Part I: Why Do Habits?
Part II: The Habits Toolkit
2.2.1 The Planning Habit
2.2.2 The Physical Habit
2.2.3 The Learning Habit
2.2.4 Habits to Refresh Yourself
2.2.5 The Anti-Habits Habit: The Unschedule
2.2.6 Don’t Forget to “Cycle Off” Habits
2.2.7 The Big Block of Cheese Day
2.2.8 Habits of Reflection
2.2.9 Bonus Section: Money Habits
Part III: How to Install Habits
In three words, here is the secret to living at a level of success beyond your wildest dreams: Make your bed.
The most direct, fulfilling route to greatness is not through grand strategy, clever maneuvers, inborn talent or the right connections; it’s the path of small, consistent and patient steps repeated again and again.
Not inspired? That’s OK. By the end of this read, I plan to obliterate your mental blocks to doing the day-to-day stuff and light the fire of habits in you.
For 15 years, I’ve methodically and with intent studied the most successful men and women, both living and passed, and here is the common thread in their achievement: They consistently made their beds, metaphorically speaking.
Sure, strategy, talent, connections and often luck played a part in their stratospheric rise, but almost none of those great humans credit those things with their achievement—they point to the beauty of micro-actions.
Your body is a ham sandwich…
After you swallow a bite of food, stomach acids and enzymes break raw materials into constituent parts. The intestines mash it up more and specialized cells grab onto sugars, amino and fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals, then pass them into the bloodstream.
These nutrients arrive at each cell in our body, where glucose is used as energy. Molecules, acids, carbs and proteins build the structure and content of the roughly 37.2 trillion cells in your body. What’s the point of this extremely simplified science lesson? We are literally what we eat. Your physical body is broccoli. Or a hot pocket.
…and your life is your thousand daily decisions.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” –Annie Dillard
In every way that matters, this food analogy is the story of how we live. Food becomes cells just like each action becomes your 80 years on this planet. Don’t make your bed for too many days in a row and your life will look the way your body would after eating cotton candy for every meal.
Neglect the bed and then you might not feel like doing the dirty dishes, skip work and skip the gym. Before long, the snowball effect has become a filthy black puddle of melted water all over your life. One bad habit leads to the next, and—follow that path too far—even becomes crippling depression.
On the flipside, make your bed in the morning and you have accomplished one thing. That motivates you to bang out 20 push-ups. Then to shower, make breakfast and do more productive things. Produce and create consistently and you’re almost guaranteed to create a notable life.
Who told you it’s boring?
In my 20s, I made it my mission to have no mission. I looked at people who repeated the same habits as dull, lifeless, on the borderline of dementia, even. Mindless automatons. I wanted to live a wild adventure, spontaneously, staying out and getting up when I pleased. Those people who lived the same lives every day? Not for me, thanks very much.
Living with that mindset eventually led me into predictable emotions: angry about my lack of success, frustrated because I didn’t know what to do with my life, and clinically depressed because I was destroying my brain chemistry with “Spontaneous and Fun!” drinking, irregular sleep habits, and a bachelor’s diet of sandwiches and meat and potatoes. I felt less like Richard Branson and more like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
Habits do take work and persistence, so what’s the payoff? If I accomplish nothing else in this article, I hope to help you see clearly that great habits bring great joy.
Part I: Why Do Habits?
“Sow an act, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.” —Charles Reade
1.1 Jane Was Suicidal
After a concussion that didn’t heal right, Jane McGonigal was suicidal. “My brain started telling me, Jane, you want to die,” she said in her viral 2012 TED talk. But instead of succumbing to her dark thoughts, she turned her recovery into a game: Jane the Concussion Slayer. The game was simple: Avoid the bad guys (bright lights and crowded places) and seek out power-ups.
Want to try some of those power-ups? Stand up and take three steps. Or, make your hands into fists and raise them high over your head for five seconds. Congratulations, you just earned +1 physical resilience.
“Within just a couple days of starting to play, that fog of depression and anxiety went away,” Jane said.
Her game is now an app called SuperBetter and it’s helped people around the world to overcome challenges.
What was at play here? Only the awesome power of making your bed; the power of small, simple habits repeated to tilt your world on its axis. Three steps may not seem like much, but in those steps, you finish a marathon, cure cancer, put humans on Mars, build an Apple or Google, and build the life you want.
Those seemingly insignificant decisions you make every day? They contain infinite power.
1.2 The Slight Edge
“The difference between who you are and who you want to be is what you do.” –Bill Phillips
If you saw one, you would say that the lavender and pink flowers of the water hyacinth are beautiful. Native to South America, it’s one of the fastest growing plants in the world. It can double in size every two weeks by sending out shoots that create daughter plants. If you spot a single one floating on a pond, come back in two weeks and you’d barely notice any growth. A few months later, half the pond might be covered. But return the day after that, and these plants would cover the entire pond.
Daily changes always seem small—until enough time passes and those seemingly insignificant habits become massive shifts in your life.
Habits work like compound interest. At 20, start investing only $500 per month at a conservative 5% return rate, and by the time you’re ready to retire at 60, you’ve got $769,868.50 in the bank ($529,000 of which is accumulated interest).
