Here’s a trick: Focus on habits instead.
Let’s pretend for a moment that you have made a new year’s resolution to become rich. Maybe you’re sick of your student loan debt. Maybe you’re sick of eating frozen waffles for dinner every night. Maybe you recently became overwhelmingly inspired by your favorite rapper, 50 Cent, and like him, you also want to ‘Get Rich or Die Trying’ …and then go bankrupt a few years later.
Whatever the reasoning is, it’s the new year and you’ve decided that the new you is going to be a Rolls-Royce-driving, bikini-pool-party throwing, Dom-Perignon-chugging motherfucker.
Now, if you approached trying to get rich like most people do, here’s how you would conceptualize it:
- Start out by making $100.
- OK, great, now let’s try to make $1,000.
- Shit, that was hard, but now let’s try to make it $10,000.
- You eventually get there. But now it’s three years later and the mere thought of working until you have $100,000 in the bank makes you want to give up all your possessions and go live in an ashram.
- You say “fuck it” and buy a 60-inch flat screen TV. Ahh, that feels better.
- Dreams of a bikini parties on your yacht evaporate. Along with most of your savings.
That’s how most people try to do it. And if you haven’t noticed, most people aren’t rich. In fact, most people are quite the opposite. This is not a coincidence.
In case you haven’t read a few books on wealth accumulation, this is how people who actually get rich do it (and not end up in bankruptcy court like good ol’ Fitty Cent):
- Start out making $100.
- Invest that $100 in skills/training/assets that will eventually net you $1,000.
- Invest that $1000 in skills/training/assets that will eventually net you $10,000.
- Invest that $10,000 in skills/training/assets that will eventually net you $100,000.
- Invest that $100,000 until you’re balling on your yacht like a Russian mobster.
These are the two mindsets of building wealth. People who stay poor or middle class see money as something to be spent. People who become rich see money as something to be invested.
You can call it the “spending mindset” versus the “investing mindset.” One gets you rich and one keeps you treading water, always fighting to keep your face above the surface.1
So why am I going over all of this? Because it applies to creating habits and achieving goals in life as well. In fact, it’s the exact same concept.
Goals vs Habits
Let’s take the most cliche and universal New Year’s Resolution of the bunch: “I want to lose 20 lbs and look sexy for summer.”
I think almost everyone has had this resolution at some point. In most cases, you recover from your New Year’s Eve binge on January 1st, sign up for the gym on January 2nd, force yourself to go 5-6 times over the ensuing months mostly out of guilt because you spent so much damn money and you feel like you should use it. But you have no idea what you’re doing. And my god, look at all of the skinny sweaty people here. Wow, I feel so lazy just watching them. Can this treadmill go any slower? I’m tired. I want a burger. Or maybe ice cream. Or maybe an ice cream burger.
Aaaaaaaand it’s February 1st and you’re back to body-melding yourself into the fabric of your sofa, watching awful Maury Povich reruns, and wondering how is it that all of your clothes seem to be shrinking at the same time.
Yes. The struggle is real.
The problems with the conventional pursuit of goals in life (i.e., new year’s resolutions) are well-documented at this point.
People tend to rely too much on self-discipline and eschew forming useful habits. People tend to bite off more than they can chew, so to speak, setting goals that are far above their ability or knowledge level and then becoming frustrated when they make little to no progress towards them. People are tempted to take “shortcuts” to achieve a goal that may actually sabotage themselves in the long-run, like starving yourself to lose weight, or cheating to get a good grade on a test.2
That’s all true. But I’m here to suggest something else.
“Lose 20 lbs by summer” is a shitty goal to begin with. That’s because it’s borne from the same spending mindset that keeps people broke — or in this case, keeps them overweight. They view life in the overly-simplistic terms of “Do a lot of X, eventually get Y.”
