James Clear – Atomic Habits and Building a New Identity After Retirement

James Clear - Atomic Habits and Building a New Identity After Retirement

A challenging aspect of early retirement is the loss of identity you may experience when leaving a career you’ve spent a big chunk of your life building.

However, one of the most exciting parts of early retirement is that you have the time, money, and freedom to create a completely new identity!

How do you do it though?

Today, I had the privilege to speak to the writer who has been most helpful to me as I’ve started building my own new identity – James Clear.

In this episode, we discuss habits, deliberate practice, and how to best create a meaningful and purpose-driven life!

Listen Now


  • What makes life meaningful and how to live better
  • The importance of social connections
  • How to deal with the “pain of discipline”
  • The physics of productivity and why habits are so powerful
  • The importance of having an easy on-ramp to a task
  • Why a habit must be established before it can be improved
  • How to find a keystone habit that can improve multiple areas of your life
  • Why you should optimize for the starting line rather than the finish line
  • The downsides of habits
  • What is deliberate practice and why it’s important
  • How habits can change your identity
  • Why rewards are good (but only if they don’t conflict with your new identity)
  • What is intermittent fasting and why it’s beneficial

Show Links

Full Transcript

Mad Fientist: Hey! What’s up everyone? Welcome to the Financial Independence Podcast, the podcast where I get inside the brains of some of the best and brightest to find out how they achieved financial independence.

Today’s episode’s a real treat for me because I’m getting to interview somebody that I’m a big fan of. And I actually don’t know him personally. But a few weeks ago, I got an email from him, and I just assumed it was a normal newsletter email because I’m subscribed to his email list, but instead it was a personal email to me asking if I wanted a copy of his new book.

And since I’m a huge fan, I of course said yes. And I also asked if he wanted to be interviewed for the show. And luckily, he agreed. So I’m really excited to chat with him for the first time.

My guest is James Clear. And if you’re one of the other 400,000+ subscribers on his email list, you know that he’s one of the best writers when it comes to motivation and habits and personal productivity and health and well-being and lots of different topics that are actually all the topics that I am really needing to read about these days. Now that I’ve left my job, I don’t have any sort of external motivation to do things, but there are lots of goals and long-term projects that I want to make progress on. And his writing has been really instrumental in helping me make progress on those and do it in a way that’s not difficult and is actually enjoyable.

So, I can’t wait to talk to him about a lot of things. And also, I can’t wait to dive into his new book, Atomic Habit.

So, without further delay, James, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it.

James Clear: Oh, you bet! Thank you for having me.

Mad Fientist: And before we start out, I have to really thank you because I’ve been doing this for over six years. I’ve had some of the top finance minds on the show. And this is actually the first time my wife has thought I was super cool when I told her about you being on the show. So she doesn’t care about money at all, so she doesn’t know all the big finance names. But when I said you’re coming on, she was so pumped about it. So, thanks for making me look cool in her eyes.

James Clear: Nice! Yeah, that’s great. Well, thank you to her. And I’m excited to be here. Thanks so much.

Mad Fientist: No, no. And actually, a lot of thanks does go to her because over the last two years since I left my job, she has forwarded me about 10 of your emails because they’ve been exactly what I needed to read at the time that I needed to read them. And I’ve eventually obviously subscribed to your email list after the fact. But yeah, lots of great content that we’re going to dive into.

But before we get into the specifics, I noticed on your about page that you say the central question that you’re trying to answer with your work is “How can we live better?” And the fact that you focus on these things like habits and motivation and making progress on things, I’m wondering, does that mean that you think that tackling big projects and doing work that you’re proud of and making progress on important things that you are passionate about, is that what leads to a happy and good life?

James Clear: Yeah, that’s a tough question. I think everyone wants to do work that matters. Everybody wants to feel respected to some degree. And I feel that too. I want my work to feel like it’s making a difference and to hear stories like the one you just told, that makes me feel great, that you’re finding the writing useful and it’s been valuable to you at different points in your life and so on.

I’m not sure. I don’t know what the answer to like what makes life meaningful or what makes life worthwhile or feel purposeful. I can say, for me, at the times when I have felt that the strongest have had some form of social connection—either being part of a team or being a leader on a team where everyone is working toward a common goal, or in the case of my writing, sharing articles each week and then getting the feedback from the audience.

I actually didn’t realize that until I wrote a book. But writing my articles each week, I get feedback immediately. I’ll email everybody and I get all these emails back about what people liked or what they didn’t like. And I really thrive on that feedback, that social interaction. And with the book, it was hard for me because I didn’t get that as much. So that kind of clarified that social connection was an important part of that process for me.

So, I can’t say what it is for everybody. But I can say that having that type of connection, or for me, what makes the work matter is that other people are finding it easily.

Mad Fientist: Yeah, that’s a good insight. Since I left my job—I’m not sure how familiar you are with financial independence or the retirement community, but the main focus seems to be like, okay, people just want to get away from their jobs and save up enough money so that they never have to work again. And it’s usually getting away from something that’s bad, and not so much getting towards something that’s good.

So, for me, when I hit that goal two years ago, I was then just dropped into this place where it’s like, “Okay, now I’m really finding what’s important to me and I’m trying to make progress on that.” And that’s where your work has been super beneficial. But it’s a struggle because I don’t know if you’ve heard this quote before, but I just came across it recently, and it’s: “We must all suffer one of two things—the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.” And I realized that the dissatisfaction with my job wasn’t because I had a bad job. That wasn’t the case. It was the pain of regret that I felt like I wasn’t doing what I was actually meant to do and what I really wanted to do.

But when I had all the freedom in the world after leaving my job, that pain of regret was then substituted with the pain of discipline. And that’s where you come in. And that’s just equally as difficult.

You just wrote this fabulous book about habits. So my question to you is: “Do you think habits is the answer to the pain of discipline?” Is that something that could drastically reduce that pain of discipline?

