Recently, I had the pleasure of watching James Clear, bestselling author of Atomic Habits (on track to sell a million copies this year), present at the Thought Leaders Business School. While I’m not a participant of the program I had the opportunity, thanks to Peter Cook, to access the presentation and interview with him through the livestream (which was excellent quality).
Like many, I’m a bit of a fan of Clear. I devoured Atomic Habits and I use it with clients as an example of how you balance engaging storytelling with depth of thinking and factual evidence that backs up your opinions.
Also, it turns out, Clear is a really lovely, generous guy. What he shared about his personal writing process, as well as the growth of his business, was both candid and revealing.
There is a lot that aspiring writers and authors can learn from him (even if you don’t have bestseller in your sights.)
Here’s how I compiled that into 12 key takeaways.
1. Identify who you want to become
One of the central ideas in Atomic Habits is that you need to build identity-based goals, not outcome-based ones. That means understanding the type of person you want to become, rather than the goal you are hoping to achieve – i.e. set out to become an author, not to write a book.
To do this, you need start with the end in mind – which is what Clear did when he wrote his own book. He explains:
The question to start with is who is the type of person that can achieve this? Who is the type of person that could lose 30 pounds? Whois the type of person that could write a bestselling book?
So to answer this, I came up with all my answers by Googling and reading as much as I could. Then I interviewed people, other authors, to see what they say about it, and ask what their strategies were. This is how you come up with your own database, your own knowledge base.
Once you have those two things, once you have your internal list, and that external feedback from the people you interview, now you've got a pretty good idea of what the profile of that person might look like, and then you can figure out what habits you need to form to become that person.
2. Be persistent and consistent
Honestly, writing the book was a very long and painful process, and I poured everything I had into it. I wrote about the topic for three years, and then I signed the book deal. We agreed to write the book in a year … It ended up taking three years … I put five years of writing, and a year and a half of marketing into the launch … I'm just glad it was worth it.
It’s easy to forget how hard someone is working towards something when you don’t see all of the effort going into it at the other end. I think we make this mistake a lot when we assess the size of someone’s email list. So, while Clear now has thousands of subscribers, it didn’t just happen overnight. As he puts it:
‘You can't just flip a switch and suddenly have a bigger audience … The building of the email list took five or six years…’
In addition, before writing about habits, Clear dedicated two years building a following of 20,000 subscribers on a small business marketing blog (this doesn’t exist anymore).
Yet it’s easy to feel disheartened when you’ve been putting what you feel is a lot of effort into something and you’re not seeing any results in return. Clear calls this ‘the valley of disappointment’.
That's when people often quit, because they think what they are doing is not working. It’s like, ‘I've been running for a month. Why don't I see a change in my body?’
I understand why people feel that way. We've all felt that, but all the returns are delayed. You need to doit for a year. People will be like what do I need to do with my workout habit?What supplements work best? I'm like, ‘just don't miss a workout for two years.’
Hence, if you really want to grow your email list then don’t miss a blog post for two years!
James Clear pretty much didn’t.
I wrote two articles a week for three years … it's very rare for somebody to stick to something with that level of consistency, and it was also not something that I just did in passing. It was basically my full-time job.
His advice for surviving the valley of disappointment is to limit distractions and stay focused.
For the first three months or so, that I worked on the book, I tried to write my articles on the blog, and write the book at the same time, and that did not go well. The quality suffered everywhere, I wasn't making progress on the book. It wasn't until I put the blog on autopilot and dedicated working on the book every day, all day, for six months that I really started to make progress.
3. Get signals of progress
However, Clear is quick to talk about the challenges that also came with his focused approach to his book.
When I publish an article on the blog, I get feedback almost instantly. You post a tweet, and then people like it, or retweet it, within minutes. When I sent the blog post, I'd get emails back within an hour, and I didn't realise how much that feedback loop drove me to do the next thing.
