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249: How to Implement Better Habits for Work and Life With James Clear

Posted by Austin Brawner on April 28, 2020

The daily habits you or your team have can either hinder your growth or facilitate it. But what should we focus on to build good habits while breaking the bad ones?  

Our guest is James Clear, New York Times bestselling author of Atomic Habits and writer on the James Clear Blog. 

James has spent years researching, writing and talking about the topic of habits. He’ll share his insights on what you can do to grow your business, market better, and rethink your habits.

If you want to create a better system of habits that will improve yourself and your business, this is an episode you’ll want to tune into!

Episode Highlights: 

  • 4:58 Why we struggle to develop and maintain the good habits
  • 8:14 The principles of habits are the same in various areas of life and work but applied uniquely.
  • 10:15 Three big ideas Atomic Habits centers around
  • 16:22 What to ask to reinforce your desired identity as an individual or as a company.
  • 18:35 Changing environments can be framed as a positive time to form habits
  • 21:23 The personal changes James has made during the Coronavirus pandemic to foster better habits
  • 25:10 What to focus on first to help your businesses grow
  • 28:56 The transition James made from being a blogger to a business owner and how experimentation made it clear what he was actually trying to build
  • 33:20 Three things that make a product remarkable enough to buy
  • 38:40 Marketing a product to elicit someone’s desire to make the purchase
  • 42:14 The habits James no longer values 
  • 44:59 Small town influence on James’ family values and love for exploration and travel

Links and Resources: 

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Transcript

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Austin Brawner: What's up, everybody? Welcome back to another episode of the Ecommerce Influence Podcast. My name is Austin Brawner.

Andrew Foxwell: And I'm Andrew Foxwell. Man, I am just super excited, honestly, as we always say, to have James Clear on the podcast today. I love this guy.

Austin Brawner: Yeah, man. It's somebody who we wanted to have on the podcast for quite some time. And I will say that we just wrapped up this interview, and we're recording the introduction here. It did not disappoint. I am really, really excited about this episode and some of the things we got to cover with James.

For those of you who don't know who James Clear is, he wrote the book Atomic Habits, and also runs the blog, James Clear blog, which is more than a blog.

It's really just a collection of incredible articles about living and habits. And yeah, man. It was a really incredible interview.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah. I mean, I would say there's two books that have really changed my life in the last five years, Essentialism and Atomic Habits. So, we go into in this episode his thoughts on what you can do for your business to grow it, how you can market better, how you can start to rethink your habits, how you can start to get rid of bad habits, what the process of getting better looks like, building better systems. We'll really cover a lot of stuff here in the next 40 minutes.

And yeah, I'm really proud of it. I think that he is someone that can speak to anyone, really no matter where, what industry you're in. So, if you put on the episodes of the Ecommerce Influence in the car and sometimes your family is like, "Hey, we're sick listening to the Ecommerce Influence about eCommerce only." This is the one to share with them because it's not necessarily on the eCommerce.

Austin Brawner: You tell your family like, "Listen, you need to know more about Facebook ads if you're going to… that's how you pay your rent."

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. You need to know about it.

Austin Brawner: But no. Anyway, it's just also very well-spoken, dude. So, thank you for James, to join the show, and let's bring him in here.

Andrew Foxwell: All right. Well, James Clear, New York Times bestselling author, a former college baseball star, noted public speaker, email newsletter guru. I mean, what else can we say? Welcome to the show, man. We're so glad to have you.

James Clear: You're too generous. Thank you. Yeah, good to talk to you.

Andrew Foxwell: It's a huge honor to have you on the show, to be honest with you, because Austin and I both read your book, and we called each other immediately after reading it and talking about the things we were going to implement in our businesses right away.

Let's just start really simply by asking, why do so many of us find it difficult to develop and maintain habits that clearly improve our lives?

James Clear: Yeah, interesting question. I think maybe another way to frame it is like, what is the difference between a good habit and a bad habit, and why do we so readily slide into bad behaviors or unproductive behaviors, and find it so difficult, as you've mentioned, to build good ones? And I like to distinguish between the two by thinking about behaviors producing multiple outcomes across time.

So, broadly speaking, there's an immediate outcome or a near-term outcome. And then, there's an ultimate outcome. And what you find is for a lot of bad habits, the immediate outcome is actually pretty favorable. The immediate outcome of eating a doughnut is great. It's sweet, sugary, tasty. It's enjoyable. It's only the ultimate outcome if you keep eating doughnuts for a year or two years or whatever, that's unfavorable.

Or take it like smoking for example. The immediate outcome might be that you get to socialize with a coworker or that you take a break from work, or you curb your nicotine craving, reduce stress or something. So, the immediate outcome might be favored, it's only the ultimate long-term outcome that's unfavorable. With good habits though, it's often the reverse. What is the immediate outcome of going to the gym for a week? Not a whole lot.

Your body looks the same. The scale hasn't really changed. If anything, you're maybe sore. So, it's only the ultimate outcome of going for a year or two years that's beneficial. So, the way that I like to summarize that is the cost of your good habits is in the present, the cost of your bad habits is in the future. And when you're building bad habits, it's almost like you're accruing a debt that needs to be repaid at some point.

And when you're building good habits, it's almost like you're building up a credit that you get to redeem in the future. And so, the process of building good ones and breaking bad ones, it often comes down to that misalignment and trying to find ways to make habits more enjoyable or easier to do, or more frictionless in the moment so that you have a reason to stick with it, and trying to find ways to pull those long-term consequences or costs of your bad habits into the present so you have a reason to avoid it.

So, I feel like that's probably one of the central reasons why people struggle to build good routines and make routines last.

Austin Brawner: So, since you launched Atomic Habits, obviously, it took off. And before that, your blog had been thriving. But Atomic Habits has been a very, very successful book, and I've watched you over the last year travel around different interview circuits and travel all over the world. There's interviews with you on YouTube, in London, in Europe, in New York. As you've been going around and you've been interviewing with all these people and talking about it, what are the questions that just you are sick of answering after a year of talking about Habits?

James Clear:
Yeah, it's funny. It's been a really wild year. I think I went to 14 countries in six months or something. It's just like almost every continent… it's great. I mean, it's been a wonderful thing. I feel very fortunate. But also, of course, it's tiring in its own way or just, yeah, it's been a crazy experience. I hope that I don't have another travel a year like that, although, it was very fun to do one time. To be perfectly honest, I don't really have any questions that I really hate.

The thing that's nice about Habits is that it's one level up from everything everybody is implementing. So, for example, if I'm on a health and fitness podcast, like I just did a podcast with some power lifters a couple weeks ago, and that's a whole different area for me to talk about how to apply the concepts. And then, I come in and talk to you guys about eCommerce or marketing, or something, and that gives me a business lens to look at it.

And then, I did an interview with Sam Harris about meditation habits. And so, my point is the principles are the same but the applications are fun and unique, and different each time. And so, it actually really helps me a lot because I've done over 200 interviews now about the book. It helps keep it fresh for me. So now, I took a little break.

I'm doing some interviews now but I hadn't done any for the last three months, so I don't feel as fatigued by maybe if you would hit me six months after the book could come out and that was all that I had been doing for six months, then I might have a more poignant answer. But right now, I'm feeling pretty good.

Andrew Foxwell: I mean, that's good. I'm glad to hear that because we tried to really come up with questions like, what would James really not want to answer? So, that's really what I listed here. Obviously, I'm joking. Getting back to the formation side of it of bad habits accrued, that good habits accrued credit, talking about translating that into a little bit what you discuss around destination of success and people focusing on that destination, more money, more sales, big house, that's the thing that I think we hear about a lot in eCommerce.

Scaling, I want to get bigger, but they don't focus on the journey, right? The small habits. And that's really what your core thesis of the book is. Why do you think people have such a hard time focusing on just the stuff they don't see stacking over time? And how can you, as an entrepreneur, start to tick up to see progress from those small wins that you're making?

James Clear: Yeah. Well, so let me answer that in the current roundabout way or just step back for a second. So, broadly speaking, there are three big ideas that the book centers around. So, the first big idea is that habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. And so, if you can get 1% better each day, if you can find some small way to make an improvement, to build a better habit, to accumulate some upgrade, then that will compound over time.

It will turn into something really significant. And so, all those outcomes that you're mentioning, big house, nice cars, successful business, et cetera, et cetera, those are really the results or the byproduct of the habits that preceded them. And so, most of your outcomes in life are a lagging measure of your habits. Your bank account is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your physical fitness is a lagging measure of your eating and training habits.

Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your reading and learning habits. Even the clutter on your desk or in your garage is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. And so, for whatever reason, we get very outcome-focused. I think part of it is because the news cycle and social media are very outcome-focused. And honestly, it's maybe an unfortunate byproduct of it, but I don't know that it is necessarily vindictive or anybody is trying to do something evil with it.

It's just that things seem to only be newsworthy or noteworthy once you get to a result. You're never going to see a news story that says, "Man eats chicken and salad for lunch." It's only a news story when like, "Man loses 100 pounds," right? You need to get to the results before people talk about it. You don't see people covering like, "Writers halfway done with their script for the screenplay." It's like, "No, Broadway shows a hit." That's when you hear about it.

So, the results of success are often highly visible and easy to see. And the process of success is often invisible and hidden from you. And so, that idea of getting 1% better each day I think addresses more of that process. So, that's the first big idea. The second big idea which extends directly from that is you do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.

And I define that by saying, your goals, that's your desired outcome. Your system is the collection of daily habits that you're following. And if there's ever a gap between your system and your goal, if there's ever a gap between your desired outcome and your daily habits, your daily habits will always win. Almost by definition, your current habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results.

Or the way one friend put it to me recently is like, "If you have great results today, you were killing it six months ago." And I think that's the way to think about it. It's like, whatever system you've been running recently, whatever your habits have been for the last six months or a year or whatever, those are the things that have delivered you to this point right now.

