Let’s start off with a nice quote. You might have heard this one before.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
- Not Aristotle
The reason why I’m saying ‘not Aristotle’ is that this quote is frequently misattributed to the famous Greek philosopher. The above quote is a 20th-century reinterpretation of something he DID say, which is:
“As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”
Now, whatever the amount of swallows or fine days or the origins of quotes, what I’m trying to say is this:
One good day does not equal long term success. It requires lots and lots of consecutive good days to get somewhere in life. It requires that you perform well on a daily basis.
The Godfather of Philosophy knows what’s up.
It is relatively easy for us to give something our all on one day, to completely put our mind to something and do a great job.
What is harder is following up on this and doing it day after day. Because that uses up a lot of willpower, something many people lack.
That’s why being a top performer requires you to build consistent habits.
Why some people seem to get so much done so easily
A while ago, I read this book called Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey. The book is basically a collection of anecdotes about famous people, and it describes their daily habits and routines. I bought the book with the idea of finding out ‘which were the perfect habits to become ultra-productive.
But the thing was, all of these famous writers and artists each had so many different habits and routines, there didn’t seem to be one best way. Some got up early and worked in the morning, others worked in the darkness of night. Some of them had teatime, others didn’t. There didn’t seem to be any best way. It made me think that every one of them had found a habit that was exactly perfect for them. But that meant I was still in the mindset of ‘perfect habits’.
After a while, it dawned on me. It wasn’t any specific habit that these people had that made them successful and famous. It was simply the fact that they had habits that was helping them. All of them had a daily to-do list which they followed in a religious manner. This made their day predictable and automatic. They knew what they were supposed to be doing at any given moment each day, without having to consciously think about it.
If you take a look at successful people, the thing that always keeps coming back is that their day goes by in an orderly fashion, and they stick to habits.
Whatever you do, creating habit and routine is obviously THE KEY to being successful.
Let me illustrate that with a theoretical example.
Imagine if you wanted to become a guitar player, and preferably, a really good one. Now imagine if you were able to make it a habit of practising consistently for two hours per day. If you kept up that habit for ten years, you’d end up being a pretty good player, right? Even without any special talent or musical education, someone who practices that much will most likely end up being a pretty good guitarist. It’s more or less a guaranteed outcome.
Same goes for writing. If you write a 1000 words each day, you’ll end up writing multiple novels per year. Still, so many authors find it hard to be productive. It’s easy to get started writing, to have an idea and write those first few pages. But unless you make that writing into a habit, you will never finish your book.
One last example: studying. When I look back at my college years, what made studying hard wasn’t necessarily the fact that the course material was too complex to understand. What made it hard to get good grades was the fact that I never was able to consistently get myself to open my books and go over my notes. During exam periods, I could have a good day and study eight hours, using up all my willpower. But doing this on many consecutive days was pretty much impossible.
Because I wasn’t able to make a habit out of studying, my grades weren’t what they could’ve been.
How to make your brain work for you
Think of habits as a behavioural autopilot, an automatic script that your brain automatically executes in a certain situation. You probably already have lots of habits that you aren’t even aware of. For example, when you put on your shoes, it’s very likely that you’ll always put on one certain side first, either the left or the right. That’s not something you consciously decide every day, it’s a habit that you created for yourself.
This isn’t merely the case for tying your shoelaces either. It goes for every possible imaginable task, be it brushing your teeth or something more complex like studying.
You can have the most boring, unattractive task, something that you really, really hate to do. It causes you to procrastinate endlessly. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. Once you establish it as a strong habit, you’ll have an unstoppable urge to perform this task. It will actually take you conscious effort and willpower NOT to do it.
What’s more, our brain actually CRAVES habits. Having to think about things all the time requires energy (remember that a large part of the calories that we eat are used to power our brain). From an evolutionary point of view, our body wants to be as energy efficient as possible, because using up a lot of energy isn’t very good survival-wise. It used to be that food was scarce, and if you used up a lot of energy every day, you were more likely to starve. So when our brain creates habits, it also becomes more energy efficient.