James Clear: Well, it’s certainly one thing that can help a lot. So to answer your previous point, yeah, I’m very familiar with the FIER and the whole community. I’m kind of obsessed with it really. I love the methodology and the thinking behind it. I’ll read the FIER threads and all that type of stuff. I know Pete, Mr. Money Mustache and we’ve talked a couple of times.

Anyway, I appreciate a lot behind the philosophy and the thinking. With reference to discipline and habits, habits are—

I guess I should step back for a second and just talk about habits from a high level.

So, as you go through life, you face problems. And many of those problems are small; some of them are large. For example, your shoe could be untied. Needing to tie your shoe is a problem. It’s a small problem, but it’s something that you need to figure out.

So, you tie your shoes. And as you do it a hundred or two hundred or three hundred times, pretty soon, you learn how to do it on autopilot. You can have a conversation while you’re tying your shoes or think about something else.

And this is sort of the purpose of habits and why your brain forms habits, is that it allows you to solve problems that you face on a recurring or repeated basis in an automatic fashion so that you can free up your mind to focus on other things. You can direct your attention toward other areas.

In the case of discipline, habits make it easier to get into the work. And I think that is actually the key step to focus on. They don’t necessarily make hard tasks easy or painless. But they can make it less painful to get into the work.

And so, sometimes I like to think about habits like an entrance ramp to a highway. You slide on to this entrance ramp. You don’t have to be moving that fast. It’s not that difficult. You don’t have to think about it. And before you know it, you’re speeding 60 miles an hour down the other direction.

And a well-placed habit can sort of act like that in your life. It allows you to automated the beginning of a routine. And by automating the beginning and making it a ritual, you make it more automatic and easier to get into the work.

And once you’re there, well then you probably have to still focus and exert some effort to get the work done or to finish writing that chapter or whatever it is that you’re working on. But if you can make it as painless as possible to start, then it becomes easier to start each day.

And in many ways, habits are just an exercise in starting each day. If you can get started each time, then it is a habit.

Mad Fientist: Yeah, that’s been key for helping me. One of your articles talks about the physics of productivity. And that was huge for me. And it’s talking about having a nice, easy pre-game to get into that habit. And then that launches into letting you get to the work.

One of the big projects that I’ve only started working on after leaving my software career is just writing music. That’s always been a dream of mine, to write an album. It doesn’t matter if anybody buys it, just to have an album that I’ve written and that I’m proud of. But that’s so daunting especially for a math and science guy like me. How do you just pull a song out of thin air?

So, when I read your physics of productivity, I now have this really easy entrance ramp. And that’s just actively listening to one song that I like every day. And so I sit there with headphones on that are like my monitoring headphones that are really sensitive so I can hear all the different aspects of it. I’d listen to this song three times just picking up production techniques and trying to just really understand how it was put together.

And by the end of it, I already have my headphones in, so I can just plug in and start actually writing music. I’ve already been amped about it because I’m like, “Wow! This song was great. I would like to make a song this good myself.” And I usually pick out some sort of production thing that happened in the song, and I’m like, “Ooh, I should try that on the song I’m working on.”

So, it’s like this perfect, easy thing that I can get started because it’s not intimidating. It’s like you’re here, you have to listen to music, it’s just like, “Ooh, I love doing that,” so it’s not painful and it’s not intimidating, but then it launches me right into this really hard task.

Thanks a lot for that Physics of Productivity post. Is that probably one of the core aspects of starting a new habit, do you think, trying to find that easy on ramp to get that habit a daily practice?

James Clear: Yeah. So that’s a great example. What you just gave is a great example of what I call a motivation ritual in the book. A motivation ritual is just what you had described. It’s something that you do that’s very simple at the beginning that kind of gets you excited to do the work or at least gets you in the right mindset.

I played baseball for many years. And when I was playing in college, I would follow the same ritual at the beginning of each game. And one of the things that’s somewhat challenging about baseball as a sport is that there are so many games compared to other sports. You just are playing constantly.

And so coaches are always saying things like, “Alright, we’ve got to find a way to be motivated today. We’ve got to find a way to be up and be ready to play” and so on. And there are going to be some days where you show up, and you just don’t feel like you’re into it.

And so, for me, that ritual, just the same number of stretches and running and then the same kind of warm-up, the number of throws and so on, by the time that I finish that, I was like, “Alright!” It was like a switch had been flipped. And my brain was like, “Okay, it’s time to be in game mode.”

And so, in many ways, rituals like that can act that way.

You asked, “Is that the right way to start a habit?” and so on. What I usually recommend to people is what I call the 2-minute rule. T he basic idea is many of the habits that we want to follow cannot be completed in two minutes. But pretty much any habit can be started in less than two minutes. So, for example, go for a run becomes “put on my running shoes and step out the door” or do 30 minutes of yoga becomes “take out my yoga mat” or read one book every week becomes “read one page.”

I have a friend, a poet, who his habit each day is to write one sentence. Now, sometimes, he writes a whole poem or multiple pages. But every day, he just tries to write one sentence.

And sometimes people think this sounds a little bit like a trick, like “I know the real goal is to go for a run, like I’m not actually just trying to put my running shoes on and get out the door each day. But what people fail to realize, especially in the beginning is that a habit must be established before it can be improved. So you don’t even have the chance to optimize something if you don’t master the art of showing up every day.

And there are all these little logistical details associated with building a new habit that nobody really thinks about. Whenever we think about a new habit or some kind of goal that we want to accomplish, we always focus on the outcome. We’re always trying to optimize for the finish line. We think about, in your example, the great song that you want to produce, or we think about making six figures next year, or losing 40 lbs. in the next six months. It’s always focused on the end goal, the finish line.

But instead I think we should optimize for the starting line, not the finish line. And by doing that, by scaling it down to the first two minutes and making it as easy as possible, you start to figure out a lot of these logistical details that you don’t think about beforehand.