And so, what needs to change is not the outcomes that we also badly think we need to change. What needs to change is the system that precedes them, the habits that come before the outcomes. And again, I think getting 1% better each day and accumulating those habits in this compound interest form, is one of the best ways to build a better system.

And then, those two things lead us to the third big idea which is, every action that you take is a vote for the type of person that you want to become. And so, your habits are actually how you embody a particular identity. Every day that you write one sentence, you embody the identity of someone who is a writer. Every time you make your bed, you embody the identity of someone who's clean and organized.

And this I think is maybe the real answer to your question, which is that people say that what they want is a bigger house or a nicer car, or a more successful business, but what you really should be focused on is, who is the type of person that could achieve those outcomes? We put the outcome front and center. But I think instead, we need to put the identity front and center and let our habits reinforce being that person. And then, the results come naturally along way.

So, I think those three big ideas, getting 1% better each day, you do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems, and using your habits as evidence for a new identity, that every action you take is a vote for being the person who could achieve that outcome, that maybe is where our focus should actually be.

Andrew Foxwell:
Yeah. I mean, the identity thing is when I read the book, it's the biggest piece that hit for me. And in terms of what does that actually… what is a person that leads in this industry look like, right? And I think that started to inform a whole bunch of other things. It was like I was trying to think about I think a lot of us look at… you look at your peers… I mean, this is me. I mean, I can't speak for Austin, I guess.

But you look at your peers and you're like, "Oh, what is everybody else doing?" Right? And really, that's not the question. The question is really, what's the identity of a person that's actually different that's a leader that goes across all of these different people or all these different organizations? And that doesn't exist. And so, I started to think about that. And then, my wife and I, we were in the business together, we started to write down what that person does. And then, the strategy of what we needed to do became actually really clear.

It was actually really funny because we were in California, in Santa Barbara for a part of the winter, and I was reading your book in January, which is great goal setting time a year ago. And I remember I was freaking out in what can I say, or something like, "You got to listen to this. This is crazy. You got to read this chapter or this part of the book," and it was just something that we hadn't thought about.

So, that identity side is so big. It's like the Brene Brown story we tell ourselves thing, right? It's like, "Oh, this is who I really am." And once you start thinking in that way, I bought a little thing in Santa Fe that's like… they're called a fetish, like Native American fetish, and these things are little animals that have meaning. I'm not super hippie-dippie here, but it was a cool idea, and it's made from Native American tribe.

And mine is eagle, thinking about eagles are looking above everything else, the 40,000-foot view, and that's the only thing I have on my desk. That in my monitor sits on a copy of your book, to be totally honest with you. And so, those are the things that identity side, it was what really shifted. Then, it wasn't a positive or negative thinking. It was just, what does that person actually do? In one of your books.

James Clear: Yeah, that's great. A lot of the time you mentioned looking at your peers or we imitate, or try to reverse engineer the success of other people. Usually, when people do that, it's like, "What do I want my best day to look like? I want to win the Superbowl or I want to exit business for some multiple," or whatever it is. You have some outcome in mind. And I think actually, the question should not be, "What do I want my best day to be," but, "What do I want my normal day to be?"

And it's like, "What is the lifestyle that I need to be following in order to get there?" And that's what you're talking about backing into. It's like, "Okay, if this is the identity we're trying to build, either as an individual or as a company, or as a team, then what do the normal days need to look like for us to go in that direction? What do the habits need to be in order to reinforce that desired identity?" And, yeah, it just gives you a different way of looking at things.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah. The normal day thing is what you tweeted about whenever it was, I don't know, in the last year of what success actually means, of success, is the freedom to… it's not financial success necessarily. It's the freedom to do what you want to do. It's a freedom to create your own schedule and not have to get on a call with losers like us. I'm just kidding. Or like, "What do I want that normally to be?" And that is exactly what was a product of that identity thing, which is that I wanted the… part of the identity in Austin... I'll shut up after this.

But I wanted the identity to be someone that people look to us because they knew that we were not working all the time sitting in front of a computer, and we were actually taking time out in a mountain bike, out walking with the dog, whatever. Thinking outside of it, because I think so many people are stuck in that computer work and I wanted to have the identity to be, "Hey, we're strategically thinking bigger than this."

And that's a lot of people now that are busy and colleagues call us, because they know that we're going to have the headspace to talk about it, which is, it's just a super interesting byproduct of it, but awesome. Take it away, man. Sorry about my little questions.

Austin Brawner: No, it's interesting. I've actually haven't heard that discussion from you either. So, it's interesting for me. But one thing I want to dive into, I mean, we're recording this in a really interesting time. And this interview is going to come out during this interesting time when we've got shelter in place order around the US, around the world, people are in quarantine. And it's proven to be a really big time of crisis for a lot of people and also for businesses.