Just like forcing yourself to work and save for 20 years is unlikely to get you rich, forcing yourself to go to the gym dozens of times is unlikely to make you lose much weight and keep it off. Goals like this require an intense amount of effort, yet they never seem to “stick.” Eventually, your energy and discipline run out and you fall right back to the same person you were, except now you feel defeated.
That’s because it’s better to invest your limited focus and energy on building habits rather than specific goals. Just like you want to take the money you earn and put it to work for you, you want to take the effort you expend in changing yourself and put it to work changing you as well.
People usually don’t focus on habits because goals sound much sexier in our minds. They feel more motivating in the moment when we think about them. There’s a clear image of a certain result in our head and that gets us excited.
Habits, on the other hand, don’t sound as sexy in our heads. They’re long-term and repetitive, which makes them seem boring. And there’s no clear image one can imagine for “going to the gym every morning for a year” or “only drinking alcohol on weekends.” You don’t get this rush of inspiration imagining yourself eating salad for lunch every day. You don’t lay in bed at night fantasizing about flossing every morning.
Goals are a one-time bargain. They are the spending mindset. “I will spend X amount of energy to receive Y reward.” Habits are an investing mindset. Habits require one to invest one’s efforts for a little while and then take the rewards of that effort and re-invest them in a greater effort to form even better habits.
This is why so many people who lose weight end up gaining it back (and then some). They focus on singular goals in life rather than developing underlying habits. So when their energy and discipline runs out (and it always does because self-discipline is limited) they balloon back to their original selves.
With habits, on the other hand, there’s no single endpoint that must be reached. The only goal of habits is that the goal is never over, it’s a simple daily or weekly repetition that one does until muscle memory and brain chemistry kick in and you’re now performing the desired action on autopilot. With goals, every day you go back to the gym feels harder. With habits, after a while, it feels harder to not go to the gym than it does to go.
Therefore, it is a better investment of one’s finite energy and discipline to focus on building habits. It’s fine to still have goals. Hell, I’d like to lose 20 lbs by summer. But that’s not what my mind will focus on this year. Instead, I will look at the habits that underlie that goal, that would make that goal an inevitability — eating better, walking more often instead of taking an Uber, developing a workout plan — and then focus on those. The weight loss then naturally occurs as a side effect.
The Art of Compounding Habits
But here’s the kicker. Some habits are better than other habits because some habits, once acquired, make other positive habits much easier to acquire as well.
For instance, quitting smoking is hard. But some data suggests that taking up some form of exercise such as jogging or biking can make it easier for someone to quit (probably because they’re hacking up a lung the whole time).
These are sometimes referred to as “keystone habits.”3 They are habits that, once adopted, will reverberate into other areas of your life, which makes acquiring other desirable habits more natural and require less effort.
Unfortunately, researchers haven’t been so great at saying exactly which habits give the best returns and so you see a lot of moronic articles out there citing things like “make your bed every day” or “just have more willpower!” because they, like, heard this guy say it once and it sounded smart.
I like to think of keystone habits as “compounding habits” because, much like compounding returns on an investment, over a long enough period of time, they can increase the richness of your life exponentially. Goals, by themselves, generate linear growth and change. Habits are capable of generating exponential growth and change.
And in case you were bad at math, here’s a quick example of the difference between linear gains and exponential gains over the long-run:
To keep the financial analogy going — because fuck you, personal finance is life/death important — you could say that different habits have higher or lower interest rates, therefore making some habits far better initial investments of your energy and discipline than others.
For example, aside from being fun, getting really good at a computer game like Starcraft has a really poor rate of return on quality of life per time and energy spent. Other than maybe developing some basic problem-solving skills and learning how to verbally abuse anonymous teenage boys on the internet, the habits gained will fail to translate over to improving other areas of your life. In fact, dedicating the time and energy to getting good at Starcraft is more likely to harm other areas of your life. You’ll be sitting all day, getting fat and lazy, not to mention it turns your love life into a nuclear wasteland.4
On the other hand, a habit like lifting weights has an extremely high rate of return. Getting stronger will make you more fit, give you more energy, increase your focus and mental performance, reduce effects of aging, raise your metabolism and help your body process food better, and so on. Ironically, lifting weights would probably make you a better Starcraft player, whereas the opposite is definitely not true.
