On his 30th birthday, Steve Jobs sent the following Hindu saying to his friends:
“For the first 30 years of your life, you make your habits. For the last 30 years of your life, your habits make you.”
James Clear understands the power of habits as well as anyone. And he uses that knowledge to not only educate his audience, but also to build the habits that have resulted in a powerful online business.
Tune in to hear about James’ entrepreneurial journey, the habitual steps he took to succeed, and how the audience he built landed him a book deal.
The Show Notes
Entrepreneurial Habits, with James Clear
James Clear: I’m James Clear. I write about habits and decision making and I’m unemployable.
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Brian Clark: On his 30th birthday, Steve Jobs sent the following Hindu saying to his friends: “For the first 30 years of your life, you make your habits. For the last 30 years of your life, your habits make you.”
James Clear understands the power of habits as well as anyone. And he uses that knowledge to not only educate his audience, but also to build the habits that have resulted in a powerful online business.
Tune in to hear about James’ entrepreneurial journey, the habitual steps he took to succeed, and how the audience he built landed him a book deal.
James, how are you? So good to have you on the show. Big fan.
James Clear: Yeah, thank you so much. It’s great to talk with you as well.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it’s so funny, I guess I discovered you through the act of curating my newsletter Further. I’d come across your content, I’m like, “There’s another one from James Clear.” And I’m like, “Can I overdo one source too much?”
How Did You Get Interested in This Topic?
Brian Clark: Your stuff on habits – I mean, habits are really at the root of everything. Let us know how you got interested in this topic at this level that you wanted to actually dig so deep that you could share everything you could possibly learn about it.
James Clear: Yeah, well, first of all, thank you. I really appreciate you sharing my stuff. I’m happy to hear that you’re finding it useful.
There are two answers to your question. The first answer is personal experience. I played baseball through college and any athlete that plays at a high level knows that habits are central to what you’re doing at practice every day and improving in whatever your sport or craft is.
Without realizing it at the time, I was putting a lot of those ideas in practice. Then, like all athletes, my career ended and I started my business and I was doing writing and thinking. As I looked back and started to connect the dots, I thought about, “Well, why was I successful in some areas, and then why was I not successful in others?” That was when I started to see, “Oh, habits are a really big piece here.”
Then the second answer to your question is through the lens of entrepreneurship, which is when I started my company, I did a bunch of things like any entrepreneur would the first year or two. I tried a variety of different ideas.
One of the first ideas I tried was this iPhone app that totally flopped. I think I ended up spending, I don’t know, $1,500 on it, and I think it made like 17 bucks in total. And I realized the reason it didn’t work, I didn’t know why anybody would sign up for anything. I didn’t realize, I really didn’t understand the marketing part of it. I thought, “Oh, if I just make a good product, then I’ll figure it out.”
I started studying consumer psychology, and that led me to behavioral psychology, and that led me to habit formation and some of the science around it. I have always had this dual background where I was really into athletics and really into sports, enjoyed weight lifting, and also was really into science and was like a big science nerd.
So I had these two things that suddenly emerged where I said, “Oh, there are all these things I learned from my career as an athlete about putting habits in practice. And then there’s this interesting research in literature on why humans behave the way they do that I’m trying to learn for building a business.” Eventually, I started to combine those two.
In the beginning, a lot of the writing I did at Jamesclear.com was a little more health-focused and strength training-focused. I still write about that stuff occasionally. But the more that I wrote about habits, those articles just naturally did better. People were interested in them for one reason or another. I gradually started to tighten the funnel and focus on that more and more.
Then, once you get into it really deeply, which I’m sure we can talk about, you just see how habits are everywhere and their effects get magnified over time as they compound. Once I realized how important they were, then I was like, “People are enjoying this and it seems to be a very important topic. I should probably spend more time on it.”
Brian Clark: Yeah, it’s interesting coming at it from a marketing standpoint. My background’s in psychology, and I’ve always tried to convince people it’s all about psychology. Also, healthy dose of sociology once we got to social media so that you can understand why people behave the way they do. Crowd dynamics are part of it as well, and I know you’ve touched on that in the past.