Say for example I had a reader who ended up losing over a hundred pounds. And one of the ways that he did it was that he went to the gym, but he didn’t allow himself to stay for longer than five minutes. So he would go, he’d show up. He’d do an exercise or something. And then, once it hit five minutes, he would leave. And he did this for like the first six weeks.

And it sounds like he’s not really doing anything. But what you fail to realize is that there are all these questions you have to answer when you’re starting a new habit like “Okay, I’m going to go to the gym. What gym will I go to? How will I get there? What road will I take? What path will I follow? Am I going to meet a friend there? Am I going by myself? What time of day am I going to go? Do I need to get my gym bag ready before I go to work? Or can I get my gym clothes afterward?”

All of those little things that you don’t think about because you’re just thinking about the outcome that you want, they kind of become these points of friction. And if you make it as easy as possible, and you just focus on the first two minutes—or in his case, the first five minutes—then you can get all that stuff figured out.

And then, by the time he turned around six weeks later, and he was like, “Well, I’m coming here all the time. I got to feel like I’m doing something more…”

And that’s like the complete opposite of how most people build a habit. Most people are like, “Alright! Let me do Insanity or P90X or join a crossfit gym or do something really intense because I’m all motivated and I want to get in shape,” and then it starts to feel like a hassle. The workout was a hassle. Ferreting out all those logistics is a hassle. And suddenly, there’s too much friction. They burn out after a week or two.

And so, my recommendation is to scale it down to the first two minutes. Get the habit established and master the art of showing up. And then, you have the chance to optimize and improve from there.

But if you don’t show up each day, then you don’t have the option to get better anyway.

Mad Fientist: Yeah, I know. That’s great advice. And that’s definitely something I found as well when I was trying to do an hour a day at least. There’d be days where I knew I wouldn’t hit that hour, so I would just not do anything, or I just wouldn’t feel up to doing an hour so I wouldn’t do anything. But when I lowered that to 15 minutes, then I would always show up for the 15 minutes. And that would always usually go past an hour which was great. So that’s fantastic advice.

I’m wondering when you’re doing all the research for the book if you came across any core keystone habits that then led to big life changes in other ways. Just from my personal experience, I started going to the gym two years ago and just lifting three or four days a week. And that’s the thing that eventually got me to floss which is something I was always trying to do for the previous 10 or 15 years—which is crazy.

And the reason is like I would go to the gym, and then I would obviously want to eat healthier. So that led to a better eating habit which often entailed lots of seeds and nuts. And then, that would lead to me wanting to floss because I had seeds in my teeth all the time.

And it also led to not drinking as much beer because I did all these hard work at the gym, so I didn’t want to ruin it by just drinking a bunch of alcohol.

So, it was like one core habit that then led to these three other habits of healthy eating, less drinking and flossing that I never even anticipated.

I was wondering if you came across any sort of other habits like that that led to other great changes.

James Clear: Isn’t that interesting how you eat better when you work out? You could be like, “Oh, no! Now I actually did something. I can have a donut.” But instead you don’t want to waste it.

Mad Fientist: Exactly!

James Clear: I had a similar keystone habit. Mine is also working out. I usually train four or five days a week. And if I get those four days in, then a lot of other things happen, similar to what you mentioned. I’ll sleep better at night because I’m tired from working out, which means I wake up in the morning and I have more energy and I’m better focused. I eat better because I don’t want to waste the effort that I put in at the gym. I get this post-workout high for an hour or so where I’m really focused. I have some clearer thoughts and can write well.

And at no point was I trying to build better sleep habits, focus habits or energy habits or whatever. It was all just this natural ripple effect that came from getting into the gym.

And there are some common ones to answer your question. Exercise is a popular one. Especially among creatives, you’ll hear going for daily walk is a big one.

There’s a book called Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. And it talks about the daily rituals and habits of a lot of these famous writers and scientists and musicians and so on. And it’s an interesting read. You end up finishing it and feeling like 80% of them were on amphetamines or alcoholics or some kind of crazy addiction. But the ones who were clean, going for a daily walk is often a huge part of their process. So that’s one.

Budgeting, interestingly, is one. When people pay off their debt or get their finances in order, they will sometimes start working out or they’ll start eating healthier and so on. It kind of ripples into another area.

For performers, visualization is often a big one; comedians for example. They do the same kind of visualization routine each time before they step on the stage. Or basketball players, same kind of thing, they’ll visualize before the game.

And then, the last one I’ve come across that’s fairly common is meditation. You’ll hear CEOs say that if they get their 10 minutes of meditation in each day, then the rest of the day feels like it kind of goes better or they’re more well-equipped to handle what happens throughout the day.

And for people who are listening to this, what I would suggest is you don’t have to do all of those of course. You’re just trying to figure out what is the keystone habit for me. And I think you can simply sit down and think about it for five minutes. “What do I do on days when things go well for me, when my life seems to feel like it falls in line? What usually happens on those days?” or “If I was going to plan out my ideal day, what would be included?”

And you’ll usually come up with maybe two or three of those things that I just mentioned or something similar that feels like “Okay, maybe this could be a keystone habit.”

And then, I would say forget about everything else. Just focus on that for the next month. And really, you can combine the strategy we just talked about. How can you make the first two minutes of meditation as easy as possible? Or how could you make the first two minutes of the workout as easy as possible?

And what you find is there’s kind of an ironic thing about making change and how habits sort of compound and make a difference in our lives. There doesn’t necessarily need to be that much to do. You could just focus on what you think this keystone habit could be and the first two minutes of it, making it as easy as possible to start.

And if you just did that for a month, you might find that there are all sorts of positive benefits that are happening a month or two or five months later. I would encourage people to start there. It’s a nice, easy, but high value way to get started.

