The worst distractions are the ones we love: An interview with author and habit coach James Clear

When author, photographer, and weightlifter James Clear first started his blog he had a simple goal: write twice a week, every week, without fail. But what started as a basic project quickly became a more introspective journey.

As he read more about personal change, he started to ask deeper questions, like:

  • How do we commit to life-changing goals?
  • What are the building blocks of healthy habits?
  • Why do we do the things we do, even if we know they’re bad for us?

These are issues that we all face and can feel like were written directly for us. Now, a few years later, close to half a million people receive his weekly newsletter.

James’ writing runs the gamut from how to get the most of your sleep to setting goals, building your focus, and creating better habits.

In this interview, we asked James to apply his unique blend of academic research and personal anecdote to the biggest issues facing the modern worker.

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Read the full interview transcript, including bonus material such as the most important habit James has built in his own life.

Why the worst distractions are the ones we love

There’s no denying that procrastination is one of the biggest issues we all face.

In fact, studies say procrastination affects 95% of the US population (and I’m betting the other 5% probably just put off answering the survey). More than just an annoyance, however, putting off our work can lead to serious amounts of stress and even burnout syndrome if left unchecked.

Yet according to James, it’s not simply goofing off or watching cat videos that leads to procrastination. Instead, most of us simply fall into the trap of doing good things when we could be doing great ones.

“There’s a quote from Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman that says ‘what you see is all there is.’ His point being that when people think they’re being creative or thinking ‘outside the box,’ in reality, your box is defined by what you’ve heard about,” he says.

While it’s important to know as much as possible before you start, real learning comes from experience. From trial and error and trying different methods to see what works best for you.

As James explains, you can read everything you want about waking up earlier—from sleep habits to the Circadian rhythm—but when the alarm goes off, the only thing that matters are the strategies you’ve actually tried.

“The biggest issue around the myth of ‘I need to learn more’ is that somehow learning and doing are mutually exclusive. And they’re not at all. You should certainly be taking in new information and exploring continually. But you also need to be exploiting the information that you already have.

Of course, there’s a tradeoff in this scenario. Whenever you discover something that works—even if it isn’t the best answer—you have to ask “Do I spend my time doing this? Or do I search for a better solution?”

That’s where James says the 80/20 balance comes into play:

“If you’re looking for a rule, it’s generally accepted that you should spend about 80% of your time exploiting the knowledge you already have and about 20% exploring new things and looking for a better mousetrap, so to speak.”

How your identity is the key to unlocking motivation

The second piece of the procrastination puzzle is that we often feel out of gas before we even start.

“A lot of the time people will also say, ‘Oh, if I could just get motivated then change would be easy.’ But what you find is that motivation often comes after starting, not before,” he explains.

Motivation is a tricky beast. But to find what truly motivates us day-in, day-out, James says we need to look at our drive as the layers of an onion.

First, there’s the outermost layer: The results we want. This could be losing ten pounds or making 6 figures.

Then, there’s the middle layer: The specific actions we’re going to take to get those results. So, to lose ten pounds we decide to go to the gym 5 days a week, or to make more money we pitch 5 new clients a day.

The problem is, most people stop here.

“I think there’s actually one layer deeper—the core of behavior change. And that’s your identity,” explains James.

“Who is the type of person you want to become? Who is the person that’s already achieving the results you want for yourself?”

For example, the type of person who loses ten pounds is probably someone who doesn’t miss workouts. That’s just part of their identity. They see themselves as someone who exercises consistently. And going to the gym is just part of their being.

Thinking about your identity doesn’t just give you a mental image of the person you want to become. It changes the entire conversation around your habits and actions.

“When the conversation is just about results and outcomes, you end up making these ‘just this once’ exceptions or cheat a little bit just to get the results.”

“But when the conversation is about your identity, then it becomes less about the timeline and when you get the result, and more about ‘am I being the type of person I want to be today?’”

So, how do we build this mental picture of ourselves? James says it happens through doing.

Every action you take becomes a “vote” for the type of person you want to become. So for example, if you study Spanish every Tuesday night for 20 minutes, every session is a little vote for being a ‘studious’ person.

“You end up viewing your habits as evidence for the type of person you want to become.”

Rather than chasing an outcome or a goal and potentially failing, you always have in the back of your mind the type of person you want to become. Whatever results come, will come. But you’ll still be closer to your values and principles.

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The 2 secrets to focusing on the right work and blocking out distractions

While much of this relates to personal goals and habit building, where many of us come up against real issues is in the workplace.

With less control over our time, conflicting responsibilities, and unclear goals, it’s easy to lose motivation, focus, and willpower. When we talk to people in larger organizations, time and time again we hear one of the biggest issues workers face is not knowing what work is most important and being able to focus on it.

It’s like the old saying goes:

“The worst thing is to succeed at the wrong thing.” Click To Tweet

To combat this, James suggests two simple exercises: Forced elimination and forced ranking.

Forced elimination: Warren Buffett’s 2 List Rule

With multiple bosses, shifting deadline, and ambiguous priorities, it’s easy to get lost. However, having a clear vision of what goals are most important to your career (and what’s getting in the way), is a deceivingly easy way to find clarity.

That’s where forced elimination comes in.