Author Jeff Olson has dubbed this phenomenon “The Slight Edge”: mundane, simple, seemingly insignificant choices, which, compounded daily, lead to any heights of success you dare to imagine.
What if you improved yourself just one-tenth of 1% each day for 365 days? At the end of that year, you would theoretically have improved yourself by 44%! How could you improve yourself by a tenth of a percent each day? Read a chapter of a brilliant book, do 50 push-ups or… make your bed.
Every single decision you make improves or diminishes your life. Successful people choose habits that make good decisions automatic, and reap the rewards.
Part II: The Habits Toolkit
2.1 Your Inner World: Mental Habits
“Change your thoughts, change your life.” – Dr. Wayne Dyer
By now, you can see the power of habit, but which ones help you level up fastest?
I started consciously experimenting with them in 2005 with a simple list of tasks I needed to accomplish every month at work. In the intervening 14 years, I’ve read hundreds of books about GSD (getting sh*t done), living well, and have experimented with numerous methods and even created a few of my own.
I turned myself into a productivity ninja, but until recently, even with all my tools and experience, I felt limited by my greatest challenge: me.
What I learned is that all the tools and life hacks you apply to your external world are only half as effective until you work on your own mental state; your mindset.
The Absolute #1 Foundational Habit: Mind Your Mind
Not long ago, it was normal for me to wake up and hit the gym, review my most important yearly goals, divide the day’s tasks into urgent and important, eliminate distractions, and force myself to work.
In spite of my good-on-paper routine, I would finish five Pomodoros and feel completely burnt out.
In my head, I didn’t believe that my business could succeed. I didn’t believe that I was “good enough.” And I believed that it was hard to make money—that it would only come to me if I made terrible sacrifices that dishonored my integrity.
I was divided against myself, driving with the handbrake on. I was never going to get to where I was going until I started to work on my internal state. Here are the most important habits that you should focus on if you want to take your foot off the brakes of your life.
It sounded bizarre when I first heard Tony Robbins say it.
“You can’t feel fear or anger while feeling gratitude at the same time.”
I was not in control of my anger and fear at the time, and so the idea that I could be free of these chains using the bolt cutters of gratitude was an alien concept.
I tried it anyway, and the more I practiced gratitude, the less I experienced negative emotions. Today, I take at least five minutes a day to list in my head what I’m grateful for, and feel that emotion.
I do this after my meditation, first counting qualities about myself that I’m thankful for: my integrity, sense of humor and my healthy body. Then I give thanks for the people in my life: my wife, my brother, nieces and nephews, my writer clients at So You Want to Write? Lastly, I finish with the “things” that I’m grateful for: a rental property that funds my travel, my car that takes me places.
Tony Robbins was right again: The more consistently I practice feeling grateful, the less I deal with the handbrakes of anger, fear, frustration or sadness.
After only five minutes of gratitude, I’m in a perfectly blissful, high-energy state—the perfect situation to start creating mental pictures in my mind of what I want in my life.
This includes not only tangible things like hosting a sold-out workshop or buying a new laptop, but more importantly picturing the kinds of experiences I want to have in my life: laughing with my wife, having great conversations with an interesting group of friends on vacation and staring in wonder at the sunrise every morning.
I found visualization incredibly difficult when I first started to practice it. I had let my imagination atrophy—a state brought on by an always-connected, hyper-stimulated world. Start simply and don’t expect too much at first, and I promise you, eventually you will be able to create more complex universes in your mind.
Why do this?
What you want in your life, you must first create in your mind.
I remember my breakthrough moment in early 2018, when at last I understood the importance of taking control of each thought in my mind (i.e. deliberately choosing my mindset).
I read with fasciation in Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari the idea that, “You truly cannot afford the luxury of one negative thought—not even one.”
Mantras are the antidote to unhelpful thoughts.
“A mantra is nothing more than a collection of words strung together to create a positive effect,” writes Sharma.
The second half of my breakthrough came from, of all places, Tony Robbins’ book about financial freedom, Unshakeable. In one of the final chapters, he explains that money is worthless unless it helps you achieve the internal state and feelings that you desire for yourself and others. “You can choose to live in a beautiful state,” he says.
And so in my daily walk to work, I began to recite, “I choose to live in a beautiful state” over and again with conviction, feeling the words. By the time I got to work, I had put myself in an unbeatable state where no matter what happened in my day, I would choose to live my mantra.
I’d encounter rudeness, lethargy and bureaucracy, but it didn’t matter because I was the master of my internal domain.
2.1.4 Opposition Thinking
In every life, there will be no shortage of obstacles. The most successful people hack down these barriers, break them apart and use them as fuel for the fire of a blazing life.
I’ve started to experiment with an incredibly effective practice: I use negative thoughts and emotions as fuel—cues (reminders) to generate positive ones. I recently learned that this is called opposition thinking.
As crazy as it seems, I now welcome these previously dreaded visitors because they are opportunities to experience joy. The more I practice, the more automatic this process becomes.