With this, there's a lot of change that is coming around. How are you thinking about habits formation, and just what are your thoughts around how people and business owners can use this time as a positive or to frame it in a way that they can think of as a positive?

James Clear: Yeah, that's a good question. So, anytime the environment changes in a big way, behavior changes in a big way. And a lot of people are having a change in their environment right now. They're working from home when they normally aren't. They are sheltering in place when they normally can go out and about. And so, naturally, you're going to see a shift in behavior because of that. And one way to think about your habits is to think about them as behaviors that are tied to a particular context.

Your habit of watching Netflix is tied to the couch at 7:00 p.m. or your habit of scrolling social media is tied to the coffee shop across the street from the office at 10:00 a.m. or whatever. And so, one question that we can be asking is, "What can I do with this new context now?" Now, normally, I'm not in my living room at 10:0 a.m. but now I am because I'm sheltering in place. So, what can I do about that? What habits are accessible to me there that maybe normally aren't?

So, that's some piece of it. But I do like the part of the question where you're like, "How can we frame this in maybe a more optimistic way?" And it is true that in many areas of life, stimulus or a stressor leads to growth. So, obviously, this is true in the gym. The whole point of lifting weights is that you put some stress on your body, so that then, you can adapt and grow and become stronger in response.

But I think it's also true not just for the physical body but for our mindset and mentality, for our emotions, for our ability to handle responsibility and take ownership of things. You see this when people get promotions sometimes. They get promoted into a new role, there's additional responsibility, there's additional stressors, and the good ones are able to adapt to it and increase their ability to take ownership of things and guide the team and so on.

And so, it's actually the stressor that leads to the growth. And that is potentially one favorable way to frame this experience, and you don't have to discount the terrible things about it, right? There are of course who are sick and dying. There are awful things. All of that is still true. But as much as possible, we can try to frame the situation in a way that favors us, and I think that starts with believing that that story that I'm telling is true, that we can respond to stressors in a favorable way.

That they can actually upgrade your mindset and lead to growth. And as soon as you frame this situation, not as something that was forced upon you and as growth-inhibiting, but actually as something that you can accept in this growth-inducing, then suddenly, you start to look at the whole situation in a new light. And so, the question is not like, "What am I being prevented from doing?" It's, "What am I building now?"

And whether that's building a better mindset or a better business, or whatever, I think all of that is possible, but it does require a reframing of the situation.

Austin Brawner: Is there anything that you've done personally since they started? Things you've changed, ways you've been thinking that are maybe different in the past, or anything that you've taken away already since this had begun?

James Clear: Yeah. It's only been a couple weeks, but one thing… so, again, not driving to restaurants, right? I've got extra time here, as many of us do. And so, I want to make sure that I'm using that time in an efficient way. So, as one example, I'm hoping to read a little bit more with some of those extra moments throughout the day. And so, I have made some actual changes. This is, in Atomic Habits, I referred to this as environment design.

But the idea is you're trying to prime the environment that you're living and working in so that the good habits are more obvious, available and easy to do. And the bad habits have more steps between you and them. So, for reading, right now on my desk, I've got a stack of five or six books. It's next to me, so I just pull one of those when I have a free moment. I have some… next on the end table by my bed, in the living room.

So, I have books like sprinkled throughout the house. Then, on my phone, I moved Audible to the home screen so it's in the home bar there. It's first thing that I see when I open the phone up, again, to try to prompt to me, to remind me to read more and not get distracted. And then, when I'm on my computer, usually, I'm spending time in the browser. And I typically have 10 to 20 tabs open at any given time.

And two or three of those are usually related to work, like Asana or Gmail, or whatever. But the other 10 or so are often either articles that I want to read or that I'm in the middle of reading. And so, between those three things, sprinkling books around the physical environment, moving Audible to the home screen so it's the first thing I see on the phone, and then making sure that I have a lot of tabs on the desktop so that I can… whenever I get distracted in a given moment, it's like, "Where do I go to next? I can just click on one of these."

That creates an environment where it's easier for me to build a reading habit. And that's the idea behind environment design for whatever habit you're trying to apply it to. No single choice, like that is going to radically transform your life. But if you make a dozen or 20, or 50 little choices like that, then suddenly, it becomes easier to do the good habit, because it's the path of least resistance. So, that's one little change that I've made so far.

Austin Brawner: I love it. Yeah, I know. One simple change I made as well was buy TVs in the garage with no chairs. So, if you want to watch TV, you got to go sit on the concrete in the garage.

James Clear: That's great. That's a good example of, in the book, I call it, if you want to build a good habit, it's make it easy. But if you want to break bad habits, make it difficult. That's an awesome way to add friction, right? It's not very enjoyable. Who wants to go out there? But first, who wants walk out to the garage when it's usually it's in the living room? And then, who wants to sit on the ground? That's good.

Andrew Foxwell: Also, Austin, habit sacking, because you have it in the garage, and it's where… you only watch TV when you work out.

Austin Brawner: It's where my gym is. So, it's doubled up right there. I've doubled up.

