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.
The cool thing about changing habits is that it's very efficient. It's like the difference between cutting down a tree by axing the trunk, versus trying to pick every single leaf, then twig, then branch, then peeling the bark, and then finally getting to the trunk. Just cut down the trunk and the whole tree is gone. Trying to control a single occurrence without identifying and working on the habit is like picking a single leaf. It's easier than chopping down the trunk, but it doesn't really change anything.
For example, in the past couple weeks in Japan I ate three meals that aren't on my diet. Ramen twice, and a couple pieces of sushi. No big deal. My habit is to eat extremely healthy and that has become part of my identity to the point where healthy food is what I actually crave. In the past year or so I've been slacking on running and working out. When I was in Tokyo I ran a few times, but that doesn't mean I'm a runner. These are just leaves on the tree. Add a leaf or take one off, and it's still a tree.
This is also how I think of health, by the way. I live a healthy lifestyle (good food, fairly active, no stress, lots of happiness and good friends, good sleep, etc) and a result I never have any symptoms (leaves) to treat. I've never swallowed a pill and can't remember the last time I was sick.
This is a pretty easy way to really take control of your life. You will make billions of decisions and actions in your life. It's not realistic to think that you will evaluate each one properly and make the right decision. Even if you could, you probably wouldn't want to; that's a lot of stress. But instilling a few good habits, which then make decisions on autopilot, is pretty easy. Set up good eating habits, and almost all decisions about food go away. Learn good social habits, and a lot of problems with other people go away. Develop good work habits and your career ends up being manageable. It's sort of like having an entire staff (your subconscious habits), rather than trying to run a factory by yourself.
Yet another amazing thing about habits (and, yes, I realize I'm starting to sound a bit like an informercial) is that they become more and more easy to maintain as time passes. When you plant a seed you have to protect it and water it and feed it. Once it becomes a tree, you can leave it alone and it will continue to deepen its roots without any attention from you at all. The same goes for developing habits: at first you have to be hyper vigilant and make sure the habit never gets broken. After a while it fades to the background and becomes integrated with your identity.
So if you have a problem in your life, rather than solve the problem, try to look at why that problem exists, and if you dig deep enough you'll probably find that the problem is rooted in a habit. Can't find a job? It's not because your industry is in the dump or because you don't have the right suit-- it's because you don't have a habit of over-delivering and producing excellence. Or maybe it's because you aren't in the habit of networking with people in your industry. Or even if it isn't BECAUSE of any of these habits individually, any one of them could solve the problem forever AND produce side benefits that you aren't expecting. That's the effective and long-term way to solve problems, and it's the only self improvement strategy with legs.
I love habits. You should too.
long post and a good one. I'm realizing this habit thing in my own life as well. I'm currently finishing up one month of eating 100% raw food and staying active for 20 hours per day.
Not sure If I want to continue with these two habits, but it would be easy enough to do so, because I have laid a solid foundation over time. (I have experimented extensively with both habits)
In the past, I've been very rigid at times when trying to develop habits, and maybe that is necessary at times. especially in the beginning or when trying to develop a habit that might be particularly challenging.
Now days I enjoy breaking my habits from time to time. When this current challenge is over, I'll probably go to McDonalds and you know what? it won't make one bit of difference to my overall health and well being and it could actually enhance it, simply be me doing something that makes me smile :)
Great article that I will be sharing because I think lots of people can benefit from focusing on habits. I've never thought of it this way, but I love the way you expressed this thought.
T, you are young...eventually, you will swallow a pill! But I must add that you are also very wise, I like all you said.
I think the next step in my life, is to identify habits that I don't even think exist right now. I have already done the simple stuff (eat healthy, stay active, sleep, etc... The simple stuff is not what I'm aiming for. Thanks for making me think.
From a power perspective, if you consciously keep trying not to make mistakes, you will naturally find others like you
If you just do what you feel is right in the moment and don't care about labels, you will just find people like you.
on-topic: good post, now that i think about it, habits are like beliefs.
Hey Tyan, interesting post. Agree with a lot of what you are saying in terms of establishing good and breaking down negative habits.
However I feel it is necessary to point out the difference between addiction and habit. Listing alcoholism and habitual gambling as examples of a negative habits is to downplay and misunderstand their severity and underlying causes.
1996 called, it wants its popups back.
Hey, here's a variation on the ad copy you should A/B test: "Please don't read my article, please go away" That's pretty much what it says now, except this version includes the word "please".
On social habits:
I was thinking about what you said about how a single action usually doesn't define you in the eyes of other as a some sort of label.
However, from a power perspective, if you have a large social circle, there will always be those who try to label you based on one action. It's like they are trying to find a chink in your armor and exploit it. Maybe I hang out with too many dramatic people!
Because of this I try really hard to NEVER make social mistakes, which is a bit stressful. I've seen people who have been labeled very inaccurately and I would never want that to happen to me!
I've had a few friends who've gone through quitting smoking. The hard part, they say, is that certain things trigger wanting to smoke. Stressful situation? Time to smoke. Driving a car? Time to smoke. Drinking at a bar? Time to smoke. The reason that bad habits are so hard to quit is that we have these many triggers that start us down that path almost automatically. A compulsive eater might get into a stressful situation and have a hamburger halfway into their face before they even consciously think about whether or not they should be eating.
The silver lining of this nuance of human nature is that we can also harness triggers to create positive habits. Just as bad habits are so hard to break because of our triggers, good habits can be made resilient using the same mechanism. And just as bad habits are built slowly and incrementally, so are good habits.
I meditate for five minutes every day. As soon as I wake up, I grab my phone and press the start button on a five minute meditation timer. Waking up is my trigger. At first I had to remind myself to do the meditation every morning, but now I do it almost automatically. It would feel strange not to meditate. Just as a veteran smoker is likely to have a harder time quitting than a new smoker, the longer I keep my meditation habit, the easier it becomes to maintain.
There are two main types of triggers: contextual triggers and constant triggers. Waking up is a constant trigger, since I do it every single day and want to meditate every day. A contextual trigger is something that happens at an inconsistent frequency. For me, feeling tired during the day is a contextual trigger. Whenever that happens, I drink a glass of water, because I've found that sometimes I'm just dehydrated and not actually tired.
Life boils down to habits. We have good habits and we have bad habits.
I’ve learned that the process comes in three stages with three different levels. First is starting a habit. I rank beginning a new habit on the medium scale. It’s usually something you haven’t been doing before so there’s some initial difficulty in getting things going. Take for an example someone just starting out at the gym. There’s friction because she’s never done it before. But once she gets past the initial hurdle she can find a little groove.
The next stage is breaking a habit. This part is very easy to do. One little slip-up and you could be back to square one. Miss a gym day, eat a bowl of icecream and sleep 12 hours one night that’s it. Over and done with. I’m reminded of the Warren Buffet quote: