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AMY PORTERFIELD: Hey, there. Welcome back to another episode of the Online Marketing Made Easy podcast. I’m your host, Amy Porterfield, and I’m so glad that you chose to join me here today. I hope you're spending some quality time with your family and your loved ones and getting excited about the New Year. Or heck, you might listen to this episode way beyond the New Year, and I just hope that you are in a place right now that you are ready to take some good notes and to take some action because we have a special guest today.
Today, I'm interviewing a very special guy. His name is James Clear, and he's New York Times’ best-selling author of Atomic Habits. I've mentioned him on my podcast before, and let me tell you, this guy delivers. We are going to cover so much in this episode. And you know me and you know how much I love systems and really simple step–by–step strategies that get you exactly the kind of results that you're looking for. And the way James approaches creating good habits is a way that truly yields remarkable results. James says, “An atomic habit is a little habit that is part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.” He also goes on to say, “If you ever want better results, then forget about setting goals; focus on your system instead.” Now, you know, when I read that I was like, amen, I absolutely love this. He also says, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” Let me repeat that. “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Now, this system girl is loving every minute of that. So today we're going to talk about how you can use James's approach to create habits in your life and, even more so, in your business. And this comes at such a good time as we're heading into the new year.
James is also going to share his 1 percent approach to changing your habits and how your identity will either help you to succeed at achieving your goals or not. And we're going to talk about how to stay the course, even when you're not seeing immediate results. I'll admit I'm the kind of girl that if I eat a salad today and I run on the Peloton Tread and I make sure that I stay on my food plan, I expect to see big results the next morning, although I've learned along the way that's not how it works. And this book and James’s strategies really speak to being patient and letting time be your ally. So I can't wait until he gets into all of these results because it truly did change the way I look at each and every one of my actions and how I approach my actions in such a different way that allows me to be more patient. So if you're the kind that wants instant gratification—who isn't, right—this book and James’s strategies are going to change how you approach that. And if you can approach your daily habits differently, you will see bigger results.
Okay, before we get into all the details and I bring James on, I wanted to do a quick listener spotlight. This one is from luvshauna. Here’s what she says:
“Thank you, Amy. I just listened to “Ten Ways to Get Your Students to the Finish Line,” and you gave me so many ideas. As a student of yours, I truly admire how thoughtful you are. I hope to provide that level of excellence as I gain more experience. Such a huge fan of everything that you do. Your course provided way more information than I ever expected, and it was because of you that my course is running. Thank you for everything you do.”
So, Shauna, thank you so much for taking the time to write this nice review. And what you said here speaks so perfectly to what we’re going to talk about in this interview today with James Clear because he talks about making sure that your content in a digital course is thoughtful in a way that makes it easy for people to get through and get the results that you want them to get. So, you leaving this review couldn’t be at a more perfect time. It means the world to me, and thank you so very much.
Okay, guys. I won’t make you wait any longer. Let’s go ahead and welcome James to the show.
Hey, there, James. Welcome to the show.
JAMES CLEAR: Hi, Amy. Great to talk to you.
AMY: You, too. I’m really excited you're here. First of all, congrats on your New York Times’ bestseller. Your book is outstanding.
JAMES: Oh, thank you so much.
AMY: So many of my listeners have already read it, or they have at least heard about it and it's on their list. It's incredibly hot in the entrepreneurial world, for sure. And although many of my listeners will know about you, a lot of them won‘t. And so I thought we could dive in from the top and you could share a little bit about your story and how you really got interested in creating habits for success.
JAMES: Sure. So I guess I come at this topic from two different angles, the personal side and professional side. So on the personal side, I suffered a very serious injury when I was in high school. I was hit in the face, with a baseball bat, and the fallout from that was pretty significant. So I had multiple seizures, had to be air carried to the hospital. I was placed into a medically induced coma overnight. And it was really the process of recovering from that over the next eight or nine months that was the first period in my life where I was kind of forced to focus on small habits. So my first physical therapy session, I was practicing basic motor patterns, like walking in a straight line. I couldn't drive a car for the next nine months. And the injury happened on the baseball field. And I also wanted to get back and play baseball. But my process, the process of recovering from that, did not go smoothly. So I was the only junior to be cut from the team the next year. I barely got to play my senior season in high school, but I did manage to make my way onto a college team a few years later.
And it was really the process of building these small habits that almost now kind of sound insignificant, like going to bed at the same hour each night; or this was the first time in my life when after physical therapy was done I started weightlifting and training in the gym consistently—so at first, once or twice a week, and then three or four times—preparing for an hour before class each day. Again, small habits that don't really sound like much now, but they gave me a sense of control over my life. I felt like I had lost that when this injury happened to me, and I didn't ask for it.
So anyway, through that process, I was able to make college team and end up becoming a starter, and then ultimately made the Academic All-America team my final season. And that was a five- or six-year arc from the time of the injury to what I guess I could say is fulfilling my potential in that particular area. And so that personal side of the story was the individual reason why I felt like habits were powerful and played an important role in kind of my recovery.
