Where you are in your life is a result of your habits. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit" I think that’s also true for the opposite of excellence. Mediocrity is a result of mediocre habits.
That means we can go from mediocrity to excellence by changing our habits. But how do you do that? Before we get into that, I want to clarify my statement: Habits change your life, but they do not guarantee success. Because that’s what “the habits of millionaires” type of articles and books tell us. We get it, Elon Musk sleeps 2 hours a day and eats Cheerios for dinner—or something like that. But what the writers of those types of moronic articles hide from you, the reader, is that correlation doesn’t mean causation. Waking up early, working hard, and taking cold showers do not cause success. No one illustrates that point better than Nassim Taleb, who wrote this in Fooled By Randomness: “Hard work, showing up on time, wearing a clean (preferably white) shirt, using deodorant, and some such conventional things contribute to success—they are certainly necessary but may be insufficient as they do not cause success.”
So when I talk about habits, I don’t talk about outcomes. I talk about changing our actual behavior so that it improves the quality of our lives.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s my four-step process for making life-changing habits stick.
Step 1: Decide what habits are worth it
Look, I can talk to you about the habits that have changed my life habits all day long, but that’s not helpful. The reason is that only YOU can decide what a good habit is.
Deciding if a habit is worth it to you is critical to forming new habits. Too often we hear about something, and we think: “I should do that!”
Really? Should I wake up an hour earlier? Should I take cold showers? Should I eat like a cave person? Should I run every day?
Maybe waking up early is helpful to you. I don’t know. When I wake up early, I behave like a grumpy old man who hates people—that deteriorates the quality of my life.
Hence, I don’t wake up very early (7 AM or earlier) no matter how many people tell me it will make me successful.
Just ask yourself this:
“Will habit x improve the quality of my life?”
The reason you want to ask yourself that question is that we all need a reason to change. We need something bigger than superficial reasons.
“I want to read one book a week,” you might say. Why? So you can do what? What’s your vision? What are your goals?
For example, I read two books a week because I’m a teacher/trainer. I need to learn every single day so I can do my job better. I do strength training because I want to be a useful person. I do many chores around my house and the office. I want to make and fix things. I need to be in good shape to lift heavy things or do strenuous tasks.
That’s my why. What’s yours? Answer that. And then, adopt habits that bring you closer to the things you want in life.
Step 2: Focus on one habit at a time
I wrote about how I successfully formed a daily exercise habit. It was something I tried to do for years. There were many reasons I failed, one of them is that I always tried to form a million habits at the same time. I don’t know why, but sometimes I get on this whole self-improvement spree. I feel like reading more, writing more, working more, living better, eating healthier, you name it. It’s best to hold back the enthusiasm if you’re the same. In general, when you do too many things at the same time, you end up in chaos. And you always end up right back where you started. Sounds familiar? One of the reasons we try to do so many things at the same time is that we overestimate ourselves. We think we can achieve a lot in a short period. That’s false. We can achieve A LOT over a long period. That’s true. So focus on one thing at a time. Stack one habit on top of the other, one by one (just like in this post’s image, at the top).
Step 3: Set the bar very low
We often want to do big things, without understanding it. Starting a business or building a career requires effort. Everything in life that’s remotely valuable requires a lot of work to achieve. So before we do something big, let’s start small. Similarly, before you change the world, change yourself first. Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace, put it best:
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
Focus on small things. Build a strong foundation. Without it, we can never achieve anything
meaningful. Want to run daily? Start by walking. Want to write a book? Write one sentence.
Want to start a business? Get one client.
Want to read two books a week? Read one page a day.
Want to save for your retirement? Don’t buy another shirt you’re only going to wear once.
Big things follow by themselves.
Step 4: Use checklists
I forget everything. A few years ago, I started a daily reading habit. I messed up very often in the beginning. I would read for five or six days straight, and then all of a sudden, I would completely forget about it. It’s like the desire for reading more just vanished from my head. You want to do something. You do it. And then you forget about it. Shit happens, right?
No, that’s weak. Don’t let yourself off the hook like that. We must use checklists to remind ourselves of what we’re trying to achieve. Remember: We form habits to transform our lives—to make things BETTER.