Every month, I publish a list of my daily habits; things like “Do a set of pull ups” or “Write 300 words for a blog post.” I do this, because there is no doubt in my mind that habit forming is the single most important tool to make progress with your goals – slow and steady wins the race, not some kind of heroic effort.
In the past, I would punish myself for not sticking with my self-set routine – $100 every single time I broke a habit. I did this for a year, and had to donate quite a bit of money in the process (well over $1000, probably closer to $2000). Understandably, most people thought I was crazy, and I even got into arguments over this with close friends.
So it might sound like me giving in or pussying out as I recently decided to stop doing the self-punishment part of this. Here is my justification: I really don’t feel like I need the self-punishment anymore (or at least not right now). For the last couple of months, I haven’t broken a single habit of mine, no matter how tired or not in the mood I was (the exception being when I agreed with myself beforehand on a reduced habit program, e.g. on days when I was traveling).
So at least at the moment, compliance is not the problem – I would rather pull an all-nighter than skip a habit. And I still keep a protocol of all my daily habits in an Excel table. If I should catch myself growing lax again, I’m positive I would reintroduce the self-punishment again.
But right now, I think it’d be much more interesting to reflect more on my PROGRESS with each of my habits towards the specific GOAL accompanying the habit. I mean, that’s the ultimate purpose behind following a bunch of habits religiously: You are not doing pull ups every day because it‘s so much fun, but because you want to get stronger and look better or whatever your goal is personally.
Pondering if I am moving closer to the goal associated with the specific habit should then become the objective of these habit reports for the foreseeable future. In essence, I’m trying to shift my focus from a quantitative type of accountability report to a more qualitative type of report: Not so much “Am I doing it?” but more of “Is what I’m doing working?”
Well, let’s give that a try.
Wake up at 8 am every day
Goal: Normalize my internal clock; improve quality of sleep; have more productive time during the day
This is a new habit I introduced only about 3 weeks ago, but it’s already paying off massively in terms of productive extra time during the day. You need to know I have been a notorious night owl / insomniac for all of my adult life. I’ve tried other habits before to get this taken care of, like getting up at a certain time during the week but then taking it easy on the weekends, as a compromise – no. For me, only the sledgehammer seems to work. If I want to go out, meet friends and stay up late, fine. But the alarm still goes off at 8 am, every day, no exceptions. As I have learned, my body needs this kind of regularity to get in a rhythm and to be productive. And so far, it seems to be working very well.
Do my *** [undisclosed habit]
Take my supplements
Goal: Supplement my body with certain key nutrients
Currently taking vitamin D, fish oil and DHEA. I feel fine doing so, nothing special to report. I sometimes wonder if this habit has that much of an effect, but then again, it hardly costs me anything – in time, energy or money. So I’ll keep it up, giving it the benefit of the doubt.
Only go online to get work done or to take care of necessary communication; only check Facebook / other websites for fun once a day
Goal: To not waste time online
As I recently started to work as a copywriter, I’m now required to check my emails several times a day, to communicate with clients. It’s not ideal: I notice myself taking that as an excuse to check my e-mails more often; but really, I’m only looking for a way to distract myself. So I need to do something about this, I’m not quite sure what though. One idea is that if I open an email, I right away have to process it, taking it through the different stages of the GTD process. This at least leads to me turning this bad habit into something more productive, but it’s still not ideal. Maybe check my e-mail only twice a day? That is probably the smallest frequency I could get away with and still work as an online freelancer. Or maybe I’m completely deluding myself, and I should just go back to checking e-mail once a day. After all, nothing is really that important, as much as clients like to think differently… Tough one. I’ll think about it some more. But other than the email issue, I usually don’t waste time dicking around online; it’s either work related or it is not happening. So that is good.
Buy primal groceries
Goal: To exclusively cook primal meals at home
Ever since I came back to Munich in January, my compliance with this one has been especially high. In the past, I would quite regularly go out to restaurants and eat primal meals there (a workaround that I allowed myself). But now I go shopping every day and eat almost all my meals at home. A big reason for that is the money-saving aspect: Ever since I started the copywriting thing, I’ve been a lot more conscious about how much I spend. It’s not that I’m cheap but rather that it kills me to think I just ate a chicken salad at a restaurant that equals half an hour of mind-numbing slaving away. Anyways, this habit is going well.
Update my food diary
Goal: Make my actual food intake as transparent as possible to myself
This has been working well. I sometimes forget to note down the times I ate at, but other than that, this habit is running smoothly and doing what it is supposed to do: Remind me of what I put into my body.
