As ballast to a pretty freaking volatile year on a lot of fronts, I’ve been exploring the world of habits with an eye on the question of “What should I do more or less of next year to really grow and increase happiness?”
I say exploring because I’ve wanted to go a little deeper, looking for a better grasp of habits/behaviors and how they actually work. Disconnected from the inevitable resolution and list mania this time of year. A period which has all too often for me delivered a short-term dopamine spike with limited long-term impact. Because the list I come ends up way too long with items too lightly considered to give much hope of appreciable progress in any one area.
It’s not that starting voice acting, learning piano, becoming an old guy clothes model and getting a black belt are bad ideas necessarily (maybe the model part if you’ve been told you have a face for radio as I have) … it’s that meaningful progress on multiple of these, particularly if they’re ALL new and whipped up in a year-end dash, is pretty unlikely.
Happy to report that several months into this deeper look at habits, I’m finding some promising practices for a different outcome in 2019. Most notably an actionable 3-step for zeroing in on the habits (existing or new) that have the highest potential for cranking up your happiness and lowering your stress:
- Identity – Think about your potential habits through the lens of who you want to become
- Cull – Make a big list of possibles (to add, drop, improve) then cull to 5 top prios
- Design – Get experimental about designing your day/week to best support these top 5
Inspiration for these 3, and a fresh lens on this whole topic of why we do what we do and how to change that, came from James Clear’s great Atomic Habits, An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits. It’s a briskly-paced mix of engaging umbrella concepts about behavior change and pragmatic tips to make those big ideas actionable in a crazy busy life.
I’d already begun to look deeper at what gave me joy/growth and what didn’t, but Clear’s book threw an actionable net around a bunch of good but disorganized ideas swimming around in my mind about where I wanted to grow.
To the 3-step…
Step 1: Think about your potential habits as extensions of your identity
An umbrella concept I really connected with in Atomic Habits is this idea of framing the habits you want to build through the lens of who you want to become, instead of strictly what you want to do.
As Clear puts it:
“True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity. […] Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are”.
I.e. the goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician. Not to learn Spanish but become a Spanish speaker.
Asking this question of “what habits actually support something I really want to become or become more fully?” can really help sort the wheat from the chaff of the long list of personal growth ideas you may have entertained but not necessarily found the mojo to act on.
And that’s important because trying to take on too many habit changes is very likely a recipe for never getting beyond dabbler stage on any one of them (to borrow from another great related read, George Leonard’s the Mastery). Intuitively we know time is scarce but the notion of getting better at all sorts of new things is just so appealing, at least at the beginning, that we keep options open on too many possibilities instead of focusing in on a few.
So there’s a huge gain to be had of thinking more critically about the habits you want to try/improve, both in terms of potential meaning to you and a more manageable number. Which brings me to step 2…
Step 2: Inventory all the possible habits you want to improve and CULL the herd
In addition to the Identity frame, Clear also introduced me to another device for considering my improvement wish list with more rigor and whacking it down in a way I hadn’t succeeded in doing before. Warren Buffet’s 25-5 theory which goes something like this:
- In any area of your life where you want to make progress (career, etc.), list out 25 highest pri things you want to work on
- Then ruthlessly narrow that list down to 5 you REALLY prize.
- Ignore the other 20 until the top 5 are done.
When I did 25-5 on my personal growth list the ignore part was HARD but sort of freeing. I landed on a mix of stuff. Some I’ve dabbled in but need to refire/stop sucking at. Some I’m already doing (fitness for example) but want to build stronger habits around because it provides such reward. And some I set aside for another day.
- Fitness – keep being an active person, in more ways
- Mindfulness – become more present to the life that’s happening right now
- Gratitude – become more other-focused in my gratitude practice
- Writing – become a regular writer on personal and professional topics
- Learning – start down the path of becoming a Spanish speaker
Who knows yet how well I’ll do on these, and just as importantly how I’ll fare on ignoring the ones that didn’t make the cut. But already I’ve seen some cool progress on one of these top finishers, Mindfulness, that illustrates the value of this habit 3-step as it plays out…
Step 3: Design/experiment with daily and weekly routines to support your highest pri habits
When I culled my habit wish list to 5 I found I naturally started to think more closely about how to be more successful with each one. And with fewer things to focus on I got more curious about where I was on each, how to measure progress, and what shifts I could make with a little tweaking.
A good example is my attempt to become more mindful/present through meditation, a habit I’ve been dabbling with on and off for about a year. The greatest appeal for me of becoming more mindful is this notion that life is happening right now… not in some imagined future to fret over (which I do), or some past era to relitigate (which I also do). Anything that helps me get in touch with that and be more present for the moments and people around me is a good thing. And when I do it more, I feel and perform better. Simple as that.
Headspace has been a good tool for me and when I looked at my stats recently (something I hadn’t really thought to do before), I saw I did 20 sessions in ‘17. Then 85 this year. Better, but still sort of meh/dabbley. More importantly though, I noticed a quarter of those 85 sessions came in the last 30 days.
That’s because after finishing Atomic Habits I started playing around with a morning routine to carve out some habit time before the rest of the fam gets up. As part of that experiment, I moved meditation from a floating activity, “sometime in the afternoon if I can get to it”, to be THE first thing that happens in the morning routine.
Bam! Couple small changes and my frequency went way up, I got more reward, and I began to look forward to that opening move for the day.
That stretch of about 5/wk now gives me confidence to set a bigger goal for next year of 200 sessions. And given how great I feel when wrapping up each time, that’s already something I’m excited about getting after. Quite the contrast to items on previous years’ lists where I’d begin without much thought on the WHY?… how to reach the goal or what the benefits would be if I did?
Again, this is the time of year given to big dreams of habit improvement and happiness bumps. We’ll see over time how well I do. I’m going to write up a quick look back/look forward report (another good Clear tip) to get the accountability rolling and have something to look back at this time next year. I’ll call it my Janus report.
But I can tell you now that the early returns are good from:
- thinking about habit possibilities through the lens of identity and who I want to become
- ruthlessly culling my wish list to a manageable number of the most important ones
- and getting more intentional about designing the day/week to support them
I’ve already seen the benefits like with my meditation uptick above. And when I look back at how some of my more established positive habits like fitness developed over time, I can see some of these same steps at play in the rearview.
If nothing else, I hope you take from this a good book rec if you’re interested in why we do what do. The 3 step I’ve outlined here represents just a small share of the many cool ideas in Atomic Habits (and on Clear’s site) that I bet can spark new ideas for habits you want to add/drop/improve in the New Year. Plus there are cool drawings.