- Habits are one of the powerful methods we can use to help us stick to any self-improvement plan - whether it be fitness, learning a new skill, or improving our intelligence.
- Human beings are creatures of habit. We tend to stick, through a sense of inertia, to things that we've done before. This reduces stress and cognitive load, making it easier to go through our days. We repeat actions in daily and weekly cycles.
- Anything which disrupts our normal pattern of behavior also throws off related habits - making it harder to stick to a self-improvement program.
- Keystone habits are large, important lifestyle factors around which many other habits are created. When one of these keystone habits is changed, this can cause huge changes to the rest of our habits.
- However, this is also a huge opportunity - when a lot of habits are broken at once, it's easier to set up an entirely new set of habits. This is our best chance for taking up a dedicated self-improvement plan if we've been struggling with a previous set of habits.
- We are what we do consistently. Long term habit trumps short term effort.
The common misconception is that fitness (and self-improvement in general) is about willpower - that you have to have an ironclad will to be able to succeed, because self-improvement is hard and you have to enjoy the difficulty of it, you weak sack of grapes! If you're not making it as hard as possible, you're a total failure! If you don't have the willpower, you don't deserve it.
Okay, so none of that is true. Hell, I just took an entire day off to play through Fallout 4 because I worked hard the day before and felt like shooting some bandits in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. No exercise, no business work, just answering client emails and then chilling all day.
The reality is that it’s quite the opposite - this hardline, willpower-focused view tends to put people off exercise, and doesn’t explain why a lot of people succeed.
As I’ve written previously, motivation is about a lot more than just willpower. It’s about external motivators, lifestyle design, and habit. These outside factors function as a powerful method to keep you on track and accountable when your motivation suffers - so, they're much more important than willpower alone.
However, I haven’t dug deep enough into how habit works, or how useful it can be.
Human beings are creatures of habit. Each day, we have to be at work or school at roughly the same time. So, we wake up at roughly the same time, eat at roughly the same time, get dressed in roughly the same ways, get home at roughly the same time, go to sleep at roughly the same time - you get the idea.
There are still plenty of ways in which our lives are unscripted. Most of us are at work for roughly the same 8 hours every day, but you and I do very different things when we go to work, and my work duties change pretty significantly from day to day. I don’t necessarily eat the same thing every day, even though I might eat at the same time. I might end up working late because I’m finding it harder to get my work done than usual, resulting in me needing extra time to finish everything. My weekends aren’t as scripted, so I’ve got plenty of free time.
Even aside from the ways in which our lives are unscripted, there are chance events that can disrupt the ordinary pattern of things. We might deal with a death in the family, a seasonal holiday, a car breaking down, construction delays, or more.
These events may be somewhat predictable (for example, I know that cars can break down, and that my car will break down on my commute sooner or later), but they can still be quite a shock because we don’t know exactly when they’ll happen. Other events like the holiday season (December is always a killer) are very predictable, but this doesn't always mean that we can plan around them.
Habit is a powerful tool, because we don’t want to have to think about everything consciously, all the time. Repeating actions that we’ve already performed previously reduces the sort of mental load that comes with making choices. Making choices creates stress and saps our mental energy - but actions that are familiar and well-known are low-stress and easy to process.
What does this mean in terms of planning our efforts at fitness, learning, or other kinds of self-improvement?
Well, as I explored in the article on motivation, lifestyle design is a huge (I would say the biggest) factor. When we set up our lives in certain ways, we tend to follow through on the plans we’ve laid for ourselves. What this also means is that things that we don’t plan for, don’t tend to be as easy to follow through on. If you have a regular habit to read a book, this makes it easier to consistently read a lot than if you just read a book occasionally, whenever you feel like it. It’s the same with fitness - developing and sticking to a regular schedule makes it much easier over time.
One quality of habits is momentum. Habits that we’ve had for a long time are harder to break than ones we’ve just invented. During the first few weeks or months of trying to stick to a new habit, it’s hard to do so. But, over time it gets easier - and we find that what was once hard to do is now easy.
For example, I once had a job where I had to wake up at 4:30 every morning so that I could get ready and drive to work by 5:15, when I had to open the gym so that it would be ready for members to arrive for their morning workouts at 5:30. This was (understandably) very rough at first, but after a few months it became much more natural. You still have days where you wake up and don't want to go in, but you get more and more used to it, the longer you stick to that schedule. It's terribly rough at first, but you get into the habit after a few weeks or months.
Likewise, some habits have been around for so long that we barely ever think about them. Each morning, when I wake up, the first thing I do, practically by impulse at this point, is to get my first cup of coffee going. When I go to sleep, I always brush my teeth - after all, I've been brushing my teeth since I was a kid. These habits barely register as habits, because at this point they're so ingrained.
Some habits are reinforced by outside factors. We eat and drink because we get hungry and thirsty - there's a great deal of habit around what we eat and when we eat, but in the end we eat because we're human and need the energy. When I drove to work every day, it was much easier to force myself to stick to the habit because of course, my job depended on it!
Another trait of habits is that when this momentum is broken, it’s easy to get off our habits. When you’re on vacation, for example, your normal schedule goes out the window - and most people find it much harder to get in a workout or keep up a learning habit, even if they have the time and ability to focus on it as usual. This can partly be because you lack access to the normal tools needed - like not having a travel gym setup. I, for one, very rarely am able to get in many serious workouts while I’m travelling, even when I have gym access.
On the other hand, one cool thing about broken habits is that they leave room for change. An old school teacher used to constantly tell me about the phrase "crisis is opportunity" - a phrase derived from the Chinese character for crisis, "weiji", which seems to be created by adding together the character for "danger" and "opportunity". This is a misreading of the characters, I've learned, but this doesn't seem to have had much impact on the popularity of this interpretation. After all, it does seem to have a certain impact to it.
When you get a new job, move to a new apartment or house, break up with a partner, or anything similarly serious, this leaves a hole in your life - your normal habits are shattered, and you’re not used to this new lifestyle. At the same time, this is a massive opportunity. When you don’t have a stable base of habits, that’s when it’s easiest to start something new and stick to it, because all of your habits are being reorganized and reset anyway.
We call these important habits keystone habits. These habits are big, important elements of your life, on which your other habits are connected kind of like a spiderweb anchored to a window. If the window is opened, the spiderweb breaks. One big habit change leads to a web of smaller, interrelated, sometimes surprising changes in our daily lives.
Changing these keystone habits is harder but is also potentially very productive. Once you’ve made one change, other changes naturally follow. This doesn't mean that I'm recommending quitting your job or breaking up with your partner in order to have more time to focus on yourself, but it does mean that this is a thing that can happen in those situations.
For example, my client Liz saw massive results by changing her fitness habits in the wake of her divorce. With the keystone habit of her marriage forcibly changed, this created the opportunity to make serious changes in the rest of her habits, for the better. Ultimately, she's glad that she made those changes and seized that opportunity.
Developing and following a habit takes time, but it’s well worth it:
Get started on making your habits today. The sooner you get them started, the sooner they snowball, and the sooner you'll get to the right rhythm where everything becomes easier.
- How The Hell Am I In Shape?
- Motivation Isn't A Willpower Stat
- Even If You Don't See Any Results From Exercise, You're Winning
- Progress VS Perfection
- It's OK To Be Lazy
- I Don't Think We Should Glorify Hard Work
- Winners Always Quit, and Quitters Always Win
Are you interested in perfecting your deadlift and building legendary strength and muscle? Check out my free ebook, Deadlift Every Day. Or maybe a well-rounded beginners program for those looking to build strength, muscle, and endurance? Check out my other free ebook, GAINS.