That’s because lifting weights is a highly compounding habit. Its benefits reverberate out across other areas of your life, making many other positive habits and skills easier to acquire. Therefore, when setting out to drastically change your life, some form of exercise like lifting weights is likely to be one of the most efficient places to start.5
Setting New Month’s Resolutions
Another reason why typical New Year’s Resolutions suck is because of the time horizon. If I say something like, “I want to write another book this year,” it becomes that much easier for me to put off starting the goal until June, July, or whenever, at which point it becomes almost entirely unfeasible.6
Research shows that habits only need about 30 days of consistent effort to install themselves into our brains. At that point they begin to become automatic.7
So screw New Year’s resolutions. I say adopt new month’s resolutions, or as they’re more commonly known, 30-day challenges.
Pick a habit you want to adopt and then do it every day for 30 days. It’s just 30 days. Anybody can do something for 30 days. Once you do it, it should begin to feel automatic and you can then start adding more depth or knowledge to work into the habit, or you can move on to another habit (more on this below).
The Six Fundamental Daily Habits
Hopefully by now, you’re starting to see the matrix. And you’re starting to understand why you’ve failed to achieve so many goals you’ve set for yourself in the past.
Setting a goal like, “I want to lose 20 lbs for my wedding” or “I want to get a promotion this year,” and then forcing yourself to just do a bunch of shit until it happens is akin to saying, “I want a million dollars,” and then deciding to work 120 hour work weeks until you get there. It is almost certainly going to make you miserable and burn you out. And even if you do get there, like a person who wins the lottery and immediately spends it all, you’re guaranteed to lose it soon after.
The correct way to make a million dollars, as we discussed, is to start small and then intelligently re-invest what you’ve earned, so stop trying to scale linearly and instead scale exponentially.
We’ve also seen that some habits scale more exponentially than others — i.e., some habits provide higher rates of return because they provide benefits that then make adopting subsequent habits easier.
Therefore, it makes sense to use your energy to develop habits with the highest rate of return first, and then move on to other desired habits later.
So what are the life habits that give you the best bang for your psychological buck?
After a lot of research and thought, I’ve come up with the six fundamental habits below. These are the habits I believe to be the most effective use of your limited time, energy, and discipline when starting out. Some will probably be obvious to you (we’ve already discussed one). Some will not. A couple may even surprise you.
Benefits: If you don’t know the benefits of regular exercise by now, you must be living under a very large and very old rock. Aside from making you look super sexy and preventing obesity, exercise greatly reduces the risk of a bunch of things that can kill you: heart disease, stroke, and a smattering of various types of cancer.8 It also improves your mood, gives you more energy, improves the quality of your sleep, your sex life, and some evidence indicates it even improves concentration and learning.9
Adoption Strategy: The crazy thing about exercise is that just about everyone overestimates the amount of effort required to get results. They assume that you have to join a fancy gym, spend a ton of money on a fancy pants personal trainer, and do a bunch of fancy exercises with odd looking rubber balls and mats.
But according to the science, exercise is an 80/20 deal — ie., 80% of the benefits result from 20% of the effort. Something as simple as brisk walking 30 minutes per day has been shown to give vast health improvements and trigger weight loss.10 Therefore, if you’re starting an exercise habit from scratch (and if you’re really out of shape), start simple. Worry about the reverse piledriver crunches with your ripped personal trainer named Vlad later.
A good friend of mine is really into bodybuilding and, as you can imagine, is ripping out of his muscles. One thing he told me last year that struck me was that one of the best things he did was deciding to just exercise every day, no matter what. Obviously, he’d prefer to hit the gym and get a big, structured workout in. But on days where he wasn’t feeling well, or when he was traveling for work, he still made a point to get some basic exercise in. Even if it was just push-ups on the floor or a quick jog up a flight of stairs a dozen times. The goal here is to just always show up. Worry about perfection later.
So start simple. Challenge yourself to do some really basic exercises each day. Do it for 30 days. Then after the habit is instilled in you, worry about constructing a super sexy workout routine. Even if it’s just walking or doing some body weight exercises in your bedroom. Do a little every day.
Benefits: This may strike you as a weird one to put down as a fundamental habit. But at this point, I’ve seen the positive effects of undertaking this habit in too many of my friends’ lives to not take it seriously.
The benefits aren’t as obvious as exercise because most of the benefits don’t come from the act of cooking itself, rather they come from the ability to control exactly what and how much you eat.
The fact is, most people don’t eat well. Or at least, they develop some terrible food habits because they’re not capable of controlling what and when they eat. They either have such little time or little knowledge that they just settle for whatever is quick and easy, usually junk food.
Eating well, much like exercise, sweeps the board in terms of health and lifestyle benefits: better energy, better cardiovascular health, lower risk of obesity, diabetes, various cancers, heart disease and other bad things that kill you,11 more energy, more focus, better moods (goodbye sugar highs and crashes), better sleep and sex life.12 The benefits are even more pronounced in kids.13
You can get the same general life gains from eating well as you would from exercising, but on top of that, being a bitching cook can open up cool social opportunities, a greater appreciation for fine food and/or wine, and saving a lot of money by not eating out all the time.
Adoption Strategy: This is my Achilles Heel and will be my big habit-building project in the coming months. To be frank, my relationship with food, for as long as I can remember, has been shitty and toxic. I’ve shown my food a lot of love, but the love has been based on superficial pleasures and compulsion, not on a genuine desire for building something healthy together.
For most of my life, I was able to compensate for it through a high metabolism and constant exercise. It was enough to keep me thin and energetic despite all of my trashy habits.
But as they say, this past year, life caught up with me. Aside from just getting older, a number of major life events hit me all in succession, only to be followed by a series of minor and unexpected health problems. In other words, last year turned out to be a pretty stressful and tumultuous year, and when exposed, my shitty eating habits reared their ugly head. I soon found myself sorely out of shape for the first time in years and the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life.
For someone who has lived on his own for 13 years, it’s kind of amazing that I still can’t even cook myself an egg. I’ve essentially lived off of snacks, take-out, and restaurants for the past decade.
The problem with snacks and take-out is an obvious one: you’re essentially trading in nutrition for expediency. The food is quick, easy, and tasty, and so if you must give up some of your health for that, so be it. This strategy works well when you’re in your 20s and staying up all night coding websites. But as a lifelong habit, it’s a slow and gradual death that plays itself out in years and decades.
And restaurants? Well, let’s just say that even the restaurants that serve healthy food aren’t very healthy. A restaurant’s primary interest is giving you an enjoyable experience and a sense that you got your money’s worth, not making sure you don’t die of a heart attack. So even though you don’t see it there, heaps of salt, sugar, and other crap are almost always on the menu.
(Oh, and there’s a 2-for-1 dessert! Can’t pass that up.)
Gradually, I came to the inevitable conclusion this past year that the glaring hole in my lifestyle at the moment is food and my complete inability to control where and how I get it. I then realized that unless I want to eat at the same 1-2 organic restaurants every single day for the next year (and spend half of what I earn in a year to do so), my only other option is to learn to cook.
I’ve decided to start by learning a few basics — how to make a couple salads, how to grill chicken (no, seriously), how to make a couple eggs for breakfast — then I’ll make it a goal to cook myself at least one meal a day for 30 days in a row. Once I’ve done that, then I’ll worry about more complicated recipes and how to prepare more types of foods.
Another focus will be not only finding healthy recipes that I enjoy eating, but that I enjoy making. My little experience from cooking in the past has been miserable. Probably because I was trying to cook stuff I had no business trying to cook and had no idea what I was doing. This time, I will start simple, and gradually work my way up in a way that’s both enjoyable and satisfying.
