“Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give heed to their conduct while in the plastic state,” William James wrote in his 1887 treatise Habit (public domain), a short, intriguing read on how the behaviors that we repeatedly demonstrate shape who we are and how we live our lives. Reminiscent of one of my favorite quotes, in which the wise Annie Dillard wrote “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” it’s easy to see how our daily behaviors have consequences that reverberate throughout our lifetimes.
If you could choose the habits which would define your life, what would you choose?
Thirteen months ago, at the start of January 2017, I was considering this question. I wanted to make changes and was excited for a new year. The only problem was that I typically sucked at keeping New Year’s resolutions.
The issue usually came back to the same thing. A one day slip became two days. Which became a week. And expanded from there.
Once I lost that initial momentum, restarting the efforts continued to fall lower and lower on an ever-growing to-do list. And while I continued to harbor good intentions about picking things back up, they might as well have been used to proverbially pave the road to hell. We all know what intentions without actions get you.
So in order to stop challenging the popular definition of insanity, I needed to try something different.
No More Resolutions
“Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right.” – William James, Habit
It was almost as though James was diagnosing my exact problem. Each slip undid far more progress and required far more effort to recover.
As emotional intelligence guru Travis Bradberry puts it,
“Humans are creatures of habit. If you quit when things get tough, it gets that much easier to quit the next time. On the other hand, if you force yourself to push through it, the grit begins to grow in you.”
Typical resolutions are heralded as lifelong commitments. Which brings little urgency to stay consistent on a daily basis.
If I’m making a lifelong change, it’s easy to rationalize taking a day off. Or a week off. And each lapse undoes more progress and makes recovery more unlikely.
So I stopped making resolutions. And started performing experiments.
“Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain.” – William James, Habit
Instead of laying out a year’s worth of lifetime changes, I started doing one new experiment each month.
Truth be old, it started as one per day. But like the Biggest Loser contestant that needs to quit his job to have enough time for exercise, this plan quickly became unsustainable.
So daily became weekly. Then weekly became monthly. Which worked out to be a good balance.
Each month, start a new practice. And see which ones stick.
It’s easy to take a break when there’s no due date. Much tougher with a one-month commitment. The pressure’s on to stay consistent. Consistency means success whereas one day off means a failure. And if we’re motivated enough, we can keep up almost any new practice for a month.
After which, we’ll have spent a month trying out a new behavior and get to choose whether it’s something we want to continue more permanently.
Last June, I started an experiment of writing every day and posting my work at least once a week. As a permanent commitment, I doubt I’d have started it. But as an experiment, it was a low-pressure way to try something new and see if I was happy with the change. Eight months later, I’m still enjoying something I never thought would hold much interest.
Each experiment isn’t a long-term commitment, but an opportunity to try something new. It’s a break from the rigid routines that we mindlessly drift into. An opportunity to try something new and find out if it’s a worthwhile change. And either way, we’re better for having tried.
I spent the month of October trying to practice meditation. After which I decided that was my limit and haven’t looked back. But it wasn’t wasted time. Now I know. And I can look for other methods to relax and think more clearly.
This January I tried vegetarianism. Faced with the prospect of deciding to never eating steak again, I probably wouldn’t have ever tried it. But as a month-long experiment, it’s much more doable. And while I thought it would be a month full of intense bacon cravings, it actually turned out to be a great change. One I plan to continue.
General consensus is it takes around 21 days to develop a new habit. So for each month, behaviors that seem worthwhile become a little more ingrained into our lives. And are a little easier to continue going forward.
Will it be difficult? Probably. Uncomfortable? At times. But as Susan David recently said from the TED stage,
“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
Successful people thrive on that discomfort. They recognize that today’s discomfort brings tomorrow’s growth. And in the words Arsene Wenger,
“When you look at people who are successful, you will find that they aren’t the people who are motivated, but have consistency in their motivation.”
How do you want to improve? How do you want to grow?
Not everything will stick, but you might be surprised at what does. When I started taking cold showers last August, I wouldn’t have thought I’d still be doing it in January. And I wouldn’t have guessed that while last April’s productivity practices were successful through October, I would then abandon them and swear off productivity altogether in favor of improved presence.
It’s easy to fall into the daily monotony of our typical routines. To fall into the trap of the trap that Seneca advised against in his insightful On the Shortness of Life, “There is nothing that the busy man is less busy with than living.”
The other benefit is that each month becomes much more memorable. While ordinarily the months may blend together, this past July stands out as the time I tried to completely stop complaining. And last November is unforgettable from trying to do one new thing with my kids every day.
The opposite of success isn’t failure. It’s apathy. It’s ignorance without the redeeming curiosity. It’s being content to continue to do the same thing and hope things miraculously change for the better.
Naval Ravikant offers the following advice on dealing with internal conflict.
“In any situation in life, you only have three options. You always have three options. You can change it, you can accept it, or you can leave it. What is not a good option is to sit around wishing you would change it but not changing it, wish you would leave it but not leaving it, and not accepting it. It’s that struggle, that aversion, that is responsible for most of our misery.”
For everyone that wants to change, the only option is to make a change. Whether it’s through month-long experiments or whatever speaks to you, the important thing is to do something. Because wishing for change, and not taking any action, is only going to lead to misery.
Make a Change.
“In the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible.” – William James, Habit
I’m writing this now because if statistics hold true then most people will be turning their backs on 2018 resolutions at about this time.
Good. Now you’re free to start something new.
The next month is going to come and go whether you make any changes or not. Take advantage of it. Try an experiment. And whether it becomes a long-term practice or just something you tried and decided to cut, you’ll be better for it.
Don’t put off your development any longer. Start now. As Steven Pressfield encourages us in The War of Art,
“This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny.”
What behaviors do you want to define your life?
How do you want to alter your destiny?
What are you waiting for?