And then there's also this professional side, which is—so in school I was a science major. I studied mostly chemistry and physics and biology and kind of hard sciences. And then I became an entrepreneur after I finished graduate school. And the first two years, I kind of just floundered around and launched products, but people didn't really buy them, or I struggled to kind of get things out there. And I realized that one of the problems was I didn't understand marketing. I didn't understand why would someone buy a product; why would someone sign up for an email list? So I started studying consumer psychology to learn why people buy things and sign up for things, and how could I promote the business better? And as I studied that, I gradually unearthed and revealed not only consumer psychology ideas, but also behavioral psychology and habit formation. And that was kind of how I stumbled across the topic. And at that point, I started merging those two fields.
So I had this background from personal experience where I had built habits in the gym and school and the classroom and so on. And then now my scientifically minded brain kind of had this new topic of habit formation to unearth. And I started discovering the neuroscience of how habits work and the biology and anatomy behind it and what regions of the brain are involved.
And as I started reading about that, I kind of ultimately came to what I feel like now is my real role, which is I try to act like a bridge between the scientific research and what it says about how habits work, and practical application and daily use. And so most of my work now and certainly Atomic Habits and the ideas that show in the book are really about how do we take the science of how habits work and apply it to daily life? How do we turn this into something that's useful that you can use either in your personal life for your work or so on? So that's kind of the two-pronged approach that I took to discovering and learning about this topic.
AMY: Well, I love that we’re talking about this topic right now because at the time that this episode’s going to air, it's right before New Year's. And I know it's so cliché, setting goals for the new year, and that becomes such a big focus for most everybody. But what I love is that you have this approach of focusing on becoming 1 percent better every day to achieve your bigger goals and create success in a way that literally makes such a huge difference. And I was hoping that we could talk about this “1 percent better every day” approach, because I think sometimes it sounds so simple to people that they just literally ignore it. So can you talk about that?
JAMES: Yeah. I like to use the phrase that habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
AMY: Okay, say that one more time.
JAMES: Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. So the same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them across time. And the challenge is on any given day, especially at the beginning of any process, like on day one or day ten, the difference between something that's 1 percent better or 1 percent worse is pretty insignificant on the first day. What is the difference between eating a burger and fries for lunch or eating a salad? Not a whole lot on any given day. Your body looks the same in the mirror at the end of the night, the scale hasn’t really changed; it’s only two or five or ten years later that you start to see a pretty significant difference between those habits that have compounded for you versus the ones that have compounded against you.
And this, I think, is one of the challenges or maybe the first hurdle that we need to cross, which is that getting 1 percent better each day is not insignificant. In fact, it's very significant and might be, actually, the only way that change really happens in the real world. For whatever reason, the results of success tend to be highly visible and easy to discuss and compare, but the process of success is often hidden from view.
And so we like to look at people who have an article that goes viral online, or become an online sensation overnight and gain a million followers. But the truth is things almost never happen in an overnight success kind of fashion. Even in those cases, the music star who becomes an overnight sensation, well, they've been practicing for a decade now, or the article that goes viral, well, it turns out that there was actually eighty hours of research that went into that. So by focusing on 1 percent improvements and accumulating those over time, you can start to get some of those results that actually look very impressive on the back end but are often the natural outcome of many small improvements accumulating before.
And that, I think, is why, one of the reasons why, I believe habits are so significant is that they offer, perhaps, the best avenue for getting those 1 percent improvements each day, because if you can just build a slightly better habit, then you can just let that compound for you day in and day out. And that's why I say that good habits make time your ally, but bad habits make time your enemy. And if you have good habits, all you need is just for time to work for you. You just need to be patient. If you have bad habits, though, every day that clicks by, you put yourself behind the eight ball a little bit more. And so that, I think, is one of the central reasons why small habits matter so much. They don't just add up; they compound.
AMY: And I think patience has to be a big part of that. Would you agree?
JAMES: Yeah, of course. And this is one of the challenges, which is that with any compounding process, the greatest returns are delayed, and you can see that in pretty much any area. I mean, I actually, like in the case of subscriber growth through my articles and email list, well, that actually did follow sort of an exponential curve, but even still, the results were mostly delayed. Now, the funny thing about this is that time will pass anyway, and so it often doesn't take as long as you might think to get a really amazing result if you're reliable and patient. So in my case, I wrote a new article every Monday and every Thursday for the first three years, and it was really that writing habit that led to the growth of hundreds of thousands subscribers and so on. But three years actually isn't that long in the grand scheme of things. But at the same time, most people will not write two great articles every week for three years. And so it requires a certain amount of patience and reliability, a certain amount of focus. In the moment, it feels very long. In retrospect, it feels very short.
