How to achieve greatness with paper clips

share this article

We're all striving for big things. But somewhere along the line, we seem to always lose steam with our efforts and discipline. And our goals seem to get farther away with time. This is where the power of using visual cues come in to help us build strong habits.

The trick to tricking your brain into consistently repeating a good habit is... to trick it. Using visual cues that trigger, track, and reward your progress. | Pixabay

I’d been mulling over the idea of visiting a dietician after years of taking advice from Google on how to a healthier lifestyle. After some research, I came across a dietician who looked like she could help me out. When I met her in person, she patiently listened to what I had to say and asked me a few questions about my diet and fitness. I told her about how I tried to minimise junk food and that I worked out regularly. She smiled. Not the sarcastic smile, but the one that tells you that she knew better. I thought of all those snacks at work, the many birthday celebrations and other lunches that wouldn't be considered healthy. I recalled the many days I’d skipped gym citing work and other trivial excuses. I realised I wasn't being honest with her.

So, I told her that even though I did not adhere to discipline at times, I made sure I didn't go overboard. She asked a few more questions and my answers began to expose the reason I was getting nowhere near where I wanted to be. All these days I was under the impression that I more-or-less followed the regimen I’d set for myself and it was only when my dietician asked me in detail that I realised I was hardly maintaining it with regularity. She remarked that many people faced this problem and that despite wanting to make better choices, our thoughts and actions are not in sync most of the time. She said that unless we track our habits and measure our progress we won't even know if we’re going in the right direction, making it even harder to dynamically recalibrate our course of action as needed.


To build a habit, we need to stick to the basics by taking advantage of the power of visual cues to persuade the brain to trigger an action and repeat it till it becomes part of a routine. That is all it takes.

We constantly look for ways to spend our time wisely and to be consistent in what we do. We wish we could dedicate time to read books, practise an instrument, stick to our workouts, eat healthier meals and so on. While every habit gets off to a great start, the enthusiasm wanes after the first few days and we find ourselves caught up in our routines, struggling to make time for our habits . We badly want to work towards achieving our goals, but we seem to lack the motivation to cross the first few days. If only someone could constantly remind us of what we ought to be doing, without getting annoyed or without annoying us.

And if you think an app can solve this problem, think again. When you’re bombarded by notifications, you either ignore it or simply turn them off to save yourself the guilt of not taking action. If you’re someone who actually pays attention to the notifications, take a bow. The rest of us need a powerful trigger that would remind us to work towards our goal, motivate us and help us cultivate a habit.

All this can be done if we train the brain to respond in a certain way to a set of triggers.

Considering how visual cues persuade the brain to take action, that could be the way to go. To understand the impact of visual cues, we first need to understand how our brain works. As clinical psychologist and author Haig Kouyoumdjian points out, our brain is considered an image processor and not a word processor. Vision dominates all our senses and we’re more likely to remember something when it has an image associated with it. While words are abstract and often difficult for the brain to recall, visuals are more concrete and make for easier retention. That’s why our brains process visual information efficiently than any other forms of information.


Persuading the brain to respond to visual cues plays an important role in helping us build habits. Charles Duhigg, the author of ‘The Power of Habit’, explains in his best-seller about the habit loop — a 3-step process that all habits follow. According to him, each habit has a trigger, a routine and a reward. The trigger serves as a cue to get started with the task, the routine refers to the behaviour associated with the task and the reward is the actual benefit of the task. By adding a trigger in our environment and associating it with a task, we increase the chances of remembering a task and doing it. If we reap the benefits of a task, we will naturally be inclined to give it another try and repeat the process. Consistency is important because it is this repetition that slowly becomes a routine and gradually develops into a habit that bears fruit in the longer run. So, all it takes to develop a habit is to identify a powerful visual cue that would trigger and push us towards our goals.

The Paper Clip Strategy

Perhaps the most popular strategy to make good habits stick is the ‘Paper Clip Strategy’, as described by James Clear. It is based on the technique developed by Trent Dyrsmid, a stockbroker who worked at a bank in Abbotsford. Dyrsmid made substantial progress in his career, thanks to one of his simple, relentless daily habits. His task was to make 120 calls a day. He placed two jars on his desk — one was left empty and the other one was filled with 120 paper clips. For every call he made, he transferred a paper clip to the other jar. He did this till he transferred all 120 clips to the other jar. He followed this day after day to make his calls and made immense progress by achieving his target. Within a year, his book of business grew to $5 million in assets and he became a very successful stockbroker.

A key takeaway from the Paper Clip Strategy is how the right visual cues in our environment remind us of the tasks to be done and help us track progress on our behaviour. Once we have proof of how well we’re progressing, it motivates us to perform better till we achieve our goal. Even if we aren't making much progress, at least we have proof of what’s wrong and can work towards setting it right. It’s amazing how having discernible evidence of having accomplished a target or not, and visibly tracking the progress, can work wonders for us. It also shows how the eyes refuse to believe something unless they see it for themselves. Once the brain is trained to respond to the visual cues, it will remind us about our routine and help us remain consistent. The good thing about the paper clip strategy is how we can customise it to suit our needs. All we need is a powerful visual cue.


After speaking with my dietician, I realised the importance of tracking progress and started monitoring my workout routine with my calendar. Every morning after I got back from the gym I put a tick mark on that day. During the first week, I was happy that I’d made it on four out of the seven days. On days I missed the gym, the absence of a tick mark would make me feel guilty and the next day I would diligently hit the gym. It felt like I was accountable to someone every time I saw the tick marks (or their absence) on the calendar.

I felt a sense of accomplishment every time I took my marker to put a tick mark and I felt good about myself when the tick marks accumulated. The more I felt good, the more consistent I was. I did this for a month and I noticed that I had started working out regularly. Impressed by how well this was working for me, I extended this strategy to other aspects of my life and started using sticky notes to remind myself of all those tasks that needed to be completed within a specific time. In this smartphone era, it takes just one Instagram notification to divert our attention. Considering how all the apps vie for our attention, I realised we are better off not depending on apps to build/track habits and, instead, sticking to our pencils, papers, paper clips, and sticky notes.

Trent Dyrsmid’s story bears testimony to a simple fact — to build a habit, we need to stick to the basics by taking advantage of the power of visual cues to persuade the brain to trigger an action and repeat it till it becomes part of a routine. That is all it takes. It isn't one of those extremely complicated tasks which requires background research and a detailed tutorial to get you through. There is no secret ingredient. As long as you believe you can do something, it takes just a few paper clips to train yourself to build a habit.

share this article
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor