All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.
– William James
If you look at the good and bad things in your life today, they are largely the result of two things: the influences you allow, and your habits.
Influences are the people you surround yourself with and the information you consume, in the form of books, TV, social media, and conversation. As Jim Rohn said, “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” You can substitute people for “sources of information,” because books and media can influence you as much or more than people.
Influences determine our thought life, but habits determine how we spend our physical energy.
I have a habit of checking social media several times a day, which seems fairly harmless. If I step back and look at the impact of 30 minutes each work day on social media, that equates to over 5 full days of my life each year.
I also have a habit of going to the gym or riding my bike almost every day. I’ve done this for years consistently, and as a result I’m in very good health.
Habits are like compound interest, they don’t have much effect over a week or two, but give them 10 years and they are life changing.
Too often we allow habits to form on their own instead of creating them with purpose. We mindlessly fall into the trap of checking Facebook every time we are bored or we face a difficult problem. We eat too much fast food and sugar, and train our bodies to crave more. We browse Instagram in bed instead of reading a book.
None of these things seem like a big deal, but what we do with our time determines where we’ll be in 3 years, 10 years, or 30 years.
Changing our habits is the most important thing we can do to improve our lives.
So how do we change our habits?
Changing Your Habits
Changing your habits sounds like it takes a Herculean effort of willpower, or some magical infusion of psychological energy.
That’s simply not the case. You can make powerful changes in your life by taking simple action steps.
We’ve all tried to make changes before, and failed. We go to the gym for a few weeks and start eating better, but the weight comes back a few months later. We blame our lack of willpower or discipline for the failure, and settle back into our old behaviors.
When we know something that needs to be done but isn’t currently getting done, we often say, “I just need more discipline.” Actually, we need the habit of doing it. And we need just enough discipline to build the habit.
– The One Thing
It’s not your lack of willpower or discipline that caused the failure, you just didn’t let the habit develop properly.
When trying to establish a new habit, three things go wrong:
- We try to change too many things at once.
- We give up before the habit is created.
- We aren’t really, deeply motivated to change.
It’s important to change one behavior at a time. You simply don’t have enough emotional energy to deal with multiple habit changes at once, on top of everything else life throws at you. If you want to get in better shape, don’t change your whole diet AND start going to the gym every day. Pick one and let the habit establish itself.
Start small and stay small for 2 months. That’s how long it takes to establish a habit, according to Gary Keller. If you want to get to the gym everyday, focus on putting on your gym clothes and walking out the door. That’s it. Don’t worry about how long you stay at the gym, don’t try to do some crazy new workout craze that makes you want to give up. Just develop the habit of going to the gym, the rest will come in time.
The most critical factor for me is that I’m motivated to change, in a deep way. I don’t usually set new year’s resolutions because January 1st doesn’t magically make me deeply motivated. Many people fail because they set a resolution that they aren’t fired up about.
You need a compelling reason to change, and it needs to really fire you up. Think about how many books you could read in a year, or how many pounds you can lose by this summer if you stick with your new habit.
One habit I’m working on this year is reading some non-fiction every day. My goal is to read a few pages at lunch, and build on that. I’m not trying to read 50 books this year, just develop the habit. If I read an interesting thought and reflect on it for a few minutes each day, that’s a habit that will change the course of my life over time.
What habit can you change this year?
You are not a weak person simply because you have bad habits, we all have them. The question is, will you work on developing better habits? Your life could be drastically better next year if you do.