In a past post, I explained my preference for discipline and habits over mere motivation. I firmly believe that the best path toward sustainable and profound life changes begins at the daily level. While ambitious goals may excite us (especially in the early stages of self-development), sustained daily practice ultimately determines our ability to effect change in our lives.
One book that shares this stance is Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before. This easy-to-read book provides some scientific insights on habit formation as well as useful anecdotes that one can personally experiment with.
In the front of the book, Rubin distills her arguments down to 12 sentences – her “Habits Manifesto.” I find the pithy statements quite useful for understanding both habit change and self-development in general.
You manage what you monitor.
How can we be sure that we are moving towards our goals? How do we hold ourselves accountable? We need a metric that definitively tells us if we are or are not adhering to our desired habits.
For example, instead of saying “I want to walk more often,” one can “take at least 10,000 steps each day.” The latter goal is easy to monitor. Look at your phone at the end of the day. Either you met your goal or you didn’t.
“Write 500 words per day.”
“Call a family member once per day.”
“Spend no more than 30 minutes per day on Facebook.”
These goals are measurable, and therefore monitorable.
You’re not very different from other people, but those differences are very important.
For example, nearly all people will benefit from a daily habit of physical activity. However, people’s preferred methods and approaches to exercise can markedly differ. Some may prefer running. Others may like sprinting, weight lifting, soccer, or swimming.
Moreover, people’s desired approaches to habit formation can also differ. Some prefer to slowly escalate imperceptible changes into a new habit. Others prefer to “blast start” into a daunting new program. Either can work. What matters is what works for you.
This is an important yet under-discussed aspect of self-improvement. Many aim to emulate the routines and habits of well-respected individuals without recognizing possible differences in disposition or environmental circumstances.
Therefore, self-improvement is really about the science of self. Make a change, collect data on well-being and performance, analyze your results, and change or maintain habits accordingly. Self-experimentation lies at the heart of self-development.
First things first.
The first step is often the heaviest. In my experience, procrastination is not an inability to do, but rather an inability to start. I often find that once I take the first step in an anxiety-inducing task, I easily move into steps two and three and beyond. What kind of steps are these?
“Write the first sentence of an essay.”
“Write your name on the job application.”
“Put on your exercise shoes.”
We shouldn’t rationalize when we deviate from our habits.
“Yeah I drank too much, but it was my birthday.”
“Yeah I had two pieces of cake, but it was an office party.”
“Yeah I skipped my gym session, but I was tired this morning.”
While self-compassion is essential to recovering from short-term setbacks, we should be honest with ourselves when we come up short.
“I messed up. I shouldn’t have done that. I am capable of doing better, so next time I will do better.”
Accountability is key. We all mess up sometimes. We all stray from our desired path from time to time. I’m sure I will binge out on ice cream or drink too much with friends sometime in the near future.
However, the reasons behind our missteps are largely irrelevant. Part of recovering from these lapses in self-control is accepting personal responsibility.
By giving something up, you may gain.
Sometimes subtraction can add to our well-being. But it involves more than just scaling back bad habits like excessive drinking, smoking, or donuts. It involves us consistently questioning the value of habits in our lives.
For example, many applications like Tiny Cards or GRE Question of the Day lie in my morning routine graveyard. I simply did not see those activities as valuable enough for the time they took.
The same goes for our spaces. Perhaps we can benefit from purging our closets or kitchens of unnecessary and seldom-used items. Simplify. Reduce. Shorten. Sometimes actions of subtraction are key.
What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.
This one explains itself. Someone who designates Sunday as “healthy eating day” is not developing a good habit. They’re developing diabetes. Not only does sporadic behavior stunt the habit-formation process, it also limits the power of compound interest. Profound change tends to arise out of small habits that accumulate over stretches of time. Often doing less on daily basis will eventually outperform doing more on an occasional basis.
Self-regard isn’t selfish; when you give more to yourself, you can ask more of yourself.
Our ability to help others is only as strong as our ability to help ourselves. As a recovering people-pleaser, I can identify.