Eat a primal diet
Goal: To feel alert and productive during the day; to not get sick (sinus infections) and prevent major illnesses like cancer
Overall, it has been a very mixed last 12 months with my primal diet. I went pretty overboard at the beginning of last year in New York, allowing myself a lot of cheat meals to better experience the local “cuisine”: Taco Bell, Bravo Pizza, Dunkin Donuts, you name it. As soon as I moved to Eastern Europe, my diet cleaned up considerably. Well, until I got to Italy in September; then it was back to pizza, pasta and gelato. Unlike New York, I remember these food excesses more fondly though. Anyways… For the last 3 months, I haven’t cheated once, which is great. Staying away from all cheat foods altogether definitely makes it easier to stay compliant overall with the diet, as much as I used to cherish my cheat meals. As a result, I feel great. I have more energy, my workouts go better, I never get sick. There is one problem though: I eat way too much, even though it’s all clean… Maybe this my way of compensating for my missing cheat meals. I think if I just cut 100-200 calories each day, I would not even notice but have a more presentable midline in just a few months from now. This is one of the biggest opportunities for improvement right now, so I need to translate this into a new habit ASAP. I’m thinking counting calories for a while, just to get used to it, then introduce a minimal calorie restriction in a second step. We’ll see if I can get this set up by next month.
Apply *** [undisclosed habit]
Floss my teeth
Goal: Don’t ever experience the drill at the dentist’s again; never lose a tooth
I used to be the guy who had to get a cavity filled every time he went to see the dentist. Not anymore. Flossing makes a big difference for healthy teeth, at least for me. I sometimes wonder though if I am doing it right; as with everything, there is a certain technique to it. Note to self: Go to YouTube and watch a how-to video on flossing.
Take a walk
Goal: To average about 70,000 steps a week (10,000 steps a day)
One of my favorite habits – I just love walking. In the past, if I didn’t get a walk in (which was most days), I would feel cranky and out of balance; and I didn’t even know why! It was really Mark Sisson who opened my eyes to the importance of walking, and now I do it every day. I average about 35,000-45,000 steps per week, which is good, but it could be more: My goal is to get to about 70,000 steps a week, so 10,000 steps a day. I don’t have an idea yet how to fit more walks in though – I’m pretty hard pressed for time as it is.
Workout: do a set of each: pull ups, push ups, bicycle crunches, the deep squat test and box pistols
Goal: Become more muscular; stay healthy and prevent BJJ-related injuries; support my BJJ performance on the mats
One of my least favorite habits but also one of my habits with the biggest ROI. I have gained quite a bit of muscle mass over the last year, especially around the shoulders and my lats, simply by working out for 15-20 minutes a day. It doesn’t sound like much but it’s more than enough – no monster sessions at the gym necessary. I also feel the effect of my daily workouts on the mats: When doing BJJ sparring, it’s much easier now to go with the younger guys for 5-6 rounds than it was in the past. I can at least hold up conditioning wise, if not outmuscle them. I should probably pay attention to my workout form more though. Therefore, I’ve been looking more and more into the Kelly Starrett stuff, which is good. But recording myself on video and checking my form would be even better. Also, I need to up the number of mobility exercises I’m doing; right now, I’m only doing the deep squat test on a regular basis.
About two hours before I go to bed, turn off the lights in my apartment and light a candle
Goal: Start to unwind before I go to sleep; improve quality of sleep
I’m pretty good about this habit, but it comes easy to me: I just love turning off the artificial light of my room and lighting a candle, as hippie as that sounds. There are some nights where I don’t quite get around to this two hours in advance before going to bed (usually on nights when I have BJJ training), but I still always do it.
About two hours before I go to bed, turn off my computer and my cell phone
Goal: To not expose myself to blue light radiating from these devices; improve quality of sleep
To be honest, this habit is not working very well right now… The reason is pretty simple: Ever since I started working as a copywriter, I’ve been even more hard-pressed for time than usual. That means right now, I work up until the point right before I eat at night and then go to bed. Most nights, that means I’ll be turning off my computer more like 1 hour before going to bed, rather than the 2 hours I’m shooting for. I don’t see a quick solution for this one other than figuring out the copywriting thing further and becoming more time efficient about it. I’m sure that’s eventually going to happen, it will just take practice. Until then, I’ll keep this habit going as well as I can. I do have f.lux and Twilight installed on my devices though, so I don’t get too much blue light close to bedtime.