AMY: So true. I got to tell my listeners, because I talk about list building almost every day in my business, and when I picked up your book and you had a story around building your subscriber list, I was so surprised. I didn't think I'd read that between the pages of this book, and it hit home so closely to what I do in my business. So for all of my listeners, you have to pick up this book for just all the lessons you'll learn. But you'll be pleasantly surprised that James talks about growing his email list and what that looked like and what it meant for him. And he hinted at it here, but there's more to that. So I was loving that part of the book, for sure.
I also got to tell you that I have become a huge fan of Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner, which is a physical planner that he sells. And I never was in the habit of filling out a planner, let's say the night before every workday, until I picked this up. And one thing we did in our company is we have a Slack channel. And everybody, for the first ninety days of working on my team, they have to actually use the Full Focus Planner. And we post every evening what our planner looks like and how we're planning for the next day, just to get into this really easy, small habit of filling it out. And everybody on my team has said, “Holy cow, that made such a difference.” It takes ten minutes before you wrap up your day to fill out the planner, but they feel so organized and focused the next morning. But I don't think that would've happened if we didn't take that ten minutes every night and we actually made it mandatory for us.
JAMES: Yeah. There’s actually—so there's a lot of research that backs up what you‘re saying. I talk about this, I think it's in chapter four or five of the book, and the concept, the research concept, is known as an implementation intention. And basically what these studies have found is that if you state your intention to implement a particular behavior, you're usually between—how they measure it or what habit we're talking about—somewhere between two to three times more likely to follow through. And so they've found this for your likelihood to go to the polls and vote, whether you get your flu shots, if you're willing to stick with exercise each week, if you recycle, quitting smoking, all kinds of habits. And this is an example, that you're giving, of maximizing your productivity or following through on what you want to work on each day, what are your top priorities are. But essentially, filling out that planner is a form of an implementation intention.
So one of the studies that I mentioned in the book is they asked people to fill out one sentence that says, “I will exercise for twenty minutes on this day at this time in this place.” And by filling out those three things—time, day, and location—they are about three times more likely to actually follow through and work out. And same thing I'm sure happens here. Sit down the night before, and just by taking ten minutes and filling out what your priorities are and what you're going to focus on, all of a sudden you're much more likely to do it the next day.
AMY: So true. That was incredibly powerful for us.
So, speaking of different chapters in the book, at one point you talk about something called the plateau of latent potential. And this was really powerful to me, and I was hoping that you could explain what that's all about to my listeners.
JAMES: The metaphor that I like to use for this is imagine that you walk into a room and it's very cold, say, it's like twenty-five degrees—you can see your breath—and there's an ice cube sitting on the table. And you start to heat the room up slowly, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight degrees. Ice cube’s still sitting there. Twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one. And then all of a sudden you get to thirty-two degrees, and it's a one-degree shift, just like all the ones that came before it, but you hit this phase transition, and the ice cube begins to melt. That process of heating up an ice cube is often what it feels like to change your habits or to achieve kind of the accumulation of these 1 percent improvements and achieve a new result or a new outcome.
And the reason I phrase it like that is you hear this all the time from people. I'll get emails from a reader who’ll say something like, “I've been running for a month. Why can't I see a change in my body yet?” Or “Man, I've been working on this book for seven months now, and it still is just kind of a mess of an outline.” And the response there is that for any habit, for any behavior that you're trying to change—again, we mentioned this a minute ago—the hallmark of any compounding process is that the greatest returns are delayed. And so that work that you're putting in—running for a month or writing a book for seven months and not having the outcome yet—it doesn't mean that the work was wasted; it's just being stored.
Complaining about working on a habit for two or three months and not having the result that you want is kind of like complaining about heating an ice cube from twenty-five to thirty-one degrees and it’s not melting yet. It doesn't mean that it was wasted; you just haven't hit that threshold of latent potential yet. You're building up energy, potential energy, that can then be released once you've crossed whatever the threshold is for that particular habit. And so I think one of the most challenging parts for people, especially early on, is that—I had one reader who—I didn't mention her in the book—but she told me that she ended up losing over 100 pounds, but she had to lose sixty pounds before she got her first comment from somebody who said, “Oh, you're looking thinner.”
So imagine having to show up and do that. It’s really a personal journey at that point. You’re not getting praise from anybody. You see the scale going down, but still, this thing that you were hoping for, however you want to phrase it, more acceptance from others, praise, reward, something, you weren't receiving it. And so for in that case, the ice cube took a very long time to melt. And it can be like that for almost any process. And so I think that idea of building up latent potential, the work not being wasted but instead being stored, is something that can be useful to keep in mind when you're working on a habit.
And I’ll offer just one more quote on this. The San Antonio Spurs, NBA basketball team, they won five championships, and they have a quote that hangs in their locker room. It says something to the effect of, whenever I feel like giving up, I think about the stonecutter who takes their hammer and hits on the stone 100 times without it cracking in two. And then on the hundred and first blow, it breaks. And I know that it wasn't the hundred and first that did it but all the 100 that came before. And I think that that is true for almost any process in life. It's not the final swing of the ax that is the thing that actually made the difference. It was all that latent potential, all that potential energy you were building up beforehand.
