Over four years ago, I started a long journey to clean up my routine and master one of life’s most mundane offerings — habits. Everyone knows what a habit is. It’s that tendency or practice that we have that is hard to give up. We all have good habits like bathing, brushing our teeth, and cleaning our homes. We also have bad habits like eating junk food, watching too much television, and smoking.
I wanted to learn everything you could possibly learn about habits. I picked up every book that showed an ounce of promise of helping me understand human behavior and why we do the things we do. I’d find notable habit experts with fancy degrees while also stumbling across average people who wrote about the habits that helped them succeed in life.
The conclusion I found was that those researching habits and those practicing habits came to the same conclusions. Why is that? How does science meet practicality in the end? While I don’t have an answer, I also noticed this same phenomena whenever it came down to human behavior and psychology in general. Science always met practicality eventually.
This is similar to the idea of following your heart/gut regardless of what your brain tells you. With enough ruminating, your brain will eventually meet your heart/gut to the destination. As I started to notice this, I would get out of the habit of overthinking and have a bias towards action because my mind would eventually catch-up with where I was headed.
One of the biggest myths I would debunk through my journey of breaking down habits is that of doing too much. Habits typically have two main approaches. One day you come to a decision that you don’t want to do something anymore. This is an epiphany regarding that direction you’re headed. Perhaps you are a smoker and one day you just realize it isn’t doing anything for you, so you quit on the spot and never light up again. Epiphanies are quite rare, but we all have heard stories of people we know who one day decide to start a long journey out of the blue.
The second approach is to gradually build up your habits from scratch. This is where doing too much comes into play. Most people want to completely shift away all of the bad habits for good habits. Majority of the time, they fail miserably and regress back to their old habits. This is because we live a big lie that it is possible to change everything at once. It just doesn’t work like that. Sure you can change a handful of things at a time, but you can’t do them all well.
In business you’ll hear the terms “more wood behind fewer arrows” and there’s good reason for that. The more effort you put into one single habit allows you to inhabit it. With a little word play, you can think that by being “in habit” or one thing, you “inhabit” it quickly. Many habit experts will disagree on how long it takes to build a habit, but from personal experience it can take less than a week if you truly just focus on one thing at a time.
The reason? You don’t forget about the habit because it is the only thing on your mind. You’re able to revolve your routine around the inclusion of this new habit you want to inhabit. Let me give you a concrete example so you can get an understanding of how I think about this.
This year I wanted to get into a habit of going on a daily walk with my kids and dogs. Last year I was wildly inconsistent. Every other day or even once a week. It all depended on the week. I noticed all the issues surrounding not going on that walk creep into my household. My dogs were getting fatter, restless, and acting up in strange ways. My kids and I would get cabin fever from being inside the house too much because I was too busy with other things.
I sat down with my four years of habit research and asked myself what are the major challenges here? Why am I not doing this when I know this is the single greatest thing I could be adding to my day? I would write down various reasons, but one of them was how difficult it was to get ready to go walk. I’d have to go get socks, get my sneakers on, and figure out the same for my two kids and leashes for the dogs.
I noticed that all of these items were scattered throughout the house. My shoes would be in my office, my socks in the bedroom. My kids shoes scattered through the house and socks no where to be found. My dogs leashes were stashed away in the garage.
The friction made it impossible to want to spend the 5-10 minutes just to get ready and I knew that I’d have to spend a few days to figure this out once and for all. So I took my time to think through this problem. I’d centralize all of these items to the mudroom so it is as easy as corralling the family to one place where it would take a minute to get out of the door.
Surely enough, it worked. That friction disappeared overnight and we’ve been going on a daily walk since. As I thought about that one habit, I found ways to solve all my pain with it over a couple days and the habit is now automatic. The house is less restless and there’s a new sense of calm because I was able to inhabit it.
As I inhabited a daily walk, new problems would arise and I would maintain my focus to resolve them while the habit airs its grievances. One such example was my sandals (called chacos) would rub roughly against my pinky toe and cause enough chaffing to the point of bleeding. I never really realized it previously, but I never broke in those shoes properly. I took maybe 10 minutes to think about why that keeps happening and sure enough it was due to not using them enough and there were ways online that I could accelerate it.
Simply put, I found an article where I could use fabric softener to help break them in and now I’m the most comfortable I’ve ever been on those walks. But this was another trial where your habits will test you, so it is important to give them space while you’re working out the challenges. You’ll find ways to make every habit better through this process of focusing on one thing at a time.
Over those last four years, I have made lifestyle changes that have literally changed my life. I started with a daily workout. I went from weighing nearly 280 pounds to a weight I’ve maintained for the last three — 225 pounds. I have changed my junk diet of eating whatever sounded good to one that is intentional with natural foods to nourish my body. I have started writing every morning to the point of publishing two books and countless articles. I’ve picked up basketball that I always wanted to learn and worked every other day to improve my shot to the point of being as good as those I regularly play with.
The list goes on and on, but what I’m trying to get across is that you can significantly change your life one habit at a time. You cannot change everything at once. Habits are more like legos than they are an art canvas. You build on-top of each habit which unlocks a new building block. Getting in shape gives you more physical energy to use in a day. That physical energy allows you to do more creative or physical activities you normally wouldn’t be aware of.
This cascading effect works for you and not against you. Working out begets eating well. Eating well begets creativity. Creativity begets creating. Creating begets happiness. It all can happen to you if you inhabit one habit at a time.