Andrew Foxwell: It's like [crosstalk] in Netflix or whatever you use it.

Austin Brawner: Yes, right.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah.

James Clear: That was one of my favorite examples I came across when I was researching the book. This guy wanted to work out more but he was always watching Netflix. He was an engineering student. He programmed his cycling into stationary bike so that Netflix would pause if he wasn't spinning the wheels. And yeah, he basically binge watched himself to a better body.

Andrew Foxwell: One thing I'm always interested in when we have guests on the show that are outside of the eCommerce industry, especially leaders like yourself, James, is what is more tactical? And maybe you have been brought in on certain consulting agreements or something. But let's say you get brought in eCommerce business and they're doing pretty well. They want to sell more. They want to continue to grow online. You're sitting in that meeting. They hire you to help them begin thinking about this.

In the context of habits, what do you start talking about? I mean, obviously, some of it… I mean, clearly, the first thing is like, read the book, right? But what are the numbers you are interested in? What are the things that you are curious about? Is it about the depth… the VPs and the executives, what they're doing on a daily basis? Is it about aligning goals and KPIs? Is it about singular sources of data?

What are the things that to you, you sit down, and you see like, "These are things that can make an impact in this business right away"?

James Clear: Yeah. It's a great question. So, I do a lot of keynote speaking for businesses but I don't do consulting, because it sounds like my nightmare. It just sounds so boring to me to do that. But what I do love is thinking about all of those things you just mentioned for my own business. And so, I'm very concerned with conversion rates, particularly to the email list, because I consider that to be the backbone of my business.

So, the first thing… If I'm just running this through my filter, this is not necessarily the best thing for every business to do. But if it was going through my filter, I would be focused on one email list growth, what does that look like? How are we getting people onto the list? What are they expecting when they get there? My business is more content-driven than most eCommerce businesses would be. J.Crew is not getting you to sign up to get blog posts from them. They're giving you 20% off.

Whereas, I'm much more interested in developing a relationship around the ideas. And then, I know that if you love the emails that you get from me every week, then two years from now, I'm going to be launching a new book and a bunch of people are going to buy it who are on the list. So, I guess my focus is more on traffic generation, conversion to the email list, using the email list as the backbone of the business.

And then, I have these other places like Instagram, Twitter, the website itself, and SEO, which I consider to be places where readers are coming into the business but I don't consider those to be my audience. I only view my email list as the actual audience. So, those are all just free lead gen, essentially. And then, once people get onto the list, then I'm thinking much more about the experience that they're having. So, what are they expecting?

How can we provide a little bit of delight to them that maybe they're not expecting? So, free downloads, or when people sign up, they get the first chapter of my book for free, stuff like that. And then also, what are your expectations on going and how can we try to exceed that each week? Basically, I like the idea that you're only one bad email from people unsubscribing. So, every email matter.

And also, that in the long run, all of these businesses are the same in the sense that the only reason people stick around is because you're providing remarkable value. And so, that's true whether you're talking about Elon designing the first Tesla and it has to be this awesome groundbreaking thing, or it's true if we're talking about me writing a blog post. It needs to be so good that people are like, "I got to tell somebody about this. I need to share this to my family or my friend, or whatever."

And that's a very hard bar, a difficult bar to hold yourself, difficult standard to hold yourself to. But in the long run, I don't know any other way to build a business than that. Everything else is just a short-term tactic if you're not providing remarkable value. So, I don't know if those are good answers or what you were looking for since I don't do much consulting, but that's my lens for how I think about it.

Andrew Foxwell: I think it is. It talks about this. I mean, you really mentioned the singular focus of the email list is just a big… it's the main one. And Austin, that's something you have a ton of expertise.

Austin Brawner: When I was doing my research, I was going through and I've read a lot of your end-of-year reviews. And one of the things you mentioned this year was that you'd felt like your business was growing up a little bit. And when I read that, I was thinking, I guess, what does that mean to you and what are some of the things that you've learned from transitioning from initially a person who's a writer or a blogger, or whatever you were calling yourself, to a business owner over the last many years? Is that eight years as you've been building your blog?

James Clear: Yeah. I've been an entrepreneur for 10 years. And I've been working on jamesclear.com and Atomic Habits, and all the stuff related to what I do now for eight years. So, let me answer with a quick little story, which is when I first started. When I first launched the website and got going online, very early on, I didn't know anything like all of us. Whenever you're starting, I don't know anything.

And I read this article on 50 Ways to Drive Traffic to Your Website. And over the next few months, I went through and I tried all 50, and none of them worked well for me. And I remember being so frustrated and thinking like, "Either, one, am I just an idiot and I can't figure this stuff out? Or, two, is this person lying and they just made this stuff up, and it doesn't actually work well?"

And thankfully, there were more options than that and I kept stuck with it and kept trying some other things. And eventually, within the first year or two, I started to find a couple things that actually did work fairly well for me. And my point with that is every entrepreneur is biased to their own personal history about how they've built their business and how they grew their audience, and how they found success.