James recalls a great story from Warren Buffett’s personal pilot, Mike Flint, who asked the billionaire investor how to prioritize his career goals. To which, Buffett gave him a simple 3-step exercise to follow:

  • Step 1: Buffett started by asking Flint to write down his top 25 career goals. (You could also complete this exercise with goals for a shorter timeline, like the top 25 things you want to accomplish this week.)
  • Step 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. (If you’re doing this at home, finish this before moving on.)
  • Step 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.

Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list.

“Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second,” responded Flint. “They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”

To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

While this exercise is great at clarifying your goals, James says it also hides an inconvenient truth about distraction.

“What’s most likely to distract us on any given day are the things we have a good reason for doing but not a great reason for doing.”

“It’s really number 8 on your list that’s the real danger,” says James.

“Most effective people aren’t sitting around browsing YouTube all day. We’re busy. People are getting things done. But are you working on the great uses of your time and not the good uses of your time? And that’s a very different and a much more difficult sacrifice to make. To prune away the things that could be good, but you just need to make room for the few things that could be great.”

Forced ranking: The Ivy Lee Method

When it comes down to how you’ll actually succeed at those goals, there’s another simple exercise you can use that James picked up after reading about productivity expert Ivy Lee:

  • At the end of each day, take the top 6 things you want to get done tomorrow and then put them in order of their true importance
  • The next day, you only work on the first item until it’s complete. Then the second. And so on.
  • Anything that is left over at the end of the day goes on the list for the following day
  • If it turns out that something you didn’t do that day wasn’t important, you can eliminate it and take it off the list

“What’s interesting about this is not necessarily the 6 items, or that you can only work on it until it’s complete. It’s that the simplest version of this is that you do the most important thing first each day. If you actually did that, you would never have an unproductive day.”

“It’s also powerful because it doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to make a decision. At some point you have to choose what to work on and forcing yourself to rank them forces you to get started,” he says.

Reduce the scope and stick to the schedule

While prioritizing and focusing on the right work is important, finishing that work is something so many of us struggle with.

We hit 80-90% and freeze. There’s a fear of finishing. Of saying something is “done” and then putting it out in the world—whether that’s to your audience, colleagues, or clients.

“I struggle with perfectionism myself and can be very self-critical of my own work.

“The little mantra I try to keep in mind is ‘Reduce the scope but stick to the schedule.’”

What James means by this, is that in most cases, it’s more important to hit a deadline and be realistic about what can be done in that time, than to nail every single goal, feature, or point you set out to.

“For the first 3 years I wrote a new article every Monday and Thursday. And if I could only write 3 good paragraphs that’s all I would write. So I reduced the scope a bit. It wouldn’t be 3000 words and the most comprehensive article, but it would be 3 good paragraphs and I would stick to the schedule.

“So, if I was going to sacrifice, I would sacrifice scope rather than quality or deadline.”

How we can use our body’s natural energy flow to lock in good behaviors

We’re terribly bad predictors of our future selves. Which is why James says it’s important to use moments of high motivation to the fullest.

“Motivation rises and falls through the day. (You can actually track this in the brain seeing when we get dopamine spikes).

“The key here is to take advantage of motivation when it’s high and lock in good behaviors or do something that makes future behaviors easier so you’re more likely to follow through with them.”

As an example, James has his assistant change the passwords to all his social accounts on Sunday evening, effectively locking him into a productive work week. Because, as he puts it, “some time on Monday afternoon, my motivation is going to be back in the trough and I’m going to feel like scanning.”

By locking in his intentions while his motivation is high, he protects himself from these bad habits.

There’s lots of other examples of this strategy at work like doing meal prep on Sunday nights so there’s no question what you’ll be eating when energy levels are low. Or this crazy productivity story James shares about Les Miserables author Victor Hugo:

“Victor was notorious for putting off work to go out. And so he had his valet put all his clothes in a locked chest and leave him with just a big shawl and robe. This way, he couldn’t go out of the house and socialize. I think he did this for something like 3 months.”

Why there are only 7-8 minutes a day you need to master to be truly productive

The key point here is that there are choices we make that have far-reaching effects on how we spend our time.

According to James, studies show that 40-50% of our daily behaviors are habits. Which is pretty significant in itself. But what’s more important, he says, is how those behaviors dictate the rest of your time.

“What most people don’t realize is that those habits often set the menu for the next hour or two, and seriously influence the conscious decisions you make.”

For example, take the simple habit of pulling your phone out of your pocket. Most of us will do this mindlessly dozens, if not hundreds of times per day. But that habit is “a fork in the road”:

“By taking that path, you’re setting up the options you’ll see: the social media icons, email notifications, or a game you’re playing. Those options are already set. So, your simple habit of opening your phone changes your conscious decisions from something like ‘should I write or go for a walk?’ to ‘should I check email or social media?’”

James calls this “the decisive moment”: The key points throughout the day where your choices affect how you’ll spend the remaining time.

Think about your actions first thing in the morning: Should I start work or should I check my phone?

Or at the end of the day: Should I make dinner or should I go to the gym?

The choice you make dictates your options for the next few hours.

“If you break your day out there’s really just 7 or 8 minutes where, if you could just master those moments, then you’d be guaranteed to have a really good day.”


James’ blog is a fantastic resource on how to build healthy habits and change your behaviors that I definitely recommend checking out.

You can read the full transcript of our interview, which includes bonus material such as the most important habit James has built and how he schedules his day to fight distractions.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.