Benefits: The benefits of meditation are famous and numerous (I’ve previously discussed them here). But the short answer is this: increased focus,14 improved self-awareness,15 reduction of stress and anxiety,16 improved sleep,17 greater emotional stability,18 makes you more empathetic of others,19 and can even be used as a form of therapy for a variety of mental or emotional disorders.20
Adoption Strategy: No secret here, start with a daily small practice. Even as little as one minute per day can show benefits. I recently discovered an app called Headspace that gently guides people into a meditation practice if you want to take a stab at learning on your own. Another good one is Calm.
But truth be told, despite what you would think, it’s incredibly hard to sit on a pillow and think about nothing for more than a few seconds. You get bored and fidgety, and if you’re by yourself it’s incredibly hard to get yourself to stay there for more than a few minutes. Therefore, I often recommend people find a local group or class. There are often free ones in major cities. It’s also a nice way to meet people. Then, once you get the hang of it, try it on your own. Start with one minute per day and slowly work up. Do it for 30 days until you have a regular practice going.
Benefits: If you’re still reading this and don’t want to stab a spoon into your eyes, then that means you probably already enjoy reading. Which means I probably don’t have to tell you that reading is fucking magical. It’s the only thing in the world that allows you to come and live inside my brain for a little while, see what it sees, feel what it feels, and then leave again.
Some historians believe that the written word, and the ability for people to read the written word (i.e., literacy) is essentially the basis for civilization.21 Without the ability to feel and see each other’s thoughts (or feel and see the thoughts and feelings of people from generations past), we would have no sense of cultural identity, and far less empathy.
And many studies suggest that people who read regularly are far more empathetic. They care about other people more. They relate and respond to others better.22 People who read regularly are also just smarter, better informed, and more knowledgeable about the world.
This is why when Warren Buffett was once asked the best thing for young people to invest in for their future, he replied with “knowledge.” He said that money comes and goes, people come and go, but what you know never leaves you. He said that even in his 80s, he was earning returns on knowledge and information he picked up in his 20s.
Adoption Strategy: The biggest problem I think people have with developing a reading habit is that they try to read what they think they should be reading rather than what they actually enjoy reading. If you like teen murder mysteries even though you’re a 45-year-old single mother, read teen murder mysteries. If you like books about zombies, read books about zombies.
When developing a reading habit, start with what seems easy and exciting to you, then slowly branch out.
Here’s another reading tip: if you aren’t enjoying a book, stop reading it.
I meet so many people who hate a book they’re reading, yet they begrudgingly drag themselves back to it over and over again because they feel bad if they don’t finish. They feel guilty or are afraid it means they’re stupid. Sometimes they say that because they’ve read this far, they might as well finish the whole thing.23 This is entirely irrational and crazy. You wouldn’t keep watching a TV show you don’t like. You wouldn’t eat an entire plate of food you don’t like. So why the hell are you trying to read a book you don’t like?
My rule of thumb is when I start reading a book, I force myself to read either the first 10% or the first chapter (whatever comes first) and if I don’t like it by the end of that, then I put it down and move on to the next book.
Benefits: Whether it’s emails or journaling or writing fiction or posting a political rant on Facebook, writing well is fast becoming one of the most important life skills in the 21st century. So much of your life today is spent in front of a screen and through social media, email and messaging apps, so if you can’t communicate well through writing, you’re putting yourself at a monstrous disadvantage.
If reading allows you to inhabit other people’s minds for a brief period of time, learning to write well is like cleaning your house before the guests come over — it forces you to learn how to structure your thoughts more coherently, string together rational arguments, and tell stories in cogent and insightful ways. But not only that, it makes you a better and more insightful thinker. As Flannery O’Connor said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”
It’s also therapeutic. In fact, of all of the hokey pokey woo-woo self-help practices, journaling and writing out one’s thoughts and feelings on a regular basis has been shown to have calming and therapeutic effects.24
Adoption Strategy: Easiest way here is to start a journal. There are some cool apps to journal on your computer. Or you can do it the old-fashioned way, by hand.25
The important thing here is to not limit yourself. Use writing as a tool of self-discovery; write your feelings, ideas, fantasies. And if you feel like going on a tangent about calculus problems that stumped you, do that too.
