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Sample: We are what we do

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We are what we do.

We’re creatures of routine. Of habit. Although we might deny it, because it doesn’t sound particularly sexy, does it? But the truth is routine, good habits, a structure to our day – all these things make us what we are. And the theory is routine makes us happy. Or happier.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.’ Aristotle

How to do better.

We’ve all got ingrained habits – good and bad – which help us grow as individuals or keep us repeating our mistakes.

According to www.brainpickings.org the general understanding is that it takes 21 days to develop a new habit. But all habits are not created equal. Yes, that’s true if you’re trying to drink water first thing every morning. But habit-forming can be a bit more complex.

Habits take hold.

A study on habit-forming at UCL (University College London) found that the length of time it takes for a new habit to become ingrained depends – unsurprisingly – on what it is. Drinking water first thing is all very well, but if you want to run every day or do 100 sit ups in the morning or hit your daily five with fruit and vegetables, your habit can take much longer to form. 45 days longer in fact. The average time it took to form a habit amongst the 96 research participants was 66 days.

Another epic fail?

I carry a little white note book called Track Your Habits.  It subscribes to the 66 day rule and is a useful reminder of all the little things I have on my habit ‘to do’ list. So, you’re probably thinking I’m a bad ass at habit-forming. Well ye-es – except sometimes I don’t remember even to look at my list. The best laid plans and all that….

It’s easy to become discouraged if we fall off wagon in our pursuit of better habits. It’s a bit like breaking a diet and consuming the entire contents of the fridge in one go. Another epic fail. Sigh. But there is another way to look at it.

The 1% rule.

James Altucher – recently described by Forbes as the most interesting man in the world – follows the 1 percent rule. If we simply try to improve ourselves by 1 percent each day, we can make tiny, incremental changes which bring about the sea change we want to see, in an almost imperceptible, gentler, kinder way.

‘Every day I wake up and think, how can I be a little better? Just a tiny bit. Because I know it will make me feel good today to practice. And I know it will add up.

  • Can I read a little more?
  • Can I write a little better?
  • Can I walk a little more?
  • Can I improve my emotional relationships a little more?
  • Can I eat a little better?  

You can read more about his philosophy here.

This approach makes perfect sense to me. Actually, I’d go further – it makes me feel relieved. It makes me feel that I can take the pressure off and still succeed. I reckon if I’m less stressed, more relaxed maybe I’m more likely to achieve my goals. And maybe a gentler, kinder approach will result in a gentler, kinder me. So, everybody benefits.

Altucher goes into more detail; he focuses his 1% efforts on health – emotional, physical, spiritual and mental health. I think we can all easily list things we’d like to improve in each area. Maybe we’d actually get there if we took things more slowly and gave ourselves the permission to fail every now and again?

The ‘g’ word or the ‘j’ word?

I used the ‘g’ word earlier. Goals. We all know about goal-setting. We’re bombarded with goal-setting as a mantra for success. But it’s so confusing.

‘Set small, achievable goals.’

‘Don’t hold back when you set your goals – think big.’ ‘

If you want to succeed, you need clearly defined goals.’

Sometimes, the stakes seem so high. Happiness is on hold until we achieve our goals. And if we never achieve them, will we ever be happy?

Today, there’s a bit of a dissension in the ranks when it comes to goal-setting. Another James, James Clear, talks about the advantage of setting systems rather than goals. Altucher himself talks of setting themes not goals; Business Insider posted a video of his philosophy – watch it here. And read Declan Wilson’s ‘millennialtype’ blog for another take on the same subject.

Whether we call them systems or themes, focus is slowly shifting onto the approach we take or the process we use to actually realise our goals. So, it’s all about the journey rather the destination. (That’s the ‘j’ word, obvs.) And, as its pretty likely we’re going to spend longer on the journey than the destination, it makes perfect sense to get the most out of it.

Persistence not perfection – yay!

Going back to the Aristotle quote at the beginning – ‘Excellence then is not an act but a habit’ – well that’s actually kind of reassuring. Anyone can be good at what they do if they practice. Application rather than talent will bring the breakthrough.

Altucher agrees.

‘It doesn’t happen in one day. There are no goals. There’s only practice. Practice never makes perfect. Practice makes happy. Practice makes habits.’

Last word to Jason Guttierrez, author of the Monk Life, a blogger who shares the benefits of a healthy, simple life, and another subscriber to the 1 percent rule:

‘It happened slowly. In fact, I barely noticed it. That’s the beauty (and pain in the ass) of habits. They aren’t sexy, but they always work. I’m 27 now. I was 22 when I started my better habits journey. Since then, here’s a list of the habits I’ve stacked…

  • Weight training
  • Deep breathing
  • Meditating
  • Making my bed
  • Eating (mostly) healthy
  • Practicing gratitude
  • Planning my days
  • Doing my most important tasks first
  • Reading consistently
  • Writing every day (or some form of creation)
  • Telling my girlfriend I love her

If you look at it, that list is fairly small for a 5 year period, but it’s had a MASSIVE impact on my quality of life and “success”.’

Enjoy the journey.

So, chances are, laying the groundwork for better habits is going to take more than 66 days. But I reckon the 1 percent rule could really help me find the best version of myself. Before now, I didn’t understand what Robert Louis Stevenson meant when he said, ‘to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.’ Suddenly it all makes perfect sense…