Podcast Notes

Atomic Habits – Notes from Indie Hackers podcast with James Clear

I’m a huge fan of IndieHackers.com, following both the newsletter and the podcast.

I’ve heard about James Clear before, related to his 2018 book Atomic Habits, and the name kind of stuck. I haven’t looked much into his work, and haven’t yet read the book. To be honest, I just assumed it’s another business book that’s in fact an idea inflated to fit a 200 page book because you can’t sell a printed blog post.

But listening to Clear talking about the structure of our habits, how to hack our behavior to form useful habits and what role these habits can play in success – I heard more than a few truly insightful ideas. That said, I might give the book an honest chance.

So, the podcast episode is titled Building the Habits Necessary to Succeed as a Founder with James Clear, but Clear’s observations are general, and applicable to any sort of endeavor or career.

I’ll outline the key points that struck me as particularly insightful.

1. The 4 stages of habit

Clear structures his thinking of habits with a model of 4 stages:

Cue → Craving → Response → Reward

So the Cue is an event that you witness occurring. Generally cues are objective, two people will react differently to the same cue. Now, the Craving depends on who you are, and it’s essentially your personal interpretation of a Cue. You’ll respond to this Craving with an action, thus the Response step. The response will give you a Reward, that’ll reinforce your Response to the same Cue in future.

2. You can hack any and all of the 4 stages

Now, you can think of all your actions as responses to cues and cravings, so if you’re getting a negative reward (ie. punishment) for an action, you’ll hardly make a habit out of it. Simply put, you can’t make a habit of things you don’t consider rewarding.

If you want to start any kind of endeavor, you need to see the reward for it as soon as possible and as frequently as possible. Look for any kind of positive feedback, that’s either your end goal or strongly correlated with your end goal.

If you want get fit by exercising, you should go to gym because of the feeling of health it gives you after every session, and the physical fitness will come as a byproduct. If your checking the scale, you’re likely give up as you won’t see immediate results.

In general, this explain the “enjoy the process” maxim, often seen in relation to fitness programs or any endeavor where the reward comes only after a long time investment. If you can enjoy the process without looking at the seemingly unattainable goal every other moment, you’re more likely to endure.

Clear talks about his writing habit, and points out that with his current audience size, the feedback he gets for his writing is immediate. Even without it, when he’s writing a book, he’ll frequently seek feedback from friends, just so he can keep the behavior reinforced and rewarding.

But aside from an action being rewarding, you’ll want the cues to be clear and obvious, and a response to be feasible and easy to do. For example, you may want to write early in the morning when still haven’t started your messy day, and interruptions are unlikely.

Now, interestingly, trying to summarize this here made me curious about the book, where I guess Clear expands on all the strategies related to each step. (Edit: found this excerpt from the book on Clear’s blog https://jamesclear.com/three-steps-habit-change)

3. Use explore/exploit strategy early on

When starting out with writing, and you’re not sure how exactly to narrow down your topics, just explore whatever you find interesting and see what sticks both with you and your audience. Then double down on those areas.

An interesting point Clear makes – his website being JamesClear.com instead of GreatHabits.com gives him freedom to explore topics unrelated to a predetermined niche. But a downside of it is it makes it slightly harder to make it a brand when it’s made personal.

4. Focus on the essential before sweating the details

To quote Clear on this:

It’s easy to get focused on stuff that makes like the last five percent of difference. So people want to get in shape. They are like, all right, what running shoes do I need to buy or what knee sleeves do I should I get or which protein powder is the best but like all that stuff makes like last two percent of difference the thing that makes the 98% of the differences.


Pair this with Pareto principle – 20% of effort yields 80% of the effect. Done right, focusing on the right thing at the right time, can get you leaps forward.

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