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What are habits?
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
But when we repeat 1 percent errors, day after day, by replicating poor decisions, duplicating tiny mistakes, and rationalizing little excuses, our small choices compound into toxic results.
Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.
Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.
Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.
If you find yourself struggling to build a good habit or break a bad one, it is not because you have lost your ability to improve. It is often because you have not yet crossed the Plateau of Latent Potential. Complaining about not achieving success despite working hard is like complaining about an ice cube not melting when you heated it from twenty-five to thirty-one degrees. Your work was not wasted; it is just being stored. All the action happens at thirty-two degrees.
Antonio Spurs, one of the most successful teams in NBA history, have a quote from social reformer Jacob Riis hanging in their locker room:
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.”
Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.
The goal in any sport is to finish with the best score, but it would be ridiculous to spend the whole game staring at the scoreboard. The only way to actually win is to get better each day. In the words of three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Walsh, “The score takes care of itself.” The same is true for other areas of life. If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.
Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems.
A systems-first mentality provides the antidote. When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running. And a system can be successful in many different forms, not just the one you first envision.
The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
Most people don’t even consider identity change when they set out to improve. They just think, “I want to be skinny (outcome) and if I stick to this diet, then I’ll be skinny (process).” They set goals and determine the actions they should take to achieve those goals without considering the beliefs that drive their actions. They never shift the way they look at themselves, and they don’t realize that their old identity can sabotage their new plans for change. Behind every system of actions are a system of beliefs.
■ The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader.
■ The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner.
■ The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician.
Many people walk through life in a cognitive slumber, blindly following the norms attached to their identity.
■ “I’m terrible with directions.”
■ “I’m not a morning person.”
■ “I’m bad at remembering people’s names.”
■ “I’m always late.”
■ “I’m not good with technology.”
■ “I’m horrible at math.” … and a thousand other variations. When you have repeated a story to yourself for years, it is easy to slide into these mental grooves and accept them as a fact.
Over the long run, however, the real reason you fail to stick with habits is that your self-image gets in the way. This is why you can’t get too attached to one version of your identity. Progress requires unlearning. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.
Your identity emerges out of your habits. You are not born with preset beliefs. Every belief, including those about yourself, is learned and conditioned through experience.
More precisely, your habits are how you embody your identity. When you make your bed each day, you embody the identity of an organized person. When you write each day, you embody the identity of a creative person. When you train each day, you embody the identity of an athletic person.
Whatever your identity is right now, you only believe it because you have proof of it. If you go to church every Sunday for twenty years, you have evidence that you are religious. If you study biology for one hour every night, you have evidence that you are studious. If you go to the gym even when it’s snowing, you have evidence that you are committed to fitness. The more evidence you have for a belief, the more strongly you will believe it.
This is a gradual evolution. We do not change by snapping our fingers and deciding to be someone entirely new. We change bit by bit, day by day, habit by habit.6 We are continually undergoing microevolutions of the self.
Each habit is like a suggestion: “Hey, maybe this is who I am.” If you finish a book, then perhaps you are the type of person who likes reading. If you go to the gym, then perhaps you are the type of person who likes exercise. If you practice playing the guitar, perhaps you are the type of person who likes music.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
Building better habits isn’t about littering your day with life hacks. It’s not about flossing one tooth each night or taking a cold shower each morning or wearing the same outfit each day. It’s not about achieving external measures of success like earning more money, losing weight, or reducing stress. Habits can help you achieve all of these things, but fundamentally they are not about having something. They are about becoming someone.
Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you develop your deepest beliefs about yourself. Quite literally, you become your habits.
If you’re still having trouble determining how to rate a particular habit, here is a question I like to use: “Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?” Habits that reinforce your desired identity are usually good. Habits that conflict with your desired identity are usually bad.
Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. It is not always obvious when and where to take action.
“disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.
The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often.6 So, yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment.
It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change: the fastest way to lose weight, the best program to build muscle, the perfect idea for a side hustle. We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action. As Voltaire once wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.”
If motion doesn’t lead to results, why do we do it? Sometimes we do it because we actually need to plan or learn more. But more often than not, we do it because motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure.
Most of us are experts at avoiding criticism. It doesn’t feel good to fail or to be judged publicly, so we tend to avoid situations where that might happen. And that’s the biggest reason why you slip into motion rather than taking action: you want to delay failure. It’s easy to be in motion and convince yourself that you’re still making progress. You think, “I’ve got conversations going with four potential clients right now. This is good. We’re moving in the right direction.” Or, “I brainstormed some ideas for that book I want to write. This is coming together.” Motion makes you feel like you’re getting things done. But really, you’re just preparing to get something done. When preparation becomes a form of procrastination, you need to change something. You don’t want to merely be planning. You want to be practicing.
