Our lives operate around habits. Don’t believe me? What are the first few things you do when you get up? It likely includes getting dressed, brushing your teeth, etc. Do you consciously think, “Okay, I’m up. Now I should get dressed.” No! You just get dressed. It’s a habit.
As Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Duhigg details in his recent New York Times bestseller, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, more than 40% of all of our daily activities are habit driven. It is both great and essential that these types of actions are automatic. Otherwise we would waste a whole lot of unnecessary mental real estate on items that we, more or less, have to do every day. This frees up mental energy to be used on more intensive tasks.
With that said, using our abilities (yes, you have them) to establish new habits can be extremely beneficial. In fact, that’s exactly how I go about accomplishing more things every day.
Moving Past Unhelpful Goals
A while back, when I first decided to dedicate a lot more effort to writing, I struggled. It wasn’t that writing itself was hard. Instead, writing consistently and productively was the struggle. Around the same time I read some advice suggesting a goal to write 1000 words a day! “Great!” I thought. “I’ll do it! That sounds like a significant amount, and it will give me a great goal to work towards every day.”
Annnd I was wrong! I consistently missed my 1000 words per day mark, got frustrated, and had frequent dry spells where I just didn’t write at all. It was discouraging, and I was ultimately working against my goal of writing more.
But I still really wanted to write more consistently. How was I ever going to get on the right track?
Creating Habits That Work
“I don’t get things done by waking up every day and hoping that I’m really inspired to complete my consulting work, or write new material. Nope. You know why? If I waited to feel like that in order to start doing things, nothing would ever get done.”Around that same time, I was consuming a lot of information on habits and habit formation. And again, this isn’t a secret, but the best way to consistently accomplish something is to: develop a good habit; and nurture that habit so that it develops into a system. As entrepreneur and travel photographer, James Clear notes, great artists don’t wait for motivation, they develop strict schedules.
I don’t get things done by waking up every day and hoping that I’m really inspired to complete my consulting work, or write new material. Nope. You know why? If I waited to feel like that in order to start doing things, nothing would ever get done. I use systems to accomplish all of my daily tasks. And it works.
It seems that a great majority of famous artists and writers feel, or felt, the same way. Mason Currey discusses this in his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. In fact, Benjamin Franklin’s schedule was so precise that it was planned to the hour.
As Currey mentions in his book, “[Anthony] Trollope managed to produce forty-seven novels and sixteen other books by dint of an unvarying early-morning writing session.” I’d wager he wouldn’t have even come close to that many novels if he waited until he was “inspired” every day to begin writing.
Forget About Really Big Goals
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with setting goals. But here’s the secret: make the goals small and attainable. Everyone likes achieving a goal, right? And you get a nice psychological boost when you do: “Nice! I just hit my mark! I rock!” You know the feeling. And it’s a good feeling. These are typically referred to a “small wins”.
“It’s proven that positive encouragement associated with completing goals helps you develop more consistent behavior. It has a snowball effect: you create a small goal; you achieve it; you feel good about it, and congratulate yourself; then you’re inclined to keep doing it!”As noted in a HBR.org article on small wins and feeling good, if you keep your goals both small and attainable, you’re going to accomplish even more of them. More accomplishment equals more boosts. Awesome! And it’s proven that positive encouragement associated with completing goals helps you develop more consistent behavior. It has a snowball effect: you create a small goal; you achieve it; you feel good about it, and congratulate yourself; then you’re inclined to keep doing it! Makes sense, right?
In fact, there’s an incredibly effective system, Tiny Habits, developed by Dr. BJ Fogg, based around these exact principles. As detailed by Success.com, in their article on Dr. Fogg’s Tiny Habits system, it helps to create extremely small (hence the “tiny”) goals that you can easily achieve every day, and use those successes to establish a new habit.
For example, one of your tiny goals could be to floss just one tooth every day. Easy right? After doing it consistently for about a week’s time, it becomes a habit — you’re just naturally inclined to continue doing it.
The idea is, at that point, it’s then much easier to evolve that “tiny habit” into a more substantial one, such as flossing all of your teeth. One of the tenets of the Tiny Habits method is positive self-celebration, or as I like to call it, “self cheering”. Every time you complete one of your Tiny Habits, you’re supposed to congratulate yourself, which Fogg has learned is crucial in the cementing new habits. As Fogg notes, “Notice how often athletes celebrate and when they do it—immediately.” This almost forces those feelings of satisfaction, which, as mentioned earlier, tend to be at the core of successfully achieving goals, as well.
The best part about Dr. Fogg’s system, in my opinion, is that you can apply it to nearly anything. Want to do more pushups? Great — do one every morning after you step out of bed. Need to learn how to code? Good. Write one line of code every night after dinner. Pretty soon, your Tiny Habits will be in place, and you’ll surprise yourself by how much progress you’re making, just by doing one thing consistently, day in and day out.
Focus on Process, Not the Output
Why am I telling you all of this? Well, because it can be applied to nearly anything — from consistently flossing your teeth to learning code, and building a profitable business.
If you only come away with one thing after reading this, let it be this: focus on the process. Don’t focus on your output. Results will come with consistency. When you start out doing something, focus on doing it consistently, not necessarily well. You get much better, faster, and more efficient as you do things more often.
Take this example, an excerpt from the book Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking:
The ceramics teacher announced he was dividing his class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right graded solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an A, 40 pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an A.
Well, come grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity!
It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Notice how consistency won out. The more they created, the better they got over time.
Great Things Take …
When it comes to my writing, of course I wasn’t hitting 1,000 words per day when I was just starting out! And sometimes I still don’t. Most things aren’t an exact science. It very much depends on the nature of what I’m writing on any given day.
Some days I crank through 1,000 words in under an hour. Sometimes it’s half of that. But the important thing is the system that I established. I write almost every day now, and I have nearly an entire book to show for it.
It’s that kind of consistency that has yielded the results. Not chasing after a relatively arbitrary goal day after day. R-E-P-E-T-I-T-I-O-N. Plain and simple. So, think of how you can establish tiny habits to help you accomplish the things you want to get done every day!
This article has been edited and condensed.
Alex Coleman writes at AlexPColeman.com, where he uses a mixture of real-life experiences and scientific research to share ideas on making you more productive and helping you learn to code. For thoughts on improving your life and getting started with coding, sign up for his free newsletter. Connect with @alexpcoleman on Twitter.
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