Habits can help us immensely or hurt us immensely, and if we don’t pay attention to them, they will be formed in us by accidental processes. And over time they make such a tremendous difference in our happiness and effectiveness that they really are like a superpower.
One night, thirty years ago now, I found myself listening to Milt Rosenberg’s magnificent radio show (the best interview show I’ve ever known) as he was interviewing Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of England. In the middle of the interview, in just a passing comment, she said this:
Habits are either the best of friends or the bitterest of foes.
I must have been ready to hear it, because I realized in that moment that I could arrange my life in massively beneficial and painless ways by creating productive habits. And over the following decades, I’ve seen the proof of it: Without cultivating my habits, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, and very certainly not as well.
It’s no exaggerations to say that good habits bless us all our days and bad habits curse us all our days. Things we do automatically have a tremendous and compounding affect on our lives. And that is what habits are – things that we program ourselves to do automatically.
If you get in the habit of being lazy, you won’t accomplish much. If you get in the habit of working hard, you will accomplish many things. You’ll also be much happier. Lazy people are not happy; they are forever blaming someone or something for their problems.
Productive and active people, on the other hand, may not be happy all the time and may still have worries, but they feel the satisfaction of accomplishment. And more than feeling it, they know that they have earned it.
So, if you want to be successful and happy, one of the first things to do is to build habits that serve you.
How To Create Habits
I had learned the process of creating habits some time prior to the radio show that set me on my path, in a book by Dr. Robert Anthony, and it’s this:
If you repeat an action for 28 days, it will become a habit.
That action, by the way, could include thinking in a specific way.
Now, here’s a harmless experiment to prove that statement:
- Fold your hands by interlacing your fingers.
- Check to see which hand is on top; usually it is the left index (pointer) finger that ends up on the top of the pile.
- Reverse the order – if your left is on top, put the right on top, or vise versa. This will probably feel uncomfortable, but do it anyway.
- For the next several weeks, force yourself use the reversed order. No exceptions are allowed. Pay attention to yourself and be tough.
If you do this religiously, at the end of four weeks (28 days), you’ll be doing it automatically, and the original order will feel almost as uncomfortable as the reverse order does now.
Do this right away and prove it to yourself.
Once you’ve seen that this works, you’ll face the next question: Which habits shall I change? Creating habits requires work. It’s work that you can let go of after a month or so, but it still requires energy and a significant amount of time. And so you’ll want to make a list with the most important habits on top.
Once you have your list, go at them, one at a time.
You’re probably better off building good habits than breaking old ones, but if you need to break old habits, here’s something to remember: The job is not just forcing yourself to not do things, but to replace your old habits with something better. When you find yourself about to indulge the bad habit, replace it with something else: pick one simple, appealing thing and jump to it fast and hard, every time you feel the old habit gnawing at you. Even singing a specific song to yourself every time you the old habit pushes at you will work. After a month you’ll find that things have changed.
You can do these things, if you choose to. And after the first month, the effort slips away and the benefit continues… probably for life. You’ll end up doing the right thing, without stress, and for a long, long time.
Little Habits Matter Too
The habits that you build or tear down… the habits that you modify… don’t have to be big things to make a big difference. Here’s a seemingly trivial example:
At one time, I was in the habit of reading a newspaper every day. But I found that I was spending a lot of time on it, and that I got better news on the Internet in less time. So, even though I enjoyed my daily paper, it was no longer the best use of my time. So I changed the habit into checking Internet news sites and saved myself about 15 minutes per day.
Fifteen minutes per day may not seem like a big thing, but it is. By saving 15 minutes per day, you save an hour and 45 minutes per week, or 91.25 hours per year. Over ten years, that’s 912.5 hours, And considering that those are all waking hours, it adds up to 57 days, nearly two months.
So, the payoff of little things can be very large. Setting your habits pays big.
It’s also tremendously important to know that you are able to improve your life. Wanting to improve your life is a fine impulse, but knowing that you can takes you to a considerably higher level.
Here is a final thought on habits from George Washington:
Rise early, that by habit it may become familiar, agreeable, healthy, and profitable. It may, for a while, be irksome to do this, but that will wear off; and the practice will produce a rich harvest forever thereafter.
That’s another comment from someone who knew by experience.