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I want to form good habits.
I have realized that just about everyone wants to form good habits.
The problem is, very few of us want to do the work to make those habits a reality.
We hope we will just magically develop, that one day we’ll just wake up (early, without even considering the snooze button) and head straight to the gym.
Then we’ll have a healthy breakfast and sit right down with that creative project we’ve been putting off for months. At some point, our desire to smoke or lie or complain will mysteriously disappear too.
The reality? This has never happened for anyone, and it’s never going to happen.
This is what inspired Epictetus’ famous quote from 2,000 years ago: “How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?”
He’s really asking how much longer you are going to wait until you demand the best of yourself.
I know I want to eat better and be more present. For a long time, I’ve wanted to do planks and squats every day. I also want to work less and spend less time checking my phone. I want to start saying no so I can say yes to things I have been putting off. But I’ve wanted to make these changes for a long time. How do I transform my vague hopes into reality?
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To start, I need to form good habits, better accountability, and a clearer vision for my day-to-day life.
“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” — Octavia E. Butler.
Here are the steps I am taking To Form Good Habits.
1. Think Small—Really Small
The writer James Clear talks a lot about the idea of “atomic habits” (and has a really good book with the same title).
He talks about how the British cycling team was completely turned around by focusing on 1 percent improvements in every area.
That sounds small, but it accumulates and adds up in a big way.
He emphasizes thinking small with big habits.
Don’t promise yourself you’re going to read more; instead, commit to reading one page per day.
Thinking big is great, but thinking small is easier. And easier is what we’re after when it comes to getting started.
Because once you get started, you can build.
2. Create a Physical Reminder
A physical totem can make the habit or standard you’re trying to hold yourself to into something more than an idea, and that helps—a lot.
The author and minister Will Bowen have a simple system that helps people quit complaining. He provides each member of his congregation with a purple bracelet, and each time they complain, they switch the bracelet from one wrist to the other.
This method is simple and straightforward and makes it easy to hold yourself accountable.
Create physical reminders (no matter how small) of your goals.
Place objects, sticky notes or anything that reminds you of the habit you are trying to form around you.
3. Lay Out Your Supplies
When I wake up in the morning, my water bottle, Bible and every tool I need to use before getting out of bed or my room are usually at my bedside. If I want to skip drinking water first thing in the morning I have to pick my water bottle and set aside somewhere else.
On my desk, the three journals I write in are sitting right there. If I want to skip the habit, I have to pick them up and move them aside. So most mornings I don’t move them, and I write in them.
My workout gears are usually kept next to my bed so I just get into them as soon as I wake up (sometimes I have to sleep in my workout clothes).
You can use the same strategy if, for example, you want to start running in the morning. Place your shoes, shorts, and jacket next to your bed or in the doorway of your bedroom so you can put them on immediately.
You’ll be less likely to take the easy way out if it’s embarrassingly simple to do the thing you want to do.
4. Stack Your Goals:
I read about the idea of goals or habit stacking from James Clear
The concept is basically about linking your new goal or habit to something you are already doing every day.
It’s simple (2 ways):
>> Define a specific plan for where, when and how you will perform the goals.
e.g: I will go jogging for 30minutes on Friday at 5.30am at the stadium.
>> After or before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
e.g: Before I take my morning shower, I will do a 60-second plank.
Before I get out of bed, I spend time in prayer for 10 minutes.
This is a simple trick to help you form a new habit by merely linking it to something you are already doing. This makes it easy for you to ease into your new habit.
5. Surround Yourself With Likeminded People
“Show me your friend with and I will tell you who you are” was Goethe’s line.
Jim Rohn came up with the phrase that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.
If you want to have better habits, find better friends.
Most of my friends are in good shape. None smokes. Most are in good relationships. Most seem to have their shit together.
I’m inspired to be better because I’m around them (and I get lots of good ideas for habits and activities). I’m also shamed into not being worse. If I started slipping, I would stand out.
6. Commit to a 30 Day Challenge
If you want to form good habits this year, Do a 30-day challenge. Just try one: It doesn’t matter what it’s about or who else is doing it.
