The Common Beliefs We Get Wrong

As a society, we often overvalue unimportant things and undervalue the ideas and strategies that make a real difference.

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By James Clear


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As a society, we often overvalue unimportant things and undervalue the ideas and strategies that make a real difference.

Here's my take on a few common beliefs that I think we often get wrong.

Overrated: Being busy.

Underrated: Doing one thing at a time.

Being in motion is not the same thing as taking action. As a society, we've fallen into a trap of busyness and overwork. More critically, we have mistaken all this activity as an indicator of living an important life. The underlying thought seems to be, "Look how busy I am? If I'm doing all this work, I must be doing something important." And, by extension, "I must be important because I'm so busy."

Related: How to Fall in Love With Boredom and Unlock Your Mental Toughness

Overrated: Avoiding criticism.

Underrated: Sharing unique ideas.

You can either be judged because you created something or ignored because you left your greatness inside of you. Too often, we let our fears and emotions prevent us from sharing our work with others.

Overrated: Unrestricted freedom.

Underrated: Carefully designed constraints.

Constraints actually increase our skill development rather than restrict it. We need lines to show us where to add color, not a blank canvas to draw on. As an entrepreneur, I struggled to manage myself until I realized that I needed to add some structure to my day. I began to only scheduled calls in the afternoon. I blocked my email inbox until noon. I required myself to publish a new article every Monday and Thursday. By adding a few carefully designed constraints to my life I reduced my freedom, but actually improved my productivity and happiness. Instead of feeling restricted by constraints, I felt empowered.

Overrated: Degrees, certifications, and credentials.

Underrated: Courage and creativity.

Degrees can be important. (I don't want to be operated on by a neurosurgeon who didn't attend medical school.) But as my friend Charlie Gilkey told me, "Most people need degrees because they don't have the courage to ask for what they want." In many cases, the courage to ask for what you want and a willingness to solve other people's problems is all you really need. The degrees, the awards, going to the "right" school or being born into the "right" family—none of these things are a prerequisite for success.

Overrated: Getting motivated.

Underrated: Changing your environment.

We incorrectly believe that motivation is the missing link that will enable us to stick to a new diet plan or write that book or learn a new language. Motivation is fickle and it doesn't last. One study found that motivation had no impact on whether or not people exercised over a two week period. The effects of motivation essentially vanished after a day. Meanwhile, most of your daily choices are simply a response to the environment around you. We rarely think about the spaces we live and work in, but they drive our behavior whether we feel motivated or not.

Overrated: Watching the news.

Underrated: Reading old books.

By default, any good book that is more than 10 years old is filled with life-changing ideas. Why? Because bad books are forgotten after a decade or two. Any lasting book must be filled with ideas that stand the test of time. Meanwhile, the news is filled with fleeting information. We justify paying attention to the media because we think it makes us informed, but being informed is useless when most of the information will be unimportant by tomorrow. The news is just a television show and, like most TV shows, the goal is not to deliver the most accurate version of reality, but the version that keeps you watching. You wouldn't want to stuff your body with low quality food. Why cram your mind with low quality thoughts?

Overrated: Discovering the "new" thing.

Underrated: Mastering the fundamentals.

I've been guilty of jumping at the latest tactic or strategy, just like everyone else. We fool ourselves into thinking that a new tactic will change the fact that we need to do the work. There really isn't much of a secret to most things. Want to be a better writer? Write more. Want to be stronger? Lift more. Want to learn a new language? Speak the language more. The greatest skill in any endeavor is doing the work. You don't need more time, more money, or better strategies. You just need to do the work.

Related: The Chemistry of Building Better Habits

Overrated: Being the leader.

Underrated: Being a better teammate.

We love status. We want pins and medallions on our jackets. We want power and prestige in our titles. We want to be acknowledge, recognized, and praised. It's too bad all of those make for hollow leaders. Great teams require great teammates. Nowhere is that more true that at the top. No leader ever became worse by thinking about their teammates more.

Overrated: Winning.

Underrated: Improving.

Too often, we value immediate results over long-term improvement. CFOs play accounting games to meet quarterly earnings projections. Police chiefs fudge the numbers to make crime rates appear lower. Students cheat on exams because getting an A is more important than learning the material. Learning, growth, and improvement are undervalued in the name of getting faster results. The shame of it all is that if we could find the time to focus on the process, the outcomes would follow shortly after.

Overrated: Training to failure.

Underrated: Not missing workouts.

Feeling exhausted at the end of your workout is massively overrated. Working until you have nothing left is a recipe for burnout, injury, illness, and inconsistency. It is better to make small progress every day than to do as much as humanly possible in one day. Effort means nothing if it only last for a week or two. Do things you can sustain.

James Clear

Writer, Entrepreneur and Behavior Science Expert

James Clear is a writer and speaker focused on habits, decision making, and continuous improvement. He is the author of the no. 1 New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits. The book has sold over 5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

Clear is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies and his work has been featured in places like Time magazine, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and on CBS This Morning. His popular "3-2-1" email newsletter is sent out each week to more than 1 million subscribers. You can learn more and sign up at

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