The point here is to develop a consistent habit of 1) uninhibited self-expression and 2) practice formulating your thoughts in a highly coherent way so that others may understand them. Start with 30 days. As usual, don’t judge yourself. At first, make simply showing up the only requirement for success.
Benefits: I know what you’re thinking, “Seriously, Mark? Socializing?”
I know, I know. It sounds painfully obvious — like one of those space fillers you see in top 10 lists in bad Huffington Post articles. But having friends is fucking serious, guys. No really, stop laughing. I’m serious here. Listen up.
I think many of us, if we slow down long enough to take a look at ourselves, don’t give our relationships the time or attention necessary to keep them healthy and happy.
You see, it turns out loneliness is kind of a thing. It’s growing at an alarming rate in the US, particularly among older people. And new research is discovering that being alone can be just as bad for your physical health as obesity or heavy smoking.26
It also makes you miserable and far more susceptible to depression.27 So yeah, in our “hyper-connected” world, more and more people are finding it harder to take the time to simply be with somebody else for a while. And that wears on us.
This hit me this past year. After living nomadically for many years, I returned to the United States to live there for the first time since 2010. And much to my chagrin, I realized that almost all of my old friends had either a) fallen out of contact with one another, or b) moved to completely separate corners of the country.
Throw on top of that being on deadline to finish a book (which, shall we say, put a dent in my ability to leave the house) and my social life took a very real and uncomfortable punch to the gut this past year. Much like my health issues, it was a problem that I was not accustomed to dealing with and so it hit me unexpectedly.
Adoption Strategy: Fortunately, I found this much easier to handle. In the fall, I made a simple decision. I decided that I would start doing something so simple and obvious that I kind of felt dumb for not already doing: I would make a point to talk to a different friend every single day. Whether it be on Facebook or Skype or in person or on the phone, I’d make a point to chat with someone different every day.
Now, I don’t mean just bullshitty Facebook chatter. I mean genuine, “Hey man, what’s been going on with you lately? How have things been?” followed by a couple, “Oh, that’s cool, tell me about that,” and finally finished off with a, “We should get together soon, what are you doing next week?” for good measure. It would take maybe 15-20 minutes at most. And it was surprising how easy it was to reconnect with many people.
Most of the time it was touching base with some friends who I had kind of lost touch with. Other times it was reaching out and taking a chance with getting to know someone whom I barely knew. Other times it was going out and meeting somebody new, maybe at a party or a conference or being introduced through a friend.
And amazingly, that was enough. That’s really all it took. One person a day. Like a computer rebooting, my social life whirred back to life. And I became much happier for it.
Some Closing Thoughts
There seems to be a bias in the human circuitry that underestimates what it takes to accomplish really big goals in life and overestimates the effort required to take on a series of small goals. In my experience, it’s the regular heartbeat of pursuing and nailing small win after small win that eventually leads to the big ones. In fact, I’ve often found that becoming so intent on the small simple daily victories often causes one to not even realize one of the big goals has occurred until it’s already passed you by. This, too, is a habit. And I would argue it’s an incredibly compounding one at that.
The six fundamental habits above provide a nice foundation for a healthy life in all domains: physically, emotionally, psychologically and socially. They overlap and buttress one another. And amazingly, they’re all actually quite simple to achieve, requiring far less initial effort than most people realize.
If you’ve enjoyed this post and would like to learn more about the nuts and bolts of adopting habits, how to get started and motivate yourself for change, please consider putting your email in the box below. It’s a free PDF on Habit building and the science of self-discipline. It can hopefully help you make this year a great year.
And if you’re really serious about getting your life together, check out my course on building a better life.
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