I guess we’re going to get a little meta here, which is my world. Basically, I teach people content marketing while practicing content marketing on them to build our business. You write about habits and engage in those same type of behaviors in your own entrepreneurial journey.
How Did You Start Your Business? What Was the Beginning of Your Journey?
Brian Clark: Let’s go back just a little bit. You played baseball in college, that ends, and then your first business was the attempt at the app or something else?
James Clear: Well, I guess, if we’re being technical about it, the very first thing I was doing was actually in college. I was reselling everybody’s textbooks on Amazon for them — my friends and family and people on my floor in the dorm and all that type of stuff. Then I would keep the cut of it or whatever. That was probably the first entrepreneurial thing I did, but I never really considered that business.
Then the second thing I did, which I didn’t realize at the time was entrepreneurial, was I created my own major. I looked at all the options the college had and said, “I kind of like some of these, but don’t really love any of them, so let me just go ahead and create my own collection of classes.” I pitched that to the Academic Affairs Council and they ended up approving it. That was great. I got to take the classes I wanted and avoid the hard stuff that I would be really bad at. That was also one of my first chances of entrepreneurial thinking.
Then I got done with the undergrad. I went to grad school, I got my MBA, which a lot of entrepreneurs like to complain about how MBAs are relatively worthless. Honestly, for what I do now, it wasn’t a huge help, but I do think they play an important role. If you want to be an investment banker or go into management or work at a Fortune 500, then getting an MBA can be a great thing. I just decided that it gave me two years to think.
The start of my entrepreneurial career came out of that time, because there was this international essay competition my second year of grad school. I ended up winning it and the prize was $10,000. That was the money that I lived off of for the first six months after I graduated while I started my company. If I hadn’t done that, I don’t know, I probably would have ended up an entrepreneur somehow. But that was the path that I ended up following.
Brian Clark: That’s a good sign when you win 10 grand for writing.
James Clear: Yeah, I didn’t even think about it that way. But that is funny that I spend more of my time writing now than anything else. Yeah, that was maybe a sign of things to come.
Brian Clark: So, the six months that that basically financed was the start of Jamesclear.com and the business that now surrounds that?
James Clear: Well, for the first two years, I actually was working on a variety of projects. I worked on the iPhone app that I mentioned. I had another blog about marketing and stuff that doesn’t even exist anymore. But that was where I cut my teeth and learned how to build an email list. Over two years, I think I had built that email list up to 20,000 people. That was really the first time that I learned what a blog was, and how to create a website, and how to build an email list and all that stuff.
Then after that two-year incubation period, I was making basically just enough money to get by. I had been writing about habits in private for like a year. I had this 60-page Word document that I had written about all my thoughts on habits and when they were useful and how I used them and so on. That was the foundation of content that I launched Jamesclear.com with. November 12th, 2012 was the first article I put out there.
What Did You Have to Implement Personally from Your Research on Habits?
Brian Clark: 2012. Okay. It’s interesting at this point in time, in 2018, you don’t really have to tell people so much, like 2006, that building an audience is really the key to it. But it also takes an incredible amount of discipline. It takes an incredible amount of patience. What were you able to implement personally from your research and extensive knowledge of habit formation? Did you have to break any habits in order to get into the proper groove?
James Clear: Yeah, that’s a good question. I did, looking back on it now. There’s always this challenge of analyzing yourself and how much do you get right and whatnot. As I look back on it, those first two years not only allowed me to incubate my skill set and learn a lot of the online marketing stuff and how to write better and so on, but also I didn’t know how to manage myself. I didn’t know how to break up my day. Thankfully, my default is to work more, not less. But that can lead to challenges too.
I had a lot of trouble shutting down at the end of the night. So, here I am, working 11:00 PM, midnight, 1:00 AM. Then if I’m not going to sleep until midnight or one, I have this cardinal rule that I stick to, which is I don’t cheat myself on sleep. That’s probably the one thing that I have stuck with all the way throughout from the very start of my entrepreneurial career.
It really helped. But then, of course, I’m going to bed at midnight or one and I’m sleeping until 8 or 9 or 10 or whatever. It didn’t necessarily mean I couldn’t get work done, because I was working on my own schedule. But it does start to throw you into this weird cycle where you’re staying up really late and waking up late and just working all the time. Those first two years were hard, and then I started to get it dialed in more once I started consistently training in the gym. And that was around the time that I launched Jamesclear.com.
