“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Aristotle
“Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.” – Benjamin Franklin
“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.”
– F.M. Alexander
This post is part of a series about 7 lessons I’ve learned about starting a business without going crazy. You can see the introductory blog post here. In each of these posts, I’m going to write about (1) my experience, (2) the importance of the lesson, (3) how I apply the lesson, and (4) the tools, teachers, and resources that have been most helpful to me.
Habits are easy. We don’t even have to think about them. Every morning, I wake up, stumble to the bathroom on auto-pilot, and brush my teeth. Non-habits, on the other hand, are hard. On the first of each month, for instance, I try to say “rabbit, rabbit” right when I wake up, but I always forget. With habits, we complete tasks automatically without much energy so we get more done. Without habits, everything takes more work and self-discipline, and we’re less productive.
“Normal” jobs force us into routines that breed productive habits. You go to work at the same time and place every day, so you wake up at the same time, get ready the same way, travel to work by the same route, maybe even buy coffee from the same person every morning. After a couple months on the job, you do these things without thinking; you don’t need (much) self-discipline to leave the house by 8am, you do it because you’ll get fired (or at least nagged) if you’re late. When I left Goldman Sachs, this structured routine went away. Initially I continued many habits without thinking. For example, I still woke up around 8am every morning. Then I started occasionally staying up late and sleeping in. Soon my bed time became negotiable and suddenly it was a lot harder to get up in the mornings. Without the structure imposed by my job at Goldman, things that used to be automatic gradually became more difficult – and I barely noticed it happening.
How to Change Habits
So to recap, habits are important for everyone and super-important when you’re starting a business. Now the fun part: how to form awesome habits. My habit-change bible is a blog called ZenHabits, written by Leo Babauta (more about Leo & ZenHabits below). Leo’s basic process is simple:
1. Choose a habit: Pick just one measurable habit you’d like to adopt — running, for instance. The idea is to focus all your energy on repeating one behavior until it becomes a habit.
2. Set an easy goal: If you think you can run 30 minutes each day, make your goal 10 minutes. This makes it easier to succeed and harder to fail, and helps you build momentum as you go.
3. Write a plan: State your specific goal, when you’ll do it, potential obstacles and strategies for success. In addition to the plan’s contents, there’s value in the act of writing your goal down.
4. Do it every day for a month: Do your desired behavior for 30 days in a row with no exceptions. This is about how long it takes our brains to start adopting repeated tasks as automatic habits.
Failure-Proof Your Plan
The process outlined above is the foundation for habit change, but it’s more of a framework than a strategy. Thankfully, there are several awesome tricks and tools we can use. The basic process will always look the same, but you can mix and match these strategies to suit your personality or a specific habit. Here are a few of my favorites (for more check out this list of the top 20 motivation hacks):
• Make it public: Announce your new habit to friends & family and on twitter, facebook, or other public forums. Report on your progress regularly. This will keep you accountable, apply positive social pressure, and help you recover from any setbacks.
• Use your surroundings: Structure your life to make success easy and failure hard. Place reminders of your goal and pieces of positive feedback in places you see regularly (bathroom mirror, computer monitor, day planner). Identify potential stumbling blocks and erect barriers between you and the temptations.
• Record your progress daily: It’s easier to stay motivated when you see the results of your hard work. Each step forward pushes you on to the next: you’re driven to outdo yourself and you’re less likely to sacrifice the work you’ve put in.
• Visualize your goal: Picture your goal for at least 5-10 minutes every day. Think about what successful will feel like and visualize your goal in vivid detail.
• Choose a trigger: A trigger is an event that immediately precedes a habit. For instance, every morning I brush my teeth (trigger) and immediately get in the shower (habit). Choose an event that’s already part of your routine and use it as a catalyst for your new habit.
• Get competitive: Make it fun by challenging a friend or a group to a competition. Agree on an award for the winner and publish the standings regularly.
Forming New Habits is Harder Than Keeping Old Ones
If you’re going to quit your job and launch your dream business, make sure you decide which habits you’d like to keep and make a special effort not to mess with them. If you’ve been productive waking up at 8am, eating lunch at 1pm, and going to the gym at 6pm then keep doing it! Especially while you’re transitioning to your new lifestyle, there will be plenty of temptations to abandon old habits. There’s nothing wrong with changing your habits, but you need to be mindful of how these behaviors tie in to the rest of your life and, especially in the transition period, you should limit the number of habit changes to as few as possible. Follow Robert Frost’s advice: “Don’t ever take down a fence until you know why it was put up.”
So what awesome new habits are you going to start? Do you have any sweet tips for changing habits? Share your thoughts in the comments section!
Tools & Resources
• Stickk uses “Commitment Contracts” to help you achieve your goals. You set a goal, pick a referee, add stakes (optional), and invite supporters to see your results and cheer you on.
• HabitForge sends you daily habit-change reminders for three weeks.
• ZenHabits is an incredible source of practical advice and inspiration about forming habits, achieving goals, and living a simple life. It’s written by Leo Babauta, who has also authored some awesome books.