CN#6. Inside James Clear's habits and growth newsletter

FEATURED NEWSLETTER: 3-2-1 Thursday by James Clear

STATUS: Weekly (Thursdays), consumer, free


PURPOSE: Personal development through productivity and habit-building.“The most wisdom per word of any newsletter on the web.”


SUBSCRIBERS: 1.85 million. 40-45% claimed open rate.

WORD COUNT: 526 words.

SENT FROM: James Clear

Note the newsletter is sent from a named human being, not an info@ or donotreply@ address.

SUBJECT LINE: 3-2-1: Lucky opportunities, aging, and productivity

Following the copywriting Rule of Three that’s been proved to increase engagement, most subject lines have three elements, a selection of the choicest bits from the newsletter.


The masthead sets the tone. It's hardly even a logo, just text, getting near equal billing with the strapline containing the promise of the newsletter.

The format is text only with no pictures and generous use of white space.

White space allows readers' brains to breathe. It’s not too much to say that compared to the cacophony of text, images, links and calls to action in many newsletters (let alone websites) 3-2-1 is a haven, a place of relief from the noise.

To that extent, the design complements the intention, which is to persuade you to stay and read all the content and, of course, for it to become a habit.


3-2-1 Thursday follows the same dependable format each week: inspiring, intriguing, wise and serious, comments and quotations (some long, some short) delivered with a simple promise that reading them won’t take long.

This combined with the easy-on-the-eye design, is an incentive to read. You know it’s a quick win, and the content types tapering in frequency means the ride is downhill. You know exactly what you’re going to get, so opening this email can fit in with even the smallest spot of downtime.

There are 3 ideas direct from James. This is unique content that readers are not going to get any other way. They can't just be grabbed and recycled from a Google search.

This is a big barrier to entry for anyone seeking to emulate 3-2-1. Don’t underestimate the knowledge and skill required to come up with fresh, interesting and valid ideas every week.

Over 10 years since inception, the editorial requirement amounts to more than 1,500 pieces.

There are 2 motivational quotes from others, always graciously sourced.

Here the value is not in uniqueness of the content (quotes are everywhere) but the skill of the curator.

There are thousands of great quotes and millions of mediocre ones. Regularly picking ones with true value, meaning and depth is not easy.

Then there’s a question for the reader. This switches the focus from consumption of knowledge to curiosity and reflection.

There’s a link if you'd like to share, a sign off, and a P.S. which is usually a link to a lighter thread on Twitter. In a serious letter, this is important, but the only frivolity you'll find.


For marketing, 3-2-1 newsletter has relied heavily on Twitter where James Clear has 760,000 followers. Each nugget is accompanied by an invitation to “Share this on Twitter” and there’s always a shareable link to pass along with an eye for more sign-ups.

Surprisingly, there's no 3-2-1 promotion on LinkedIn, where there is a professional audience engaged with self-improvement. Perhaps the world is wisely considered a big enough place accessed just through one social media platform.

For a long time 3-2-1 Thursday was a newsletter with no obvious commerciality, other than to raise James Clear's profile.

In recent years, the commercial side has been developed with the promotion of his book Atomic Habits and related products.

Atomic Habits has sold more than 9 million copies and been translated into 50 languages. James Clear donates 5% of profits to a charity.


A single banner type house ad is at the very bottom of this edition promoting the book.

The deliberate placement last sends a clear message to subscribers that nothing comes before the sacred editorial.

This is more commitment to avoiding anything that might compromise the clarity and distraction-free format.

In the summer, the newsletter opened up to external advertisers for the first time, but with strict conditions (no supplements, vitamins, drinks or foods).

“I’m only interested in working with brands that are helping their customers build better habits. If you can clearly point to the type of positive habit your product helps customers create, then your brand is likely a great fit!"

In September the first sponsorships were taken up by Duolingo, a language training app.


In a world where young creators seem to pivot at the first roadblock, James Clear’s metronomic approach over years stands out.

To that extent he’s providing both the raw material and a weekly example of his main message about habits.

3-2-1 wasn't his first newsletter and other than raising his profile for potentially paid speaking engagements, didn't have a monetisation method in place for a long time.

The newsletter’s success comes from a laser focus on sign-ups primarily based on Twitter, but also blog posts and contra deals with other publishers.

Then there's the fact that the subject matter is broader than habits, attracting a far bigger market.

According to his website, the addressable market is huge because he’s actually asking the question: “How can we live better.”

“I consider it my job to find the best ideas and explain them in a way that is actionable and easy-to-understand,” he says.

There are imitators, but it's going to be hard to match the perseverance that has kept this newsletter going under one person's steam, not to mention the emphasis and insistence on quality.

3-2-1 Thursday is an Engagement newsletter because the primary purpose is for the reader to complete reading the entire issue.

The way this is done is primarily by avoiding outbound links, distracting illustrations, providing space to breathe, and restricting any selling until after the editorial content.

The reader doesn’t get interrupted, the experience is smoother, engagement is higher, and that means retention will be too.

Read a copy of the newsletter here.

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