Breaking Bad Habits with James Clear

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james clear breaking bad habits

Do you have bad habits?  Are they costing you money?  We learn ways of breaking those bad habits and replace them with healthy ones with James Clear.

James Clear’s first site, Passive Panda, is dedicated to helping people earn more money through freelancing, employment, and entrepreneurship. He started studying the psychology of why people clicked on certain links, read certain articles and bought certain things.

The more he learned, the more interested he became in how habits shape our lives and his new project was born.

How Habit Shapes Our Life

We repeat about 40% of our behavior almost every day. Think about it. Do you brush your teeth every day, wipe down your countertops, take your vitamins?

Yep, those are habits.

Over time, certain habits can become part of our identity. I’m a runner and when I broke my foot (not running) several years ago, I had to give it up for weeks. It felt strange like I was not myself anymore.

This applies to bad habits too. Do you always drink a soda with your lunch, have a cigarette with your first cup of coffee? You probably don’t even think about these things anymore, they’re just automatic, a habit.

Creating A Habit

There are three steps to creating a habit:  reminder, routine, and reward. Even bad habits have rewards, that’s why they become habits. James uses the example of your phone ringing. The sound is the reminder, the routine is to answer the sound, and the reward is finding out who is calling.

If the reward is a positive one, even if the habit is negative, you will start to repeat the behavior, or routine, each time you receive the reminder. If this happens enough, you’ve developed a habit.

Professionals do things on a schedule. Amateurs do things when they're motivated or it's easy.

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Take The Emotion Out Of It

Do you wait until you “feel like” doing something to do it? What if you never feel like doing it? Or by the time you feel like doing it, you haven’t left enough time to actually get it done. If you have things that need to get done, set a schedule and do them.

Don’t wait until it’s easy to start. James sticks to a specific publishing schedule and that is what has made the biggest difference to his work.

Habit Stacking

Habit stacking is a method that can build a new habit into an existing one. Look at something you do regularly, laundry for example. You can stack a new habit into this routine. Every week when you do your laundry, you also set up your budget for the week.

Doing the laundry is a reminder, including budgeting with the laundry makes it a routine, and the reward is better-managed finances. Now you’ve attached a new habit to an existing one, making it more likely to stick.

Tiny Gains

James wanted to build a habit of gratitude. He chose a time of day and started thinking of one thing to be grateful for. This on its own, one thing, doesn’t seem like a lot but over a week or a month or a year, that’s a lot of gratitude stacking up. Even if the behavior is small, the gains are cumulative.

Breaking Bad Habits

How do you break a bad habit? It’s easier to replace a bad habit than to eliminate it. Figure out what reward the bad habit is giving you. Do you eat when you’re bored?

Eating alleviates the boredom because it gives you something to do. In order to break this habit, find something healthy to do that isn’t eating. Write an e-mail, call someone, go for a walk, clean one drawer in your dresser.

Because habits identify us to some degree, associating a negative identity to the habit you want to break can help. When you think of a smoker, what do you think of? Dirty, smelly, weak, unhealthy? Those are things none of us want to identify as.

But if you smoke, those are traits associated with smokers. If being dirty, smelly, weak and unhealthy is not who you want to be, you have to eliminate the behavior tied to those characteristics.

Will Power

You need will power to start a new habit or to break an old one. Look at what chips away at your will power. Write those things down. This can help you come up with a strategy to overcome that erosion.

If you bite your nails when you feel stressed, what is something you could do to make yourself feel more comfortable in those stressful situations?

As we make more decisions, our will power gets fatigued. Think of your food choices on a typical day. Do you start out great by eating a healthy breakfast, but then things start to go downhill as the day goes on?

You do okay at lunch, grab something from the vending machine during the late afternoon slump, and just give up entirely and order in for dinner.

This is decision fatigue. The fewer choices you give yourself, the easier it is to get through the day making good decisions. The time of day you do things can help extend your will power too. When are you most motivated, most creative, least tired?

Time the hardest task to coincide with the time of day that you have the most reserves of whatever that task requires.


The environment affects your habits too. If you know you can’t eat one cooking without finishing the whole package, remove the cookies from the environment. Just don’t buy them.

Use our innate laziness to your advantage. If you really wanted the cookies, you could go out and buy them. But you probably won’t.

Are you trying to increase your productivity? What distracts you when you should be working, the phone, text messages, Facebook notifications? Remove those things from your work environment so you can’t use them as excuses to procrastinate.

Design your environment to reduce the number of steps between you and a good habit and to increase the number of steps between you and a bad habit. Visual cues can help. If you want to eat better, leave a bowl of fruit on the counter.

If you want to watch less television, put the television away. You can still watch it, but it’s not the first thing you see when you walk into a room.

Social Contracts

If you want help breaking bad habits, tell those around you that you are going to stop engaging in the habit. Being held accountable can help keep you honest. There are websites that can help with this. StickK allows you to make a contract that will help you reach a goal.

Birds Of A Feather

Birds of a feather can also be a factor in your habits. If you’re at a bar and a group of your friends go out to smoke, you join. It’s social and fun.

But if you’re the only one huddling in the rain while everyone else is in the cozy bar having fun without you, you might be less inclined. This doesn’t mean you have to dump your smoker friends, but maybe stop going to the bar with them.

Being part of a group that has the same goals and habits that you want for yourself provides a lot of support.

If you can’t find anyone to get on board with your new, good habits, go it alone. You may not be alone for long. When people see the changes you make and the positive effects of those changes, they may want that for themselves. Don’t preach though, no one likes that. Show people with your actions and not your words.

I Can’t Versus I Don’t

If you want to stop doing something, eating out too often for example, it’s more affirming to phrase going out to eat often as something you don’t do rather than something you can’t do.

As soon as you’re told (even if it’s something you tell yourself) that you can’t do something, it becomes forbidden fruit and we all want what is forbidden to us.

By telling yourself you don’t do something, it gives you some agency over the decision making it easier not to do. Phrasing it this way helps bolster rather than drain your will power.

Upper And Lower Bounds

If you have a hard time getting started on a task, tell yourself you will just do it for two minutes or you will only do it for five minutes. Starting is the hard part and once you get started, momentum takes over and it’s easier to keep going.

Just run for two minutes. But you’re already dressed to run, you’re already in the gym, you’re already running! It seems silly to stop after just two minutes.

Find Your Method

We all have habits we need to start and habits we need to break. Try some of the methods James has outlined and see what works best for you. I was pretty on board with everything he said until he outed himself as an Ohio fan. Go Blue!

 Show Notes

James Clear:  James’ site devoted to helping you develop good habits.

The Power of Habit:  Why we do what we do in life and in business.

LMM Tool Box:  All the best resources to manage your money.

Candice Elliott - Senior Editor
Candice Elliott is a substantial contributor to Listen Money Matters. She has been a personal finance writer since 2013 and has written extensively on student loan debt, investing, and credit. She has successfully navigated these areas in her own life and knows how to help others do the same. Candice has answered thousands of questions from the LMM community and spent countless hours doing research for hundreds of personal finance articles. She happily calls New Orleans, Louisiana home-the most fun city in the world.

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