And that’s one of the things that I try to focus on the book, what are these tiny changes that can lead to remarkable results in the long run.

Mad Fientist: Yeah, absolutely. You sent me the first three chapters because the book’s not out yet. I haven’t got the full copy yet. I can see why you sent me the first three. It sucked me in so much. I can’t wait for the rest of the book.

Although I could talk to you about habits all day, I think the book is going to cover it beautifully. And it’s called Atomic Habits. And it’s just like as you said. They’re small, tiny habits that just have big, big changes. You can make your life completely different just with a tiny, little habit.

I definitely recommend to anyone to go out and get it. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

But since the book covers it so well, I’m going to move on to another topic that I’m really interested in that you cover so well. And that’s deliberate practice. So I don’t know. If you wouldn’t mind, maybe just give a quick run through of what deliberate practice is, and then how that is different from habits. Habits are sort of the enemy of deliberate practice which is what you’ve said in some of your posts. And maybe explain why.

James Clear: Sure. So you haven’t seen the section yet, but the last chapter of the book is called The Downside of Good Habits. It references this issue, this dichotomy between habits and deliberate practice.

And deliberate practice, just to give us all a working definition here, I think most of us are familiar with putting some kind of practice in, but then it becomes mindless.

You’re a kid, and you’re practicing piano all the time, you’re just kind of like […] putting the work in because your parents told you to be there, or you’re shooting a basketball outside, but you’re just throwing it up, you’re not really thinking about it carefully.

Deliberate practice is the opposite. It’s focused, purposeful practice. So, one example that I give in an article that I wrote on this topic is imagine two players who are shooting free throws on a basketball court. The first is just shooting, takes some breaks, talks to friends or whatever. The other one shoots. And after every 10 shots has recorded how many they made, how many they missed, and the ones that missed, where they missed. Was it too long? Was it too short? To the right, to the left and so on…? And then, they review that after every 10, and then they shoot another set of 10 and do it again.

Okay, if these two players do this for an hour, who do you think ends up shooting better?

And the point here is that purposeful deliberate practice, focused practice where you’re paying attention to the errors and mistakes that you make, it makes you aware of what you need to do and where you need to improve.

And this is where the conversation returns to habits which is that, in the beginning, one of the most important and essential things for building a habit is to put in your reps. And in fact, what you find is that habits are a prerequisite for mastery. They’re required to build this foundation.

If you want to be a great chess player, for example, well, you need to automate and effectively learn how all the pieces move and where everything goes and be able to do that on autopilot before you can think about advancing to the next level of the game, starting to think about deeper strategy and so on.

And this is true at every level. As you progress up, you need to be able to internalize and automate whatever the skills were that you were working on, that you were practicing deliberately, and then use that as the foundation for the next level of deliberate practice.

Now, the challenge is, as something becomes a habit—and this is kind of the point of building habits—is that you pay less attention to it. Once you can do it on autopilot good enough, you stop thinking about how to do it better. You stop paying attention to maybe where your mistakes are.

And in fact, there’s a body of research that shows this, that as people habituate and internalize different tasks, there is often actually a slight decline in performance.

So, for example, they’ll often find that surgeons have actually the best outcomes like pretty early on in their career, maybe a few years out from residency. And then, after they’ve been doing it for years, there’s maybe a slight dip. It doesn’t mean they’re bad at it, but they aren’t at their peak anymore. And a lot of this is because of the fact that we overlook our errors and mistakes as things become habituated.

So, the process of improvement, it’s sort of like a cycle. It has to start with some level of awareness. If you’re not aware of your habits, or if you’re not aware of your behaviors, then it’s hard to design them in any meaningful way.

Then there’s a period of deliberate practice where you’re practicing a new habit for the first time, or you’re working on a new skill, and it requires effort, attention and focus. But with practice, it becomes a habit. And then, eventually, we have to close the loop and return back to awareness because now we’re on autopilot and we have to come back to where we were before.

And so that’s kind of how I see habits and deliberate practice working in concert with each other. We need to habitualize skills so that we can free up the energy and attention to focus on the next thing. Like all the best basketball players in the world can dribble with their left hand without thinking (or their opposite hand without thinking), and that allows them to work on other stuff like complicated shots or different offensive schemes or where do they need to be on the quarter, what time, all that type of stuff. But it’s only once you’ve habitualize the fundamentals that you can move on to the advanced stuff.

But once you get to that point, it’s a never ending cycle. You need to use that as the foundation for the next level of growth and deliberate practice.

Mad Fientist: Right! Okay. Yeah, that’s great. I’m excited that you do talk all that in the book. I think that seems like a very important piece.

I’m wondering… I imagine you’ve worked with some top performers and some impressive people to work through some of these things. And the one thing about deliberate practice for me that is a bit complicated—

It’s like, okay, for something like practicing guitar, it was perfect for that. I have played guitar since I was 10, and I was learning this Back classical guitar piece for maybe 10 years. And once I stopped lessons, I was like halfway through it. And this 10-year period of me just playing it, getting to the part where I didn’t know, and then trying to learn that next part, but not really focusing, it was like useless. It was like me playing for three minutes the part that I knew, playing two seconds the part that I didn’t know, and then screwing it up and then starting again and thinking that I’ll get better somehow doing that. And I honestly did that for like 10 years. And then, once I learned about deliberate practice, I was like, “Okay, this is ridiculous! I need to actually focus on the part that I can’t play, not keep playing the part that sounds great and makes me feel good about myself.”

So, what I did was I slowed down the tempo and just practiced the part that I couldn’t get. And then, once I could get it, I brought the tempo back up. And then, I integrated with the rest of the piece. I just did that for a few months, and then, eventually, just nailed the whole thing when, like I said, 10 years of just playing it randomly just didn’t work and didn’t get me any further.

And that makes sense. Deliberate practice there, my feedback is listening to this bad sound, realizing that I need to practice it, slowing it down, and that all make sense.