Having those two things together, lifting four or five days a week and not cheating myself on sleep, that was really what made the difference in a lot of my productivity and kind of pulling me back on track.
Brian Clark: Yeah, these days the sleep issue is unavoidable. I mean, it’s worse for us to lose sleep than we ever imagined. I wish someone would have told me that 10 years ago, because that was my default too. Just grind it out.
James Clear: There is this whole narrative in our culture about working harder and that’s what we need. There are the two sides. One side is the perseverance and grit piece, which is that you just have to grind and grind and grind and obviously build the company. And both of these, there are bits of truth to them, which is why they persist. Of course, you have to work very hard to build a business.
Then the other part is that you keep pushing so hard and don’t give yourself time to balance, because being busy has somehow become this status marker in our culture. That like, “How are you?” “Well, I’m busy,” and by extension, because I am so busy, I think about how important I must be or I’m worthwhile or so on. Busy becomes a proxy for important.
Anyone who is working on important issues probably will be busy a good amount of the time, but you have to be able to balance both of those. Realize that it’s not just about working hard all the time and your busyness does not equate to your self-worth. Keeping those things on the right portion of the spectrum, they can be challenging when you don’t have revenue coming in or you’re just getting started or whatever. But I feel like that’s kind of a dance that all entrepreneurs have to learn at some point.
The Analogy of Putting Gas in the Tank
Brian Clark: Yeah, the busy thing is ridiculous. You fill your whole day up with meetings and phone calls. When do you think? Thinking is the most important thing that I do. Now when people ask me, “What’s going on?” “I’m doing a lot of thinking,” and you ought to look at people’s face when you say that. They’re like, “Wait, what?” But it’s the truth.
I’ll say it over and over again. If you don’t give your brain room, I mean, a lot of reading, a lot of research, and then just go do something else so that your brain works on it in the background.
James Clear: The analogy that I always like to use is… There was a period of time where I was writing and the site was growing quickly. So I started to feel this internal pressure and I said, “All right, I need to write even better stuff now, because now I’ve got more people reading.” I thought, “Well, I should just spend all my time writing.” So I tried to do that for a month or two, and pretty quickly all the good ideas that I had dried up. I didn’t have much to write about.
The analogy that I use is, it’s kind of like filling up a car. You need to read, and that’s like putting gas in the tank. Now, the point of putting gas in the tank is not just to sit at the gas station, like fill it up all day long and never drive it. You also need to drive. But if you never go to refill, then you can’t get anywhere to begin with.
You need this balance. For me at least, I need this balance of reading and writing. To your point about thinking, that I feel is one of the biggest benefits of writing for me. Writing is like thinking. I often don’t know what I actually think about something until I write about it.
Brian Clark: Yeah. What’s that quote that says, “Writing is not sharing what you think, it’s finding out what you think.”
James Clear: That’s exactly the process for me. That’s precisely how it is. Yeah, I agree. Again, there’s a balance there. You have to have some input and stimulus and like socialize and so on, because ideas come from that. But I think by and large we probably skew too much the other way and don’t carve out enough time for us to just sit and think and read.
What Is Your Writing Process?
Brian Clark: Are you a proponent of the “Just sit down and put something on the page no matter how rough it is”? Because I’m not. I write my first draft in my head. I think a lot of times what I mean by thinking is a form of writing, but most of the advice you see is not to do that. Sometimes you’ve got to know when to ignore popular advice, because you’ve got to do what works for you, and that works for me.
James Clear: Well, the whole good advice given at the wrong time or in the wrong context is bad advice. There are a lot of good ideas, but if they don’t apply to you, then that doesn’t make it good.
To answer your question about revisions and editing and first drafts and so on, pretty much everything I write has been revised like 25 times. It’s almost hard for me to figure out like how that starts and generates.
Brian Clark: The editing is the writing.
James Clear: Yes, honestly, for me, if you all think that I do a good job writing, I will usually say I actually don’t think I’m that good of a writer. I think I’m a much better editor. And it’s the “Give me something to work with.” Tweaking and optimizing is actually much more, feels like in my wheelhouse.