Can you imagine the power you would have if you could turn your weaknesses into strengths? Imagine that every time your mind tells you, “I can’t,” you replace this with “I’m more than capable of doing this.”
The obstacle is the way.
2.2 Habits for Your Outer World
“Greatness is a lot of small things done well.” – Ray Lewis
Once you’ve put your mind and heart in order, you’ll start to see massive results from habits that expand and grow your external world: your body, work, business, relationships and finances.
Here is a compilation of the most powerful tools and strategies that I’ve personally tested and can endorse. Couple these actions with a strong, positive mental state and you’ll build the most beautiful life you can imagine.
2.2.1 The Planning Habit
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” —Abraham Lincoln
Small acts repeated consistently are one of the most powerful forces in the world. It’s by this method that humans eradicated smallpox, built the Great Wall and forced the British out of India.
Repetition is also the same mechanism that leads to obesity, alcoholism and depression. It’s not enough to practice habits—know why you’re engaging in them. Before you embark on the habit journey, it’s important to fix your destination with a plan.
1. Yearly Planning
In the past, I’d use January 1st to recover from the night before, but now I’m using it as the greatest gift: a day of no obligations or interruptions to decide what I want to get out of my year. In fact, I block off three full days to sharpen my axe. My yearly plan breaks down into five parts.
- Review the previous year.
- What were my goals? Did I achieve them or make progress toward them?
- What went well? What could I have improved?
- How do I feel about the previous year? (Feelings are your internal compass.)
- Celebrate my accomplishments by listing each and every one.
- Take care of some housekeeping.
- Change all of my passwords.
- Check my credit score.
- Read and review all Evernotes from the year.
- Unsubscribe from “blah” emails and negative Facebook friends.
- Decide what I want to accomplish this year.
- Set specific goals. Select my first quarter goals and action items and decide how many hours per week I’ll spend on each.
- Choose the habits I want to adopt or double down on.
- Learn one new skill. This year I’m teaching myself to speak Spanish, handy when living in Mexico for six months.
- Print my yearly and quarterly goals and tape them to the wall where I see them every day.
2. Quarterly Planning
The quarterly plan is a short version of the yearly plan, which I dive into on the 1st of every April, July and October. I ask myself most of the same questions as above, but my timelines are three months instead of a year. I print out and post this new plan so I see it daily.
3. Weekly Planning
Every Sunday night after dinner, I sit down to do two things:
- I review last week’s plan and ask: 1) What went well? 2) What could be improved? and 3) How do I feel about the past week?
- I set my goals for the week, guesstimate how much time each will take, and schedule these tasks in my calendar. (Specific is good!) It’s important to leave unscheduled time for surprises.
In the spirit of the yearly and quarterly plans, the purpose of this exercise is to decide exactly what I want to accomplish and create a plan to help me install the habits to get to my goals. You can’t hit a target you can’t see.
4. Daily Planning
In years past, I’d drill down even further by starting my day with a list of intentions and action items, and then compiling a list of accomplishment as I went. At the beginning of my habits journey, this was helpful, but now I can simply refer to my weekly plan at the beginning of each day to fix my bearings.
2.2.2 The Physical Habit
The body is a complex machine, but instructions are freely available for creating one that serves you well as a vehicle to carry you through life. Basically: Eat well and exercise.
If you fail to make time for this now, you’ll be forced later to spend a lot of time putting out a big fire. Or die 20 years too early.
Move your body as soon as you wake up. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone and its function is to wake us up and give us energy. (Thanks, cortisol!) It’s also what’s used in our flight/fight/freeze responses. It’s what makes us fearful and as stressed as a piano string. (You’re off my friends list, cortisol.)
Cortisol is highest in the morning and while it serves a useful purpose, an overabundance leads to anxiety and depression and blocks your genius, preventing you from doing your greatest work.
Even light exercise can drastically reduce cortisol levels and clear your mind for a focused, productive day. Tim Ferriss often starts his with only five to 10 reps of push-ups, for example.
“Getting into my body, even for 30 seconds, has a dramatic effect on my mood and quiets mental chatter.”
If you’re up for more excitement, in The 5 AM Club, Robin Sharma suggests 20 minutes of exercise strenuous enough to make you sweat, in order to lower cortisol and to release brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which increases intelligence, mood, productivity and memory), dopamine (which increases your drive), and serotonin (which generates happiness).
I’ve become hyperaware of the importance of even minimal exercise first thing in the morning—on days where I do some, my mood is two to 10 times better than on days that I skip it.
2.2.3 The Learning Habit
“A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” – Anonymous
Bill Gates reads 50 books per year. Elon Musk would read for 10 hours a day growing up. Almost every top performer interviewed by Tim Ferriss in Tools of Titans is a voracious reader. This is not a coincidence!
Great people don’t start to read when they become successful, their wealth delivering all this new leisure time. Their greatness came about because of their habit of learning through books.
Yet 24% of American adults interviewed said they haven’t read a book in the last 12 months. What’s the difference between knowing how to read and choosing not to, and being illiterate? Nothing.