But for something like…

Right, exactly. Oh, exactly. It was insane. It was so quick to then just perfect it when practicing the right way. Okay, so that makes sense to me.

But for something like songwriting or something that’s not as like, okay, you’re just putting in the reps, have you ever had to work with anyone in that sort of scenario where it’s more maybe creative and less defined practice routines? And if so, how do you tackle something like that?

James Clear: Yeah, this is one of the criticisms of deliberate practice as a field. It works really well for well-defined fields especially sports or any type of competition where success is easily measured. For example, did you play the correct note or not? Or did you make the ideal chess move or not? Or did you end up with most points at the end of the game? Then it’s very easy to measure whether you’re moving in the right direction.

And I have a chapter in the book where I discuss measurement a little bit. And one of the challenges of measuring—

Well, one of the benefits of measuring is that—well, there are three things really.

The first is that measurement makes a habit more obvious. It makes a behavior more obvious. So by measuring something, you become aware of it.

Secondly, when you’re making progress, there’s an additive effect to measurement. For example, by tracking each time you do a behavior, or each time you perform a habit, like if you put an x in the calendar every day that you practice guitar, then you start to see those build up, and you get motivated to stick with it.

And then, the third thing—and this is kind of essential to the conversation we’re having now—is that a measurement makes a habit satisfying. It adds an immediate bit of gratification to doing the work. So if you’re able to check an x off on the calendar, then you feel like “Oh, this is good. I got my work in for today.”

So, even though you might not be able to play the piece in full yet, which is what the real thing you’re working toward, it doesn’t feel like you totally have to delay gratification because you still get the immediate gratification of measuring it and marking an x off and so on.

Now, the challenge is that—and this is something that’s called Goodhart’s Law—a measure ceases to be a good measure when it becomes the target. In other words, a measure is only useful when it informs you or when it is a bit of data that kind of nudges you toward the ultimate thing. But when it all becomes about the measurement, when the only thing that matters is hitting the quarterly numbers in the business, or hitting a particular number on the scale, then you start to sacrifice—like you don’t even care about health anymore, you just care about hitting the number on the scale. And so you’re over-focused on measurement.

I would say that that can actually be a downside to deliberate practice, is that sometimes if you’re so focused on measurement, it can pull you off course.

So, the question that you asked about some of these fields that don’t necessarily lend themselves to measurement or more creative, a little bit less quantitative or harder to measure, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t perform deliberate practice, or even really that it’s a disadvantage. It might not be as quantifiable.

But what I would say is what you’re looking for, one of the purposes the measurement should provide, is that it provides an emotional signal that you’re moving in the right direction. It provides a signal of progress. And that’s really all that you’re looking for.

So, in a creative field, you can have that, but maybe it just has to come in a different way.

So, an example, let’s take the scale and the weight example I just gave. If you’re obsessed with the number on the scale, then that measure is no longer really that productive or beneficial to practicing good health, whether that’s a diet you’re trying to follow or a workout you’re trying to do. And so it might be more useful to shift to a different form of measurement, so to speak, that gives you feelings of progress or makes you feel satisfied. So, this is where stuff like non-scale victories come into play.

Maybe you stop looking at the scale, or maybe the number on the scale hasn’t moved, but you feel like your energy is better, or you can fit into a pair of jeans you couldn’t fit into before, or your skin looks better in the mirror, or your libido is up. All of these are measurements, in a certain sense, that you’re making progress.

And when you’re dealing with a creative field or something that is not as quantifiable, you have to start looking for things like that. So you may not be able to track it, but how can I find a positive emotional signal that I’m making progress and I’m moving in the right direction. And that of course depends on what kind of field you’re working on and what the particular problem is.

But the core point is that behaviors need to be satisfying for you to have a reason to repeat them. And it’s particularly important that they’re immediately satisfying, that you kind of feel successful right at the ending of the behavior. If you do, then it’s like a signal to your brain, “Oh, hey, this felt good. You should do this again. You should practice again.”

If all you feel is negative emotion or some kind of pain or punishment or sacrifice, then you don’t have much reason to repeat the behavior. And this is why we often find ourselves slipping into behaviors that just feel they’re in the moment even if they don’t serve us in the long run.

Mad Fientist: Right! Yeah, no, that rings true with my experience as well. At first, for the songwriting thing, it was like, “Okay, my goal is to write this song,” and then I would finish it, and it wouldn’t be very good because it was like the first song I wrote. I would be pretty disappointed with it.

So then I’ve since switched over to recording just the number of hours that I put in because that’s something I can’t control. I’m also recording the number of songs I have finished it. And then, I’ve given finished songs to my brother to go through this Google form that I’ve created to actually grade it so that I’m getting some external feedback because I know that’s so important in deliberate practice as well.

And that seems to be working better because when I get to the end of my, say I do two hours, then I feel really good because I can put in my spreadsheet I did two hours. And that’s two hours of hard work that I put in.

And then, obviously, it’s nice to put a one or a two next to the month if I completed one or two songs that month because that’s the actual end goal, was to write songs. And then, obviously, getting that external feedback is always great especially from someone who I don’t care if he know it sounds like crap.

James Clear: I think people who appear to be good at delaying gratification—which is something that a lot of us comes back to or a lot of the research talks about, like you need to be willing to stay focused and stay aware of your mistakes and continue to improve and delay the ultimate gratification of writing a song or being good at whatever the craft is. But what I find or what my theory is that people who appear to be good at delaying gratification or often just good at finding alternative ways to be satisfied in the moment. So, for you, it’s recording that on the spreadsheet. It gives you a reason to feel successful right then.

And that’s particularly important for building a habit or for having some reason to revisit it. There are all sorts of examples of products that have done this. So, for example, chewing gum had been around for decades, hundreds of years, before it became really popular. And that’s because, for a long time, it was just chewy, but it wasn’t tasty. It was like this kind of bland resin.