I have an Evernote folder of probably 600 plus ideas that are just pretty much anything I find interesting. Like if we’re talking here and you mentioned a point that I’m like, “Oh, that sounds cool, I should look into that more.” I’ll jot that down. Or if I send out a tweet and it seems to strike a chord and people like that idea, then I’ll put that in there. Something I read and sometimes just a title, sometimes it’s a paragraph. Every now and then, I’ll get hit by the muse and write four paragraphs at once and have more or less a draft flushed out right away.
Yeah, it kind of ebbs and flows. But that’s my process. Then when I go and sit down and write an article, I have a lot to work with.
What Did Being an Athlete Teach You About Being an Entrepreneur?
Brian Clark: Did your time as an athlete and the practice, the habit and the discipline that comes along with that, did that help you at all with the button share discipline of turning to writing?
James Clear: Probably in indirect ways. Easily, the thing that helped me the most from being an athlete and translated into being an entrepreneur, being an author, or working on any hard project, launching a product, or writing this book that I’ve been working on is the sense of self-confidence. That this is very hard right now, but I have done things that have been very hard in the past, and you’ll get through it and work through that. Just knowing that it’s going to be okay and you can figure it out.
For me, sometimes, I think that’s the biggest skill an entrepreneur can have — the willingness to figure it out or the belief that you can figure it out. Because you’re constantly facing issues in your business that don’t have solutions or that you at least don’t know the solutions to off the bat.
That’s basically what the whole process is. It’s like everybody’s sort of winging it to a certain degree, and you have to be willing to trust yourself enough to find a solution. Otherwise you would just be crippled by uncertainty. So that part of it has helped a lot.
The other part is like I used to say when I was an athlete. I was a pitcher and so I would say, “If someone’s going to lose the game, if it needs to be on somebody’s shoulders, you just put it on mine.” I’d rather be out there and be playing and be the one to bear the cost for the team than to not be out there. That willingness to be in the arena even if you lose, that I think carries over into what I do every day.
In that way, it’s probably more of a philosophy or a mindset that’s helped me than anything specific or tactical.
Brian Clark: I like that, because you started writing and there’s a website at the center of your business. All that really did was put you in the arena. It’s not a successful business until you figure out products or services that you can sell to that audience.
How Did You Discern the Next Step in Your Business Journey?
Brian Clark: Now, I know you’ve got a book coming out, six years after you’ve started. You have a really popular course on habits. Did you face a period of time where you were just going, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Because I know that is so common. Sometimes you feel like, “I could go in this direction or I could go this way and then what if I’m wrong?” That kind of self-doubt can really suck.
I always look to the audience. They’ll tell you, maybe not directly, but there are indications there, very solid clues.
James Clear: I don’t think my story is unique in this way, but I didn’t have any entrepreneurs in my family or really even close friends. I had one guy that was a DJ in high school that I knew, and that was about the extent of it as far as in my close circle. And I think there are a lot of founders who are like that.
Because I didn’t really have anybody to look to, I guess I just didn’t really have much of a playbook. Everything that I was reading after that iPhone app flopped was, “Oh, you need to build an email list, you have to build an audience.” So I was really focused on that. I did focus on it and learn it and did a fairly good job of it. But I wasn’t building any products for that first year or two.
That was really hard, because I was taking on freelance clients and trying to make enough money. And everybody said, “You need to build an audience first.” But then I was like, “Well, I can’t make any money if I don’t have any courses or anything to sell. But that’s not what the experts say I should do.” There was this whole mismatch between what all the thought leaders in the space were saying I should do and what my actual situation was.
Yeah, it can be hard for that first year or two where you’re trying to figure that out. At least that’s about how long it took me. I would say it probably took me 18 months to really feel like, “Okay, now I at least see how this works and I just need to keep following this path for a while.”
Brian Clark: That’s interesting. It was exactly 18 months from the time I started Copyblogger to the time we launched our first product. There were about four months of agonizing and changing and me and Tony Clark teamed up. That was my first partnership after starting Copyblogger.
But it was a different time, because at that time it was 2006. Blogging was still very kind of Kumbaya. And here comes this guy saying, “Not only should you apply copywriting techniques to your content, but you should sell stuff, not advertise.” And everyone just lost their mind.
