers.
Joltin’ Joe: In your own words, what do you do?
James Clear: The short version is, I help people build habits that stick. If you want a more specific discussion about what I spend my time on and how I create things, every Monday and Thursday, I write a new article or share a new story about how to build habits that stick and how to use science-based ideas to make practical positive changes in our life. I try to do a good job of not only telling stories through the words that I write and the people that I talk about, but also through the photos that I create. I’ve done travel photography work in about 23 countries now.
My hope is that I can bring those stories to life a little bit and share a practical lesson or insight that the people before us have already figured out or have already learned about life, about habit formation, about small improvement and consistent gains, and about this battle that we all fight each day to become 1% better or 1% worse and how we can use that information to hopefully fall on that 1% better side.
You do this through your email and your website, and you have a great habit product as well. You look for digital products and information to empower your community, correct?
Yeah, I’m a digital entrepreneur. I’ve been an entrepreneur for over 4 years now and so the lifeblood of my business is the email list. I get about 400,000 visitors per month now who read the articles and about 110,000-120,000 receive the email newsletter every week. That’s the format of the medium that I reach people in, and it’s working out well so far.
What does the “Give It All” mindset/way of life mean to you?
For me, the mindset of giving it all is really about this commitment to consistency and process and doing the work rather than getting caught up in any one result. I think that so many times, we can become focused on an individual, an individual outcome, a particular result that we’re seeking, and the only way to achieve that is to fall in love with the process, fall in love with the boredom of doing the work. This idea of giving it all is something that I fell like, on my good days at least, I wake up and fall into the work. It’s something that pulls me out of bed. It’s something that forces me to spend the extra minute or the extra hour working on the task so that I can try to create something that’s a work of art.
There are people in all facets of life who make each day a work of art by the way that they do their job, by the way that they perform their craft. When I think about people who give it their all, that’s what I think about: the people who are looking to create a masterpiece rather than get a particular result or make a million dollars or become famous for X/Y/Z reason. People who are trying to create something that stands the test of time. That’s what, I would say, the “Give It All” mindset means to me.
You can look at anything. You can look at swinging a baseball bat, right, and the more that you do it, if it’s something that you do everyday, you can question its worth, you could question the value it provides to the world, but then what really is the truth of it is that you can make that act a thing of beauty. I mean, Joe DiMaggio did that. You can look at anyone’s approach to their craft and you can turn your craft into a thing of beauty by the way that you do it. That, I think, summarizes this idea of mastery and giving your all and developing your skill set so that you can create something valuable no matter what the task is.
How have you Given It All in your own life? Where did it lead you?
Well, I like to think, at least, that I have a long way to go. I think that there’s still a lot that I have to learn and a lot of areas where I can develop and improve. I guess I’ll point out two areas right now where I feel like I did a decent job.
The first was in college, actually. I played baseball all the way through college. I ended up being an academic all-American my senior year. That experience was really big for me. Not just from a baseball and athletic standpoint, but from a personal development and leadership standpoint, to learn what it means to be a part of something that’s bigger than yourself. I was the team captain my junior and senior year, and so to be tasked with leading a group toward a similar goal — to discover what it meant to be a good leader and that usually doesn’t mean making it about yourself — all of those lessons that I was able to stumble into about leadership and life and performance were transformative for me, but the biggest thing that I took away from it was the power of having a shared vision with people that you care about, people that you love surrounding you.
That was a time when I would say I definitely gave it my all. I remember saying my senior year, “Just tell me what you need me to do. Just tell me what my job is, what my role is for the team, and I will do that. It doesn’t matter what I’m asked; I’ll find a way to make that task happen.” I think, from a team aspect, that’s really what giving it your all is about, is being able to dedicate yourself to the role that you have been given within the context of the team and embracing that so that you can play your part and everybody else can play theirs and you don’t have these conflicting personalities fighting one another.