If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. You don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it. This is the first takeaway of the 3rd Law: you just need to get your reps in.
The greater the obstacle—that is, the more difficult the habit—the more friction there is between you and your desired end state. This is why it is crucial to make your habits so easy that you’ll do them even when you don’t feel like it. If you can make your good habits more convenient, you’ll be more likely to follow through on them.
Certainly, you are capable of doing very hard things. The problem is that some days you feel like doing the hard work and some days you feel like giving in. On the tough days, it’s crucial to have as many things working in your favor as possible so that you can overcome the challenges life naturally throws your way. The less friction you face, the easier it is for your stronger self to emerge.
“When I walk into a room everything is in its right place,” Nuckols wrote. “Because I do this every day in every room, stuff always stays in good shape …. People think I work hard but I’m actually really lazy. I’m just proactively lazy. It gives you so much time back.”
We are more likely to repeat a behavior when the experience is satisfying. This is entirely logical. Feelings of pleasure—even minor ones like washing your hands with soap that smells nice and lathers well—are signals that tell the brain: “This feels good. Do this again, next time.” Pleasure teaches your brain that a behavior is worth remembering and repeating.
Every habit produces multiple outcomes across time. Unfortunately, these outcomes are often misaligned. With our bad habits, the immediate outcome usually feels good, but the ultimate outcome feels bad. With good habits, it is the reverse: the immediate outcome is unenjoyable, but the ultimate outcome feels good. The French economist Frédéric Bastiat explained the problem clearly when he wrote, “It almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa ….18 Often, the sweeter the first fruit of a habit, the more bitter are its later fruits.”
Put another way, the costs of your good habits are in the present. The costs of your bad habits are in the future.
The brain’s tendency to prioritize the present moment means you can’t rely on good intentions. When you make a plan—to lose weight, write a book, or learn a language—you are actually making plans for your future self. And when you envision what you want your life to be like, it is easy to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits. We all want better lives for our future selves. However, when the moment of decision arrives, instant gratification usually wins. You are no longer making a choice for Future You, who dreams of being fitter or wealthier or happier.19 You are choosing for Present You, who wants to be full, pampered, and entertained. As a general rule, the more immediate pleasure you get from an action, the more strongly you should question whether it aligns with your long-term goals.fn3
Here’s the problem: most people know that delaying gratification is the wise approach. They want the benefits of good habits: to be healthy, productive, at peace. But these outcomes are seldom top-of-mind at the decisive moment. Thankfully, it’s possible to train yourself to delay gratification—but you need to work with the grain of human nature, not against it. The best way to do this is to add a little bit of immediate pleasure to the habits that pay off in the long-run and a little bit of immediate pain to ones that don’t.
The vital thing in getting a habit to stick is to feel successful—even if it’s in a small way. The feeling of success is a signal that your habit paid off and that the work was worth the effort. In a perfect world, the reward for a good habit is the habit itself. In the real world, good habits tend to feel worthwhile only after they have provided you with something. Early on, it’s all sacrifice. You’ve gone to the gym a few times, but you’re not stronger or fitter or faster—at least, not in any noticeable sense. It’s only months later, once you shed a few pounds or your arms gain some definition, that it becomes easier to exercise for its own sake. In the beginning, you need a reason to stay on track. This is why immediate rewards are essential. They keep you excited while the delayed rewards accumulate in the background.
Immediate reinforcement can be especially helpful when dealing with habits of avoidance, which are behaviors you want to stop doing. It can be challenging to stick with habits like “no frivolous purchases” or “no alcohol this month” because nothing happens when you skip happy hour drinks or don’t buy that pair of shoes. It can be hard to feel satisfied when there is no action in the first place. All you’re doing is resisting temptation, and there isn’t much satisfying about that.
One solution is to turn the situation on its head. You want to make avoidance visible. Open a savings account and label it for something you want—maybe “Leather Jacket.” Whenever you pass on a purchase, put the same amount of money in the account. Skip your morning latte? Transfer $5. Pass on another month of Netflix? Move $10 over. It’s like creating a loyalty program for yourself. The immediate reward of seeing yourself save money toward the leather jacket feels a lot better than being deprived. You are making it satisfying to do nothing.