And then, in the late 1800s, Wrigley created Juicy Fruit and Spearmint. And they added flavors to the gum. So it was like immediately satisfying to chew it. And all of a sudden, chewing gum exploded, and they became the biggest chewing gum company in the world. And it was largely because there was suddenly like this immediate feedback loop, this immediate sense of satisfaction.

Mad Fientist: Right.

James Clear: And that doesn’t work for every habit. You can’t always have some instant bit like that. But what I think the ultimate form of immediate gratification is is a reaffirmation or a reinforcing of your identity.

So, if you want to be the type of person who writes music every day, then each time you sit down to write music, you are being that person. And once you start to adopt that identity, that’s a very powerful place to be.

For me, part of my identity is I’m the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. So each time I go to the gym, I’m like casting a vote for being that type of person.

And it might take months for me to hit whatever number I want to hit on a particular lift or for my body to change in the mirror. But each day, I get to have that sense of satisfaction of forging that identity and being that type of person.

And that’s one reason why I think identity-based habits are so powerful because if you can root it in a belief like that, every time you do the behavior, you are being that. It’s sort of an instant form of success.

Mad Fientist: Yeah, that’s huge. And that goes back to the whole eating healthy and not drinking as much beer after working out because I felt like, “I’m a gym guy. I’m an athlete. I’m a lifter” and all these other things that I never thought I was before when I was just a geeky, lazy computer programmer.

James Clear: I think that’s an important point, that you don’t want to cast votes for competing identities. If you go to the gym, and then you go eat ice cream afterwards, it’s kind of like, well, it sort of cancels out. Which identity are you?

And so, I think it’s important to find ways to reward yourself that, reinforce that identity that you’re looking to build.

For example, if you’re talking about FIER and people saving for retirement, well, you could say that your reward for hitting some savings goal is like buying a leather jacket. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But it sort of conflicts with the idea of saving.

It could be something like your reward is you go camping for a week, or you get to go for a walk in the woods, or you have 30 minutes to yourself for a bubble bath or something, those type of rewards more align with this idea of like “My ultimate goal is to have freedom and control of my time.” And so you’re casting a vote for that identity whenever you save because you’re saving towards freedom and optionality and power and in control of your time. And when you reward yourself with that, like “Okay, now I get 30 minutes just to relax,” then you’re kind of like reinforcing that identity again.

Now, I think that it’s important to find ways to reward yourself that still reinforce the desired identity.

Mad Fientist:Yeah, absolutely.

I’m going to switch gears a little bit because this is something that you have directly changed in my life, so I really want to talk to you about it. And that’s intermittent fasting. My wife sent me an article from your email list about intermittent fasting. And it already aligned closely with my eating habits to begin with. So it was a fairly easy change to switch over, but it’s been great.

I just want to maybe get you to quickly describe it, and then maybe talk about your personal intermittent fasting schedule and what you find is the most optimal for you.

James Clear: Sure! So I’ve been doing intermittent fasting for—it’s been a while now, I’ll probably get this wrong. It’s been at least five years, probably more like six or seven. And I’m not militant about it. I probably do it, I would say, 330 days out of the year or so. But if I can’t do it while I’m traveling or if I’m on vacation or we have things over and things change, I’m not really worried about that.

And this is sort of a theme of my approach to intermittent fasting (and really a lot of my philosophy for approaching other problems of behavior change or improvement) which is that we need to stretch the time scales out a little bit. Like you don’t need to worry so much about what you’re eating on a 24-hour basis or even on a smaller scale like are you having a meal every hour or something.

So, to get everybody up to speed, intermittent fasting is not a diet. If you want to change your diet or eat Paleo or Keto or vegan or whatever, that’s a different conversation, the type of food that you’re eating. It’s simply a schedule for when you eat.

The most popular style is an 8/16 split. So you would eat all of your meals during eight hours. Usually, for me, it’s somewhere around noon to 8 p.m. And then, you fast for the next 16 hours. So you’d stop eating around eight, and then you don’t eat until noon the next day. So, in this example, you would be skipping breakfast.

There are other schedules that you can follow. For example, some people eat their normal patter six days a week, and then they just fast for one day. So like on Sunday, they just won’t eat anything. They’ll just have water for example.

And this is some of the most common questions I get. “Can I drink water? Can I drink coffee?” Yes, you can. I drink tons of water. So you continue drinking throughout the day.

Coffee, the general rule of thumb is if you have less than 50 calories while you’re fasted, then you’re not going to break the fasted state. Now you can’t just keep having 50-calorie things because then those eventually adds up and crosses that threshold. But if you want to have a cup of coffee with a splash of milk in the morning, that’s probably fine.

So, the reason intermittent fasting got popular is—it was largely popularized by Martin Berkhan who runs this Whole Lean Gains. And he was this big, ripped bodybuilder. He followed this pattern. And there is some scientific evidence that shows that fasting like this will alter your insulin levels and put you in potentially more a fat-burning state.

I was mostly interested in it from a simplicity standpoint. I like having one less meal to prep each day. I like having one less meal to think about each day. I like having one less meal to clean up for each day.

I work out of a home office. And so I loved the fact that I wake up, get ready, have a glass of water, walk 10 seconds to my office, and I can be writing or into whatever work I need to be doing really quickly. It removes another point of friction at the beginning of my day. So, I like that, that I can get into my day right away. And I like the fact that it simplifies my life a little bit.

The other thing is—and this comes back to the timescale piece I mentioned earlier—I was interested like is this going to affect my training. Will it affect my workouts, my energy levels throughout the day or what-not?

I don’t know if it’s from advertising or if it’s just a societal conversation now, but I think that we’ve become a little too hyper-focused in making sure that we eat all the time. Let’s say you eat 2500 calories in a day. Well, if you have 2500 calories between say noon and 8 p.m. like we’re talking about here, or you have 2500 calories between say 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., and you eat breakfast at eight, well, at the end of each day, does it really make a big difference? I kind of feel like your body is going to figure out what to do with the food. I just don’t know that it’s going to be that meaningful.