But the truth is, there is just like almost an infinite number of options for how you can build a successful business. And I think whether those options work for you or not is not only a function of the time and history, or the time that you're trying it. But also, your particular skillset, your skills and traits, and characteristics, and your particular business, what you're selling and so on. I have a friend who she has a hand lettering business and Instagram is huge for her.

It's bigger than her email list. All of her workshops sell out from Instagram, not for me. Now, for me, that's a mind blow, because Instagram was the least useful thing for my business. But anyway, my point is that it's highly contextual. And so, what I'm getting out here to answer your question is for the first few years of my business, really, honestly, to a certain degree, we could say like the first five years, I was finding success but I really felt like what I was mostly doing was experimenting.

I was trying a bunch of stuff to see what was going to stick, what path and avenue revealed itself as both aligning with the business I was trying to build and my particular skillsets and this particular time in history. And it's only over the last year or two that I felt like that strategy has become more clear to me where I'm like, "Okay, now I actually know. Weirdly, I've been running this thing for eight years. But now, actually, I finally know what I'm actually running. What are we actually trying to build here?"

And honestly, the launch of Atomic Habits was a big milestone in that for me, because for the first time, I found a product that I was really good at selling. Sales feels uncomfortable to me. I think it feels uncomfortable to a lot of people. But all the other stuff that I tried, online courses, selling on webinars, pitching stuff in person, just none of it felt like it was me.

But writing a book and trying to make it the most comprehensive, best possible guide on a particular topic, and then selling that book and talking about it in interviews like this and so on, that feels way more like what I want to do. And it took me seven or eight years to get to that point, but I feel like the business is maturing, because now, I have a better idea of what the strategy is. And I don't know how long it takes other entrepreneurs, but that's how long it took me.

Austin Brawner: I think that's a pretty common amount of time. I feel like I've been on a similar timeline with building a business and taking a huge number of years to experiment. And then, to actually get to a point where it's like, "I feel like there is something…" you just learned so much. And Andrew, I mean, how long have you been running your business?

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah. It will be technically eight years. So, I mean, seven or eight years. Yeah. I mean, it depends on when you define the beginning of it. But yeah, it's been a while. I agree. And everybody, it takes… the experimentation is I think a huge part of it in what… it's vastly different what we do now than what we started out doing, and I don't know. I feel like that's like the name of the game.

I want to get to one thing that you mentioned, James, which is I think you're… really, this podcast could be named, the podcast where Andrew compliments James a lot. So, one of the things that I think that you are a very astute observer of trends, I've been on your email list for a long time. I really like it. It is, it delights me.

When you are marketed to just generally in your life, what are you… is it delight that you are looking for? Or what actually motivates you from an eCommerce company perspective? Or is it just you're like, "Nah, I don't really buy stuff online"? I'm just curious, honestly, of your perspective of what your experiences there. Because I feel that, right now, we're in the stage of companies are still learning and figuring out how to market themselves in a lot of ways, and each business is different.

But Austin and I talk about this all the time. It's 80/20. Only 20% of companies are actually really good at knowing how to market themselves. So, when you see something, what motivates you to buy it or what motivates you to look further?

James Clear: Yeah. I have two different answers. So, I'll try to come back to the second one here. But the first thing I'm looking around my office right now with some of the stuff I have, I've got this one backpack that I bought from a company in San Francisco called Are, A-E-R. It's an awesome bag. It doubles, it looks more like a briefcase, but then, it has these straps that you can unzip and pull out so that it can become a backpack if you want.

But the answer to your question I think is what I love in a single word, I would call it thoughtfulness, or it's like somebody really cared to get it right. And I love that in almost any domain. So, with this particular bag, the way that it's organized, the way it's laid out, it's just, as soon as you start to use it daily, like if you use it every day for a month, you start to appreciate how carefully it was thought out. It's like whoever designed this bag, obviously used it because they get what you would want from a bag.

And then, the one example, so to turn it into a backpack, there's a little zipper on the backside of the bag which would normally go like across your shoulder blades. And it goes across the top of the bag there. And so, you unzip that and then you can pull the straps out. Well, occasionally, when I'm walking through an airport or waiting in line for something or whatever, I don't have the bag like that.

But then, I'm checking out at the cash register, I have to grab my passport or something. And so, I need both of my hands free. So, real quick, I just unzip that zipper and pull one strap out and then attach it, and you can do all this in 10 seconds and then throw it over my shoulder. Now, I got my hands free. The location of the zipper is such that if you unzip it, the first strap that you can reach is the one on the right side of the bag.

And most people, myself included, are right-handed. And so, that would be the more convenient one to have available versus if you unzipped it from the other side and the left one came out first, and they could have designed it either way. But the fact that they designed it that way makes me think, "Oh, they actually thought about this. What should be the first strap that you pull out of the bag?"

And I just feel like most products, they don't even care enough to think about that. That's just a very small detail and it has almost nothing to do with the fabric of the bag or the quality of the zippers, or where the pockets are. There's all these other things that people think about, but they wouldn't get to that level of depth. As another example, I've been listening to a lot of Maggie Rogers' music recently, who I think is great, and she's super talented.

And she put up a post on Instagram where one of her really popular famous songs, she was sharing the notes that she had written when they had first worked on it in the studio. And you can just see from the notes, like she's talking about very specific things, like when a chime comes in or not and whether a note should be 10% louder or not, just all these little things. And you can notice that she can't help but not get it right, right?

If it's not right, it would bother her for it to not be that quality. And I love stuff like that. We could call it like a craftsman mindset or something. But ultimately, the only reason that the most powerful marketing engine possible is word of mouth. And I like to think that for example, for Atomic Habits, the only reason that it's grown as big as it has and sold millions of copies is because it's so good that you have to talk about it.

And I don't know, not everybody is going to feel that way about it, but you'd need that level of thoughtfulness, that level of care for it to spread and become something bigger. And I think that's true for any eCommerce company. It doesn't matter what you're building. The thing needs to be so good. We could call it remarkable because it is worthy of remarking on, right? Because it's so good that you have to talk about it.

So, I think that is the central thing. So, that's the first answer that came to my mind. But then you asked, what makes me… okay, so I would if I hadn't bought the bag yet? What would make me interested, right? What would make me click on the ad or read the description or visit the website? And that's an interesting question. Because if you go to Amazon and you buy Atomic Habits, you're not actually buying the book because you can't.

You don't have it yet. You don't physically own it. What you're buying is the image that the sales page creates in your mind. You're buying your expectation that the book will be good, and that is true of any eCommerce product. What you purchase is the prediction that your brain makes of how favorable it is, of how much value it will provide, and so on.

And word of mouth is so powerful because it short circuits that and it gives you somebody you trust says, "No, listen, this bag is really good, you should buy it." And so, that's enough to get going. But I think the job of any good copywriter, anybody who does an excellent job with sales pages, the words that I use on my email forums to get people to sign up, it needs to elicit a very positive prediction in the person's mind.

And I like what Eugene Schwartz, the famous copywriter, said about this where essentially he said, "You cannot force someone to have a desire for a product. You can only tap into desires they already have." And so, I think it requires a really deep understanding of who that person is and what people are going through and what they're thinking. What do I really want to achieve? This comes back to one of the simple sales page things like benefits, not features.

"Don't tell me that the bag has two straps, telling me that I'll be able to more efficiently go through my morning commute or I'll never drop my coffee. Why do I benefit from it?" Not just like, what does it contain? But all of those things, of those copywriting strategies, the sales page tactics, all that stuff, it really comes back to the same idea which is you're trying to elicit a positive prediction. You're trying to get somebody to expect it to be so valuable that they have to purchase it.

There's also a third thing that comes from this which is this very delicate balance of marketing's job is to amp up the promise in the customers mind so much that you have to have it, you're salivating for it. But then, the product's job is to be so good that they're still… it exceeds that expectation. They're still delighted when they get it so that they want it so bad. But even though they want it that bad, it's even better than how bad they expected it would be or how wonderful they expected it would be.

So, I don't know. There's a lot going on there. But that was just me talking through my thoughts as you brought it up.

Austin Brawner: I think about somebody who's about to buy your example of someone on Amazon about to pull the trigger on Atomic Habits, they are already going back of the story that they're telling themselves, they're buying the book because the story that they are telling themselves is that they are the type of person who can improve their habits or watch them prove their habits. And you're tapping into that which is really interesting from what you're talking about, about the story of it.

James Clear: The point I made about Eugene Schwartz, you can't create desires, you can only tap into the ones that already exist. So, for Atomic Habits, there's a chapter later in the book on deliberate practice. And if I wanted, I could have written a book about deliberate practice, and it could have had a chapter on habits. But instead, it was a book about habits and it has a chapter about deliberate practice. And that is an example of choosing a frame where I don't have to create the desire.

I think it's much easier for a person, a reader, to understand how their habits would benefit them. Okay, I just implicitly get that it's nice to have good habits and that would lead to what I want, whether it's more money or more productivity, or less stress, or reducing weight or whatever it is. I get that there's a connection there.

Whereas, if I chose in deliberate practice, some people are familiar with the term and maybe see it, but there's more legwork for me to do to explain to you how this links to what you already desire. And so, I think that's a good example of how to actually do it with a product where you're… how can you choose the right overall frame for the product so that people immediately see how it benefits them?

If it requires 30 seconds of explanation, you already lost it. It's taking too long. It needs to be, I think for books in particular, if you look at the cover, you need to know immediately, within five seconds, I get why this would benefit me. And not everybody's going to buy it but they at least can see, "Okay, I know why that would be useful." And I think that level of connection with the underlying desires that people have is essential if you want a product to really take off.