James Clear: That is fascinating. You’ve seen the web evolve through so many waves.
Brian Clark: A lot.
James Clear: It’s almost like you’ve seen different generations pass.
Brian Clark: Right. I’ve got to tell you, once after you kept popping up on my Further radar all the time, one day I just said, “I should find him on Twitter.” Then I followed you and you followed me back and you’re like, “Hey, Brian, big Copyblogger fan.” I’m like, “Is that not the coolest thing that someone can say to you when you have no idea?” Especially when you’re a fan of their work and you’re like, “Maybe I helped in some way.” That’s awesome.
James Clear: That’s easily the best part about sharing your work publicly. All the people that were your heroes become your peers and that is such a cool feeling to be part of that group or that tribe. To feel like you belong with these people that you were like, “Oh, their ideas were so great.” I feel like those moments make a lot of the hard work worth it.
What Advice Would You Give to Someone Getting Started?
Brian Clark: Yeah, it’s true. It really is. It’s very gratifying. Okay, so let’s get specific. Let’s say you’ve got someone who’s currently a freelancer, which a big part of this audience is, and they want to build a larger audience to possibly shift to a different model at some point, either products, courses, something to that degree. What advice would you give them for getting started? Probably, start right now and take baby steps, right?
James Clear: Yeah, starting right away is for sure a huge piece. I can only give you through the lens of what’s worked well for me. When I look back on what’s worked well for me, 90% of the answer is a very boring thing, but that the bulk of people won’t do.
The thing that got me from zero to 100,000 subscribers in less than two years at Jamesclear.com was that I wrote a new article every Monday and Thursday. I did that for the first, I think, three years of the site.
There’s nothing magical, but I did my best with each one. Usually, at a minimum, I was spending 10 hours on an article. The longest ones were probably like 30 or 40, but I would say most were between 15 and 20 hours of work. There you go, that’s 40 hours of work every week on two articles. Again, there’s nothing sexy or even groundbreaking about that idea, but very few people will put in that amount of work to try to create something great, and then do it over and over again for three years. But if you do that…
Brian Clark: I can validate that. I did the same thing except Tuesdays and Thursdays. At the time, blog posts were 250 words. I was writing 1,000 word articles. You’ve got to go against the grain somehow, which means you’ve got to reject the popular advice to a certain degree.
James Clear: That point is probably more important than I think a lot of people realize. I do think that if I was starting today, I might approach it a little bit differently. But, first of all, I don’t think there’s anything magical about two times a week. It could be once a week, it could be three times a week.
Brian Clark: Well, for the quality that we were aiming for, that’s about all you can pull off.
James Clear: I could not have done more for sure. And that was also why I decided to change a little bit three years in, because I got this book deal and I was like, “I just can’t keep up that pace and write a book at the same time.”
If you look at someone else who’s grown really rapidly, a little more recently, Tim Urban and Wait But Why, when he started, he did about one a week. One every two weeks maybe. And that pace is enough. When he was getting started, a lot of people were writing a 1,000 word articles instead of like 250 when you were starting. So, then he was like, “Well, I’ll write 5,000 words.” That differentiated him a little bit.
It doesn’t always have to be longer. It could just be different. It could be a really punchy video or something like Casey Neistat. I mean, he’s huge on YouTube and he basically does five-minute videos each day or something like that, 10 minutes.
Brian Clark: Yeah, you know how long it takes to make a five-minute video of that quality? I’d rather write. I’ll stick to writing.
James Clear: Video editing is like a nightmare for me. You would basically need to be a filmmaker instead of an author.
James Clear: I think your point there is a good one, which is you should look at what the standard is and then ask yourself, “How can I improve upon that standard? How can I create something that’s a little bit more valuable than what people are normally getting?” Because you do need to stand out in some way. Hard work is the cost of entry. You need to figure out how to frame it in a way that’s interesting and unique. And that evolves. The web moves fast.
I would say there’s usually like a two to three-year window for particular strategy and those tend to work really well. The exception to that is Google and SEO, for example. I mean, SEO has been a main driver of traffic for over a decade now and seems to not be slowing down. So every now and then there are one or two things that seem to be mainstays.