And to kind of further the point, most of us have had—you know, you go out for drinks on Friday night, and you sleep in on Saturday or something. And then, you don’t eat brunch until 11:30 or 1:00 even. So you’ve kind of unintentionally intermittent fasted that day, and you didn’t think twice about it. It wasn’t even a big deal at all. You were fine.

So, many people, it happens too randomly every now and then anyway. So to do it in a little bit more consistent fashion, I don’t think as meaningful of a difference as many people worry about.

And this is one of the weird things about intermittent fasting, which is that for many new behaviors and habits, they’re very easy to do mentally. Mentally, like, “Oh, yeah! Of course I should go to the gym and work out for two hours to get fit and do all these stuff,” but then they’re really hard to practice physically. You go there and it’s like, “Oh, man! After doing crossfit for two weeks, I’m out of here!” But intermittent fasting is the opposite.

It’s incredibly easy to do physically. You do nothing. You just don’t eat a meal. The hard part is mentally. People are like, “Wait! Skip breakfast?! I can’t do that. That sounds crazy!” And as soon as you can get over that mental hurdle, it’s incredibly easy to practice. All you do is just grab a glass of water and get to work.

Mad Fientist: And it gets easier and easier, I’ve found. Your body just adapts so quickly to the new schedule. I feel less hungry even in just odd times than I would in the normal schedule.

James Clear: Oh, I don’t even think about it now. Yeah, it’s automatic.

Now, okay, so some people are going to wonder about the fat loss benefits and does it actually burn more fat and all the type of stuff. My personal opinion is that—and there had been researches done on whether intermittent fasting adds up and makes a difference like that. Most of the research is like, if it does, it’s a minimal effect. But the real reason I think people lose weight when intermittent fasting is that they eat fewer meals. And because they’re eating fewer meals, it’s kind of—

If you just eat your normal lunch and eat your normal dinner, by the time you finish that meal, you’ll probably feel about the same as you usually do. And so you just cut a third of the calories out (or if you have a smaller breakfast, maybe it’s a fifth of your calories each day). And even if you have a slightly larger serving at lunch and dinner than you normally would because you didn’t eat in the morning, you probably aren’t having 1 ½ times more. And so, the end result is maybe you cut out 100 or 300 or 500 calories a day. And once you do that, and just stick to that for three months or six months or whatever, then yeah, you end up losing a little bit of weight.

So, I think it’s kind of a brain dead, simple way to reduce the number of calories that you’re going to have. And by doing that, eventually, it adds up and you also reduce the amount of weight that you have.

Mad Fientist: Yeah, especially considering how sweet and sugary most American breakfasts probably are, especially the ones that are grabbed on-the-go. So it does make a lot of sense.

As far as someone like me who is lifting and who’s trying to put on mass a bit rather than lose weight, have you found the lean gain’s attitude of maybe doing a protein shake or something before a workout beneficial?

James Clear: Yeah, I’ve been trying to and have been slowly bulking up for, I don’t know, a couple of years now. But I am now mostly in the maintenance phase in the sense that I don’t need to get that much bigger than I am now (although I would like to continue to get stronger, so we’ll see how that goes. Usually, those things don’t add up well together).

I train in the evening, usually around 5 p.m. or so which means I’m in the middle of my eating window. So I don’t have to train fasted.

Mad Fientist: Sure.

James Clear: Now, if you train in the morning—which I have done, I have trained fasted before—if you’re going to lift for an hour or so, I don’t think it makes that big of a difference. If you want to have a protein shake, that’s probably fine. I would look for something that is on the lower calorie end.

Sometimes, if people are getting really obsessed with it, they want to have BCAAs instead of an actual protein shake because then they don’t have to worry about the calories. But if you’re going to do something longer than an hour or an hour and a half, you’re going to do a 3-hour bike ride or some kind of endurance training for a triathlon or something, I don’t know that my recommendation would be to train fasted if that’s the case.

Mad Fientist: Sure.

James Clear: I think that it’s probably better to have something before a long train session like that.

But as with all of these stuff, your mileage may vary. And I think the best thing to do is just to try it out and test it a few times and see how it goes. That’s what I did. And I ended up settling on, yeah, I get my best lifts in when I’m lifting in the early evening rather than in the morning.

Mad Fientist: Okay. Do you do any sort of longer fasts, like 24-hour or 48-hour fasts or…?

James Clear: Sometimes, I find that to be a very effective strategy. I think the longest I’ve done is 36 hours or something like that, maybe 40. But sometimes, I find it to be an effective strategy when I’m traveling because, a lot of times, airport food is terrible. And so, if you just treat it as “Alright! I’m just going to fast for today,” then you just grab some water, then you go to your destination, and then you wake up the next morning and have breakfast, sometimes I find that to be useful.

Mad Fientist:Cool! Well, we’re getting to the end of the hour. And I want to be respectful of your time. I’m sure you’re a busy man these days. So I usually ask all my guests what’s one piece of advice they’d give to somebody on the path to financial independence. I’m going to ask you, but you’re welcome to take it a non-financial direction or keep it financial. It’s totally up to you.

James Clear: Well, I write not just about habits, but also about decision-making and mental models. And one of my favorite mental models—or just you could think of this as like a lens for looking at the world—is inversion.

The way that inversion works is you take what you want to achieve, and you imagine the opposite. So, for example, the ancient stoics and Greeks philosophers, they used to perform what they would call a premeditation of evils. So they would meditate or think about the opposite of what they wanted. For example, “What if I became homeless? Or what if I lost the ability to walk? Or what if my spouse left me?”