It is worth noting that it is important to select short-term rewards that reinforce your identity rather than ones that conflict with it. Buying a new jacket is fine if you’re trying to lose weight or read more books, but it doesn’t work if you’re trying to budget and save money. Instead, taking a bubble bath or going on a leisurely walk are good examples of rewarding yourself with free time, which aligns with your ultimate goal of more freedom and financial independence. Similarly, if your reward for exercising is eating a bowl of ice cream, then you’re casting votes for conflicting identities, and it ends up being a wash. Instead, maybe your reward is a massage, which is both a luxury and a vote toward taking care of your body. Now the short-term reward is aligned with your long-term vision of being a healthy person.
Eventually, as intrinsic rewards like a better mood, more energy, and reduced stress kick in, you’ll become less concerned with chasing the secondary reward. The identity itself becomes the reinforcer. You do it because it’s who you are and it feels good to be you. The more a habit becomes part of your life, the less you need outside encouragement to follow through. Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit.
In summary, a habit needs to be enjoyable for it to last. Simple bits of reinforcement—like soap that smells great or toothpaste that has a refreshing mint flavor or seeing $50 hit your savings account—can offer the immediate pleasure you need to enjoy a habit. And change is easy when it is enjoyable.
“Don’t break the chain” is a powerful mantra. Don’t break the chain of sales calls and you’ll build a successful book of business. Don’t break the chain of workouts and you’ll get fit faster than you’d expect. Don’t break the chain of creating every day and you will end up with an impressive portfolio.3
The first mistake is never the one that ruins you.7 It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident.8 Missing twice is the start of a new habit.
You don’t realize how valuable it is to just show up on your bad (or busy) days. Lost days hurt you more than successful days help you. If you start with $100, then a 50 percent gain will take you to $150. But you only need a 33 percent loss to take you back to $100. In other words, avoiding a 33 percent loss is just as valuable as achieving a 50 percent gain. As Charlie Munger says, “The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessarily.”
This is why the “bad” workouts are often the most important ones. Sluggish days and bad workouts maintain the compound gains you accrued from previous good days. Simply doing something—ten squats, five sprints, a push-up, anything really—is huge. Don’t put up a zero. Don’t let losses eat into your compounding.
Furthermore, it’s not always about what happens during the workout. It’s about being the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. It’s easy to train when you feel good, but it’s crucial to show up when you don’t feel like it—even if you do less than you hope. Going to the gym for five minutes may not improve your performance, but it reaffirms your identity.
The secret to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition. This is just as true with habit change as it is with sports and business. Habits are easier to perform, and more satisfying to stick with, when they align with your natural inclinations and abilities. Like Michael Phelps in the pool or Hicham El Guerrouj on the track, you want to play a game where the odds are in your favor.
When you can’t win by being better, you can win by being different. By combining your skills, you reduce the level of competition, which makes it easier to stand out. You can shortcut the need for a genetic advantage (or for years of practice) by rewriting the rules. A good player works hard to win the game everyone else is playing. A great player creates a new game that favors their strengths and avoids their weaknesses.
“At some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.”
People talk about getting “amped up” to work on their goals. Whether it’s business or sports or art, you hear people say things like, “It all comes down to passion.” Or, “You have to really want it.” As a result, many of us get depressed when we lose focus or motivation because we think that successful people have some bottomless reserve of passion. But this coach was saying that really successful people feel the same lack of motivation as everyone else. The difference is that they still find a way to show up despite the feelings of boredom.
As Machiavelli noted, “Men desire novelty to such an extent that those who are doing well wish for a change as much as those who are doing badly.”
I can guarantee that if you manage to start a habit and keep sticking to it, there will be days when you feel like quitting. When you start a business, there will be days when you don’t feel like showing up. When you’re at the gym, there will be sets that you don’t feel like finishing. When it’s time to write, there will be days that you don’t feel like typing. But stepping up when it’s annoying or painful or draining to do so, that’s what makes the difference between a professional and an amateur.
Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.
David Cain, an author and meditation teacher, encourages his students to avoid being “fair-weather meditators.” Similarly, you don’t want to be a fair-weather athlete or a fair-weather writer or a fair-weather anything. When a habit is truly important to you, you have to be willing to stick to it in any mood. Professionals take action even when the mood isn’t right. They might not enjoy it, but they find a way to put the reps in.
There have been a lot of sets that I haven’t felt like finishing, but I’ve never regretted doing the workout. There have been a lot of articles I haven’t felt like writing, but I’ve never regretted publishing on schedule. There have been a lot of days I’ve felt like relaxing, but I’ve never regretted showing up and working on something that was important to me.