Sometimes the best thing we can do for others is to take time for ourselves – to do something we enjoy – to recover our bodies, rest our minds, and rejuvenate our spirits. This can come from a myriad of activities. Once again, we must know ourselves and what we like.
When we take the time to cultivate our own vitality, we will have exponentially more energy to help others.
Make it easy to do right and hard to go wrong.
The environment wields enormous power over our behavior. While I do not believe we are puppet-string-laden automatons completely devoid of free will, I do believe we often underestimate the power of environmental cues. Part of those environmental cues involves conserving energy, taking the path of least resistance, and relieving discomfort.
Who will have an easier time resisting an evening candy bar: the one with candy bars in the freezer or the one who has to walk a mile to the nearest store?
Who will have an easier time resisting the snooze button – the one who keeps their alarm by their bedside or the one who has who must walk across the room?
Our environment supports our habits. What habits it supports is up to us.
There is no finish line.
While short-term sprints may help ignite a new habit (especially if you enjoy the “blast start” tactic of habit formation), lifestyle changes should be sustainable for life.
Maybe pledging to “lift weights 7 days per week” or to “give up cake forever” are not the best ideas. Sometimes settling on conservative and sustainable habits like “preparing five healthy meals per week” can yield stronger results.
When establishing new habits, one must play the long game. Ask yourself, “can I see myself doing this in five years? In ten years? For the rest of my life?
Make sure that the things you do to feel better don’t make you feel worse.
For me, sweets and alcohol are my Achilles heels. After I reach for bottles of soju and several ice cream sandwiches because “I had a long week and I need this,” I often awaken the next day to a throbbing headache and a scale that credits me with three bonus kilograms.
On the other extreme, however, I find complete teetotalling and obsessive healthy eating oppressive. Neither end of the indulgence spectrum makes me feel good in the long run.
Every habit we have (good or bad) comes with a price. It is important to ask ourselves if the benefits we receive from a given habit justify the price we pay. If not, it may be time for a change.
Temporary often becomes permanent, and permanent often proves temporary.
“I will start exercising at the start of the new year.”
“I will eat healthy after the holidays.”
“I will cut back on my drinking once I get settled into my new job.”
Unfortunately, our habits do not process deadlines in the same way our minds do. If we procrastinate for too long, a temporary state of inaction often ossifies into normalcy.
On the flip side, we should not think that resuming a previously-established habit will be easier the second time around. It may or it may not be. There is little in the way of predicting it. Sometimes starting again is even more difficult than starting for the first time. Without the benefit of “novelty motivation,” returning to an old habit can be daunting.
Consistency and discipline are therefore key. If you want to try a new habit, start without thinking. When you consider surrendering a habit, think twice.
You can’t make people change, but if you change, others may change.
Change comes from within. While others may exert influence on our own desire to change, no amount of pleading or punishment can force change.
Therefore, it is important to be the change you want to see in others. Humans are an incredibly social species and highly susceptible to the influence of others. Therefore, if we want to instill change in others, leading by example may prove effective.
Become gym buddies. Organize regular healthy potlucks. Take an improv class with a friend. Sometimes the change we undergo with others is the most personally rewarding. We kill multiple birds with a single stone – we promote positive life changes and we reap the proven benefits of strong social ties.
While changing ourselves can be difficult, it is absolutely possible. The best way to change ourselves is to first know ourselves – what motivates us, what demoralizes us, and what environmental components can work for or against our goals.
Once we know how we tick, we can wind the clock in our favor.
It’s nice seeing the fountains below the Motung-E Cafe running again. The pools had lain barren for months.
This cat was getting it with those incline push-ups. I understand, though. He needs to get that summer pump.
I laugh that Korean suits use flexible fabric joints as a selling point.
“This suit is really good for running. Never be late to a meeting again. Forgot your gym clothes at home? No problem.”
Ain’t nothing like a nice catfight for Sunday afternoon entertainment.
That guy in the picture is crazy strong. He not only does a pull-up, but he also does half of a muscle-up into a static isometric hold. Ridiculous.
My students’ response to #3 reminded me of Potato. She probably uses the word “trash” more than anyone I know.