And the point is not to make yourself depressed about these things, but to think through what the scenario would be like to try to fortify your mental outlook so that you could be able to handle when life throws something your way, and then also, and most importantly, to be able to prepare for that. So what can I do to prevent that from happening?

And I find that to be an incredibly effective approach for dealing with daily life and of course with finances as well.

So, the question you can ask yourself is: “Alright! If I want to retire early, what would I do to make sure that I could never retire?” Well, maybe I would buy a house that would be like way beyond my ability to pay, or I would purchase more cars than I need, or I would spend money on frivolous things and not save automatically each month.

And the point is, as you go through this exercise and get more deep with the details, you start to identify essentially what are the stupid things that you should make sure you don’t do. And this is something that Charlie Munger (who is Warren Buffet’s long-time business partner), he says that much of the success that they have had in business has not been because they’ve been incredibly intelligent, but because they’ve avoided making stupid mistakes and dumb decisions.

And this sounds simple, but it’s actually harder than you’d think in practice. And one of the reasons is because of lifestyle creep. People get a promotion, and then they’re like, “Well, maybe we could get a bigger house. We could afford the mortgage payment.” You start talking yourself into all sorts of things that may not be ideal to your particular situation or for your long-term goals.

And so, I think it’s important to practice inversion on a consistent basis just to try to see what is the other side, what would be the dumb decision that we don’t want to make a mistake on, and how can we prepare and prevent that currently.

Mad Fientist: That’s a very cool answer. And yeah, I remember I think reading an article maybe on your site that talks about that. So I will try to find that and I will put a link to that and all the articles that I’ve mentioned in the shownotes, and also a link to the book which is Atomic Habits, which I’m super excited to finish.

So James, I really can’t thank you enough. This has been a treat. I can’t wait for my wife to hear it. She’ll think I’m the man for being able to talk to you and ask all these questions that she’s been forwarding these articles for years. So I really appreciate it. I wish you the best of luck with the book. And anything I could do to help, I’m happy to. So thank you so much for being here.

James Clear: Oh, thank you so much, yeah. I really appreciate it. And as one final thing, if folks are interested in checking the book out, AtomicHabits.com is the best place to go. You can find the book there.

Mad Fientist: Oh, perfect! Excellent! That’s great, James. Thanks so much. And I’ll hopefully speak to you soon.

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11 comments for “James Clear – Atomic Habits and Building a New Identity After Retirement

  1. Millionaire Dojo
    October 16, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    I may be 10+ years out, but I need to start thinking about what I want to do with my time when I become FI and see if there’s anything I could start doing now that I haven’t thought about. Thanks for the great content Mad Fientist! Your’s is my favorite money podcast by far.

    • Fitzpatrikmd
      October 31, 2018 at 1:01 am

      It’s my favorite too. I appreciate that you take the time and make the effort to articulate what you want to say using the English language correctly and not excessively informally, unike many other podcasters.

  2. gofi
    October 16, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    This one’s real timely for me – thanks. My keystone habit is to make my weekends more productive – in that, it should have a workout, some writing and a side hustle (best case scenario). I’ll start with working out –

  3. GenX FIRE
    October 19, 2018 at 11:47 pm

    Retirement will be easy for me. I plan on doing it in two phases. Phase one is the downshift where I work part time or consult to earn money, but less than I do now with more free time than I have now. This will ease me into retirement. The second phase will be when I give up on working entirely. That will be fun. I have so many interests and hobbies that I will be happy to have the time to finish things I have started.

    My desire to get further into this world is driven by my desire for more time with those things. Of course my wife and son are parts of the equation, but that goes without saying. Friends and family are also included.

  4. Tim D
    November 3, 2018 at 9:58 am

    Hey man, love your podcast! This one is timely for me as well. I wanted to add a quick note here about habits for creative’s. I’m a pretty big fan of Jon Foreman from Switchfoot, and one thing I remember him saying was he writes a song each day, no matter the quality, and has people he respects review them quantitatively. Almost exactly what you were doing with the spreadsheet and your brother. So I think you’re on the right track!

  5. Danielle Ogilve
    November 4, 2018 at 7:53 am

    I feel like social interaction is a good measure of what makes something purposeful or meaningful. Being able to touch someone’s life through writing and getting feedback from it must be so rewarding.

  6. Ani
    November 5, 2018 at 9:41 am

    I love the message. The story about the man who went to the gym for just 5 minutes for over a month really resonated with me. I have to obtain a certification for work, and I have done everything I can to stall it for about 2 years now…I need to pick up Mr. Clear’s book. I’m sure that if I follow Mr. Clear’s 2 minute rule, I can get back into the mindset of studying for my certification. Thank you, Mad Fientist, for another great interview.

  7. Eric
    November 6, 2018 at 10:32 pm

    My wife and I have been on the path to FI for 10+ years now. We just didn’t know it was a think that had a name. We recently discovered this podcast and have been really enjoying it. This episode spoke to me. For me FI has nothing to do with money and everything to do with my time. This episode really made me think. I’d better have some good ideas about what I’ll do with all that time because I really define my self concept around success at work. After listening to this episode, I find I’m thinking really seriously about what my passions are and how I’ll pursue them in retirement. It’s really a comfort to know there is a whole community out there who thinks like we do. Thanks for the great podcasts and tips.

  8. Jennifer
    November 13, 2018 at 9:43 am

    Hi! I just realized that your last two episodes are not showing in my feed on my podcatcher (Podcast Addict), even when I refresh. Any thoughts on how to fix this?

    • Joe
      November 14, 2018 at 5:20 pm

      Same issue for me. Not updating with Podcast Addict. Has the RSS feed changed?

  9. LazySod
    November 26, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    Cool podcast, I shall grab a copy of that book some day. I did not know you played guitar. Maybe some day we can start some sort of virtual band only with FIRE fans. But how did your album turn out ? Maybe that could be a post idea. Cheers.

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