We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit. ~Aristotle
Are you one of the millions of people gearing up to make New Year’s resolutions? This article is for you.
Not planning on making any big changes in the new year? This article is for you, too.
People like to think somehow things are going to be different just because it’s January 1st. In reality, however, how you stick to your resolutions is exactly how you stick to any decision you make in your life in the other 364 days of the year.
Your life is the product of the choices you make every day. Every hour. Every minute. Basically, at whatever timeframe it takes for you to make decisions, this is the cadence of possibility for your life to be different. If you only revisit your choices once a decade, you won’t have as many opportunities to change as the person who recognizes that they are constantly making decisions non-stop.
Sidenote: this might be a source of deathbed regret. They look back and see how the decisions they made played out, but this is the first time they’ve decided to reflect on their choices. They regret not rethinking things sooner, and they’re faced with the fact that they chose every single thing they regret later. But I digress.
The choices you make without thinking about them are called habits.
They’re still choices even when you don’t think through the process of making them.
Your habits will either save you, or kill you.
Your life isn’t going to magically get better with a single resolution. It takes making little changes done again & again & again & again, every day, all day long.
What’s Holding You Back?
To paraphrase Michelangelo:
“[To create a beautiful sculpture] all you have to do is to take a big chunk of marble and a hammer and chisel, make up your mind what you are about to create and then chip off all the marble you don’t want.”
Too often people are searching for something new. Something to add to their life. Some new tool, system, technique, or insight.
But none of that gets results. The only question that matters is, what are you doing?
You need a system that’s a simple as possible so it can spend more time focused on doing the things that will get you the results you want.
Some people love the Get Things Done framework, or Bullet Journals, but for me they’re too complex. Too many new changes to make before I even get to the good stuff; the doing.
Here is my list of simple habits that have helped get me results all year long, every year, for years at a time. These are habits that introduce enough structure for me to be effective, without being too rigid or complex.
Don’t try to put all of them into practice at once. No multitasking allowed.
Go slowly. Focus on implementing one habit fully, and once it becomes ingrained in your daily practice, you’ll be prepared to integrate another. Use 30 days as a guideline.
Doing one thing fully, and then the next is what I like to call “Sequential Habit Stacking.” Each new habit will multiply the effectiveness of the one before it.
If, however, you try starting two or more at the same time it will only sabotage your results. Think “slow and steady.” This is not a race to the finish.
Ironically, the harder you work at this, the slower your progress will be.
The order these are presented are a loose suggestion. Feel free to jump around if you already do one of these in your daily life, or if you feel one calls to you.
1. Gather your thoughts.
You have a lot going on inside your head. There’s a lot to worry about. You’re the posterchild for the term “scatterbrained.” The best way I’ve found to get a handle on all the mental chatter is to write it down. I always have a mini notebook in my pocket, or a stack of 3×5 notecards held together with a binder clip. Don’t think of it as a journal; it’s simply a place where all your thoughts go.
The physical act of writing them down allows your mind to move on to the next idea. If you find yourself stuck in mental loops, this will break them. Plus, you’ll be amazed at how many good ideas you have; when you tell yourself “I’ll remember this later” your mind assumes it’s not important, and it will never bring it up again. That’s why you can’t remember those brilliant thoughts anymore. Write them down as soon as you have them, and you’ll have it where you can reread it.
EDIT 2022: After getting frustrated that I couldn’t find a detail or note that I wanted for the last time, I finally switched over to a digital tool that I keep on my laptop & phone. Obsidian.md. Here’s a video that I made that explains why I love it:
2. Deal with it.
In martial arts there’s a lot of talk about timing. If you wait too long to deal with an attack, you’re less likely to defend against it. Same goes with your relationships. Bills. Chores. You name it, you gotta deal with it. The longer you wait to do something important, the more likely it is to head south on you. So whatever needs doing most, do it first and do it right away.
Letting things pile up is only going to make it more difficult in the long run. As Tony Robbins says, “Kill the monster while its small.” Don’t let it grow up to destroy your life. Deal with it before it’s a problem. Work from most to least important. Not most to least urgent. (Things of low importance often feel very urgent. Don’t prioritize based on urgency. You’ll never make it to the important thing. That’s how days, weeks, and years will slip away from you without doing anything important.)
3. Plan for it.
Failure to plan is planning to fail. No plan survives contact with the enemy. A good plan executed ruthlessly now is better than a perfect plan executed next week. You’ve heard all these quotes before, but how much planning have you actually done? Or do you let the problem of the day dictate where you focus your attention?
With a failure to plan you’re letting life be the magician who directs your attention from secret of the magic trick. Creating a list of the 1-3 most important things you need to accomplish will help keep you on track, and minimize the amount of time you spend being distracted from what’s important.
