Last week, I sad down with Knowmads students to talk about creating habits of progress. Preparing for it allowed me to dig up everything I'd learned about it. It was a rich conversation so I decided to write about it. Hope it helps you.
Habits are cool. They require little attention because you do them without thinking. No need to make a decision, it's been done. No need to spend willpower, it requires no effort. This makes them super powerful and it allows you to spend those limited resources on something else.
Habits also accumulate value over time. Little by little. Day in, day out. Like the frog, without you noticing the water started boiling and suddenly you have changed your mindset, gained a skill or increased your fitness.
And after reaching a certain level or milestone, the habit stays. Goals are good for a temporary motivation boost. But after the deadline has past, and you've reached that level, it's back to the drawing board. There is no "I've made it moment" on the other end. The work continues. For that, you can better have habits in place.
And sure, to get to a level (run a marathon, publish a book, etc) you have to do that activity a lot. But when viewed as in service of reaching that goal and not as a valuable activity in itself, after the goal the activity won't stick. It wasn't a habit.
Once one is in place, you can add a second. After that, a third. Etcetera. You can stack them. Imagine what could happen in a year, when you build one new good habit every month.
Habits keep you steady. Trough highs and lows, habits keep you in check. Finished a book? It's easy to think you're finished afterwards, but a habit gets you back to writing the next day. Ran that marathon, back to running (after recovering). More importantly, they keep you moving forward through hard times. Those days/weeks when things are hard or stuff gets in the way. In these times, habits keep you from moving forward.
NB: Habits are durable and sustainable. Not inspirational instant and after-dip. Independent of the need for inspiration. "When inspiration hits you" "When you're in the zone"
So which habits are worth building? Quite a few. I split them up in two categories. 1. Foundational Habits. The habits that make sure your physical and mental health is good and you're ready to get to work. 2. Creative Habits. Habits of training your creative muscle and producing good work.
I'll list the most essential with an example to get you started.
- Sleep. Get enough sleep. There are exceptions, but you need to sleep aplenty! So, start winding down in time. Make a going-to-bed ritual through which you close of the day.
- Eat well. Start replacing foods you eat with healthier choices. More vegetables, less sugar, more good fats, less carbs.
- Drink water. Hydrate! Add getting a new glass of water to things you do regularly. Refill your bottle every time your Pomodoro Timer hits or when you go to the bathroom.
- Meditate. All top-performers do it. It's not strange anymore. It's not even sexy anymore! Learn how to get a grip on your thoughts.
- Exercise. Physical fitness allows you to keep more energy during the day. Do a few exercises before hitting the shower every morning.
- Cold shower. Is supposedly great for your immune system. I'm building this habit at the moment. I'm finishing my showers cold until I've got control of my breath again. I feel really refreshed afterwards.
- Nature. Spend time in nature, in fresh air, in the sun. We're not made for fluorescent light! Take a walk after/over lunch. Work out outside.
- Limit screens. If your whole day is behind one, should your evening also be?
- Writing. Making a commitment to writing (not even necessarily publishing) about your topic is a great way to learn to formulate your thoughts.
- Morning pages. Free writing in the morning as a way of emptying you mind and putting thoughts on paper.
- Create. Whether it's playing an instrument, drawings, writing or ideation, practice is how you increase your creative muscle. Plan moments of creation in.
- Consume good art. Novels, poetry, music. Surround yourself with the level of stuff you wish to put out there. Make it a habit to start or end the day with reading a book.
- Socialise. Surround yourself with people that pull you upward. Keep meeting people you'd like to learn from.
- Gratitude. The 5-minute journal is a great way to practice gratitude and will slowly over time change your view on things to a more appreciative one.
- Conclude the day by writing down the 3 most important things for you to do the next day.
(And of course you can also think of toning down limiting habits)
Ok, so now the meat of it all. How do you actually build these habits. Of course, powering through on will power and discipline is an option. But there are ways to make it much easier for you. Plus maybe there is not a lot of will power and discipline left, and you can better save those for other important things.