I would say the second area has been my writing and work on jamesclear.com. I care a lot about the articles that I put out and I feel a responsibility to the readers. We have a community of 110,000-120,000 people now, and it’s my responsibility to deliver something useful to them every Monday or Thursday. When I miss the mark — and I will miss the mark occasionally — I feel bad about that. Sometimes I’m sitting there and I wish they could know, reading this, how good I wanted it to be and I feel bad that it wasn’t that way.
I think that that’s important because good leaders are not people someone follows because of, I don’t know, the ego that they have or the fear that they instill or the awesomeness that they are able to display to you. I think good leaders are people that you respect and that you care about and that you connect with on some level, and you see a bit of yourself in them. I can guarantee you that we are all going through this journey together and that I am working on things and failing on things and making mistakes just like everybody else. I think that I’m trying to pour myself into that work, and hopefully that shows up on the good days.
What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
Oh, man. I don’t know. There are different accomplishments in different areas. When it comes to entrepreneurship, I suppose I will say building an audience of over 100,000 people in less than 2 years from scratch. To the best of my knowledge, jamesclear.com is the fastest growing single author blog on the Internet. There are some sites that have grown faster, that have a team of employees, or that have multiple people writing for them. Whether it’s the fastest or second-fastest or whatever, it doesn’t matter too much, but I think the idea that I’ve been able to share a message that people resonate with and find useful enough to share with the people that they love, their family and friends — that’s probably the thing that I’m most proud of.
What drives you to keep Giving It All day in and day out, even when things get tough, you have big barriers to overcome, you get tired, etc.?
A lot of it is internal motivation. Some of it is just who I am or the way that I was raised. My parents did a great job of that. All these qualities that we’re talking about now, I saw exemplified in my grandparents and my mother and father, so having good role models was a big part of instilling that in me.
The readers keep me going a lot of the time. It can just be an email here or there. Now, I get a lot of emails everyday, but in the beginning, maybe I would get one email a week from someone and that one email would be enough. They always come at the time when you need it most. I would say that that’s been a big driver as well.
What advice would you give to others looking to adopt the Give It All attitude/mindset in their lives?
I think the first thing is choose who you want to be. Decide what kind of person you would like to be. What do you want to work on? What do you want to become good at? Nearly any task can be mastered given enough time and enough consistency. You have to be the one who makes the choice on what that task will be. So often, we find ourselves flitting around from one idea to another and not making progress, simply because we haven’t committed. Commitment is the key. It’s like step 0.
Once you’ve decided what you want to become and who you want to be, then the task is relatively simple. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s simple. It’s clear. You’ve chosen a task. Now figure out what the steps are to become an expert at that task. Usually, it’s not that hard to figure those steps out.
Take writing, for example. This is something that I thought about a lot. It’s like, okay, how do I become a pro at writing? Well, first, you have to write consistently. For me, I set my schedule: every Monday and every Thursday, I’m going to publish a new article. Then the second thing is not only do you have to write consistently, but you have to be able to sustain that pace over very long periods of time. You have to pick a pace that you can stick with for good. I think it takes some experimentation. For me, I tried writing 5 days a week for a while and I burned out. Monday/Thursday is a pace that I can stick to over a long period of time. You’ll learn about yourself through the process, but that’s one major lesson: develop a pace that you can sustain and do the work consistently.
Another example could be athletics or weightlifting. For me, I train in the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I know that if I show up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, there’s going to be some days when I put up a decent number. But if I only went to the gym and worked out whenever I felt good, or whenever I had great energy, or whenever I thought I could set a personal record, I wouldn’t train enough to be consistent and develop strength.
I think that regardless of what the task is, this idea of doing the work and doing it consistently and setting a schedule for yourself is probably the most essential component. Ira Glass, this radio producer and host of This American Life, he said that in the beginning, the disconnect — the thing that makes it so hard for people — is that your taste is good. You understand what great work looks like in your field. You know what excellence is. You can see it. You can watch it on TV. You can read about it. You can listen to it. You understand what greatness looks like. But your taste and your skill set do not match up in the beginning. Sometimes that can take years. For him, he said it took 17 years before he was actually producing something that matched his taste.