One good email from a reader will be enough to get me to show up again the next week. So when I decided to not do that, to stop writing the blog, and to just write the book, I didn't realise that this was going to be a big problem. I got about three months in and I felt like something was lacking. I wasn't getting any feedback. I was writing in a cave. I don't need 1000 people to read it, but I need somebody to tell me, am I on the right track here? Am I making progress?
‘I was writing in a cave. I don't need 1000 people to readit, but I need somebody to tell me, am I on the right track here? Am I making progress?’
I’m sure you can relate? So to overcome this, Clear explains you need to create what he calls 'signals of progress’.
If you have a signal that shows that you're progressing then you have every reason in the world to continue, because it's like ‘look, this is going well. I should keep doing this.’ If you don't have any signal of progress, you’re just throwing ideas out into a vacuum, and it's hard to feel motivated, because you have no indication of whether it's working or not.
When I interviewed Michelle Sales, author of The Power of Confidence, she also spoke about the need for a ‘feedback loop’. This is achieved when you are presenting keynotes, delivering workshops or having one-on-ones with real clients because you can test out your ideas and your content on your audience as you’re writing.
It is this that helps you navigate the valley of disappointment.
4. Create a community of people with uncommon commonalities
What do bestselling books do when they launch? Where are those books covered? What are other authors doing? What's working well right now? I probably interviewed 25 other authors, that are friends of mine, that I had a connection to, and I asked what they did.
I also asked, ‘what did you spend a lot of time on that did not work?’ Cutting out all those things saved us a bunch of time, so that I could spend it on other stuff. One of the authors that I talked to, she spent two months planning their social media strategy for the launch, and she doesn't think it really sold any books, and so we did no social media strategy. We sent books out to people who had big social media followings, and if they decided to post they could, but we didn't ask for anything, or plan anything.
Talking to the right people helped Clear come up with the right identity profile he was aiming for, and it helped save a lot of wasted time.But it also meant he got to hang out and ask questions of people who had the same ‘uncommon commonalities’ as himself.
It’s hard finding a community who does exactly what you do, where everyone uses the same language as you or deals with the same problems. The more specialised you get, the more narrowly you define it, the less likely you are to find a group of people that are already organised around that thing, so I've taken to creating my own communities.
Clear conducts two or three annual retreats, getting everyone together in a rented house, and organises it around a common theme – for example, the last couple of retreats all involved peers who have large successful platforms and are bestselling authors.
Without fail, it’s the most useful four days I have throughout the year, from a business standpoint. I usually get so many ideas in those four days, that I don't even need to have another one for six months, because I just need time to execute on everything. There is something really powerful about being surrounded by people who are working toward the same thing.
‘You want to join a tribe, where your desired behaviour is the normal behaviour.’
Everybody that was at this last retreat either has a bestselling book, or a blog with over 100,000 subscribers. That's actually a very weird thing in normal life.You would never walk into a restaurant, and find all those people eating there, but to create that space was really powerful for everybody.
Two years ago, Leo emailed me with a question about habits ... I was like, ‘you have no idea how cool an email this is for me to get’. It’s just a neat thing, right? For your role models to become your peers, and that's I think creating spaces like that, creating community like that is another way for interactions like that to happen.
5. Develop a keystone habit
‘I don't know that I would still be in business, if I didn't exercise consistently,’ said Clear when asked if he has a keystone habit – something he sticks to that creates a ripple effect on other areas in his life(introduced by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habits).
Creatives often talk about a daily walk outside as being a keystone habit. If they walk for 10 minutes outside, then they have more creative ideas, they generate more ideas. Managers and CEOs will often talk about meditation as a keystone habit, meditate for 10 minutes in the morning every day, they can handle the demands, and stresses of the day better.
It's really important you figure out what your keystone habit is. I’ve heard other clients that I’ve interviewed, Simon Dowling and Oscar Trimboli, for example, also talk about the need for some kind of movement.
You may have a couple of habits but just focus on one. Focus on it for a couple of months, and see what that does, and if that's not the one, then you can try the next one, but you probably already know, and it can be helpful to know that ripples out into other areas of life, because then you can more easily give yourself permission to not worry about doing everything at once, and just focus on mastering one of those key things.