So, let me explain to you how habits work in our brain.
For this, we need to be aware of the critical elements of a habit. These are
- a cue
- a routine
- a reward
First, there’s the cue. This is the trigger that causes the behaviour to start.
Second, there’s the routine (which is the habit itself).
Finally, there’s a reward. This is what your brain uses to imprint this routine into itself and to make sure you repeat it in the future.
Now, when you tried to do something on a regular basis (let’s take studying as an example), you most likely focused on the second part: the routine itself. This sounds logical because it’s the behaviour that you’re trying to implement. However, that’s actually the wrong way to go about it.
For example, you might say to yourself: ‘From now on, I’m going to study for two hours every day’. Then one day, you start studying at 2 PM. The next day, it’s 4 PM. The day after, it’s 9 AM. And so for each of these days, there is no single cue when to start. There is no consistent trigger, no environmental cue that tells your brain to take action.
That means that you have to take conscious action to start studying every day. In turn, this means you’ll require willpower.
The second piece that’s missing is the lack of a reward. You would just finish studying and be done with it, without giving yourself a pat on the back or a little gift. So unless you find studying very intrinsically rewarding, there won’t really be any motivator present. And our brain craves these rewards. Rewarding yourself causes little rushes of dopamine, which is what causes addiction. This dopamine is what gets us addicted to things like food and cigarettes. Have you ever had to use willpower to eat, or to light up a smoke? Unless the food wasn’t very appetizing or you dislike the taste of tobacco, I highly doubt it. On the contrary, for people who are addicted to food or cigarettes, it’s extremely hard not to eat or not to smoke.
So, in effect, by adding a reward to a behaviour, you can make yourself ‘addicted’ to it. This allows you to remove willpower from the equation.
To create a habit, instead of focusing on the behaviour itself, you should focus on the cue and on the reward. When you consistently have the same cue, behaviour, and reward, your basal ganglia will start to associate these three, and join them together. It’s as if you were a self-programming robot.
Habits, just another way of making your brain work for you.
Step 1 – Choose a behaviour
This is pretty straightforward. You probably have a certain task that you have to do or want to do. Only problem, you can’t get yourself to do it consistently without summoning massive amounts of willpower. The sink is full of dirty plates, but you really don’t feel like washing the dishes. You’ve got an important exam next week, and somehow it just seems impossible to do more than five pages each day. You’re working on a novel, but you can’t get yourself to consistently hit your daily word target.
As we’ve stated before, willpower is a limited resource, so once you’ve used it up after a hard day’s work, the chances of you performing a task will be close to zero. So it’s important that you automate these tasks, with no conscious effort required.
Step 2 – Choose a cue
This is what has to trigger your brain into performing the habit. The most obvious way to set a cue is to use a certain time of day. For example, if you want to start an exercise habit, make 5PM your exercise time.
A cue doesn’t necessarily have to be time based, though. It can also be environmental. For example, if your stomach is full after eating, that can also be your cue to start washing the dishes.
A certain time of day can serve as a triggering cue for you to perform a habit
Once you set a consistent cue that precedes a certain routine behaviour, your brain will start to associate this cue with the behaviour. Once that happens, the cue will automatically start to trigger this behaviour, without any conscious effort from your part. You’ll just start on autopilot.
Step 3 – Choose a reward
Finally, you need something that tells your brain: ‘this routine behaviour is good, do it again’. Your brain has to learn to associate the behaviour with positive feedback, a reward that causes a little dopamine rush. This reward can be anything, but it doesn’t have to be big. You can reward yourself with a cookie, a cup of tea or whatever it is that you find rewarding. Make sure that the reward is always the same. If you give yourself a cookie on one day, a piece of chocolate the next, and an apple the day after that, you’ll just confuse your brain and you won’t learn the habit in the most effective manner.
