The “Paper Clip Strategy” Will Fill Your Life With Healthy Habits
It's hard to form a habit without a visual reward. Office supplies can help.
In his bestselling book Atomic Habits, James Clear tells the story of Trent Dyrsmid, a rookie sales rep in a Canadian suburb who managed to bring in $5 million of business within his first 18 months on the job.
Was he a prodigy? Was he fraudulent? Neither — he was moving paper clips.
Every morning, Dyrsmid would start the day with 120 paper clips in a jar on one side of his desk. On the other side was an empty jar. For every sales call he made, he’d move one paper clip. He’d dial the phone all day, until the other jar was full. The Paper Clip Strategy was born.
As Dyrsmid shared with Clear in the book, “I would start calling at 8 a.m. every day. I never looked at stock quotes or analyst research. I also never read the newspaper for the entire time. If the news was really important, it would find me from other ways.”
Why this method works
Clear calls the Paper Clip Strategy a “visual trigger,” and offers other similar examples, like moving marbles or hairpins from one jar to another, perhaps after writing another page of your novel, or performing another set of pushups. On the surface, the strategy might seem a little dubious. But getting a chance to actually see your progress in the physical world can be a powerful reward.
As Dyrsmid explained, he didn’t distract himself with poring over the headlines of the day. That’s not to say that reading the news is unhelpful or a waste of time. Only that Dyrsmid was in the business of making calls. And the paper clips served as a joint motivator and reminder: if you want to move another one across the desk, you have to make another call.
You can’t become a runner if you never go for a run. In habit-forming, the endgame is always through. You have to do the thing. But tiny accounting strategies, however inane, can make the new activity less of a boogeyman and more of a game. Over time, as you grow to associate the habit with routine and reward, your self-confidence and success in whatever field it is will grow.
We use Habit Tracker
If you don’t want to move little objects around on your desk all day, online habit trackers do a great job of channeling this visual trigger reward system. I use an app that’s literally called Habit Tracker (you can find it here). The lifetime subscription is available for $6.
The platform lets you create an unlimited number of habits, assign them icons and colors, and declare how frequently you’d like to complete each individual task. (You can also choose whether certain habits should be performed daily, weekly or monthly.) Clear is right — there is something ridiculously, evolutionarily satisfying about seeing a bright bar get a little further across the screen, after you click “+,” indicating you completed that habit today.
Oh, and, if you’re someone who means well but forgets easily, Habit Tracker will send you reminders on the daily, at the time of your choice. I don’t do this because I find it a little intense. I’ll just go to Habit Tracker at the end of the day and click the habits I kept up with.
Other habit-forming strategies
Some nice midway options between sorting marbles and subscribing to apps:
- Get a bullet journal
- Follow the “Seinfeld strategy” (he allegedly writes a joke a day, and writes an X on the calendar to keep a visual representation of his streak)
- Print out a habit-grid worksheet, there are tons of free PDFs online
- Recruit a friend to follow a habit with you and hold each other accountable. Here, the reward would be getting to send the celebratory text
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