AMY: Oh, yeah. It’s so good. I love that you bring this up in the book. I was going to say I also went through—I‘ve been going through a weight-loss transformation, and I talked about it on my podcast a bunch, so my audience knows that. But it felt like it took so long for it to even feel different to me let alone people even noticing. And I love that you said you can’t complain two to three months that nothing is happening, if you think about the whole ice-cube analogy that you talked about. And one thing that I've noticed of going through this plateau of latent potential is that there were days that were really, really hard. And I wasn't seeing any progress because I knew it was going to take time. And there's so much about my mindset and my identity of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to step into that played a part.
So with that, there's this part in the book that you talk about a two-step process for changing your identity. And I think I had to embrace this change of identity so that I could get through this really hard time of no huge results just yet. So can you talk about that?
JAMES: Yeah, of course. This is a concept I call identity-based habits. And before I dive in, I just want to add one final thing on what you just mentioned, which is that for all of those reasons, all the challenges we're talking about now, we should be far more concerned with our current trajectory than our current position. You know, like, we're almost always focused on position in life. How does my wealth compare to somebody else? How does my number of subscribers compare to somebody else? How does my weight compare to those around me? The comparisons we make are very position based, but if instead you focus on trajectory or direction, then, again, you can just let time work for you. And so even if you're not happy with your current position, you can just shift your focus to your current trajectory. And that allows you to start to make those 1 percent improvements each day and maybe focus on the more productive area.
AMY: That makes perfect sense to me. I love that you said, “Let time work for you.” I’m just like everybody else: I want results today. I worked so hard on that Treadmill, and I ate those salads, I want to see it. And so if I will just slow down and just let time work for me, holy cow, I feel like this whole thing would be easier, whether it be something in my business or my weight or anything. So, that’s a gift that you just shared, so thanks for that.
JAMES: Yeah, thank you.
All right. So let’s talk about identity-based habits. So the central idea here, if I’m going to summarize in just a single sentence, is that every action you take is like a vote for the type of person you want to become. And what I mean by that is that we all have an identity, and actually, we could probably more accurately think about it as we all have a collection of identities. You might be an entrepreneur and a mother and a sister and a volunteer and so on. And you've got all these things that are aspects of the identity that you hold. But we're not just the labels that we have. Like, I'm a police officer, or I'm a teacher, or whatever. We also have beliefs that are part of our identity. And sometimes these things build us up. You can think, “I'm the type of person who finishes what I set out to do,” or “I’m the type of person who doesn't miss workouts.” Or they can be beliefs that hold us back, like, “I'm terrible at remembering people's names,” or “I'm bad with directions,” or “I'm bad at math,” or “I have a sweet tooth.” And we don't often think about that intro-narrative, those stories, as being part of our identity. But the more that we repeat those things, the more they start to take hold and grip onto who we are and how we act. So behavior and beliefs are kind of like a two–way street. The things that you believe can influence the way you act, and the way that you act can influence the things that you believe.
But the core argument that I make is that true behavior change is identity change, because once you start to see yourself as a new type of person, then you don't even really have to force yourself to do it as much. And you actually hear people say this when they go through habit transformations. They'll say things like, “Yeah, I don't know. It was hard in the beginning, but now I can't even imagine not working out. It's just part of who I am,” or “I don't really motivate myself to meditate. I'm a meditator.” And once you start to assign those labels—I'm a meditator. I'm a writer. I'm a runner—then it becomes much easier to stick with it. You're not even really pursuing behavior change anymore; you’re just acting in alignment with the type of person you already see yourself to be.
So the punch line here is that, as I said, it’s a two-way street, but I think the more valuable way is to let our behaviors drive our beliefs rather than the opposite. So when it goes the opposite direction, that's when you have something like what we often hear, fake until you make it. Just believe something new about yourself, and you act a different way. And that can be a short–term strategy, but I don't think it's a good long-term one. And the reason is that you keep telling yourself something like, “I'm a healthy person. I'm a healthy person,” but you're not going to the gym consistently. And it might motivate you on a single day. But in the long run, there's this gap between how we act and what we're saying to ourselves. And we have a word for beliefs that don't have evidence. We call it delusion. At some point, it just feels like I'm deluding myself. I say I'm a new type of person, but I'm not following through.
But if you take the opposite direction and you say, “Well, no, doing one push up is not going to radically transform my body. But it does cast a vote for being the type of person who doesn't miss workouts,” and “No, writing one sentence does not finish the novel that I'm working on, but it does cast a vote for ‘I am a writer.’” And this is why I say the real goal is not to run a marathon; the goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to do a silent-meditation retreat; the goal is to become a meditator. The goal is not to write a book; the goal is to become a writer. And once you start to assign those deeper identities to yourself, it becomes much easier to stick with the habit in the long run.