Use a 30-day challenge to decide if a habit is worth keeping or not.
7. Make It Interesting
Make the habit you are trying to form something you look up to doing. Make it challenging as well as interesting or fun. You can set up rewards for each habit or a challenge where you give up something if you skip doing it.
8. It’s About the Ritual
Professional dancer Twyla Tharp has written about how every morning she gets up early, dresses, and takes a cab to the same gym, where she works out for several hours.
This is how she trains and keeps herself fit.
Her workouts are tough and exhausting, and you’d think she would need a lot of discipline to commit to showing up each morning.
But, as she writes in The Creative Habit, she just has to get herself to the cab. That’s it. The rest takes care of itself. The ritual takes over.
Create a daily routine or ritual around the habits you want to form. Make the habit a part of your routine– something you do every day at a particular time and place.
9. It Doesn’t Have to Be an Everyday Thing
I jog or run, but not every day. I jog 3 times a week.
Trying to get myself to jog every single day would not be as productive or as enjoyable as periods of three to five days of jogging every week.
Jogging this way may not be the right thing for everyone, but not every good habit has to be part of a daily routine.
Sprints or batching can work too. What matters is that the results average out.
10. Focus on Yourself
One of the reasons I’ve talked about watching less news and not obsessing over things outside your control is simple: resource allocation.
If your morning is ruined because you woke up to News reports of another ridiculous event around the world, you’re not going to have the energy or the motivation to focus on making the right dietary choices or sitting down to do that hard piece of work.
I don’t watch the news, I don’t check social media much, and I don’t stress about everything going on in the world—not because I’m apathetic, but because there are all sorts of changes I want to make.
I just believe these changes start at home.
I want to get myself together before I bemoan what’s going on in Nigeria or the world.
“If you wish to improve,”
“be content to be seen as ignorant or clueless about some things.”
(Or a lot of things.)
11. Make It About Your Identity
Generally, I agree with Paul Graham that we should keep our identities small, and generally, I think identity politics are toxic.
It’s a huge advantage, however, to cultivate certain good habits or commitments that are foundational to your identity.
For example, it is essential to my understanding of the kind of person I am that I am punctual.
I also have decided that I am the kind of person who does not miss deadlines.
That I gain credibility with myself as the one who turns up and keeps her promise to herself.
That I am the kind of person who eats healthy and keep a regular fitness routine, not because I want to have the “looks” but because of the long term benefits.
You can see why being vegan becomes part of people’s identity too. If it was just about choosing not to eat any animal products, the diet would be extremely difficult to adhere to.
But because it is a lifestyle and an ideology, vegans are willing to push through all that.
They don’t see it as a choice, but rather as the right thing to do.
12. Keep It Simple
Most people are way too obsessed with productivity and optimization (I am too).
We want to know what tools a successful person uses because we think this is what makes these individuals so great.
In reality, they are great because they love what they do and they have something they’re trying to say.
My to-do lists are always short. I want my goals to be reachable, and I don’t want to be constantly busy or get burned out.
This is why James Clear’s concept of atomic habits is so important. Look at the little things that make a big difference—not only is this more manageable, but the results will also create momentum.
13. Pick Yourself Up When You Fall
The path to personal development is rocky, and slipping and tripping is inevitable.
You’ll forget to do the workouts or feel too lazy to go for a run, you’ll cheat on your diet, you’ll get sucked into the rabbit hole of Social Media, or you’ll complain and have to switch the bracelet from one wrist to another.
It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
I’ve always been fond of this advice from Oprah:
If you catch yourself eating an Oreo, don’t beat yourself up; just try to stop before you eat the whole sleeve. Don’t turn a slip into a catastrophic fall.
And a couple of centuries before her, Marcus Aurelius said something similar:
When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better group of harmony if you keep on going back to it.
No one is saying you have to magically transform yourself, but if you’re not making progress toward the person you want to be, what are you doing? And, more importantly, when are you planning to do it?
I’ll leave you with Epictetus once more, who wrote so eloquently about feeding the right habit bonfire. It’s the perfect passage to recite as we set out to form good habits.