About an hour before I go to bed, listen to an audiobook or read some fiction
Goal: Start to unwind before I go to sleep; improve quality of sleep
For obvious reasons, this is one of my favorite habits: I love reading, but I love a story well told possibly even more. And it helps me to relax like nothing else – just listening to the soothing voice of an actor, reading a story by a great writer. This is my personal form of meditation. I have to admit though, at the end of a long workday, I tend to listen to the rather trashy variety of literature; in my case, that means primarily fantasy fiction – even though there IS some great fantasy. Steven Erikson, anyone? But going with my mantra that you constantly have to cultivate your intellectual taste buds, I’m now trying to incorporate more classics and modern literature. I recently finished “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoyevsky (started out a little bit slow but got really good towards the end) and now listening to “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk. I’ll probably focus on American literature for the next couple of months, as I further want to improve my English, but I’ll throw the occasional Russian author in there, as I just love the culture and the emotional depth to it.
Put my cell phone out of reach before I go to bed
Goal: Forcing myself to get out of bed right away when my alarm goes off in the morning
Sometimes, simple habits make all the difference – this is one of them. Just by placing my cell phone across the room and forcing myself to get out of bed, I’ve been able to successfully establish my “wake up early” habit; which in turn is one of the most rewarding habits I have ever built. Just the extra time I gain every day and the amount of work I’m getting done right now is completely worth it. And all because I place the alarm out of reach. Simple and good.
Work on my thesis first thing in the morning
Goal: Work on my thesis when I have the most mental reserves available, keeping my internal resistance to studying as low as possible; eventually finish my thesis
This is a habit I have been doing for a long time, and it’s a good one. It makes sure that I at least touch on my thesis every day and on some days, I will even get quite a bit of work done (still not enough days though). Recently, my output has been kind of compromised by my new job as a copywriter. Sometimes there are very urgent projects, that require me to focus on writing over research. I still do the thesis first thing in the morning, but on such days, it usually ends up being a symbolic effort of just a few minutes before I have to start hustling. On top of that, copywriting takes up the same mental energy as working on the thesis, which means I have to split up my brainpower. I have an idea for a new habit to trick myself into working more on my thesis, but haven’t had the time and energy to introduce it to the mix yet. I’m thinking of making it a requirement to at least touch on a certain number of authors and texts relevant to my thesis every day. But the bottom line is, right now, my progress towards the ultimate goal, finishing my thesis, is not nearly where it should be. Time for improvement!
Stop and record time spent working on thesis
Goal: Hold myself accountable for time spent studying
I do this to let myself know how much (or how little) I truly study. And yes, I really use a stop watch and write my times down in an Excel table. This approach has a very positive side effect: Just recording your study time will often make you study for longer, as you want to beat your previous time or at least reach your average. Well, it used to have that effect in the past… Right now, I’m so busy doing freelance work, most days I get very little work done on my thesis (see above).
Update my habits diary
Goal: Hold myself accountable for my chosen daily habits
This is kind of like the base habit: I write an Excel table and tick off my habits for every day, to make sure I don’t forget anything. It’s been working very well for over a year now. The only problem I’ve seen with it up until now is that it leads to a more quantitative approach to habit building, i.e. I did all my 38 habits today, great! But what about the quality of executing your habits? This is the exact reason why I switch over to this more extensive version of my monthly habits reports, to discuss with myself where I’m currently at.
At least touch on my most important task for today
Goal: Focus on important over urgent on a daily basis, to increase productivity in the long run
This habit builds on me having a well-structured GTD system in place, so I can choose at one glance which of my action pending items is the most important one. I make sure to at least touch on my most important task before I ever switch over to ticking off urgent tasks, since urgent is the arch enemy of a productive life [link]. Yes, I eventually get around to my urgent tasks as well, see my next habit. But urgent HAS to come second, never replacing important. This was an optional habit until recently, but is now a required one – and I feel like it’s already making a big difference.
At least touch on my most urgent task for today
Goal: Don’t drop the ball on urgent tasks that require my attention
As much as I believe in important over urgent, you still need to take care of the more pressing matters, or at least some of them. Again, my GTD system is the basis for that, which I cannot do without. It brings all my tasks and to-dos together in one place and so provides me with the necessary overview. You can only determine what’s most urgent to you when you can compare it to everything else that is on your plate. In terms of compliance, I have not been too great with this one yet. It was an optional habit until recently, so some days I would take inventory, but many days I wouldn’t. I hope by turning this into a mandatory task, this will take care of itself.
At least touch on my oldest action-pending item
Goal: Don’t grow a long list of to-dos that might not be urgent, but will weigh down on you mentally
This is a somewhat problematic byproduct of always focusing on important and, to a certain extent, on urgent tasks: There is a number of to-dos that fall into neither category, that you can put off for almost forever but eventually they still need to be done. The more you accrue these annoying little tasks, the more they will weigh down on you in the long run – once you have a list of 30-40 items you need to do eventually, but that you haven’t touched on in months, you get really antsy… That’s why I introduced this habit recently and it seems to be working well! I was already able to tick off a couple of items that were very old, and it felt so damn good. This is very promising, so I will continue with this habit.
Update my GTD system
Goal: Stay organized and on top of things
Another habit with a great ROI. I empty my GTD inbox every day, and update my tickler and my action-pending items. It takes a lot more time than it sounds like, but it’s well worth it: Without my GTD system in place, I would have gone crazy a looong time ago… However, I focus almost exclusively on inbox, tickler and action-pending items, but don’t spend enough time to update and clean out other parts of the system (old lists, tags, etc.). So maybe another habit is in order – spend a little bit time each day doing some general clean up.
Write at least 300 words for a new blog post
Goal: Become a better writer, publish more articles, get more traffic
For a while, I was writing a new blogpost every day, but again, with the copywriting now added to the mix, that hasn’t been quite sustainable. Also, having to finish a blog post every day led to me writing rather short posts, all about the same length of 500-700 words. This felt a little bit unnatural. Now I can write a really short article or a 5000 words monster (like the one you are reading right now). It does not matter, as long as I write my minimum 300 words each day. I plan on increasing that number as I get more routine with the copywriting.
Record *** [undisclosed habit]
Do *** [undisclosed habit]
Analyze *** [undisclosed habit]
Optional Habits (as I can fit them in)
Watch *** [undisclosed habit]
Study some Russian
Goal: Be able to converse in Russian eventually
It’s been slow but steady going with my Russian study habit. I listen to one of the podcasts on russlandjournal.de every once in a while and then review the lessons on the accompanying Android app – works like a charm. The bottleneck here is that I usually only get to practice during my train rides, so at best 5-10 minutes a day. But it’s better than nothing, and I AM making progress. Going to St. Petersburg in May should also help.
Continue reading a self-help book
Goal: Get creative input for my personal development and my writing
Same as with the Russian, I usually do my reading on my cell phone during the train ride. Currently I’m reading “Becoming a Supple Leopard” by Kelly Starrett (which I can only read for a short while before getting bored), “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World” by Harry Browne and “The Slight Edge” (for the second time) by Jeff Olson. I go about them in this exact order, from driest to most entertaining. Again, I don’t get a lot of reading done on my rather short train rides, but it does add up over the weeks.
Watch a new mWOD episode on YouTube and write a table of contents
Goal: Learn the basics of mobility work to improve my knee and shoulder problems; prevent future injuries training BJJ
I used to never get around to this habit until I started watching a new mWOD episode every day while I was practicing my deep squat position (see my workout habit above). I mean, what better thing to do than listening to the original proponent of the deep squat test, Kelly Starrett, while hanging out down there? Sometimes the easiest solutions are not the most obvious ones… This is a really good example of how to find time for your habits, by the way. Oftentimes, your day is already so incredibly packed, squeezing yet another habit in there might seem impossible. But there are these small windows of time in even the busiest of days: the train ride to work; that little window of time when you wait for your class to start; waiting in line at the supermarket. These small windows can easily be utilized if you plan ahead for them; and they DO add up over time, make no mistake. I’m now far into the mWOD YouTube series, gaining more and more of an understanding what I can do to minimize my risk for injury in the upcoming years. And that very positive and potentially huge-impact development was started by me identifying a tiny time-window I hadn’t paid attention to before. So bottom line, this is a nice win.
At least once a week, eat fish
Goal: Desensitize myself to eating fish
The reason behind this habit is simple: I’m just not a fish person. At the same time, I do realize that fish is one of the healthiest foods around, hence this habit. After a year of sticking with it, I can definitely enjoy the occasional grilled salmon or tuna salad, even when not having to eat it because of the habit. This is a fairly recent development though.
At least three times a week, *** [undisclosed habit]
Alright, looking at this monster of an article, I’ll keep the conclusion as short as possible. But I at least want to come up with a list of habits and behaviors that I ideally should implement in the next month, so I can hold myself accountable for these in my next report. With my current workload, I have no illusions that I’ll be able to implement them all, but hopefully a few – shoot for the stars and you might hit the moon…
New habits and behaviors for next month:
- Spend less time checking emails or my phone
- Start counting calories
- Watch video on flossing
- Walk more
- Record one of my workouts
- Introduce more mobility exercises to the mix
- Turn off my computer and my cell phone earlier at night
- Introduce new thesis habit, to increase time spent working on thesis
- Introduce a cleanup habit for my GTD system