And I think ultimately this brings us back to maybe the real reason why habits are so important. We often talk about habits as being the pathway to getting external results. Oh, habits will help you get six-pack abs or double your income or reduce stress. And yes, it's true; habits can do all of those things. But the real reason habits matter is that they cast a vote for being the type of person you want to be. They reinforce your desired identity, and ultimately they offer, perhaps, the best path we have to building up evidence and believing in a new aspect of ourselves.
AMY: Okay, for me, that's the most powerful part of the book. I mean, I know everybody’s going to take something different. You guys got to get your hands on this book because you're going to take so much out of it and apply it to your personal life and your business life. But to me, it was this whole idea of casting a vote for the person that I really am meant to be and want to be and how I want to show up. So hugely powerful.
Okay, so, I still have got a little bit more I want to cover here. So I want to jump into this idea of the four laws of behavioral change. And James, you know about the online world, and obviously, I teach people how to grow businesses by teaching them how to create digital courses. And so it's very specific about what I do. And so a lot of my listeners want to create digital courses, or they have digital courses and their marketing them out into the world. And so this idea of four laws of behavioral change, I think it can apply to what they're doing online and how they're doing it. So can we break those down?
JAMES: Yeah, of course. So, basically, if you want a habit to stick, you need four things to kind of happen, and you don't always have to have all these four, but basically they're like four levers that you can pull to make it easier to stick to a habit or break a bad one. So roughly speaking, those are: you want to make it obvious. The more obvious or visible or available a habit is, the more likely you are to stick to it. And I'll give examples of each of these later. The second law is to make it attractive. So the more attractive or appealing a habit is, the more likely you are to feel motivated to do it. The third law is to make it easy. So the easier, simpler, more convenient, frictionless a habit is, the more likely it is to be performed. And the fourth law is to make it satisfying. The more satisfying or enjoyable, the more you get a sense of pleasure from performing the habit, the more likely it is to stick. It kind of gives your brain this signal where it says, “Hey. Repeat that again in the future.” And so those four—make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, make it satisfying—those are what I call the four laws of behavior change.
Now, that gives you a framework for building a good habit. If you want a high-level framework for breaking a bad habit, then you just invert those four. So rather than making it obvious, you want to make it invisible; hide it, make it less likely to be seen. Rather than making it attractive, make it unattractive. Rather than making it easy, make it difficult; increase steps, increase friction. Rather than making it satisfying, make it unsatisfying; add a cost, add a consequence, have some downside to the behavior. And so that's kind of by inverting those four, you now have a framework for breaking a bad one.
And there are a lot of details and examples in the book of how to do each of those things. But the big picture view is make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, make it satisfying.
AMY: Okay, so, with that, how can we apply something like that to an online business or selling digital courses?
JAMES: Yeah, there are a ton of ways to do it, so let's focus on two of them. So we'll start with the first one, make it obvious. So make it obvious is about—every habit falls kind of the same four-step pattern, and these laws are kind of tied. There's one for each of those four steps. And so the first step of any habit is the cue. And the cue is something that gets your attention. So, for example, if you walk into a kitchen and you see a plate of cookies on the counter, that's a visual cue that starts the habit of eating a cookie. Or if you're driving down the road and you hear an ambulance behind you, you hear the siren, that's an auditory cue that starts the habit of pulling to the side of the road. Or your phone buzzes in your pocket, that's a physical or a tactile cue that starts the habit of pulling out your phone and checking it. And so every habit kind of starts with something that gets your attention like that.
And if you're building an online course, you can think about the habits that you want your customers to build. One of them, for example, could be logging into the course and viewing the latest lesson.
AMY: Yes, that’s a big one.
JAMES: And so you see these sort of cues in the online space or in software, what we usually call them are notifications. And so, Facebook is the obvious example that kind of pioneered this approach. But the reason you have the notifications tab in the navigation at the top of the screen is that every time that lights up with a little red number, it’s a cue that gets your attention and gets you to perform the habit of clicking on it to see what activity has happened in your feed. And you can do the same kind of thing with your customers. So you could, for example, have a notifications thing inside the course, but I think the simpler way to do it is to have an email that goes out, reminding people, “Hey, a new lesson is available,” or a text message that is sent to anybody who signs up for the course that reminds them to log in for the course.
In my case, we did a course on habit formation for a little while where someone would sign up, they would log in, and use the course or whatever, and then a week later, they would receive a welcome packet in the mail, physical mail, that would again tell them a little bit more about the course, get them excited for it, but we could view that welcome packet as a cue, a reminder, to think about the course. “Oh, I need to go log into that. I bought that last week,” etc. And so what we're trying to come up with here are reminders or prompts or cues, whatever term you want to use, that spark interest in the course and remind people of the next action that you want them to take.
AMY: That's awesome. Great.