- Micro-habits. Start super small! Start with a level that you can make. This gives momentum and builds it in your system. The good habit you can keep is better than the perfect one you can't!
- Make the new habit as small as an action-step. Really concrete and small. Build that in and increase dosage over time.
- Maintain it for at least a month. The believed time that's needed to form a habit varies a bit (from as low as a week to as high as 60 days). But a month does it in my experience and is easy to remember. So commit to nothing less than doing it a month. So no doubt in the middle about whether it's worth it, or if you can maintain it. Re-evaluating can happen afterwards. Set everything up so that you'll maintain it for a month.
Systems over willpower!
- Build systems that help you succeed and set up the environments you act in that work in your favour and make the undesired behaviour harder. Put your guitar in the middle of the living room and put the remote of the tv in one other room and the batteries of it in another (or in a box far away in a closet).
- Good behaviour should require no set up to give you an out. Give it first order access. Make sure your undesired behaviour is harder to get to.
- Make sure you do the prep when you're clear of mind so you can roll into it when you have to do it. If you want to do something in the morning. Make sure to put it out and ready in the evening. When you want to write in the morning, put your pen and notebook open on you table where you sit down to have breakfast. Or sleep in you running cloths and put your shoes next to your bed so that to go running all you have to do is put on your shoes and walk out.
- Make it social. Do it together with someone. Invite friends in on the project. This makes it more fun and gets some productive peer pressure in the equation.
- Build in a reward or punishment system. Make a deal with yourself - or even better, make this social as well - to celebrate when you succeed. But also decide up front what the consequences are when you miss it. Maybe you allow a website to donate money to a cause you don't believe in when your friend who is in on it doesn't check in at the end.
- Ask for help from friends, roommates, partners or kids. Ask them to remind you of it and to give you the space to do it.
Combine or Replace
- New things are hard to add to your daily operation. So stick it to something you already do. Start walking the dogs in your running gear for example (and once you're out there, you might as well run with them). Having breakfast? You can write while eating.
- Replace a habit. Eat the same amount or just as often, but make sure it's easier to go for the better options (add broccoli to the dish instead of carbs).
- Take care of the craving that caused the old behaviour because that won't go away quickly.
- Combine it with something fun.
- Usually I'd recommend changing one at a time. But sometimes you need to change 2-3 because the are interlinked and the other 1-2 sabotage you changing the one. For example, if you always smoke when going out and when you drink, it's a hard to quit if you keep going out. Maybe replace the going out/drinking habits with other social activities for a month.
- NB: I'm no expert in changing addictions but the examples of people who quit smoking that were most successful were by people that quit because they made a switch in they're outlook on the activity. They stopped viewing it as something that gave them pleasure but got disgusted with the habit and themselves.
- That brings me to something else. You need to want it. You need to want to be the person that does that kind of thing.
- Allow for a cheat day (in some cases). This can help maintain moral. An additional benefit is also that you can observe the difference. Feel shit after eating shit? Feel stressed after skipping meditating? Etc.
- Do things daily for easiest habit-forming. Or the thing needs to be easily matched to a certain kind of day. Like, every week on papa-day you go for an hour walk. Or do morning pages only on working days (and your weekends are cheat days). Or reflect on the past month and set goals on the 1st of the month.
- Put it in the calendar and set reminders. If it's not as important as a meeting you have with someone else then it doesn't happen.
- Morning routine. Start the day with a head start. After a good morning routine, the day feels already won. The morning is the only time of day you have full control over. Simply set your alarm clock with plenty of time. I know I need a good 1,5 hour for my morning routine before I leave the house so I always set my alarm accordingly.
- Great for mornings are healthy breakfast and hydration, physical exercises, meditation or morning pages and creating something.
One last important thing to note here: Don't feel like you need to do this all. I sure don't. There is enough pressure through vacation/house buying/success/baby pictures from friends and inspirational articles and how to lists out there. You are already great. Use this to improve habits if YOU want to. Not because you feel you should.