James Clear: On Reclaiming His Attention to Focus on What Matters
Meet James Clear.
James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits, creator of the Habits Academy, a weightlifter, and a travel photographer in over 30 countries.
James has spent many years researching and writing on habits and human potential with an aim to explore one underlying question: “How can we live better?”
His writing is focused on how we can create better habits, make better decisions, and live better lives. He does this by combining ideas from a wide range of disciplines including biology, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and more.
We recently interviewed James about his new book, Atomic Habits which you can read here.
So this week we decided to sit down with him and learn a little more about how his work has impacted his daily work process and how he manages to focus on the things that matter every day.
As someone who wears multiple hats, (author, entrepreneur, weightlifter, and photographer,) how do you prioritize what tasks, activities, or people get your time each day?
Tough question. We all get one life and figuring out how to live it and where to spend your time is tough. I don’t have this mastered by any means. Currently, I like to think about life as divided into seasons. And, as often as I can remember, I try to ask myself “What season am I in?” and do the things I’m working on fit well with that season.
For example, my current season includes lots of writing and weightlifting. Those are two big areas of my life right now. At some point, in a few years, I’ll have kids and then I’ll probably enter a different season with less work and more family time. Unfortunately, it’s hard to have it all in any single season of life, but looking at my time in this way helps me stay focused on a few key areas without feeling like I’m missing out. I’m just saving the other stuff for a different season.
Do you have a routine or a work ritual that helps you stay focused and productive? If not, what does an average work day look like for you?
Given how much I write about habits, I’m probably more unstructured than people might expect. My ideal day is one with an empty calendar. That said, the things that help me focus the most are: 1) self-imposed deadlines like writing a new article every Monday (I don’t do as well with external deadlines) and 2) exercise. Training sessions in the gym give me something to anchor my day around, which helps keeps me balanced and also nudges me to get stuff done “before my workout.”
When did you realize that tech, devices, websites, and apps were taking a toll on your productivity? Or when did you realize you had to do something about it?
At some point in recent years, I realized that the default mode of many of the devices in my life was to interrupt me. If I didn’t take back my attention, then it would be taken automatically. Once I had this realization, I became very interested in methods that could help maintain productivity and focus. And, of course, I’m interested in the link between technology and habits as well.
If I didn’t take back my attention, then it would be taken automatically.
What are your biggest distractors and how do you fight them?
Like most people, my phone is probably the biggest one. The good news is, I have two methods that have helped a lot.
The first is that, whenever possible, I leave my phone in another room (outside of my office) until lunch each day. This gives me at least 3 or 4 hours of uninterrupted time to work. What’s remarkable is that I never really feel an urge to go get my phone even though I would certainly check it all the time if I had kept it with me. That’s a strange thing about many habits: once the smallest bit of friction is added, they fade away.
The second is that I keep my phone permanently in Do Not Disturb mode when it is on me. This means my phone never beeps, buzzes, or chimes when I get a text or a call. You might think this backfires sometimes and I miss a call or something. However, the average adult checks their phone over 150 times per day and I’m no different. Even though my phone isn’t buzzing, I’ll check it every couple minutes when I have it on me. Odds are, I can call or text someone back within a few minutes. It hasn’t been an issue yet.
How do you find the motivation to stay focused on the things that are most important to you?
I’ve found that feedback plays a huge role in my motivation. If I’m getting quick feedback (and especially if that feedback is positive and I’m making progress), then I have every reason in the world to continue. If I’m working hard, but I can’t tell if I’m progressing or not, then it’s easy to become demotivated.
I discovered this the hard way while working on Atomic Habits. While working on the manuscript, I wrote and wrote and wrote, but I didn’t get feedback from anyone for months (which was very different from the process of writing weekly articles on jamesclear.com). My energy sagged. It was only after I shared drafts with an editor and received concrete feedback on what they liked and didn’t like that found my motivation again.
How do you find a balance between being connected and overwhelmed?
Good question. Our world is more connected than ever before, which means curation is more important than ever before. There is so much noise and not that much signal. As a result, I’ve found one of the best ways to limit overwhelm and get the usefulness out of a connected world is to reduce the number of people you follow on social and think carefully about those you do follow. A similar rule applies to email: if you want fewer emails, then send fewer emails and think carefully about the ones you do send.
What resources or tools do you use on a daily basis that you have found useful to your writing/work process?
I keep it simple. My primary daily tools are: Evernote, Trello, WordPress, Fantastical, Google Docs, and Gmail.
What project are you currently most excited about?
Atomic Habits, of course! It launches on October 16th and I can’t wait to share it with the world. It’s the biggest project I’ve ever worked on and the best thing I’ve created in my career so far. Check it out at atomichabits.com