Reading can fit into any schedule. Last year I listened to audiobooks on my 45-minute commute and cuddled a book for 20 minutes before sleep—that’s it. I finished 25 books last year, and so can you. Head to Goodreads now and sign up for their reading challenge.
All your fancy book learnin’, online articles, info-packed YouTube videos and attendance at seminars will be for nothing unless you’re able to hear what’s being said. How often do you run into someone who knows everything but fails to apply it? Or who knows everything but is completely wrong about all of it?
You may hear them say, “I can’t lose weight, it’s my genetics,” or, “the best way to save is to put 10% of your paycheck away every month,” but who you know spends every penny? I once had a cab driver in Las Vegas explain to me, in painstaking detail, how easy it was to beat the casinos and make millions. I didn’t feel the need to point out to him that he was still driving a taxi.
My business started to take off when I learned that, to have a hope of successfully marketing in our noisy world, I needed to first listen to my customers. Success comes from building the products they want, not starting with a product, then “getting the word out.”
Listen first, then you’ll know what to do.
2.2.4 Habits to Refresh Yourself
And now, a cautionary tale. Sometimes I’m a slow learner. For many years, my main goal was to improve my efficiency, like tuning up a machine, in order to squeeze out more tasty productivity juices. I studied tools and methods that would allow me to cram more into my day. I pushed myself hard and indeed expanded my willpower.
Here’s what generally happened: On a Monday, I would wake up early and throw myself into my work. I’d take a short lunch break only when I’d felt I’d earned it and would continue hammering away right up to dinnertime. Then after “relaxing” with some horrible TV, I’d never truly end my workday. I would drift in and out of tasks, answering one more email, reading one more article, not entirely present to any task and not relaxing. I never gave my mind a break.
I would push like this for weeks before the inevitable crash, my mind and body rebelling. I’d decide to sleep in for a few extra hours, or have a procrasti-nap, or start gaming around 2 p.m. and only be aware of what I was doing six hours later. I’d get a cold and then need to take a few days to recover (which I secretly loved, because at the time it was the only legitimate excuse I had to power down).
What I didn’t realize was that habits are meant to be used in moderation, and not abused, like an engine running at the red line for too long.
You can find out how counterproductive nonstop activity is when you drive and refuse to stop for gas. Here are some habits to keep you running at peak efficiency.
1. Get out of the Burn Box.
One simple diagram from Neil Pasricha’s book, The Happiness Equation, cured me of the busyness affliction:
He explained that we can operate in four basic states that include a mix of high/low “thinking” and high/low “doing.”
The most wonderful and terrible place is the Burn Box, which is characterized by both high thinking and doing. This is the state of being most prized in our dysfunctional society where we wear hyperactivity as a badge of courage, and idleness is a mortal sin.
The people who buy into this “do more” hype will end their lives thoroughly disappointed that they neglected their family and friends, not to mention that small but powerful inner voice telling them that they never actually wanted to climb the corporate ladder. Tim Kreider’s essay Lazy: A Manifesto sublimely captures this malady and I’m jealous that I didn’t write it.
Those who spend too much time in the Burn Box end up predictably in burnout. Until I saw this diagram, I was burning myself out once a quarter, only to enter the arena again, guns blazing, when I could finally stand again.
Neil showed me how the most successful people easily and frequently move between all of the boxes. Now, I visit the Do Box by taking a three-day solo-hiking trip into the woods. And I cherish my time in the Space Box by signing up for a week at an all-inclusive resort with no agenda except rum punches and a great literature.
How do you know when it’s time to leave your box? Listen to your body and mind, and with practice the signs will become clearer.
2. Take vacations, often.
You can’t afford not to take long vacations. This time out of the Burn Box will serve to sharpen your most valuable tools: your mind and your spirit. Scientists told me so.
Leisure is a predictor of well-being and satisfaction with life, including your health, work enjoyment, creativity and even marital satisfaction.
Studies show that people who take more vacation get more raises and promotions.
Oh, you only get two weeks of vacation per year? Negotiate four, six or eight! Demand it! You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.
Let’s smash the myth that vacations hurt productivity—the opposite is true. Nine of 10 of the most productive countries are in Europe, where four weeks of paid vacation is the minimum across the board. In some places, six, eight or 12 weeks of vacation is not unusual. The United States has the lowest number of paid vacations out of these 10 countries and ranks 6th in productivity (sad face).
You have my permission to share this article with your boss. Ask for a raise while you’re in her office, too.
Can’t afford to take vacation? Save only $50 per week and you will have $2,600 to spend. That can buy many tanks of gas, and nights at a quiet Airbnb at the ocean or in the mountains.
No excuses: Decide that you will carve out this precious time. You deserve it.
3. Take frequent breaks for peak performance.
How often do you get stuck on a problem? For me, daily. When this happens: STOP! If you attempt to power through it, you’ll increase your frustration and obliterate your enthusiasm for the task.
When facing “stuckness,” your prefrontal cortex is overexerted. That’s the part of your brain responsible for concentration, logical thinking and willpower. A break here does NOT mean switching to another diabolically daunting piece of drudgery. Good options are:
- Take a walk. Beethoven and many of his genius contemporaries favored this one. It’s mine, too. Even five minutes around the building can provide you a powerful refresh.
