Goal-Setting Strategies from Self-Help Expert James Clear

By: Jeff Nazzaro

“Ring out the old year, ring in the new: ring-a-ding-ding.” So says a jaded, but not-yet-hopeless, Shirley MacLaine towards the end of Billy Wilder’s classic The Apartment. After years of less-than-overwhelming New Year’s resolutions, it might seem natural to feel less-than-thrilled with the prospects of trying to change oneself for the better yet again, but according to New York Times bestselling self-help guru James Clear, the key is making small changes in our daily habits that over time add up to big results.

In fact, he says, improving in almost any area by just 1 percent per day will yield a compound improvement of 37 percent by the end of the year. By changing our personal system—our environment and how we function within it—we can change our habits and ultimately ourselves. On the other hand, chasing a lofty goal right out of the gate, like losing 50 pounds or finally writing that novel, gives you an 80 percent chance of ending up with a typical February fail. So, what does the other way look like? Clear talks about four stages of habit formation, enumerated below with a brief explanation and examples.


Beyond the obvious explanation inherent in the name, the Noticing Stage comes down to one simple step: plan. But first, we have to, yes, notice what we want to change. Let’s say you have a bad habit of not folding your laundry after doing it. The first step is to notice that you are spending as much time living out of your laundry basket as your dresser. Now, make a specific plan to remedy this: I will fold and store my laundry immediately after taking it out of the dryer. Then, have a backup plan for failure: If I don’t do it immediately, I will do it before I go to bed. Still living out of your laundry basket? Notice and try again.


Past simple desire or will power or motivation, reams of research show how our physical environment influences our actions. The easier our path to a good habit, the more likely we are to adopt it; the harder it is to get to a bad habit, the less likely it is we’ll do it. Addicted to a social media site? Try signing out. The simple step of having to input your username and password will deter you to at least some degree from mindlessly clicking and scrolling. Providing yourself with easy access to healthy snacks, workout gear, computer apps geared towards productivity instead of distraction . . . will keep you wanting to use them and on the road to success.


Here, Clear emphasizes quantity over quality, stressing that the former will lead to the latter, while chasing a masterpiece will usually leave you with nothing. In other words, whether it’s exercising, changing your eating habits, or working on a pet project, repetitions matter. Just getting started every day, in some small way, will lead to consistency, and consistency will lead to success. Don’t think about that 30-minute walk as taking half an hour, think about it as taking five minutes to get out the door. Once you’re out there, you’re almost certain to take the walk, and taking the walk will bring you closer to your ultimate goal.


Finally, it should go without saying, but unless you have some kind of enjoyment attached to your repetition, you probably won’t continue repeating it. While it’s impossible or impractical to give yourself some kind of material reward for each repetition of a productive task, Clear recommends what he calls the Seinfeld Strategy, based on advice the famous comic actor gave to an aspiring stand-up: write new jokes for 15 minutes every day (quantity over inspired quality) and put an X on a calendar for each day. The X is the reward. Seeing the calendar fill up feels good and is motivating. The key then is not to never miss a day, but to never miss two days in a row. Missing twice leads to three times, etc., which leads to quitting and failing.

Noticing, Wanting, Doing, and Liking lead to repetition and ultimately, to success. So, make 2022 your year of “Little Changes=Big Results.”