JAMES: Okay, so that's the first example. So that’s make it obvious. Make it—actually, I'll just go through all four because it won’t take too long. So make it attractive. In this case, it's really about making the habit appealing. So what do they get out of that? And attractive is—this stage of the habit-formation process is really about the prediction that you make. So let me give you an online-purchasing example. If you go to Amazon and you decide to buy Atomic Habits, you're not actually buying the book. You can't yet, because you don't physically have it. What you’re buying is your prediction about the value that it has based on the sales page. And this is true for any online course. What you’re actually selling your audience is not the course itself; you’re selling them the sales page. You’re selling them the prediction that they make about the value they will get. And this is why common copywriting advice for online courses you hear people say, focus on the benefits, not the features. Don’t focus on the fact that it has fourteen lessons and six modules. Focus on the fact that those lessons will help you save time or double your income or reduce stress or find a relationship that you love or whatever it is. Focus on the ultimate benefit, the result that you get them and not the features of the course. And the reason is results, or benefits, they help ramp up the attractiveness of that behavior. And so I would say at each stage—this is why reading copywriting books can be so helpful. One of the ones that I like is called Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz. Basically, whenever you read about these copywriters or advertisers, you realize that they're very good about framing each action for the person so that they make a prediction about the value that that action will have. And you can ask yourself to do that at any stage of your course, whether it's purchasing it from the sales page; or once they've logged in and they're in the onboarding process; or they're in the middle of the course and they are kind of feeling like it's lagging a little bit and they need to click play on the next lesson. How can you frame each action so that it's more clear why that's beneficial and why the customer should do that?
AMY: Makes perfect sense.
JAMES: Okay, so that's making it attractive. The third stage is to make it easy. And so this is all about reducing friction. The fewer steps that are between you and the desired behavior, the more likely it is someone's going to follow through. I would say there's actually a real high-level way to think about this with online courses, which is that you should view your course as an obstacle between the customer and their desired result. Every lesson that you ask them to take, every minute that you ask them to sit through, every PDF that you ask them to download, that’s actually a piece of friction between them and the desired outcome that you’re promising to them or that they hope to achieve. And so it’s on you to try to make that information as valuable as possible, as compressed as possible, as useful as possible. You want to reduce friction and make it as easy as you can for them to get from their current state to their desired state. So that's a really big–picture thing about structuring the course.
Then you have a bunch of smaller choices within the course about how it's laid out, how can I more easily—for example, having very clear directions on the log-in screen of how it works and where to go next. It literally—I'm sure, Amy, you've experienced this many times—but it does not matter how clearly you state things and how obvious you state things, you will get emails from people who don't understand how it works. And so the more that you can do that, the more you can make the path easy, simple, convenient, frictionless, the more you can reduce steps in the behavior, the more likely it is someone’s going to finish the course and hopefully, ultimately, get value out of that.
So I think you can apply it at a meta level to how you structure and design the course. And you can also apply it like a more tactical, how is the software laid out, where are the buttons, etc.?
AMY: So much about that. This one’s probably my favorite. And I tell my students that typically the trend right now is shorter videos so people can get through them faster for those quick wins. And that's an example of making it easy. If you go in there and there's a forty-minute training video versus four ten-minute training videos, they just automatically think, “Oh, it's easier. I can get through this really fast. They’re just ten minutes long.” And so that makes a big difference.
And one more thing, guys, as you're listening to this, I teach my students to put the password, the actual link to the log-in page and the password in any email you send. It's like a P.S. in online emails to my students. Make it easy so they don't have to hunt down their password.
JAMES: That’s great. That’s a great level of thinking about what is the pain or friction that someone could experience at each stage, and how can I just try to pull that out? If you look at some of the most-successful companies in the world, they often—actually, just business in general—is kind of this endless cycle of delivering the same result for less and less work or less and less friction. So it used to be, like, 100 years ago, you could only listen to music if it was—or maybe 200 years ago—if you were at a live concert. And then we came up with a way to record music, and you could play it if it was on a record player. But it was rare, and it was kind of hard to get those. And then a little bit later, we had cassettes, tapes, and CDs, and you could listen to music, but only the stuff that was on that. And then you could burn your own CD, and so you come up with a mix or put together exactly the songs that you wanted. But again, you were kind of limited to what was on the CD. And then eventually we had an iPod, and you could put hundreds or thousands of songs on it. And then now it's like, oh, you just pull up Spotify, and you can play whatever you want. You have access to millions of songs. But even that can be reduced further, so now we have Google Play or Amazon Echo or some of these voice-activated speakers where now you don’t even have to pull your phone out to have access to millions of songs. You can just say, “Google, play rap,” or “play country music,” and it’ll just do it automatically. And all of those things, it’s just like this long arc of 200 years of all we want is to listen to enjoyable music. But we found more and more convenient ways of doing that.
And I think it would probably serve pretty much any entrepreneur to look at your business each year and ask, ”What do we provide? Can we take friction out? Can we remove steps? Can we deliver the same result for less effort or energy or attention than it took previously?” And eventually you'll find little bits of things that you can do.