That’s what a lot of people don’t understand — there’s this period of silence, this 10-15 years of work that is required to master your craft. The only way to get there is to start working on it. The only way to get closer to those 10 years now is to start working on year 1 immediately. I would say that those are the steps, for me: choose who you want to be, commit to something consistently, and then understand and have the mindset that this is a long game and be ready to run that course as long as you need to.
How can you apply a Give It All mindset to habit formation?
I think that if you can do this in a really great way, it can lead to a lot of success. It’s a slightly different application than the way that most people would think about it.
Let’s take a goal, to provide an example. Weight loss is probably the most popular fitness goal or health goal, so let’s say you want to lose 20 lbs. over the next 6 months. Now, if you take the typical “give it your all” mindset, the way that most people would apply it, they would say, “All right, I want to lose 20 lbs. in 6 months. I have to bust my butt. I’ve got to get in the gym and work out for 45 minutes straight. I need to make sure I’m working out 5 days a week.” They’re really going try to go all out.
I would say what you should actually do is not give it your all to the intensity or the result or the performance. Give it your all to the behavior and the consistency. What I mean is, the only way to achieve a goal like that is to make sure that you become the type of person that doesn’t miss workouts. The only way to get a new result is to develop a new identity, to become someone who embraces a new type of lifestyle. Give it your all to the new identity of the person that you want to become, rather than the result that you want to achieve, and trust that that result will come as a byproduct of having that identity, of having that new lifestyle, rather than getting caught up in the life-changing result.
To give you another example of this, I have a reader who lost over 100 lbs. over the course of a year or two. When he started adding exercise into his routine, he told himself, “I’m not allowed to stay at the gym for more than 5 minutes.” He would go to the gym 5 days a week. He’d go for 5 minutes. When it got to 6 minutes, he would leave. He did this for 4-6 weeks. At some point, he looked around and was like, “I’m coming here all the time. I kind of feel like staying longer, which is the exact opposite of how most people would approach it. Most people would go to the gym for the first week and stay for an hour and half for 5 days, and get all burned out and never build a behavior because they were so focused on the result.
Instead, build a behavior into your lifestyle — become the type of person who does that, who doesn’t miss workouts, and then you can escalate and improve from there. It’s this basic idea of setting an upper bound for yourself rather than a lower bound. In almost all of our goals, we set some kind of lower limit: I want to lose at least 20 lbs. I want to write at least 500 words. I want to make at least 6 figures this year. The implied notion is if you can do more than that, great. Go ahead and do more than that.
I think that it’s actually much more useful in the beginning to set an upper bound and say, “I’m going to write 100 words today, but I’m not going to write more than that” or, “I’m going to do 5 pushups, but I’m not going to do more than that,” and allow yourself to get into this habit of doing something easy and doing something consistent — and then you can escalate and improve once it becomes part of your life.
Could you explain the concept of the “upper bound” and “lower bound” a bit more?
Sure. Setting a lower bound or a lower limit for your goals is saying something like, “I want to do at least this much”; “I want to write at least 500 words”; “I want to lose at least 20 lbs.”; “I want to make at least 6 figures.”; “I want to go on at least 3 dates this month.” Whatever it is. There’s some minimum that you want to hit. This is usually how we approach goals; we set some type of milestone for ourselves and want to get to at least that number.
I’m saying, in the beginning, it can often be much more useful to set an upper bound for yourself, something that seems easy. Something that you know that you can attain and do consistently, and allow yourself to have easy days in the beginning so that you can build a consistency and focus on doing the behavior. It forces you to realize that doing the behavior each day is the most important thing. Committing to the habit and maintaining that streak is the most important thing in the beginning, because if you don’t develop the habit, then you’re never going to have the opportunity to improve the intensity or increase the performance down the road.
Setting an upper bound is saying, “I’m going to go to the gym, but I can’t work out for more than 5 minutes” or “I’m going to make 5 sales calls today, but I’m not allowed to make 6.” By allowing yourself to develop this pattern of doing the behavior consistently, you provide the opportunity later for more growth because you’re becoming the type of person who actually does this thing rather than the type of person who tries to dive into the deep end and then jumps right back out.