This is usually the place where I publish an overview of my current list of habits and then go on to give an account of how compliant I was with them during the previous month. Not so this month! I was travelling for most of December and for the first time didn’t get an Airbnb but stayed with friends instead. Naturally, I knew this would lead to me spending more time on social activities with my friends and since I didn’t want to stress myself about it, I gave myself permission at the beginning of the month to cut myself some slack; as long as time away from my habits was spent socially, not on watching TV or some other stupid time waster.
To my own surprise, I stuck with the majority of habits, no matter how much fun there was to be had. I’d estimate on any given day in December, I got at least 80% of my usual habits done, many days even 100%. So I might stay with friends again in the future, as I now kinda proved to myself it can work out without dropping the ball on your habits; something I was afraid of beforehand.
Anyway, so since this report doesn’t stick to the regular format and since it is the end of the year, I thought I would write what I’ve learned from one year of habit building and publishing these reports instead. Let’s get straight into it:
1. The Ultimate Reason Behind Habit Building is Cutting the Cost of Energy
There is something almost magical about forming the right habits: You decide on doing something important but uncomfortable, like working out first thing in the morning or reading 10 pages of philosophy each day, and for the first few weeks or months, it is a chore. It takes a significant amount of mental and/or physical energy each day to get yourself to fulfill that habit, sometimes up to the point where you dread it. But then, ever so slowly, that cost changes: The longer you stick with the habit, the less of an energy price it exacts. Eventually, the habit in question will cost you almost nothing in energy; it will become so routine, that you hardly even think about it; just like you don’t think about if you should brush your teeth today or not. You just do it automatically. But with each automated daily repetition of the habit, you DO build up personal equity: You lose weight, you become more muscular, you finish yet another philosophical classic, you get more readers for your blog. THIS is where it is at; THIS is the holy grail of personal development – not some quick fix life hack that doesn’t work.
2. Habits Represent the Distinction between Urgent And Important
There are two types of tasks or projects in life: External stuff, i.e. stuff that life throws at you: think your boss wanting you to give a presentation on the quarterly numbers or your friend asking for a favor. Then there are intrinsic tasks or projects, things that YOU want to get done, things that further your own development: think starting your own business, learning to paint or travelling the world.
The external stuff almost always presents itself as urgent to you; it is something that needs to be taken care of within a certain amount of time, otherwise there are going to be consequences (or so the world wants you to believe). In contrast, the intrinsic stuff almost never comes with a deadline; it is important to you, yes, but if you do it now, in 10 years from now or never is only going to make a difference to you, but to no one else.
So of the two, what do you think gets usually preferred treatment? As if we did not know… Urgent always wins out over important. Your boss, your professor, your spouse, your children, your friends, your e-mail inbox, the tax office – there is a million urgent external factors that demand your attention, and should you actually get done with them at some point, you are too tired to even think of important matters. At this point, you just want to be left alone and get some rest.
This type of lifestyle, always taking urgent over important, is a surefire recipe for disaster. But it is not the other people’s fault – it’s yours. People are just being people, clawing at your attention and seeing if they can get away with it. We all do it. It is up to no one but you to look through these common dynamics, to predict their likely outcomes and then to reverse the relationship between urgent and important. If you want your existence to make sense, you have to be unlike everybody else: Important has to come first.
But how put this into action? What does a preference for important look like in your day-to-day life? This is where habit building comes in. For every important project in your life, you have to come up with one or two key habits, which represent that project, and which will get you to complete that project over time. So if you want to improve your fitness and get ripped, you do a set of heavy deadlifts every day. If you want to become better at writing, you write 500 words each day. If you want to go minimalist, you put one of your belongings on eBay each day. Start small, keep your habits sustainable, but get started. By gradually shifting from a life that is dictated by external triggers, to one that is heavily focused around habits, you will automatically arrive at a truly important life: a life that is worth living, because it is meaningful to you.
3. Success Via Habit Building Cannot Be Avoided
When you are in the middle of a task that seems so complex and overwhelming, you cannot imagine to ever wrap your head around it, you have to remind yourself of one thing: If you stick with your habit of working on that task every day (and I mean EVERY day), success can simply not be avoided. This is kinda hard to believe in case you haven’t gone through that process a couple of times yet, but it’s true nonetheless. Simply sticking with your chosen project, chipping away at it every day, not getting frustrated by the elephant you are trying to eat ALWAYS works. Always.
I had been doing martial arts for 15 years already when I took my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class. So I thought “How difficult can it be? I’ll figure this out just like I figured everything else out.” Well, reality had a different idea about it. Within just a few weeks it became painfully clear, and I mean that literally, that the sport of BJJ was a completely different kind of beast. The level of technical knowledge, effort and pain that goes into attaining the rank of black belt in Jiu-Jitsu does not compare to any other martial art in the world, period. As I found out the hard way… During the first 2-3 years, I got to the point of a having a mental breakdown on a weekly basis. I simply couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever just get a basic understanding of the billions of techniques, combinations and little details that make up BJJ. I seriously thought I might have found something that was too complex for me; and if you read this blog regularly, you know what a high opinion I have of myself… But it wasn’t just me. Sooner or later, almost everybody I had started with quit. It was just too much, too big of a project. Some would even get to their first belt, and 1 out 200 would maybe make it to the belt after that. But eventually everybody quit.
Why am I a black belt today? Because as helpless as I felt for YEARS (and still do), I just kept coming to class – just to go home with yet another bout of incredulous head-shaking. But I would keep coming back. I would not allow my emotional state of helplessness to cut the process short. And eventually, the process did what it always does: It worked out.
Why can I say this with certainty? Because I have seen it work out again and again, year after year, as the former owner of large MMA gym. People who stick it out, who understand habits, will eventually succeed. No, let me phrase that differently: They will simply allow the process to take place, eating the elephant bite by bite. These people are very few, but they do exist. And they are oftentimes not especially gifted. They only have one gift: They have faith in small dosages of daily discipline always working out in the long run. Unlike religion, this stuff is as reliable as it gets.
I have had the exact same experience in 1-2 other areas of my life as well, but it always helps to think back to that first insurmountable obstacle that was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But no matter what project you choose, rest assured that daily habits will take care of the job. Habits will get you to success eventually; they will fundamentally shift your life from urgent to important; and the longer you stick with them, the less they are going to cost you.
As I said in the beginning, they are the closest thing to magic there is. So this one is to another year of habit building.
Until next time.