Big software companies are so good at doing this, and we don't even realize it sometimes. Instagram has this feature now where you'll scroll through the feed. And if you see an album of, say, three pictures, once you've seen the first one, if you scroll back through the feed again, it automatically shows you the second one. So they're now reducing friction to such a degree that you don't even have to swipe your thumb to get through the album. And so no user would really think to say, “Oh, I don't like thumb swiping over to the second image.” It seems like such a small bit of friction, it’s not even worth it. But if you put all those together, it‘s kind of the same concept of 1 percent improvements. Look for every area of the chain that your customers go through, and try to reduce friction wherever you can. And at the end of the day, you end up with a much more delightful experience because of it.
AMY: Oh, yes. I totally agree with that one. I love this one. I think that’s my favorite one, the “make it easy,” for sure.
To wrap it up, I know we have “make it satisfying.” Talk to me about that. What would that look like?
JAMES: It's a good question. So there's this balance. So we talked about attractive or appealing. That second stage is really about the prediction that you make. And then satisfying is about the payoff of that prediction. So, for example, if you walk into the kitchen and you see that plate cookies, well, there's your cue. And then you actually predict, oh, that'll be sweet, sugary, tasty, enjoyable. And it’s that prediction that motivates you to walk over and perform the response: take a bite of the cookie. And then finally, there's the reward. And it is, in fact, sweet, sugary, tasty, enjoyable, whatever.
Well, that same process happens for any customer. They make a prediction when they buy that sales page. They think, “Oh, this will help me cut ten hours of work out each week,” or “It will help me make more money.” And then you need to have the payoff. And so the challenge here is this endless balance or battle in business, which is you want the expectation to be as high as possible so people feel motivated and they predict, oh, I should definitely buy this course. But you also need the payoff to be even higher, that the value is even higher, so that they feel satisfied and delighted and excited about it.
And so one way to do this is with surprises. You promised something on the sales page that's really valuable, people get a lot of enjoyment out of that, and then they log in, and they get that course, and not only do they get that, they also get four amazing interviews with experts in that field. And they weren't expecting it. It's just like a wonderful bonus that's in there. “Oh, I can't believe this course is providing even more value than I thought it would.” And so any way that you can find to have a little surprise and delight like that—earlier I mentioned that welcome-packet example. We sent that out the week later. People weren't expecting it. “Oh, it’s nice to get. Now I have a thirty-page pamphlet that has even more examples and resources,” and so on.
So each little bit of surprise, delight, additional value that you can provide, I think is even better. With Atomic Habits, when we did the launch, we released the book, but then at the end of the book, there are also appendices where you can download a PDF on how to apply the ideas to business or how to apply the ideas to parenting. We knew that those were two of the groups that wanted more specific examples than were in the book, and so we offered that. But it's not within the covers. So it's even more valuable than what you get between the pages. So any example of raising delight and surprise, I think leads to more satisfaction or feelings of pleasure associated with the course.
AMY: Oh, this one’s great. And this one is adding a bonus when they don't expect it, keeping your Facebook group open longer to give them even more value. Guys, there are so many ways we can make it more satisfying. And I want to remind you, the four laws of behavioral change are really for thinking about digital courses, how we're getting people the results that we've promised them. And so, again, make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying. I am obsessed with these. I think they are fantastic. They apply perfectly to everything I teach. So next time I rerecord Digital Course Academy®️, for sure, I will be referencing you, James, and your book because I think it's such a great fit. So I'm so glad we went over those. I appreciate that.
JAMES: Oh, yeah, of course. And I‘ll give you one more example that's outside of online courses. So I went to dinner in New York City recently. It was one of the greatest experiences I've had service-wise. So the restaurant’s called Manhatta and it’s run by Danny Meyer's famous restaurant tour in New York. And there are three courses—it’s a fixed menu—and in each course, we—my wife and I—went, and we talked about what we wanted to order and we ordered. But then they also brought us out a little bonus taste of another [unclear 43:23] we had talked about but didn’t order. It wasn’t just like, hey, it’s something additional. It’s additional and it’s relevant to what you talked about. And then we finished, and one of the waiters came over, or waitress came over, and she gave us a personalized list of three great bars that we could go to for a drink after the meal. And little things like that, they have nothing to do with the food, but it was just the whole experience was so thoughtful. And so I just want to add that it doesn't just have to be a surprise that they're not expecting, or it doesn't have to be twenty different bonuses or whatever. It can also just be one thing that's very thoughtfully done or very relevant to that person. The more that you can customize that so it feels like it's very caring, that experience, I'm still talking about now. It was months ago. And so creating those kind of experiences for your customers can really be valuable in the long run.
AMY: This is so important. A lot of my students are just starting out. So if they sell a digital course, maybe they have fifteen, twenty people in their first course. And I always say, when my audience was smaller, it's when I got to wow at such a more personalized level.
JAMES: Yeah, you can do things that don't scale.