6. Create ideas that stand on their own
If I asked you to describe what James Clear looked like could you do it (before you saw the photo posted here)? On his website, for example, you’ll find only one image of him. Why?
‘I want my ideas to stand on their own. If the ideas aren't good enough to hold your interest I need to write something better.’
Hence, when he’s writing a blog, he thinks of the content first but then also what the reader is looking to do next on his site.
I think through two lenses: the returning visitor, someone who's already subscribed, and then a new person, who's never heard of me. What is their intention? What do they want to do with that point on the page?
The first thing they're looking to do is just read the article they clicked on, want to get out of the way, and have the content as easy to get into as possible, as few distractions as possible, so we don't show any pop ups, or sliding forms, or anything like that. I just want them to fall in love with the work, and read the article.
Now,if they click a second or third page, then maybe they'll see extra stuff, and the end of the article is usually a good point to insert another call to action, or a link, or something like that.
‘I just want them to fall in love with the work.’
7. Learn to edit your own work – a lot
One thing Clear mentioned really resonated with me and my own journey of becoming a writer/editor:
‘I don't consider myself a good writer; I think I'm a much better editor.’
This is something I talk to other authors about a lot – that you don’t need to learn to write, but you do need to learn to self-edit your own work.
Clear spent time deep diving into his actual writing and editing process (which was fascinating as well as valuable).
First thing I do, any time I have an idea, or come across something interesting, is dump it all under the same document in Evernote. I probably have about 800 or notes in there right now. Every now and then, I go through that list, and start to group them, if they're related.
What usually happens next is I have a point that I want to make, but I don't have a good story for it yet, so it just sits there for months, years sometimes, and I'm reading, and reading, and reading. Eventually, I come across a story that would be a good way to kick off that article, and then I have the story, and then I got the point, and then I can write it.
Once I've written that first 4000-word draft, I put it into WordPress. That's when it starts to get serious in my mind, and so I start at the first sentence. I read it. If it's good I read the second, and I keep going, until I find a sentence that isn't good, or needs to be fixed, and then I fix that, and then I go back to the top, and so I've read the opening sentence hundreds of times, by the time I get done, but every article is revised at least 25 times. I know, because WordPress will show you how many times you've updated the post, and once it was 262 times, or something, but that's how it gets good.
On average, my typical article takes me about 20 hours. The the longest ones have been about 60, or so. The shortest ones are eight, to 10. Word count,usually, when I write the first draft, it's about 4,000 words. When I publish that article, it's usually down to about 1,500, to 2,000, so you usually read about half of what I write.
‘The first draft is just your ideas on paper. It's actually the rewriting that is the real writing.’
8. Start earlier than you think
I had been blogging for three years, before I got a book deal, and I heard through that time, from a variety of other authors, to start marketing my book. I'd heard people say that five, or 10, or 20 times, so I started keeping a file on book launch strategies then.
I think that there's something to be said for starting way earlier than you think you need to.
He started marketing 18 months ahead of release date, which was divided into internal (social media, email list) and external (TV, radio, podcast, media) channels.
Yet still, he says he waited too long to sell the book!
But strangely, waiting a long time actually ended up serving me well. The fact that I dragged my feet for two years, before I sold the book, meant that my audience was actually larger when it came out, and that helped it to launch better.
Understand what kind of game you're trying to play, then know the rules of the game, and how that works, and what's required for players to advance in the game, and why other players loose. If you know those things, then it becomes easier to come up with a strategy that's going to work.
Clear pushed his deadline ahead to coincide with the new year as it’s a book on habits and everyone is looking to set themselves up for the year ahead, so consider when the best time might be to launch your book.
9. Consider the counter argument
‘Have you ever investigated the hypothesis that tiny habits don't work, and if so, how much time and effort did you put into that?’ This was a great question posed by the audience.
Charlie Munger has this quote, where he says you shouldn't be allowed to have an opinion on something,unless you know the other side better than your competitor would.
‘You should know their arguments better than they know them because that's the only way to stress test your ideas.’
A common criticism of tiny habits, small changes, is something like you can't cross a chasm in a single step. Sometimes you have to make a big leap, and that's true, but you also can't make a big leap, unless you have a running start, and so what you find is that everywhere in life, big, huge events are almost always preceded by a long series of small things that come beforehand.
Clear goes on to talk about two outlier cases:
1) having some sort of epiphany e.g. reading a book that suddenly convinces you eating toast is bad, or
2) a dramatic lifestyle change, like having a baby where all your priorities, needs and routine changes.
Hence, the holy grail of self-improvement is not a single 1% change. It's 1000 of them, because you need to make enough of them in combination to change the weight of the system, or the direction of the system. If you don't, then it's like you never hit the tipping point of that particular change.
I think we could say that tiny habits, or small changes never work if it's just once, but they often work if they're in combination with each other, and you're persistent about it.
10. Choose what to write the night before
Yep, even global bestselling authors have bad habits they have to work on. When asked about his, Clear revealed:
…Power down routine. Terrible with it, so often at 9 or 10pm I'll hit the second wind,where I'll just check email for an hour, and an hour is never an hour. Then it's 1am, and I haven't gone to bed, and I have this rule, that I don't cheat myself on sleep, so I'll still sleep in, but if I don't go to bed till 1, that means I'm not getting up till 9. I'd rather be up at 7, and be productive.
And they also suffer with procrastination (yes, they are human!),but Clear has built a good habit to try and overcome his:
The hardest part for me, when writing an article, is deciding what to write about. If I know what I'm going to write about, then I can get started right away, but if I haven't chosen the topic yet it's like I'm paralysed by the infinite range of options, and so I'll spend four hours just deciding what to write about. I've done that so many times, where I've just spent half a day trying to think about what to write about, so I don't know.
So if you’re blogging then choose what you want to write at leas ta day before. (In her book The First 2 Hours, Donna McGeorge also explains how planning today, for tomorrow, helps combat decision fatigue.)
11. Praise the good; ignore the bad
A lot of the time, unconsciously,we criticise the very behaviour they we are hoping people will perform. Clear’s example of this is when an ‘introverted kid comes down to dinner, and shares what goes on with their day, and somebody says look who showed up. It's like this is the very thing you were hoping they would do, and now they feel like they're criticised for it.’
There is one strategy that Clear has found really helpful to encourage others to perform better habits and that is described as: praise the good, ignore the bad.
So if you want a family member to come with you to the gym, or work out, and they don't do that usually, when they come with you, when you leave, just say, ‘I'm really proud of you for coming in today, or it was awesome to work out with you, or you did a really good job on that set, or that exercise.’
It doesn't have to be something huge every time, but what ends up happening is you reinforce the feeling, that I get praised whenever I do this, and everybody likes to be praised.
So if you’ve written a blog, a paragraph, a sentence, or a word for your article today, well done. Recognising this (instead berating yourself for the 364 other days you might not have done that) is the key to long-lasting change.
12. Write when you have something valuable to say
Clear admits that the small business marketing blog he wrote previously, was not ‘his passion’. It was when he switched to writing about something he genuinely cared about, that he began getting more traction.
The topic matters a lot. I want to write about more scientific ideas, and Habits is one of the rare ones that can be both scientific, and literally, basically everyone in the world can benefit from reading about it, so there's a huge win in choosing a topic that has a big upside like that.
But that doesn’t mean you’ll see another book out by him soon.
A lot of the time, if the first book goes well ,authors will write a second book very quickly, because they have the opportunity to do so, but I don’t want to do it for that reason.
‘I want to do it because I feel like I have something really important to say, and because I feel like I have something to contribute to, a topic that's really valuable.’
Habits is obviously the book, or the only topic I've written about, but it's a topic that has been around forever. I still felt like I had something that I could contribute, and so I'm looking for that right now with the next book.