"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." -- Aristotle
This is one of my favourite quotes of all time, because of its simplicity and it's tremendous power to speak into my own life. The topic of personal habits is one that is often discussed in the musings of the personal development / productivity worlds but I find that very little is said about them outside of those verticals. And wrongly so I might add, because habits are crucially important and really do shape the person you become day by day.
Now I have been experimenting with my own personal habits for a long time and trying to improve various things along the way. For example, two of the biggest changes I have been trying to implement have been my nutritional diet - trying to eat healthier on a more consistent basis - as well as my information diet - trying to cut down on the amount of information I consume in relation to how much I produce and create things of my own. It has not been easy.
As anyone who has made a conscious effort to change a habit will tell you, you will invariably hit roadblock after roadblock along your journey that will try to stop you in your path with every step that you take. Every small victory along the way will soon be crowded with doubt every time you regress again. But again, these obstacles show how ingrained your habits actually are and should give you an idea of how powerful the right ones can be, if you can just get them going! If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
I am not perfect, nor anywhere close. I still binge-eat and binge-read on occasion, but I feel I am making steps in the right direction and as far as I can tell, after all my experimentation, I can attribute my limited success to two things in particular.
I want to share them with you today.
Like it or not, we have limited willpower and limited decision making capabilities. In fact we often overestimate the amount of willpower we have, because in the off-peak times when the pressure is off - you feel like you can do so much more. However, when the pressure is on, gut instinct kicks back in and the real challenge begins. So if we accept our human flaw and realize that our staying power is finite - it makes sense to try and maximize our use thereof by cutting out the extraneous fluff.
That's what convenience is. It's setting up your decisions so that the one that you should be making (the good habit) is the easiest choice available! Then in times of stress when you aren't thinking as straight as you would like, you will inadvertently pick the better option - simply because it's more convenient.
This is illustrated perfectly by the fast food industry. Save for a few people, most of us know intrinsically that fast food is an inferior option both in taste and nutritional content when compared to healthier options. But when you have limited time, you are tired from a long day and food is the last thing on your mind - your instinct takes you to the McDonalds because of the convenience. You know that within a few minutes you can have that burger in your hands, to satisfy that very short-term craving.
So when building a new habit, it's up to you make the choice as convenient as possible - because that's what gives you the best chance of following through when times get tough. If you want to build a habit of running every day - lay your running kit on the floor right beside your bed, so that when you wake up, all you have to do is roll out of bed, lace up those shoes and you're ready to go. Instead of spending 10 minutes in the cold, deciding on what to wear, just begging for a reason to avoid the run.
Simple convenience. It works.
Naturally in a world of constrained resources, the cost of something is always going to be a tremendously important factor in any decision. In fact, for a large number of decisions, cost is the only attribute considered. Thus, it is logical that the cheapest option is more likely to be the one taken up in times of pressure - and often this is the inferior one because, after all, you get what you pay for. However, in our case - while we are looking to build personal habits, most of these costs are completely out of our control. We can't change the fact that a McDonalds meal may be cheaper than cooking a healthier alternative at home. So how do we resolve this contradiction?
Well, the trick here is purely a mental one. We need to think beyond the monetary cost and look at the other costs we pay as a result of this decision. Transformational comedian Kyle Cease summed this up perfectly when he said that we can always see what we will lose out on by making a certain choice. By choosing the healthier option, we will not get to enjoy that delicious cheeseburger that we so crave. What we cannot see is what we will gain if we do. It is too abstract an idea to see that by becoming healthier we will feel better, have more energy and more self-confidence, etc. That's an invisible benefit in the future that we can't see - which makes it so much more difficult to say no to the tangible benefit we can see right now.
So to circumvent this, it's up to us to consciously make an effort to understand not only the explicit costs of our bad habits but also what we stand to gain from turning them around. Once we begin to fathom what a big difference those positive habits can have, we begin to see that the cost of the poor choice is throwing away that upside, that potential. Thus the cost, in relative terms, way outweighs any financial consideration. That's when change can happen.
So those are two key areas I have identified that really help to build and boost habits.
As always, I'm learning as we go so I would love to hear your stories. What habits have you been trying to build and have you succeeded or failed? What has worked for you? I would love to hear all about it.