But a lot of the areas that I get traffic from today were not my main traffic sources two or three years ago. Your strategy needs to adapt a little bit.
How Have You Managed the Personal Branding Aspect of Your Business?
Brian Clark: That’s because social is changing, organic is basically gone. What’s interesting, we both did two articles a week, high-quality for about two years. And then I did something that was unconventional at the time, which is like standard operating procedure now, which is accepting guest posting. No one did that. A blog was about the owner of the blog or authored only by that person.
I wanted to create something more like a magazine, but it was still very pragmatic when I made the decision. I wanted to go on vacation, so I asked some people to cover for me that week, and the audience loved it. They loved hearing other voices. This is leading me up to my next question, which is about personal branding. Obviously, when your site is Jamesclear.com, you’re a little more tied in to it just being you, certainly at the center of it. Do you ever have regrets about that?
See, on the whole personal branding thing, I think if you create something bigger than yourself, the personal brand comes along with it. I mean, people are still inviting me to speak at conferences and all this even though I’m really kind of anti-personal branding for myself. Which to a certain degree helps because it creates a little more arm’s length mystique than when you’re always going, “Look at me, look at me.” Not that you do that. You let your work speak for itself which is nice.
James Clear: Well, you bring up some important points and it makes me think of both pros and cons of this. To a certain extent, the short answer to your question is, “I’m glad that I went with Jamesclear.com. I’m fine with that.” Partially, because it gives me a lot of leeway. Like right now, for the last couple of years, habits has been the main thing that I’ve written about.
But after this book has launched and this project is kind of wrapped up, I’ll probably move on to a totally different topic, and I don’t have to worry about the brand’s drawing a border around that or something, somehow like going against the brand because I can just write about whatever my take is or whatever the topic is of interest to me.
However, the points that you bring up I think are definitely true. The first is it can be about you without being about you. The example that I give for that is Humans of New York. Brandon Stanton is an awesome dude from all the appearances and has this really amazing project and brand that he’s working on. People know who he is and really respect the work he’s doing. So, his personal brand is really great, but you’ll never see the word Brandon Stanton on Humans of New York except for maybe on the About page. It’s all about the project.
The examples of this are countless. Pick any startup founder that you know their name, but they run a different business. I think doing good work no matter what the vertical is or how you’re labeling it, it will bleed over into your personal brand regardless of what you actually call it.
The other thing is the criticism that I get on my brand a fair amount is like, “We want to know more about you, tell us your story, share more videos of you on social media. What is it like to hang out with you each day?” And I’m not like that. I want the ideas to lead the way. I’m not looking to create a lifestyle blog. I want it to be about the content and about what’s useful for the reader. If you just go to my site, I have very few pictures. At some point, we’ll redo the web design, but you’d be hard pressed to find an image of me on my own site. There are like two.
In that way, choosing my name is — I don’t know that I want to say it’s uncomfortable, but I wanted the brand to be about the ideas and then I couldn’t settle on a brand name, so I was like, “Well, if Seth Godin’s name is good enough for him or Oprah’s name is good enough for her, then I’ll just go with my name and figure it out later.” And I’m kind of figuring it out later, still.
Brian Clark: I’ve got an interesting couple of points on that one, specifically relating back to the fact that you said, “I don’t want to be boxed in by a brand, because after this book I may start writing about something else.” Both Seth Godin and Chris Brogan have told me that their biggest regret is branding themselves with their names.
James Clear: Really?
Brian Clark: Yeah. And ironically, both guys have tried to change topics and their audience wouldn’t let them.
James Clear: Huh? That’s fascinating. That would really be interesting to wrestle with and see what that’s like.
Brian Clark: Yeah, Brogan was the social media guy, the Twitter guy, and then he wanted to go more into health and wellness. The audience was like, “Nope, that’s not why we listen to you.” And then Godin tried to move away from marketing so much into more pure motivational stuff. Same thing. He moved back to marketing, because that’s what people wanted from him.
James Clear: That’s fascinating.
Brian Clark: And Godin’s the one who’ll tell you authenticity is determined by the audience, not by the author. And he proved his point right there.
But, as far as it being a big regret, I disagree with them. Again, both Brogan and Godin have created sub brands. There’s always the opportunity to do that.
With the platform that you now have, if you want to go into a completely other realm, you just create a sub brand and spin it off or whatever. Just something to think about. It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it?
James Clear: My friend Sean McCabe has this phrase where he says, “People will put you in a box in branding at least to let you define what that box is.” People want to know how to talk about somebody. Like, “What do you do? Oh, you’re a police officer, you’re a firefighter, you’re a teacher or whatever.” It gives them a category to figure out how to shape the conversation and who they should introduce you to and what’s interesting, and all that stuff.
Branding allows you to shape that a little bit, but maybe once you’ve built that box, it’s like you said, it’s better to build a sub brand. I think about you launching Further instead of turning Copyblogger into a self-improvement blog or something.
Brian Clark: That would not work.
James Clear: Anyway, it is an interesting thing to think about. There are certainly pros and cons.
Tell Us About Your Books
Brian Clark: The book you’ve got coming out in the fall is your first, I guess, “official” book. You have two free books on your site, Transform Your Habits and Mastering Creativity. Were those really just a culmination of early posts that you wrote that you packaged up to make your list accelerate in growth? How important were those to that?
James Clear: 80% yes. They both have content that’s not elsewhere on the blog, but the bulk of it was some early posts and articles that did well.
Again, this is another thing about how the web has changed. Early on when I offered those free downloads, they did really great. They were big for building the list and people wanted a reason to opt in. Those, again, are an example of something that at the time I did it, longer or more extreme, better quality than what was normally out there. A lot of people were offering free downloads that were like a cheat sheet or a 7-page guide or a 10-page guide or something like that. Mastering Creativity is around 30 pages, Transforming Habits is around 50. And that was long. It was in-depth for the time.
But it also wasn’t just the length, it was the quality. My goal with both of those was instead of writing a 300-page book on creativity, how can I condense that into 30 pages and have it be just as practical? Both of those did very well. Honestly, that’s still a philosophy I take with a lot of my writing. I think about that a lot.
With the book that I’m wrapping up right now, for each chapter, I mapped on the floor. I had a three by five card for each chapter and what was covered. And then I took books off of my shelf. The ones that were like New York Times bestsellers or whatever, and then I laid each one next to the three by five card. I said, “How can I encapsulate everything that’s practical about this book in this one chapter?” And who knows if I will actually have done that successfully or not? The audience can be the judge on that. But I do like that idea as a way to try to raise the standard of your work.
I did that with each of those and they helped, but as time went on, our conversion rates actually were better for forms that didn’t offer a free download. For things like “Sign up to get self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research” — it was just a summary of what kind of content you were going to get. And they weren’t substantially better. Everything converted just fine. But people were less in it for the download and more in it for the long-term content, which honestly is kind of what I wanted anyway.
I’m looking to build a relationship and a community of people who are interested in these ideas. So, yes, it helped in the beginning, but it gradually retrenched the way from like pushing that everywhere.
Brian Clark: Yeah, the whole lead magnet thing is going so full circle that sometimes…like, I think Jonathan Fields does this. He’s like, “No bribe, just an email newsletter.” I’ve avoided that on Further up until this point, although you would think with a thing that’s primarily an email newsletter…Honestly, as we were talking about before we went on the air, I’ve just now figured out what Further is going to become, so now it might be appropriate to have something like that.
I guess I’m kind of following the example you just gave where you’re just trying to summarize succinctly the smart science that fits within the parameters of this topic. Because three months into Copyblogger, it was a free PDF that was completely original. Nothing that I’d written before that made Copyblogger takeoff, right? The right thing, if you understand your audience, can really do that.
I was just thinking of an example of what you were talking about. Have you read the book Peak Performance? Brad Stulberg?
James Clear: Yeah, I know Brad and I have read parts of it, but not the whole thing.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I read it. And because I’ve read everything in the space, it’s kind of like if someone wrote a book about habits and just summarized all the books. You’d recognize every single thing. “Oh, that’s from Grit.” But that’s what that book is. It’s a summary.
I was a little disappointed because of that, because I had read all the source material.
James Clear: Right, you were like “Kind of nice to have it in the first place, but I was familiar with it.”