- Play a musical instrument for a few bars. Einstein’s favorite break was the violin. I leave my guitar by the patio door for when I feel like annoying the neighbors.
- Change your environment. New sights stimulate creative solutions.
- Take a power nap. Pro-tip: you can drink a cup of coffee before you lay down with a 15-minute alarm set. You’ll wake up wide-eyed.
- Meditate, daydream or blast your favorite song.
Oh, and breaks that involve movement reduce your risk for heart disease, diabetes, depression and obesity. Shake a leg.
My favorite methods for automating breaks:
- The Pomodoro Method has been internet-famous these last 10 years for good reason—it keeps you fresh. How it works: Set a timer for 25 minutes, work on a single task with no distractions, then get up and have a five-minute break. Repeat.
- The 60-10 Method: From Robin Sharma’s authoritative book on living an exceptional life, The 5 AM Club, this involves oscillating between 60 minutes of work and 10 minutes of idleness. Try this if you find that the Pomodoro sessions interrupt your flow too frequently.
2.2.5 The Anti-Habits Habit: The Unschedule
“Those who work much do not work hard.” – Henry David Thoreau
What if I told you that for the next 40 years you could work on difficult projects without seeing your family or friends, enjoy no physical activity or play, and no relaxation time? Would you be excited about life? (Kill me now.)
For sane people, the answer is no, but those same people do a decidedly non-sane thing by packing their daily and weekly schedules full of these difficult, joyless tasks, without making time for recreation. They do exactly the above without realizing it!
Neil Fiore, in his research on what makes for uncommon productivity, found that the best way to beat procrastination is to turn your schedule on its head by first scheduling your fun tasks: exercise, socializing, play, downtime. Huh? Yes, it works! I do not skip my afternoon swim.
By focusing on creating space through this “unschedule,” a powerful force takes effect: You guarantee to yourself that life won’t be a drag and will unlock a new enthusiasm for your work. Plus, by seeing how much of your daily dance card is already allocated to other partners, you see how precious each work block truly is, and each becomes more productive.
Use this anti-habit to increase the effectiveness of the rest of your habits.
2.2.6 Don’t Forget to “Cycle Off” Habits
For the last six weeks, you’ve been rising early, getting to the gym, eating well and sticking to your work schedule. Pat yourself on the back. But you’ve also got the sneaking suspicion that you’re caught in a temporal loop, maybe by some errant black hole crossing the solar system, and you’re losing your motivation. Each hour invested feels a little more “sucky.”
At this stage, it’s time to surprise yourself—it’s time to cycle off habits! Bodybuilders do this with supplements because too much of a good thing leads to ‘roid rage.
This doesn’t necessarily mean a vacation. You don’t need to stop working; it only means that this might be a good opportunity to put your “doing lists” in a drawer for an afternoon or a week.
Instead of planning your weeks and sticking to a regimen, let your heart guide your activity for a while. Don’t feel like exercising today? Don’t. Feel like trying that new coffee shop you’ve passed a million times? Get in there and flirt with the barista.
We are not robots, not computers. Humans need variety and new inputs to thrive.
2.2.7 The Big Block of Cheese Day
My favorite episodes of The West Wing sees the characters griping about an annual day in which the White House staff is forced to take meetings with groups that normally wouldn’t get the time of day.
Apparently this real-life tradition started with President Andrew Jackson when, in order to get rid of a stinky, 2-ton block of cheese gifted to the White House by a prankster farmer, he opened its doors to the public for audiences with one and all. (“I hear what you’re saying. By the way have you tried the fromage?”)
You can clear the proverbial cheese stink from your own life by taking a day here and there (I recommend one day a month) to give attention to the interests and activities that don’t normally warrant your attention.
Maybe you’ve been meaning to fix the dang garage door for six months. Maybe you’ve been talking about getting your EU citizenship so you can live in Poland for a year.
I got married four months ago and still haven’t shared a single wedding photo with family and friends, so you can imagine what I might be doing on my next big block of cheese day. (Update: It’s done. Cheese for the win!)
It’s such a relief to finally attend to the things that have been languishing on your list and mind for eons. Toss your habits once in a while, you ole stickler.
2.2.8 Habits of Reflection
“Plato says that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?” – Kurt Vonnegut
“I can’t believe April is over, didn’t I just get punked on April Fools’?”
“I’m working like a dog but no farther ahead in my career than I was a year ago.”
“Time to renew my driver’s license already?!?”
We chant these refrains when we neglect to reflect on all that we’re doing. We don’t feel like we have a full life when we’re constantly rushing from one task/day/month to the next. Mouse, meet wheel.
This is why I make reflection the first part of my planning habits (see above), but here are some additional highly effective reflection habits.
Writing is the most generous practice that I know. Five minutes can generate worlds of progress in your life. In the process of moving thoughts from our brain to the page, we force ourselves to take stock of the activities and moments that make up our lives.
Blindly charging from one moment to the next without a pause will have you waking up one day in hospice with teary-eyed family at your bedside, and you wondering, Why didn’t I stop to ponder once in a while?
