Are you caught up on our #ProductivityGiants series so far? If not, be sure to check out our interviews with Camille Ricketts, Head of Content at First Round Capital, Brad Feld, partner at Foundry Group, Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, Eric Paley, Partner at Founder Collective, and Dharmesh Shah, CTO of Hubspot.
Welcome back to the #ProductivityGiants series!
We’re excited to talk all things productivity today with James Clear – an author, photographer, and entrepreneur. He writes about how to build better habits at JamesClear.com, and over 400,000 people subscribe to his weekly email newsletter, where he shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research. A big believer in the power of daily habits to create positive change, James is certainly an inspirational figure in the self-help community. He shares wisdom often on his Twitter account:
Here, we interviewed James about his morning and nightly routines, what he’s learned from failure, and his #1 holy grail productivity tip that nobody ever follows.
What does the first 90 minutes of your day look like?
I try to keep my calendar free in the mornings. I typically have an open block from 8am to noon, which I use for writing, strategic thinking, and other creative work. Repetitive tasks like interviews, emails, and business “housekeeping” are left for the afternoon.
What’s your number one productivity/time-saving tip?
Here’s the only productivity tip you’ll ever need: do the most important thing first each day. It sounds simple, but nobody does it. I will occasionally do the most important thing first, but I also have many days when I get pulled into something non-urgent or my mind wanders to a task that isn’t the highest value use of my time. Those are the days when I get less done. If you can keep yourself focused on the main thing, then you’ll never have an unproductive day.
Any favorite productivity tools?
I use Evernote for writing, Trello for project management, and a Moleskine notebook for tracking my workouts. I also love Audible for churning through books while traveling and Pocket for saving articles to read for later.
Do you have a pre-bed/nightly routine?
Mine is short. I brush my teeth, plug my phone in, and go to sleep. But here’s one I really like: When you wake up in the morning, make your bed and put a book on top of your pillow. When you go to bed at night, your book will be waiting for you and you can read a few pages before falling asleep. It’s a simple and easy way to read more books.
How often do you check your inbox?
Rarely. I will sometimes go three or four days without looking at email. I should probably check more than I do currently, I certainly don’t need to look at it more than once per day.
What’s your #1 email tip?
Keep all internal communication off of email. My team communicates only through Trello comments and daily check-in calls. Our internal communication never goes through email. We only use it to reach out to people outside of the organization.
What’s the biggest hindrance to your productivity? How do you combat it?
Clarity. The most foundational aspect of productivity is knowing what the right thing is to work on. So many of us have a vague sense of what is generally important, but we don’t have a clear sense of what is most important. We show up at work and pick something from our to-do list to work on and we feel somewhat productive because we are busy, but we don’t sit down and actually think about what the highest priority is.
I like to stick with Dieter Rams’ philosophy of “less, but better.” In order to do that, you have to start by looking at everything on your list, prioritizing it, and cutting out the stuff that isn’t most important. An interesting side effect of prioritizing your tasks is that your motivation generally increases once you have clarified the most important things. Most people think they lack motivation, when what they really lack is clarity. Know what is most important and you’ll have a better chance of getting important things done.
When you lose focus, what do you do to regain it?
Creative rituals are incredibly important for staying on track. This is why habits can be so powerful. A simple habit of getting a cup of tea and pulling out your to-do list can lead you down a path toward a productive morning. While a habit like pulling out your phone can lead you down a path toward an unproductive one.
Habits are like an entrance ramp for your behavior. It’s a small action, but it sends you down a long road of either productive or unproductive actions. For this reason, I find it useful to have multiple creative or productive triggers throughout my day. That way, if I get off track, it’s like I always have another entrance ramp coming up to pull me back on the right road. These habits could include things like daily check-ins with team members, calendar notifications, keeping your to-do list in a visible location, or putting a “don’t break the chain” calendar on the wall.
What have you learned from your failures?
Failure is just feedback, not a judgment of your value or self-worth. Too many times, we take failure personally and internalize the pain of a mistake. Slowly, I’ve learned to treat failure more like a scientist. When a scientist runs an experiment, they are looking for data points. Each “failure” is just another data point that helps hone the hypothesis and gets them closer to the right answer. That’s what failure should be like for all of us–just another data point. More on that here.
What bad advice do you hear often?
It’s not so much specific advice as it is the use of any advice in the wrong context. Any advice can be bad advice if it is out of context. As my friend Sean McCabe says, “Good advice given at the wrong time is bad advice.” The point, of course, is that what constitutes good advice is heavily dependent on the circumstance. Even a brilliant idea is stupid in the wrong situation. The implications of this are wide-ranging.
For example, new entrepreneurs will often try to emulate or reverse engineer what a successful entrepreneur is doing right now without realizing that this person is at a totally different stage of their business. What they need to do is think about what the best thing would be for a new entrepreneur, not an established one. That’s just one example of the many ways people stretch good ideas outside of the context in which they are useful.
What book has changed your life and why?
For practical wisdom, I think everyone should read Manual For Living by Epictetus. It’s short, easy to understand, and useful for everyone. For perspective, I really like The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. It showcases the broad themes of history across thousands of years and tells you a lot about human nature. For other suggestions, I keep a list of the 10 books with the most “page for page” wisdom here.
What’s the most worthwhile investment in time, money, or energy that you’ve made?
Exercise. I work out for about one hour per day on Monday through Friday. The payoff in terms of sanity, health, and extra years of life is incredibly high. Sleep is another massively important area. My general rule is that I never cheat myself on sleep and I often get 8 or 9 hours per night. I’m sure my work and productivity are much higher because of it.
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Our Productivity Giants series highlights tech leaders shaking up things in their industries. If you enjoyed Eric’s feature, check out others in this series:
- Brad Feld, partner at Foundry Group
- Camille Ricketts, Head of Content at First Round Capital
- Nir Eyal, author of Hooked
- Dharmesh Shah, CTO of Hubspot
- Eric Paley, Partner at Founder Collective