The Rich Roll Podcast – James Clear on Why Habits Are The Compound Interest of Self-Improvement

Key Takeaways

  • Your habits are the way you embody a a particular identity
    • “Every action you take, is a vote for the type of person you think you are”
  • It’s really hard to stick to a habit, if it goes against the grain of the people around you – choose your social environment carefully
  • Whatever habit you’re trying to build, scale it down – “A habit has to be established, before it can be improved”
    • If you want to start flossing your teeth, start by just flossing one tooth a day
  • The best way to break a bad habit…
    • Make the cue invisible: To avoid eating sweets – make sure they’re not in the house
  • Never miss twice 
    • If you slip up on a good habit (like cheating on a diet), get back on track as quickly as possible
    • “Missing once is a mistake. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”
  • Find a way to get 1% better every day – good habits compound over time
  • Ask yourself – “Where’s an area, where I can handle the pain of the work better than the people around me?”
    • The area where you are more well equipped to suffer, is the work you were made to do


  • Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement
  • “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you believe you are”
    • As you take these actions, you build up evidence of a particular identity
  • James Clear (@JamesClear) is the author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones
    • Check out his website
    • James has a great newsletter
    • The book is a deep dive into evidence based self-improvement strategies, which focus on the transformative power of making small changes, and how to make them
  • “You’re far more likely to act yourself into feeling, than feel yourself into action” – Rich
    • Mood follows action

What’s a habit?

  • A behavior repeated enough times to be performed more or less automatically
  • Habits serve as automatic solutions for problems we routinely are exposed to – it’s a way of solving a recurring problem
    • It’s important to know, that your original habit used to solve a certain problem, might not be the optimal one
      • For example:
        • Someone might come home from work every day exhausted and drained (problem)
        • Person A Habit/Solution – go on a run
        • Person B Habit/Solution – smoke a cigarette and play video games
  • Any of the results in your life, are a lagging measure of your habits
    • Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habit
    • The amount of money you have is a lagging measure of your spending habits
  • Your habits are the way you embody a a particular identity
    • By making your bed, you embody the identity of an organized person
    • By going to the gym, you embody the identity of someone who is fit/healthy
    • “Every action you take, is a vote for the type of person you think you are”
    • Beliefs and behaviors, are a two way street


  • Every behavior is driven by a desire for a change in state
    • “When you smoke a cigarette, eat a bag of Doritos, or pick up your phone, what you really want is not the nicotine, or the calories, or the likes on social media – what you want is to feel less anxious, to feel approved of, or to not be bored”
    • “You didn’t come out of the womb with a desire to check Instagram” – it’s just a modern manifestation of an ancient desire to gain respect/approval, or not be abandoned by your tribe

The 4 Stages That Any Habit Goes Through

  • Cue -> Craving -> Response -> Reward
    • Cue – Raw data, that gets your attention
    • Craving – Interpreting the data
    • Response – You’re motivated to act
    • Reward – Somehow the behavior does, or does not benefit you
      • All repeated behaviors serve us in some way

Great Tips to Break Bad Habits, and Build Good Habits

  • Take the long term consequences of your bad habit, and pull it into the present moment
    • Like the weight you will gain, from continually eating bad food
  • Take the long term rewards of your good habits, and pull them into the present moment
    • Like a good body, that develops over time through exercise
  • “Humans are not wired to prefer long term reward, over immediate gratification” – Rich
    • This is why habit change, is so difficult
    • It’s not like everyone who’s smoking, doesn’t know it’s bad for them
  • “Good habits serve you in the long term, bad habits do not, even if they serve you in the moment”
  • In order to change behavior, you need to be aware of it first
  • Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis
    • Stop worrying about what protein powder you need, what running shoes to get etc. – JUST WORK OUT
  • True behavior change, is really identity change
    • Make a decision about the person you want to be, and then start constructing your life in a way that reinforces your identity
  • “Every great achievement is about small habits” – Rich
    • Big achievements are about the tiny, non-sexy things, done day in and day out, for very long periods of time