2. Morning Pages
In 2015, I read the brilliant The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and learned how millions of people have benefited from her Morning Pages practice.
I then spent two years, five mornings a week, journaling three pages a day for 30 minutes with pen and paper. I wrote about my experience and its benefits, but here’s the short version: Writing each morning clears your mind of heavy thoughts and spikes your creativity. It helps you process challenges and generate solutions. And it has proven benefits for your mood, immune system and bank account.
3. The Five Minute Journal and Other Variations
If you just can’t find 30 minutes each day to write, then you can surely find five. Tim Ferriss uses The Five Minute Journal (5MJ), which asks you to write answers to five simple prompts.
In the morning:
- What am I grateful for?
- What would make today great?
- Affirmations: I am… (fill in the blanks: a money magnet, a stud with the ladies).
And in the evening:
- List three amazing things that happened today.
- List three things that would have made today better.
Hmm, who else had a practice like this? Oh right—hundreds of history’s most notable icons, including Marcus Aurelius, Marie Curie and Thomas Edison.
On instinct, I’ve recently returned to my morning pages, but I’ve also started using a type of 5MJ, The Daily Stoic Journal, where each day is a unique prompt to reflect on Stoic themes—which, by the way, is a philosophy that is primarily concerned with practical ways to live your best life. (Not unlike this article, wink, wink.)
2.2.9 Bonus Section: Money Habits
“Whatever may be said in praise of poverty, the fact remains that it is not possible to live a really complete or successful life unless one is rich.” –Wallace Wattles
Oh no he didn’t… did Wattles just say that?!
Jen Sincero brought this little gem to my attention, and, like me, she struggled for a while to understand how it wasn’t utter nonsense.
It seems like an offensive sentiment, particularly in the face of widely accepted money greatest hits like, “money can’t buy happiness” and “rich people suck.”
But let’s take the scalpel to this quote and cut away the fat of our loaded beliefs, and just deal with the meat of the statement.
Can you be blissfully happy without a penny? Sure. There are plenty of yogis on the Ganges proving it’s possible. Are they living up to their highest potential of what they could share with the world? I’d say, certainly not, and for them that’s perfectly enough—no judgment.
However, I’m betting that if you’re reading SUCCESS magazine, you’re in search of a life lived closer to the sun. I’m not talking about buying a cool car or parading around your Instagrammable vacations—if these are your goals, you may want to evolve, man.
All I’m arguing is that it’s fair to say that the person who has their financial needs met will be able to avoid the anxiety that comes with being unable to pay bills. And the man or woman living beyond financial security and into abundance? Well that person will by definition be able to give more to the world and invest more time and money in her mental, physical and spiritual growth.
I am by no means a money expert and I have only begun to work methodically to bring abundance into my life, but here are a few simple habits you can put into effect now that will provide massive dividends (figuratively and literally).
1. Crush your debt with the 70-20-10 rule.
Implementing systems (aka habits) are mandatory if you want to grow your money.
In The Richest Man in Babylon, I learned about the simple 70-20-10 formula that I used to completely repay my $12,000 line of credit in one year. (Side note: would not recommend building a business with a line of credit. Ouch.) It’s simple, but it works.
- 70: Live on 70% of your income.
- 20: Out of every dollar you earn, 20 cents of that goes to your creditors right away, no excuses. If you’re on biweekly paydays, set up an automatic transfer.
- 10: Tightening your belt + working hard to pay off your debts and then not get ahead personally is less than inspiring. 10% of your income goes to your savings, so that at the end of this you have something to show for it, and are getting in the habit of saving AT MINIMUM 10% of every dollar you earn for the rest of your life.
2. Pay yourself first.
Fun fact: The phrase “pay yourself first” is often attributed to “Rich Dad” Robert Kiyosaki but actually comes from The Richest Man in Babylon.
Get into the habit of seeing yourself as your most important bill. Phone, car, electric and gas bill all due this week? That’s fine, as long as you are putting 10% of your income into savings FIRST.
Does that seem irresponsible to you? “I always pay my bills on time!” you protest. Yes, and that mentality is part of why the vast majority of us are living pay check to pay check. If you want to make an omelette, you’ve gotta have a nest egg.
It’s only by paying yourself first that you can build a critical mass of cash that you can then use to begin investing in assets like a roller rink or some index funds that will throw off the wealth you need to live the life you want.
I have my bank account set up to transfer a fixed amount every two weeks to my investment account, even though my income fluctuates monthly. I see paying myself first like just another monthly expense—only this one is the most important.
Don’t have an investment account? I use Questrade because it’s super easy and the fees are negligible. I can’t believe I was so afraid to get started. Start now.
3. Asset allocation.
Get in the habit of diversifying your investments, automatically. Asset allocation is a fancy term for dividing up your investments in different places.
Mine is simple, and I copied it from Ray Dalio, founder of one of the largest hedge funds. Last I checked, he’s entrusted with managing $160 billion of other people’s money. Here is Ray’s suggested allocation for the average person:
- 30% to stocks
- 15% to 7-10 year bonds
- 40% to 20-25 year bonds
- And 7.5% each to gold and commodities
So simple. You can learn more about this strategy from Tony Robbins’ epic, Money: Master the Game, but if the world’s 79th richest person endorses it, I’ll bite.