Now, these rewards are extrinsic rewards, things that don’t naturally follow out of the act itself. But a behaviour can be intrinsically rewarding as well. Just performing the behaviour by itself can be rewarding enough, without the need to give yourself something tangible afterwards. The best example of this is exercise. If you workout, you get a dopamine rush which makes you feel pretty good. You might also feel really good about yourself after you’ve studied a chapter in your book, a boost of satisfaction and pride.
That being said, if you think an activity still needs a bit of an extra reward, you give yourself something extra to increase the ‘reward value’ of the routine.
Now, here’s the cool part: over time, the reward will induce a craving. Because you crave the reward, you’ll automatically start to perform the behaviour. Because of that, after a while, you don’t even need the reward anymore.
That’s because your brain has started to associate the behaviour itself, not just the reward, with the happy feeling. The brain has learned to anticipate the reward, and it is merely this anticipation which induces a dopamine shot.
So, to create a habit, choose a cue, a habit, and a reward, and use them consistently every day. In the beginning, you’ll still have to use a lot of willpower. However, it gets easier every time you do it. Each time you perform the behaviour, your brain will start to clump the cue, the behaviour and the reward closer together, and over time you’ll end up with an automatic habit that requires no mental effort whatsoever.
One warning though: don’t try to create too many habits at once. If you try to do too much at once, you WILL fail. Focus on one habit at a time, stick to it for a while, and once that habit is firmly implanted into your brain, go on to the next one.
But first, find your keystone habit
A keystone habit? Now, what’s that, you might ask?
Well, let me explain. You might have a ton of habits that you want to implement. However, these could vary from washing the dishes, brushing your teeth or studying one hour each and every day.
Now, these are all fine habits to have, but not all of them have the same impact on your life. There are certain habits, which differ from person to person, that function as a sort of launchpad. A keystone habit is a habit that has the power to completely change the way you view yourself.
Let me give you an example.
Imagine, you’ve hit rock bottom. You’ve never accomplished much in your life, you’re unemployed, have thousands of dollars in credit card debt, you’re severely overweight and you’re also a chain smoker.
In this scenario, making a habit of brushing your teeth might not have a great effect on improving your life. But what if you started exercising consistently? You’re starting to look better, you’re feeling better, you’re getting stronger and faster. All of a sudden, you’re thinking: ‘Hey, I might not be such a low-life bum after all!’ Then you decide to start implementing another habit: writing a job application every day.
By the end of the year, you’ve got nice abs AND you’re earning 50K. From there on out, the sky’s the limit.
A keystone habit serves as a catalyst to change the way you feel about yourself, and a catalyst to start implementing other habits to improve your life.
For many people, exercise is their keystone habit. But what if you’re already pretty athletic? In your case, exercise might not have the same psychological effect. An alternative keystone habit might then be to save money every month and restore your financial health.
The thing about keystone habits is: they differ from person to person. If you want to identify your own keystone habit, you need to find something that has a strong emotional link. Again, washing the dishes after every meal might not qualify (although in some people it could). Ideally, a keystone habit is something that scares you a bit. It should feel like a challenge, so once you’ve overcome it, it increases your confidence and self-esteem by a significant amount.
A keystone habit is generally something that changes the way you see yourself and allows you to believe that you can change. If you’ve always been messy, and you start making a habit of cleaning up, you transform your outlook from ‘that’s just the way I am’ into ‘If I can change that, I can change anything!’.
Find a keystone habit, implement it, and use that as a lever create lots of automatic, powerful habits that have the power to completely transform your life.
No doubt you finally understand how important habits are. They shape our day, they shape our lives, and they shape who we are. You are what you repeatedly do, remember?
Here’s a suggestion for a habit that will most certainly make a huge difference, as it has for many. Install FocusMe and block social media each time you start work. Making a habit out of this will certainly increase your productivity manifold.
Create habits, take willpower out of the equation, and you’re on the right track to getting lots of work done.
Remember to create good habits and eradicate the bad ones. Wanna know how? See How to Get Rid of Bad Habits.
See you next time,