Brian Clark: Yeah, but if it were free, that would be completely different. So, anyway.
James Clear: Actually, now that you say that, that is kind of what Transform Your Habits was when I first created it. It was like a summary of all the best ideas I’d come across. I wasn’t necessarily giving you my take, which I’ve written a lot about that since then. But it was more like, “Hey, if you just want everything in one stop, this is the best place to go and you can get it and read it in an hour or whatever.”
When Did You Create Your Course?
Brian Clark: When did you create your course?
James Clear: That is a good question. I don’t remember the exact time, but I can tell you that it was a totally different format than what it is now. The way that I started was I did a live – well, it was a live event, but basically, you paid to get access to a webinar. That’s what it was. And I called them “seminars.”
It would have been at the beginning of the year, maybe three or four years ago. It was in January, because I thought, “Oh, it’ll be great to start the year off with a seminar about habits.” I think the very first time I did it, I think my prices were way too low. I think I charged $29 a ticket or something like that. It was like an hour or an hour and a half of me teaching the content, and then a half hour of Q&A. And it went really well. Tons of people signed up and I had fun and it was cool.
So, I was like, “Well, we should do this again.” Then for the next year or two, about every quarter, I would do one seminar on a topic related to habits, self-improvement, human performance, decision making, whatever. I did a habit seminar. I did one on procrastination, I did one on stress management, I did one on willpower.
Then each January, I would repeat the habits one and update it based on what I had learned and read over the following year. After a year or two of that, a couple of cycles, I had maybe done like, I don’t know, maybe eight or so. I was like, “All right, we should just take…” I had a lot of material at that point and I was ready to launch a full-fledged course about habits.
I combined a lot of the material from multiple seminars in addition to some other stuff. I put together an actual – I don’t even know how many lessons are in there now. It’s probably 50 or so lessons broken out over videos and whatnot. Then we created a full-fledged course and called it The Habits Academy and had people go through.
Now, we’re actually working on a new version which will come out a little bit around a couple of months after the book launches. That’ll be fully updated, everything that I could learn and read about habits and all those scientific research in the last five years in one place. And that’ll be the flagship course.
My hope is, and again, I don’t have any control over this, we just do the best we can. But my hope is that it’s literally the best course on the web about how to build better habits. So that’s what we’re working toward now.
Brian Clark: You said you originally built it out of seminars, did you charge money for individual seminars and then aggregate them together into another form?
James Clear: In the very beginning, we just charged per seat. Like I said, I think that first time it was 29 bucks to come to one and then we settled in at $49. Almost all of them were one to two hours in length.
Then, after we had done that for a little while and we had four or five of them, we started offering either — you can buy a ticket to an individual one if you want to watch the recording, or if you want to come to the next live one, or (I think it was like 150 or 200 bucks, something like that) if you want the bundle of all of them together, and you can watch the recordings of the old ones come to the next ones and stuff like that.
Yeah. So, we settled on that for a period of time and then we built the full course.
Brian Clark: All right, I’m sure we’ll talk about it again in the fall, but good luck with the book. It’s been great talking to you, finally. I usually try to keep these around 30 minutes, but I just kind of got lost in the conversation. I guess that’s a good sign.
James Clear: Yeah, hopefully that’s good. Thank you for having me on. It was a pleasure to talk as well. And yeah, I’m excited to talk more. If people want to get more, check out some other stuff, Jamesclear.com is probably the best place to go. You can poke around and see what’s interesting to you. Otherwise, I appreciate the opportunity. Thanks, Brian.
Where Can We Find You?
Brian Clark: Yeah, where else can they find you? Even though James says he doesn’t like doing video, if you go to his Twitter account, there is a video of him squatting 400 pounds. Stick with the weight room stuff. It’s fairly impressive.
James Clear: Thank you, thank you. They can check out Twitter and Instagram and then Atomic Habits. The book will be out in the fall.
Brian Clark: Awesome. Thanks, James. Good luck and thanks for joining us. This was really useful, I think.
James Clear: Great. Thanks, Brian.
Brian Clark: All right, everyone, it all comes down to the right habits, getting rid of the wrong habits. But figure out where you’re heading, figure out how to get there, and then keep going.