Once you have your plan of action, you absolutely must put it into motion. Without doing it, the plan is worthless. I’ve found doing the important things first in my day means there are fewer opportunities for me to get derailed. I focus on doing one thing at a time. No checking email while I chat with a friend. If I’m talking to someone, I’m talking to them. That’s it. Complete focus on what I’m doing without diluting my attention (and ultimately my ability to do my best work). The first thing I do every morning is roll out of bed, do body weight exercises, read, write, and then reach out to a friend via phone, email, Facebook Messenger (or however they like to be contacted). These are the four most important things I do for myself, so I do them first.
5. Track it.
That which gets measured gets managed. You have to have a system to manage your projects, tasks, & to-dos. Having programs with all the bells and whistles are nice, but with the increased capabilities comes more complexity. The more complex the system, the more time you’re going to spend on the details instead of spending time on the doing.
I suggest having a separate mini notebook for to-dos. Using a handwritten system will force you to be more effective instead of allowing yourself to feel like you’re doing work when you’re really playing with your program’s features. If you’re a nerd like me and enjoy turning successful habits into a game, then you might like to try a wonderful online task management platform called Habitica. It has the added benefit of built-in accountability.
6. Organize it.
By now you have a pretty good idea of what kind of information, obligations, and details you’re handling on a regular basis. Create a place for everything, and then put everything in its place. Have a single place where all incoming requests for your time are placed so you can then choose to sort them when it’s appropriate to deal with them. Don’t allow them to pull your attention away from the important work. The only way to do this is to have control of your time. If you feel resistance to the idea of organizing your space & time management, understand that you already have an ad-hoc system in place; this is just to make it official outside just your mind.
7. Review everything.
How well is your system working for you? How effective have my actions been this week? What tactics are working? What isn’t working? What progress have I made towards my yearly, quarterly, and monthly goals? Reviewing everything through the lens of “How is this helping me make better use of my actions?” will dramatically reorient your priorities and where you choose to focus your attention. Do this monthly at the very least.
8. Remove more marble.
If something isn’t working for you, take it out. If there are tasks that aren’t getting you closer to where you want to be, take it off your list of to-dos. Only by removing that which isn’t serving us can we have the time, energy, and willingness to do the things that do serve our purpose. This involves saying no to what’s not important, and that can be difficult. Think of it like you’re removing marble from the beautiful sculpture that is your life. Or barnacles from your hull. Whatever the analogy, realize that all the excess weight (mentally, emotionally, and physically) is holding you back. Every time you simplify, you’re multiplying your effectiveness.
9. Implement routine.
A routine is nothing but a series of habits. I have a morning routine. It involves doing the most important things I need to do that day, and those things never change. I need to exercise my body, mind, creative abilities, & social bonds. If I left it to chance, I’d never do those things. Instead I’ve chunked the most valuable habits into a single routine so I don’t have to think about each one. I don’t have to choose anything. I know exactly what I’m going to do, and in what order. I’m not starting my day with decisions. This delays choice fatigue, and the erosion of my willpower. My evening routine involves me prioritizing what to deal with tomorrow, writing down any anxieties or problems my mind comes up with (allowing me to rest easier because my mind isn’t constantly looping them as I try to sleep), and prepping anything I need ready for tomorrow. Build a routine out of your habits of excellence.
10. Follow your curiosity.
This one is more abstract, but it could easily be the most important one. So many gurus will tell you to find your passion, and there’s not much else that could be more condescending. If you don’t know what your passion is, how the hell are you supposed to follow it? Following that advice will send you in circles. So, what should you follow instead? Your curiosity. What are you curious about? It doesn’t have to be something society deems worthy. You don’t need a social stamp of approval. You don’t have to be curious about something you think is a viable business proposition. No. What are you already curious about? Allow yourself to explore that. If you never allow yourself to follow your curiosity, you’ll never find that thing that gets you fired up. Once you find it, you may never make a living off it, and that’s ok. It’s ok to have something just for you. You can keep it sacred. But, whatever it is, once you find it, you’ll realize you’ve found an inexhaustible source of energy, excitement, creativity, and enthusiasm.
Wrap It Up
With these 10 habits, you will finally have the space in your life to be passionate about something. You won’t be saying yes to everything and filling your life with useless distractions that are keeping you from the life you truly want.
Spend the energy over the next year to make these habits so deeply ingrained that they become second nature, and you’ll find yourself with better health, friendships, and whatever you really want in your life.
If you’ve found something valuable in these ideas, chances are someone else would, too. Take 5 seconds to share it with your network, and you’ll be doing something good for everyone! You’ll help your friend discover something useful, you’ll help me help more people, and you’ll help yourself by helping others. It’s a win-win-win!