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Habits, Leverage, and Trees

If you want to totally screw up your life, here's my advice: cultivate some bad habits. That's how most people do it. Very few people screw up their lives by drinking once, but a lot of people screw it up by developing a drinking problem. I've never heard a story of someone who went to Vegas for the first time and lost his entire fortune, but I've heard plenty of stories of people with gambling addictions who have blackjacked their way to bankruptcy. Even breakups are far more likely to be caused by habitual bad behaviour than by a single action (even in the case of cheating, a lot of couples stay together).

This is because a single action doesn't have all that much leverage on your life. But habits, on the other hand, define us as people-- literally. What we do regularly becomes a label. Bob's an alcoholic. Tom is a cheater. Raymond is a gambler. Habits change ephemeral verbs (Tom cheated) to nouns. Once you're defined by your habits, it takes a lot to change that. If Bob doesn't drink for a night, he isn't magically changed into tee-totaler. You are your habits.

And that's why habits are my religion. I write about them all the time, from every single angle, and that's mostly a result of being fixated on habits in my own life. If you can change your habits, you can change who you are.  So I pay very little attention to rare occurrences and work on my habits constantly.

Invisible Gains and Invisible Losses


If you break your wrist or your knee, it screws up your life immediately, and likely does some damage to you for the long-term. You'll probably have somewhat lower peak athletic capacity, and have to be more cautious around the once-damaged area.

That's obvious in the case of a large trauma, but less obvious are the everyday actions we take that have ripple effects throughout our lives.

Taking the time to clear the decks of distractions, clean up and either finish or officially cancel old projects, making incremental improvements to diet, learning minor time-saving techniques that add up (keyboard shortcuts, typing faster, etc)... the gains to these are largely invisible, but they have a positive ripple effect going into the future.

If you have a great idea on Tuesday, you might not attribute it to being better rested and sharper-thinking because of dietary and sleep hygiene changes you made a few weeks before. But indeed, the ideas that are most useful to us are the ones right at the edge of our problemsolving ability.

The flipside is the debt you build up from bad choices in passing. Since quitting fried and microwaved food a while back, I noticed better energy levels. How many times have I been able to avoid a stupid argument or deadlock because I was slightly healthier and clearer-thinking? I've been 100% consistent with my fitness regime. How much of that is attributable to better sleep? Or, phrase differently -- how many more arguments would I have had, and how much more often would my positive habits have broken down  if I'd been eating fried foods and sleeping more poorly?

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