The Laws of Behavior Change

  • For adopting a good habit
    • Make the cue obvious 
    • Make the craving attractive 
    • Make the response easy 
    • Make the reward satisfying 
  • For breaking a good habit
    • Make the cue invisible (aka reduce exposure)
    • Make the craving unattractive 
    • Make the response difficult
    • Make the reward unsatisfying
  • Make the Cue Obvious (or invisible to break a bad habit) by Environment Design
    • Structure you environment to make the cues for your good habits obvious, and the cues for your bad habits invisible
      • Example – To floss more, make the floss easily visible
      • Make your environment conducive to the healthy choice
    • Remove unhealthy choices from arms reach, so they become more difficult to access
      • If you buy a 6 pack of beer – put it in the back of the fridge so you don’t see it as easily
  • Make the Craving Attractive (or unattractive for a bad habit)
    • In many cases, the behaviors that are motivating to us, are dependent on the people we’re around
      • We’re all part of certain “tribes” (a neighbor, our country, or our gym community etc.) which have shared expectations for what it means to be part of the group.
      • Habits that align with the shared expectations of the tribe are attractive; habits that go against the grain of shared expectation are unattractive
      • So join a group, where your desired behavior is the normal behavior of the group
    • “In many ways, asking people to change their habits, is asking them to change their tribe’
    • A cool thought
      • Perhaps soon we’ll incorporate AR into Facebook groups so you can throw on a pair of glasses, and then suddenly you’ll be in the same room as 10 other people trying to build the same habit as you
  • Make the Response Easy (or difficult to break a bad habit)
    • Many of our behaviors are just about convenience
    • The average adult checks their phone >150 times each day
      • So James, every day, leaves his phone in a different room from his home office, so it’s not next to him while he’s working
      • “So many of the behaviors, and technologies, are so frictionless and convenient, that we find ourselves doing them with just an inkling of desire – we don’t actually really want them, but they’re so easy, we’ll fill space with them”
    • Create a setup where it’s easy to do the things that pay off in the long run
      • Reduce the tension wherever you can
      • Don’t “rise and grind”/hustle/grind etc. – Instead, just remove the things in your of getting your work done – Make it easy
    • Prime your environment to make the default action easier
    • You can also take actions now, that pay off in the future
      • Say you’re trying to build a better sleep habit, do these 1 time actions that will make it easier to get better sleep for the rest of your life
        • Purchase blackout curtains
        • Buy earplugs – Tim Ferriss recommends these
        • Get a sleep mask – Tim Ferriss recommends this one
          • We like the Manta. It’s truly black out & has cooling rings for your eyes. 15% Off with PODCASTNOTES15
        • Find the right mattress
        • Buy a Chilipad  (Use code PodcastNotes25 for 25% off a ChiliPad or PodcastNotes15 for 15% off an Ooler)
        • Cover all LEDs in the room
        • Get an outlet timer (plug your internet router into it, and set it for your bedtime every night)
    • Scale a habit down
      • Whatever habit you’re trying to build, scale it down to the first 2 minutes
        • If you want to go to the gym more – go to the gym, but stay for only 5 minutes
        • If you want to start flossing – start by flossing only 1 tooth
        • If you want to read for an hour a day – start by reading for 5 minutes a day
      • “A habit has to be established, before it can be improved”
        • “You have to standardize, before you optimize”
        • Make it as easy as possible to get started
      • Optimize the starting line, not the finish line
      • People tend to overestimate what can be done in a day, but underestimate what can be done in 6 months
  • Make the Reward Satisfying (or unsatisfying when trying to break a bad habit)
    • Make it immediately satisfying
      • “Behaviors that are immediately rewarded get repeated. Behaviors that are immediately punished get avoided.” – James calls this The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Changes
    • The ultimate manifestation of this, is the reinforcement of your desired identity
    • To build good habits, it’s really important to find a way to feel good/successful, as soon as you finish

More on Behavior Changes

  • The most effective place to break a bad habit, is at the 1st (make the cue invisible) and 3rd laws (make the response difficult)
    • Make it invisible
      • To avoid eating sweets – make sure they’re not in the house
      • If you want to spend less money on electronics – don’t follow tech blogs
      • If you want to lose weight – don’t follow food bloggers on Instagram
    • Make it difficult 
      • If you can increase the friction enough, you won’t follow through
  • For building a good habit, all 4 laws are effective, but law 4 (make it satisfying) is probably most important
    • “If you have some kind of immediate positive feedback, then you have a reason to repeat it”
    • Finding small ways to feel satisfied in the moment, gives you a way to repeat the habit in the future

Habits and Momentum

  • “Missing once is a mistake. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”
    • If you’re following a diet, but slip up on Saturday – don’t slip up again on Sunday
    • Never miss twice


  • “Goals are useful for setting a sense of direction, but once you know what direction you’re moving in, put the goal on the shelf. Instead, focus on the system, process, and habits.”
  • “Goals are necessary, but not sufficient”
  • A big problems with goals
    • The winners and losers in a particular domain, often have the same goals
      • If they all have the same goals, then by definition, the goal can’t be the thing that makes the difference
  • All we see on social media is the outcome/highlights – not the process

What can we takeaway from all this?

  • The Mindset Shift
    • Find a way to get 1% better every day
      • Habits on a daily basis, are easy to over look
      • But habits compound over time – the full impact of the 1% improvements is seen over years, not days
  • Apply the 2 minute rule
    • Think about whatever habit you’re trying to build, and scale it down to just the first 2 minutes of the behavior, the thing you can do to initiate it
    • “Even when you know you should start small, it’s still really easy to start to big”


  • “In a sense, every article I’ve every written, and this book, is just a reminder to myself”
    • “We write the book we need ourselves”
  • Check out the documentary Free Solo
  • If you want to wake up earlier….
    • Create an automated tweet every day that goes out at the time you want to wake up saying – “I’ll Venmo the first 5 people who respond to this tweet”
    • You better wake up and delete it…
  • In Russia, if you do 30 squats, you get a free train ticket
  • Check out an article James wrote – Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds
  • You don’t have to be an athlete to have a coach
    • Find someone who’s where you want to be, and have them critique what you’re up to
    • This is a really powerful way, to assess your habits from a third person POV
  • Ask yourself – “Where’s an area, where I can handle the pain of the work better than the people around me”
    • The area where you are more well equipped to suffer, is the work you were made to do
Rich Roll Podcast : , ,
Notes By MMiller

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