Austin Brawner: For sure. I would love to know after going through this journey and spending so much time researching, learning, writing, talking about life and how to live a better life and habits, what are some of the habits that you used to really value that you've dropped or no longer value? Or to frame it other way, what is something that you've changed your mind about since getting started in this space?

James Clear: That's interesting. I think that something that have changed my mind about is that I used to think that greatness, in any particular area, was a peak performance or was I never would have changed my mind about is that, greatness can actually be an average performance repeated a great amount of times. Or maybe even a slightly above average performance repeated so consistently that you win overtime.

And so, seeing great outcomes is a point on a spectrum of repetitions, that's been something that I've changed my tune about. I used to think it was much more about this one defining moment. But now, I see it more as a milestone that happens along the way. And so, this idea that you don't actually have to be the world class exceptional at every skill, but if you can… it's like the thing you want to be world class in is consistency.

And if you can do that, then that can actually… that alone can take you very far. I think about back when I started my site, there's a guy who, when we started, his audience is relatively early on. It's maybe a month or two into me building my site. I think I had 2,000 readers or something and he had 20,000 that time. So, he's 10X bigger than me. And within two years, I was 10X bigger than he was and it wasn't because he was worse than I was.

I actually think his content was as good, maybe even better in some way. They were different industries. He had a fitness blog and I was writing about habits. But the main thing that changed is he stopped writing. That's the number one thing that changed, is he just stopped posting, and I just kept posting new articles every Monday and Thursday. I did it two a week for the first three years. And that alone was enough to lead to this massive difference when we turned around a couple years later.

And so, I don't know. I just feel like there's a lesson buried in there that I didn't fully appreciate early on, and yeah. So, that's been one thing that I've maybe changed a little bit about.

Austin Brawner: Well, you have a section in your blog entitled, it's like, Greatest Athletic Achievements, and you had three that I really liked. One of them is that, the 2008 Lezak swimming comeback in the Olympics.

James Clear: I basically cry whenever I watch that clip. It's so incredible.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, it really is. As I was going through those and I was watching those, as I was preparing for this, the secretariat run, and you listed Cardale Jones, three game stretch at Ohio State, which another insane athletic performance. But within that, I also read that you grew up in Hamilton, Ohio. When I saw Cardale Jones, I was like, "Oh, he's probably from Ohio." How is growing up in a small town in the Midwest impacted the way that you think about work and about life?

James Clear: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I mean, it's impacted me in so many different ways. So, Hamilton is a relatively small town, like 50,000 people or so. It's maybe 45 minutes north of Cincinnati. So, it's not like… you don't feel you're out in the middle of nowhere. But there's a lot of farmland around there. And my grandparent is on the farm. They lived five minutes away from us. I spent most of my childhood running around the field there.

My cousin and I, there's a creek that runs through the field. And we made my dad drag an 80-pound bag of concrete down there so that we could build a dam. And so, we created a little lake and a pond, the waterfall, and all this stuff. Anyway, so I just… my whole childhood was playing outside like that. And so, I loved that. Every Sunday for the first 18 years of my life, all my uncles and aunts, and cousins would come over to my grandparents' house.

And my grandma would make dinner for 18 people. And that I think was a fairly unique experience. A lot of people that I talk to now didn't get together with their extended family like that every week. And so, I think it probably strengthened family ties. Family is definitely important to me. I do notice that I still have an itch to get outside and to explore. And I wonder how much of that was fostered a little bit just by exploring the field and exploring the farmland, and terrain around me when I was a kid.

So, I travel a lot and love that. So, all of those things I think influenced my approach to life and what I find enjoyable and fun today.

Andrew Foxwell: Love it, man. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, and Austin grew up in small town in PNW, which is, in many ways, very similar. I think so. But hey, man, I really appreciate your time, James, for coming on to the podcast. We're glad to have you. And yeah, for those of you that have not checked it out, we recommend very highly that you grab a copy of Atomic Habits, the New York Times bestselling book that James Clear is the author of.

And I also recommend very highly that you sign up for his email list, which is actually also full of a lot of value and great quotes, and three valuable things to think about each week. So, James Clear, thank you very much for joining us.

James Clear: Awesome. Thanks, guys, really appreciate it. (singing)

Austin Brawner: Hey guys, this is Austin. And if you've been loving the podcast, you got to go check out brandgrowthexperts.com. That's where I work one-on-one with my clients to help them build faster growing, more profitable online stores. I've got coaching programs and workshops that we host all over the world. I would love to have you come check it out. If you're a fast-growing eCommerce business or you want to be a fast-growing eCommerce business, you got to check it out.

That's the spot for you. We go more in-depth than we do in the podcast with comprehensive trainings and coaching to help you scale up. Check it out, brandgrowthexperts.com, see you there.

Austin Brawner: What's up, everybody? Welcome back to another episode of the Ecommerce Influence Podcast. My name is Austin Brawner.

Andrew Foxwell: And I'm Andrew Foxwell. Man, I am just super excited, honestly, as we always say, to have James Clear on the podcast today. I love this guy.

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