AMY: Yeah, exactly. And it goes so far. And so think about doing things that don't scale. You said it perfectly. When you have a small audience, this is when you can wow them and just knock their socks off. And that's exactly what they did to you at that restaurant. I love that you said they didn't only just give me something I didn't expect, but it was relevant, and they listened to you. And gosh, guys, that goes so, so far. So take advantage of that as your audiences are smaller because it definitely gets a little bit more difficult when it gets to be a bigger audience. You could still do it, but it's just different.
JAMES: Yeah. This is a little bit different but for the first 5,000 or 10,000—I can’t remember how long I was able to stick with it—but let’s say the first 5,000 subscribers that I had that joined my list, each time they joined, I just emailed each one of them and said, “Hey, it's great to have you reading. Really excited to have you as part of the community”. And early on, you're only getting a few people a day or a dozen people a day or whatever, and so you could totally do that in ten minutes. And things like that, I can't do it at scale, but I think it really helped build a great community early on.
AMY: It does. When we went through my recent affiliate launch, one of our affiliates, she used BombBomb. Have you heard of that tool?
JAMES: No. I'm not familiar with it.
AMY: You literally are making a video. It's like direct to camera, but it gets put into an email. So literally, your video plays within that email, and it's a video of you. And she literally jumped on everybody who bought my program through her, “Hey, Jane, thanks so much. I'm so excited to get to know you. Let's do this.” It was really quick, but I think she did, like, eighty of them or something. But it goes a long way, and the technology we have today makes it so much easier. So guys, look at BombBomb. [misspelled 46:15]. It's a great tool to personalize messages like that.
Okay, so, I‘ve been talking a lot with you, I know, and I appreciate you staying on and diving into all these details. But I'm, of course, going to tell all my students, you’ve got to buy the book Atomic Habits. You will love it. I listen to the audio version. I’m sure you hear this all the time, James—you have an amazing voice. Do you hear that all the time?
JAMES: Oh, thank you very much. I’m glad you liked it.
AMY: So good. But definitely, guys, check this out. And James, what's next for you? What's going on in your world now?
JAMES: Yeah. Thank you. I’m very excited. Atomic Habits just crossed a million copies sold. So that’s a very exciting [unclear 46:52]. It's been out almost exactly one year. So heading into year two, I think we have a lot of good momentum. I do keynote speeches about the book, and I‘ll still continue to do certain interviews like this and so on. But I'm starting to toy with concepts for a second book.
AMY: Great. I was hoping.
JAMES: Yeah, I'm not quite sure exactly what form that's going to take, and I don't know exactly the frame that I'm going to have for the topic, but I like topics that are universal in the sense that habits are. Pretty much anybody can use that. And I like things that are evergreen and timeless. Like, habits are going to be just as relevant twenty years from now as they are today. And I like for readers to be able to come back to a book, to read it again in ten years and get just as much value out of it at this new stage of their life as they did previously. And so my ultimate goal for Atomic Habits is for it to be the most comprehensive, useful book on the subject. And I think the only way that's going to happen is if I continue to update and improve it. So I think at some point, I’ll probably do an updated and extended edition. I've been collecting a lot of feedback from readers and ideas for things that I could tweak. But I think certainly, for right now, it’s the best thing I've created so far, and it's definitely my best attempt at how do to habits work, and how can we build and change them? So anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for reading.
AMY: I loved it, and so many of my friends rave about it as well. So, guys, this is such a great resource. You got to check it out. And where can they find out more about you? Where do they go?
JAMES: Yeah, so, all my writing is at jamesclear.com, and you can find the books and articles and all that there. If you click on Articles, you can just kind of poke around and see what topics interest you. They're organized by category. I also have a couple other resources on there that if you click on Favorites, so I have my list of favorite great speeches that nobody has heard that are very famous. There's a lot of wisdom listed in that list. Favorite podcast episodes people can listen to. I don’t have my own podcast, but I like to curate and find really good one-off episodes and whatnot. So all of that is there. And then, if you want to go straight to the book, you can just go to atomichabits.com.
AMY: Perfect. Well, thanks again, James. Truly delighted that you’ve been on the show.
JAMES: Great. Thanks for having me, Amy.
AMY: Take care.
Well, there you have it. I have a feeling that you loved this interview with James as much as I did. Quite honestly, I'm in love with this idea of atomic habits, and I'm going to continue to focus on bettering myself 1 percent every day so that I can continue to step into the identity that aligns with the goals that I desire most. I hope you found a ton of value and inspiration in this conversation.
Now, I have a question for you. How are you going to apply atomic habits to your business and your life as you move into the New Year, or if you happen to be listening to this later on, just as you move into all the things that you want to do in your business and in your life? I would love for you to jump over to the Online Marketing Made Easy Facebook group. It's totally free. You can search for us on Facebook. Again, it‘s the Online Marketing Made Easy podcast group. And I want you to share one of the habits that you are going to stick to, one of those atomic habits that you are going to do over and over again, and you're going to be patient, and you're going to let time be your ally so you can reach those big, bold goals that you've set for yourself. So jump on over to the Facebook group, and let me know what you're thinking.
In the meantime, I will see you here, same time, same place, next week. Bye for now.