4. Review your expenses monthly and set a budget.
This habit is less important than paying yourself first and automating your investments in your chosen allocation, but I find it helpful for understanding my spending patterns and learning where I can tweak them.
In practice, this means sitting down at a spreadsheet on the 1st of each month to ask: Where did I overspend? Where did I underspend? Is this a structural problem or a one-time, worthwhile expense? Where can I cut?
It forces you to bring your often-unconscious money habits into the light for a hard evaluation.
For example, last year I saw my monthly coffee shop habit had burgeoned to $200 a month, which was idiotic on my salary. By seeing this, I decided to start bringing coffee from home. Monitoring my cash flow was also how I convinced my wife that we’re not really spending that much on Uber after all, so let’s just please not take the bus home after a night out?
You’re not so handy with a spreadsheet? That’s alright—there’s a website, Mint.com, that will link to your bank accounts and tell you exactly what’s going on with your dollar bills.
Part III: How to Install Habits
“Knowledge is not power…it’s potential power. Execution will trump knowledge any day.” –Tony Robbins
In Part II, I shared the most powerful habits I know to create the life you want. But you will not be able to adopt these overnight, I assure you.
I’ve been learning, practicing and testing hundreds of habits and techniques in a methodical, intentional way for 15 years.
Your journey will be one of thousands of small steps, repeated daily, refined and constantly improved. The Apollo rocket that took the first astronauts to the moon was off course for something like 97% of the time. Constant adjustment and forward motion got them there and back.
At the start, it will feel like nothing is changing, and that’s normal. The beginning is always the hardest part of any undertaking. The only risk you face at this point is becoming discouraged and quitting. Wanting to quit is common, an urge that you have to put out of your mind if you want to see results. Those will appear before too long if you are determined and consistent, I guarantee it.
3.1 How to Start
Choose only one habit from this list and decide to practice it for 66 days in a row—this is the average length of time it takes to permanently lock in a habit. (You can give yourself the weekends off if you want. I’ve developed many habits this way… but extend your timelines accordingly.)
Give a great deal of thought to the reason you want to change. Ask your heart. If you want to develop more calm in your life, pick meditation. If you’d like to improve your self-image, come up with a suitable mantra and repeat it 100 times a day. Or if you’d like to stop feeling lethargic when you wake up every morning, drop and do 20 push-ups as soon as you leave bed.
Laser-like focus is required. It’s important not to bite off too many new habits at once, especially if they are radical for you. Overwhelm can threaten your progress on all fronts.
The rate at which you can install new habits will vary depending on your experience, willpower and your reasons for practicing. To give you an arbitrary schedule, you might try practicing just one new habit each month, stacking them on top of one another. If you find that this is too much of a challenge, drop down to one new habit every two months. Or if you’re finding this too easy, try starting one new habit per week.
I promise that some habits you’ll love and take to easily. Others will feel like drudgery from Day One and you’ll ghost on them; this is fine. Tony Robbins swears by his priming routine, but I tried it for a few months and found no benefit, so I purged it from my routine. Take what works and leave the rest.
Other habits you will use for a time and then outgrow them. For months, I would walk my neighborhood for an hour before sunrise, thinking, practicing mantras and listening to audiobooks. It served me well for a while until it didn’t anymore. Use your judgment.
3.2 My Template for an Exceptional Life
I’d like to show you one version of what it looks like to put all of this information together, but I’ll stress again that each person is unique. You will want to test and retest various habits and develop a template that works for you. Here’s a snapshot of my life right now, and I’ve never been happier!
- Jan. 1-3: I clear my calendar to work on my yearly plan and set my first quarter goals (see above).
- Jan. 4: Armed with my macro plan, I drop down to ground level and plan the first week of my year.
- Weekday early mornings:
- Automatically, now, I wake up at 6 a.m. (A five-year overnight success!)
- Three days of the week, by 6:15, I’m either on my bike for a 15-minute ride to the beach or jogging there. As the sun comes up, I lift weights and do bodyweight exercises. Usually, I’ll have a quick dip in the ocean.
- On the other two days of the week, I’m still up at 6 a.m. but head up to my patio to do 10-50 push-ups and air squats, or I’ll go for a quick walk.
- After exercise, I’ll sit down to meditate for 10-20 minutes. At the tail end of this session, I’m giving thanks for everything I have and visualizing the things I want to accomplish in my day and life.
- By this time, COFFEE! I’ll crack open my journal and write three or four pages on whatever comes to mind, but most often I’m reflecting, working out challenges and planning. I put a star next to any great ideas or to-do items.
- Lately, once my journaling is done, I’ve been reading a few chapters of Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans and making notes (pure “red meat” info here, no fat). By 9 a.m., I’m making a healthy breakfast and listening to an audiobook, and I’ve already won the day. Anything I do after this is gravy.
- Weekday late mornings:
- Now it’s time to work. Normally this means working on an article like this one for an hour or two. I look to my weekly schedule (that I’ve crafted on Sunday night) to tell me what I’m doing, cutting down on decision fatigue.
- Depending on how I feel, I’ll start my Pomodoro timer, which forces me to take a five-minute break every 30 minutes. This keeps me fresh and energized. Sitting for too long is worse than smoking.
- Only around 11 a.m. will I let myself peek at my email or phone. These two things are focus-killers, although necessary evils.
- At 12:30 p.m., I have a short lunch and get back to my audiobook, put on an inspirational YouTube video, or finish a Duolingo lesson or two.
- Weekday afternoons:
- I’m working on my business, So You Want to Write?, picking the one or two highest value tasks and I single-focus on those. I hide my phone and do not check email.
- Quitting time is anywhere from 4-7 p.m. depending on my enthusiasm meter. More often than not, I’ll jump in the pool to get refreshed.
- Weekday evenings:
- After I clock out, I’m (usually) very careful about not working for the rest of the night. There’s a danger in being “on” all the time, and from past experience, never letting yourself switch out of work mode can quickly kill your love for the work and make you an incredibly dull and/or prickly human being.
- 10 p.m.:
- Sunday through Thursday night, my bedtime alarm goes off at 10 p.m. I quit whatever I’m doing, no exceptions, and move toward bed. The easiest way to wake up consistently is to go to bed at the same time.
- A regular sleep schedule is critical, I’ve found, for maintaining a good mood. Nothing makes you depressed faster than erratic sleep patterns. I’ll think, assessing and giving thanks for my day, then read a great book for 15-30 minutes until I fall asleep.
- For my wife and me, weekends are for adventure. I sleep in to 7 or 8 a.m. I rarely work. We might jump in the car and head out of town, or to the beach, brunch with friends, or into town. Maybe I’ll just play six hours of computer games.
- I used to work on the weekends but found that the quality of my output suffered and my anxiety spiked. Life is short; don’t buy into the entrepreneur’s myth that you have to work weekends. You work hard to live, not the other way around.
- Sunday night, circa 8 p.m.:
- I love to get a head start on my week, so I review last week’s to-do list and I write out: what went well, what could improve, and how do I feel about the week?
- Then I create my to-do list for the coming week, and I’m able to hit the ground at light speed on Monday morning. I sleep soundly because I know I’ve done the work of worrying about my priorities, challenges, obligations, etc.
- April, July and Oct. 1st:
- I spend each of these days doing a mini-yearly review, where I look back at my progress over the last three months and set goals for the next three. I have way too much fun with this process.
- Once a month:
- Usually on a day where I’m just sick of routines, I will throw all of my habits out the window and be spontaneous. Sometimes this means watching TV all day, sometimes it’s a big block of cheese day (see above), and sometimes I just get out of the house and explore the town with no agenda. You have sick days, right? Don’t feel guilty taking one for mental health.
- For about a week every month, I’m working around 50% of max effort. I don’t know why, but despite how I’ve tried, I just can’t seem to sustain maximum output. I’ve made peace with it, reminding myself that I’m not a robot and that rhythms exist everywhere in nature. When I stopped hand wringing over this, life got easier.
3.3 Final Words
“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” –Carl Sagan
A robot will always beat you at habits. They don’t get tired, or bored, and they don’t need a reason or willpower to act.
You are not a robot, and this is your greatest strength. Humans have (as far as we know) an unparalleled capacity in the universe for adventure, bravery, curiosity, joy, love, humor, subtlety, art, cuisine, satisfaction, self-improvement, geocaching, literature, extreme sports, Pokémon and daydreaming.
Let this massive competitive advantage of our species inform your priorities. Let your driving force be a desire to experience the fullest life imaginable. If there is a higher power experiencing the cosmos through us, it really wants us to have a fantastic time in these bodies.
Habits are not the dry, lifeless fossils they’re made out to be by an impatient, short attention span, get-rich-quick, life hack world. In the same way that what we eat literally creates our bodies, what we do each day, in each moment, creates our lives.
Choose negative habits and they will lead you to dark places; follow the positive path and you will begin to walk among the heights of joy, abundance and achievement. (From experience, I am not exaggerating). Still, never forget the cardinal rule of habits:
The Cardinal Rule of Habits: Habits must serve you, not the other way around.
Practice habits, but do not stack them brick on brick, so tight that the light of spontaneity and wonder can’t reach you. Make space for space; leave some blank holes in your calendar.
Buddhists teach of the middle way, a road between two extremes, which can be practiced in any pursuit. The Tao, essentially, teaches this same ideal. Put another way,
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em.
Know when to fold ’em.
Know when to walk away.
And know when to run.
Thanks, Kenny Rogers.
In habits, follow the middle way: Use them to work efficiently, grow and achieve. But know when to temporarily set aside these toys to enjoy those human experiences that have nothing to do with success and accomplishment.
I’ve given you the best of my best tools and tactics gained from 15 years of studying the greatest achievers and applying their wisdom, and experimenting with hundreds of methods. I’ve shown you what’s possible, stocked your toolkit and shared a template that works for me.
Now it’s time for practice. Start by making your bed.